Thursday, May 29, 2014

Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (3): Rorty Weighs In

My wife made a wonderful find at a used book store -- the centennial reprint of Walter Rauschenbusch’s seminal manifesto, aptly retitled Christianity And the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic that Woke up the Church (New York: Harper One, 2007). The original text is interspersed with commentary from several famous contemporary thinkers in the fields of religion and ethics.

The book is edited by great-grandson Paul Raushenbush, religion editor with the Huff Post and former Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University. (For some reason, his version of the family name drops the two Cs) The afterword was penned by another descendant of W.R., the late philosopher and avowed secular humanist Richard Rorty (pp. 347-350). Rorty was Walter Rauschenbusch’s grandson, and his comments bespeak the challenging yet ambiguous prospects in our day of his ancestor’s Christian social vision.

Richard Rorty

Rorty claims, first, that Rauschenbusch’s vision for social Christianity utterly rejects the classic doctrine of original sin. He means, of course, the body of teaching that stems from Augustine’s reading of St. Paul and that so decisively shaped the course of Western Christianity. Rauschenbusch, on this reading, claims that the doctrine of the soul’s depravity is both narrowly individualistic and rooted in an asceticism that owes more to pagan antiquity than the militant activism of the original Jesus movement. (This frames the matter too simplistically and W.R. offers a more sophisticated and, I think, mixed assessment of original sin in his 1917 work, A Theology for the Social Gospel; more on this in a later post).

According to Rorty, W.R. sought to convince his critics that it was society as a whole, rather than atomized individual subjects, that needs redemption: One ought not to view Jesus as one’s “personal savior” (p. 347). Rather, “Jesus did not come to save you, but to teach you that you and your neighbor, working together, can create a just society” (ibid.). W.R.’s view on the relationship between individual and society is more subtle than this, I think, and this emerges in a quote Rorty cites from chapter 7 (on “social evangelization”):

[Rauschenbusch] asked Christians to “have faith enough to believe that… God saves not only the soul, but the whole of human life; that anything which serves to make men healthy, intelligent, happy, and good is a service to the Father of men” (ibid., emphasis mine).

Rauschenbusch, after all, was nurtured in his youth within a robust (German) Baptist pietism, and such a formation leaves its indelible mark, as my own personal experience bears out. Still, as Rorty correctly sees, Rauschenbusch subverts the individualistic, inward focus of a pietism focused on personal holiness at the expense of collective struggles for the common good -- a quietistic vision of Christianity as fundamentally apolitical. To that end, he retrieves the radically socio-political character of the Kingdom of God as the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and many early Christians perceived it.

Rorty makes an interesting, if somewhat invidious, comparison between Christianity and the Social Crisis and Gustavo Gutierrez’s classic, A Theology of Liberation, whose radical potential was largely repressed under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (Pope Francis’ recent gesture in receiving the great Peruvian theologian at the Vatican is an interesting move, in this regard.) According to Rorty, Rauschenbusch’s social vision has proven more “viable” than that of Gutierrez, at least in a 20th century context wherein the social gospel helped shape public policy through the advocacy of politically active Christian leaders. I think he is implying, in part, that the shortcomings of first-generation liberation theology are inherent in how it was structurally dependent upon the Roman Catholic hierarchy for sponsorship, whereas the North American social gospel message is more detachable from its ecclesiastical moorings and thus (putatively) able to address the public square more directly. Perhaps there is also a dig here, as well, at the Continental Marxist theory that underpins Gutierrez’s work, but I don't want to read to much into it.

Rorty rues the resurgence, in recent decades, of religious individualism and a concomitant return of the kind of “apocalyptic millenarianism against which Rauschenbusch struggled” (p. 349); in view here, obviously, is the kind of apocalypticism promoted through such popular media as the Left Behind novels and movies. (Teaser: The study of the socio-political aspects of apocalyptic literature and movements is a hot topic of cross-disciplinary study today among biblical scholars, historians, and theologians. In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at Rauschenbusch’s fascinating account of the prophetic and apocalyptic movements in history of Israel.)

To wrap up, Rorty offers this provocative assessment of North American Christianity, worth quoting at length:

One hundred years ago, there was still a chance that the Christian churches would play a central role in the struggle for social justice – that Christian, rather than Marxist, ideas would inspire radical socio-political change. One can imagine a twentieth century in which the two World Wars and the Great Depression were avoided, the Bolshevik Revolution collapsed, and social democrats like Eugene Debs and Jean Jaures were elected to high office, thanks to the enthusiastic support of the Christian clergy. Decolonization and the entrance of India and China on the international stage could then have taken place against the background of a consensus, in the West, that building a global egalitarian society was a moral obligation. With a bit more luck, Rauschenbusch’s dream could have come true, despite the “sinfulness of the human heart.” (ibid.)

“With a bit more luck”? I’m not so sure. It is also hard to imagine that neopragmatist Rorty was as naive as the highly rhetorical statement above might suggest. For my part, I’ve read too much of Karl Barth, William Stringfellow, and Reinhold Niebuhr to have such a sanguine view of humanity’s latent capacities to build a ethical commonwealth on earth. For me, the prophetic vision of a thinker like Rauschenbusch needs to be grounded in a deeper anthropology and a more radical theology. I also don’t think this is the last word on evangelical pietism either (Just see Cornel West’s profound retrieval of African-American spirituality in his early work, Prophesy Deliverance). Without something or someone transcendent to ground our hopes, I’m tempted to concur with Rorty’s wistfully sad assessment:

[O]ur luck was bad, and Christianity has probably missed its chance. The likelihood that religion will play a significant role in the struggle for justice seems smaller now than at any time since Christianity and the Social Crisis was published. (ibid.)


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Kenneth Reynhout's "Interdisciplinary Interpretation": Reynhout on Pannenberg

Chapter 1 of Interdisciplinary Interpretation is to a degree a literature survey. Reynhout does not make any claim to be exhaustive, but instead highlights "four influential answers to the interdisciplinary question: Ian Barbour's Critical Realism, Wolfhart Pannenberg's argument for theology as a science, David Tracy's correlational model of public theology, and Wentzel van Huyssteen's model of postfoundationalist rationality" (xv). Each thinker gets roughly half a dozen pages, and while no one receives a perfect score from Reynhout, he notes positives in each thinker's work. For this post I will limit myself to Reynhout's exploration of Pannenberg's Theology and the Philosophy of Science, since I know Pannenberg the best out of the four.

Initially Pannenberg appears be a promising resource for Reynhout, since Pannenberg uses "hermeneutical philosophy" to engage the sciences and to develop the “argument that theology is a science” (9). As was mentioned in the first post, Reynhout has also chosen to use hermeneutical philosophy to help him think through interdisciplinary concerns. To understand how Pannenberg uses philosophy, Reynhout lays out his response to "philosophies of science common in the analytic tradition" and "philosophies of the historical sciences that utilize hermeneutical or dialectical models" (9).

For Pannenberg's engagement with the analytic tradition, Reynhout discusses Pannenberg's evaluation of Karl Popper (9-11). Popper had the "desire to solve the so-called demarcation problem, the quest for a rule that clearly separates scientific from non-scientific (or metaphysical) statements," and leaned on "falsification" to do so (10). For Pannenberg however this actually opens the door to metaphysics in more than one way, the fact that it "depends on a metaphysical view of truth as correspondence" being one example (10). Furthermore, falsification makes Popper's goal of "a single scientific method impossible," since "historical sciences" cannot be pursued in that way (10-1).

For the hermeneutical and dialectical models, we turn to Wilhelm Dilthey (11-3). Unlike Popper, Dilthey worked out of "the underlying psychology of the scientist," arguing "the human sciences require an understanding or descriptive psychology . . . [while] the natural sciences require an explanatory or analytic philosophy" (11-2). According to Reynhout Pannenberg relates Dilthey's "explanation and understanding" to "parts and wholes"; "explanation prioritizes parts over wholes, whereas understanding prioritizes wholes over parts" (12). Explanation deals with “particulars,” and according to Reynhout’s reading of Pannenberg the "basic structure of fitting individual parts into total patterns of meaning is common to explanation across scientific disciplines, natural and human, and also to the disciplines of philosophy and theology" (12-3). Therefore theology is a science for Pannenberg, with "the 'totality of reality' as its framework of meaning" (13). In the initial post on Reynhout's book it was shown that he also wants to think in terms of explanation and understanding, so again Pannenberg's view seems promising (cf. 14).

However Pannenberg stumbles for Reynhout when he "denies a role for hermeneutics in the natural sciences" (13). Apparently for Pannenberg the natural sciences operate independently of "a unique, historical context," so there is no need for "interpretation" (13-4). Reynhout hints that he will deal with this issue further later in the book (14; also cf. intro). There is one other criticism to note as Reynhout concludes his analysis. Essentially, for Reynhout Pannenberg's approach lacks specificity, with "distinctiveness of scientific practices" left to the side (14).

There is more nuance to Reynhout's reading of Pannenberg than I have been able to give here, so be sure to check out his reading of Pannenberg, but also of Tracy, van Huyssteen, and Barbour. There's a lot more material worth your time in this chapter, but hopefully this post gives a taste of it. Lastly, I've spent some time working with Pannenberg, and I commend Reynhout's brief analysis, as I learned from it and have a better understanding of what Pannenberg is up to.

(Click here for Part 1 in this series)


Friday, May 23, 2014

“The Madame of the New Pig Market” – Kittelson on Luther

I mentioned previously that I had read this book and found some of its material interesting enough to share with you, gentle readers. This will be the final installment.

This is a portion of Kittleson’s discussion of Katharina von Bora, otherwise known as “Katie Luther” (the title of Kittelson’s section), Luther’s ex-nun frau. I always find insight into the personal life of important figures to be very interesting, and Kittelson provides a very engaging discussion. Be sure to go look up the whole thing. The below gives you a taste for the humor involved in the Luthers’ relationship, as well as for how Luther could act a bit petulant vis-à-vis his better half.

James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Fortress, 2003), 282.
Rage, ability, and the importance of the issues at hand—these things kept Luther productive to the very end. Yet without the person of his wife Katie, the mature Luther would be incomprehensible.

There can be little doubt of Luther’s genuine love and high affection for Katie. In mid-1540 he was urgently called to Weimar because Melanchthon, who was on his way to the religious colloquy at Hagenau, had suddenly fallen deathly ill. Luther was gone for about six weeks. He addressed his first letter home “to my dearly beloved Katie, Mrs. Doctor Luther, etc., to the Madame of the New Pig Market, personal.” He announced that Melanchthon had recovered and that “I wish humbly to inform Your Grace that I am doing well here. I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German, thanks be to God, amen.” When writing Katie, jokes were always at Luther’s fingertips. But Katie may not have appreciated the first pun in this letter. In German a “new pig market”—the name of the field they had just purchased—could also refer to a brothel, which would make of Katie a “madam” indeed.

Katie was in fact taking care of business at the New Pig Market. As a result, she may not have received Luther’s letters. In any event, she did not answer them. Two weeks passed and he asked her to please write to him. Almost two more weeks passed without word and he became a bit testy. “I am not sure whether this letter will find you at Wittenberg or at the Pig Market; otherwise I would like to write about more things.” He hoped that when he came home, she would have “a good measure of beer” waiting for him. It is not known whether either Katie or the beer was present when he arrived.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Election and Barth’s Rejection of Appeal to Circumcision - Mondays with McMaken

Time for another installment of what I just know is your most favorite series, gentle reader.

The second chapter of the book dealt with Barth’s rejection of what I call the sacramental argument in favor of infant baptism. This, the third chapter, deals with his rejection of what I call the covenantal argument for infant baptism. Barth’s doctrine of election plays a key role in each chapter.

The following paragraph comes from the hinge section in chapter three as it moves from an explication of Francis Turretin to one of Barth.

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Emerging Scholars (Fortress, 2013), 112–13.
Although Berkouwer is correct to note that Barth affirms in his earlier writings the notion that baptism replaces or fulfills circumcision, Barth negatively assesses Calvin’s argument for infant baptism on the basis of circumcision in a short fine-print section toward the end of Church Dogmatics IV/4. He admits that this argument has some force and that it rests on an “intrinsically correct and important” insight, namely, the material unity in formal distinction that obtains between the Old and New Testaments in what Turretin would call the covenant of grace (CD IV/4, 177; KD IV/4, 195). Nonetheless and precisely because this covenant unity does not exist without such distinction, it is a mistake to transfer meaning wholesale between baptism and circumcision. Another way to state this objection is to inquire, admitting that there is essential unity but formal or administrative distinction, whether the application of this rite to infants is an essential or formal aspect. If the former, then baptism (and circumcision) given to adults would be extraordinary; if the latter, then administration of circumcision to infants does not necessarily carry over to the administration of baptism to infants. Barth does not elucidate this logic, however. He instead focuses on what he considers the primary distinction between the two forms of the covenant of grace: while the nation of Israel “elected and called by God to serve Him” constituted the Old Testament covenant community, the New Testament covenant community “is not a nation” but is “called and assembled out of Israel and all nations” (CD IV/4, 178; KD IV/4, 196). What Barth takes from this distinction is that “Christian baptism, as distinct from Israelite circumcision, cannot be [administered] on the basis of the physical descent of the candidate” (CD IV/4, 178; KD IV/4, 196).

Two things are important here. First, . . .
You know the drill.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Time for another one of these. And if this isn’t enough reading material for you, go ahead and check out the last link post. It has been a while since then. In any case, enjoy these while I prance around in fancy colorful robes in order to give newer and older alumni a favorable impression of the weight of tradition and the majesty of scholarship.

So, first we have links from DET:

And now here are you links from elsewhere:


Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Wittenberg University Team – Kittelson on Luther

Someone on the internet – I don’t remember whom it was or on what platform – suggested that I read James M. Kittelson’s book, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. As someone who teaches a “Reformation” class every other year or so, it never hurts to read in the area. I’ve been meaning for some time to get to know Luther a little better, and so I took this recommendation and read the book.

Kittelson’s book was a nice read, and very accessible. It could be read profitably by undergraduate students or someone with an undergraduate degree. And Kittelson does a good job of weaving together biographical narrative and theological explanation.

I found a number of his passages especially interesting and informative. The first that I want to share with you is below, and it deals with the relevant faculty at Wittenberg in the early reformational period.

James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Fortress, 2003), 184–6. Bold is mine.
[Luther] began to build a team that would labor with him at reform for the remainder of his life.

The first step in this process had occurred well before the Diet of Worms and the exile to the Wartburg. Through his first lectures on the Psalms and then on Romans, he had gradually begun to convince his colleagues of the truth of what came to be known as the “Wittenberg Theology.” An age that was enamored of schools of thought had found a new one. With its emphasis on the Scriptures, this school had appeal far beyond the boundaries of Electoral Saxony. It spread through the humanist circles in Basel, Nuremberg, Strasbourg, and elsewhere.

The actors in this first phase comprised and unlikely team. First there was Carlstadt, who was several years Luther’s senior by virtue of his tenure as a professor at Wittenberg. He was a thoroughly scholastic theologian, one who usually thought in terms of systems, theses, and their logical consequences. Well before the Leipzig Debate in mid-1519, he joined the developing struggle with the argument that only the Scriptures were authoritative in matters of faith. It was also he who led the movement in Wittenberg to apply Luther’s basic ideas to practical matters such as the Mass, monastic vows, the marriage of clergy, and the care of the poor.

By contrast, during these early years there was also the figure of Melanchthon. He was much younger than Luther and was a student of the ancient languages rather than a theologian. He was also less decisive when it came to the immediate application of doctrine to daily practice. He did participate in the first Evangelical Lord’s Supper, in which university students received both the bread and the wine. But these students were technically part of the clergy, and he left it to Carlstadt to extend the practice to the laity. Melanchthon’s first important contribution was rather to help Luther understand just how far he had come theologically. It was also Melanchthon who in 1521 initially put Luther’s theology in systematic for with his Commonplaces of Evangelical Theology or Loci Communes.

John Bugenhagen, who arrived while Luther was still at the Wartburg, proved to be a particularly important member of the team. He had encountered Luther’s writings as a schoolteacher and was, like Melanchthon, trained in the liberal arts and the ancient languages. His first reading of On the Babylonian Captivity, where Luther reduced the number of sacraments to two and radically altered their character, made him think of Luther as the greatest heretic of all time. However, with more thought he came to declare, “The entire world is blind, for this man is the only one who sees the truth.” With Melanchthon he assisted in the translation and retranslation of the Bible. He also became one of the chief reformers of northern Germany, one who was “loaned” to various territories and even to the king of Denmark. But Luther valued him most because Bugenhagen became the man to whom he turned daily to confess his own sins.
This section was interesting to me most of all because of Bugenhagen. I’m sure it shows how much of an amateur I am when it comes to Luther studies, but if I had ever heard of Bugenhagen previously then I retained none of the information. So it was interesting for me to meet this member of the team for what seemed like (and may have been) the first time.

Expect more on Luther from Kittelson in future posts.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Church and the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37) - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

One of the things about van Buren that I really like is that he sees interesting things in biblical texts that I miss. He gets this instinct from his teacher in Basel, of course, and it constitutes something of a family resemblance.

In any case, one instance where PMvB caught my attention for insightfully reading the biblical text was his discussion of Ezekiel 37.1–14. Van Buren reads this as an ecclesiological passage, that is, a passage that illustrates the basic dynamic involved in the church’s life. So I thought that I would share his reading.

(This passage raises all kinds of questions about how to properly conceive of the relation between Christianity and Judaism, and PMvB spent a great part of his life working through those issues in three volumes under the title A Theology of Jewish-Christian Reality.)

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 34–35.
Perhaps more striking is the familiar passage of the valley of dead bones in Ezekiel 37:1–14. For Israel is not a stick or stone which, once brought into being, is simply there, a part of the landscape, an immovable Rock of Gibraltar. Israel is in a relationship with God characterized by constant need of renewal, of being called again, of being recreated by the Word of God. And the passage from Ezekiel, although it has to do with the creation de novo of the church, is still a vision situated well along in the history of God’s dealings with this people. It is at once a tale of creation and of renewal. For the bones in that valley were “very dry” (v. 2). The possibility of life being there rested with God alone. It was not a subject for human calculation, even as a possibility (v. 3). Then the bones were addressed by the Word of God through the prophet and, even as this took place by the very action of being addressed by the Word, the bones came together, took on flesh, and were filled with the breath of life (vv. 4–10). “Then,” lest there be any doubt, “he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel’” (v. 11). For this is what it means to have the Word of God as the Lord of the church and so its criterion: it means also that the church has its existence from him who is the Word of life, so that it can never know hopelessness. It owes its existence exclusively to the Word, and so not to any other, least of all itself; and so, it need never be disillusioned, never abandoned, never lost or destroyed, in so far as it is willing to let itself be the church, in so far as it is willing to let the Word be its Lord, and so the measure of all that it is and does.


Friday, May 09, 2014

Kenneth Reynhout's "Interdisciplinary Interpretation": Introduction

Over the next month or so I want get back into blogging on DET by working through and reflecting on a couple texts that appear to be important for what I want to do in my dissertation. One of the books I will be taking the DET audience through is Dr. Kenneth Reynhout's book Interdisciplinary Interpretation: Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Theology and Science. I have a real interest in the work of Paul Ricoeur, and since my dissertation will likely be interdisciplinary in nature, this seems like a great book for me to blog. In this first post I want to briefly cover the book's introduction (ix-xviii).

Reynhout begins by briefly discussing his audience. He is writing "on behalf of theologians who are looking for guidance as they seek to engage the natural sciences," but cautions against seeing this "narrow focus" as negating the importance of his book for other relevant areas of thought (ix). According to Reynhout the "religion and science dialogue" has been resisted by religious, scientific, and theological academics, a reason for the latter's resistance being a concern that the dialogue "seems by and large to trade authentic theological reflection for abstract discussions about a generic theism that is less like theology and more like philosophy of religion" (ix-xii). Thus Reynhout wants to help theologians "engage the sciences and other disciplines... as theologians" (xii).

Providing that help centers on "the interdisciplinary question" (xii). In what appears to be the fundamental statement of his argument for the book (I've done some reading ahead), he writes:
Stated succinctly, the interdisciplinary question is: What is the character of theology's interdisciplinary engagement with the natural sciences? My equally succinct answer will be that theology's interdisciplinary character is fundamentally hermeneutical, that is, theologians engage the natural sciences primarily as interdisciplinary interpreters. (xii)
He is going to argue for "hermeneutics as an interdisciplinary paradigm," knowing that he will also need to clear up misconceptions about hermeneutics to do so, and this is where Paul Ricoeur comes in, though using Ricoeur will also bring some challenges (xiii-xv). Rather than write about these misconceptions and challenges in this post, we will return to them in future posts, as they are only summarized in the introduction.

The introduction concludes with several paragraphs on what each chapter hopes to achieve. Chapters one and two appear to set up the next three, in which one of "three guiding questions" will be answered (xv-xvi). From the chapter overviews it is clear that "Ricoeur's dialectical process of understanding through explanation" is crucial for Reynhout's argument, so in future posts it will be important to keep track of this component (xv-xvi).

I want to conclude this introductory post by offering a little observation. I was excited to see the discussion about the problem of generic theism in interdisciplinary work. Like Reynhout, my concern to engage other disciplines as a theologian "is not driven by a kneejerk fundamentalist orthodoxy" (xi). My concern with generic theism in interdisciplinary work (and in general) comes from the work of Michael Welker, and I'm excited to learn how Reynhout's solution gets one out of this problem. This is just one of many things I look forward to learning from him.


Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Monday, May 05, 2014

Rauschenbusch and the "Kingdom of Evil" (2): Dorrien on the Social Gospel

Perhaps no one thinker has applied more creative thought and energy into retrieving the legacy of the Social Gospel movement for today than the historical theologian and social ethicist Gary Dorrien. (Dorrien, who serves as the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University, has also written a fine study of Karl Barth's theology in historical context, which would be of interest to many DET readers.)

While beginning to research the Social Gospel Movement (SGM) recently, I ran across this very helpful overview and critique by Dorrien that ran in Tikkun several years ago. I want to use it as a background and an entree into my look at Rauschenbusch's doctrine of social sin in a series of posts.

Dorrien proposes we view the SGM as the North American branch of an international movement toward socio-political concerns and renewal within Protestant churches in the late 19th and early 20th century, which included religious socialist movements in England and Continental Europe. Change was the byword in the heady decades leading up to World War I -- the era that birthed the labor movement, modern empirical sociology and the ecumenical movement. What distinguished the SGM from earlier experiments in Christian ethics and political engagement -- e.g., the pacifism of the early church or the Anabaptists, the covenantal commonwealths of Puritan New England and the social agitations of the Wesleyans -- was its emphasis on "structural transformations for social justice." Dorrien writes:
Only with the rise of Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel did Christian communities seek to restructure society in the direction of freedom and equality. Society became the subject of redemption; social justice became intrinsic to salvation. If there was such a thing as social structure, redemption had to be reconceptualized to take account of it; salvation had to be personal and social to be saving.
The most significant manifesto for the movement was Rauschenbusch's seminal work, Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907), wherein the Baptist pastor and historical theologian sought to link "prophetic biblical religion" directly to modern movements for freedom, democracy and equality. Rauschenbusch caught flack for an often Marx-tinged appeal for a social and economic democracy informed by liberal Protestant theology. Dorrien writes:
Rauschenbusch argued that the rise of corporate capitalism marked a crisis for American civilization and an opportunity to recover the ideal of a radical democratic commonwealth. If production could be organized on a cooperative basis, if distribution could be organized by principles of justice, if workers could be treated as valuable ends and not as dispensable means to a commercial end, if parasitic wealth and predatory commerce could be abolished.
For anyone interested in Christian social ethics and political theology, the shadow of Reinhold Niebuhr's blistering critique looms large over the SGM and makes it difficult for this seminal movement to get a fresh hearing today. Indeed, Dorrien acknowledges many weaknesses in the SGM, including its over-weening optimism, its middle class ideologies, its romantic idealism, its cultural imperialism, its moral scrupulosity and its anti-Catholic bias. I plan to examine some critiques of SG theology in a later post.

Still, if there is an aspect of the SGM, as Dorrien interprets it, that seems prescient and prophetic for our struggles today, I think it is the sustained attention the movement gave to issues of economic equality and the threats of an unfettered, international capitalist juggernaut. In that respect, the concerns of the SGM dovetail with those of some contemporary religious movements -- liberation theologies, Christian anarchism and (my special concern) theologians who interpret the "principalities and powers" of the New Testament within a socio-political context. As Dorrien writes:
To put it in contemporary terms, the Social Gospel was a response to the first historic wave of economic globalization, the clash between a burgeoning corporate capitalism and a rising labor movement. Social Gospel leaders urged that modernity surely had a stage beyond capitalism. If modernity was a good thing, which they did not doubt, it had to have a stage beyond capitalism.
Rauschenbusch, who advocated for "economic democracy" as a realization of American political ideals, was not afraid to embrace socialist ideas and he borrowed heavily from Marx. He did not believe it was possible to completely abolish markets and private property, though; his programmatic proposals to economic justice were more ad hoc than those of classic Marxism and he rejected the idea of a completely state-planned economy.

Though such a praxis proves to be messy and contingent in our increasingly complex contexts, it is grounded in theological commitments. Rauschenbusch shows a profound awareness of the intractable character of human sinfulness, the interest-blinded and corrupted hearts of individuals as well as oppressive social structures. More importantly, perhaps, he recognizes that the Kingdom of God is a realm of ideal justice that is always coming but is never fully realized in this world. This eschatological reservation, as Dorrien lifts it up, invites me to reevaluate my previous stereotype of Rauschenbusch as a straightforwardly postmillenial idealist.

The forgoing is apropos of our look at the hamartiology (doctrine of sin) outlined in the Theology for the Social Gospel:
Rauschenbusch topped off his six chapters on evil with a stunning description of the collective sum of evils that he called "the kingdom of evil." He argued that the ravages of human hatred, greed, and will to power negate any possibility of achieving a perfect democracy. Yet for all of that, he urged, we must seek to build a cooperative commonwealth.


Friday, May 02, 2014

Barth, Baptism, and Grace – A Brief Response to Peter Leithart

Peter Leithart recently published a short review of my book, The Sign of the Gospel, over at his corner of the First Things website. I am, of course, grateful for the publicity and am happy to have my book read by any and all interested parties. The more the merrier!

Some folks have contacted me to ask what I think of Leithart’s review, and the criticisms he makes of Barth’s (and, consequently, my) understanding of grace with reference to baptism. I was initially very reluctant to respond, but I have come to the considered opinion that some disambiguation will be salutary in this instance.

I take Leithart’s review as largely positive. He basically says that my interpretation of Barth is cogent, and that my constructive building upon Barth “is successful” “as an exercise in Barthian theology.” This is a gratifying judgment, of course, because it is one that I share. Leithart is not an expert on Barth, but it is nice to know that non-specialists can recognize the family resemblance (as it were).

Now, with reference to the primary issue of grace, Leithart writes that “he [McMaken] hamstrings his account of infant baptism by accepting the terrain that Barth lays out.” But it is not grace per se that is really at issue here. Rather, this is a question about the more specific topic of how to understand the relation between divine and human activity within a soteriological context. The charge is that Barth and I have a dualistic understanding of these things, as evidenced by Barth’s distinction between water and Spirit baptism. Leithart’s conclusion is: “You can cobble together a defense of infant baptism on this dualism - it’s been done for centuries. But it’s unstable, and there are better ways to go.”

The charge that Barth’s doctrine of baptism contains a lurking dualism is not a new one. Its primogenitor is Thomas Torrance, but it has been taken up more recently by others (sometimes only indirectly). I discuss the relation between Torrance’s and Barth’s doctrines of baptism in a couple of long footnotes in the constructive chapter of my book, and the question of dualism is a large part of that running commentary. Indeed, I am currently working on an essay dealing with Barth and Torrance on these matters. The short version is that Torrance is right to worry about dualism, but that he is wrong to find it in Barth. My discussion of “paradoxical identity” in my book (and in work since then) as a way to interpret Barth’s understanding of divine and human action is aimed (in part) at showing that Barth does in fact have a unitive account, even if he is careful—in his characteristically actualist manner—to guard the distinction between divine and human action. It is my hope that a Barth specialist would recognize the systematic importance of these considerations in my constructive material, but it is understandable if a less-specialist readership requires that they be highlighted more explicitly.

In conclusion, I am grateful for Leithart’s review and I hope that it will help my book to attract a more engaged and knowledgeable readership.


Thursday, May 01, 2014

Wheaton Theology Conference 2014: Some Highlights

A couple weeks ago (April 3-4) Wheaton had a theology conference titled The Spirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith. It was my first time at Wheaton, and I enjoyed seeing the blog boss' alma mater. Also, I got to meet Travis' "co-conspirator" David Congdon, and though the conversation was brief it was great, and it was great to meet him.

My main reason for going was to meet Michael Welker, who presented near the end of the conference. I've been described as a "fan boy" of his work, so you probably aren't shocked to hear me say that he did a great job. It seems almost a certainty that he will be a major part of my dissertation, so meeting and having lunch with him was surreal and a thrill. I've written about Welker on the blog previously: here's a good place to start.

I would say that overall the conference was positive, though as is probably always the case, there were highs and lows as far as the presentations were concerned. Since I want to write about Welker's doctrine of the Holy Spirit here at some point, I'm skipping his presentation for now. Instead, here are a few themes, highlights, etc from the conference:

  • As the link above makes clear, the conference was about Pentecostalism in part, and more than one Pentecostal thinker presented. Dr. Douglas Petersen's presentation focused on how the word and stories can enable social justice, and he shared several moving examples from the lives of children.
  • Dr. Oliver Crisp's presentation, "Towards a Reformed Pneumatology," was interesting, primarily due to the Q & A afterward. More than one questioner wanted to discuss the viability of certain gifts of the spirit and "cessationism." It was interesting that these questions were directed to Dr. Crisp because he made it clear that he was trying to make some room for those types of gifts (and in doing so he was not completely walking in step with his own tradition). While I would not describe the Q & A exchanges as aggressive or unproductive, these exchanges did sort of hint at some tensions. I don't know enough about these tensions, so please feel free to fill me in by commenting below.
  • Finally, I want to mention the presentation of President Estrelda Alexander. In addition to being a compelling speaker, she offered some ways to understand her tradition, African American Pentecostalism, that were quite helpful to me, as someone who was ignorant of it. Perhaps the most interesting notion was "tarrying," an essential part of the church service where the women who lead the church help determine whether someone is really speaking in tongues through discernment. This seems to correct an impression many have of Pentecostalism (at least with respect to the African American branch) as having no concern for order or accountability.

Those are only a few highlights, but hopefully they provide a bit of the flavor of the conference.