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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What They'll Be Writing When They Write about Us

As of a few weeks ago I’ve been posting a series of reflections on Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition, and this postscript is one final reflection, not on what Pelikan wrote but on what he didn’t write. Specifically, this is about what he might have written if he were writing his magnum opus 100 years from now.

Each chapter of The Christian Tradition is about a theological theme, either a doctrine or a movement. But each chapter is also about a period of time (usually about a century) during which that theme dominated the deliberations of the church. So as I read I couldn’t help but wonder, “If Jaroslav Pelikan were writing this from the future about the era we’re living in—say from 1965 to some unknown point in the future—what would the chapter be about? What would he call the issue (or issues) that dominates our time?” Below are four doctrines that I believe future historical theologians will believe we made history by talking about.

When a doctrine becomes prominent in the deliberation of the church for an extended period of time, it usually matters to history for one of three reasons. (1) A challenge from within the church or without (or both) requires that a doctrine be more clearly articulated than previously, perhaps for the first time, and once it is clarified it sets the boundaries for all future discussion. (2) Like reason (1), a challenge arises, but unlike (1) the discussion ends without complete or satisfactory clarification or settlement of the dispute, setting the stage for the same doctrine to be rehashed in the future, perhaps with new insight and perhaps not. (3) New insight emerges from within or without that either opens a new doctrine or a new way of looking at all doctrine. The doctrinal themes that I outline here exemplify all three reasons.

One doctrine about which our age is making history is the doctrine of humanity as male and female. As we live through it, we frequently fail to recognize this as doctrine-in-the-making in our era. We usually categorize the controversies as moral rather than doctrinal, and we usually fail to recognize the common rootage of the moral issues. But the ethical issues of our time that in some way pertain to human sexuality—in no particular order, gender equality, marriage, marital roles, divorce, women in ministry in the church, abortion, contraception, genetic selection, homosexuality and transgender, pornography, human trafficking, child abuse—all stem from the crucial doctrinal question, what does it mean that “God created humankind in his own image . . . male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27)?

The process of answering this question is painful as churches are riven over it and as it touches intensely personal and vulnerable areas of individuals’ lives. But despite the pain, this is an exciting time. Currents in our culture have compelled us to examine and expound an area of doctrine that has not been systematically addressed in two millennia of church history! I pray that by his grace God would give his people insight to settle this question in a way that sets the boundaries for all future generations just as Nicea and Constantinople did for the doctrine of the Trinity.

Unfortunately, a second doctrine that we are wrestling with now is a rehash of earlier unsettled debates, and we seem to be making little progress toward resolving them—specifically, I’m referring to the doctrine of the atonement. The atonement first began to receive serious, sustained treatment in the West in the Middle Ages after the Great Schism separated it from the East. The doctrine received further development in the controversy of the Reformation and then was at issue again during the rise of the Enlightenment. Each time the doctrine was considered during or just after a major split in the Christian family, so fragmented confession and teaching about the doctrine has prevailed. Now, at least among Protestants, the same debate about penal substitution that took place during the Enlightenment is replaying itself. The only new component to the discussion in our day may be the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which itself is more related to the doctrine of the atonement than part of it.

A third prominent doctrine in our era is much more hopeful: the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, particularly of his gifts and power. The person of the Holy Spirit received significant examination by the church when it was explicating the Trinity in the 4th century, and the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit appeared prominently in the explication of conversion during the evangelical/pietist movement of the 18th century. But it took until the 20th century for the doctrine of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit to begin to be expounded.

Given that Pelikan finished The Christian Tradition about 70 years after the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, it is a little surprising that it gets no mention whatsoever in the final volume his work. On the other hand, Pentecostalism, especially at its beginning, typically thrived among social, educational, and ecclesial underclasses that sadly often escape academic notice. For similar reasons, the movement has been slow to make the landmark, sophisticated confessional statements that a historical theologian would take notice of. Thankfully, several trends since the heart of Pelikan’s career have made this area of doctrine impossible to ignore. One is that the long gestation of Pentecostalism finally began producing noteworthy theologians and biblical scholars. Another is a new “wave” of outpouring of the Holy Spirit that struck established confessional churches—the charismatic movement. And the third is the rapid spread of Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity in the Christian boom in the Two-Thirds World. Another happy result of all these trends is that, despite significant skepticism that still exists, the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has largely been accepted as a genuine (if to some perplexing) expression of the Christian faith unlike its ancient predecessors, the Montanists, who were eventually deemed heretics.

The final prominent doctrine under examination in our day is the doctrine of revelation, the question, does God speak, and if so, how? I talked about this in my last post about the Enlightenment and evangelicalism, and the debate today is in most ways the same as it was almost 300 years ago. But today’s deliberation is more than a simple rehash.

One new element is that the Enlightenment project, which began with total confidence that humans can discover the truth about God by their reason, has foundered into great skepticism about this proposition but without a corresponding conviction that God communicates convincingly to human beings who can’t find him on their own. This is the heart of the shift that took “universalism” and renamed it “pluralism” without changing its substance: it is the shift from the belief that all religions have found God to the belief that all religions are unsuccessfully groping for him. Similarly, the heirs of the Enlightenment have gone from believing that all reasonable humans can easily grasp truth to questioning what truth is, whether it exists, and whether logical consistency has anything to do with it.

Another new element is a new fascination with the concept of Story. The Enlightenment fascination with history and the parallel evangelical fascination with eschatology have recently coalesced with a wider cultural interest in the nature of story and the nature of humanity as a storytelling species. In the mid-20th century, scholarly interest in the biblical message as Story—not merely as a random assembly of stories or as narratival ore out of which doctrine is to be mined—began surging and transforming the theological disciplines. It is an interest that cuts across all traditions and is found (albeit differently) among both conservatives and liberals.

I am inclined to believe that if there is a unifying theme to the prominent doctrinal issues of our day, it is in the doctrine of revelation. Its questions—does God speak?, what is truth?—are so foundational that they go a very long way to determining the answers to the other questions. Objections to substitutionary atonement generally fall a lot closer to “I can’t accept it” than to “the Bible doesn’t say it,” and that presupposes one’s belief about revelation. The same feature is found in debates about human sexuality with the added complication of clarifying the relationship between the two testaments of God’s biblical revelation. And the assertion that the Holy Spirit presently gives power to prophesy to members of “all flesh” baptized into the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:17, 38-39) may be the strongest statement yet made against the Enlightenment rejection of special revelation and Christian exclusivity.

In all these cases, as we muddle through today, we may be supplying these questions with answers that will be relied upon by Christians for generations to come.

Friday, June 15, 2012

On "the Crisis of Orthodoxy," the Enlightenment, and Evangelicalism

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.



Before the Protestant Reformation, a Christian in the West could generally feel comfortable that his or her church was the right one, because it was the only one, and that what that church taught was true. Authority and orthodoxy were united in the only show in town. But the late Middle Ages witnessed the increase of longstanding tensions within the church that developed into a crisis of authority. The Protestant Reformation not only magnified the crisis of authority, but it also spawned a crisis of orthodoxy. Four confessional streams emerged out of the Reformation—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical (subdivided into the Rationalist type and the Anabaptist type). If you count renewed contact between the West and Eastern Orthodoxy, it makes five. Each of these streams (and their spinoffs, especially among the Reformed) spent the 17th century carefully defining who they were and who they weren’t, what they believed and what they didn’t. Despite areas of agreement (especially between Lutheran and Reformed), each stream essentially said, “If you want to know what right belief is, here it is—we’ve got it.”

So if five different (general) groups claim to have right belief, how would one know who had it? If there is more than one claimant to authority, which authority does one trust? Pelikan sketches these 17th-century questions within the overall question of “Who is orthodox?” as follows.

The crisis of church: Who is in the church (all the believers, the clergy, or the spiritually alive)? Is the contemporary church truly a continuation of the primitive church? Are any of the visible churches truly churches or are they irredeemably corrupt? Could the Protestant churches unite? Could anyone win the war (or make lasting peace) over doctrinal divisions between Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy?

The crisis of doctrine: What is faith? What is dogma? How is new dogma explained if “new dogma” as such is not allowed? Is doctrinal uniformity even necessary or important? What are the doctrines that must be believed for salvation versus the ones that must be believed only because they are true? Is heresy everything that one’s church disagrees with? How do we know which controversies are simply arguments about language and which are arguments over substance?

The crisis of grace: What are the appropriate terms and categories by which to distinguish the different approaches to grace, law, predestination, and free will within each of the three wings of the faith (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox)? Which approach is correct? What are the proper ways (via word and sacrament) that grace is received?

The crisis of life: Does practice of the external forms of religion (sacrament or doctrinal confession) have any spiritual value without an inward devotion to God? How may the clergy be spiritually and morally reformed? What are appropriate boundaries for polemical activity so that charity is not ruined and the church be worse off as a result?

Even to the extent that all participants in the debate agreed on the questions, there was no agreement on the answers, and with fractured churches wedded to rival states, there was no sufficient common authority by which to arrive at answers. Efforts to reassert a single authority that would yield a single orthodoxy sometimes turned horribly violent (as in the Thirty Years’ War in Germany and in waves of retaliatory persecution in England).

From the end of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th, two opposite answers addressed the crisis of orthodoxy, with its attendant anxious relativism and religious violence, that gripped Europe. Interestingly for this deeply riven time, both answers spanned all confessions (and even Judaism) although both answers were expressed more strongly in the Protestant churches than in Catholic or Orthodox.

The first answer was the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment solution to the relativism of competing orthodoxies was to hunt for the few absolutes of “universal religion” and dismiss the rest as unnecessary nonsense. Enlightenment thinkers excised miracle and mystery from religious dogma as incredible and left off looking for authority for belief in a religious institution. They believed that truth could be found in critical historical research. Such research demonstrated that many supposedly ancient dogmas had in fact been more recent developments, and it also yielded (they believed) a portrait of a non-divine Jesus. In the end, the universal religion the Enlightenment proposed was the existence of a God who created infinitely valuable, immortal, essentially good human beings, and whose sole and lofty command was to love one’s neighbor. This was the “essence of true religion” that cut the knot of competing confessional claims about everything from ecclesial authority to the Eucharist by rendering them moot.

The second answer was the Evangelical/Pietist Revival. Its proponents were staunchly confessional, which inevitably limited how closely they cooperated with each other. But they all agreed that confessing the objective truths about God and his works was useless unless they were confessed subjectively as well—that is, not just that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again,” but that he does so for me. Truth is not merely to be assented to, but felt; the feeling comes from the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work of divine grace to transform the individual soul toward the goal of sanctified perfection. Thus, despite confessional differences that still mattered (in fact, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox who were all coming to similar conclusions still wouldn’t talk to each other for a long time to come), someone who had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit in this way found more in common with a confessional opponent who could testify to the same experience than he could with an unregenerate member of his own church.

Once both these answers, the Enlightenment and evangelicalism, emerged, their rivalry became fierce. Proponents of the Enlightenment disdained evangelicals for remaining mired in confessional superstition but even more for prioritizing the passions as the indicators of a different sort of “enlightenment.” In short, for Enlightenment rationalists, evangelicals were emotionally out of control, embarrassingly zealous, even deranged.

Of course, evangelicals were aghast at Enlightenment blasphemy in all its forms, but one that rankled them in particular was the Enlightenment view of human nature. Enlightenment thinkers saw humans as good people who do bad things because of their enslavement to irrational traditions, and thus education of the mind is the means to inculcating true virtue. But evangelicals insisted that humans are fundamentally broken and that no amount of learning could make them truly good. Only a supernatural, transformational work of God associated with utter, personal reliance on Christ—how they defined “faith”—would accomplish that goal.

Another huge and fundamental difference between Enlightenment thought and evangelicalism—in fact, probably the most important—was their different answers to the question, “Does God reveal himself, and if so, how?” (Interestingly, both sides extended, even radicalized, the rival positions in the medieval debate on the same subject.) For the Enlightenment, the world itself, and no more than the world itself, is God’s revelation. Scientific, historical, and rational philosophical inquiry are the means to discovering God and his ways. The initiative, then, is on the side of humans to find God by enlightened investigation and speculation.

Evangelicals concurred that God did reveal himself in his creation—in fact, those with Puritan rootage like Jonathan Edwards could be obsessed with cataloguing lessons God teaches through natural phenomena. But they believed that the created world isn’t sufficient to enable someone to know God truly; it certainly isn’t sufficient to be transformed, and it isn’t sufficient to indicate how a person could move from being an object of God’s righteous anger to an object of his mercy. Evangelicals insisted that God had revealed himself in the very person, not just teachings, of Jesus Christ, that that revelation was inscripturated in the Bible, and perhaps most importantly that God still actively reveals himself and his ways to individuals by the Holy Spirit. For evangelicals, especially about the knowledge that ultimately matters, the initiative is firmly on God’s side.

As time passed members of the two camps learned to adopt certain features of the other. Some heirs of the Enlightenment started to prioritize emotion and intuition in their systems of thought (as in Romantic theology and New England transcendentalism). Scholarly evangelicals came to appreciate some of the method and fruit of modern historical inquiry for the study of doctrine and Scripture. Moreover, on rare but crucial occasions they found they could work together. The American Revolution was driven by Enlightenment types (Franklin, Jefferson, and Thomas Paine being the most extreme examples), but as heirs of its English strain, most Founding Fathers had a more skeptical view of the tendencies of human nature than the thinkers on the Continent who would later birth the French Revolution. Their belief in limited, balanced government to restrain sinister features of human nature found ready support among most of their evangelical contemporaries (like Continental Congress delegate, clergyman, and college president John Witherspoon). An even stronger example of Enlightenment-evangelical alliance was the movement to abolish slavery by a coalition of enlightened Unitarians and evangelicals (both blacks and Northern whites). This alliance made a comeback in the Civil Rights Movement a century later when blacks (heavily centered in the evangelical strain but without that label) partnered with Enlightenment-descended liberals. Martin Luther King, Jr., reared in the evangelical black church but intellectually formed by an Enlightenment-infused theological education, personifies the alliance.

These examples of Enlightenment-evangelical cooperation are all American. That’s not only because that’s the history I know best, but it’s also because the United States is probably the only country in the world in which neither side can overwhelm the other. Not that they don’t try, which in fact is appropriate, because even if they can at times arrive at the same social conclusions from different bases, their ultimate programs diverge as sharply as they did three centuries ago. Committed heirs of the Enlightenment today believe that the way to end religious violence is to convince everyone to adopt sensible “universal religion” by affirming the equality (even equivalence) of all religions or to give up religion altogether. Committed evangelicals, by stark contrast, believe that the way to end sectarian violence is to spread to everyone the experience of becoming an evangelical Christian by convincing proclamation of the Christian message.

The basic questions are the same as they were three centuries ago. Does all that a person can know of God (if he exists) come through reasonable inquiry according to the judgment of each individual? Or has God actively revealed himself publicly in the divine-human Jesus and still uses the Bible to impress that truth on particular persons’ psyches in a way that they can’t deny it? Are human beings decent but unlearned, and what they most need is education to cast off the superstitions that bind them? Or are human beings intractably morally deformed and most need a miraculous spiritual renovation? Finally, does how one answers these questions determine one’s destiny beyond the limit of this mortal life?

Monday, June 11, 2012

On Nature and Grace

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.

As it happens, I have skipped a speculative post I was planning to include in this series called “On Ousia and the Oneness of God, Christ as the Universal Man, and Theôsis.” For one thing, it’s even further out there than the other posts, and I’m afraid to put it in public view. (Given the level of readers’ interest, I’m using the term “public” very loosely.) But also—and I admit that this might be strangely superstitious—the subject matter itself seems too holy for the internet. So instead, on to “Nature and Grace.”




Roman Catholics, stemming from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas, are comfortable using the terms “nature” and “grace” in a very specific relation. “Nature” is what was created by God as good and has been perverted by the Fall into sin, but still retains some of its original goodness. “Grace” is what has been newly re-created by God on account of the work of Jesus Christ. The typical conception of the relation of nature and grace is that grace is a superadded gift to nature. Nature is good but imperfect. Grace is nature perfected (or at least on the way to perfection).

On the one hand, I think there is a basic relationship here that is hard to argue against from Scripture. However, from a Protestant perspective—and perhaps more to the point from the perspective of someone who has read penetrating new appraisals of the social background of the NT concept of grace—I have a three-fold critique/correction/clarification.

1) It’s not really “grace”; it’s “graced.” What the Catholic tradition describes by “grace” is actually the state or result of nature having received God’s grace (both favor and the gift that concretizes that favor).

2) Even nature by itself is “graced.” For example, life itself is a grace from God. He didn’t have to give it, and nature doesn’t demand it. Nature doesn’t even require its own existence; that too is a grace from God. Though nature in its fallen state does not reflect the richness of the grace poured out in Jesus Christ, it still bears the evidence of God’s grace.

3) Grace doesn’t only add to nature. It also subtracts and transforms. Nature is not merely good-though-incomplete. Nature is perverse—not utterly perverse (because that’s impossible), but perverse nonetheless. God’s grace not only adds goodness to nature but subtracts badness and/or transforms it into goodness. The Catholic scholastic charitable view of nature (though not as rosy as that of Enlightenment rationalists and romantics) likely stems from a reading of Augustine that describes evil as the absence of good and therefore as “Nothing,” a lack to be filled up by addition, not a substance to be annihilated. But if Augustine (or for that matter the Bible) really considered evil to be not so much as the lack of good but as the perversion (twisting, warping) of good, then evil, though still not substantial in its own right, has a certain parasitic substance to be purged in the perfection process. Grace (or again, to be precise, the state of having been graced) cannot be accurately described without including this purging of evil alongside the addition of good.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On the Doctrine of Tradition (Part 2): The Apostolicity of Dogma

This post is one of a series introduced in the first and last paragraphs here. That should explain why it might be kind of weird.



The doctrine of tradition is closely connected to the doctrine of the church. There may be some truth to a proposition that the doctrine of tradition is "between" the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of the church—it is influenced by the assumptions of both (and possibly influences both) without really being either.



It seems to me that all three wings of the faith agree that what makes a dogma worth believing is that it is true. So in one respect, truth is the sole criterion of dogma. The problem, of course, is, how do we know that a dogma is true? Simple: a dogma is true if it is apostolic. So what makes a dogma apostolic? Here I think that all three wings agree on the answer, but each differs in emphasis and thereby places one aspect above the others, and that makes all the difference.

The Orthodox believe that a dogma is true and apostolic if it has been believed by the whole church over time (illustrated here). Thus, they emphasize the tradition of the fathers (always plural) and the authority of councils, and they are clear that there has been no ecumenical council since the Great Schism, because we have not been able to gather all Christians together to have one. For the Orthodox, a dogma is apostolic if it is believed by the whole church from the beginning, because the whole church came into being at the hands of the apostles in the beginning.

The Roman Catholics believe that a dogma is true if it has been taught by its pastoral leadership, which for Catholics is the structure of the bishops, the College of Cardinals, and the Pope at the apex. The idea of a single human source of truth is hardly surprising given that in ancient times the West had only one metropolitan—the bishop of Rome—that dominated the rest of its clergy and only one father—Augustine—that dominated the rest of its teachers (notwithstanding other fathers that were not nearly so dominant in Western theology). For the Catholics, a dogma is apostolic if it has been propounded by the very men to whom the apostles authoritatively entrusted that dogma, who in turn passed it on to other trustworthy men for generations.

The Protestants believe that a dogma is true if it is proclaimed in Scripture—and, by implication, suspect if it is not—because the Bible alone is in its entirety the written Word of God. (In this case as with the other wings I am ignoring liberals in their midst.) Thus in its doctrines of Scripture and the Holy Spirit we have sola scriptura and the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture; appealing to Scripture has always been the only or at least predominant acceptable basis for argument; and differing interpretations (or applications) of the Scripture have been the primary means by which new Protestant traditions (and on occasion institutional denominations) are formed. For Protestants, a dogma is apostolic if it was written down by the apostles themselves for the whole church to read.

Now what is interesting about all of this is that each group, except for a few extremists in each, agrees with how the other two understand the truth and apostolicity of dogma, at least to a point. For example, most Protestants do believe that true, apostolic dogma has been believed by the whole church over time and has been taught by its pastoral leadership. But because Protestants emphasize that dogma is true if it was inscripturated by the apostles, they define "the church" and "its leadership" as only those who through time have believed and taught the true dogma as revealed in the Scripture (as Protestants understand it). In other words, Protestants agree with both the Orthodox and the Catholics in principle, but they make their own principle supreme. As a result, they put their own spin on the others’ assertions to make them mean what the other two wings never intended them to mean—in this case, how “the church” and “the clergy” are defined. I believe the Orthodox do the same kind of thing with the principles of the Catholics and Protestants and the Catholics with those of the Protestants and Orthodox.

Is it possible to maintain all three principles of how to know a dogma is apostolic and true without subordinating two of them to the other?