17 September 2003

radical orthodoxy & the reformed tradition

Over the past weekend, I attended this conference at Calvin College.

One of the plenary addresses was by John Milbank and was entitled, "Alternative Protestantism." Here are my notes:

Milbank's plenary address concerned Calvin and Calvinism.

While Radical Orthodoxy (RO) is ecumenical, Milbank said that its diagnoses and recommendations are broadly catholic, rooted in the creeds and councils, and the three-fold ministry.

Nonetheless, RO can be incarnated in Reformed theory and practice, particularly since RO critiques all existing (western) Christian traditions, placing them within a genealogical account of the modern. After all, unless we think our tradition is perfect, we all have room for growth.

Milbank notes that as an Anglican he owes a lot to Calvin since, other than the Fathers and earlier medievals (like Aquinas), the Anglican divines were heavily endebted to Calvin. Even the 17th high church Anglicans (Herbert, Donne, Hooker, Andrewes, and Laud) were all essentially Calvinists.

He added that the genealogical critique of modernity is not directed against Protestantism or Reformed theology as its target. The target, instead, are those shifts in late medieval theology introduced by figures such as Scotus and Ockham. Since Reformed theology is also, in part, a critique of those same views, RO can stand with it.

As an aside, Milbank noted that analytic philosophy of religion, and even its Reformed proponents, have however sometimes looked to the late medievals as exemplary (he mentioned Marilyn McCord Adams by name here). In doing so they have too easily embraced univocity (over against analogy), rights discourse (over against associational and common good discourse), and divine command theory (over against Christian eudaemonism).

But this turn to the late mediveal is problematic, both philosophically and theologically, Milbank maintains. For instance, the doctrne of justification in late medieval theology tended to do away with "participation" in God in Christ as a central category, introducing a Pelagian element, and developing a covenant theology that is extrinsicist.

By contrast, the Reformed critiqued these late medieval developments and, Calvinism especially with its roots in humanism, were more open to cultural critique. Thus Luther and Calvin both attempted to move back to biblical and patristic concerns, Calvin especially so with his emphasis upon justification and sanctification being received together in Christ. This same dynamic is carried forwards by someone like Ames in The Marrow of Theology (a work that also delpoys a Proclean theurgic neoplatonism, by the way, as was typical of many Puritans; cf. Harvard's original curriculum: Calvin, Ramus, and Plato, though Ramus is deeply problematic).

While Milbank sees Luther as tending to remain more entrenched within nominalism, Calvinism was relatively more free of that tendency. Thus Lutheranism tends to slip into a kind of monophysitism in its theology, supposing the Creator and creator to be related to one another externally and extrinsically, so that the hypostatic union must involve some kind of fusing of natures. Moreover, in Lutheran theology, the nominalist tendency leads to a doctrine of imputation which downgrades real sanctification.

Calvin instead strongly emphasized union with Christ via Christ's humanity (even if there is a Nestorian tendency present here) and the communication of divine life through the God-man by the Spirit. Thus participation is already deeply rooted within Reformed thought, as Milbank reads it.

This is clear also from Calvin's eucharistic theology in which there is a real spiritual sharing in Christ's humanity and divinity, though without confusion or mingling, nonetheless the finite being situated within the infinite. French Huegenot thought, likewise, was strongly participationist. Most Anglicans, French Reformed, and many Puritans read Calvin in a participationist manner, though Calvin, of course, was not himself really a metaphysician.

Milbank, however, sees Calvin as explicitly rejecting many of the dichotomies of late medieval metaphysics. Thus, for Calvin, human agency and divine action are not thought to be in any competition. Calvin's emphasis on divine majesty and simplicity is like that of Aquinas. Calvin sees unfallen human nature as subject to grace. For Calvin, covenant is not in tension with participation, but assumes it.

Zwinglian influnce, however, leads away from Calvin's theology. It leads to a focus on our faith and, in some Reformed scholasticism, a downplaying of sacramental instrumentality.

Also, certain variations of federal theology are deeply problematic and, in the end, really betray their own covenantalism and Calvin's doctrine of grace and of Christ. They tend to treat the Old Covenant and New Covenant as equally and univocally salvific, as just different arbitrary arrangements, thus decentering Christ. But the OT is a matter of anticipation and prolepsis.

Later Puritan and Dutch theologians also depart from Calvin on matters such as the Sabbath, episcopacy, and so on.

Calvin, however, already possessed some of these problematic tendencies. For instance, on Milbank's reading, Calvin appears to see the Old Covenant as salvific in its own right, rather than in terms of its proleptic and analogical anticipation of the New Covenant. Thus what was provided for Israel is univocally applicable to the church as a New Israel or, alternatively, remains Israel's special perogative. Either way, there are racist implications, whether anti-Semitic or, here in the US especially, pro-Zionist.

Calvin's conception of justification strongly as imputation is problematic within a univocalistic ontology, Milbank suggests. Apart from univocalism, however, imputation is also impartation, since what God declares is actually accomplished. Thus we can speak of an infused habitus of iustitia taking the form of charity.

Calvin's christology tends towards and Antiochene interactionism between the two natures which remain relatively independent. According to Milbank, this is because Calvin refuses a full deification of Christ's humanity as enhypostatized. This is a failure to grasp that the hypostatic union proceeds from the divine side (cf. Maximus the Confessor). There is only one divine "esse" in Christ. There is a human nature, but not a human being, because Christ's human is only divinely.

Milbank went on to gesture at the "extra calvinisticum," Calvin's doctrine of the eucharist, and Calvin's tendency to put divine electing love prior to Christological incorporation, as all also too ontic and non-participatory.

Rather than setting up opposition of an either/or nature (if Christ is in heaven, then he is not present in the eucharistic elements), we must maintain a both/and. Because Christ is present in the eucharist, therefore he all the more remains in heaven. Because all the fullness of God dwells bodily in Christ, therefore the divine all the more exceeds Christ's humanity.

Thus Calvin's sacramental theology, while not entirely wrong, is inadequate. Christ's body, we must say, is "omnipresent" but not locally, but substantially. In order to say this, however, Milbank says that Calvin needs a more robust participationist and analogically metaphysics.

Calvinism is good in its practical orientation. But in the American context, when severed from a participationist metaphysics, this devolves into a kind of pragmatism that is dangerous, contributing to America's messianic pretensions.

But Calvinism is a great tradition and has wonderful resources within it in order to promote a revitalized "reformed catholicism" and "alternative protestantism."

In the Q&A, Jamie Smith began by saying that if Milbank were right about Calvinism -- that it is a theology in search of a metaphysics -- then Radical Orthodoxy is a metaphysics in search of the Bible!

My notes on the discussion are a bit scant. But Milbank talked about the relationship between christology and pneumatology and suggested that in some sense that if Christ is the incarnation of the Second Person, then the church must be seen as the incarnation of the Spirit. Of course, "incarnation" is not being used in the same exact sense and the Spirit's incarnation in the church will not be complete until the eschaton.

More was said, but my notes give out at this point.