31 July 2001

which aquinas?

St. Thomas Aquinas has had a hard time of it. For over five centuries he was left mouldering beneath various layers of misinterpretation and distortion, perpetrated often by those claiming to best represent his interests. Then, finally, in the 19th century, at the height of Thomistic neo-scholasticism, there began to be a systematic questioning of the tradition. Scholars like Maurice Blondel, Erich Przywara, Joseph Maréchal, Henri de Lubac, Étienne Gilson, and others began to retrieve Thomas' authentic teaching, a project that continues unabated to this day, even if no full consensus has emerged.

Of particular note in this connection are two books, one recently published and the other to be released shortly (though I've seen parts of it already).

The first is Truth in Aquinas by John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock (Routledge, 2001). In a brief hundred pages or so they present a dense and exquisite account of Thomas Aquinas' theory of truth, building on the recent work of Michel Corbin, John Jenkins, Mark Jordan, Rudi te Velde, and others. It is difficult and technical reading, but the results are stunning. They argue, in part, the following:

[1] Truth, for Aquinas, is not merely an epistemological notion, but an ontological one, involving a real proportion between being and intelligence and their transcendental interconvertibility.

[2] In the case of the human mind, this means we need a model of truth as known in the act of mind - an event between knower and known - and not just as reflected in the mind as if in a passive mirror.

[3] Such an account of truth is irreducibly theological, rooted, as it is for Thomas, in the eternal intra-relations of the Trinity.

[4] Reason and faith, it follows, are not two different kinds of operations, but simply different degrees of human participation in the one divine light of illumination.

[5] Thus proper reason, for Thomas, requires faith since it presupposes the gift of grace and so there is no philosophical approach to God independent of theology and revelation.

[6] The rest of Milbank and Pickstock's book explicates these views of Thomas Aquinas in terms of his theology of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the liturgy, particularly the Eucharist.

The second book is due to be released in November - Aquinas: Conflicting Versions of Thomism by Fergus Kerr, OP (Blackwell Publishers). Kerr's book is, in large part, a survey of the recent revival of interest in Thomas Aquinas' thought, gathering together a wide variety of interpretations that are not all readily available in English or in any one place. In surveying these interpretations, however, Kerr produces his own, somewhat revisionist interpretation of Thomas, one that in many ways will complement the treatment already given by Milbank and Pickstock.

For those of us interested in early Christian and medieval theology and how that theology might speak to the post-modern academy, Milbank, Pickstock, and Kerr have made important contributions.

30 July 2001


Today the calendar of the Anglican church commemorates William Wilberforce, who, in this age of cynicism (including my own), is a reminder to us that it is possible for a person to be both an effective politician and an example of Christian service.

Wilberforce was born in 1759, was educated at Cambridge, and was eventually elected to Parliament in 1780, where he served in the House of Commons until 1825. In 1784 he experienced an evangelical conversion and became committed to using the privileges of his office for the furthering of the Gospel - promoting missions abroad and more universal education at home; calling for greater political toleration of Roman Catholics; and crusading for the abolition of slavery. Due to his tireless efforts, Britain ended the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery throughout the empire in 1833, just one month before Wilberforce's death.

Wilberforce died in July, 1833 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

29 July 2001

brothers karamazov

It's been a lot of work, but I've enjoyed it immensely: I'm almost finished reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov for a bookclub that meets tomorrow night.

Wow. And what a novel it is. Murder, sibling rivalry, intergenerational conflict, comedy, love, betrayal, faith, insanity, apostasy, you name it. It's all in there, woven into a whole that is simply overwhelming and defies easy description.

I had tried to read it once before, a number of years ago, and never made it very far. I'm certain now that the problem was, in large part, the translation. This time around I've been reading the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (North Point Press 1990) and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Daunting? Indeed. But if you have the time, give it shot.

philadelphia museum of art

My wife and I are proud members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the third largest art museum in the western hemisphere. This afternoon we really enjoyed a retrospective of the work of Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates (VSBA), a world-renown Philadelphia-based architectural and design firm that has been important for post-modernism, urbanism, and a return to classical materials and design elements.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown have been working together for over 30 years and have produced some amazing buildings in that time. Among my favorites are the beautiful addition of the Sainsbury Wing to the National Gallery in London, UK and the Lewis Thomas Laboratory at Princeton University, NJ (Venturi's alma mater). Both buildings are wonderfully integrated with their surroundings, make interesting and surprising use of traditional architectural elements, employ the finest materials, and define spaces with warmth and light that are evidently designed as much from the inside out as from the outside in.

The retrospective includes photos, models, videos, sketches, and smaller design pieces. It's amazing to see Venturi's very rough initial sketches - scribbles, in fact, black marker on yellow tracing paper - that are then transformed by his associates into full building plans.

The exhibit ends August 5. But it's my hope that VSBA's buildings will stand as monuments to the death of modernism for centuries to come.

28 July 2001

mother church

Last night I finished reading Carl E. Braaten's Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Fortress 1998). Braaten is a fairly conservative Lutheran (ELCA) theologian and the founder/director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, which publishes the journal Pro Ecclesia.

He energetically argues for a vigorous ecumenism that attempts to avoid the pitfalls of some ecumenical models of the past (doctrinal laxity, relativization of truth, bureaucratic structures, returning to Rome, etc.). Braaten accomplishes this through the development of ecclesiology - an often neglected aspect of theology - and specific proposals for building Christian unity in worship, piety, and polity.

With regard to polity in particular, he makes an interesting argument that Protestants should accept the historic episcopate and some kind of notion of primacy for various sees, including the Roman see. These should not be accepted, he argues, because they are in any way necessary for the esse (sheer being) of the church, but because they were not rejected by the Reformers insofar as they could exist as non-authoritarian human institutions and because they are necessary for the bene esse of a future unified church.

All of this is offered against the backdrop of a deep understanding of Reformation history and what he calls the "tragedy of the Reformation." This is not to say that the Reformation was unnecessary or that its message with regard to the Gospel is to be in any way abandoned. Rather, the tragedy lies in our all-too-easy acceptance of the divisions among the churches as a permanent condition rather than a temporary exile (e.g., this).

Whether one approves of everything Braaten has to say or not (and almost everyone is bound to object at some point or another), he does make a compelling case for the ecumenical imperative along with some intriguing suggestions for how to proceed in fulfilling it.

giussani on education

Yesterday I received a review copy of The Risk of Education (Crossroad 2001), by Luigi Giussani, which I hope to be able to review for a magazine or journal, though I've not yet read it. From what I can tell skimming the contents and introduction, he emphasizes three moments in education.

First, rootedness in a living tradition, as a way of encountering the past and as a guard against unbridled innovation or skepticism.

Second, the expression of that tradition in the lived faith and experiences of a teacher, embedded within a larger community of faith, functioning to justify a certain ideal of what it means to be human in the image of Christ.

Third, the necessity of critique, allowing the lived tradition to be cross-examined in light of the God-given longings of the human heart, a step that must be open to real risk on the part of the teacher in order for there to be that possibility of a mature embrace of Christ on the part of the student.

I'm interested to see how Fr. Giussani fills in the details, especially in light of his many years as a teacher of young people in Milan.

Luigi Giussani is the founder of the international Roman Catholic lay movement, Communion and Liberation and the author of many books, including his Per Corso, a trilogy that constitutes a powerful apologetic for the existence of God, the person and work of Christ, and the need for the community of the church. I wrote a review of the first book of that trilogy, The Religious Sense, in the Fall 1998 issue of re:generation quarterly (also available, in a slightly revised form, on my website, here).

27 July 2001

baptism resources

Since the question of baptism in the Reformed or Presbyterian tradition has come up and some questions have been raised about the biblical foundations of certain formulations, allow me to recommend a very good resource that investigates the biblical material rather thoroughly.

In 1953 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland appointed a Special Commission on Baptism in order "to carry out a fresh examination of the doctrine of Baptism" which was begun by a study of the teaching of Scripture. An Interim Report was produced in 1955 and sent to the Presbyteries for study and comment.

A final study document was issued in 1958 under the title, The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism (St. Andrews Press). While it does contain occasional biblical-critical infelicities, it nonetheless succeeds in its "desire to let the Bible speak for itself" and on its own authority, building on a conviction that the Scriptures form a fundamental unity and that New Testament doctrine must be seen as rooted in the Old.

In producing The Biblical Doctrine of Baptism the Church of Scotland has, I think, given all of Presbyterianism an important biblical resource for our continued apprehension of Christ in the sacrament of baptism as that is understood in the Reformed tradition.

ben meyer

Ben F. Meyer is a prominent mainstream New Testament scholar who has done some important and helpful work on the historical Jesus and wider issues of "critical realism" (even if I don't agree with all of his methods and conclusions). One of the things I appreciate most about his work is his (albeit dry) sense of humor.

For instance, in his now classic The Aims of Jesus (SCM Press, 1979), with regard to 19th century liberal "lives of Jesus" he writes, "Markers in a half-forgotten graveyard, its scores of books on Jesus testify to the unauthenticity of a whole tradition... Theology like this is driven out only by prayer and fasting, neither of which seems to have figured prominently among the resources of liberalism" (98-99).

26 July 2001

creation and god's freedom

A new essay on my website is "Of Creation and the Freedom of God."

This is adapted from a response I made on an online discussion forum regarding whether or not God was free to have created a world other than this or even not to have created at all. It is more philosophical rather than theological in its form of argumentation.

american anglican woes

Stop and pray to Christ for his and our brothers and sisters within American Anglicanism. Things have changed considerably since the days of Cranmer or Hooker and the wonderful Reformation witness of ecclesia anglicana.

Many orthodox parishes and dioceses are struggling with the wider Episcopal (ECUSA) church due to doctrinal errors, canonical disputes, women's ordination, forced episcopal visitations, loss of property upon leaving the denomination, and the like. The recent events concerning Christ Church in Accokeek, Maryland are only a more extreme example of the kinds of things that are being experienced in lesser ways elsewhere (for up-to-date news, consult the website of the American Anglican Council). The efforts of reform and renewal groups like the AAC or Forward in Faith (as well as the somewhat more irregular Anglican Mission in America), all face tremendous challenges.

Continue to pray. The 1928 BCP first "Prayer for the Church Universal" might be a good place to start.

binning on the covenant of works

The on-going debate among Reformed theologians regarding the nature of the so-called "covenant of works" made with Adam (and what to call that covenant is part of the debate), has apparently been with us for a long time.

I was skimming T.F. Torrance's Scottish Theology (T&T Clark 1996) and ran across the mid-17th century biblical theologian Hugh Binning who writes, in regard to the covenant of works, that "there was some in-breakings of grace and free condescendency of God; for it was no less of free grace and undeserved favour, to promise life to [Adam's] obedience, than now to promise life to our faith."

Probably not how Shepherd or Schilder or Holwerda would word things, but nonetheless an early intimation of the kinds of questions to which Reformed covenant theology would eventually give rise.

25 July 2001

family history

I've been researching my family's history lately. As it turns out, on my mother's side we've been Presbyterians for a long time. My maternal grandparents - Mary McWilliams and Willis Mowday - were members of Coatesville PCUSA, in Chester County, PA. Their parents before them were members of Forks of the Brandywine (Brandywine Manor) PCUSA, several miles outside of Coatesville.

In fact the graveyard at the Manor Church is full of McWilliamses and several Mowdays and, in the case of the McWilliams line, goes back to my great-great-great-great-great grandmother Jane McWilliams who came from Ulster with her husband George in 1780. George, who pre-deceased her, is buried the the Presbyterian Church in Chambersburg, PA. Many of these family members served the Manor Church as trustees and elders over the years.

I'd love to research these Irish roots further. I suspect George and Jane were from either county Derry or Antrim. Whatever the case, it is encouraging to see our Father's covenant faithfulness in Christ generation unto generation.

24 July 2001

new content

Newer content on my website includes (these links will open another browser window): "Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Confession 28.6" and "Fiesta and Eucharist."

The first is an argument that a belief in baptismal regeneration falls within the bounds of the Westminster Standards. It may be of interest for those of us in a Presbyterian or other Anglo-Reformed tradition.

The second stems from having recently read From the Heart of Our People: Latino/a Explorations in Catholic Systematic Theology (Orbis 1999), edited by Orlando Espín and Miguel Díaz. The book is of mixed quality and interest, but Roberto Goizueta's essay "Fiesta: Life in the Subjunctive" got me thinking about the practice of the eucharist in much of the Reformed tradition.


what's a blog?

Several folks have asked me, "What's a blog?"

It's a web-based mechanism for keeping a public journal with which to share one's thoughts, interesting news items, quotes, creative writing, helpful links, etc.

For some other examples, follow the "blog" links at the side. To start your own or for more information, follow the "I Power Blogger" link at the very bottom. Blogger is the engine that powers many a blog.

And don't feel bad that you're out of the loop about blogs. Only five years ago I completed my doctoral dissertation on a Tandy 1000. Talk about "out of the loop"! Sheesh. If only I had known...

23 July 2001

about me

My primary academic interest is philosophical theology in service to the church.

Philosophical theology - at least as I do it - is a kind of combination of systematic theology, historical theology, and biblical theology, bringing the tools and perspectives of philosophy to bear upon issues of faith, particularly in terms of meta-issues of how our assumptions (in terms of ontology, epistemology, and so on) affect and shape theology and where they fit in the unfolding history of theological thought.

Moreover, I see this interest as one that is best nurtured in the context of a liturgical piety rooted in the word and sacraments, in conversation with the wider traditions of the Christian church of all ages.

Other interests include postmodernism, moral theology/philosophy, and epistemology.

For more detailed information on teaching and publications, consult my website. A selection of writings is also available.

For more information about me or to contact me:

email: garver[at]gmail[dot]com
AIM, YIM: garvers1
phone: 215.991.3516 (work)

La Salle University
1900 W. Olney Ave
Philadelphia, PA 19141

visible and written word

N.T. Wright is among evangelicalism's leading contemporary pastor-theologians. In the introduction to his Following Jesus (Eerdmans 1994) he writes,
The visible word and the written word - or, if you like, the edible bread and the audible bread - go closely together, as they did for the two on the Emmaus road in Luke 24. Following Jesus, after all, involves heart, mind, soul, and strength. A church without sermons will soon have a shriveled mind, then a wayward heart, next an unquiet soul, and finally misdirected strength. A church without sacraments will find its strength cut off, its soul undernourished, its heart prey to conflicting emotions, and its mind engaged in increasingly irrelevant intellectual games. (xi)
For all the reasons Wright notes, I'm thankful to have been raised in a tradition that faithfully preaches the text of Scripture. But I very much hope as well that the familiarity of Wright's latter description might serve to encourage certain segments of Reformed orthodoxy to embrace a more robust sacramental piety.

let the blogging begin

Well, now I've done it. I've fallen deep into the narcissistic pit of Internet hell - the blog. Saints preserve us.