Historical Theology

What is God? No. Who is God? The Impasse that Gave Us a Stillborn Evangelical and Reformed Faith

Who is God? Or maybe the question is: What is God? The latter question is what the Post Reformed orthodox theologians were concerned with, and it is this question that we receive an answer for in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. But I am actually more interested in who God is. I’d rather allow who God is to define what God is, rather than allowing what God is to define who He is. The former presupposes that God is personal and revelatory, while the latter could simply operate off of a conception of God or Godness that could potentially be impersonal and discoverable. And yet because the Post Reformed orthodox or classical Calvinist theologians were attempting to answer what God is, this allowed them to slip back into an approach to the God of the Bible that did not necessarily have to start with the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ in order to arrive at the categories it required to grammarize or speak of God for the church. As such, I would contend, the God articulated, say by the WCF, and the ‘what God’ therein, actually offers a rather distorted picture of the God of the Bible in a God-world relation since methodologically it reverts back to a speculative philosophical and a priori conceiving of God and brings that to the God of the Bible revealed in Jesus Christ; and attempts to synthesize the God conception say conceived of by someone like Aristotle with the God of the Bible. Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink summarize this issue nicely when they write:

Through the ages many have tried to synthesize the Greek-philosophical approach to the content of the biblical faith, but these attempts were rarely successful, as the philosophy usually received priority (Augustine being a positive exception). The most impressive example is found in the theology of Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century). However, twentieth-century research has shown that the biblical-theological dimension of Aquinas’s doctrine of God was much more extensive and decisive than had long been assumed. Nonetheless, Aquinas saw the ideas of Aristotle in particular as a significant tool. Arabic scholars were instrumental in rediscovering Aristotle’s work, and Aquinas and others gratefully employed it for the Christian doctrine of God. Aquinas starts with the general question about the being, properties, and acts of God, so that who God is (or is not) is in the first instance discussed with reference to the classic answers of Aristotle’s metaphysics, while the section about God’s interaction with the world uses more biblical language. However, when he deals with the specifically Christian concept of God in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity, Aquinas offers a speculative, philosophical interpretation of the immanent Trinity rather than foregrounding the biblical stories about the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. This is also true for many other representatives of medieval Scholasticism.

Among the Reformers, Calvin and especially Luther were very critical of the concepts and speculative character of the scholastic doctrine of the Trinity. But apparently this critique was soon forgotten. Numerous theologians of later Protestant orthodoxy (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) adopted the pattern of medieval scholastic thought without much further ado, including its basis in a general , highly transcendent view of God in the locus de Deo. Their preferred description of God is that of an eternal and infinite spiritual being, adding only toward the end any reference to a number of properties regarding God’s turn toward us. This pattern is also visible in the confessional documents of the era. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for instance, defines God as “a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (question 4), a statement that, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Hodge could praise as “probably the best definition of God ever penned by man” (ST: 1:367). It should be noted, however, that this definition is given in reply to the question “What is God? (not “Who is God?”), as is typical of post-Reformation orthodoxy.[1]

This issue continues to dog the development of contemporary “Reformed” theology, and even evangelical theology that operates from that mood as is typified in the work being done for the churches by The Gospel Coalition.

It seems to me that many in the evangelical and contemporary Reformed church, particularly in the West, want to stick with what they see as the tried and true path; what some have referred to as the old paths. But my question is this: as those regulated, in principle, by the Scripture principle—referring to us Protestants—why is there a type of slavish need to be in lock-step with theological reflection that operated in and from a 16th and 17th century milieu wherein Aristotle primarily gets to define what the grammar should be for articulating God for the church of Jesus Christ? It is as if the Confessions and Cathechisms of the Protestant Reformed church have become the new magisterium of the church; that Protestants haven’t just replaced a personal Pope for a paper one (i.e. the Scriptures), but that they have succumbed to the idea that the tradition of the latter day Protestant Reformed church (16th and 17th centuries) was given by God providentially. Yet if this is so what has happened to the ‘scripture principle’ for us Protestants? If we want to absolutize the theology of say the Westminster Confession of Faith as the most proper distillation of the Bible’s teaching, then in what material way can a distinction be drawn between the theology of that Confession and the teaching of Scripture itself? In what meaningful way, if indeed we want to absolutize certain Reformed Confessions, can we maintain that all of the Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformed church are indeed subordinate to Holy Scripture? I don’t think we can.

What Kooi and Brink highlight for us is that there is a problem, in regard to the development of a doctrine of God, for the Protestant Reformed church; both in the past and presently. A mentor and former professor of mine, Ron Frost, argued similarly to Kooi and Brink’s point about a kind of still birth relative to the Protestant Reformation; i.e. a betrayal of the type of critique that Luther made in regard to the substance metaphysics funding late medieval theology relative to a doctrine of God (the metaphysics of Aristotle as deployed and appropriated by Thomas Aquinas et al.). Here is what Frost has to say:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[2]

We see his concern is the same as Kooi and Brink’s. What we also see is that beyond simply focusing on the problem that Aristotle’s categories bring in regard to a doctrine of God (i.e. Kooi and Brink), Frost rightly highlights the linkage that Luther saw between Aristotle’s God and subsequent teachings in regard to developing a theological anthropology and ethics. And this is the point I want to drive home in closing: what we think about God, in regard to who we think God is, determines every other subsequent theological development after that commitment. In other words, a doctrine of God, in a proper dogmatic and theological ordering (taxis) of things is of basic and first order value; who we understand him to be will dictate the way we come to theological conclusions later, whether that be in regard to theological anthropology, salvation, or what have you. This is why I press on this issue so much, it is that central. And I believe that the starting point for so much of what counts as Reformed and evangelical theology today is eschew; and I think it is eschew precisely at the point that this post is highlighting. God help us!

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 134-35.

[2] R.N. Frost, “Aristotle’s “Ethics:” The “Real” Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal (18:2) 1997, p. 224-25.

My 2002 Synopsis of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, 1521

The following is a synopsis I wrote for my Reformation Theology class in seminary on Melanchthon’s, Loci Communes, 1521. Forgive me for some of my grammatical sloppiness. At this point I had never read any Karl Barth nor Thomas Torrance, but you might see how what I was seeing in Luther and Melanchthon would make me open to receiving Barth and Torrance with open arms.

MELANCHTHON, LOCI COMMUNES, 1521

The Publication of the Work and its Impact

The Loci Communes was embarked upon, by Melanchthon, in April (1521). There were many printings of this work (i.e. 1522, 1525, 1535, 1541, 1543-1544, 1555, 1559, 1595), some of the prinitings were actual revisions, and others were re-printings. The important thing to note about this work, is that Martin Luther had high praise for the contents of it. And he believed that the Loci Communesshould be canonized and included within the teachings of the Roman Catholic church. The actual contents of this work, were the teachings of the man, Martin Luther.

Loci Communes Theologici, The Text Dedicatory Letter

The Loci Communes were evidently obtained and printed before Melanchthon was desirous for this to happen. Nevertheless it did happen, and he wanted people to understand the two things he had intended the Loci Communes to accomplish. First, “. . . What one must chiefly look for in Scripture . . . ,” and second, “. . . How corrupt are all the theological hallucinations of those who have offered us the subtleties of Aristotle instead of the teachings of Christ.”

Melanchthon points out that he wrote the Loci Communes to encourage people to bypass extra-biblical sources, and go straight to scripture. He does not believe it makes sense to try to integrate philosophy with the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures (e.g. Origen). It is at this point that Melanchthon bereates the scholastic methodology of dialectic. He discusses the skewing of scripture that those who employ such methodology foisted upon the interpretation of scripture.

Basic Topics of Theology, or Christian Theology in Outline

Here he discusses further his disdain for scholastic methodology, and the waste that has been produced by trying to study God this way.  He provides a listing of the normal topics looked at by the scholastics (i.e. Lombard and John of Damascus). Melanchthon points out that these men have twisted scripture because they have approached God via their own wisdom, rather than approaching God through His wisdom, the Theology of the Cross.

He says that Christian theology is comprised of, “. . . to know what the law demands, where you may seek power for doing the law and grace to cover sin, how you may strengthen a quaking spirit against the devil, the flesh, and the world, and how you may console an afflicted conscience.” (p. 22)

The Power of Man, Especially Free Will (Liberum Arbitrium)

He discusses  the fact that the scholastics, because of their high view of man, ascribed too much to the capacity of human reason and the will to choose to free themselves from the bondage of sin. Therefore they twisted the scriptures, as Melanchthon argues.

He proves this by pointing out that as in the beginning of the church Platonic realism was foisted upon the scriptures; thus obscuring the plain message that the scriptures truly communicate. Likewise he compares their time to that of the early church, but instead of Plato, it is now Aristotle who has taken the place of Plato in the twisting of the plain message of the scriptures. It is here that he describes his anthropology, and shows that man is divided into two basic elements: intellect and will (or affection). He points out that it is the affections that give preference to the particulars of the intellect. In other words, the intellect is instrumental to the affection’s placing of value upon that which the intellect has received.

Melanchthon, with the anthropological understanding noted, asks the question, ” . . . whether the will(voluntas) is free and to what extent it is free” (p. 24). He answers that indeed man’s freewill is non-existent, and that this is so because of the doctrine of predestination. He provides many scriptures to support this doctrine (cf. Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11, I Sam. 2:26, Prov. 16:4, etc.). He believes that the doctrine of “freewill” flows from the teaching of the scholastics and the philosophers/theologians of his day. Thus he argues that if men receive the simple teachings of scripture alone, he will be constrained to accept the teaching of “predestination,” as laid out in the scriptures.

Melanchthon argues that the philosophers have inferred from the external appearances of the freedom, that this is true for man and his choosing of God. In other words, if man is free to wear a blue coat rather than a red one — he has freely chosen to wear the blue coat. Therefore, if man chooses to obey God rather than self or Satan — then like the choosing of the coat, man can freely choose this as well.

He then transfers to the reality of the internal aspect of choice; and he argues in opposition to the sophists. He points out that the “will” should be termed as the “heart,” since scripture calls it that. And that there is a struggle between the “affections,” and man cannot freely overcome certain affections without God moving upon the heart and changing the affections. He qualifies this by pointing out that certain affections can be overcome by an individual. But that affection overcome by an individual is only overcome by another vain affection that serves the man, and not God.

He also discusses the fact that man might externally appear to overcome certain affections. But truly, that man has only masked the reality of his affection externally, by appearing to have overcome such evil affections (i.e. the Pharisees). Therefore, even if man appears externally to be living a godly life, he might be deceived by his wicked heart; unless that wicked heart and thus the affections have been shifted anew by the work and movement of the Holy Spirit.

Sin

He describes sin using biblical categories, and points out that there is no difference between “original sin,” and “actual sin.” For both of these in a reciprocating manner are one in the same thing.

Whence Came Original Sin?

Here he eloquently shows that sin has come from Adam, and that man was originally created in a state that was in unhindered fellowship with God. But when man chose to seek self, his desires were shifted and man now was dominated by a love of self. Thus his freedom to serve God was now constrained by his bondage to only serve self (he points out that the Sophists have defined “sin” as privation alone — he says this is not far enough, for privation flows from a heart that loves itself more than God).

Furthermore, Melanchthon proves the necessity of original sin, by pointing out Augustine’s refutation of Pelagius. He shows the significance of recapitulation of Romans 5, and points out if man was not originally corrupted and represented by Adam in sin; then likewise, man cannot be “represented” by the second Adam, Christ (cf. Rom. 5, I Cor. 15).

The Power and Fruit of Sin

He discusses that the “modern Pelagians” are a little different than those of Augustine’s day. He says that the “modern Pelagians” do adhere to the doctrine of “original sin,” but they do not believe that this reality so permeates man that every action of men is sinful. Contrarily, Melanchthon points out that man truly is permeated by sin, in every aspect of his life. And that those who affirm otherwise are only deceived by the very avarice that derives their denial of such a doctrine. He illustrates his point by describing the Greek philosophers of old. He points out that what they considered virtues, were in reality vices, because they were driven by love of self.

Furthermore, he lifts up Isaiah and David as providing discussion that man’s wisdom and vices are truly that. And that God will show such vices, in the end, to be a result of their own delusions devoid of the Spirit of God. Melanchthon points out here, that philosophy panders to the external vices of men. But that the scriptures truly uncover the external masks of philosophy, as they penetrate to the depths of of the motivations that drive the affections. Hence, it is the scriptures that show truly that man’s motivations are only wicked and evil, and the Sophists philosophy that skim over the motivations and go to the vices produced by a dead deceived heart. Essentially the point is, is that to use philosophy is only to engage in petitio principii (circular reasoning) never getting to the driver of this vicious circle.

He continues to point out the ineptness of the Sophists philosophy to accept the teaching of God. He shows that true repentance can only be a result of God’s movement upon man’s heart. Indeed, God commands things that are not in the abilities of man to accomplish (in contradistinction to the Sophist’s self-moved will). Therefore, making man look in dependence on God, to work His love into man through the Holy Spirit’s work upon man’s heart.

Conclusion

This work, by Melanchthon, is clear and to the point. In fact it is obvious, after reading the Heidelberg Disputation, that Melanchthon truly is compiling the work’s of Luther in a systematic way. Melanchthon via repetition pionts out that man’s will is not free, because it is in bondage to its own affections. Clearly, he points out that there are certain external freedoms. But he would not want to equate such freedoms with the notion of “free-will,” and man’s ability to lunge himself out of the bondage of his will.

Melanchthon uses the scriptures freely and conversantly to make his point. He clearly points out that human reason can never unearth the driving motives behind the heart. Therefore he shows that the Sophist’s philosophy, in all reality, is driving the very anthropology and philosophy that they are using to discern that which is “good” (virtuous) and “bad” (vice). But the scriptures are the only thing from whence an adequate true anthropology might come. And likewise, the only true instrument through which man’s genuine motives of self love (i.e. sin) can be detected and thwarted. Therefore, Melanchthon convincingly argues that the scriptures should take primacy over man’s reasonings. And, in fact, the philosophy of the scholastics ought to be discarded ipso facto.

Melanchthon’s teaching is so relevant for today it is amazing! For sure, the American Evangelical church is informed by an epistemology that comes from the scholastics of Melanchthon’s day. If the church could be exposed to this reality and embrace the true teaching of the scriptures through the lens of the cross, then the American church might be salvaged. But if the church does not take heed to scripture, and in fact Melanchthon and Luther (e.g. theology of the cross), then the trajectory the church is on now will only lead to continued impotence and irrelevance in today’s culture.

 

How Erasmus’ Mood Impacts the Development and Posture of an Evangelical Calvinist

When I first came across the reality of late medieval scholasticism at work in the Roman Catholic Church, and then later in the Post Reformed orthodox period of the Protestant Reformation, it brought a lot together for me. As a method the scholastic approach was a dialectic, one that went like this: 1) thesis, 2) anti-thesis, 3) synthesis, 4) synthesis becomes the new thesis, 5) so on and so forth. It’s easy to see how an approach like this over a period of centuries could remove the exegete and theologian further and further away from the realities disclosed afresh and anew in Holy Scripture. It was this commentary-building tradition, which had become normative for the medieval church, which someone like Martin Luther protested against. It was the movement known as Christian Humanism that kicked against such an approach, and instead trumpted a call of ad fontes (‘back to the sources’).

Lorenzo Valla was one of the forerunners of Christian Humanism and helped to foster the culture which would finally allow for the Protestant Reformation; a culture wherein folks, like Luther and Erasmus, were encouraged to read the Bible and the Church Fathers for themselves; in the original languages to boot. I want to highlight the contribution that Erasmus made to all of this in this post. It is this type of mood that turned me to someone like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and allowed me to see how the Reformation actually turned into a type of magesterium in itself, regulated by its own commentary tradition which the Westminster Confession of Faith illustrates.

Erika Rummel writes this of Erasmus’s approach, and his posture against scholastic theology:

Erasmus strongly objected to scholastic theology with its emphasis on dialectical reasoning. In his eyes, a purely academic theology was useless for providing guidance to Christians in their daily life. Rhetoric, by contrast, fulfilled that mediating function which allowed God’s injuctions to take root in the human heart. The Word of God was inherently rhetorical in the sense that it had persuasive and redemptive power; theologia rhetorica, unlike scholastic theology, pointed the way to the Word and aroused ‘a new zeal for the true religion of the gospel’. This message remains constant in Erasmus’ writings. It informs the Paraclesis (‘Invitation’), first published with his New Testament edition in 1516, and constitutes the dominant theme in his last original work, a manual of preaching entitled Ecclesiastes (‘The preacher’). In the Paraclesis Erasmus devoutly wished for an eloquence that would not only beguile the reader but enter his heart and transform his very soul. In the Ecclesiastes Erasmus outlines the task of the preacher in similar terms. He must be persuasive so that the congregation can hear in his sermons the voice of God. Again he uses the images of rapture and transformation to indicate the power of the theologia rhetorica. The practical moral impact of the preacher and the theologian – that is, of sermon and exegesis – is of utmost importance to Erasmus. The parallels between the prolegomena to the New Testament and his manual of preaching show that in his opinion the task of the preacher and that of the exegete converged. It was therefore appropriate to focus attention on language and on the rhetorical power of scripture. Because the Word of God has the power to transform, Erasmus wanted the laity directly exposed to the text: ‘Let the farmer sing a passage from the Bible at the plough, the weaver hum a passage to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of his journey with biblical stories!’[1]

There is some irony here. If you speak to a classically Calvinist person today they will claim to be part of the ad fontes tradition; and, indeed, in the beginning Reformed theology was motivated by that tradition (catch the irony of how tradition is inescapable). But over time, and particularly as it once again became ensconced within a Ramist/Agricolan locus methodology, the scholastic dialectic was once again imbibed and a whole new magisterium was created. Today we can witness, when speaking to a classically Calvinist person, the role that the three forms of unity might have (i.e. Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt), or more significantly the Westminster Standards. It really isn’t possible, even though they affirm that all else is subordinate to Scripture, for them to come to Scripture in an ‘back to the sources’ type of way since they see their standards as regulative and the most faithful interpretations of the text.

This is what evangelical Calvinism, of the sort I endorse, repudiates, and instead follows the lead and sense of someone like Erasmus. Clearly, we, as evangelical Calvinists don’t come to the same conclusions, theologically, as Erasmus on many things—in fact we probably agree much more with our classically Reformed brethren on many things, at least at an inchoate level—but we do follow his approach when it comes to bucking scholastic theology and always already moving back to the sources (i.e. Holy Scripture as the normative attestation to its reality in Jesus Christ).

Evangelical Calvinists are committed to a dialogical theology, an approach that works immediately after the fact that God has spoken (Deus dixit) in Christ as His most faithful and authoritative self-explication. We believe, like Erasmus, in pointing to an immediate encounter with the lively reality of the text of Holy Scripture as that breaks off in Christ who mediates us by grace through his vicarious humanity into the inner sanctum of the Triune life. We believe that Revelation, and Scripture as a subset of revelation, is an event; it isn’t something that we can control, or layer through tradition-making, but instead it is God in Christ confronting us afresh and anew moment by moment speaking His Lordly and Sovereign self to us as He draws us deeper and deeper into the realization of all that He is and all that we have because of who He is for us and with us.

Solo Christo; Sola Scriptura; Soli Deo Gloria

 

[1] Erika Rummel, The theology of Erasmus in David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz eds., The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33-4.

The Quingentesimus of the Protestant Reformation and the Analogia Lutherano in Christ Concentrated Biblical Exegesis

As I announced on FaceBook a week or so ago, given that we are in the year that leads to the Quingentesimus, or 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (i.e. October 31st, 1517), I have decided, in celebration, to devote much of my reading to the primary or as they are called, magisterial reformers. As such, since my blogging follows my reading, much more of my posting will beardedlutherlikewise be characterized by this period of theological development in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation. My last post actually reflects this trajectory, as will this one. I will still of course be posting on Barth’s, Torrance’s, and other people’s theologies (and other topics of interest); but the character of my posting will have more of the historical theological thrust than maybe you’ve gotten used to from me (although if you’ve been reading me for awhile you will have seen me posting quite a bit on historical theological issues—in fact that’s all I originally posted on when I first started blogging in 2005).

Enough of this housekeeping, in this post I want to highlight the type of Christ concentrated or Christ-centered hermeneutic that Martin Luther followed in his exegesis. We will appeal to Alister McGrath in order to highlight how Luther wanted to see Jesus Christ in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament and the Psalter. As we lead into the quote from McGrath,  he has just finished sketching the medieval Quadriga (i.e. literal, allegorical, tropological/moral, and anagogical) method for interpretation. He is noting how folks like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, et al. still worked within that medievally styled framework, but with a focus on the literal as the foundation for the other three senses. Within the literal, as we will see, there was further distinction between ‘literal-historical’ and ‘literal-prophetic;’ we will let McGrath explain the rest:

Luther makes an important distinction between the literal-historical meaning of his Old Testament text (that is, the literal meaning of text, as determined by its historical context), and its literal-prophetic sense (that is, the meaning of the text, as interpreted as referring to the coming of Christ and the establishment of his church). The Christological concentration, which is so characteristic a feature of the Dictata, is achieved by placing emphasis upon the literal-prophetic, rather than the literal-historic, sense of scripture. In this manner, Luther is able to maintain that Christ is the sensus principalis of scripture….[1]

For further development of how this works itself out in both theory and practice in the medieval context, but with particular focus on how this works out in Thomas Aquinas’s exegesis, check Matthew Levering’s outstanding book Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation.

This distinction is interesting to me, particularly because we as evangelical Calvinist follow a Christ-concentrated hermeneutic as birthed in the theologies of both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, respectively. What we see in both of their theologies is an exegetical norm that I would suggest follows the Luther[an] or even Thomist focus upon the literal-prophetic component rather than with as much concern on the literal-historic; albeit abstracted somewhat from the Luther-esque medieval and Quadriga framework. If you read Levering’s work, he identifies this type of distinction in the literal aspect of the Quadriga as linear-historical (which would correlate with Luther’s literal-historical) and participatory-historical (which would correlate better with Luther’s literal-prophetic sense). As Levering highlights, these two aspects do not need to be in competition one with the other, but in some ways can be complementing.

As someone deeply influenced by both Barth and Torrance, and also someone who reads more broadly than just Barth or Torrance, I am committed to both senses of the literal. But, if we are going to use the Luther[an] distinction, the emphasis will be upon the literal-prophetic as regulative towards understanding the significance or telos of the literal-historical as situated providentially within the created order which is for Christ (which according to McGrath fits well with Luther’s emphasis of seeing Christ as the sensus principalis of Holy Writ).

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxdford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 80.

The Whole Church of Jesus Christ Needs to be ‘Always Reforming,’ Not Just the Reformed: Christian Humanism’s Significance for the 21st Century Church

In the past I have referred to Christian Humanism in my blog posts, and the significance I see in that medieval movement towards fostering the atmosphere where the Protestant Reformation could foment and burn. Personally I have been motivated by this ad fontes (back to the sources) movement, particularly with its desire to get back to the Bible and paleo-Christianity; without that erasmusimpetus, in fact, The Evangelical Calvinist would never have become a reality. To this end, let me share a bit more about Christian Humanism, or the studia humanitatis, as Alister McGrath describes that with particular focus on one of its most important promulgators, Erasmus. McGrath writes:

In a prefatory epistle, written in 1518 to Paul Volz, a monastic reformer, Erasmus indicated that his intention is publishing the Enchiridion was to provide a simple and yet learned philosophia Christi for the educated layman. Erasmus directed most of his criticism against scholastic theologians towards the specialised theological language they used, which made their writings unintelligible to the layman. Indeed, it is a hallmark of Erasmus’ criticism of scholastic theologians, that their verbal formulations are singled out as being of greater importance than the actual theological substance of these formulations.

In the Enchiridion, Erasmus lays great emphasis upon the need to study scripture incessantly, and to read commentaries upon them written by the fathers, rather than the schoolmen, as the former were much closer in time to the sources of doctrine than latter. In general, Erasmus’ interest in scripture and the fathers reflects the general humanist desire to return to antiquity, rather than any profound skepticism concerning the orthodoxy of later medieval theology. Although his personal creed remains elusive, Erasmus’ method is clear: the Christian church must return to her sources, and break free from the scholasticism which so addled her of late. With this end in mind, Erasmus himself undertook extensive editorial work, including the publication of the Novum Instrumentum omne in 1516. This work not only included the full Greek text of the New Testament, but also a new Latin translation which differed from the Vulgate at points of potential theological significance, along with extensive notes justifying these alterations. Erasmus’ editions of patristic texts were notable in two respects. The first is their accuracy and comprehensiveness, which made them indispensable to scholars. It is, however, the second respect which particularly claims our attention: the works of St Augustine were not given any pride of place among these texts. This reflects Erasmus’ marked preference for Jerome, whom he regarded as the essential embodiment of the ideals of the Renaissance. In a letter of 21 May 1515 to Leo X, Erasmus declared his intention to encourage the re-emergence of Jerome as the Christian theologian. As early as that year, Erasmus had defined Jerome, not Augustine, as summus theologus. Although the western theological tradition may be regarded as essentially an extended commentary upon the works of St Augustine particularly with respect to the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, Erasmus effectively called this foundation into question with his predilection for noster Hieronymus. The humanist concern for accurate texts was thus not without its theological overtones.[1]

Christian Humanism may sound like a purely literary movement, but even as McGrath underscores, it was more than that; a movement with serious theological implications. It might also appear that humanism of this sort was antagonistic towards specialized theological or ecclesial vocabulary, but that would be a mis-reading. Instead, humanism was critical of such language-systems becoming terminal in themselves; with the result of creating a culture that was too inwardly focused. Indeed, a culture that in effect cut Christian people off from the fount of Christian reality and truth as found in the Apostolic Deposit of the New Testament. What Christian Humanism brought was not just a method, but a spirit that fostered critical space for critical engagement with the church and of course other areas of engagement.

Here at The Evangelical Calvinist I am still motivated by this kind of reformational spirit, and committed to the ad fontes of Christian Humanism. The thing is, I think, at this point, that spirit and those tools need to be turned on Protestant Reformation theology itself. I see a need for reinvigoration and renewal within Reformed Christianity; that’s what has motivated me for years, i.e. to bring reformation to church of Jesus Christ by pointing people to the terminal source of all reality, Jesus Christ Himself. I believe Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, both as Reformed theologians, represent what it looks like to be involved in this type of Christian Humanist and reformational spirit; both seeing the need to bring critique and theological development to Reformed theology. It isn’t, obviously, just Reformed theology that needs to be ‘always reforming’ (semper reformandum), but Christian theology and the Christian church in general. The spirit we find in Christian Humanism, I believe, is a spirit that should live on!

[1] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross  (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 44-5.

Luther: Humans After the Fall are Philosophers

Martin Luther on the natural state of being human after the Fall; Luther thinks that when it comes to God people in their fallen status can only elevate to the level of philosopher. It is an insight that Feuerbach, in his own way, would develop, but in a more antagonistic way towards religion in general; i.e. the idea that god is simply a human projection.

. . . Since the Fall every man has been a philosopher, for he has taken his experience of the world and his knowledge of reality — which he has succeeded in describing scientifically — as a standard by which to measure God. But the intellect does not suffice to grasp the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He must be apprehended through the Scriptures. The “God” created by man is a false god of his own making.[1]

In a nutshell it is this reality that evangelical Calvinists press into; i.e. the idea that without God Self-exegeting Himself for us in Jesus Christ (which is exactly what John 1.18 says He does); without being given Christ’s heart in the resurrection (Rom. 6–8; II Cor. 3; Ezek. 36; etc.) all we can do is philosophize and conjure categories about God that we claim to have discovered by reflecting upon nature refracted by our personal and collective experiences as human beings. As evangelical Calvinists we are saying a loud Nein to this, and affirming what Luther holds true about humans after the fall.

[1] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 170.

 

Historical Theology as Fundamental for the Theologian’s Task

Something that drastically changed my theological development and life was and is historical theology; I first engaged with it in my seminary Reformation and Patristic theology classes. For the first time (at that point), pieces really began to fall into place for me (including my undergrad Bible College experience which didn’t get into, so much, actual historical detail [just generalities]), and it enabled distanciation for me in a way that allowed for critical space wherein I was finally able to identify the conceptual and historical forces that had brought me to where I was at peanutstheologythat seminal point (i.e. my first exposure to historical theology). What good historical theology does is primarily engage in descriptive detail; in other words good historical theology carefully and slowly attends to reconstructing as accurately as possible how theological ideas formed in various periods and strata of the Christian tradition. Once this step is taken, then we are able to resource the categories and emphases present in whatever period we are looking at, and bring all of those threads into a constructive framework that helps serves the present purposes of the advancement and articulation of the Gospel. What engaging in historical theology also has the capacity for (as I already alluded) is to provide a kind of third party perspective on my (our) own theological approach. In a sense, historical theology can marginalize a theological notion or trajectory that I might think is novel; and it can marginalize in a  way that helpfully keeps me from going down a path that might in the end be fruitless, and ultimately a real waste of the time I am supposed to be redeeming. So historical theology can serve as a regulative control on how and what I research, and more prominently it can give me insight into whether or not I am on a fruitful or dilapidated trajectory.

So historical theology is a very important discipline that I think any serious Christian theologian and exegete must attend to. But one danger of historical theology is that we forget that God still speaks. We can get so caught up into listening to the past that we can forget that there is a present.  So good historical theology will, in my view, always give way to Constructive Christian Dogmatic Theology. Which means that we will not only soberly engage with the past, but in this sober engagement we will be doing so with a purpose; the purpose is to listen to the living voice of God as it provides continuous communication from the past into the present. And it is this coming into the present by incorporating the voice of God from the past (so theological remembrance, a very biblical motif) into the present that we are able to constructively join in to the diaologic of the voices present in the people of God. In other words, good historical theology, while providing necessary perspective and fruitful lines of thought, should never be seen as an end in itself; and that is because good Historical Theology is framed by a doctrine of God that is understood as Triune and lively. And God Himself, in Christ, ought to be the One who sets the stage for how we go about engaging in the conversation of His people the Church.

And so in the end, obviously, my view of historical theology is that if it is going to be a fruitful endeavor must be understood from a genuinely Christian frame of reference. Good historical theology provides perspective because it is an act of humbling ourselves, and accepting the fact that God has meaningfully (and is) spoken to our brothers and sisters in the past. And since God has meaningfully spoken in the past, this guarantees the integrity of what has been communicated in the past since it is not ultimately contingent upon whatever period God’s voice was spoken in and through; but truly, it is contingent upon the integrity of God’s voice. This is not to deny the various modes, expressions, and periods of history in which this voice was given; but it is to recognize that God has spoken (Deus dixit), and we need to listen whenever He speaks.

*This is a post I originally wrote a few years ago. 

Reading Scripture In the Life of the Trinity, In Theosis

I must admit, ever since encountering Patristic theology and their hermeneutics in seminary (back in 2002) for the first time, my compass for hermeneutical theory began to take a tailspin. And then a little later, as I continued to dig, and engage with Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth, John Webster, Matthew Levering, and even some Puritans, my compass became even more erratic. I was trained, informally, as an evangelical (growing up as the son bible-compassof a Baptist pastor), to study the Bible inductively, and really through the rationalist history of religions school and German higher criticism that sliced and diced Scripture into manageable, and even unrelated pieces. When I entered Bible College (the first time in 1992, and then 1996-97 at Calvary Chapel Bible College, and then finally my alma mater 1998-2001 at Multnomah Bible College) I began to be taught, formally, how to interpret Scripture, again, in a fragmented way, which could only at the end of my Bible study attempt to integrate Jesus into my biblical interpretation somehow. This culminated for me (which at this point looks like it will be my terminal degree), in 2002-03, when I entered seminary at Multnomah Biblical Seminary; I began work on an MA in Biblical Studies, which included course work, crowned with a Master’s thesis paper, which I had to defend in order to earn my MA. I chose to do my thesis paper on I Corinthians 1:17-25, which was an exegetical analysis of that pericope. I successfully defended that in 2003, and earned my MA in Biblical Studies. But what this paper did (100 pages as it was), was demonstrate and illustrate how I used to study the Bible back then; very analytically, inductively, expositionally, verse by verse, and through hermeneutical premises that were and have been largely absent from the bulk of the Christian church. In other words, even though my passage of consideration was about Jesus and the cross, my method of interpretation was not premised, hermeneutically, upon the reality of Jesus and the cross; instead it was premised upon premises provided for evangelical Bible study that were provided for it by people who are not evangelical (historically and even culturally understood), and who might even be antagonistic to the Christian faith. In the end I actually liked what I was able to produce for my Master’s thesis paper (my examiners did too), but I wonder what it would have looked like if it had been given shape under hermenutical pressure that was more intentionally Christ centered?

Is it even possible to exegete under a ‘Christ-centered’ and Trinitarian pressure? The early church believed it was possible, and proceeded without apology to exegete the Old Testament as if it was all about Christ; and under the Apostolic mantle provided for that method by the authors of the New Testament themselves. Donald Fairbairn (a Patristics expert par excellence) has just helped me, immensely, to think about this issue once again, in a very helpful and definitive way. My compass has been wandering here and there, hermeneutically, I have been deeply influenced, as I mentioned, by T. F. Torrance, and in particular to this issue, by his book Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics; but I have had problems, quite frankly, trying to practically conceive of a way to interpret and apply Scripture in a way that is genuinely Christ centered, hermeneutically, and at the same time, critically available to the tools provided by what might be called ‘modern’ exegesis (literary, canonical, historical, etc.). This is where what Fairbairn, in a straightforward and succinct way has helped me with today; he has placed hermeneutics, at least in the way I am appropriating it, within the realm of the Greek Christian understanding of theosis, so in the domain of Christian salvation (soteriology)–this would fit well, in some respects, with Matthew Levering’s idea of participatory history. Let me share the two paragraphs from Fairbairn that have helped and edified me today; I hope they will be edifying for you too:

Roots Of Patristic And Modern Old Testament Interpretation

At this point, we as evangelicals should notice a significant incongruity latent in our situation. We accept (albeit with reservation) a method of biblical interpretation that historically arose among scholars who rejected most of our core convictions about the Bible–that it is from God, that it is a book telling a single story, that its various writings are fundamentally unified, that its central subject is Christ. Furthermore, without giving the matter a lot of thought, we reject allegory as a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible, a way that is found in the New Testament and that was widely used in the early church, even though that kind of interpretation grows out of the same convictions that we share. It is indeed ironic that when a church father who shares all of our basic convictions argues for a connection between this Old Testament passage and that New Testament reality, we reject his argument out of hand because our masters in the school of modern interpretation (masters who do not share our convictions) have branded such exegesis as allegory. And it is even more ironic that our adherence to a plain-sense, nonallegorical method is so intense that the New Testament itself disturbs us when it connects the Testaments in a way that sounds like allegory to us. We wind up thinking that Paul and Matthew were allowed to handle the Old Testament this way because they were divinely inspired, but surely we must not handle the Old Testament this way.

If we recognize the incongruity I have been discussing, then we should also see that there is more than “mere allegory” going on when the church fathers interpret the Old Testament. In contrast to modern liberals (who might see no unifying theme in Scripture) and in partial contrast to modern conservatives (who tend to organize Scripture around concepts such as the covenant or the dispensations which have governed God’s dealings with humanity), the church fathers tended to see the scarlet thread, the unifying theme of Scripture, as Christ. Again, this unifying theme places the emphasis in a rather different place than we do. We today start with ourselves and ask how God relates to us. The church fathers started with God, and especially with Christ, and asked how we participate in Christ. This is why virtually all of patristic thought saw theōsis–humanity’s becoming somehow a participant in the divine life–as the link between God and humanity. Furthermore, this is why one strand of patristic thought, the one I think is most fruitful for us today, understood theōsis in terms of the Father’s relationship to the Son and saw our participation in this relationship as the scarlet thread of the Christian faith. If one does theology in the way the church fathers did, with the life of the three trinitarian persons at the heart, then one will seek to find those trinitarian persons–especially the preincarnate Son–throughout the Old Testament.[1]

This is the way that T.F. Torrance sought to interpret Scripture (just read his two volumes: Incarnation & Atonement), and it is the way that I personally believe is the most fruitful and edifying way for Christians to engage in as exegetes.

So instead of using dispensations (as I was trained to do), or ‘the covenant’ (as people who attend places like Westminster Theological Seminary are trained to do) as hermeneutically regulative for the biblical interpretive process; along with Fairbairn, Torrance, the Patristics, Barth, Webster, Levering and others, it is better, in my estimation, to allow our hermeneutical theory and practice to be established by the One who has given revelation of Himself to begin with; and it is better to practice exegesis from within this relationship, within the realm of ‘salvation’ or ‘reconciliation’ and ‘participation’ in God’s triune life mediated through Christ. Does this mean that we cannot employ modern critical tools while doing exegesis? I don’t think so. But what it means is that we won’t let those tools (whatever they are) be the basis for our hermeneutical theory. In other words we won’t just read Scripture ‘as literature’ (because it is more not less than literature, it has a different location from other literature,  what might be called ‘profane literature’); we won’t just read Scipture ‘as history’ (because it is more not less than history, it is where God providentially has interpreted through His Son for us, His life for us, and our life for Him through the vicarious humanity of Christ through Apostolic Deposit); and we won’t, then, read Scripture but within the domain of grace, and in particular faith, which is established by its rule in Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Donald Fairbairn, Life in the Trinity: An Introduction To Theology With The Help Of The Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 114-15.

“It isn’t voluntary”: Our Parents, Our History

One thing that really helped me in learning to be a more “critical” theological thinker was to be immersed into the world of historical theology, in particular Reformational and Patristic theology, in my seminary days. Prior to this kind of immersion I felt somewhat aloof, kind of wandering around in a theological smorgasbord wherein I as the informed (because I had earned, at that point, a BA degree with a double major in Bible and Theology and a minor in NT Greek) agent, and ‘Free’ thinking Free church member had all the regal resources of something like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral at my fingertips; I had a kind of relative omniscient capacity to philosophically, and in a suspended kind of disposition, analyze the theological and exegetical options, and by my own voluntary act insert myself into whatever theological trajectory or narrative that I so desired. Okay, I am overstating this a little. My point is to highlight the kind of voluntary nature of my position prior to being introduced to the problematization of that provided by gaining a historical and critical perspective of things.

churchfatherssmall

What I realized as I began reading and studying the developments of the early Christian church (the Patristic era), is that things were so much more dynamic, so much less cut and dry than things seemed to me prior to this engagement. I began to realize that I was part of a continuous move of God in Christ in His church that wasn’t something that was voluntary, but something that was highly intentional and given ongoing eschatological force by the continuous in-breaking of God’s life upon His people; and that by my participation in this move of God in Christ, I had entered into something that was not of my own making, nor of my own decision. I had entered into something that was of God’s making, and of his work, and by entering into this work of His (in His church), I have become attached to a body of humanity that is not our own. In other words, for good or for ill, I have become part of a reality that transcends me, but decisively includes me, in personal ways, in this particular transcendence, in Christ. An implication of this is that in some ways I don’t have a say in what has come before (just as children don’t have a say in who their parents are); I don’t have a say in whether or not I like the fact that part of God’s movement in Christ in His people the church has included decisions, arguments, and subsequent development of grammar that has become known as the Tradition of the church or the Apostolic Doctrine. But for good or for ill, this is the reality; I can kick and scream against this reality, OR, I can engage in dialogue with this reality with hopes of building upon and growing through the nourishment available through this work of God in His church. This does not mean I cannot critically engage with my inheritance, as part of this great continuum and move of God in Christ, but it does mean that I have to recognize that I am not the Master (even if I have a Master’s degree), and I don’t get to say who my ‘parents’ are; they simply are.

I think the thrust of my points here are twofold: 1) We cannot just look over the past and history of the Church as one monolithic blob that has no real import for me today, we have to engage with this blob, and in so doing our own posture will be problematized sufficiently in such a way that we will realize that the past is our present, as we are in continuous dialogue with God through His people, both past and present; 2) More simply, we will gain a proper orientation toward our own and personal theological development, as we realize that the past often critiques our present held beliefs, and at the same time provides new critical and thus fruitful ground upon which to constructively build and engage with contemporary churchly concerns that have real life consequent for our fellowship one with the other.

The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel

I once read a book entitled The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter Between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Studies in the History of Christian Thought) by Stephen strehleStrehle. Unfortunately this title is now out of print (I have access to it still though). And yet even the title itself is provocative a certain reality, even for those who follow the New Paul Perspective[s]. As I recall, Strehle works through some of the magesterial Reformers, like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others; and he highlights how the grammar used by the Reformers was language taken from their Roman Catholic forbears.

The point that I want to highlight though is this: the Protestant movement originally is not what it has become today in Fundamentalist and/or neo-Evangelicalism and the Free church movement. The fissure present between Roman Catholics (Eastern Orthodox) and the Protestants I don’t think has changed much over time (except for the distance between then and now); especially in regard to conceptions regarding ecclesiology, and then subsequent thinking on salvation. Nevertheless, this notwithstanding, there remains continuity between Protestants and Roman Catholics insofar as the Protestant church is intended to be a reforming movement within the Roman Catholic church and not without it. What recognizing this orientation does, is that it grounds the Protestant heritage in the historic and orthodox faith of the church that finds continuity with the so called ecumenical councils of the church; the councils that gave us the relative grammar for the Trinity, the hypostatic union of Jesus Christ (God-man), etc.

From what I have observed, the Free Protestant church has absolutized the fissure between Rome and themselves (doctrinally) in such a way that not only have they apparently disabused themselves of the idea that the catholic faith is no longer binding, but they have, in general, presumed that the Roman Catholic church is really a totally different belief framework, such that Evangelicals can speak of Catholics as if they are not even Christians, while they as the Evangelical are.

Really all I am trying to suggest is that such a Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism has taken hold in the American Evangelical church, that every interpreter does what is right in their own eyes (even if this means to begin to question the moorings of the catholic faith, which is the Trinitarian faith).