Gregorian Eclecticism

I ran across this interesting quote detailing the instructions Pope Gregory I gave to Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with Augustine of Hippo) as he prepared to embark on his mission to England:

Your brotherhood is familiar with the usage of the Roman Church since you have very pleasant memories of being raised and nurtured in that usage. But it seems to me that you should carefully select for the English Church, which is still new to the faith and developing as a distinct community, whatever can best please Almighty God, whether you discover it in the Roman Church, or among the Gauls, or anywhere else. For customs are not to be revered for their place of origin; rather those places are to be respected for the good customs they produce. From each individual church, therefore, choose whatever is holy, whatever is awe-inspiring, whatever is right; then arrange what you have collected as if in a little bouquet according to the English disposition and thus establish them as custom.

There is much to appreciate here. A couple of things stand out to me. First, Gregory carefully avoids imposing an artificial uniformity in worship practices. Augustine was given the freedom to be discerning, even eclectic, in adapting Christian worship to an English context. And second, Gregory also provides several helpful tests for weighing the merits of various worship practices. Are they respectable and good? Are they holy, awe-inspiring, and right? And, most importantly, are they pleasing to God?

In Defense of Evangelical Eclecticism

In a recent post at Reformation21, the inimitable Carl Trueman complains about the coming onslaught of evangelicals enjoining Lenten observance:

It’s that time of year again: the ancient tradition of Lent, kick-started by Ash Wednesday. It is also the time of year when us confessional types brace ourselves for the annual onslaught of a more recent tradition: that of evangelical pundits, with no affiliation to such branches of the church, writing articles extolling Lent’s virtues to their own eclectic constituency.

Trueman essentially argues that “Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals” have no business observing the church year because it is not a part of their history. It may be fine for Anglicans, whose liturgical life has been shaped by the church year, but it exhibits ignorance, or worse, consumeristic carnality for other evangelical traditions to incorporate these practices into their liturgical and devotional life.  “[J]ust as celebrating July the Fourth makes sense for Americans but not for the English, the Chinese or the Lapps, so Ash Wednesday and Lent really make no sense to those who are Presbyterians, Baptists, or free church evangelicals.” Trueman concludes,

When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history. Or maybe they are simply exhibiting the attitude of the world around: They consume the bits and pieces which catch their attention in any tradition they find appealing, while eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires. Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is so often a symbol of this present age’s ingrained consumerism.

Since Trueman extols the virtues of his own Presbyterian tradition and its sacramental and sabbatarian piety, one wonders if it is the last two groups (the pitiable Baptists and free church evangelicals) who are the real targets of Trueman’s critique. Presbyterians may be ignorant of their liturgical tradition, but do Baptists even have one?

Anglican pastor and professor James Merrick has written an insightful response to Trueman, also published at Reformation21, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts from my own evangelical Baptist perspective. Since I have previously commended the benefits of the church year on this blog, it should go without saying that I disagree with Trueman’s assessment of Lenten observance. But here are a few reasons why I think Trueman’s argument fails to convince.

First, the principle that Trueman sets forth here, if applied consistently, would threaten to cut off evangelicals from the broader Christian tradition. The Protestant traditions that emerged in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, and which would form the backbone of the coming Anglo-American evangelical movement, did not start from scratch. They were building on previous centuries of faith and practice. Renewal movements are by their very nature involved in a process of “picking an choosing.” The question was whether or not the doctrines and practices of previous centuries conformed to Scripture, advanced the cause of the gospel, and built up the church. Each generation must earnestly ask that same set of questions.

What if we applied Trueman’s principle not only to liturgical practices but also to doctrinal beliefs? Are free church evangelicals wrong, for example, to claim the Nicene trinitarian tradition as their own? I mean, Athanasius didn’t go to Wheaton or publish with Crossway or write for Christianity Today. Or should Baptists continue to affirm the doctrine of original sin? Augustine couldn’t teach in any of our Baptist seminaries; he approved of baptizing babies after all! Shouldn’t we just stick with those doctrines and practices which are a part of our own denominational histories? Someone may respond that trinitarianism is a part of evangelical history and the doctrine of sin is a part of the Baptist tradition.* But that is precisely my point. Somewhere along the way someone in these Protestant traditions decided that there were some things from the previous centuries of Christian history that were worth preserving. These traditions may have also jettisoned certain practices (the way that the Puritans threw out the liturgical calendar), but free church Protestants shouldn’t feel locked into the decisions of the seventeenth century (a point also made by Merrick). We are free once again to reconsider which practices might be consistent with Scripture and beneficial for the church’s spiritual well being.

Second, there is a sense in which liturgical eclecticism is the tradition of free church evangelicalism. This need not be interpreted in the most negative, consumeristic light. It can be interpreted in terms consistent with the principles of evangelicalism itself. Christians are free to pursue any and all liturgical and devotional practices which are consistent with Scripture and which provoke Christians to love and good deeds.  Those committed to a strict understanding of the regulative principle may disagree with the adaptability and openness of these evangelical traditions, but that in and of itself isn’t an argument against them. One could argue that theological and liturgical eclecticism actually puts Baptists and free church evangelicals in a better position to be corrected by Scripture than those committed to more rigid confessional traditions.

Finally, the Fourth of July analogy is unfortunate. Christian denominations are important for providing habitats within which Christians can live and grow and mature in a particular tradition. But denominations aren’t silos, or at least they shouldn’t be.  We should welcome the sharing of theological and liturgical “best practices” as we seek to learn and grow along with the larger body of Christ. Conceiving of denominations as analogous to discrete nation-states, with their own distinct and non-transferable traditions, runs the risk of sectarianism and forestalls a robust commitment to the church’s catholicity among Protestants.

In the end, I agree with Trueman that the church year should not be presented as “normative” for Christians, in the sense that Scripture demands its observance. But I disagree that its observance marks a fundamental rejection of evangelical tradition. Eclecticism can be a virtue if it leaves us open to correction from Scripture and encouragement from the broader Christian tradition.

P.S. Trueman has written a surrejoinder to Merrick’s post.


*Though it is interesting that as the General Baptists slid into unitarianism, some Baptists argued against the Trinity as a “Roman Catholic” doctrine.

The Transfiguration and the Passion

Two tools that you should have in your hermeneutical toolbox are the notions of intertextuality and intratextuality.  The former looks for textual connections between books of the Bible and the latter for textual connections within a single book of the Bible.  These tools are especially relevant for the study of the fourfold Gospel.  These verbal and thematic links help us to discern the theology of the evangelists.

In his helpful book, Studies in Matthew, Dale Allison lays out the intratextual links between Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration and his account of the Crucifixion of Christ. Check them out (pp. 228-29):

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.41.08 AM

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.43.51 AMSo it seems fairly obvious that Matthew wants us to read these two stories together. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ transfigured glory with his humiliating death functions to highlight a major Christological theme for Matthew. Jesus is both the Danielic Son of Man and the Isaianic Suffering Servant. He is both the Lord of glory and the one who is crucified for the sake of his people. We can’t read either story without the other. We need both in order to understand the full theological significance of Christ’s identity and mission. If the dogma is the drama, as Dorothy Sayers concluded, then we could say something similar here: the grammar is the theology. We get at Matthew’s Christology precisely by attending to these kinds of verbal and thematic parallels.

When Were You Converted?

Here’s a helpful reminder of the objectivity of the gospel from James Torrance. The good news of the gospel is not, in the first instance, what God does in and through us but what he has done outside of us and for us in the work of Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth tells the story of an old lady who once went to the evangelist Kohlebrügge and asked him, ‘Tell me, sir, when you were converted?’ The evangelist, knowing well that she was interested in the details of his Christian experience, replied, ‘Madam, I was converted nineteen hundred years ago when Jesus Christ died on a cross for my sins and rose again.’ He was concerned to point away from himself and his own faith to Jesus Christ. The decisive point for him was not primarily anything in his own experience, important as that may be, but that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, buried…the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven.’ It was as though he said, ‘When Christ died long ago for me, I died, and when Christ rose again for me from the dead in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, I rose again. When Christ ascended for me into heaven, I ascended with him and now my life is hid with Christ in God.’ That is the true testimony of faith, the inner witness of the Spirit. In the words of the apostle, ‘We judge that if one died for all, then all died.’ Christ for us is prior to Christ in us.

Evangelicals and the Church Year

I grew up knowing almost nothing about the church year.  I say “almost nothing” because my childhood Southern Baptist church did celebrate Christmas and Easter. Unlike some other traditions, our church had no principled aversion to seasons of reflection on certain aspects of Christ’s life.  We just didn’t know about anything but Christmas and Easter. And these two seasons were so predominant in the broader culture that their legitimacy was never in question. I suspect this is a common story for many Baptists and low-church evangelicals.

In recent years, however, many evangelicals have started to expand their embrace of the church year.  Many churches are focusing more intentionally on the seasons leading up to Christmas and Easter: Advent and Lent, respectively.  But I think there is benefit in embracing the whole-kit-and-kaboodle (is that still a recognizable phrase?), that is, celebrating the whole year: from Advent and Christmas through Epiphany, Lent, and Easter all the way to Ordinary Time (also known as the season of Pentecost).

A couple years ago, Daniel Montgomery, pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote a helpful post titled, “Why We Observe the Christian Year at Sojourn.” I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here’s an important bit:

In our narcissistic culture, we ignore the wisdom of the Ancients and the traditions of those who came before us. We act like we’ve invented the wheel and we’ve got this whole thing figured out.

You see this in contemporary church services. You see it in the “latest and greatest” songs we sing, in the haphazard way we order our services, in the easy-come, easy-go mentality of our people and the consumer-culture mentality of our service planners. And you see it in the way we’ve laid aside and then forgotten the wisdom of our church fathers, who devised the Christian Calendar.

Rightly understood, there is nothing mystical about the Christian year. There is nothing about it that requires us to treat the Christian year as if it were commanded in scripture, like baptism and communion are commanded. Yet there is nothing about it that requires us to steer away from it or regard it as an unbiblical intrusion on our services and our daily lives.

It is simply a practice of historic Christianity that continuously stirs reflection, anticipation and action in the hearts of God’s people for the whole, big story of the gospel. More and more Christians are rediscovering this historic practice, and growing in the truth and knowledge of Christ.

Let me pose some similar questions here that Montgomery poses at the end of his post:

  • Have you been a part of a church that celebrates part or all of the church year? If so, how have these patterns of worship and reflection helped you in your spiritual growth?
  • Do you see any danger in celebrating the church year?
  • If you are convinced that there is benefit in the church year, how might we encourage our churches to move in this direction?

Some Observations about Hart’s The Experience of God

I’m currently 3 chapters into David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  Here are a few brief observations.

  • Hart offers here a timely and trenchant critique of the New Atheism.  He pulls no punches, referring to philosophical atheism as a kind of “superstition, often nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.” Hart’s book is an extended version of a kind of transcendental argument against naturalism.  Being, consciousness, and bliss–all of which Hart identifies with the being of God–are necessary preconditions of our experience of the material world. Thus, Hart shows the irrationality of a purely physicalist understanding of reality.
  • Hart’s book also offers an able defense of classical theism and a critique of what Brian Davies calls “theistic personalism,” the latter of which understands God as simply one discrete (albeit maximally great) being among others. I agree with much of what Hart has to say here. His critique of these revisions to classical theism points up the limitations of analytic philosophical method as well as the dangers of rejecting the doctrine of divine simplicity.  If God is simply one logically possible being among others–even if the maximally great being–and if his being is composed of various, distinct properties, then how can God’s being remain unconditioned and independent? Wouldn’t God then be dependent upon some metaphysically prior reality and the properties that constitute his being? If the danger of affirming divine simplicity is reducing God to a property, as Alvin Plantinga has argued (a danger, in any event, only present given the self-imposed constraints of analytic method), then the danger of rejecting divine simplicity is positing causally inert properties as the ultimate reality, rather than God’s being itself.
  • Having said that, I am waiting (no doubt in vain, given Hart’s stated purpose for this book) for Hart to defend an explicitly Christian version of classical theism. The Christian tradition has simultaneously affirmed the classical conception of God that Hart is defending (a God who is infinite, a se, metaphysically simple, atemporal, immutable, impassible, etc.) and the biblical and creedal understanding of God as a tripersonal agent who loves, judges, and redeems his creation.  These latter affirmations aren’t merely metaphorical descriptions of the ultimately unknowable divine reality.  They are real (even if accommodated and analogous) self-revelations of the one true God, and are no less true of him than the philosophical affirmations of classical theism.  The need to show the consistency of this classical Christian understanding of God is especially pressing for Hart, who seems to conflate the theistic claims of all the major world religions, including Eastern pantheisms.

So far, I think The Experience of God is an important and helpful book in many ways, but one with some serious limitations from a Christian perspective. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.

Our Papers at the Upcoming L.A. Theology Conference

Lamb

Matt and I both are both pleased to be presenting papers at the upcoming Los Angeles Theology Conference, which will convene January 15-16, 2015, at Biola University. The conference features a stellar lineup of plenary speakers (Michael Horton, Matthew Levering, Bruce McCormack, Ben Myers, and Eleonore Stump), who will be presenting on the conference theme, “Locating Atonement.”

Matt and I will be presenting two of the nine breakout session papers.

Matt’s paper seeks to draw out the eschatological dimensions of the atonement implied by Christ’s descent to the dead.

My paper attempts to situate atonement in a dyothelitic (two-wills) understanding of the Incarnation.

One of the conference organizers, Fred Sanders, highlights all nine of the breakout session papers:

Matthew Emerson (California Baptist University): “He Descended to the Dead: The Burial of Christ and the Eschatological Character of the Atonement”

Joseph Jedwab (Kutztown University of Pennsylvania) and Daniel J. Hill (University of Liverpool): “Locating Atonement in Punishment and Retribution Theory”

David S. Koonce, L.C. (Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum), “Atonement in the Act of Faith”

T. Mark McConnell (Laidlaw College): “Atonement and Shame”

R. Lucas Stamps (California Baptist University): “Atonement in Gethsemane: The Necessity of Dyothelitism for the Atonement”

Kyle Strobel (Biola University) and Adam Johnson (Biola University): “Atoning Wisdom: The Wisdom of God in the Way of Salvation”

Jeremy Treat (Reality LA): “Atonement and Covenant”

Adonis Vidu (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary): “The Place of the Cross within Trinitarian Opera Ad Extra”

Eric Yang (Claremont McKenna College) and Stephen Davis (Claremont McKenna College): “Atonement and the Wrath of God”

We’re excited to be a part of this and hope to see some of you there.

For more information, check out the LATC website.

Summa contra Cartesians

I’m currently doing some research for a paper on the anthropological implications of Chalcedonian Christology. My working hypothesis is that Christian theology has often insufficiently applied the person-nature distinction (so vital to the church’s Trinitarian and Christological formulae) to the topic of theological anthropology. So, for example, while Chalcedon understands the soul as a part of human nature in which a person subsists (Christ’s human nature consisted of a “rational soul and body”), many Christian theologians continue to articulate an understanding of human personhood that equates “soul” with “person.”  On such a Cartesian understanding, the person “just is” the soul.  But Chalcedonian Christology seems to demand a distinction between person and soul in order to avoid the error of Apollinarianism.  The person of the Son assumed a human nature that was already equipped, so to speak, with a soul, no less than a body.  So the person must be distinguished from the soul, at least in the case of Christ.  I don’t have space to defend it here, but a strong case can be made that the next ecumenical council, Constantinople II, implies that the same is true for all human persons.

In any event, this Cartesian dualism isn’t the only kind of substance dualism on offer in the Christian tradition.  Thomas Aquinas, for instance, articulated a kind of hylomorphic dualism that equated the person neither with the soul nor the body.  Instead, on Thomas’ scheme, the soul is the substantial form of the material body that gives to it its rational configuration. The person is the individual thing (suppostium) that exists in and through the soul and the body as constitutive parts of human nature.  I have a lot more to read in Thomas (as well as in the secondary literature on him), but the following discussion from the Summa Theologiae (1.75.4) should suffice to demonstrate that Thomas clearly distinguished the person and the soul.  In response to the question, “Is the soul man?” Thomas cites Augustine:

On the contrary, Augustine (De Civ. Dei xix, 3) commends Varro as holding “that man is not a mere soul, nor a mere body; but both soul and body.”

Thomas argues that the soul cannot be equated with “man,” conceived of either as a species or as an individual. Instead, Thomas maintains that the soul is a part of man along with the body.  He concludes:

Not every particular substance is a hypostasis or a person, but that which has the complete nature of its species. Hence a hand, or a foot, is not called a hypostasis, or a person; nor, likewise, is the soul alone so called, since it is a part of the human species.

So the soul is a substance, distinct from the body, but it is not a subsistence; it is not a person.  A person has the “complete nature of its species,” which, in the case of a human being, ordinarily includes (bracketing out the question of the intermediate state) a body and a soul.  In sum, Thomas maintains the person-nature distinction even outside of its normal Trinitarian-Christological context and applies it consistently to ordinary human persons as well.

New Book on Reformed Catholicity

Since we’re pretty interested in retrieving a sort of Baptist Catholicity around here, I took notice when I saw this forthcoming book by Michael Allen and Scott Swain: Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation.  It’s due out in January 2015.  Here is the publisher’s summary and the table of contents:

About

Can Christians and churches be both catholic and Reformed? In this volume, two accomplished young theologians argue that to be Reformed means to go deeper into true catholicity rather than away from it. Their manifesto for a catholic and Reformed approach to dogmatics seeks theological renewal through retrieval of the rich resources of the historic Christian tradition. The book provides a survey of recent approaches toward theological retrieval and offers a renewed exploration of the doctrine of sola scriptura. It includes a substantive afterword by J. Todd Billings.

Contents
Introduction: Renewal through Retrieval
1. Learning Theology in the School of Christ: The Principles of Theology and the Promise of Retrieval
2. Retrieving Sola Scriptura, Part One: The Catholic Context of Sola Scriptura
3. Retrieving Sola Scriptura, Part Two: Biblical Traditioning
4. A Ruled Reading Reformed: The Role of the Church’s Confession in Biblical Interpretation
5. In Defense of Proof Texting
Afterword: Rediscovering the Catholic-Reformed Tradition for Today: A Biblical Christ-Centered Vision for Church Renewal by J. Todd Billings
Index

HT: Jonathan Pennington

Remember Steinmetz

It might be a good time to revisit David Steinmetz’ 1980 game-changer, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis” (Theology Today 37: 27-38). You don’t have to agree with all of his conclusions to appreciate his trenchant critique of the historical-critical method and his praise of patristic and medieval interpretation. Here’s the conclusion:

The defenders of the single meaning theory usually concede that the medieval approach to the Bible met the religious needs of the Christian community, but that it did so at the unacceptable price of doing violence to the biblical text. The fact that the historical-critical method after two hundred years is still struggling for more than a precarious foothold in that same religious community is generally blamed on the ignorance and conservatism of the Christian laity and the sloth or moral cowardice of its pastors.

I should like to suggest an alternative hypothesis. The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false. Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting, it will remain restricted-as it deserves to be-to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.