What If Kant Was Wrong, Does This Wipe Out the Need for Modern Theology?

Earlier on Facebook I posted this: If you start with the premise that Kant was wrong it pretty much wipes out the “need” for much of modern theology. That said: some of the fruit produced by some modern theologies is still materially present despite its cultural context supplied by Kant. At the prompting of a friend I will attempt to elaborate.

This is something I have known for a long while, intellectually; but am coming to terms with currently, existentially. Kant made a division of knowledges such that the so called noumenal (objective, even Divine reality) is not ultimately accessible by those entrapped by the phenomenal (subjective, human agency); thus a ‘great gulf’ is present between an extra world out there, and the inner world from which we think as human subjects. Further, as Paul Hinlicky helps me think this (and now I distill in my own tongue): Kant presupposed that God was essentially and purely an object out there who certain people attempted to use as an authority figure for imposing ad hoc rules (‘priestcraft’) upon an “un-reasoned” people. In other words, if anything, for Kant, God is simply a brute object. Without attempting to distill further this will have to suffice for now. At base if Kant was right, in an absolute sense, then we might simply despair and attempt to produce existential meaning for our lives, albeit lives purely in bondage to our own reason and the self-projections and constructs of reality that flow from there.

But what if the dualism (the noumenal/phenomenal gulf) of Kant was wrong? What if there is a unity of knowledge, albeit one supplied by God through revelation? We will proceed with the premise that Kant was wrong, which has become the conclusion of most forward thinkers today, particularly, at least in the philosophical realm, in and among thinkers under the sway of Post Modern (PoMo) pressures. So we can say that we live in a post-Kantian age; but how the ‘post’ has arrived might well have never been necessary to begin with. In an oversimplified description the way people have become PoMo is something like what happened when Spinoza took Descartes to his logical conclusion, and Nietzsche took Kant et al to theirs. But the problem with this sort of practice is that it still presupposes that Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers, were more right about human agency and reason than they were wrong; in other words, it gives Kant credit where credit wasn’t do. When we attempt to deconstruct we often acknowledge that the construct we are deconstructing was worth deconstructing in the first place. In the end some recognize that the construct itself, left to itself, would have imploded under the weight of its own ‘cards’ given the foundation it was built. To be post-Kantian might mean either of these approaches: some have felt the need to swallow Kant and attempt to re-work his premises from other directions, even while at some level accepting the relative weight of his thought, while on the other hand, others have simply seen Kant’s folly and rather than seeking to overcome him they have reduced his logic to its conclusion; viz. they have simply asked how Kant could ever prove his disjunction between the phenomenal and noumenal based upon his own categories.

The above is my attempt to introduce and ground clear for what I really want to get to; that is, I want to opine further on how modern theology itself may have never taken the shape it did if Kant wasn’t taken as if he thought from sound premises. Since this is a blog post I can’t do a full survey, or offer developed arguments for what I am about to articulate; so there will be a large level of assertion in what follows. How am I supposed to concisely survey the large swathed development, and its antecedents, that modern theology represents (in this space frame)? In order to delimit, let me elevate a person of interest for me, and use his theological development as my case experiment for this bloggy exercise.

I had mentioned Paul Hinlicky above, I am currently reading his book Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibinz. It is my reading of his book that prompted by original post on Facebook earlier today (the one I share above). So I will limit my reflection to the way he has been framing things; of interest for me is that he places Karl Barth into discussion with Immanuel Kant. Indeed, Hinlicky offers a sub-section called Barth Overcomes Kant by Kant.  As I read this section it pushed me again into what I have known for many years: that is that Kant et al. has had an inordinate impact on the development of modern theology; to the point that someone like Barth felt compelled not to go around or simply reject Kant, but he felt compelled to take Kant seriously, and attempt to overcome Kant by using Kant’s categories to develop his own theological corpus. Hinlicky writes:

In light of the foregoing discussion, we may see how right McCormack is to stat about Barth: “All of his efforts in theology may be considered, from one point of view, as an attempt to overcome Kant by means of Kant; not retreating behind him or seeking to go around him, but going through him.” On the one hand, Kant’s stricture against the human possibility of a claim to possess revelation is taken up and affirmed: ‘inscrutability, hiddenness, is of the very essence of Him who is called God in the Bible.’ Therefore, on the other hand, revelation can come only from above, from the paradoxical or mysterious self-unveiling of the veiled. In revelation as this event, God speaks as subject of His own discourse and is heard only as such. God’s Word is God spoken: it cannot then be taken into possession as an object of human cognition apart from the God who speaks and the God who is heard. There is no Word without the Spirit, no Spirit without the Word, and neither of these without the font of the deity who issues them, the eternal Father. “In a bridging of the gulf (from God’s side) between the divine and human comprehensibility,” Barth writes in terms formally, if not materially, reminiscent of Kant, “it comes to pass that in the sphere and within the limits of human comprehensibility there is a true knowledge of God’s essence generally and hence also of the triunity.”[1]

If Kant needed to be ‘overcome’ Barth’s response, from a theological perspective, is absolutely genius! But what if Kant didn’t need to be overcome?! The reason Barth felt compelled to overcome Kant is because the intellectual cultural climate Barth was weaned in (by his teachers) was under the spell of Kant; the culture itself dictated that Kant, and the elevation of reason itself, is ultimately determinative for all intellectual tasks and conclusions. This presented a dilemma of immeasurable magnitude. We see someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher respond, at least on one of his fronts, by appealing to an aesthetic quality inherent to humanity; and others, maybe someone like Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and later Jewish thinker Martin Buber develop an “I/Thou” relationship; thus framing reality in terms of personal and relational realities rather than brute objects like a perception of the classical God might have presented for someone like Kant (which pushed him to think the way he did in regard to God and the noumenal). We see these sorts of “work arounds,” but, again, what if they were not necessary; would this re-shape the terrain of modern theological development in rather radical ways?

So I’m personally left with a bit of dilemma, although I don’t feel it too heavily. If I reject the need to ‘overcome’ or work-around Kant, if I don’t feel compelled to ‘go through’ him then does this mean that modern theology was purely and absolutely an utter waste of time? Many Christians would say an “unqualified yes!” Many would consider me a “Barthian,” others wouldn’t; whether I am or not, Barth’s thought has been seriously influential for me over the last thirteen years, in particular. Does his relationship to Kant, and the way he made that relationship work mean that his theological conclusions are all in vain at a material level? Can formal missteps, in regard to theological methodology, still produce material conclusions that are fruitful and edifying for the church and individual members therein? Was modern theology in the main an utter waste of time; did their formal misstep, in regard to feeling like they needed to respond to Kant, in particular, and the Enlightenment in general, doom every material theological idea produced to the idiosyncratic dust bin of interesting theological artifacts, but nothing else?

I remain hopeful that in God’s providence He can speak through various dialects of theological lexicon, and that His voice has the ability to miraculously pierce through the darkness of the manifold human machinations of various periods of theological development. But what if Kant was wrong? Kant was wrong, but in the case of Barth, at least, much of what he produced, materially, can still be understood as relatively right; relative to the eschatos that is. I still have more thinking to do on this, but these are my inchoate thoughts. I’m sure there will be more to come. I doubt this will be a satisfactory development (my blog post) in regard to what my friend may have been looking for. But it’s all I have time and space for at the moment. Blessings.

 

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 54-5.

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Using Modern Theology as Apparatus for Retrieving Classical Theology: Spinoza, Kant, Barth, and Luther in Critical Convergence

It is not always easy to grasp what drives modern theology; indeed, most traditional evangelical theologians have steered away these days, seeking to skip back to the 16th and 17th centuries and back from there—in regard to what they are attempting to retrieve from the classical theistic tradition. But I think this is at their peril, in some ways. Modern theology, one way or the other, impacts the Christian thinker, simply because we are conditioned by our location in the 21st century and the history of ideas (as our context) therein. Sure, we can attempt to distantiate ourselves from our intellectual locations, but to what end? I think it’s more prudent to admit where we are, and then think constructively from there; allow the fruit of the present to help pollinate the past, and at the same time allow the past to contradict any of the rot our locations have presented us with (maybe only realized when placed up against the past).

With that said, I want to help introduce some of the primary soundings of modern theology through engagement with Paul Hinlicky’s analyses; particularly of the impact of Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther’s theologia crucis (‘theology of the cross’) as that is indeed used as a constructive cross-point to enter into a constructive theological project that emphasizes God’s Self-revelation and mediation of Godself to the world—to meet us where we are; to bring His transcendence to our immanence in a broken humanity. Let me quote Hinlicky at some length (of course!), and then close with some reflective comments in response.

Spinoza, not Kant, represents the true antagonist in the story of modern theology’s loss of subject matter and of audience. That is to say, the great role apparently played by Kant masks the real story. The knowledge he putatively destroyed to make room for faith was the moral knowledge of God as Judge through the law inscribed upon the human heart (Rom. 2:15) on the basis of which an acknowledgement is due of God as creative Origin worthy or praise and thanksgiving through consideration of His cosmic works (Rom. 1:20; Acts 17). This inchoate “sense of divinity” becomes a historical possibility in the religions, as Wolfhart Panneberg argued at the beginning of his illustrious theological career. In turn, the philosophical doctrine of the being of perfection inferred from created effects represents a rational critique indigenous to the religions — analogous to the Hebrew prophets’ assault on idolatry — which functions ethically to expose the superstitious manipulation and distorting representation that attend the cults. The “natural knowledge” of God thus acquired in philosophical theology ascertains minimal core requirements for any adequate conception of God as origin and norm of what exists. It is this rational/moral knowledge of God as origin and norm of what exists that Kant destroyed; with Kant God becomes a subjectively necessary regulative idea and as such the practical postulate of a transcendent Guarantor of human moral striving. God as origin and humanity as estranged from this origin in guilt and fallen under the powers of sin and death cannot henceforth emerge for theological thought. Christian theology cannot build upon its ruined foundation; it cannot offer a Cyrillian Christ for Augustinian humanity, since neither the need of such a Christ nor the possibility of such a God can any longer appear. So it appears today.

Once the dominant Kantian narrative of the modernization of theology is deconstructed, however, we are able to see what really has transpired. Karl Barth’s antifoundationalist doctrine of the advent of God’s reign in the act of trinitarian self-revelation accomplished this; it overcame Kant by Kant. John Dillenberger posed the decisive question in this connection in his study on Barth’s revisionist “Lutheranism” a generation ago: “Is the transcendence of God to be defined from the side of man’s inability to grasp God, or is it grounded upon man’s confession of the act of revelation?” Is God’s transcendence something we already know when we know that God is ineffable, beyond words, beyond thought? Or is it something we come to know in its own act and event, and so also in words, something available for thought? Is God’s transcendence God’s inaccessible location, as it were, beyond space and time, or God self-locating into the depths of at the cross of Jesus, there in space and time to win back the wayward creation? What if the transcendence we imagine we know about in our state of guilty alienation merely reflects that alienation back outward and projects to infinity the sinful aspiration for escape? What if the unknown God remains, too, just another idol? What if the unknown God is just another strategy for keeping the true God safely away? If transcendence on the other hand is the eternal life of the Trinity into which we are incorporated through faith in Jesus Christ, knowledge of transcendence is “grounded upon man’s confession in the act of revelation.” The believer comes to ascribe the life that is truly eternal to the love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. The first possibility of transcendence as professed ignorance or agnosticism but that actually knows how to keep the God of revelation at a safe distance is Kantianism; the second is Kantianism overcome. But, as I have just implied, this latter only awakens us to see what the real problem is.[1]

This is the constant pink elephant in the room that so many of my evangelical ilk don’t ever seem pressed to address; and this precisely because they choose to ‘skip’ merrily over these sorts of dilemmas—even as the ‘dilemmas’ themselves have direct reference to reformational and classical theologies, respectively. But beyond this, what of the import that Hinlicky is identifying materially?

Just from a practical point of view: the continual problem that plagues all theological knowledge is how the potential knower believes it possible to have actual knowledge of God. This process involves a whole complex of various loci, but for my money what is a constant is the relationship between the ontological and the epistemological and the impact that the noetic effects of the fall have had upon that complex. That’s what Luther’s theology of the cross seeks to ameliorate and help theologians come to understand that the bases of their knowledge of God—even, and especially in his transcendence—can only come as our capacities as knowers of God are recreated. This is where Barth’s ‘reconciliation is revelation’ coalesces so nicely with Luther’s theologia crucis, and at the same time turns Kant’s dualism of the noumenal/phenomenal on its head. The veiledness of God (transcendence) can only really come to be known for human agents as God chooses to become unveiled, but only for the eyes of faith, in the sarx (flesh) and the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, God’s transcendence can’t be connived from a distance, but only as he freely elects to penetrate our fallenness in and through the flesh and blood of the baby in the wooden manger, and in the shed blood of Man on timbered cross.

This is why I constantly have an aversion to the seemingly unvarnished and all enthralled embracement of classical metaphysics when it comes to doing Christian theology. It is not that I think that metaphysics have no place in Christian theology; it is that the Gospel itself contradicts metaphysics only just as they are attempting to get started in the machinations of a fallen humanity. I honestly do not think many evangelical theologians et al. are self-critical enough about these issues, and as such don’t offer theological projects that I find very attractive or even biblical. Hinlicky’s sketch of these things, as I have offered it, only represents the introduction to his chapter; he will develop these dilemmas and theses more. But I hope you can see the dilemma, and why it is important to not skip over modern theology per se. It can help to provide a self-critical apparatus that actually allows us to retrieve from reformational theologies et al. with much more fruitful and evangelistic productions and redressments.

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 43-4.

Kant by Barth on What The Biblical Theologian Can and Can’t Do and What The Philosopher Can and Can’t Do

I thought it would be interesting to see how Karl Barth sketches Immanuel Kant’s understanding of the relationship between [biblical] theology and philosophy; you might be surprised. What is interesting to me is to see how closely Barth’s development of Kant’s thought here mimics Barth’s own approach towards an understanding of the relationship between theology and philosophy.[1] We will hear from Barth at some length and then close with some concluding thoughts (per my usual format for blog posts):

Kant, as we have seen, with the notion of the Church as his starting point, pondered the possibility of the Bible having a position and significance, which, even if it were not ‘divinely statutory’ would yet be extraordinary and qualified, and he went on from this to ponder also the possibility of a theology which would be different from the philosophical theology he himself was propounding. He explicitly calls this other theology, which limits philosophical theology, ‘biblical theology’, and it is his with that the affairs of this biblical theology should not ‘be allowed to mingle’ with those of philosophy. He wants rather to form for it a definite distinct idea as befits its own peculiar nature. For Kant the possibility for such a discipline or faculty, which is theological in the narrower and specific sense, is given, first of all formally, simply with the existence of the Church which has its foundation in the Bible. Philosophy would be exceeding its rights if it were by any chance to proceed to the formation of a Church, to a special philosophical preaching, on the basis of its own understanding of religion. Philosophy does not offer itself as a rival to theology, but as a ‘friend and companion’. ‘A minister of a Church is bound to convey his message, to those he is teaching the catechism, and to his congregation, according to the symbol of the Church he is serving.’ Kant disputes the idea that a minister’s task as an office-holder is dependent upon any historical-philosophical convictions he might hold as one learned in the subject. A preacher would be bound to abandon his office for this reason, only if he should find something flatly in contradiction of the ‘inner religion’, as he must understand it as a philosopher, in the teachings of his Church, but not if these teachings do not happen to correspond exactly with his historical-philosophical convictions. Even if such a conflict between the office-holder and the scholar in him should take place, the scholar can always explain that it is not completely impossible for ‘truth to lie hidden’ in the things he has to represent in the Church as one holding office.

And with this we have arrived already at what, according to Kant, constitutes the material possibility of a biblical theology. Kant guards against the reproach that it seems as if his critical religious teaching is presuming to dispute revelation. This is not his intention, ‘since it might be after all, that the teachings of revelation stem from men supernaturally inspired’. He does not wish to assert that in matters of religion reason is sufficient unto itself, but acknowledges (let us think once again at this point of that letter to Jung-Stilling) that reason, after it has established in religion those things which it is fitted to establish as such, ‘must await the arrival of everything else, which must be added beyond its capacity, without reason being permitted to know in what it consists, from the supernatural helping hand of heaven’. ‘Even at that point where philosophical theology seems to accept principles in opposition to those of biblical theology, e.g. in respect of the teaching concerning miracles, it confesses and proves that it does not assert them as objective principles, but only as subjective ones; they must, that is, be understood as maxims, when we merely wish to make use of our own (human) reason in judging of theological matters; and in so doing we do not dispute the miracles themselves, but merely leave them without restraint to the biblical theologians, in so far as he wishes to judge solely as a biblical theologian and scorns any alliance with philosophy.’ What Kant does dispute is the idea that the reality and possibility of revelation, its availability as data for human reason and its perception by human reason, are things which can be accounted for by philosophical means, the idea that over and beyond the philosophy of religion there is a philosophy of revelation and of faith, and that by its theology might be represented, or make its position secure. At the same time, however, he disputes the philosopher’s right to deny revelation because it cannot be accounted for by philosophical means. He therefore advises both the theologian and the philosopher ‘not to indulge his curiosity in those things which do not pertain to his office and of which in general he understands nothing’. For him theology is a ‘privileged body’, which he quite plainly instructs to do precisely those things in matters of religion which philosophy dare not do, and to refrain from doing precisely those things which philosophy is bound to do.

What may theology not do? It may not ‘interfere in the free profession of philosophy and attempt to prove or refute its principles of belief least of all, by philosophy’, just as philosophy for its own part has to resign itself that it cannot pass any definitive judgment upon the authority and exposition of the Scriptures. Theology ‘does not speak according to the laws of the pure and a priori knowable religion of reason, for in so doing it would debase itself and set itself down upon the bench of philosophy’. It may not, ‘in what concerns the fulfillment of the divine commandments in our will . . . by any means count upon nature, upon man’s own moral capacity (virtue), that is’. The interpretive method of ‘giving another meaning to something’ is forbidden for theology: theology cannot be entitled ‘to give the sayings of the Scripture a meaning which does not exactly suit what is expressed in them; with a moral meaning, for instance’, ‘and since there is no human expounder of the Scripture authorized by God, the biblical theologian must rely upon a supernatural enlightenment of the understanding by a Spirit which guides into all the truth, rather than concede that reason intervenes’. ‘The biblical theologian as such cannot and may not prove that God himself spoke through the Bible, since this is a matter of historical fact, and thus belongs to the philosophical faculty.’ He must, as Kant at one point says, certainly not without malice, as a pure (purus, putus) biblical theologian, be ‘still uninfected with the accursed free spirit of reason and philosophy’. What, on the other hand, should theology do? The answer: ‘The biblical theologian is really the scribe of the Church faith, which rests upon statutes; laws, that is to say, which stem from the arbitrary choice of another authority.’ Theology ‘speaks according to statutory prescriptions of belief which are contained in a book, preferably called the Bible; contained, that is, in a codex of the revelation of an Old and New Covenant of men with God, which was joined many hundreds of years ago, and whose authentication as a historical faith (and not, particularly not, as a moral faith, for that might also be drawn from philosophy) should surely be expected from the effects of the reading of the Bible upon the human heart rather than from . . . proofs’. ‘The biblical theologian proves that God exists by means of the fact that he has spoken in the Bible.’ He may, in the question of the realization of the will for good, count only upon grace, ‘which, however, man cannot hope to partake of in any other way than by virtue of a faith which fervently transforms his heart; which faith itself he can, however, in his turn expect of grace’. Theology, with these premises it has: the Church, the Bible, historical revelation, and grace, should allow itself to be ranked together with other branches of learning and content itself with the influence it can acquire as such by its own dignity.[2]

I don’t want to say too much because this post is already starting to run long, and I want you to read what Barth has written of Kant here. But if you are aware of Barth’s theology you’ll recognize some of the ethos of Kant’s thinking (as reported by Barth) in Barth’s own mode. Of course, as we noted in a recent post, Barth could not live with the dualism that Kant operated from and thus reified such thinking by taking Kant’s dualistic thinking (as evinced by his rupturing of the ‘knowledges’), and declawing that in the union of God and humanity in the hypostatic union that occurred in Jesus Christ; such that the objective and subjective aspects of knowledge are brought together in the singular person known as Jesus of Nazareth.

Nevertheless, what Barth offers us here, in sketch, I think provides an interesting look into Kant’s thought vis-à-vis Barth’s. Further, it is interesting to take Kant’s duality and apply that to what happened to the disciplines of theology and biblical studies in the 18th century (and into the present); it’s ironic that biblical studies, as a discipline, actually traversed Kant’s ‘lines’ and instead began developing its systems based upon the grounds that Kant would reserve for the philosophers; thus ‘de-confessionalizing’ the Bible and its study by placing it on a naturalist trajectory.

 

[1] For an in depth analysis of this locus in Barth see Kenneth Oakes most fantastic book: Karl Barth on Theology&Philosophy (OUP).

[2] Karl Barth, Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 192-95.

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.

The Critique I Should Have Written of Rachel Held Evans’ ‘Abraham and Isaac’

A couple of days ago I attempted to critique a blog post written by Rachel Held Evans, famous Christian blogger par excellence. In particular I was abrahamattempting to critique her seeming suggestions about how we ought to read the Old Testament, in particular, those troubling passages of Scripture that make it seem like God commanded his covenant people, Israel, to slaughter the Canaanite people groups that Israel was supposed to subdue and dispossess of their land. This part of Rachel’s post is the part that is most interesting and revealing to me, even though it is situated within a broader appeal, by Rachel, to the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the sacrifice of Isaac that God was requiring of Abraham (the story can be found in Genesis 22). The reason that the issue of the Canaanites is more interesting to me is because this is where Rachel really begins to discuss the way she believes she must interpret these admittedly hard passages to deal with, ethically. And so for the rest of this post I am going to attempt to offer a material engagement with what Rachel wrote in her post, and attempt to offer some perspective on where, maybe, her apparent interpretive approach has come from, historically. Furthermore, I also will be addressing, briefly, Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns, and the impact that he has had upon Rachel Held Evans (even recently) through the publishing of his new book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Because I will be engaging with quite a bit of material, and some profound stuff in regard to biblical interpretation and theology (i.e. heremeneutics), this post is going to run long; hopefully it will be interesting enough to you to finish through to the end.

The God of Genocide Who Is Love

As I mentioned, Rachel Held Evans, among many others, is troubled with passages in the Bible (like what we might find in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, etc.) where we see God commanding his covenant people Israel to go into these Canaanite nations and wipe them out; for Rachel (and not just Rachel) this sounds like ethnic cleansing and genocide, she writes:

In the story in question, God leads the Israelites on a years-long conquest of Canaan, with instructions to kill every man, woman, and child of Canaanite ethnicity.  “When you enter Canaan,” God tells Joshua, “the land I am giving you, as I promised to Abraham long ago, do not offer terms of peace, but kill everything that breathes—including women, children, and livestock. Leave nothing alive.”[1]

She writes further,

Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.”

According to this view, God is glorified in seeing swords driven through the chests of curly-haired toddlers, in pregnant women being stabbed in the belly before being murdered themselves, and in old men and women begging for mercy but being denied it—just as God was glorified in the death of all the firstborn Egyptian males (Exodus) and in the taking of twelve and thirteen year old girls as spoils of war (Numbers).

An endorsement of such actions raises about a million questions, the most pressing of which is: if God ordained ethnic cleansing in the past, might God ordain it in the present or future?[2] 

What we see Rachel doing, is the same thing that we all must do when confronted with texts in Holy Scripture; we must try and understand to make sense of this, and what appears to be a very brutal and bloody version of God, and how that jives with Jesus Christ, and his revelation of God as love (cf. I Jn. 4:8). We need to honestly work at bringing what seems to be an ethical dilemma in God’s own life into some sort of comportability with this picture of God as gentle like a Shepherd, but aggressive like a Warrior.

Getting a better grasp on the gravity of the biblical scenario that Rachel is attempting to get her head around is important as we move forward in critically engaging with Rachel’s article. Now, there are some alternatives that we have available to us, as we attempt to bring some sort of resolution to this grunewald_crucifixion_phixr-2.jpg‘apparent’ dilemma with who God is. Here are some alternatives off the top:

1) We could posit that God is God (as Rachel has already interacted with this approach herself), and thus what he says goes, no matter what (a la John Piper).

2) We could offer a view that I have heard over the years that: the Canaanite people were so miserably immoral, that wiping them out was actually an act of mercy (like putting a wild, diseased animal out of its misery).

3) We might want to not frame this as an ethical conundrum primarily, and instead focus on the covenantal and canonical reality of these ‘harsh’ stories by emphasizing God’s plan of redemption in action as forging a way for his ultimate salvation for the nations that he was mediating with particular focus through the nation of Israel. We might want to understand that God’s action in these “genocidal” stories through the lens of the salvation that he was bringing not just for future nations, but maybe even for these Canaanite people themselves (which would be an interesting way to understand this).

4) Or, we might want to posit, as many biblical interpreters of the late 18th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries have offered through a higher critical, historist, history of religions lens (in Peter Enns’ words):

“God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.”  … “is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time….The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” … These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time,” … “but not for all of time—and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up ‘explanations’ to ease our stress. For Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read—which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word.”[3]

There are other ways to try and understand what God is doing (or not doing, as it may be according to Enns, and potentially Evans, insofar as she is willing to endorse Enn’s solution), but these, above, will have to suffice for now.

This is where things are interesting, and maybe even telling, in regard to Evans’ own approach, she writes in regard to the Joshua passage:

Those who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions in the world typically respond to challenges to that interpretation by declaring: “God is God, and if God orders ethnic cleansing, we have no business questioning it.[4]

It sounds as if Rachel is not of those “who defend these stories as historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions….” It sounds like she is choosing, along with Peter Enns, to see these stories as not ‘historical realities representative of God’s true desires and actions,’ but instead as a story[s] that “looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.”[5] Evans makes her reliance upon Enns opaquely clear when she writes,

As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, one of my favorite guides on this journey has been Old Testament scholar (and friend) Peter Enns. Pete’s books, blogs and articles just make sense to me—as a skeptic, as a literature lover, and as a Christian. The guy speaks my language, and he consistently writes with unusual wit, clarity and honesty.[6]

Further,

I’m not sure how else to describe this book [The Bible Tells Me So] except to say that reading it is an experience. Never have I encountered a book on biblical interpretation that manages to be as simultaneously challenging and funny, uncomfortable and liberating, intellectually rigorous and accessible, culturally significant and deeply personal. It’s a book that invites the reader to really wrestle with Scripture, and it’s not for the faint of heart.[7] 

Does this praise of Enns’ work mean, without a doubt, that Evans takes Enns’ solution to the dilemma of “God as love and genocide” as gospel truth for herself? No, not necessarily, but it does suggest it. Especially when Evans, in her article on Abraham and Isaac (the one I have been referencing throughout this little critique), takes this tact in response to all of this; she writes:

While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. We have no moral justification for opposing Joseph Kony’s army of children, for example, because Joseph Kony claims God is giving him direction. If this is the sort of thing God does, who are we to question it?

This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition.   I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me. Once you are convinced that the deity you were taught to worship does evil things, it’s easier to question the deity’s very existence than it is to set aside your moral objections and worship anyway.[8]

It sounds like Evans needs a way out, or better, a way around the events recorded, for example, in our biblical book of Joshua. And it ‘sounds’ like, for Evans, Enns has provided a plausible alternative for Rachel, an alternative that allows the Bible to remain the Bible, but one that is compatible with Evans’ modern ethical sensibilities juxtaposed with who she believes God to be. My colleague, Kevin Davis has responded to this “apparent” mood at work in the hermeneutic of Evans in this way (at length):

I don’t disagree with the substance of that initial criticism [the one being made by both Evans and Enns], but it also must be said that I make God into my own image. Last I checked, I am a sinner. I harbor a whole host of assumptions, moral and aesthetic categories, which I bring to my theology and which still predetermine my conception of God. This is why our theology is always a work-in-progress — “theology on one’s knees,” to use one of Balthasar’s favorite images.

My disagreement with Evans (and Enns obviously comes to mind) is how the biblical portrait of God no longer operates in its authoritative capacity for the church. A certain treatment of Christ, which is itself selective, is given the sole normative status for one’s theology. The rest of the Bible is relativized through its cultural framework, with the peculiar christology of one’s own cultural conditioning serving as the norma normans.

While I invariably bring moral and aesthetic categories to my theology — categories which have been predefined apart from the covenantal activity of God and the inscripturated witness to God — these categories have to be rigorously tested, modified, or perhaps rejected entirely. God does not conform to my philosophy; my philosophy conforms to God, using “philosophy” in both its narrow (modern) and broad (ancient) sense. This includes the God of the conquests, just to be clear.[9]

Davis brings up the way, if I had space, that I would like to proceed further in offering a more pin-pointed critique of Evans’ apparent hermeneutic (reliant upon Enns, as the case may be). But I am going to have to leave the heft of that critique with Davis’ insightful words, and move on, in conclusion to suggesting where, in the history of biblical interpretation, Enns’ and maybe Evans’ approach to interpreting these Old Testament stories come from (and the desire to figure out how to still salvage the God of the Old Testament, in essence, as the Christian God of love that he is, without totally throwing the Old Testament into the garbage can). To this suggestion we now turn, and with this we will close (we are currently at 2200 words in this now mini-essay of mine).

 

History of Interpretation

This is where this critique must go, not just to the ethical concerns (that Davis kantimhas now helpfully alerted us to what is at stake in that regard), but what the antecedents are to the way that Enns’ (and Evans, insofar as she might rely upon Enns in her own thinking) ‘novel’ (but not novel) approach has developed in modern history.

Immanuel Kant signaled a paradigmatical shift into the ‘modern’ period (among other thinkers) in providing the building blocks for how people think (in general) about reality; inclusive of biblical reality and its ostensible historical accounts. It is interesting to consider the kind of impact Kant had when we apply that to the development of modern biblical studies and interpretation, and then how that impact gets played out in people like Enns (who was trained in the discipline of modern biblical exegesis at Harvard Divinity School). Murray Rae helps us understand what kind of impact Kant had, and interestingly, and to our point, how we can see this impact in the types of questions that Evans is asking, and in the kind of ‘solution’ that Enns is offering (pace a ‘Kantian’ turn). Rae writes in regard to Kant and biblical interpretation:

Kant proceeded to explain that there are two forms of theology, the revealed or biblical theology of the church containing all the historical and symbolic material upon which Christian theology has been constructed, and the rational theology which Kant himself presumed to develop in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). These two forms of theology are related as two concentric circles: the outer being revealed theology, the inner being rational theology. The rational theologian, Kant argued, must “waive consideration of all experiences,” which is to say, the rational theologian must proceed without reliance upon the historical material of the Bible. There is, in revealed theology, a timeless essence with which the rational theologian is concerned, but it is discoverable in principle without recourse to the historical testimonies that attend Christian theology, as also the theology of other faiths. The essence of all faiths, allegedly, is their moral significance, which is derivable a priori from reason alone[10].

Remember when Evans wrote this previously in this essay?: “This is a hard God to root for.  It’s a hard God to defend against all my doubts and all the challenges posed by science, reason, experience, and intuition….” And remember, Enns’ ‘solution’ (that Evans appears to resonate with)?: “The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” And now consider that, with what we just witnessed in regard to the impact that Kant (according to Rae) had upon modern biblical exegesis, and the desire for a ‘rational’ theology. What is interesting about Kant in relation to Enns’ ‘solution’ is the willingness, the necessity even, in order to be rational and in accord with modern sensibilities (ethically and epistemically), to discard the ‘husk’ of historical reality, in order to get to the ‘kernel’ and essence of the ethical reality of who the God of the Bible is. For Enns, thinking from a Kantian (among many others later) type of trajectory, it is perfectly acceptable to discard the historical event-ual reality of the biblical text as a faithful representative of who God is (because it does not comport with modern ethical sensibilities – remember Davis’ critique previously), in fact it is demanded by the rational among us, in order to be able to still affirm the gentle Shepherd God who is love that we find particularly revealed in the man from Nazareth, in Jesus Christ.

 

Conclusion

We have covered a lot of ground, and too quickly. This has turned into a mini-essay of sorts (of about 3000 words), way too long for a blog post, but if you stuck it out, thanks.

I have made lots of suggestions, and attempted to draw some connections that still wait to be connected through further development. But I hope that through this engagement, you can at least see some pitfalls that I believe are attendant with Evans’ probing in her post (that I have referenced throughout), and where that trajectory has come from in modern history. I also hope that the role that Enns is playing in all of this has become clear. For many of you that might be a good thing, but in a later post I would like to suggest (and somewhat argue) that reading the Bible through ‘rational’ categories (like those provided by Kant and others, and now deployed constructively by folks like Enns & co.) is not really ‘principled’ Christian or confessional way of reading Scripture. I will further suggest in that later post that this way of reading Scripture (‘rationally’) is not new, nor principally owned by Enns (he just has his own creative way of engaging it), but in fact serves as the basis for almost all of what counts as biblical studies today.

Stay tuned.
[1] Source

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, cited by Rachel Held Evans here.

[4] Rachel Held Evans, Source.

[5] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, cited by Evans.

[6] Evans, Source.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rachel Held Evans, Source.

[9] Kevin Davis, A Brief Response to RHE, accessed 10/21/14.

[10] Murray Rae, “Salvation in Community: The Tentative Universalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann(Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

What Did Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Kant do to the Bible and the Way we Interpret It?

How did we get to where we have gotten theologically exegetically in our current state, whether ‘Liberal’ or ‘evangelical’ in the modern-post/modern period? How has a ‘reasonable faith’ impeded upon a revealed faith such kantthat either we must attempt to jump Lessing’s historical ditch by our own intellectual prowess, or acknowledge thus propping up revealed theology (i.e. what is given in the Bible) by our own rationales?

These are questions I will briefly deal with and sketch in the rest of this kind of abstract (an abstract without an essay).

As Murray Rae describes the impact of Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Kant upon where ‘modern’ exegetical practice is at today the above questions will be addressed, and then I will follow this up with my own reflection upon Rae’s observations.

Lessing’s troubled skepticism about whether the Gospel narratives—concerning events now inaccessible to our experience—could be sufficiently trustworthy to warrant the total submission of one’s life and intellect to the truth proclaimed by Christianity helped to generate among Schleiermacher’s contemporaries, at least in the universities, an impatience with theological claims—about Jesus in particular—that relied solely on the quotation of Scripture and that could not be confirmed by the deliberations of human reason. That mood was also given impetus by Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) insistence that we have no direct experience of things as they are in themselves but only of things as they appear to us. The way appearances of things are ordered into a coherent picture of the world depends upon the data of perception but crucially too upon the conceptualizing activity of our own intellects. With respect to theology, Kant contended that we have no direct experience of God, but our experience of moral obligation only makes sense if we postulate the existence of God (along with individual freedom and immortality). The existence of God is, in other words, a condition of the intelligibility of our moral experience.

Kant proceeded to explain that there are two forms of theology, the revealed or biblical theology of the church containing all the historical and symbolic material upon which Christian theology has been constructed, and the rational theology which Kant himself presumed to develop in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). These two forms of theology are related as two concentric circles: the outer being revealed theology, the inner being rational theology. The rational theologian, Kant argued, must “waive consideration of all experiences,” which is to say, the rational theologian must proceed without reliance upon the historical material of the Bible. There is, in revealed theology, a timeless essence with which the rational theologian is concerned, but it is discoverable in principle without recourse to the historical testimonies that attend Christian theology, as also the theology of other faiths. The essence of all faiths, allegedly, is their moral significance, which is derivable a priori from reason alone.[1]

Present in all proposals, whether Lessing, Schleiermacher, Kant, et. al. there is redolent a kind of dualism between history (linearly conceived), and a subject’s engagement with it vis-à-vis reason; and the more circumspect or reliable or accessible of the two is humanity’s reason. And so beyond the categories supplied by reason there is nothing reliable and thus anything beyond reason remains off limits and inaccessible toward being a ground upon which humanity can build anything stable and flourishing.

As Rae underscores, what this does, in particular with a Kantian accessibility to reality and ‘truth’ is that it subjectivizes it in a way that historical data, for example, no longer has the capacity to duly inform how we ought to conceive of God; instead that is left to our experience and ordering of reality through our own rationales. So God becomes subject to our subject, and Scripture is discarded as a husk that only reflects the kernel of other human being’s attempt to think God. God orbits in our world, we do not orbit in his, in other words.

Actually I made some assertions about ‘Liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ in my opening statements to this abstract, I am going to leave those dangling in light of what I just presented.

[1] Murray Rae, “Salvation in Community: The Tentative Universalism of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011),