Thursday, February 23, 2017

Was Niebuhr a "Real" Theologian?

Reinhold Niebuhr's daughter, Elizabeth Sifton, chuckles at the old quip that has circulated for decades in Protestant circles: Though the Reinhold was more famous and prolific, his younger brother, Helmut Richard, was really the superior theologian. Of course, remarks Sifton (author of a book on her father's "Serenity Prayer"): That has been an inside joke within the Niebuhr clan all along.
A painting of Riverside Drive and Riverside Park at about 145th Street.
By Trude Waehner (ca. 1940s)
(Courtesy of Dr. Gustav Szekely, via Wikimedia Commons)

What are we to make of Reinhold Niebuhr -- political activist and theorist, preacher, ethicist, and public theologian? Like the "Christmas" that is "in the air" in an interminably replayed holiday cult classic, Niebuhr's name has been in the air for the past several years -- bolstered in part by an ostensible rebirth of political "realism" in the Obama administration and by references to the great German-American thinker in newspaper columns. And just in time for these heady post-Camelot days, when a "reality" TV producer and casino developer has usurped the high priesthood of U.S. power, Niebuhr gets another shout out in a new documentary by Martin Doblmeier, set to air on PBS affiliates this spring.

(Despite Niebuhr's evident notoriety and pervasive influence, however, Doblmeier reports that, when he pitched the project to PBS reps, he sent a number of them scrambling to Wikipedia to play catch up.)

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. A film by Martin Doblmeier. (Journey Films, 2017).

I had the privilege to see a screening of the film recently at the First Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the church where Niebuhr was a member when he died in 1971. It was a special event. Niebuhr's son, Christopher, a nearby resident, was present, and the filmmaker was in tow with Gary Dorrien, who holds the Niebuhr chair at Union Theological Seminary (New York), to answer questions. It was just the right therapy for a room full of graying white liberals, shocked and disconsolate over the recent election. (Also worthy of note: Jeremy L. Sabella, a consultant for the documentary, is publishing this Eerdmans companion volume for the film.)

The film is quite good -- every bit as taught and gripping as Doblmeier's earlier work on Bonhoeffer -- and I highly commend it. Doblmeier did his research. The cast of consultants interviewed is extraordinary: Niebuhr Society President Healen Gaston. along with Niebuhr experts Ronald Stone and Robin Lovin; scholars with relevant cognate expertise for situating Niebuhr's work -- Andrew Bacevich, Andrew Finstuen, and Mark Massa; the firebrand public intellectual; the cool-headed New York Times curmudgeon, David Brooks; and Dorrien, who graced the audience with some punchy commentary in the post-screening Q&A. Civil rights icon Andrew Young, also featured in the film, attests to how carefully civil rights leaders in the early 1960s were reading Niebuhr's work. Author Susannah Heschel, daughter of the Abraham Joshua Heschel, offers delightful anecdotes attesting to Niebuhr's graciousness, warmth, and humor and his abiding fascination with Jewish thought. Contrarian bon mots from Stanley Hauerwas, who claims to "love" Niebuhr while disagreeing with virtually everything the man wrote, provides some welcome color, and even a bit of comic relief, to a fairly serious film bordering occasionally on hagiography. As an added treat, President Jimmy Carter, who himself has claimed (perhaps less plausibly than Mr. Obama?) Niebuhr's mantle, weighs in as well.

(The Amazon entry for the film lists Carter as an "Actor." Either they missed the mark by one President or perhaps they are somewhat infected by the #AlternateFacts ethos of our day.)

Somewhat disappointingly, this outstanding blog series is never referenced in the documentary. (But I realize Doblmeier had a limited budget and only an hour-long framework within which to work, so we'll give him a pass this time.)

This biopic celebrates Niebuhr's work as a pastor and seminary professor, a colleague of Paul Tillich and comrade of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Abraham Joshua Heschel (Billy Graham, not so much).
What is Truth? (Christ before Pilate)
by Nikolai Ge (1890)
(via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US)
But what comes most to the fore is his vocation an activist, political philosopher, and overall voice of conscience for an U.S. electorate and political establishment often unsure and unsteady about their proper role in the world. We learn how Reinhold, the elder son of German immigrants, parlayed his brief stint as a Detroit pastor into a platform for labor agitation in the face of Henry Ford's burgeoning capitalist empire; how he dabbled in socialist politics, even running for statewide office in New York, only to go more mainstream in embracing Roosevelt's New Deal; how he stridently challenged the indolence of isolationists and the naivete of ideological pacifists in the lead-up to World War II; How he was initially reluctant to get directly involved in the nascent Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s; how he served as a political adviser to the Kennedy administration; and, finally, how he became a trenchant critic of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia.

All this, again, raises the question: Just how theological was Niebuhr's work -- at least the main body of it? To what extent did specifically Christian theological and moral commitments shape his vocation as public intellectual? From what I've read, I'm inclined to answer the later question: "a very great deal." But the earlier question seems a little more ambiguous. To be sure, Niebuhr, who never earned a doctorate, did not write extensively, say, about the intricacies of trinitarian dogma; nor did he offer in-depth analyses of atonement theories; nor did he offer a thorough critique or defense of two-natures Christology. That said, I do have to point out that Niebuhr was a prolific and world-class preacher, who could engage biblical texts with extraordinary sensitivity and insight.

In the film, Cornel West (who studied with James Cone at Union) argues that Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society remains "to this day" the most important foundational text in contemporary Christian social ethics. To be sure that book, which might well be Niebuhr's best, is a tour-de-force that remains as relevant today as it was eight decades ago. But I still wonder: What is so specifically Christian about it? To be sure, he offers a brilliant, critique of posibilities and limitations of religious idealism within the socio-political sphere, but to what extent might distinctively Christian confessional and theological commitments undergird or perhaps complicate his proposal?

In the film, Hauerwas, the Duke theological ethicist whose portrait (like Niebuhr's) also once graced the cover of Time Magazine, raises the issue in his own pointed way: For all his brilliance, Niebuhr (Hauerwas avers) lacked a proper ecclesiology -- a thick description and normative account of Christian community. Indeed, just where does the church fit in for Niebuhr, arguably one of the great modernist reinterpreters of Augustine's City of God?

For now, I leave it to the Niebuhr experts to address such questions. But I was struck by the answer Dorrien gave the audience: Niebuhr was, after all, a low church Protestant (not a high-church Anglican or United Methodist crypto-Catholic). Such folks are inclined, on principle, to keep their ecclesiologies minimal; and I think that answer resonated, by and large, with the audience, as was perhaps evident by the show of hands when they were asked how many of them had even heard of Hauerwas.



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.11: The Infallibility of the Church

Eleventh Question: Is the church infallible or can it err about faith? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.

We reach now what is in many ways the main event in Turretin’s ecclesiology. Given that his is an “elenctic” theology—a theology aimed at refuting an opponent; we would not be far wrong to call it a “polemic” theology—it is critical that he deal with this issue because “the question concerning the infallibility of the church is the most agitated of all which lie between us and the Romanists about the church and of so great importance that the papacy seems to rest upon it as its principal fulcrum” (18.11.1). In other words, if Turretin can win this argument, quite a few other dominoes will fall.

Turretin begins, as usual, by clarifying the issue. This is not about the invisible church, but about the visible; it is also not about the mas of believers, but about pastors; and it is also not about individual pastors, but the church’s pastoral office as a whole when gathered in council. What about the papacy? Turretin spends two pages demonstrating that various “Romanist” authorities can’t agree one where the infallibility rests, and adducing proof that many significant personages (e.g., Peter d’Ailly and Nicholas of Cusa, to name two who folks might still recognize) and councils who ruled that this infallibility does not rest with the pope. The payoff, of course: “Thus the Romanists among themselves are split into various parties about this infallibility of the church” (18.11.5)—doesn’t really sound like an infallible bunch, does it?

Here’s a quick run-down of the arguments Turretin adduces in support of his position:

  1. Imperfection of Regeneration—that is, salvation is never perfect in this life, so error persists in Christians and the church. This is the most systematically compelling argument that Turretin offers here.
  2. Promises—the promises of perseverance given to the church are conditional; no worries, God supplies the condition in the elect.
  3. Romanist inconsistency—they admit that there are unbelievers also mixed into the church; ergo…
  4. Individual fallibility—particular Christians can err and a group cannot be less prone to error than an individual; also, bigger groups aren’t more reliable than smaller because wherever two or three are gathered, etc.
  5. Scripture’s silence—you’d think Scripture would tell us about the infallibility thing if it were true.
  6. Experience—look at all these times that the church has erred! Under the OT, under the NT, various councils, etc.
  7. Predictions—look at all these biblical texts that predict the church’s apostasy! Hard to square that with infallibility. *whistles innocently*
  8. Examination of doctrine—this is perhaps the most compelling biblical argument that Turretin makes in this section. It packs a punch even if it is rather brief. He draws on 1 Jn 4.1, 1 Thess 5.21, and elsewhere to demonstrate that the biblical text expects Christians to compare all the teaching that they hear to what is handed down to them in Scripture. The payoff: “why should this examination and judgment be enjoined upon believers so earnestly, if infallibility had been given to the church?” (18.11.18)
  9. Uncertainty—the Romanists can’t even agree about this amongst themselves.

After providing these arguments, Turretin again descends into a discussion of councils and popes with the purpose of demonstrating that they have erred and fallen into heresy. But, Turretin assures us, we need not fear the shipwreck of our faith because the church is fallible: “the church is free from a fall, but the church errs” (18.11.26). In other words, the Holy Spirit maintains the church in its faith, but that does not mean the church never makes mistakes, is never more or less faithful, etc. The distinction between the visible and invisible church reappears to perform good service here: “It is one thing for Christ to be always present with the invisible church of the elect, to preserve it from fundamental error and from a total and final fall; another to be present with the visible church (and in particular with the representative) to provide infallibility to it in all its decrees. Christ promises the former, but not the latter” (18.11.27).

The reason Turretin thinks that believers need not worry about the church’s fallibility is because they possess an infallible guide and standard in Scripture. This was implied already in his 8th argument discussed above. “Although infallibility is not given by God to the church, it cannot on this account be said that God was wanting in things necessary to her, because it is not necessary to have a supreme and infallible tribunal among men upon whose decrees and response our faith should be suspended, since it is sufficient for her to have an infallible rule of faith and practice in the Scriptures, which as long as she observes, she will not wander from the right track” (18.11.32).

Turretin continues on to discuss the relationship between individual and corporate judgment when it comes to the interpretation of said Scripture, but this post has gone on for long enough. I leave you, then, with some excellent assorted tidbits from this section:

  • “Laws consist not in the words, but in the sense” (18.11.14).
  • “God so administers all the things he created as to permit them also to exercise their own motions” (18.11.24).
  • Idolatry is “spiritual adultery” (18.11.25).
  • “Faith is not perfected in us in a moment, but is carried forward little by little and by degrees exerts itself” (18.11.36).

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Confessions of a Protestant Anglophile

I'm nothing if not untrendy. Think about it. Who begins a promising(?) new career as a contributing writer to a Karl Barth website with a series of posts on Walter Rauschenbusch , only to follow it up with a series on the brothers Niebuhr? Who -- having been weaned on The Good News Bible as a kid, then the The NIV Student Bible as a teenager, then the New Revised Standard Version in college and grad school -- in his adult years reverts to being (almost) a King James only guy -- not for any ideological or theological reasons, but out of sheer orneriness and love of anachronism?

World War I recruitment poster
(public domain, via Wikmedia Commons)
And who, in an age when the likes of David Duke(!) exult in a resurgence of white nationalism in high places (shudders); and in an age when Scotch-Gaelic culture remains way more trendy than the spawn of Albion's seed; and in a time when a majority of English voters have thumbed their noses at a stumbling European Union (perhaps our last hope for any international sanity) -- who, in such times, begins a new study of his English cultural heritage? (There are other important aspects of my lineage as well, including more Southern European and Mediterranean hues, but these aren't my concern at the moment.)

A lot of this rant has to do with my somewhat peculiar take on my religious identity as a member of the Episcopal Church. But more on that anon.

First, though, let me pause one moment to make one point painfully clear: Black lives matter. Full stop. (My fellow White Christians: Read some James Cone. Read some womanist theologians like Jacqueline Grant. Read the portions of U.S. Constitution now put in brackets -- the brackets don't erase history -- and weep. Barring that, just read the Gospel of Matthew, stop whining, and get over yourselves.)

Second, my attraction to the English part of my heritage should not be construed as any endorsement of a nostalgic Anglo-centrism. I'm not advocating some form of Department of Homeland Purity in the arena of religious culture. Indeed, as far as Anglican Christianity is concerned, the major growth today is in the two-thirds world (see this recent article). The second largest province in the Anglican Communion, next to England itself, is the Church of Nigeria.

Now that we're clear about those points, as I was saying....

Who, in an age when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York take the occasionof the 95 Theses' 500th anniversary year to apologize (sort of) for the Reformation, decides to write blog posts celebrating.... the English Reformation and its progeny -- with all its warts, all its deeply flawed historical entailments and entanglements, all it's collusions with and legitimizations of the blandishments of a secular monarchial authority, all it's legacy as a the religious wing of a once-global world empire? It ain't all Christmas crackers and boys' choirs, folks. It's kind of a messy history.

But what can I say? Protestant Anglophile? C'est moi!

Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders! Gott helfe mir?

Quite.

And yes, though a member of the Episcopal Church for more than half my life now, I still identify as Anglican. I should like to make this point perfectly clear too: Although some Episcopalians would like, conveniently, to forget this fact, we are still members of the world-wide Anglican community. My friends in the conservative, "continuing Anglican" denominations can't lay exclusive claim to the tradition (nor do I, conversely, wish to deny their own claims to this heritage). For our part the Episcopal Church is still in full communion with the see of Canterbury, and we uphold the "Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral." We are an eddy -- in rainbow hues, if you will -- in the great historical stream that flowed from Archbishop Cranmer and the early Reformers.

So there you have it. Here, on this website, where Bultmannians and disgruntled Baptists skulk about, harboring suspicions of all things traditional, you will shortly be seeing from me, gentle readers, a few posts exploring my heritage as an English-speaking Protestant. There are some fantastic books that have been gathering dust on my shelf for far too long. There is a world-class Center for Renaissance Studies virtually in my backyard, along with the research library of a major state university, and I have a brilliant campus-minister spouse with lending privileges!

(Y'all calm down, just a little: Secretary DeVos -- or is that DuVos? -- is not going to torch all the Darwin books -- at least, not just yet. And incidentally, Darwin, who was a church deacon, is buried in Westminster Abbey. I've seen it with my own eyes. That's not fake news!)

So stay tuned, if I haven't lost you already.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Roland Boer on Ernst Bloch, Utopia, Revolution, and the Bible (oh, and Star Wars)

As I continue to slog through the vast amounts of German that I must read for my current Helmut Gollwitzer project, I’ve begun to spend my evenings trying to deepen my familiarity with the tradition of socialist engagement with religion and theology. Roland Boer, who is based in Australia and – currently – China, has proven to be a very helpful guide. He has published numerous works on this theme, and you can get a bit of a feel for him from his blog: Stalin’s Moustache.

In any case, I’m currently working through sections of Boer’s book on Lenin, where I discovered something of an aside on Ernst Bloch. This comes while Boer discusses Lunacharsky, whom he sees as an early forerunner of certain themes that reemerge in Bloch. As part of this, Boer summarizes one way in which Bloch interprets various of the biblical stories. The following paragraph jumped out at me, as you no doubt surmised by the fact that I took the time to write up this post and share said paragraph with you…

Roland Boer, Lenin, Religion, and Theology, New Approaches to Religion and Power (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 88–89.
In Bloch’s hands, utopia becomes the universal term for socialism, a desire and hope found in the myriad moments of the full range of human and natural existence, from glimpse in everyday life, through festivals and myths and literature, to the revolution itself. Yet, Bloch gives this search a decisive twist: If revolution is the act of the oppressed against their masters, then utopian glimpses of that revolution will be found in many stories of rebellion. One finds them in what are now narratives and myths of “sin,” of resistance to the white-guard god of the despots. In the Bible, these include the story of Eden, with its oppressive God who treats the first humans as children only to find that they rebel in league with an intriguing serpent; in the fatal conflict of Cain and Abel, where another face of God appears, the one who protects Cain with the well-known mark; in Jacob’s wrestling with God (El in this case, not Yahweh) in Genesis 32; in the rebellion of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11; in the Nazirites, those enigmatic figures who vow not to cut their hair, not to drink strong drink, and call the people back to their desert, Bedouin-like life in the wilderness; in the oppressive deity of Moses and Aaron, who seeks to punish the people’s constant murmur of rebellion in the wilderness; in the insurrections of Miriam, Moses’s sister, and Korah against that authority; even in the two figures of Moses, who is both liberator of the slaves and theocratic tyrant in the wilderness; in the protests of Job against his inhuman treatment by this same Yahweh; in the prophetic denunciations of economic maltreatment and religious hypocrisy; in Jesus’s stringent criticisms of the quislings who would accommodate the Roman colonizers; and in the fiery revolutionary protests of the Apocalypse against empire and its gods. At times, the bloodthirsty, vengeful God has the upper hand, but at others (admittedly less frequently) the rebels win out through cunning and ruse.
This provides a very stimulating suggestion of how to understand these stories that are very different than the readings that I grew up with. At the very least, it highlights the way these stories can be coopted by oppressive power by showing us what they look like through the eyes of the oppressed. It’s pure bonus that the last sentence reminds me of Star Wars. . .

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…


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

…or, The Past Fortnight in the Theoblogosphere.

Hey! How about that? “Fortnight” was right for a change! It’s only been two weeks since the last link post. We’re back to your regularly scheduled programming here at DET. But before I get to what’s been going on the past two weeks here and around the theoblogosphere, there are two announcements that I’d like to make.

First, an essay of mine recently came into print. This is the final published version of the lecture that I gave to the Thomas F. Torrance Theological Fellowshipin 2015, which can be viewed on YouTube. Of course, you don’t get the footnotes with YouTube, and I write some good footnotes (if I do say so myself). So give the link below a click and check the essay out for yourself:

W. Travis McMaken, “Actualism, Dualism, and Onto-Relations: Interrogating Torrance's Criticism of Barth's Doctrine of Baptism,” Participatio 6 (2016), 1–31.

Second, it was recently announced that David Congdon has joined the line-up for the Jesus 1224 online conference! His topic is “Finding Jesus Outside Creedal Christianity,” and you won’t want to miss it. Besides, there’re lots of other interesting folks participating in this conference as well. Be sure to sign up.

Ok, on to the links! Here’s what we’ve been up to at DET:


And here’s some other good stuff:


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Thursday, February 09, 2017

Christ, Conscience, and Revolution: Once More with Barth on Calvin's Catechism

Barth's political theology is impossible to pigeonhole.
Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps this stems from his disgust with ideological straightjackets -- just a whiff of anarchism blowing through his writings, which such interpreters as George Hunsinger and Timothy Gorringe have noted.

Karl Barth. The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed According to Calvin's Catechism, trans. Gabriel Vahanian (Wipf & Stock, 2006).

Barth's political iconoclasm seeps through his gloss on Questions 37 and 42, which deal with the traditional rubric of Christ's kingship. On the face of it, Calvin's wording might seem relatively innocuous, with an emphasis on the kingship of Jesus as spiritual, leaving more than a little ambuity about what that might mean in terms of how Christians relate to the temporal political realm:

Calvin writes:

But what kind of kingdom is it that you mention? -- A spiritual kingdom, contained in the Word and Spirit of God, which carry with them righteousness and life.

What does this Kingdom confer upon us? -- Just this, that by its benefit we are accorded freedom of conscience for pious and holy living, are provided with his spiritual riches, and also armed with strenght sufficient to overcome the personal enemies of our souls, sin, the flesh, the devil and the world (p. 65).

To be sure, there is a militant note here, especially toward the end. But one might well read the believer's struggle with the powers to be primarily as an inward, private affair. Perhaps considering the actual history of Reformed political engagements, Barth spins the questions in a more overtly political direction. He writes:

Christ reigns -- through the Word and through the Spirit. Everything that, we think has some "power" (political or otherwise) is at bottom no power at all. What has real power, real might, real dynamism? The Word, the Spirit; these are almighty. Any other kind of power is but subjected to this power (p. 66)

A traditional two-kingdoms Lutheran, I imagine, would have no problem affirming this gloss. The twist comes, for Barth, when Calvin draws out the ramifications of Christ's kingship to the lives of believers: What it means is that they have "freedom of conscience." and not just in spiritual matters but in a much broader and more public sense.

"Freedom of conscience" comes from the fact that Jesus is present. That is all. It comes from the fact that he alone has all power, because in his Word and in his Spirit we have the sum of all possible power. Thus it is that his own are accorded freedom of conscience. They have nothing to fear. Nothing can ultimately threaten their security (pp. 66-67).

As someone who grew up influenced by Dickens' portrait of Madame LaFarge and her comrades raging madly against the system -- the "worst of times," indeed! -- I at first found Barth's concluding twist a little surprising, even jarring:

I think it would be interesting to study more closely what are the historical and spiritual relations between Calvin and that good French Revolution. Who knows? Perhaps it is time for Christians to defend the French Revolution! (p. 67).

Perhaps this is a side of Calvin unfamiliar to many of us. But Barth's remarks seem even more pointed when one considers the context: He was lecturing in 1942, in francophone Switzerland, perhaps with a word of encouragment to the comrades in la Résistance across the border:

In any case, under the Vichy goverment it is necessary to side with the freedom of consciences (ibid.).

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Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Augustine, Ambrose, and Imperial Power in Church Politics: with Garry Wills

Years ago I posted a mini-series on the Novatian and Donatist controversies in North African Christianity during the 3rd–5th centuries. (You can find it on the Serials Index.) There’s definitely things that I would change and nuance in there if I went back to it today. But I’m not Augustine and don’t foresee ever writing up “retractions” to all my blog posts . . .

In any case, I want to dive in and flesh out part of the Donatist controversy with the help of Garry Wills’s book, Font of Life: Ambrose, Augustine, & the Mystery of Baptism. Specifically, I want to talk about Augustine’s attitude toward the use of imperial power in church politics as it pertained to this controversy. Augustine’s theorizing of this use of power in the midst of this controversy is generally represented as an important step in the establishment of the unity of political and religious identity that we now call Christendom. But as it turns out, Augustine’s attitude to all this is deeply ambiguous, or perhaps conflicted.

So here are some passages from Wills (he’s drawing on Peter Brown’s Religion and Society in the Age of St. Augustine), along with some of my customary commentary (as always, bold is mine). To begin, the story often gets told that the imperial government sided with the Catholic party against the Donatists, and that the latter party was forced at the point of a sword to join the former. But Wills tells us:

Marcellinus [the imperial official tasked with deciding the legal case between the Catholic and Donatist parties] found for the Catholics and ordered the Donatists to give up their churches and join the Catholics. This was easier to declare than to enforce. . . . Frend claims: “In the countryside, archaeologists have yet to find clear evidence for the transformation of a Donatist church into a Catholic one.” But, insofar as it was justified, Augustine had to come up with a rationale for this suppression of religious freedom. He offered to share his own basilica with the Donatist bishop of Hippo. He told the Catholics not to crow over vanquished Donatists. . . . When Donatists murdered two of his priests, he asked the authorities not to execute, maim, or flog the men—they should live on, to repent. (p. 165–66)

Hardly the actions of a man hell-bent on suppressing religious deviants. Still, Augustine had to justify the court ruling, and so he drew on the parable of the wedding banquet to argue that it was within the responsible use of power to “compel them [the Donatists, in this case] to come in.” Thus he provided theological warrant for the use of state violence in enforcing religious conformity. But again, Wills highlights the ambiguity in Augustine’s position:

Augustine was never entirely comfortable with this line. For one thing, he worried about ficti, false converts going along to escape the law without really learning the truth. . . . He also feared vindictiveness in the Catholic enforcers. (p. 166)

So Augustine anticipated unhappy consequences of this use of imperial power to uphold the status quo. Indeed, the danger Augustine anticipated was that this use of imperial power in service of the church would compromise the church in multiple different ways. Quoting from Brown, Wills continues his discussion:

Paradoxically, [Augustine] had lost his enthusiasm for the alliance between the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church at just the time when it had become effectively cemented. The alliance remained as a practical necessity, a sine qua non of the organized life of his church; it would be invoked against other heretics, the Pelagians; but there is little trace, now, of the heady confidence of the 400’s. For now that he no longer needed to convince others, Augustine seems to have lost conviction himself; he fell back on more somber views. (p. 167)

Now speaking in his own voice, rather than with Brown’s:

So, even though he had been brought to an Ambrosian view of the usefulness of church coercion, he had none of the scourge-wielding swagger of the Milanese strong man. (p. 167)

As Wills notes, “Ambrose and Augustine were temperamentally very different.” Those who crossed Ambrose soon found themselves “up against a street fighter” (p. 66). On the other hand, “Augustine [was] the verbal technician of his age, impassioned, wary, discriminating, and deadly” (p. 165, quoting Monceaux). But this deadliness was of the argumentative sort, and not Ambrose’s supremely adept acquisition and deployment of political power.

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Friday, February 03, 2017

Retrieving General Revelation with Robert K. Johnston

Balaam and the Angel, by Gustav Jaeger
(PD-1923, via Wikimedia Commons)
What constitutes an authentic revelation of the divine in everyday life? This is the question I had when I began Robert K. Johnston's creative and spirited attempt to retrieve and reconstruct the theology of general revelation. It was also the question I still had when I reached the end of the book. In fairness, though, Johnston's main purpose in this book is not to provide some sort of phenomenological framework for evaluating revelatory experiences; rather, as I read him, he is trying to carve out a broadened theological space for affirming transformative experiences of the divine in everyday life. In terms of this goal, he largely succeeds, even though I admit to some skepticism about the project.

God's Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation by Robert K. Johnston (Baker, 2014).

Johston offers a rich array of materials: Case studies of transformative experiences of the beyond (reportedly) breaking into the here-and-now in moments of rapture, beauty, and moral clarity; original research in which the author has catalogued first-hand accounts from seminarians who experienced epiphanies at the cinema (an area of Johnston's particular expertise as a theolgian of culture); and thoughtful engagement with theologians ranging from Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis to Elizabeth Johnson and Jürgen Moltmann.

If this richness is a strength of this volume, on the one hand, it perhaps causes potential problems for the project, on the other hand. Or so it seems to me, a Barthian somewhat beleagured by the hermeneutics of suspicion. I still am left wondering: How does one sort through such a vast array of human limit experiences -- being gripped by the beauty of a sunset or the majesty of ocean waves, the experience of being stirred to fight injustice, or perhaps experiencing a miracle -- and effectively theologize about these phenomena? Are all experiences of aesthetic rapture, let's say, classifiable as revelations of the divine? Most of us, I suspect, can recount such liminal moments, and those of us believers might, with the eyes of faith, interpret them as moments of special providence. But are they revelations -- episodes of divine self-disclosure? And how do we know? I'm not saying answers to such questions are unavailable to Johnston, only that he doesn't provide them in this book.

Naturally, Johnston draws upon phenomenological theories of religion to defend his account of general revelation. For example, he draws upon Rudolph Otto's famous account of the numinous as "mysterium tremendum et fascinans." Yet Johnston's examples of disclosive moments -- for example, his personal life-changing experience of receiving a call into youth ministry while viewing the film Becket -- are, by and large, positive experiences. I wonder: What about folks who experience the transcendent as terror, as some of the biblical prophets surely did? And is it possible that some "supernatural mail on foreign soil" (a phrase from a character in an Updike novel) some of us claim to experience might come from the realm of the demonic (however we might understand that)? Johnston doesn't really answer these questions.

The first three chapters consist mainly in narratives of spiritual experiences. Some of them make for fascinating and compelling reading. Johnston is right to counter a certain doctrinaire, narrow-minded biblicism that refuses to wrestle with the broader reaches of human experience. Religious experiences are fertile ground for empirical study and theological exploration. Chapters four and five lift up key moments in Bible in which God is depicted as having spoken through mouthpieces from outside the community of the faithful. There is much interesting material here, to be sure, and I would think it is fairly uncontroversial to claim that, within the narratives of salvation history, God is often speaking through outsiders such as Melchizidek and Balaam. What I find curious in Johnston's account is his focus on such figures as recipients of divine messages; in other words, they serve as examples of how indivdiuals outside Israel or the church might encounter the divine through their own religious experiences. But it seems to me -- non-expert in the Hebrew Bible though I am -- that if God's dealings with Abimalech of Gerar become a constituent element of the patriarchal narratives, they belong more in the sphere of special rather than general revelation.

The final three chapters deal more explicitly with historical and cotemporary constructive theology: In my view, they comprise the strongest and most interesting part of the book. What are the conditions of the possibility for a more robust and broader theology of God's wider presence in human experience? Johnston argues, quite reasonably, that such an emphasis is concomitant with contemporary attempts to reorient theology from a narrower christocentrism to a more broadly pneumatocentric perspective. To that end, he ably engages theologians commited to putting the doctrine of the Spirit at the center of theology -- for example, Jürgen Moltmann, Elizabeth Johnson and Amos Yong. I have reservations about this constructive stance, but Johnston defends it ably.

I want to end on a positive note and to highlight a significant contribution of the book. Johnston distinguishes his own position -- very effectively -- from a common preoccution in other accounts of general revelation: that is, the common claim that knowledge of God is a universally available feature of human experience as such. Johnston has picked up this emphasis on the particularity of revelation, in part, from the (in)famous Barth-Brunner debate on natural theology, which he recounts with evenhanded charity. General revelation has often beein framed, say, in terms of a generalized belief in God, a "seed of religion," (Calvin) or a "mystical a priori" (Tillich). To be sure, Johnston joins Brunner and many other theologians throughout history in affirming some sort of prethematic awareness of God in creation and human experience. Nontheless, Johnston draws upon Barth's actualism to lift the discussion of general revelation to a new level. What he finds more salient is the gratuity and particulariy of revelation: God makes Godself known to specific individuals in specific times and places, according to the divine good pleasure. Johnston writes:

Barth was also right in his strident protection of the Godness of God, particularly as it relates to divine revelation. It is God's initiative, not ours, that is central to all theology. It is God and God alone who is the actor in revelation; it is God who speaks, not us. We should not accept any "natural theology" that subtly turns itself into a syncretistic, if not an autnomous, exercise (pp. 133-134).

It would be interesting to read Johnston's case studies in light of Barth's discussion of "secular parables" in Church Dogmatics, vol. IV/3. Maybe we could find a more fruitful ways to relate God's self-disclosure in Jesus Christ to a broader range of life-transforming, uncanny moments of grace that have peppered human experience throughout the ages.

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Disclosure: Baker Acadmic sent me a review copy of Johnston's book gratis, without any expectation of a positive review.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.9: Is the church always glorious?

Ninth Question: Ought the church to enjoy perpetual splendor and eminence; or can it be at times so obscured and lessened that no assembly of it appears publically on earth? The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.

Turretin builds here on his discussion in the previous question. There he argued that the church cannot fail, and he now further maintains that position. But now Turretin makes a distinction between the church’s essence and accidents, so to speak: it is essential to the church that it should exist throughout history, but it is not essential that it should do so “with splendor and eminence”; indeed, it does so “often with obscurity” (18.9.1). This leads to further reflection on the invisibility of the church: there is an invisibility that is essential to the church, which he discussed in section 18.7; but there is also an “accidental invisibility which regards the external form” (18.9.4). In other words, the external form of the church doesn’t have to be invisible, but it can be invisible.

While elaborating on the possibility of the church’s accidental invisibility—i.e., that the church can exist in history without being marked by the shrouds of success—Turretin makes a pair of arguments that I want to highlight. First, he makes an interesting connection between the church and the moon, which he derives from Ambrose. The church goes through different states or conditions during the course of history in the same way that the moon moves through phases, sometimes more visible and glorious, sometimes less, and occasionally altogether invisible. So Ambrose, as quoted by Turretin: “The church, like the moon, has her wanings and risings frequently, but she has increased by her wanings, and deserved to be enlarged by these, while she is lessened by persecutions and is crowned by the confession of her martyrs” (18.9.6). Second, Turretin illustrates matters by making an analogy to the two christological states of humiliation and exaltation. The lynchpin that holds the analogy together is thinking of the church as the body of Christ so that the body can expect to experience what the head experienced.[*] Consequently, “the church, which is his mystical body, has her various states—now of humiliation and obscurity, …; then of splendor and brightness” (ibid).

Turretin offers six arguments for his position, and also parries a number of counter-arguments. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow. Some of these are the usual appeals to specific key biblical texts, or demonstrations that the church fathers agree with him, and he even argues that the ability of the church to err proves his point. But the first and second arguments are materially decisive. First, Turretin shows that the church is not always glorious by appealing to the Old Testament. Here we find that standard Reformed supercessionism that I’m never quite sure what to do with. On the one hand, Turretin affirms that there is no difference between the Christian church and the ancient Israelite “church,” at least “as to the thing itself” (18.9.8). This would seem to be a good thing. On the other hand, he’s clearing freighting that religious expression with later Christian content as he understands it rather than treating it as a thing in itself, and this is problematic. In any case, he rehearses all the OT passages that Reformed folks love to recall when the Israelite community maintaining the covenant is reduced to a remnant. Second, Turretin appeals to the New Testament. There are two interesting sub-points here. First, Christianity began with Jesus and his disciples; or, to put it differently, with a handful of folks “of the lowest class”! He then particularizes further and argues that the church cannot always be glorious because it is founded upon Christ’s death on the cross, which then finds echoes in the persecutions that Christ’s body suffered and periodically suffers: “since the cross and persecution are the undivided companions of the church, everyone sees that the splendor and clearness which they [i.e., Romanists] ascribe to it cannot belong to it” (18.9.13). It is only a small step from here to defining the true glory of the church in terms of Christ’s passion, and we are certainly in the neighborhood of something like the theology of the cross / of glory distinction supplied to us by Luther.

There is much more that could be said of this section, but I think that I’ll leave it there.

[*] Allow me to draw the necessary conclusion: the church that doesn't experience what the head experienced - "humiliation and obscurity" and suffering - is not the true church.

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