Is The Devil Real? The Bible’s Take Contra Friedrich Schleiermacher’s

Alexandre Cabanel’s Fallen Angel, 1868

Is the Devil real; some refer to this as: is the Devil personal? Yes, I personally think the Devil is real. I can only arrive at this conclusion based upon the Dominical affirmation and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is important, I think, because the biblical reality not only asserts that this is the case, but it frames the ‘spiritual battle’ Jesus Christ undertook, and the same battle that his church continues to undertake, as the church militant, in such terms that are clear that our battle is not ‘against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and powers and principalities’ that inhabit the ‘air’ as it were (read the whole Epistle to the Ephesians). None of this is to mention, of course, the most pivotal section of scripture in the whole of the Bible (it could be argued) in regard to the Fall. Genesis:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

We have other references in the Old Testament that refer to the ‘spiritual battle’, particularly in Daniel 10; note:

12 Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. 13 But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. 14 Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”. . . 20 So he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come; 21 but first I will tell you what is written in the Book of Truth. (No one supports me against them except Michael, your prince.)

And then of course the infamous battle that Jesus had with the Devil in the wilderness (a recapitulation of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness) in Matthew (and the Synoptic attestation):

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

If we didn’t have the Old Testament witnesses the New Testament account of Jesus’s battle wouldn’t make sense, for one thing. For another thing what we do have in the ‘spiritual battle’ that Jesus undertook in the wilderness and the victory he won (think Irenaeus and recapitulation as far as hermeneutical and soteriological method) is not ‘parabolic’ in literary form but historical prose; in other words its intention is to detail a concrete event with theological depth per the reality of the euaggelion, per the Gospel reality that Jesus is in the incarnation. In other words, the reality of the Devil to this account in Matthew (and Mark) is just as central to the canonical narrative as is Genesis 3 with our first introduction to the Devil. There is a continuity of salvation-history in regard to the character and function of the Devil from the first Adam to the second Adam (to pick up on the Pauline motif cf. Rom. 5), and his role in introducing humanity to an evil that he had already partaken of. This is not to suggest that the Devil is evil, like in a Manichean or dualist sense, or that he helps explain the origin of evil—this would only exceed the bounds and thrust us into a mode of speculation that we dare not engage in as those committed to a revelational theology—but it is to recognize through attention to the text’s development that the Devil ought to be understood in a realist and at least ontic sense insofar as he has agency and volition in his textuality.

In short, the text, I contend, wants us to believe that the Devil is a real entity who is maliciously oriented against God and his purposes in Jesus Christ. The text wants us to think that the Devil wants to undo what God has done, and is doing in and through the resurrection power of the risen Christ in the human and created order in general. The text, as we think this canonically, wants us to think that the Devil is real; has agency, ‘prowls around like a roaring lion’; is leader of a cohort that has been made a public spectacle of at the cross of Christ; is ‘accuser of the brethren’ cast down from heaven in warfare with the heavenly host, that soon, along with the rest of death will be put under the Christ’s foot once and for all never to be heard of again. In other words, the text wants us to think that the Devil, with all his ‘being’ wants to destroy the good and very good creation and recreation of God in Jesus Christ; not to mention all of those who are participants in Christ’s life by the Spirit.

I write all of the above to get to Friedrich Schleiermacher; just who you were waiting for! Most evangelical and Reformed Christians couldn’t give two cents for what Schleiermacher thinks; I get that. Nevertheless, I think it is interesting, if not important, to understand where someone as giant and genius as Schleiermacher stood on such things. His theology of the devil is actually pretty scant, and as he notes (as you will see) unnecessary for a Christian theology. Clearly he reflects the ‘enlightened’ thinking of his times, and presupposes upon the developing ‘higher criticism’ of his day. You will see this reflected in what he has to say about the non-importance of the devil relative to scriptural teaching and Christian living. As you read him along with me here, what I opened up with above will become clear; you will see why I wrote what I did in anticipation of what Schleiermacher thinks. He writes:

Thus, even if only a few scriptural passages treat of the devil, or even if all the passages actually cited here and those otherwise still reputable for the purpose treat the devil, all grounds for taking up this notion as an enduring component in our presentation of Christian faith-doctrine would be lacking to us. Accordingly, all grounds would also be lacking for defining the notion so much more closely that everything that is ascribed to the devil could also really be considered together. This is so, for in Christ and his disciples this notion was not used as one that would be derived from the Sacred Scriptures of the old covenant, nor even as on that would be acquired from divine revelation by any pathway whatsoever. Rather, it arose from the common life of that time, thus in the same way in which it more or less arises in all of us, despite our complete ignorance as to the existence of such a being. Moreover, that wherefrom we are to be redeemed remains the same, whether the devil exists or not, and that whereby we are redeemed also remains the same. Thus, the very question concerning the existence of the devil is also no question for Christian theology at all. Rather, it is a cosmological question, in the broadest sense of the word, exactly the same as that concerning the nature of the firmament and of heavenly bodies. Moreover, in a presentation of faith-doctrine we actually have just as little to affirm as to deny on this topic, and likewise we can just as little be required to hold a dispute over that notion in a presentation of faith-doctrine as to provide a grounding for it. What the biblical deposit shows is nothing more than that the notion was a confluence of two or three very different components among the Jewish people themselves. The first component is the servant of God who locates the whereabouts of wickedness, and who has a certain rank and work among the other angels, but of whom there can be no talk of being cast out from being near God. The other main component is the basically evil being of oriental dualism, modified in such a way that the Jews alone would have been in a position to adopt the new version.[1]

Schleiermacher, clearly, was under the influence of his times; as such the Bible was undergoing a radical displacement in regard to being a trustworthy gateway into the strange world operative under the strictures of supernatural reality, as he attempted to theologize.

There are many today, Christians even, who have little time to ponder whether or not the devil is real; many believe we have enough concrete expressions of evil, systemically and personally, to take up our time and attention. But according to the brief survey of Scripture I offered previously this is errant. The Bible, contra Schleiermacher wants us to think that we are engaged in a real life battle with a ‘personal’ satan who seeks to not only destroy our souls, but the souls of every person for whom Christ died; and along with that the rest of creation as that is tied to our stewardship.

From a personal perspective I have experienced all types of spiritual warfare, in fact I’ve experienced some right now as I’ve come to type this post. I’ve had encounters with tangible contact points with the kingdom of darkness, been exposed to people who are demon-possessed, and confronted such realties in the name of the living Christ. This is why this is important; because it’s a real life struggle that each of us as soldiers of Christ faces on a daily basis. Maybe one positive point we could take from Schleiermacher, in a recontextualized way, is that we don’t want to give the devil too much of our time and focus; but along with the Apostle Paul we don’t want to be ‘ignorant of his devices’ or reality either!

Further, I wouldn’t want to close this post without noting that the ‘spiritual’, just as the resurrection of Christ illustrates, is disembodied, per se. In other words, even though the devil is a ‘spirity’ entity (as are his cohorts) does not mean, as we can infer from Scripture, that his means are always or mostly of the so called ‘paranormal’ sort. Typically, especially in the Western enclave, his most heinous manifestations of evil are very material in orientation. We see this extended into space and time in terms of economic, sexual, physical forms of violence and abuse; in systemic and structural ways. But we ought to remember, nonetheless, that standing behind such ‘beastly’ action is indeed the kingdom of darkness in all its grossness. Devil be damned!

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. –Ephesians 6.10-12

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. –II Corinthians 10.3-6

 

[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith Volume One, trans. by Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 242-43.

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What Hath Philosophy to do with Theology?: With Reference to Friedrich Schleiermacher without Reference to Friedrich Schleiermacher

I just wrote the following post, and then didn’t feel like quoting Schleiermacher because what I was going to quote from him is very long; and I just don’t feel like transcribing something like that right now. Nevertheless, I thought I’d share what I did write as a prologue to what I was going to share from FS (maybe I’ll share that at a later date).

Is it possible to be aphilosophical when doing Christian theology? This is a question that has honestly been at the bottom of almost everything I have ever endeavored as a theological stinker (thinker). When I say “philosophy” what I usually have in mind is what we have inherited via the classical philosophers (i.e. Aristotle, Plato et al.), and their metaphysical categories. What this style of thinking fosters is a rather speculative way in regard to thinking Godness concepts; a discursive route to God; a route that does not, in itself, require special Revelation in order to conceive of God. Just recently this was illustrated for me by David Bentley Hart as he was interviewed for a series of videos done by Notre Dame. He was being interviewed by pagan, Robert Kuhn, and in one of the interviews Hart says that the Trinity could actually be conceived of, at a metaphysical level, without referring, in a first order way, to Christian categories, per se (although this was only a thought experiment in order to illustrate that the Trinity itself is not a foreign idea and has some convergence with God concepts found in such diverse systems as Hinduism and Judaism). I say this only illustrates my question because it underscores how the philosophy itself can be abstracted in such a way as to speak God without reference to Jesus Christ. Some might counter: yes, but this is only to show that there is an inner coherence to the concept of Trinity vis-à-vis modal logic and human discovery. Maybe so, but then this again takes us full circle and gets me back to my original question: is philosophy a necessary prerequisite for the doing of Christian theology?

It is an interesting question to me, really. I don’t think many in the church realize how contingent their weekly sermons and bible studies are upon the informing categories of philosophy (whether that be good or bad philosophy). The early church, at least at the ‘Fatherly’ level were aware of their Hellenic (Greek) context and the role that such categories played in their “grammarizing” of the Christian faith. So this latter point, in regard to the early church, brings us to another question: if philosophy is somehow a maiden (and not a mistress) to Christian theology: is it possible to appropriate the categories of philosophy in a non-correlationist way? In other words: is it possible to plunder the spoils of the Egyptians, take the categories of speculative philosophy (speculative because they are categories that are purely originate from the wits of self-reflecting humans, and thus categories that are ostensibly discovered in the treasure chest of the universe and its latent intelligibilities), and then allow such categories like immutability, impassibility, simplicity to be pressure cooked by Christian Revelation to the point that they have been transformed and retexutalized by a whole other universe of special knowledge? And if this is possible, and an advisable way, how do we discern that such categories have actually been adequately evangelized in such a way that they are not just some sort of hybrid golden calf that neither truly represents the reality of God or a calf; how do we discern that we have done an adequate job in the evangelization process of metaphysics such that they are no longer referring to pagan concepts but genuinely Christian ones—ones revealed and regulated by Jesus Christ himself?

Friedrich Schleiermacher has some thoughts on the speculative-philosophical approach to God,[1] he writes (in extenso):

 

 

 

[1] I am currently reading Friedrich Schleiermacher’s two volume Christian Faith, so be expecting, at points, posts with reference to FS. Let me also caveat something: I am reading FS because I want to be a responsible ‘theologian’ and engage with the formative thinkers of our modern/post-modern time. While I fundamentally disagree with FS’s low view of Jesus Christ (in regard to FS’s subordinationist view of Jesus), I still think it is possible to glean some important insights from him in regard to the theological enterprise. In this instance—what I am sharing from him in this post—I have found something worthwhile in FS’s thought; so I thought I would share that with you all.

What Does the Practical Syllogism [assurance of salvation] Have to Do With Modern Theology’s Turn-to-the-Subject?

For people concerned about such things—I haven’t come across anyone who seems to be for a long time now, which normally I would think is a good thing, but I’m afraid that the reason despairwhy is not for a good reason—the doctrine of assurance of salvation and certainty about one’s eternal destiny has a long pedigree in the history of the church’s ideas. If you are someone who has struggled with this, and would like to get a handle on where it came from in the history of ideas, then this post is for you (there’s also a twist to this post as the title suggests).

It all started, it can be surmised, back in the days of late medieval and early reformational theology; an apparatus known as the practical syllogism came to the fore, and is what Protestant’s appealed to in an attempt to grasp a sense of certitude about whether or not they were one of the elect of God. It starts early on in the Protestant genesis, and maturates in unhealthy ways as we get into Puritan England, particularly in the theology of William Perkins. Stephen Strehle provides a type of genealogy for the development of the practical syllogism.

Deducing Salvation

The practical syllogism began to be sure much like the doctrine of eternal security, looking to ascertain one’s election a posteriori from its “signs” or “marks.” However, this time instead of focusing upon the promises of God as revealed in Christ, the concentration shifted toward the faith and works of those who would obtain and partake of those promises. The faith and works of one’s salvation experience became signs through which a true believer could discern his relationship to Christ’s promises and his election before the Father. It was all a simple deduction: “Every one that believes is the child of God: But I doe beleeve: Therefore I am the child of God.” This practical syllogism became a significant feature in most accounts of the Reformed orthodox and unfortunately turned the faith of the church away from Christ and toward an inspection of oneself and the fruits of true salvation.

The precise history of the doctrine is not so clear, although we do find certain theologians of note who were influenced in its publication and help us to trace its development. Calvin as we have noted is not a party to this as his focus remains centered upon Christ and his promises throughout his works. While he might at certain points speak of works as providing some assistance to a troubled conscience, they are considered only secondary means of consolation, and generally when he looks at himself Calvin finds nothing but despondency and condemnation. Theodore de Beza, who succeeded Calvin at Geneva, did tend, however, to reverse this order and must be considered prominent in the initial dissemination of the doctrine. He speaks of the practical syllogism a few times in his works, maintaining that it is the “first step” by which we progress toward the “first cause” of our salvation. While it is not a major emphasis of his, just the mere mention of it in his works is all that was needed. His very stature as the only theological professor at Geneva from 1564-1600 and practically all Reformed Europe for that matter would insure its place in the Reformed tradition, along with the rest of his Aristotelian (non-Christocentric) program, as we shall see later. As far as other important figures, Jerome Zanchi, a theologian from Strasbourg and disciple of Calvin, must also be accorded his place in the ascent and prevalence of the doctrine, perhaps providing an even earlier inspiration from Beza. He supplies in his works a syllogistic argument that displays the same basic structure of Beza’s and orthodoxy’s formulation but without supplying the specific name (indicating an early date). He then exhorts the believer to look within, not without, to find Christ working. Zanchi will prove to exert a major influence not only in Europe but especially in England among the Puritans where the doctrine will receive its most protracted and painstaking treatment. The Calvinists will hereafter speak of faith and certitude as involving a “serious exploration of oneself,” a “reflexive act” in which “faith in one self is felt,” and an inner knowledge of what one “feels and believes.” All of this resulted, of course, as they forsook the Christocentric orientation of Calvin for Aristotle, as well as the sacramental basis of personal assurance in Luther, which we had emphasized earlier. The quest for certitude had now devolved into an introspective life from which only depravity and uncertainty could be found, as well as a calculus, deduced from a more general promise and the Christ who made it, both of which seemed strangely at a distance. The Puritans, as we said, serve as the most notable example of this turn and should be accorded special mention in the study of assurance. In contrast to the perfunctory manner in which many of the Calvinists treated the doctrine, often reserving a mere page or two in otherwise prodigious tomes, the Puritans produced numerous and voluminous treatises upon the doctrine, considering it to be the most pressing of all religious issues.[1]

Anyone familiar with Richard Muller’s writings will immediately recognize the critique he would make against Strehle’s development; particularly the idea that Beza, contra Calvin, took Reformed theology into Aristotelian and philosophical modes of thought. I myself am critical of Strehle’s idea that Calvin was purely Christocentric when it comes to this issue; in fact in my forthcoming chapter in our EC2 book, I argue, along with Barth and others, that Calvin actually contributed to a non-Christocentric trajectory when dealing with this particular issue of assurance of salvation.

But none of the above withstanding, in a general way Strehle provides a faithful accounting, in my view, for how the practical syllogism developed and made its way into Puritan theology. What I would like to suggest, though, is that this development, this turn to the self, it could be argued at an intellectual-heritage level, contributed to the modern turn to the subject that is often, at least theologically, attributed to the work of someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kelly Kapic sketches Schleiermacher, and his interlocutors this way:

The genius of Schleiermacher’s system is that he takes his anthropological emphases and pulls his entire theology through this grid. Arguably this creates an anthropocentric theology, since he consciously grounds his methods in human experience. This understandably provoked many questions. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), a one-time student of Schleiermacher, later turned this perspective on its head, concluding that there really is no theology at all, since it is all ultimately reducible to anthropology. God is nothing more than the projection of human desires and feelings, but not a reality in itself. Nodding in Schleiermacher’s direction, Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer later commented that “theological anthropocentrism is always a more serious danger than secular anthropocentrism, since we, from the very meaning of theology, might expect that it would not misunderstand man as centrum.” Karl Barth, especially in his younger years, also chastened Schleiermacher with his famous quip: “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,” since doing so means you will misunderstand both God and man. Finally, Paul Tillich worried that Schleiermacher’s language and emphasis on “feeling,” which he admits was commonly misunderstood, nevertheless contributed to the exodus of men from German churches.  Although this appears to me an unfair charge to level against Schleiermacher, it is fair to say that his proposal to orient all religion, and consequently the truth of theology, to Gefühl does widen the canvas on which theological anthropology will be painted by including more than rationality and will as the core of being human.[2]

It might seem like a stretch to suggest that the type of theology produced by someone like Schleiermacher, or moderns in general, can be attributed by antecedent to what we see developed in the theologies that produced something like the practical syllogism, but I don’t think it is too big of a stretch. I see at least a couple of links: 1) there is an informing anthropology where anthropology starts from a philosophical starting point rather than a Christian Dogmatic one. In other words, the humanity of Jesus Christ, for Beza and Scheiermacher alike is not the ground for what it means to be a human at a first-order level, as such within this abstraction, even from the get go, there is of necessity a turn to the human subject as its own self-defining terminus; i.e. there is not external ground by which humanity can be defined in this frame, instead it is humanity as absolute (obviously at a second order after-this-fact level, Beza, Schleiermacher, et al. then attempt to bring Christ’s humanity into the discussion). 2) There is a methodological focus on a posteriori discovery in regard to knowing God and knowing self before God in practical syllogism theology as well as turn to the subject theology (pre-modern and modern respectively). This in and of itself is not problematic, per se, but it is problematic when informed antecedently by an anthropology that is, at a first order level, detached from Jesus Christ’s humanity as definitive. Again, if humans start with a general sense of humanity devoid of the humanity of Christ as its primal ground, and attempt to know God and place themselves before God from that starting point there are devastating consequences. One of the primary consequences is that all theologizing from that point on, coram Deo, must start epistemologically and ontologically, from below; i.e. from my humanity, from your humanity. At the end of all of  this we end up with a rationalizing affect that colors the way we attempt to negotiate our standing and understanding with and before God.

So What?

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, both modern theologians,  sought to invert and flip turn-to-the-subject theology on its head by thinking from truly Christian Dogmatic taxis (or ‘order’). Torrance made a special point of emphasizing how an order-of-being must come before and order-of-knowing; in other words, the idea that God’s being precedes our being, and that all conditions for knowing God and thus self (cf. Calvin) must start within this frame and order of things. I.e. There is no general or abstract sense of humanity, if we are going to have genuine knowledge of God, ourselves, and the world, then we must start with the concrete humanity of Jesus Christ. Barth, in his own ways, makes these same points, particularly by flipping Immanuel Kant on his head, and as a consequence flipping Schleiermacher on his.

I would contend that Western society, in general, still is living out what this turn-to-the-subject has meant for society at large. In fact, in the 21st century we see this type of turn in hyper-form; we might want to call it normative relativism. Ideas do have consequences, as such I think getting an idea of where they come from can help us engage those ideas critically; and when needed we are in a better position to repudiate and/or reify ideas that might ultimately be deleterious to our souls.

What I have suggested in this post remains quite general, and some would say reductionistic; but I think there is something to what I’m getting at. Since this is a blog post, and a long one, it will have to simply remain at the level of suggestion.

[1] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 37-41.

[2] Kelly M. Kapic, “Anthropology,” in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 192 Scribd version.

A Reflection on the Church and Science conference, and Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Creation

Today I attended the Church and Science conference sponsored by New Wine, New Wineskins which is a theology of culture ministry that Dr. Paul Metzger initiated at my alma mater, Multnomah Biblical Seminary. Multnomah has partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science who has provided Multnomah Seminary with a sizeable grant to work on producing theological curriculum that is attentive to the discipline of science in the 21st century. We had two plenary sessions, the first was Dr. Se Kim, of the AAAS; and then Dr. Rod Stilt of Seattle churchandsciencePacific University, he is a historian of science’s development as a discipline. There was also two workshop sessions. The first one I attended was offered by Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass, he is an Assistant Professor of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, and his presentation was entitled Is Jesus Greater than Anti-Evolutionism? The second workshop I attended was offered by Derrick Peterson and Dr. Michael Gurney, Derrick has his MDiv and ThM from Multnomah Biblical Seminary (and is a friend), and Mike Gurney has his PhD from Highland Theological College, University of Aberdeen (also a friend and former prof in undergrad) — their presentation was entitled “When Galileo Goes to Jail”: Rethinking What Galileo’s Controversy with the Church Means Today (Derrick presented the paper, and Mike moderated and facilitated the Q&A following).

I mention all of this because it leads to what we will consider in this post; in other words, the discussion from today at the conference has motivated me to write this post. I just happened to have read something from Bruce McCormack last week on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation, and in particular, about Schleiermacher’s qualified belief in the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. I actually think that this topic would be an interesting one to explore at a conference like the one I attended today at Multnomah.

I am going to share from McCormack at length. The first piece from him is providing context for why Schleiermacher developed his doctrine of creation the way that he did. Here’s McCormack:

At the dawn of the modern period in theology, Schleiermacher was concerned that the day might come when the natural scientists would be in a position to provide a complete explanation not only of the movements of heavenly bodies but even of the origins of the physical universe. He writes,

I can only anticipate that we must learn to do without what many are still accustomed to regard as inseparably bound to the essence of Christianity. I am not referring to the six-day creation, but to the concept of creation itself, as it is usually understood, apart from any reference to the Mosaic chronology and despite all those rather precarious rationalizations that interpreters have devised. How long will the concept of creation hold out against the power of a world view constructed from undeniable scientific conclusions that no one can avoid?

By means of his heuristic and critical norm, he found a way to limit a theology of creation so as to obviate a conflict with the exact sciences but also to make a reasoned use of the creation story found in Gen. 1.[1]

Schleiermacher was anticipating what later came to be known as full blown naturalism and/or metaphysical materialism; where all of reality can ostensibly be reduced to physical reality and “natural” (i.e. observable) phenomenon. Schleiermacher was concerned with providing a kind of apologetic basis for Christian theology that elided the potential (in his day) findings of the natural sciences. As the direct quote from Schleiermacher illustrates he wasn’t concerned with the minutia of various biblical interpretive approaches, but instead he was concerned with the macro issue of origins itself. He was trying to provide a rigorous theological basis that would be impenetrable from the attacks of the natural sciences; as he perceived their development in his day in the 18th and 19th centuries.

McCormack distills for us in four points the way that Schleiermacher attempted to develop a genuinely Christian doctrine of creation that would out-pace Schleiermacher’s antagonists in the natural sciences. McCormack writes of Schleiermacher (at length):

This is not the place for a comprehensive exposition of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation. It will suffice here to allow Schleiermacher to describe his approach in his own words and to briefly sketch its results. “The doctrine of creation is to be elucidated preeminently with a view to the exclusion of every alien element, lest from the way in which the question of Origin is answered elsewhere anything steal into our province which stands in contradiction to the pure expression of the feeling of absolute dependence.” Since everything that exists must be absolutely dependent upon God, a Christian doctrine of creation must oppose “every representation of the origin of the world which excludes anything whatever from origination by God,” and it must oppose all conceptions of the origin of the world that would place “God under those conditions and antitheses which have arisen in and through the world.”From this state of affairs, Schleiermacher draws the following conclusions, all of which are supported by exegesis of Gen. 1: (1) God does not work with preexisting materials in creating. For if God found material ready to hand that he himself had not created, such material would be independent of him and the feeling of absolute dependence would have been destroyed. So the idea of a Divine Architect is ruled out of court. (2) If it is the case that the Christian doctrine of creation excludes anything that would place God “under those conditions and antitheses which have arisen in and through the world,” then God could not possibly be seen as having deliberated before acting. To be sure, creation is a “free” act of God, but divine “freedom” is wrongly construed where it is seen to entail “a prior deliberation followed by choice” or as meaning that “God might equally well have not created the world.” To define “freedom” in God in this way is to play it off against “necessity”—which is to bring God under an antithesis that is proper to the conditions of life in the world God creates. God’s freedom consists in his “otherness” and in his capacity to be who and what he is in all of his activities. It does not consist in a choice among options over which he must first brood before deciding upon the one he thinks “best” (as Leibniz had it). And in any case, as Spinoza put it (in a passage Schleiermacher would have approved), “because in God, essence and will are one, then the claim that God might possibly have willed a different world would be the same as saying that he could have been Another”—that is, a different God.(3) God cannot be conceived as having begun to create. Now this might seem to make creation “eternal,” but Schleiermacher resists this formulation of the relation. The reason is that if we say that creation is “eternal,” we seem to make it independent of God, which would destroy the feeling of absolute dependence. So Schleiermacher wants to uphold two values: (a) that God has never been without the world, and (b) that the world has always been absolutely dependent upon the divine activity for its existence. His conclusion is that God alone is “eternal” (in the sense of transcending time); the fact that the world does not transcend time but is structured by it is sufficient, in his view, to preserve a proper distinction between Creator and creature. But how then to speak of a creation that has no beginning without resorting to the term “eternal”? Alexander Schweizer would later use the word Sempiternität (from the Latin sempiternitas—meaning “everlasting” or “perpetual”) to describe the existence of a world that knows of no beginning. Such a world is “everlasting,” but God alone is “eternal.” I should add, perhaps, that this is not a linguistic trick but a real distinction, rooted in the differing kinds of being that God and the world are (God as a being transcending time and the world as a being structured by it). (4) Schleiermacher is willing to use the phrase creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) so long as its meaning is restricted to the understanding that God used no instrument or means in creating. That, he believes, is the force of the New Testament phrasing according to which God created “by His Word” alone. Such a phrase is to be taken in a critical sense, rather than as a positive explanation of how God works.[2]

Schleiermacher was obviously concerned with maintaining his principle of ‘feeling’ as the locus for his theological methodology; again motivated by his desire to move beyond the rationalism of his day and find a “safe place” as it were for theology to take place (unfortunately this ended up having deleterious consequences for subsequent theologizing, even if there is something also latently pregnant and valuable within this move of Schleiermacher). The point here though is that Schleiermacher desired to keep God distinct from his creation, and at the same time leave room for encounter or ‘feeling’ of God to happen in his creation/creatures.

I would like to say more, but this is running a bit long for a blog post. Suffice it to say, I think that Schleiermacher actually has the potential to provide some fruitful place in his doctrine of creation for some of the things considered today; particularly with reference to Dr. Josh Swamidass’ presentation. But also, Schleiermacher also helps to illustrate how conflict was happening, even for him, between the natural sciences of his day and his own theological development and methodology (which was something being considered at the conference today in general; i.e. the conflict or “warfare” between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ and how that might be mitigated and in fact used as a place where fruitful engagement might happen between scientists and say Christian theologians/pastors and lay people in the church).

P.S. There is much more to say, particularly with the place that Schleiermacher has in the development of the continued rift between science and religion. Does he help soften that rift, or contribute further to it? Questions like that. Not to mention the kind of theological space he might create for folks like Dr. Josh Swamidass who would like to focus on ‘experience’ and ‘encounter’ for evangelizing scientists in the public square and beyond (although I believe Barth provides a better more orthodox and constructive basis for a theology of encounter via his analogy of faith/relation).

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 21.

[2] Ibid., 22 scribd.

The ‘Coming Out’ Party of the progressive Christians: An Historical-Sociological Sketch

I cannot but help to sense the ‘spirit’ of Friedrich Schleiermacher alive and well within my own Christian heritage in evangelicalism; but in its younger expression found in what some call progressive Christianity. It is almost as if the same record is being played again, in a way, although at a faster speed with some new notes and lyrics placed onto this old record.

Evangelicalism finds its roots, and mood, in and from within a German movement known as Pietism. Pietism was an attempt by certain Christian thinkers like Phillip Jakob Spener, Count von schleiermacherZinzendorf, et. al. to provide a counter style of Christianity to what had come to be perceived as the dry arid Christianity produced by the schoolmen known as ‘Post-Reformed-Scholastic-orthodoxy. Pietists wanted to return to a warm-hearted Christianity where an intimacy of Christian love of God cultivated by spiritual practices like devotional Bible reading was the emphasis. Note H.R. Mackintosh’s take on this:

The purpose which men like Spener and Francke had in their mind was not so much to remodel doctrine as to quicken the spiritual life. The fought the worldliness and apathy of the Church. Like the Methodists in England, they urged the necessity for a deeper devotional acquaintance with Scripture, and with this in view they encouraged the formation of private circles for Bible study, the tone of which should be devout rather than scientific. In addition, they called upon Christian people to be separate from the world and give up its ways. These principles were recommended by the establishment of noble philanthropic institutions, some of which persist to this day.

But the weaker men who followed in their train were apt to turn principle into narrow and bitter prejudice. Attendance at private Bible-circles came to be regarded as of more importance than Church fellowship. A meager and utilitarian idea of doctrine tended to become a favourite; nothing could pass muster except that which yielded immediate edification; and the rank and file soon forgot that there is such a thing as the study of Christian truth for its own sake. Again, the demand was frequently made that every believer must have undergone a certain prescribed series of conversion-experiences, in a prescribed order–so much in the way of legal terrors, so much new-found joy. Nor, as we might expect, was it long before certain representatives of the Pietistic school began to use expressions, imprudent or worse, which meant that these subjective experiences of the convert are the real ground of his acceptance with God. This was plainly the thin end of the legalistic wedge. It taught men to look inward, not upward, and threatened to silence that open declaration f the free and undeserved grace of God without which the preached Gospel has lost its savour.[1]

Without getting too deep into the history there are interesting parallels, even at a sociological level, that inhere between what is occurring today and what happened back in the day of the Pietists. Like I noted, the Pietists were reacting to the dry, arid Christianity, as they perceived that, produced as it was by the scholastic Reformed Christians. The scholastic Reformed Christians (like what we see given expression, theologically, in the Westminster Confession of Faith) were an institutionalizing group of Christian thinkers, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, who were in a ‘fight’ with Roman Catholic thought, and in this fight there was produced a body of Protestant Reformed teaching suitable for bringing up generations of Christian pastors, students of theology, and lay people who could have recourse to an identifiable and distinctly Protestant body of teaching. In this process, the schoolmen, used academic tools, inherited from their medieval forbears, and philosophical thinking such as could be found in: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Scotus, Agricola, Ramis, Ockham, et. al. They successively accomplished their task of producing an institutionalized Christianity, but for many, what they produced, again, was a dry, arid, and abstract Christianity that had no personal or intimate components that emphasized and helped to foster relationship with God in Christ; at least not at a felt level.

We can see this song being replayed in a way. At the turn of the 20th century, as a result of the Enlightenment (of the English and German sorts), ‘Liberal’ theology began to penetrate into the walls of and halls of traditionally scholastically Reformed, etc. seminaries. As a result, the ‘conservatives’ or who came to be known as the Fundamentalists reacted (like the original Pietists reacted against their perception of dry, abstract Christianity) against the intellectualist Liberalism of their day, but in the process, ironically, like the scholastic Reformed, produced a rigid form of ‘Fundamentalist’ Christianity that ended up, itself, being rigid, arid, abstract, and rationalist; it lost any type of felt Christianity wherein intimacy with God in Christ was emphasized or could be cultivated. As a result, even among the Fundamentalists, and within its ranks there was a turn, or reaction against the rigidity of rationalist Fundamentalism, without though a total abandonment of the intellectualism that was funding Fundamentalism. In other words, like the Pietists, evangelicals wanted to emphasize a warm-hearted relational Christianity that focused on personal Bible-devotion and intimate Bible-fellowship-meetings; nothing wrong with that.

But as we noted, just as the Pietists originally were reacting to the institutional Christianity they inhabited, part of that reaction involved a turn ‘inward’, a turn to the subject so to speak; a situation wherein the individual’s relationship and experience of God became the standard for Christian reality. It was within this milieu that, ironically, theological liberalism’s most prominent thinker was produced, and it his ‘spirit’ that I see living on among so named progressive Christians; not as a reaction from evangelical pietism, but as its logical extension. When the ‘subject’ becomes the norming norm for Christian doctrine and spirituality, when this is taken to its conclusion we end up with a radical form that wants to push off anything that sounds authoritarian or institutional; whether that be doctrinal, or whatever. Schleiermacher in the 18th century was Pietism’s logical extension then; progressive Christianity, in the ‘spirit’ of Schleiermacher is the logical extension of modern day evangelicalism/Pietism today. Note what Schleiermacher wrote in regard to the mood of Christianity he was attempting to promote:

You reject the dogmas and propositions of religion. Very well, reject them. They are not in any case the essence of religion itself. Religion does not need them; it is only human reflection on the content of our religious feelings or affections which requires anything of the kind, or calls it into being. Do you say that you cannot away with miracles, revelation, inspiration? You are right; we are children no longer; the time for fairy-tales is past. Only cast off as I do faith in everything of that sort, and I will show you miracles and revelations and inspirations of quite another species. To me everything that has an immediate relation to the Infinite, the Universe is a miracle; and everything finite has such a relation, in so far as I find in it a token or indication of the Infinite. What is revelation? Every new and original communication of the Universe to man; and every elemental feeling to me is inspiration. The religion to which I will lead you demands no blind faith, no negation of physics and psychology; it is wholly natural, and yet again, as the immediate product of the Universe, it is all of grace.[2]

For Schleiermacher anthropology was theology, and ‘feeling’ and/or human experience became the canon by which all Christian doctrine was developed and measured.

Conclusion

My little historical genealogical development, and attempt to parallel things did not correlate one-for-one throughout. But the point was simply to underscore that there are interesting patterns inherent in the history and development of ideas that provide precedence for what is happening today among former evangelical and now progressive Christians. It is a ‘spirit’, I would contend, the ‘spirit’ of Schleiermacher, and others too, that progressives (and that itself represents a continuum) imbibe and think from. What used to be sacrosanct, in regard to Christian holiness, is no longer binding because it does not meet currently with the standards of what counts as ethical and ‘holy’ in our 21st century context. Schleiermacher had a ‘coming out’ party in his day, and the progressives are having theirs today. There really isn’t a lot of difference between the two; our experience of God has become conflated with the Spirit of the Lord’s voice which allows movements in the culture to dictate new standards for what counts as ‘good’ (across all spectrums: doctrinally, ethically, etc.), and as if from God Himself.

[1] Hugh Ross Macintosh, Types of Modern Theology: Schleiermacher to Barth (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), 11-12.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher cited in Ibid., 43-4.

Brian Zahnd and Friedrich Schleiermacher: §1. How Does Zahnd Compare to Schleiermacher on “How Does Dying for our Sins Work?”

Brian Zahnd, about a year or so ago wrote a blog post entitled: How Does “Dying for our Sins” Work? For the remainder of this post we will engage with what Zahnd wrote, and then we will compare Zahnd’s theory of the atonement with German theologian’s, ‘Father of Modern Theological Liberalism’, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theory of the atonement; I see some similarity between christcrucifiedZahnd and Schleiermacher (not total, but some). We will be using George Hunsinger’s treatment of Schleiermacher’s view as the template by which we attempt to provide some historical precedence, at a material level, for Zahnd’s approach. (Obviously since this is a blog post things will remain unfinished and suggestive)

Zahnd has an allergy to Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), and to framing what happened at the cross in forensic terms (at all), it appears. He seems to have given into the idea that is very popular today that PSA represents Divine child abuse, he writes:

I find most of them inadequate; others I find repellent. Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus![1]

Zahnd is also repulsed by Covenant theology’s conception of the atonement wherein God ostensibly elects certain individuals for salvation, sends the Son to die for the elect (alone), pays their penalty (again in forensic terms), resulting in God’s ability to love these elect people whom he purchased by His cross-work in Jesus Christ. Zahnd writes:

Neither is the death of Jesus a kind of quid pro quo by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive sinners. No! Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God! Jesus does not provide God with the capacity to forgive; Jesus reveals God as forgiving love. An “economic model” of the cross just won’t work. It’s not as if God is saying, “Look, I’d love to forgive you, but I’ve got to pay off Justice first, and, you know how she is, she’s a tough goddess, she requires due payment.” This understanding of the cross begs the question of who exactly is in charge — the Father of Jesus or some abstract ideal called “Justice”?[2]

We see, briefly then, what kind of conception of the atonement Zahnd rejects; and we also see inklings of what he proposes instead (in the last quote from him). Besides the false dilemma Zahnd creates between Justice as an ‘abstract ideal’ and God as God, we will press onto to stating just exactly what it is that Zahnd sees as the correct approach towards articulating what the atonement of Jesus Christ actually entails and what it accomplished.

Zahnd is very straightforward about what he thinks the atonement of Jesus is, he writes (at length):

Let me suggest that when we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving us. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he was not asking God to act contrary to his nature. When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them,” he was, as always, revealing the very heart of God!

At the cross we violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus absorbed them, died because of them, carried them into death, and rose on the third day to speak the first world [sic] of the new world:“Peace be with you.”

When I say “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are the very political and religious systems that executed Jesus. At the cross we see where Adam and Eve’s penchant for blame and Cain’s capacity for killing have led us — to the murder of God! At Golgotha human sin is seen as utterly sinful. God did not require the death of Jesus — but we did!

So let’s be clear, the cross is not about the appeasement of a monster god. The cross is about the revelation of a merciful God. At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives. Once we understand this, we know what we are seeing when we look at the cross: We are seeing the lengths to which a God of love will go in forgiving sin.[3]

Zahnd has some compelling language and even truthful things communicated in his presentation, but there is some other stuff mixed in that I find problematic; particularly the section I have italicized and emboldened above.

What is it that Zahnd actually believes in regard to the atoning work of Jesus Christ? In some ways it is somewhat difficult to tell. We see him affirming an apparently high Christology, but then at points promoting a low and/or middle view of salvation. When he writes, “At Golgotha human sin is seen as utterly sinful. God did not require the death of Jesus — but we did!” and then he writes, “The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives.” It is at these points that I smell Schleiermacher lurking, at least at a superficial level.

As usual these types of posts run long, quickly! I will break this into two posts, this one and the forthcoming post to follow this one. Now that we have an idea about what Zahnd is against and what he is for, respectively, in regard to how he understands the atonement we are better situated to do a comparison and contrast between him and Schleiermacher. Although, my guess is that the next post will have to be an introduction to Schleiermacher’s own view, and then we will be set up for a third post wherein we will finally be ready to compare and contrast Zahnd and Schleiermacher (according to Hunsinger).  

 

[1] Brian Zahnd, How Does “Dying for our Sins” Work?(Missouri: BrianZahnd.com, 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Standing with Friedrich Schleiermacher against Philosophical Theology

There seems to be an ascendancy, once again, of philosophical theology [and I apologize, this post, or at least this point of this schleiermacher (1)post is going to have to remain rather general and abstract without any concrete examples at the moment]. The way I understand philosophical theology is pretty close to home; it is a form (it might be THE form) of evangelical theology that I sat under while in undergrad at Bible College (things changed a bit for me in my seminary experience because of two profs in particular). Philosophical theology, as I understand it, and have experienced it, in a nutshell, is what has come to be called: analytical theology. Analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers as they reflected upon creation as the categories through which the Christian God was synthesized and casted.

So even with the scant sketch above of how I understand philosophical or analytical theology what should begin to emerge is how there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers. And yet what happens in the analytical theology tradition is that a foundation, of sorts, is constructed so that these two disparate approaches of thinking about metaphysical things can be brought into mutually supporting beams such that God’s life ends up being founded upon our capacity to think God (from reflecting upon creation) instead of being confronted by God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is how I see analytical theology functioning, and it is because of this that I must reject it, and search for an approach (and I believe that I have found one years ago now) that does not depend upon my ability as a philosopher and theologian to conceive of God, categorically, apart from his Self-revelation.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian from the 18th and 19th centuries, who became known as the ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!) offers an alternative to the analytical tradition–when critically received–that I believe is quite refreshing; and that I believe moves us away from attempting to work out correlationist theologies that seek to synthesize Christian theology with classical philosophical categories (Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous for attempting to do this … I should say though, that I can learn a lot from Aquinas, still, just not uncritically).

I believe, along with Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance, et al) that Christian theology cannot and must not depend upon any attempted correlations between natural reflection upon nature (the analytical philosophers), and then syntheses of these reflections with Christian theology.[1] I do not believe, along with someone as Scottish as Thomas Torrance, that there are any natural analogies for God become man (i.e. the Incarnation); do you? Schleiermacher writes it this way:

Our dogmatic theology will not, however, stand on its own proper ground and soil with the same assurance with which philosophy has long stood on its own, until the separation of the two types of proposition is so complete that, e.g., so extraordinary a question as whether the same proposition can be true in philosophy and false in Christian theology, and *vice versa*, will no longer be asked, for the simple reason that a proposition cannot appear in the one context precisely as it appears in the other; however similar it sounds, a difference must always be assumed.[2]

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

It is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianty, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any higher form than this.[3]

For Schleiermacher, then, and many others after him (like Barth, Torrance, and a whole host of more ‘liberal’ theologians), Christian Theology is for Christians! It is exclusive to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; as the Revelator has written: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”[4]

The ascendancy of philosophical or analytical theology that I referred to to open this brief piece up continues to make new in-roads into the evangelical heart-land. I think we ought to repent of that, and engage in theological endeavor that ironically comes from someone like Schleiermacher. We want to really be able to hear from the Lord, and attempt to repeat what we hear in a genuine way as Christians. We want to genuinely walk in the way that comes after we come to recognize that Deus dixit, that ‘God has spoken;’ and only after that and from that speech can we truly theologize and in a way that contradicts our words, and our lives instead of flowing from them (which I contend analytical theology does at its base in the methodological form that it flows from).

The end.

[1] If you have not spotted the undercurrent of what I am getting at yet let me help: What this cuts against, what I am about to write about, is natural theology. Natural theology believes that there are analogies in creation (because of an interconnected chain of being between creation and Creator) that can be used as foundation stones for us to build our knowledge of God upon (i.e. analogia entis, ‘analogy of being’). So this is part of the critique, and part of what is going on here. But the deeper concern I have is the impact that analytical theology can possibly have upon a Christian’s spirituality. I believe Christian theology, by definition, is for Christian eyes and ears, and so from this touchstone, of sorts, we proceed onward with Schleiermacher and Barth.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §16 postscript in Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2008), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.

Stephen Holmes’ Trinity back to the classics and away from the Moderns

Here is a post I began to write back in April of this year as I finished Stephen Holmes’ excellent book The Quest For The Trinity. I never trinity-iconfinished the post, and it has been sitting as a draft ever since then. I am still not going to finish this post, but I am going to post it as is, and where I left off with it. It might still be interesting, who knows?! Here it is:

Just finished Stephen Holmes excellent newish book on the Trinity The Quest For The Trinity. I don’t want anyone to think that I dislike or am not appreciative of this book, in fact I would say it is one of the best (concise) books on the Trinity I have ever read; and I have read legion. That said, for purposes of future (if I ever have the right kind of time) critical and hopefully constructive engagement I would like to ‘bookmark’ one key area of critique that I might have in regard to an apparent characterization that Steve Holmes makes of a trajectory of ‘modern’ Trinitarian theology that Holmes says is a ‘departure from … the unified witness of the entire theological tradition” (p. 195). What he is referring to is the modern deployment of the language of ‘person’ relative to discussing the eternal relations inherent between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One of Holmes’ contentions throughout the book is that a technical and patristic pedigree has been established relative to the construction of a theological grammar adequate to the task of articulating an orthodox conception of the Trinity; an integral part of that is ‘how’ “person” came to be used by the patrisitcs, and the subsequent 14 centuries (from the 4th century) following, until we reach the 19th century where Trinitarian theology begins and attempts to re-construct a new lexicon that is capable of communicating the Trinity in a way that modern man and woman might be able to understand it (and Holmes’ argues that this precedent for re-conceptualizing and re-languagfying is provided for by Schleiermacher). Holmes contends that this shift in Trinitarian thought and language actually emptied key terms within the ancient and Orthodox grammar in a way that makes considering the two periodically conceive Trinitarianisms as an equivocal endeavor; and the modern Schleiermacherian project ending up as a still-birthed endeavor mal-nourished by its intentionally abortive mode of cutting the umbilical cord between themselves and mother-church which lived, again, in the patristic and ecumenical period.

Let me post the pertinent quote, and then I might, if I have time quote something from Thomas Torrance that will illustrate where I will want to take this forthcoming critique of mine. Here is Stephen Holmes:

The practice of speaking of three ‘persons’ in this sense in the divine life, of asserting a ‘social doctrine of the Trinity’, a ‘divine community’ or an ‘ontology of persons in relationship’ can only ever be, as far as I can see, a simple departure from (what I have attempted to show is) the unified witness of the entire theological tradition. Why, then,  has it become so popular? In part at least, I think, because of a fundamental sense of dislocation. Dorner suggests that Schleiermacher pointed out a fundamental weakness in the inherited doctrine of God which then needed correcting; Forsyth and Barth followed him in this belief, although in neither case showing any explicit awareness that it came from Schleiermacher. More generally, the harvest of nineteenth-century theology includes a broad sense that the discipline stood in need of fundamental reformulation, as Schleiermacher had said it did. If we try to analyze this logically, it tends to reduce to a series of claims about the broad narrative of the theological tradition – such as the claim that it became profoundly infected by Greek metaphysics in the patristic period – which were based on ninteenth-century historical work; …

Christian Theology is only For Christians, That’s What My Homey Schleiermacher Says

There seems to be an ascendancy, once again, of philosophical theology [and I apologize, this post, or at least this point of this schleiermacher (1)post is going to have to remain rather general and abstract without any concrete examples at the moment]. The way I understand philosophical theology is pretty close to home; it is a form (it might be THE form) of evangelical theology that I sat under while in undergrad at Bible College (things changed a bit for me in my seminary experience because of two profs in particular). Philosophical theology, as I understand it, and have experienced it, in a nutshell, is what has come to be called: analytical theology. Analytical theology, in a nutshell, is theology, like scholastic theology from the post-Reformed era that feels free to drink freely from the analytical philosophical tradition (like from Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, et al), and use the categories discovered by these philosophers as they reflected upon creation as the categories through which the Christian God was synthesized and casted.

So even with the scant sketch above of how I understand philosophical or analytical theology what should begin to emerge is how there is no necessary connection between Christian theology, and its revealed categories, and the categories “discovered” by the analytic philosophers. And yet what happens in the analytical theology tradition is that a foundation, of sorts, is constructed so that these two disparate approaches of thinking about metaphysical things can be brought into mutually supporting beams such that God’s life ends up being founded upon our capacity to think God (from reflecting upon creation) instead of being confronted by God Self-revealed and interpreted in Jesus Christ. This is how I see analytical theology functioning, and it is because of this that I must reject it, and search for an approach (and I believe that I have found one years ago now) that does not depend upon my ability as a philosopher and theologian to conceive of God, categorically, apart from his Self-revelation.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a German theologian from the 18th and 19th centuries, who became known as the ‘Father of Theological Liberalism’ (wrongly!) offers an alternative to the analytical tradition–when critically received–that I believe is quite refreshing; and that I believe moves us away from attempting to work out correlationist theologies that seek to synthesize Christian theology with classical philosophical categories (Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous for attempting to do this … I should say though, that I can learn a lot from Aquinas, still, just not uncritically).

I believe, along with Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance, et al) that Christian theology cannot and must not depend upon any attempted correlations between natural reflection upon nature (the analytical philosophers), and then syntheses of these reflections with Christian theology.[1] I do not believe, along with someone as Scottish as Thomas Torrance, that there are any natural analogies for God become man (i.e. the Incarnation); do you? Schleiermacher writes it this way:

Our dogmatic theology will not, however, stand on its own proper ground and soil with the same assurance with which philosophy has long stood on its own, until the separation of the two types of proposition is so complete that, e.g., so extraordinary a question as whether the same proposition can be true in philosophy and false in Christian theology, and *vice versa*, will no longer be asked, for the simple reason that a proposition cannot appear in the one context precisely as it appears in the other; however similar it sounds, a difference must always be assumed.[2]

And this in regard to the audience of Christian theology:

It is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianty, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquiries of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot take any higher form than this.[3]

For Schleiermacher, then, and many others after him (like Barth, Torrance, and a whole host of more ‘liberal’ theologians), Christian Theology is for Christians! It is exclusive to those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear; as the Revelator has written: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”[4]

The ascendancy of philosophical or analytical theology that I referred to to open this brief piece up continues to make new in-roads into the evangelical heart-land. I think we ought to repent of that, and engage in theological endeavor that ironically comes from someone like Schleiermacher. We want to really be able to hear from the Lord, and attempt to repeat what we hear in a genuine way as Christians. We want to genuinely walk in the way that comes after we come to recognize that Deus dixit, that ‘God has spoken;’ and only after that and from that speech can we truly theologize and in a way that contradicts our words, and our lives instead of flowing from them (which I contend analytical theology does at its base in the methodological form that it flows from).

The end.

[1] If you have not spotted the undercurrent of what I am getting at yet let me help: What this cuts against, what I am about to write about, is natural theology. Natural theology believes that there are analogies in creation (because of an interconnected chain of being between creation and Creator) that can be used as foundation stones for us to build our knowledge of God upon (i.e. analogia entis, ‘analogy of being’). So this is part of the critique, and part of what is going on here. But the deeper concern I have is the impact that analytical theology can possibly have upon a Christian’s spirituality. I believe Christian theology, by definition, is for Christian eyes and ears, and so from this touchstone, of sorts, we proceed onward with Schleiermacher and Barth.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §16 postscript in Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2008), 72.

[3] Ibid.

[4] New American Standard Bible, Revelation 3.22.

On Being a Christian Theological Exegete: B.B. Warfield V. Friedrich Schleiermacher

There is a certain methodology a theologian or exegete should follow if they want to be considered a Christian Theologian or Exegete. The methodology a Christian Theologian or Exegete should follow is one that principally starts with Jesus as the goal (telos) of their theological and exegetical work; one that sees Jesus as the inner-coherence and unity of meaning inherent to the Christian’s formal source of witness, the Bible. Insofar as the theologian and/or exegete proximates their work to this standard; then what they produce can be considered, Christian.

schleiermacherIn thinking about this post I wanted to provide a counter-voice to the voice I want to feature as the featured voice for this post. I used to have an excellent quote on hand that would have done a great job in providing the foil I am looking for to at least illustrate my thesis statement above. The quote I once had (but has since been deleted from one of my multitudinous blogs) was from that stalwart Fundamentalist theologian B. B. Warfield of pre-Westminster Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary fame. In summary, what his quote stated was axiomatic for what provided the general shape of the ‘Christian’ Fundamentalist Faith; and that is that Christian Fundamentalism, according to one of her best (Warfield), was an Apologetic Faith. Meaning that contrary to the Liberal Theological tradition that was seeping into places like Warfield’s Princeton; that Warfield’s (Fundamentalist) Christianity was one that sought to meet Liberal Theology’s claims upon their grounds. In other words, if the ground of ‘Liberal Theology’ was primarily one that found purchase from rationalistic and so called ‘man-centered’ ground (like positivism, historicism, pietism, etc.); then Fundamentalist Christianity was eager to meet this ‘problem’ by doing so on the same grounds. In brief (and this nut-shells that quote from Warfield I once had): the one who could out-think and out-argue the other (Liberal versus Fundy), wins! Warfield (and Fundamentalist, and even American Evangelicalism) attempted to defeat Liberal Christianity by adopting their principles of proof; by using positivistic logic; by seeking to establish the veracity of the Bible, and the miracles therein, thus providing ‘something’ upon which Christians could indubitably stand and believe. Warfield & co. were not alone in trying to preserve the integrity of “Conservative-Classical-Christianity;” the yester-year preceding someone like Warfield had seen an apologetic Christianity thrive and take shape as well. A Christianity wherein we could have something like a systematic theology entitled Enlectic Theology (Turretin’s — meaning apologetic or defensive theology). This ground swell provided a tradition that Warfield could appeal to, and in this tradition he was given a methodology that sought to provide proof of God’s existence through philosophical reasoning (in the Medieval era this was called the via negativa or negative theology).

The above serves as a brief sketch (longer than I wanted — and very oversimplified) of maybe an organic relationship that inhered between the 17th and late 19th early 20th centuries Anglo-European/American theological development. In this vein, and for this post, I thought I would take a look at an old Systematic Theology text-books we used during one of my under-grad experiences; Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology. I was not let down by the method and order that Ryrie appropriated for his “Theology.” It is one that he inherited from many in the Medieval-scholastic era; one that has pedigree with someone like Francis Turretin’s Enlectic Theology (and I mean in mode); and one that fulfills the on-going trajectory set by the Fundamentalist Warrior, B. B. Warfield. Starting in Ryrie’s Chapter 5, entitled Revelation of God, he starts his discussion out, on General Revelation, by providing the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God (a classical argument that argues for the existence of finite creation by positing the need for an infinite cause); then he gives us the Teleological Argument, the Moral Argument, and the infamous Ontological Argument — all classic philosophical proofs seeking to provide rational proof for the existence of God.

I sketch all of the above in order to provide a salient quote that throws the above approach into relief. Christian Theology does not start where Warfield or Ryrie started; it does not feel the need to prove the material content of what it seeks to provide grammar for. Christian Theology should assume (as the Scripture’s do) the triune God whom she worships, and this supposition should present us with the categories and theological furniture necessary to carry out the vocation of what it means to be a Christian Theologian or Exegete. In short, Apologetics should not provide the methodological ground for how we proceed in our Dogmatic reflection as Christians. If we are Christians we don’t need to prove to ourselves the belief that God is triune; our self-identity already presupposes said belief (and this is evidenced in the way that someone like the Apostle Paul wrote his epistles; he didn’t argue for the Trinity or the existence of God prior to penning his letters, he presupposes this as the reality that shapes his identity and thus the material that he exhorts his brothers and sisters through in the various churches he wrote to). With this is mind I have come across a great quote, and with this quote I will close:

[I]t is obvious that an adherent of some other faith might perhaps be completely convinced by the above account that what we have set forth is really the peculiar essence of Christianity, without being thereby so convinced that Christianity is actually the truth, as to be compelled to accept it. Everything we say in this place is relative to Dogmatics, and Dogmatics is only for Christians; and so this account is only for those who live within the pale of Christianity, and is intended only to give guidance, in the interests of Dogmatics, for determining whether the expressions of any religious consciousness are Christian or not, and whether the Christian quality is strongly expressed in them, or rather doubtfully. We entirely renounce all attempt to prove the truth or necessity of Christianity; and we presuppose, on the contrary, that every Christian, before he enters at all upon inquires of this kind, has already the inward certainty that his religion cannot taken any higher form than this. [Friedrich Schleirmacher cited by Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 72]

Evangelical Calvinist theological-exegetical methodology operates from this posture. It seeks to follow a Christian methodology, like, for example, the Apostle Paul assumed in his writings. It is not our intention to prove God’s existence, the veracity of the Scriptures, etc. before we feel that we can then do theology or exegesis. Instead, as Christians, we recognize that our self-identity necessitates that we move and breathe as such; and this self-conscious reality has a dramatic impact (or should) upon how we proceed as theologians and exegetes. It is this movement that I believe allows someone to say, in general, that they are operating as a genuine Christian theologian or exegete. What do you think?

*repost, a good one ;-)!