Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rosemary Radford Ruether on Counterrevolutionary Latitudinarianism

I believe I told you before, gentle readers, that I’ve been buying and reading a lot of used theology books from the mid 20th century. Well, the below passage is another fruit of such labor that I thought you might be interested in. So without further ado…

Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Radical Kingdom (Harper & Row, 1970), 39-40:
The earliest school of rationalism arose in England after the Restoration when, wearied of religious controversies, she tried to pull herself together around her traditional religious and national institutions. The mood was summed up by the term “latitudinarian”; a mood not so much of toleration as of narrowly rationalistic prejudices about what was, in fact, “tolerable.” What was intolerable was the enthusiasm and fanaticism, the bickering over points of religious doctrine, the apocalyptic messianism that had characterized the period of the Puritan revolution. What was cultivated was a pedestrian sort of Christianity in which the watchmaker God, who was the architect of the Newtonian universe, served as sanction for the decent-law-abiding morality of the English possessing classes. In fact, the traditional Christian distinction between reason and revelation was commonly interpreted in this period as a class distinction. It was said that the content of Scripture and revelation was essentially identical with that of reason and natural religion, but, for the sake of the ignorant masses, God has revealed this religion of nature in a simple colorful form complete with miracles to impress their imaginations, whereas the enlightened classes did not stand in need of this revelation, being able to attain this knowledge by their own intellects. In effect, the Christian doctrine of the Fall and the debasement of man’s reason had here become a doctrine applicable only to the lower classes.

Such latitudinarianism, far from being revolutionary, was in a sense counterrevolutionary, and was not infrequently espoused by the most impeccable of English high-churchmen. . . . In the hands of these latitudinarians, rationalism did not so much challenge as it sought to bulwark traditional religious and political institutions, and its energies were expended in proving the full and complete harmony of traditional revealed religion with reason and natural religion.
One wonders how far we’ve really come . . .


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why the Niebuhrs Still Matter (Part 1)

Scott R. Paeth, The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians, Illustrations by Ron Hill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014).

Toward the end of 2009, after less than a year in office, President Barack Obama was caught off guard, or so he claimed, when the Nobel Committee tapped him as recipient of its Peace Prize for his efforts in world diplomacy. The new President, rightly I think, interpreted the award less as a celebration of his accomplishments and more as an admonishment for him, the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military, to somehow beat the swords of a miserable decade of strife into plowshares. Nonetheless, attentive hearers would have caught a more somber tone in his Nobel acceptance speech. After invoking the examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, patron saints of nonviolent resistance, Obama reiterated his role as chief protector of the nation and offered this sobering caveat:

[M]ake no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Quaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. (quoted in Paeth, p. 172)

Furthermore, Obama argued, though war may be a last resort in foreign policy, in a world of tragic human imperfections, the instruments of war are sometimes necessary to keep the peace and redress injustice. Such language echoes that of Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama has claimed as an intellectual influence. Though Niebuhr was among the most eminent Christian theologians and ethicists of the 20th century, and his distinctive form of political realism attracts the attention of secular political philosophers and pundits, he is perhaps still not among the best understood of 20th century religious thinkers.

The same could be said of Reinhold's younger brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, whose work has been seminal for theologians and ethics even though he is less famous than his more outspoken brother. Thinkers as divergent as James Gustafson, Gordon Kaufman and Hans Frei can lay claim to aspects of his interdisciplinary intellectual output, which ranged over the areas of epistemology, ethics, sociology of religion and constructive theology.

For these and other reasons, Scott R. Paeth's superb primer on the thought of the Niebuhr brothers is a most welcome addition to the burgeoning body of secondary literature analyzing and applying their work. Paeth, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, works primarily in the fields of public and political theology, and is also a blogger. Like other volumes in this series, his text offer educated lay people and students a concise and readable yet substantial entrée into the lives and thought of the two German American pastors and religious thinkers whose bodies of work, along with that of Paul Tillich, have exercised the most decisive impact on the course of mainline Protestant thought in the 20th century. The time is ripe for this book, especially since Reinhold's work in particular is receiving renewed and more careful attention today. This text is especially suited for individual study, for a parish adult education forum or an undergraduate survey course in North American religion, ethics or political thought.

The structure of the Paeth's text is roughly chronological, guiding the reader from the childhood of Reinhold and Richard in the 1890s in Missouri and Illinois to their religions and vocational formations in the German Evangelical Synod (which later was merged into the Evangelical and Reformed denomination and later the United Church of Christ), to their careers as pastors and professors at Union Theological Seminary and Yale University, respectively. Central to this narrative also is the complex, often fraught story of how the Niebuhrs related to and impacted the public issues and events ranging from the two world wars, the social gospel movement, socialist politics, the Cold War, and for Reinhold the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam war. (H. Richard Niebuhr died suddenly in 1962, whereas Reinhold, whose prodigious productivity was hampered by a stroke in later years, lived until 1971).

Though the basic structure of the text is chronological, the chapters are somewhat thematically organized, dealing with the emergence of Christian realism, issues of war and peace and the conflicts between the ethics of responsibility and the impetus to live a distinctive life of Christian discipleship. The life-work of both thinkers is interspersed throughout the texts. Though I think this was probably the correct editorial decision, it does perhaps heighten the key challenge that faces the new student of the work of the Niebuhr brothers - namely, to appreciate their common heritage and areas of substantial agreement without conflating their work. The brothers did have significant disagreements, including a key controversy that spilled out into public discussion in the early 1930s. Though Paeth's exposition is clear and straightforward, the reader unfamiliar with the Niebuhrs will have to pay attention to which of the brother's work is under discussion at any given point of the text. Ron Hill's cartoon illustrations give flavor and a touch of humor to the texts, but I at times found it difficult to identify which drawing was of which brother. Remembering that Reinhold was taller and more outgoing than his brother helped me navigate the illustrations.

Embedded in the narrative are concise and lucid summaries of the major works of the two Niebuhrs, which make this text useful as a study guide or a refresher for someone who hasn't read the Niebuhrs in a while. Thus, we can see how Reinhold's realist political theology emerges in dialogue with the more sociological and historical early works of his brother. We get a good sense of Reinhold's mature Christian anthropology in his magnum opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man and we are able to track the major arguments in such texts as Richard's The Meaning of Revelation and what is perhaps his most famous book, Christ and Culture.

In two posts to follow I will use Paeth's text as an entry into a key debate between the two Brothers on the topic of Christian political involvement and I will examine further the ongoing legacy of the Niebuhr brothers for Christian thought today.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Ok, so it’s been nearly a month since the last link post. I’ve been busy with a new semester, and am enjoying introducing my students to “Religious Upheaval in 16th Century Europe.” This past week was on Erasmus, who I think deserves more attention these days. But that’s another story . . .

There have been a lot of interesting and thought-provoking posts here at DET in the past month. Here’s the list in case you missed any:

And here’s some of what’s been going on elsewhere in the blogosphere:


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Eichmann the Kantian?

I'm no expert on Immanuel Kant, but I have enormous respect for his work; I typically bristle when some theologians or ethicists run him down -- often placing the great 18th century German philosopher in a special slot within a litany of (putative) modernist declension in Christian thought. The moral chaos of our world drives me to seek some sort of categorical foundation for affirming goodness, a basis for justice that transcends the brutal rapacity of human history and the blind self-interest that typically distorts even our best efforts to make moral judgments.

Kant, as I understand him, is sensitive to these issues. It's not so much that I'm wedded to his particular formulation of the categorical imperative (for an overview, read this). Nor do I wish to get embroiled in debates about the autonomous modern subject; any appropriation of Kant today, certainly, would require a bit of critical revision. My concern, simply put, is to find some basis for affirming a universal ground of the good as the condition for the possibility of all contingent -- and thereby partial and imperfect -- moral judgments, and Kant provides one way of doing this without committing me, say, to some sort of natural law theory or virtue ethics. To refresh the reader's memory, a classic statement of the categorical imperative, as articulated in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, goes thusly: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."

But I see that that desire has its dangers too. "Foundationalism!" cries the postmodernist. "Cultural imperialism!" objects the multicultural theorist. I'm not insensitive to such criticisms. A little closer to my own areas of study, moreover, weighty theological objections to such a project emerge: A key risk would be that I, mere mortal as I am and a misearble sinner to boot, would grasp onto some vision of the good or some ethical ideal and reify it. A biblico-theological term for this move would be idolatry.

I recently ran across this striking quote in Pannenberg, and it stopped me cold:

Adolf Eichmann insisted at his trial that he had always acted according to Kant's imperative. He clearly envisioned the extermination of the Jewish people as a universal law to be universally followed. Fanatics of other strains can likewise wrap themselves in Kant's formal imperative. Kant's formal ethics does not in fact provide certain guidance toward the humanistic ideal he espoused. (Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God, ed. Richard John Neuhaus, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975, p. 104.)

Eichmann was a Nazi administrative official responsible for deporting some 1.5 million Jews to extermination camps in Eastern Europe. (You can read more about him here.) He was captured in Argentina, tried in Jerusalem and hanged in 1962 for crimes against the Jewish people. His basic defense during the trial was that he was, essentially, doing his duty by following orders. What could Pannenberg's claim mean here? I've begun poring through our copy of Hannah Arendt's classic, Eichmann in Jerusalem, to see if I can find anything more about this. (By the way, I highly recommend the film, starring Margarethe von Trotta, about Arendt's coverage of this trial.)

Pannenberg's objection to the Kantian categorical imperative, clearly, is its abstract formality. (There are other considerations, of a more metaphysical nature, that have some bearing upon this critique, but I'm not going to get into that here.) He is drawing a contrast between an abstract rule of duty versus the dynamics of lived experience in history. This does not mean, if I'm reading him correctly, that Pannenberg is embracing a consequentialist ethics per se, though I discern some signals that he is, over all, more sympathetic to more empirically grounded accounts of moral decision making.

This worry about abstraction, which (he implies) entails some sort of dichotomy between an abstract rule and its concrete instantiation, is reinforced in a follow-up point, which gets at the tension between concrete individuality and any kind of universalistic claim whatsoever. Hence:

An additional problem with the rule that one's own actions should be suitable as a principle of general legislation is that it tends to deny individuality. The individual in his particularity and in his own distinctive moment can, at least at times, behave in a way that defies formulation as a principle suited to universal application (ibid.).

Backing up one page helps elucidate this, which occurs in a very concise summary of modern challenges in ethics -- a discussion which leads into Pannenberg's own constructive position framed by his distinctive eschatology. He recounts the effects of Nietzschean relativism: All values are the result of the will to power and the irony is that the gap created by this ethical rootlessness is filled by arbitrary rules. "It may seem strange that the relativizing of ethical standards should result in conformity" -- that is to say, "superficial adherence to conventions" without any corresponding existential conviction (p. 103). That's an interesting argument; I'll have to ruminate on it some more.

Appeal to divine commands, Pannenberg argues further, has become increasingly implausible in a "rationally organized world", in which people respond to rational principles (p. 104). I have some critical reservations about this assertion: Just how "rational" are we, and how averse to divine commands? If some quasi-divine figure such as David Koresh or some official in the Church of Scientology says "jump", some portion of the population seems more than willing to answer "how far?". Yet, more to the point of Pannenberg's own discussion, I find this claim about modern rationalism, on the face of it, to be in some tension with the notion that people allow themselves to be ruled by arbitrary conventions, but perhaps that's just another aspect of the paradoxical situation of modern societies. Moreover -- and this gets more directly at my main concern -- conscience fails to provide an adequate ground for moral behavior, since it clearly is mutable and subject to manipulation by self interest, rational or otherwise. Some of the worst atrocities, he points out, have been committed in the name of conscience. Thus, as Eichmann testified at trial, his conscience was clear: His, remember, is a duty ethic. He did his job; he followed orders -- deontology taken to absurd lengths.

What interests me is this: What I find most appealing about the notion of a categorical, universal, even transcendental ground for goodness is precisely the hope that it stands above arbitrary appeals to idolatrous claims, contingencies and the manipulative power of self interest. Pannenberg certainly is going to want to provide his own foundation for ethics that is both ethical and rational, and in the text I'm reading, he goes on to sketch an agapic ethic grounded in his notion of the Kingdom of God, the center and goal of Jesus' preaching and ministry. But is this kind of biblical and theological basis for ethics necessarily incompatible with a categorical ethical schema along the lines that Kant commends? Say we were to play the Nazi trump card against any notion of a transcendental categorical imperative and were, instead, to plunge into the murky depths of Christian origins and the brutally compromised history of the church as an alternative basis, will we have any greater defense against our incessant tendency to label evil as good?


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Covenant vs. Cultural Religion - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

One thing that I really appreciate about van Buren in these lectures is the way he constantly refers back to the religious dynamics of his socio-historic location, i.e., late 1950s USA. Given that, it’s just gravy when the issues that he saw so clearly then happen still to be significant issues in our own time and place. We already saw a bit of this in my post on PMvB and the necessity of prolegomena in North American theology. Well, here’s another bit.

These paragraphs come at the end of PMvB’s discussion of “Creation and Covenant” as part of his larger doctrine of creation. This whole section is well worth your time to read, but I’ll tap in here at the end to the payoff. Bold is mine.

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 151–52.
In Christ, the fullness of the covenant is realized and knowable, and from the knowledge of Jesus Christ we know the Creator. If the Yahwist, the Priestly doctrine, Second Isaiah, and the Psalms all express faith in God as Creator as a consequence of their faith in him as the God of the covenant, all the more does this become the true order of knowledge in the New Testament. For there the covenant reaches its telos in Christ, in whom also it had its basis from eternity by God’s decision.

It is well for us of the church today, in the face of the cultural religion that is all about us, to be very clear about the biblical road to the knowledge of God the Creator: by way of the covenant, and ultimately by way of Jesus Christ. The culture has made serious inroads on the inner life of the church—with its talk about a creator god who is not a god of any covenant, who has made no decision, and so who does not place us in need of making a serious decision. If we fail to make this distinction clear, then we will be allowing our people to slide slowly (and today it is not such a slow slide) into thinking that they have the blessing of the church on what is in reality only another form of Baal worship.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 1.14–2.5

Malachi 1.14–2.5

[14] “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations. [2.1] And now, you priests, this warning is for you. [2] If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the Lord Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me. [3] Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. [4] And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the Lord Almighty. [5] “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name.”


COMMENTARY: Calvin begins this portion of his commentary by discussing a distinction between internal and external religion, picking up on the idea of a “cheat” or deceiver in verse 14. His reading is that those offering the sacrifices against which Malachi inveighs are attempting to cheat or deceive God, to present the outward appearance of worship in place of the inward disposition of worship. But worship finally comes down to motive: “though they pretended some religion, yet nothing was done by them with a sincere and honest heart; . . . whatever they thus offered was polluted, because it did no proceed from a right motive” (511). This reminds me of Augustine’s point, made in The Spirit and the Letter (if my memory serves), that obedience is nothing without love. God may command a certain action, and you may - in theory - perform it perfectly, but it doesn’t count if it proceeds from fear. The most important thing is that one loves God and, after all, love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pt 4.8).

Here’s a quick point just because I find it a little amusing. Calvin does one of his “as though he had said” bits with reference to the last half of verse 14 to explain why Malachi would emphasize God’s greatness here. He paraphrases thusly: “With whom do you think that you have to do?” (512) We might paraphrase today with a more or less vulgar version of, “Who do you think you’re dealing with?” In any case, this marks Calvin consistent desire to promote the sort of respect that he believes we ought to exhibit vis-à-vis our Creator.

Both these themes over into his exposition of 2.2., but they become particularized with reference to God’s word specifically. It is not enough to hear God’s word in a perfunctory or insufficiently serious manner. Rather, God’s word must be heard with fitting respect and openness to their affect: “for God is not heard, if we receive with levity his words, so that they soon vanish away; but we hear them when we lay them on the heart, or, as the Latins say, when we apply the mind to them. There is then required a serious attention, otherwise it will be the same as though the ears were closed against God” (514). It is hard not to make connections here with contemporary North American Christianity where God’s word may be heard in a purely physical manner, whether through ear or eye, but where one much more seldom finds that those words are laid upon the heart, applied to the mind, or taken with serious attention. If this isn’t an argument for the importance of catechesis in the church then I don’t know what is. And not only basic or initial catechesis but a self-conscious practice of life-long theological education.

Since we’re on the topic of theological education, Calvin turns in his comments on verse 4 to speak of teachers in the church. He begins by comparing kings and teachers, saying that they both easily fall victim to the erroneous opinion that they stand above mere mortals – in other words, they think they’re better than everyone else. This is certainly something to keep in mind. But he then pivots and argues that the hierarchy of the Roman church has fallen victim to precisely this danger. Indeed, it has done so to such an extent that “they have dared to bind conscience by their own laws” (519), precisely Luther’s complaint in the 95 Theses.

Finally, and with reference to verse 5, Calvin discusses apostolic succession. On this point I will simply reproduce Calvin’s paragraph. Bold is mine, as usual:
The Prophet now proves more clearly how God violates not his covenant, when he freely rebukes the priests, and exposes also their false attempts in absurdly applying to themselves the covenant of God, like the Papal priests at this day, who say that they are the Church. How? because they have in a regular order succeeded the apostles; but this is a foolish and ridiculous definition; for he who occupies the place of another ought not on that account only to be deemed a successor. Were a thief to kill the master of a family, and to occupy his place, and to take possession of all his goods, is he to be accounted his legitimate successor? [Ed. note – sound like Hamlet to anyone else?] So these dishonest men, to show that they are to be regarded as apostles, only allege a continued course of succession; but the likeness between them ought rather to be the subject of inquiry. We must see first whether they have been called, and then whether they answer to their calling; neither of which they can prove. Then their definition is altogether frivolous.
To expand briefly on this. On the question of whether Roman priests have been called, Calvin likely thinks this can’t be proven for two reasons. First, God’s call is not demonstrable per se. Second, God’s call must be ratified by the congregation and this did not happen in the Roman church. On the question of whether they answer to their calling, Calvin does not mean “answer” in terms of hearing the calling and going through the formal motions of response (being ordained, etc.). Rather, and in keeping with his discussion earlier, Calvin has in mind the proper exercise of the ministry to which they are called, and the proper motivation in that ministry. This is obviously missing insofar as the Roman clergy, among other things, “bind conscience by their own laws.”


(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast been pleased to choose us as this day thy priests, and hast consecrated us to thyself by the blood of thine only-begotten Son and through the grace of thy Spirit, - O grant, that we may rightly and sincerely perform our duties to thee, and be so devoted to thee that thy name may be really glorified in us; and may we be thus more and more confirmed in the hope of those promises by which thou not only guidest us through the course of this earthly life, but also invitest us to thy celestial inheritance; and may Christ thy Son so rule in us, that we may ever cleave to our head, and be gathered as his members into a participation of that eternal glory into which he has gone before us. – Amen.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

On Remembering Wolfhart Pannenberg & the Future of his Theology

As probably everyone in the theological world knows, Wolfhart Pannenberg recently passed away. Several people have already written reflections:

These are the main ones I have seen floating around the internet thus far, and all are worth reading. I will offer my reflections in dialogue with theirs.

All the responses rightly point to Pannenberg's towering intellect - others have pointed this out, but Pannenberg's daily work load (as recounted by Clayton) was so large it is hard to believe that anyone could do it. Also, most of them highlight the role Pannenberg's thought played in their lives outside of the academy (Derrick Peterson's post is a must read on this point, as he beautifully tied Pannenberg's thought and his personal narrative together).

My story is very similar to some of those personal reflections. Though I was initially drawn to Barth and T.F. Torrance in my master's degree, Pannenberg was one of the first theologians that really gripped me after arriving at Luther Seminary and as I transitioned into doctoral work. Even as I later felt myself moving away from Pannenberg's thought some type of commitment remained, even if only out of nostalgia, as I would try to bait Matthew Frost into long arguments about the merits of Pannenberg. I was often successful, but only in the baiting. It is a strange thing to try to playfully and seriously help someone "see the light" when you really don't either.

This is a personal illustration of another common thread among most of the responses to Pannenberg's passing - the difficulty in finding the best way to position oneself with respect to his thought. Like others who have read him I can't deny the impact he has had on me, yet Root's detailing of some of Pannenberg's convictions and how he lived them out are VERY problematic, to say the least. I've toyed with different ideas to correct or improve upon some aspects of his thought, even developing a dissertation idea or two that would be at least in part an attempt to do so, but despite real effort it remains difficult to see a way to make those changes without the whole structure unraveling. Does his excellence as a systematician (one of the top two of the "mid-twentieth century" according to Clayton) preclude making adjustments? More than one respondent has noted Pannenberg's frustration with Barth's "openness to change," but was he all that different? I will probably continue to wrestle with whether and/or in what way(s) Pannenberg's thought can be altered.

This brings me to a larger point: in theology it is not uncommon to wonder about the future of a thinker or movement, and Pannenberg's passing presents a natural opportunity - how will his thought live on? Despite its tone of lament, I grimaced when I read Derrick's recent Facebook/Twitter comments about how Pannenberg's influence is fading. I wanted to point to Kent Eilers, Timothy Bradshaw, Iain Taylor, Graham Watts, all of whom have published on Pannenberg in the last several years, as well to a couple students here at Luther who are using Pannenberg to a significant degree in their work, to argue that surely this means interest in Pannenberg remains. That said, I must admit that I worry Derrick is right. Nevertheless, as Christiaan Mostert has written,
No theologian in the twentieth century has been more preoccupied with the idea of the future than Wolfhart Pannenberg. . . . Pannenberg was struck by the 'priority of the eschatological future' in Jesus' understanding of the reign of God, so much so that the future, rather than the past, should be seen as 'determining' the present. (213)
So, like others who have written reflections, please permit me my own "Pannenberg-style eschatological riff" on this issue and say that we will have to wait and see.

I am sad that Pannenberg has died and am profoundly grateful to have had his works to read and reflect on. Regardless of my conflicted relationship to his thinking he was a brilliant theologian, and I plan on continuing to wrestle with him in the future.


Monday, September 08, 2014

Early Years in Wittenberg – Hendrix on Luther

So apparently I’m in a bit of a Luther mood these months. After reading (and blogging) on Kittelson, I’ve picked up Scott Hendrix’s book Luther and the Papacy: Stages in a Reformation Conflict (Fortress, 1981). This is mildly perplexing to me as a staunchly Reformed theologian (although my best friend is a Lutheran…), but I assuage my conscience by telling myself that it’s merely background reading for the Reformation class that I’m teaching (again) in the Fall.

In any case, I found the below to be one of those engaging passages filled with interesting historical detail, and I thought that I would share it with you, gentle reader. As always, bold is mine.

Scott Hendrix, Luther and the Papacy, 11–12:
On October 19, 1512, the degree of doctor of theology was conferred on Luther by his “promoter” in the theological faculty at Wittenberg, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. In his doctoral oath Luther pledged not to teach strange doctrines which had been condemned by the Roman Church and, consequently, were “offensive to pious ears.” In addition, as one who had received the licentiate in theology, he had to swear obedience to the Roman Church. There is every reason to think that Luther took the full oath with a clear conscience, although in later years he would interpret the oath as binding him to Holy Scripture rather than to the Roman Church. Regardless of this change in the object of his allegiance, Luther always regarded his doctorate as the official sanction for his reforming work: “I have often said and still say, I would not exchange my doctor’s degree for all the world’s gold. . . . God and the whole world bear me testimony that I entered into this work publically and by virtue of my office as teacher and preacher and have carried it hitherto by the grace of God.”

Three days later Luther was formally inducted into the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg and began to prepare the lectures that he would deliver as the successor to Johannes von Staupitz in the chair of biblical studies. From 1513 to 1515 he taught his first lecture course on the Psalms. These lectures were followed by courses on Romans (1515–1516), Galatians (1516–1517), and Hebrews (1517–1518). From this earliest phase of his teaching career we also possess sermons Luther delivered, marginal notes to medieval theological works, letters, and theses prepared for academic debate. Luther was a busy man.


Friday, September 05, 2014

Why I Am not an Angry, Post-Conservative, Post-Evangelical (But I don't Judge You if You Are)

Caveats: The part of the title in parentheses is crucial. This piece is in no way meant as an attack on anyone, living or deceased. Many people have been treated vary badly by individuals or groups identified with evangelical Christianity. You have my deepest empathy, solidarity and alliance, if and whenever that might be helpful. I'd give money to your causes if I had any. By all means, tell your own stories. This one is mine, or part of it, at any rate. I know that as a white heterosexual male I'm a beneficiary of certain privileges. Moreover, I don't claim my own experiences as normative for anyone else or even claim some sort of unique insight into the religious traditions and histories that have formed me. I also don't believe there is only one "right" way to inhabit a particular religious tradition, but I think this point will become clear below.

Why am I not an angry, post-conservative, post-evangelical? First of all, I grew up with a strong religious identity as a Southern Baptist rather than as an evangelical."Wait, what?", you might now be asking. Isn't the largest (for however long it lasts) Protestant denomination in the United States quintessentially evangelical? Isn't the president of the flagship SBC seminary perhaps the leading evangelical intellectual in the U.S. today? What about the Rev. Billy Graham and, perhaps even more so, his crusading heir apparent? What about theologian Carl F. Henry, the keen mind who steered Christianity Today for so many years? Aren't these the very people who virtually invented the whole neo-evangelical phenomenon to begin with? And what about President Carter? (Gotcha!)

Bunyan in prison

A little context might help. I was born in 1971 (two years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Big Bird first walked down Sesame Street and Shaggy Rogers first exclaimed "Zoinks!"). In 1979, right about the time centrists and liberals of all stripes were about to get their rears severely kicked at the polls, a handful of brilliant, politically savvy, passionately committed and deeply ideological leaders began to enact a stunning coup -- the conservative neo-evangelical takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Over the next several years, it was virtually a complete rout. Moderate, old-school, traditionalist Baptists were driven from control of all the national boards, committees and seminaries. It was a scenario played out through most of the state conventions and spread from congregation to congregation during the following two decades. I won't detail it. I'm not a scholar of these events, such as Nancy Ammerman or Bill Leonard, but in a certain sense I did live them. I grew up in a Baptist pastor's home and was appointed as a messenger to several SBC meetings, and I read and absorbed what was happening around me. These new leaders were the folks who created the SBC that most of you know today, and they understood the interface between politics and religion better than just about anyone -- the early Civil Rights leaders notwithstanding -- until folks like Jim Wallis and Stephen L. Carter came along and shouted: "Hey, liberal Americans, get a freaking clue!"

At any rate, though I was young during the 80s when the SBC takeover was happening, I was to some extent already formed and had some of my own ideas -- deeply influenced, of course, by several key adults in my life (whom I hope I'm avoiding embarrassing by not naming them here). Things were a little different back then. The likes of Phil Donahue could be seen on national broadcast TV, not relegated to a cable ghetto like Rachel Maddow. Back then, if you had asked most Baptists about TULIP they would have imagined a flower associated with the Netherlands. So too, even when I was growing up, in a time when our staunchly evangelical President, Ronald Reagan (cough, cough...) was sharing his very apocalyptic Gospel that it was now "morning in America", some Baptists, at least, were reiterating the idea that we just didn't quite fit inside anyone's box too well. In the early '80s, Baptist mystic E. Glenn Hinson pressed the argument that the "evangelical" label just didn't fit the Baptists. Some were even arguing against classing the Baptists among the Protestants at all. We Baptists were something a little different, some argued; of course this "being different" business can lead a group toward being isolationist and a little obnoxious sometimes, but, as they say, "It's an ethos."

I have this ambivalence about my childhood religious heritage, though I'm mostly grateful for it. On the one hand, as I was growing up many Southern Baptists were desperate to be integrated in the middle classes and the broader institutional life of North American society. On the other hand, some of us saw ourselves as heirs of a more radical heritage, reaching back to the early 17th century at least, of iconoclasts, banished heretics, troublemakers and somewhat ornery folk. Hallmarks of this trajectory in Baptist life were an emphasis on the perspicuity of the Bible and an inviolable place for individual conscience and discernment in biblical interpretation, dangerous ideas indeed.

For example, take the case of early "General" (non-Calvinist) Baptists John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, who dared to hang out with the Mennonites when that sort of behavior wasn't considered too cool. Four centuries before Hobby Lobby had earned corporations the precious right to religious expression, Smyth and Helwys risked life and limb to break away not only from the Church of England but also from their Calvinist Puritan sisters and brothers. Smyth went a bit far in his iconoclasm when he sought to ban scripture readings from public worship. (We weren't Quakers, for heavens sake! I'm glad that change didn't stick.) In our Sunday evening discipleship programs, we also learned about Roger Williams, the firebrand who had been hounded first out of England and then out of Puritan Massachusetts for his uncompromising views on religious freedom and the separation of church and state. John Knox seems conservative compared with this guy. Before he kind of went off the deep end and became a church unto himself, Williams founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. Not one to follow social conventions, even royal ones, he had the audacity to treat Native Americans as human beings who should be compensated for giving up their lands. And then there's John Bunyan, one of those "Particular" (non-Arminian) Baptists, in whom generations of Anglican schoolchildren took a subversive delight. Bunyan was imprisoned twice for refusing to quit preaching the Gospel unauthorized. Another radical Baptist, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., quotes Bunyan in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", to wit: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." Aside from some assigned passages from Pilgrim's Progress, how many of you have actually read Bunyan? Back in the day, Reformed theologians simply didn't write apocalyptic fantasies. It just wasn't done.

Flash forward to some more recent Baptist oddballs. So you always thought Jimmy Carter, the moderate-liberal-conservative probably better outfitted for a career with UNESCO than the imperial White House, was anomalous among Southern Baptists for his populist penchant for coddling the poor and oppressed? I can do you one even better than that. Just a peanut's throw away from Carter's farm, over in Americus, Georgia, Clarence Jordan in the late 1940s built a farm called Koinonia, an interracial intentional community that was, as far as I can tell, based upon anarcho-communist principles. Jordan the Baptist communist. I wonder if Sen. McCarthy ever investigated him. I read a couple of his books in my teenage years and somehow got it into my head that Jesus wanted me to sell my stereo and CDs and give the money away. Now how, apart from reading the Gospels, could I possibly have stumbled across such an insane idea as that? And I dare you to pigeonhole the drinkin', smokin', cussin' Baptist preacher and Civil Rights activist Will Campbell into any conventional evangelical box who defied convention to share the love of Jesus with members of the KKK -- who certainly could use a healthy dose of it, just like you and I.

T-Rex, ca. Day 6?

Another reason I don't really understand myself to have grown up "evangelical" in any straightforward way relates to a specific set of issues that tend to vex many (but certainly not all) religious conservatives still today -- the putative "war" between modern science and traditional religious belief. From an early age, as far back as I can remember thinking about such matters, I never saw any fundamental conflict between the modern natural sciences and the message of the Bible. My position on this issue basically has not changed during the past three decades. I loved science as a kid and considered it as a strong career possibility, until this esoteric subject called "mathematics" intervened. I read whatever I could get my hands upon, including our 20-year-old World Book Encyclopedias. I read Discover magazine cover-to-cover every month, and I loved the original Cosmos, narrated by the inimitable Carl Sagan, cousin of the trees. I was, perhaps, a bit bemused by his quaint, positivist, oh so mid-19th century anti-religious rationalism, but his scientific ruminations never shook me one whit.

Now, if you find yourself struggling intellectually and existentially with challenges from the sciences to faith as you understand it, I don't judge you. I have no aspersions to cast. Some religious conservatives find this to be a line in the sand, others not. I do know that know that some thinkers have found their jobs imperiled by their views on science, have lost their jobs in evangelical institutions, as I learn from reading Peter Enns' superb blog.

* * *

At the end of college, for a variety of reasons, I joined the Episcopal Church. That was 20 years ago and, apparently, it has stuck. A funny thing has happened, too. I have tended to consider myself an evangelical more often since I began sojourning with the "liberals" in this oldline denomination than I did before. Why is this? Here's how I figure it. Overall the Episcopal Churches have been pretty good to me, mainly by tolerating me and sometimes even letting me hand out communion. Occasionally, a few have even let me teach or preach something, until they wisely thought better of it. Still, on a few occasions I have gotten angry with "liberals" (some particular ones, not everyone) for being particularly obtuse in how they characterize and caricature the Other -- in this case, their conservative evangelical sisters and brothers. Such obtuseness I had learned to spot among some (certainly not all) Southern Baptists. Come to think of it, I've known other groups to exhibit this trait too.

So what am I then? Am I conservative, as some mainline seminary profs might say, because I read the Bible straight through -- even the "icky" parts -- or because I believe in creatio ex nihilo or because I refer to my Lord as "Jesus" rather than "the Christ"? Or am I a liberal because I believe in human rights and individual conscience and freedom, including academic freedom in biblical scholarship, and because I admit that being a (post)modern person inevitably shapes how I view the faith? Am I some self-styled radical who canvasses with the liberals on social issues, much as Sen. Sanders does with his Democratic colleagues? Am I a poseur? Well, my reading of Romans 7 points that up as a real possibility.

Maybe I just can live with such ambiguities. Perhaps I should jump ship altogether, dismiss the four-plus plus decades of life as one ideologically tainted "neo-liberal" phase and find my true liberation with the critical theorists, casting aside the dubious legacies of Christendom? My guilty secret is that I always liked The Cosby Show. Or just maybe such labels are inherently problematic. Maybe personal identity, not to mention religious commitments, is inherently fluid and variegated? No, impossible. Such an admission would be way too humbling. Who will help me sort all this out? Paging Christian Smith....

Another reason I still cling somewhat tenaciously to my evangelical identity is in reaction to the atheists -- not the non-Christians proper, or people, like Colin Cornell's friend, who have deconverted. I have an affection those atheists and try to be empathetic with them in their agitation to find truth. No, I'm talking about the atheists whom one might find in the pews and among the leadership of probably all religious denominations, those who won't admit, to us and perhaps also to themselves, that they are atheists or agnostics. Well, they probably aren't really atheists, but they are just worshiping something else -- e.g., money, right doctrines, right behavior, cultural distinctives, money, diversity, purity, hetero- or polynormativity, prestige or money. But I guess most of us are worshiping something else most of the time, and all of us are sinners saved by grace, whether we know this or not.

At any rate, how can I be post-evangelical if I wasn't a propoer evangelical to begin with? Or if I sort of am an evangelical now anyway, albeit a pretty lousy one, I'm clearly not totally beyond it then. I suppose, after all, I did maintain from my Baptist formation some evangelical distinctives throughout my sojourn with the Anglicans. J.I. Packer names six characteristic marks of evangelicals. I count six of my own (This blog has a Creative Commons copyright, y'all. I don't want to see this showing up under someone else's name): (1) A personal relationship with Jesus; (2) free grace (what other kind is there, really?); (3) singable hymns; (4) personal and corporate Bible study -- involving, whenever it's prudent, actual selections from the text of the Bible; (5) evangelism -- e.g., sharing good news (I'm kind of a pessimist and curmudgeon, but I sure would like to hear some good news for a change, wouldn't you?); (6) potlucks.

These basic meaning of the foregoing distinctives should be self evident, I suppose. No. 1 is controversial. (If you haven't met Jesus, I hope that you do soon. You might be surprised to know where he hangs out and the kind of company he keeps.) But a couple of elaborations on the other items might be in order. As for the much vaunted evangelical biblicism, I might have thought I had escaped that 20 years ago. Still, recently, I was rummaging around in my Book of Common Prayer and I stumbled upon this amazing passage, buried deep in the "fine print" sections toward the back:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Amazing! And that's in the back of every single BCP printed in the United States. What it could possibly all mean would certainly require some unpacking. Still, as I've worshiped in the Episcopal Church for two decades, in countless services of the Daily Office and the Eucharist, not to mention weddings and funerals, I've concluded that, if I was aiming to avoid Holy Scripture, I chose very badly indeed.

No. 6 also bears some comment. I love potlucks. I've eaten pretty well in the Episcopal Churches, and have consumed quite a few items -- like tapenade -- that I never even knew existed before. But oh how I miss those Baptist potlucks -- those Sunday afternoon and Wednesday evening occasions of "dinner on the grounds", even if the "grounds" were the well air-conditioned fellowship hall. This may seem trivial to you, but go back and reread the Gospels. You'll find there that Jesus ate all the time -- gluttonously, perhaps? And he literally ate with anyone. (I won't get into the wine part, as some Baptists may be reading this post.)

So allow me to conclude with a modest proposal, in honor of the founder of the feast. Let's have a big old potluck -- Episcopalians, Baptists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, followers of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, atheists and anybody else who wants to come. Let's make it as ecumenical as possible and have it at Trinity Wall Street in New York City. We'll offer to sweep up afterward, just like the good folks from OWS. Furthermore, so that bygones can be bygones, let's ask the Institute for Religion and Democracy to pay for it all. Because it would be good for them, and they are also sinners saved by grace, whether they know it or not.

Are you in?

Further Reading:

"Clarence Jordan"

Humphreys, Fisher, "Baptists and Their Theology"

"John Smith: The 'Se-Baptist'

King, Jr., Martin Luther, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

Lemke, Steve W., "The Future of Southern Baptists as Evangelicals"

McFadden, Robert D., "Rev. Will D. Campbell, Maverick Minister in Civil Rights Era, Dies at 88"

Nash, Jr., Robert N. "Myth: Baptists Believe in Doctrinal Uniformity"

Terry, Justyn, "A Case for Evangelical Anglicanism"

Wax, Trevin, "Being Baptist Among and for Evangelicals"


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Jan Hus the Eastern Christian: Greek Missionaries and Common Language

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian studying theology, especially having spent the majority of my education in Protestant institutions, colleagues and classmates routinely ask questions about my community off a short list of well-known sources about sistren and brethren to the East. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is, of course, high on this list. Particularly when my now husband was being baptized in the Orthodox Church, hilarious friends would ask about the ritual of using kiddy pools as adult baptisteries, how one blesses such items, and whether or not my now husband would be lacquered in a thick coat of olive oil for his chrismation. One scene from this documentary particularly informs my daily life — the lovely vignette where the father asks for a word, any word, “and I tell you how this is Greek word.” This pride for tradition extends far past a cultural commitment to Hellenism and into the arena of theology such that if I were to put it crassly many Orthodox scholars, myself included, enjoy challenges like “tell me any theological concept and I tell you how this is Orthodox concept,” said with the same obligatory Russo-Greek-Arab accent.

Accordingly, whenever I read texts from the Reformation I cannot help but see connections to the early Church and how the thirst for direct access to the liturgy, sacraments (particularly Eucharist), and the renewed commitment to lay ministries reflect the same motivations for movements in the Eastern Orthodox faith tradition. Jan Hus and the Bohemian reformations highlight these themes and connections directly, having taken much of their inspiration and nourishment from the Greek and Slavic cultural and religious influences in the area. Prague has been home to a Slavonic Benedictine monastery, called Emmaus, since 1347 where the traditions of East and West fuse, reflecting the cultural mash-up that results in Eastern Catholic and Western Orthodox rites.

The World Council of Churches website introduces the Hussite Church as “[occupying] the middle ground between the essence of the Catholic Church (liturgy and the seven sacraments) and the principles of the Protestant churches (teaching and order),” as if the sacraments and liturgy are essentially Roman Catholic and wherever they are found marks a Roman religious territory. While the area in Prague where the Hussite pre-reformation occurred was under papal jurisdiction, it was a far less traditionally Roman Catholic area than this flattened description would indicate. The modern Hussite Church describes itself as “[professing] the tradition of the Early Church, that of Cyril and Methodius and of the Reformation,” Cyril and Methodius being the Orthodox saints remembered as “the missionaries to the Slavs.”

So crucial to the Moravian and Bohemian foundational myths, these saints are portrayed in Hugh LeCaine Agnew’s Origins of the Czech National Renascence as advocates for Czech culture, even speaking before papal representatives in Rome on behalf of those using the Czech language for religious services. Interestingly, Cyril and Methodius were only included in Roman Catholic commemoration in 1880 when Pope Leo included them in the ecclesiastical calendar. Pope John Paul II additionally commemorated them as patrons of Europe in 1980. The late recognition of these missionary saints is perhaps due in part to their significance in Bohemia and Moravia as figures from a non-papal Christianity. Cyril and Methodius come to represent a religious tradition belonging to the common people, essentially linking Czech Christianity to the ancients in a way that theologically circumvents the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

As a perhaps obvious aside, one of the concerns when weighing through these secondary sources is, as much as possible, siphoning off the anti-Catholic bias. The authors here are largely a part of the continued movements rippling from Hus and Wyclif, but inadvertently many interpret Eastern traditions and influences through a one-sided, obtuse lens. Any structure equals a papal sort of hierarchy for these Reformed scholars, and the language used to translate Czech documents reflect a unilateral Latin stroke when discussing many unfamiliar, more Eastern topics such as the use of Slavonic in liturgy. For example, Enrico Molinar, despite his willingness to portray Hus as Eastern Orthodox in his attitude toward images, characterizes the use of Slavonic as “a fossilized residue of the old Proto-Bulgarian rite, introduced in the region by the Apostles to the Slavs, Sts Cyril and Methodius of the ninth century” and “not a language of the people” in his efforts to highlight the Hussite reformation as a “radical break” with the Latin past (Liturgical Reforms, 298).

The poor representation of Slavonic religious traditions was a concern for Jan Hus’ biographer Matthew Spinka, motivating him to include Jan Hus and the Czechoslovakian reforms alongside Eastern Orthodox theological contributions in an article for The Slavonic Review in 1926. He attempts to correct the lacuna in church historians’ representation of Christianity, calling the oversight provincialism, by highlighting Slavonic/Slavic religious traditions’ far-reaching impact. Apparently, thirty years later Molinar still maintains this provincial and West-centric vision of Christianity when he is unable to imagine liturgical languages as functioning in any way other than to distance the worshipers from the worship. Far from intentionally obscuring access to the Mass from the people, Slavonic was the comprehensible root of most Slavic languages and understood across dialects.

The papal allowance of Slavonic as a liturgical language in Prague actually presents a curious climate change wherein a common language, albeit a root for other common languages, gained sacred position alongside Latin. Advocating for Czech in liturgy, then, is only a slight step down from an already significantly lowered religious platform rather than a full jump down from the realm of the Roman priest to the level of the people. Including the average person in worship was nothing new to Eastern Christians - after all, for Eastern Orthodox Christians, the liturgy as defined outside or beyond the grasp of the laity would be unimaginable. How can one have a leiturgia, the work of the people, without the laos? With this in mind, Hus attempts to outline the proper place of the priest and give the Czech Christians a vision of the Church wherein the common worshipers are the heartbeat. To accomplish this Hus appeals to the writings of St. John Chrysostom, the theologian responsible for the Eastern Orthodox liturgy.

It is well known that Jan Hus cites St. Augustine on the regular, almost as frequently as he does the Scriptures, but less researched and analyzed is his digestion of St. John Chrysostom.