30 August 2003

regeneration and faith

I would never question what I take to be crucial biblical truths:• God's sovereign and ultimately monergistic work in salvation, electing and saving whom he chooses.

• The absolute priority of God's grace in Christ over any response on the part of the individual who is, apart from that grace, unable to respond.

• The nature of salvation as total "gift" even in regard to the gift of faith by which salvation is received.
And these are the truths that the "traditional" Reformed doctrine of regeneration is quite rightly designed to protect.

What I do question is whether the overall shape of that doctrine of regeneration is the best way of doing that, either biblically or theologically. In particular, it seems to me that the overall biblical data suggest that regeneration is as much "by faith" as justification and thus cannot be placed (logically? causally?) prior to faith or justification. Moreover, it seems to me that the central concerns of Reformed theology are in agreement with me on this.

With regard to the biblical data, the central scriptural passages that speak of regeneration's transition from death to life do so in way that indicates that faith is the instrumental means of this transition. This is clear not only from Ephesians 2:5-9 and other Pauline texts, but also is strongly suggested in the discussions of being "born from above" in John 3:3-15 and of being "born anew" in 1 Peter 1:22-25.

As R.B. Gaffin says with regard to the relevant texts, Paul is able to speak of "the inception of the application of redemption without recourse to the terminology of regeneration or new birth understood as 'a communication of a new principle of life'" which is, among other things, logically prior to faith (Resurrection and Redemption, 136). Indeed, Paul's discussion indicates that "there is a correlation between Christ as life-giving and the sinner as life-receiving (i.e., Christ-receiving) which carries back to the very point of inception of salvation, a correlation which characterizes the single act of being joined to Christ" (141).

And it seems that, biblically speaking, the single act of being united to Christ by faith is not susceptible to analysis as a series of discrete acts, causally and logically prioritized in relation to one another, even if there are various aspects of that single act that can be analyzed and interrelated.

Turning from the biblical data to wider theological concerns, we can reflect upon the notion of salvation as a "gift" that is only to be found "in Christ." Some formulations of regeneration seem to require that the inception of salvation must be, first and foremost, an interior change wrought by the immediate power of the Spirit. Yet, this focus could be construed as odd given the wider emphasis within the Reformed tradition upon the monergistic work of God from outside of us, the blessings of the covenant as being "in Christ" and shared with us, the notion of a iustitia aliena that is extra nos, the instrumentality of external means of grace, the legal and the forensic, and so on.

Furthermore, Reformed theology has taken "union with Christ" to be a central organizing motif, an emphasis shared by both Paul and Calvin. The latter writes, "Therefore, to that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union, we assign the highest rank, Christ when he becomes ours making us partners with him in the gifts with which he was endued" (Institutes 3.11.10).

If all the blessings of salvation are to be seen as possessed only "in Christ,' then do we not have a strong prima facie reason for supposing that "regeneration" should be countenanced only as possessed "in Christ" as well? Detaching regeneration from union with Christ and, moreover, conceiving it as a necessary precondition for that union, turns regeneration into a "thing" to be possessed as (inalienably?) inhering in the individual.

When the nature of what is wrought in regeneration is conceived in too "metaphysical" terms, moreover, salvation no longer remains "grace," since it only persists under the rubric of "gift" in its initial moment of conception, whereas salvation is entirely a gift from its beginning until it is consummated on the final day. Despite attempts to resist a metaphysical or substantialist notion of grace, it appears that on this point much Reformed theology has arguably retained a problematic residuum from earlier theological ontologies.

One thinks here of Kuyper's remarkable claim that the regenerate ego, "was dead and has been made alive, was diseased and has been made healthy, lay under God's wrath and now basks in his favor, and is now utterly holy...[it] is entirely holy and therefore sinless; it is indeed cut off from all sinfulness. It can no longer fall away, is inclined to all good and incapable of any evil. It is as sanctified as ever it will be in eternity" (De Gemeene Gratie, volume 2, 312).

Moreover, by placing regeneration prior to faith and the other benefits of salvation, regeneration is being conceived outside of Christ. Yet, the New Testament at every point presents all saving benefits as something that we have only in union with the crucified and resurrected Christ. Even the term "grace" in the New Testament, when explained further, is predominantly "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" or "the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus," so that it is Jesus who is God's grace for us. Calvin is correct, then, when he writes that Jesus is "the source and substance of all good" and that "so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us" (Institutes 3.1.1).

Consequently, regeneration, as with all other saving benefits, is presumably better thought of as regeneration "in Christ," as one aspect of that single reality of union. To place regeneration outside of union with Christ, in some discrete work of the Spirit that remains prior to and necessary for that saving union, encourages us to seek our salvation and assurance somewhere other than in Jesus Christ himself, to depend upon a work of God in us, rather than in a work of God for us. As such, the contours of the reformational understanding of the Gospel can too easily become distorted.

But surely it is Jesus who ultimately is the one who was "born from above" in whose resurrected life the "new creation" is found, who is the new "heart of flesh" and the "new man." I do not, of course, want to neglect the need for new life in the personal, individual reception of salvation, but I would argue that any such new life must be conceived as one aspect of the total gift of salvation that is received in Christ and thus comes to us as much from the "outside in" and it does from the "inside out." Indeed, the Christian life is one of ongoing struggle more and more to become, by faith, what we already are reckoned to be in Christ.

Finally, I think it is useful to note that the earliest strata of the Reformed tradition did, in fact, approach regeneration in much the way I have suggested. Calvin, for instance, writes, "Now both repentance and forgiveness of sins—that is, newness of life and free reconciliation—are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith" (Institutes 3.3.1). And, in the words of the 1561 Belgic Confession, "We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a 'new man,' causing him to live the 'new life' and freeing him from slavery to sin" (Article 24). Amen.

28 August 2003

stray thought

Sometimes, when I read about the Scottish Reformer John Knox and his fiery temper and sharp tongue, I can't help but think of Begbie in Trainspotting.

Does that make me a bad Presbyterian?

RO conference

The website has posted abstracts of papers that will be presented at the Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition conference.

26 August 2003

toddler tv

I'm not sure what I think about really little kids watching television, but Claire does seem to like teletubbies a whole lot.

So do I. There's something quite mesmerizing and tranquil about it.

I've had some students tell me that the show is even better with some, er, shall we say "chemical enhancement." But, I don't think I'll be trying that.

some history

Deconstructionism, in particular, has its roots in structuralism (e.g., Levi-Strauss, Saussure) and post-structuralism (e.g., Barthes, early Foucault).

"Structuralism" refers to a number of analogously related methods of analysis stemming originally mostly from the work of Ferdinand Saussure in linguistics and Levi-Strauss in anthropology. It was later re-applied in various ways to the study of literary texts (Roland Barthes), the functioning of scientific theories (Georges Canguilhem), psychology (Jacques Lacan), political theory (Louis Althusser), and so on.

Saussure's basic insight was to study language synchronically (how it actually exists as a particular moment) rather than using the diachronic (etymology and history of language) method that was dominant. He argued that the basic meaning of terms within a language was a function of precisely what that term did differently within that language from any other term (this latter point is developed in deconstructionist ideas of "differance" and the like).

Through difference signifiers achieve reference to the signified, though the relation of a particular word to a particular object is more or less arbitrary. Moreover, meaning is not primarily "in the head" or somehow in the intentions of the language user (leading to the later "death of the author" theme in literary theory). And the focus of linguistic study should be upon langue (the objective social fact of a shared language) rather than parole (the particular utterances of individuals).

Through the careful analysis of the "difference" in function that a particular sign has from every other sign within a langue, certain aspects of the how that sign functions (and the signified it refers to) may be uncovered and made visible in a way they previously were not given how the workings of language so often occur "below the surface". Thus structuralism is interested in finding the underlying rules that organize phenomena into a social system and doing so in a way that is objective, coherent, rigorous, and scientific.

Post-structuralists (Barthes, early Foucault, Kristeva, etc.) in turn critique many of the premises of structuralist thought. In particular post-structuralism attacks structuralism's supposed neutrality and scientific objectivity as complicit within the modernist project of providing foundationalist knowledge that grants a final truth, systematicity, and certainty. Part of the post-structural project is a re-historicization of structuralism (a la Hegel and Nietzsche's genealogical method), taking the objects which structuralism explores (language, identities, ritual, political systems, consciousness, etc.) as themselves constructed and thus not able to serve as settled foundations for structuralist analysis.

In this critique of structuralism the emphasis falls upon the signifier rather than the signified with the emphasis on how language produces the objects of which it speaks through the articulation of difference, but also how that difference (seen most prominently in various kinds of oppositions) is inherently unstable—what Derrida calls "dissemination," so that in the play of signifiers any final, absolute arrival of meaning is continually deferred. This kind of analysis can be seen also, e.g., in the early works of Foucault.

Post-structuralism, through the events of May 1968 in Paris and other forces in the 1970's, became increasingly radical, eventually growing into what we think of as "deconstruction", most prominently outlined by Derrida, but also evident in the later writings of Foucault on "power/knowledge," Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard on desire, Irigary and Spivak on gender, etc. In Derrida's thought, the oppositions embedded within language prevent the possibility of a "metaphysics of presence" (i.e., an unmediated apprehension of reality), instead working to create binary oppositions in which the one element is privileged over the other: reality over appearance, speech over writing, men over women, etc.

As a result, deconstruction is very suspicious of any attempt to ground all thinking and speaking in some ultimate and perfect language (as the early Wittgenstein perhaps attempted with his notion of "language as picture" in the Tractatus). With this suspicion about any kind of "transcendental signifier" there is also a suspicion of any kind of "transcendental signified" in which to ground our knowledge, whether that object be God, a Platonic Form, the Cartesian cogito, or whatever. This is not to say that deconstruction is inherently anti-theistic, but that God cannot appear merely to serve the need to legitimate a philosophical system, providing certainty and transparency. Rather, God would have to be conceived as a plentitude who always infinitely exceeds our ability render absolutely present in language.

23 August 2003

aghast

Well this just totally sucks. Even the archives are gone.

21 August 2003

claire news

But I'll let Laurel tell you.

18 August 2003

the seed of regeneration

Sometimes Reformed soteriology seems to want to locate salvation in some kind of inherent quality of the heart that determines whether or not a person "truly" believes or is "truly" regenerate. This way of putting things, however, runs into several dangers: placing our trust in something in us rather than in Christ, fostering a tendency towards examining the quality of our faith, and undermining assurance rather than calling us to perseverance.

One of the biblical texts that comes into play in such discussions is the parable of the sower. For instance, the Canons of Dort point to that parable ("Head of Doctrine Five," Rejection of Errors 7) as providing a taxonomy by which we can distinguish genuine faith from temporary faith, insisting (rightly, I think) that the difference is not merely one of temporal endurance.

Part of the difference between persevering faith and temporary faith, then, is the in disposition of the believer to receive the Word of God, though the metaphors (stony ground, no root, absence of fruit that comes to maturity) in themselves tell us little of what precisely that means.

It seems to me that "stony ground" means, in part, a refusal to allow faith to penetrate one's heart sufficiently, through continued resistance to the Spirit. And being "choked out by weeds" is allowing the cares and tribulations of this world to overcome faith. According to Jesus' parable, neither kind of response allows for fruit to grow or, if there is fruit, for it to come to maturity.

Now, I suppose there is a danger that Jesus' warning here could be turned overly introspective and a source of doubt--"Am I being too stony hearted?" or "Am I allowing life's worries to get to me too much?" and thus one can conclude "I'm not really a believer" or "I'm not really regenerate." But that is not quite the response I think Jesus intended.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be concered about our own stoniness or being choked by worry, but Jesus doesn't propose doubt of one's salvation as the solution. That is to reify "faith" and the grace of regeneration to see if it is of the right sort, to detect some hidden difference in its quality. No, what Jesus seems to be doing is to call us to "constancy and steadfastness" in whatever faith we have, to set aside any stone and to put down the weeds of worry.

But then, it seems, that duration is really a central issue--we must endure, not merely as a matter of temporal extension, but enduring as Jesus endured, setting our eyes upon our Father's calling and his faithfulness to us, and getting busy with the task at hand, which for us, as for Jesus, always involves cross-bearing. That is the constancy and steadfastness of which our Lord speaks.

In this connetion I think it important to recognize that the faith of the disciples themselves was one that was choked and whithered in the time of trial that came upon them (see Mk 14:50), but that this wasn't the end. They moved past that whithered faith in the power of the new life flowing from the resurrected Christ. The wilted plants revived and bore great fruit. That same resurrection life is still offered to us in Jesus that we might bear fruit too.

I'm wary of Dort's (and much of Reformed theology after it) drawing theological conclusions that strike me as underdetermined by the text itself. It is true that genuine, persevering faith is not merely a matter of duration, but of constancy and steadfastness. And the sower is always ready to give us the grace to prepare our hearts so that such constancy and steadfastness is possible.

No doubt some will turn out to be stony or choked by cares, but that ought not be a source of doubt, but a call to perseverance in faith lest we too be found to be stony or infested by weeds.

16 August 2003

x-games

Los Angeles. Now.

par-tay!

Though it's not her actual birthday today, we're having a little party to celebrate Claire's first year...including homemade ice cream. Yummy!

13 August 2003

the philosophers' song

(warning: post of questionable taste follows...)

From the "Bruces" sketch on "Monty Python's Flying Circus":Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.

David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel,

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

There's nothing Nietzche couldn't teach ya
'Bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

Plato, they say, could stick it away--
Half a crate of whiskey every day.

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,

And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
'I drink, therefore I am.'

Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker,
But a bugger when he's pissed.
I've always enjoyed that little ditty.

11 August 2003

milbank for dummies

Jon W and a few other folks have expressed difficulty in wading through John Milbank's massive and obscure tome, Theology and Social Theory: Against Secular Reason (Blackwell, 1993). In light of that, here's a quick, short summary of its major themes:

Milbank begins with the observation that "once there was no secular" and from there goes on to provide a sweeping account of the modernist construction of the secular and the ways in which modern theology has surrendered itself to the secular, conforming to secular standards of scientific "objectivity" and giving up any pretense to speak comprehensively.

Milbank's account of the emergence of the secular positions modernist secularism in relation to Christian theology as a kind counter-theology or as a heretical offshoot of Christian theology. The secular worldview, he suggests, emerged from two sources: one "heretical" and one "pagan." Both of these perspectives share an underlying commitment to the idea that reality is constituted by ontological conflict or chaos. The difference between these perspectives is how they react to the inevitability of conflict.

The "heretical" version of the secular (e.g., Thomas Hobbes) supposed that law is needed to set limits upon the competition of individuals as they seek to dominate each another ("war of all against all"). This is the view that lies latent particularly within in late scholastic nominalism and voluntarism as I have outlined that before on my blog and has been argued by thinkers such as de Certeau.

The "pagan" version of the secular (e.g., Machiavelli) involves political management by a ruler who is indifferent to moral considerations in gaining and maintaining power in the face of conflict. This "pagan secular" draws upon ancient Greek or Roman myths that centered upon heroic strength, physical beauty, and the ability to out-maneuver one's opponents. One could suggest here, as well, that it was the shifts in late medieval nominalism and so on that allowed such a pagan secularism to even become once again plausible.

This analysis leads to Milbank's further critique of modern sociology and political and economic theory, ranging from Malebranche and Durkheim to Kant and Weber. He notes how the explanatory notion of "society" as used in the sociology of religion does really do the work that it claims to do, except on the presupposition of secular space. Indeed, "society" comes to function almost as a mysterious divine providence. Thus various theological realities end up being reduced to mere social functions (e.g., conversion of a group of people is seen as fully explained by their social and economic status and what the Gospel offers to that).

Milbank goes on to mixed reviews to both Hegel and Marx who both, despite their helpful analyses, still suppose a kind of "original violence" as they create their modernist myths of progress and conflict. For Hegel, the violence becomes a necessary moment in the unfolding of the absolute Spirit toward freedom while for Marx, couched within a scientific positivism, alienation and class conflict become necessary means of reaching the eschatological socialist end.

Milbank goes on from here to criticize various kinds Catholic political theologies, particularly Karl Rahner and various liberation theologies that are built upon him and upon folks like Marx. In particular, I think that Milbank's analysis of Rahner is quite helpful and important. He suggests that contemporary Catholic theology offers two different versions of "integralism"—attempts to re-integrate nature and grace, which had be dichotomized since the days of nominalism.

Rahner’s integralism tries to "naturalize the supernatural" with its starting point in human anthropology and the "supernatural existential" in which every act of human understanding contains within it an orientation toward infinite Being as the a priori condition of that understanding.

The integralism of Blondel, de Lubac, and von Balthasar, on the other hand, tends to "supernaturalize the natural" suggesting that there is a fundamental continuity between human action and supernatural grace so that the natural desire for the beatific vision is a sign of grace that is always-already present and acting in us within particular historical circumstances, not just a bare possibility of grace being given or some generalized structure of human consciousness. Thus the character of grace must be conceived by way of paradox: that human nature, by nature, has a supernatural end and yet this end cannot be seen as in any way owed to human beings as a debitum, but rather must always be received as pure gift.

Against the backdrop of this second sort of integralism, Rahner’s version—with its strong influence upon liberation theology—can be seen to have the effect of reducing theology to politics, naturalizing the supernatural.

After a very helpful chapter on science and power, Milbank turns toward postmodernism. Postmodernism with its post-secular critique of modernism, tends to see the world in terms of differential flux. As such, it can be seen as embodying a fundamental ontological violence in its presupposition of agonistic difference since, for a philosopher like Derrida, language has no goal beyond its own creativity, an incipient nihilism. Yet, suggests Milbank, the postmodernists do have some important insights into the insubstantiality of the created world and the ways in which supposedly objective reason can fall into the service of power.

Against a thinker like Alasdair MacIntyre, Milbank suggests that there is no universal reason that can give us metaphysically secured values or can ground classical virtues. This move, however, does give theology an opportunity to reassert itself. Christian theology can "master" social theory only by a "non-mastery"—the enactment of a peaceful, reconciled social order that lies beyond any purportedly absolute, objective or universal understanding of reason or law.

In this light, postmodernism's focus upon flux has an analogue in the Christian doctrine of creation, whereby created reality is radically contingent. Theology can, therefore, not only accept itself and the church as a historically and culturally situated reality, but also do so without surrendering the possibility of speaking of the transcendent. Indeed, only on the presupposition of the transcendent can any talk of the immanent make sense without slipping into a kind of nihilism.

Milbank's Christian alternative, therefore, narrates a reality at the heart of which is not chaos, violence, or nihilism, but a "sociality of harmonious difference" in light of God's creation and the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet, this virtue of nonviolent Christian practice is not a practice that can be grounded in anything external to its own activity and its own narration of it. Milbank is building here upon Augustine's argument that despite the existence of difference within the created order, all creatures are related to God and so to one another and that this difference in relation is ultimately rooted within the inner life of the Trinity—life together in God. In view of this kind of theological "social theory," violence (that is, any form of chaos or conflict) must always be secondary, and "peace" (that is, living in "harmony" with one another) must always be primary.

10 August 2003

calvin and bucer on eucharist and unbelief

As I noted in the previous post, Calvin and Bucer appear to differ--at least linguistically--with regard to what unbelievers receive, should a unbeliever partake of the eucharist. While Bucer was willing to say that "to the unworthy the body and blood of Christ are truly offered, and the unworthy truly receive them," Calvin more closely followed what he took to be Augustine's view.

In his Homilies on John, Augustine writes, "the person who doesn't dwell in Christ and in whom Christ does not dwell, without doubt neither eats his flesh nor drinks his blood, but rather he only eats or drinks the sacrament of such a great thing unto his own judgment" (26.18). And so, as Augustine says later, the bread that the Eleven ate at the Last Supper "was the Lord himself" but the bread Judas ate was merely "the Lord's bread" (59.1).

Calvin similarly writes, that while this matter of what unbelievers receive in the Supper is "not an essential one," he says that he maintains that "Christ cannot be disjoined from his Spirit" and so "his body is not receieved as dead, or even inactive, disjoined from the grace and power of his Spirit" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27). Calvin cannot see how a partaker of the eucharist "who is altogether destitute of a living faith and repentance, having nothing of the Spirit of Christ" could, in fact, receive Christ in the sacrament. While Calvin is willing to admit that those who are "weak" in their faith do "receive Christ truly in the Supper" though "unworthily," those who come to the Supper without a true faith do not "receive anything but the sign."

Nonetheless, Calvin is also quite aware of the danger of reducing the efficacy and reality of Christ's presence in the Supper to a merely subjective one, dependent upon the faith of the receiver.

Thus, Calvin insists that "the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the worthiness of men, and that nothing is taken away from the promises of God, or falls to the ground, through the wickedness of men" (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:27). And so, he says, "Christ's body is presented to the wicked no less than to the good" so that unbelief does nothing to "impair to alter anything as to the nature of the sacrament." In the Institutes Calvin similarly says that "the flesh and blood of Christ are no less truly given to the unworthy than to God's elect believers" but that unbelievers reject the proffered gift (4.17.33).

Returning, then, to Bucer's view, while Bucer is willing to speak of unbelievers "truly receiving" the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament, one wonders to what degree this language is meant as a mediating position between Calvin and Luther. Elsewhere in his writings, Bucer is clear that he doesn't accept that unbelievers receive Christ in the sacrament in the same manner as believers, since Christ is not received to the intended effect by unbelievers, but to condemnation--akin perhaps to receiving a letter that one never opens or reads. But Calvin compares the experience of the Supper for unbelievers to the blessing of rain as it falls upon a hard rock and runs off when no opening in the rock presents itself.

In any case, I'm not going to figure out all the nuances of Bucer's views and his differences with Calvin, if any beyond the merely linguistic. At least not tonight.

library software

I'm still chuckling. Gotta love DOS.

09 August 2003

bucer on eucharist

The Lutheran Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration) reports the following as the views agreed to by the Strasbourg Reformed at the Wittenburg Concord with the Lutherans in 1536:They confess, according to the words of Irenaeus, that in this Sacrament there are two things, a heavenly and an earthly. Accordingly, they hold and teach that with the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, offered, and received. And although they believe in no transubstantiation, that is, an essential transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, nor hold that the body and blood of Christ are included in the bread localiter, that is, locally, or are otherwise permanently united therewith apart from the use of the Sacrament, yet they concede that through the sacramental union the bread is the body of Christ, that when the bread is offered, the body of Christ is at the same time present, and is truly tendered. For apart from the use, when the bread is laid aside and preserved in the sacramental vessel, or is carried about in the procession and exhibited, as is done in popery, they do not hold that the body of Christ is present.

Secondly, they hold that the institution of this Sacrament made by Christ is efficacious in the Church, and that it does not depend upon the worthiness or unworthiness of the minister who offers the Sacrament, or of the one who receives it. Therefore, as St. Paul says, that even the unworthy partake of the Sacrament, they hold that also to the unworthy the body and blood of Christ are truly offered, and the unworthy truly receive them, if where the institution and command of the Lord Christ are observed. But such persons receive them to condemnation, as St. Paul says; for they misuse the holy Sacrament, because they receive it without true repentance and without faith. For it was instituted for this purpose, that it might testify that to those who truly repent and comfort themselves by faith in Christ the grace and benefits of Christ are here applied, and that they are incorporated into Christ and are washed by His blood.
This Bucerian approach to the eucharist--sometimes called "dynamic receptionism"--was influential partiularly in Anglican theology.

Bucer, however, seems to have differed with Calvin on some points and emphases, particularly with regard to what the unworthy and unbelieving receive in the sacrament. Perhaps I'll say more about that later.

06 August 2003

pomo in MR

D.A. Carson has two articles in the latest Modern Reformation regarding postmodernism, a lengthier one on "The Dangers and Delights of Postmodernism" and a brief one on "Why Should Christians Think about Postmodernism?"

Carson's first essay asserts that the primary usge of the term "postmodernism" that holds all the others together is an epistemological one (11).

One might quibble with this a bit. While certainly postmodernism is largely a reaction against modernist epistemology, one might suggest that it is also the re-emergence of an interest in ontology as complicit in any epistemology (one thinks of Derrida's early essay "Violence and Metaphysics"). While modernists certainly had ontologies, they tended to subsume them to epistemology and hide many of their assumptions. Postmodernism attempts to be more self-conscious.

Carson goes on to give a brief, and rather helpful, overview of the history of epistemology from the premodern through the modern into the postmodern (12-15). Such brief histories always have to be caricatures to a certain degree, but Carson does a good job on the whole.

I have a minor reservation, however, regarding Carson's contrast between Calvin and Aquinas, in which he says that Aquinas maintains that natural revelation could give a person "significant knowledge about God" while Calvin maintains that special revelation "was necessary for us to know anything about God in the way that we should" (12-13). Besides the problems introduced by the ways in which Carson is using the term "revelation," I'm not sure the contrast between Aquinas and Calvin is so sharp as he suggests. After all, Aquinas says, "...unbelievers cannot be said to believe in a God as we understand it in relation to the act of faith. For they do not believe that God exists under the conditions that faith determines; hence they do not truly believe in a God, since...to know simple things defectively is not to know them at all" (ST II-II, Q 2, a 3, ad 3).

Carson continues by assessing postmodernism, outlining what he takes to be some of its considerable strengths: its critique of modernism, its recognition of our radical situatedness, its inclusion of broader modes of knowing than just propositional and linearly rational ones, and its self-consciousness about our pluralistic world, allowing us to read the Bible afresh (15-16).

He also is concerned, however, about some of the dangers and weaknesses of postmodernism: its tendency to exaggerate differences and difficulties in communicating, its provision of a false antithesis between absolute certainty and complete relativism, its rejection of "objective truth," and, despite its rejection of modernist pretensions, its own arrogance and intolerance regarding those who believe that God has spoken (16-17).

Carson's criticisms here are, nonetheless, open to qualification. Certainly the tendencies he outlines are at work, especially on a popular level. Yet, as Mike Horton notes in another article, postmodernists "in the academy today have a lot to teach us about the very dangers that so many popularizers of postmodernism embrace" (18). And Horton here is quite correct. Prominent academic postmodernists, on the whole, recognize or respond to most of the dangers that Carson notes.

Carson finds it ironic when postmodern philosophers "accuse their reviewers of not really reading their books closely and carefully" since that accusation seems to presuppose the very kind of theory of authorial intent that postmodernists reject. It seems to me, however, that Carson could be seen as equally guilty here, as apparently taking what he understands of postmodernist critiques of "the author" as an excuse for not trying to understand such views accurately.

The fact of the matter is, when you read a theorist like Derrida, you will quickly realize that he spends a great deal of time carefully analyzing texts, looking at their historical content, understanding the text in relation to other texts contemporary to it, and so on (look at Derrida's "Plato's Pharmacy," for instance).

The "death of the author" is not a way of getting rid of authorial intent altogether, but rather of not absolutizing intent or understanding it in subjective, psychological categories, nor requiring us "to know the author better than the author knew himself" in order to be able to understand the text. The modernist author becomes an "author-position" in connection with other texts--not so much a psychological entity composed of intentions, since meaning resides in language, not the mind, even if language is always "on the move" and final settled meaning is always deferred. But this postmodernist approach to meaning should be read more in terms of an inexhaustible plentitude of meaning and less in terms of a violent agonistics by which meaning is always subverted by power (though in a fallen world this is an ever present possibility, as some postmodernisms rightly perceive).

This brings us to Carson's second criticism, that postmodernism leaves us with an intolerable antithesis: either "we finite human beings can know things omnisciently" or we are "lost in subjectivity" as those "adrift on the sea of 'knowledge' without compass and without shore." Again, this misrepresents what most serious postmodernists are saying.

Derrida himself notes that we are not faced with an "all or nothing choice between pure realization of self-presence and complete freeplay and undecidability" (Limited Inc 115). Some interpretations are better than others and some are just wrong. Regarding the interpretation of his own texts as advocating a "skeptic-relativist-nihilist" viewpoint, Derrida says that such an interpretation is "false (that's right: false, not true) and feeble; it supposes a bad (that's right: bad, not good) and feeble reading of numerous texts, first of all mine" (146).

Regarding postmodernism's rejection of "objective truth" I suspect that Carson is still too much in the thrall of modernism himself. I frankly don't know what Carson means by the phrase "objective truth," but as that phrase is typically understood within modernist philosophy, it refers to a theory of truth in which the world and the mind are regarded as externally and extrinsically related to one another so that the world is objectified under the scrutinizing gaze of instrumental reason and registers in the consciousness through mental representations that passively appear there in mirror-like correspondence with it.

Does Carson believe that? Given his comments on modernism, I should think not. But in that case he rejects "objective truth" as well. Still, apart from offering an alternative epistemology and ontology, I'm not sure where Carson stands. If he is trying to retrieve a premodern notion of "adaequatio" between mind and thing, that is all well and good, but it is not a theory of "objective truth" since on such a view the mind and thing do not stand over against each other as subject and object.

Carson's second, briefer essay supplements the first, attemtping to glean some practical lessons from postmodernism. He begins by noting that our attitude towards postmodern philosophy should be neither one of total rejection or uncritical embrace, with which I quite agree. He goes on to note some positive contributions from postmodernism: an emphasis on authenticity, integrity, and humility that challenges sanctimonious sloganeering and pious hypocrisy; a value on "relationships over truth structures"; and a renewed attention to the Bible as narrative and not just a sourcebook for theological nuggets of timeless or moralistic truth.

Then Carson continues by noting some areas in which postmodernism needs correction and confrontation. Where postmodernism rejects metanarratives this would imply a rejection of the biblical narrative. When we embrace the biblical narrative this requires rejecting idolatry (among which, I'm supposing, he includes postmodernism). And, finally, we cannot be content to allow a postmodernist open-ended interpretation of Scripture that allows its teaching to be dismissed as "just your interpretation."

On all these points, however, I think Carson has mis-assessed the danger, even if he is not entirely wrong. I would suggest, for instance, that the postmodernist rejection of metanarratives does not necessarily entail the rejection of the biblical narrative any more than it entails the rejection of postmodernism's own narrative about the modern.

As Merold Westphal points out, the term "metanarrative" has a very specific meaning within postmodern theory, particular as Jean-Francois Lyotard used the term in his The Postmodern Condition. There a "metanarrative" refers to a philosophy of history, a big story that encompasses our own personal stories and those of our communities. But this is not just any story: it is a story about other stories that positions those stories in relation to itself--a second-order story (whereas the Bible is a first order narrative, albeit one that narrates other narratives in relation to itself).

In particular, "metanarrative" is the Enlightenment story designed to self-legitimate the Enlightenment project of overthrowing what came before and setting up new authorities, a story of progress from superstition and ignorance to scientific truth. Also, it is a philosophical story like those of (for instance) Hegel and Marx, in the case of Hegel legitimizing the western mind and modern democratic capitalism, and, in the case of Marx, a story of oppression and liberation of the proletariat in order legitimize revolution. As such, these "metanarratives" are "totalizing" in the sense that they attempt to homogenize humanity, seeking a universalized goal, suppressing plurality and differences. Moreover, these metanarratives have their root in the autonomy of the human subject as the embodiment of truth and justice (whether the Cartesian cogito, the Lockean bearer of rights, or the Hegelian or Marxist collective).

When postmodernism proclaims the collapse of these meta-narratives, it is noting our inability to believe them anymore given that they haven't delivered the goods they promised and given our present skepticism about self-congratulatory human claims. As such, there is a lot in common between the postmodernist critique of metanarrative and the Bible's own polemic against idolatry. Indeed, this leads to Carson's second point, regarding idolatry, indicating that postmodern thought might function as an ally against such idoltrous notions of God.

When postmodern thinkers such as Heidegger, Levinas, and Marion critique "onto-theology," it is precisely idolatry they are critiquing. As Heidegger notes, onto-theology arises "only insofar as philosophy, of its own accord and by its own nature, requires and determines how the deity enters into it" (Identity and Difference, 56). Thus onto-theology has to do with positing the existence of a God in order for human reason and its philosophical projects to be able to render the whole realm of being as intelligible to human understanding. As such, postmodernism, in its critique of onto-theology, makes common cause with biblical faith.

With regard to Carson's final point on "open-ended interpretation," I think again he shows himself to be remain still a bit too much within modernism, with its commitment to historico-grammatical exegesis. For modernism, such exegesis, over against medieval typological and liturgical understandings, was complicit in the political project of taming and policing religion, thereby securing a privatized "religious" realm over against the secular. As John Milbank notes, the open-ended nature of typological-liturgical exegesis entailed a continual arrival of "divine communication into the process of human historical becoming" in a way that would "forever escape from sovereign mastery" by the secular (Theology and Social Theory, 18). In this context, the biblical literalism (as well as pietistic moralism and subjectivisim) of both fundamentalism and liberalism can be seen as the flip sides of one and same thematic (see also Leithart's Against Christianity, 56-58).

Open-ended interpretation does not imply, for either the historic church or for postmodernism, an "anything goes" approach to hermeneutics (as the discussion of Derrida above should make clear). Rather, when rooted in typology and enacted sacramentally within the liturgy, it is the Bible's own way of interpreting itself and this has important implications for the church as a public entity, the "real historical institution and communion" that "was prophesied and typified under the old order" (Leithart, 58). As such, it is indispensible for Christian practice, our resistance to modernism, and for rightly appreciating what postmodernism has to offer. I wonder if Carson, as long as he remains an evangelical and a Baptist, can really extricate himself from modernism and embrace the sorts of moves I've gestured towards.

05 August 2003

well well well

It seems that someone has got himself a blog. I'll add it to my list next time I fiddle with my template. Glad you're enjoying Foucault, Cory.

in other news...

...Tim Eaton's back. He was missed.

04 August 2003

pleasant tidings...

...are afoot in the blogger world. :-)

03 August 2003

modern reformation

The latest issue of Modern Reformation magazine (July/August 2003) is largely on the issue of postmodernism. I wish I had been able to pick up a copy prior to my recent lectures on the topic, but I'm not a subscriber and hadn't had the opportunity to get to the church bookstore.

On the whole I wasn't as disappointed with this issue of the magazine as I thought I might be, given that my expectations had been signficantly lowered from reading a previous issue that had discussed the new perspectives on second temple Judaism. I plan on blogging about several of the postmodernism articles--both good and bad--over the next several days.

Before turning to MR's discussion of postmodernism, however, I can't help but comment briefly upon J. Ligon Duncan's editorial "Covenant Confusion" (page 44). I have no real problems with his positive exposition of covenant theology as contained in that brief article, minimal as it is. What troubled me was the opening two paragraphs in which he targets what he terms "mono-covenantalism."

Duncan attributes the supposed current popularity of "mono-covenantal" approaches (which he attributes to Barth, Hoeksema, and Schilder) to "ignorance of historic covenant theology" and "lack of familiarity with the more robust historic Reformed tradition" pertaining to the topic. I find this claim disingenuous.

On one hand, Duncan's claim seems empirically false. Niether Barth, Hoeksema, or Schilder, nor their prominent followers are people who are ignorant of historic Reformed covenant theology. Some significant proponents of so-called "mono-covenantalism" (and the referent here is not all of a piece) have quite a bit of background in historical theology and are quite conversant in the traditional categories. Ignorance and lack of familiarity are not the cause of the popularity of these views, it seems to me, but quite the opposite: some theologians--rightly or wrongly--have found the historically dominant "bicovenantalism" unsatisfactory biblically and theologically and are groping for an alternative.

On the other hand, Duncan's claim is odd and a bit troubling. Why should these "mono-covenantal" views be attributed to ignorance rather than simply seen a theological difference of opinion, whether as a matter of exegesis, temperament, or what have you? What motivates his claim that ignorance is causative here? Is it an inability to believe that another honest theologian and exegete in the Reformed tradition, acting in good faith, could come to a different conclusion? Or it is a fear that the biblical evidence might actually be plausibly construed in another manner than the tradition dictates? Or it is some other factor? What is at stake here and for whom? I'm not sure of the answer, but the way in which the claim is stated raises the questions.

A couple of further comments are in order. First, contrary to Duncan's assertion, it isn't clear to me that the historic Reformed taxonomy that sharply distinguishes the "covenant of works" with Adam from the subsequent "covenant of grace" really does anything to bring Reformed theology any closer to the Lutheran law-gospel hermeneutic. As far as I understand Lutheran theology, it is capable of speaking of the situation of the pre-lapsarian Adam without recourse to a "covenant of works."

Second, it won't do to simply assert that "mono-covenantal" schemes uniformly fail to "fully appreciate the fundamental difference between God's dealings with man pre- and post-Fall." Perhaps some do (Barth comes to mind), but is that a necessary feature of rejecting the "bicovenantal" template or a product of the wider theology of some of those who do? The latter possibility strikes me as more prima facie plausible. If we want to make such broad claims, I could just as easily assert that "bicovenantalism" produces the very kinds of nature-grace dichotomies that Reformed people have criticized in Roman Catholic theology. I recognize though that, given his limited space, Duncan could hardly prove his point. Yet, why then bring it up?

Finally, a note about history and terminology. Regarding history, while Duncan is quite right that "bicovenantalism" is the dominant, historic Reformed view (who could deny that?), it would be wrong to give the impression that the Reformed tradition does not also contain a long (albeit minority) stream of critics of that tradition, from some early Scottish divines to the likes of Herman Bavinck or John Murray.

Regarding terminology, I wonder to what degree "bicovenantalism" emerged from the categories of once dominant Ramist logic that treated all things as either univocal or equivocal and as existing in pairs? Duncan's brief discussion seems to betray such assumptions, insofar as it appears incapable of conceiving another possibility than a "bicovenantal" view that posits two distinct covenants or a "mono-covenantal" view that univocally flattens all distinctions.

If, instead, the various biblical covenants are seen as related analogically, perhaps in relation to the eternal intra-trinitarian life of God, then both difference and similarity can be simultaneously retained and the abstract opposition between "bi" and "mono" undone. I don't think that the purported "mono-covenantalists" should concede the terminology here to their opponents.

I want it be clear that I hold no grudge against Duncan and very much appreciate and respect his academic and pastoral endeavours over the years. But his editorial is typical of a number of discussions I have come across and, until such rhetoric is toned down, I'm not sure how much progress and mutual understanding will occur on the topic.

economics and copyright

Scott Cunningham has been producing a frenetic and prolific spate of comments on the issues of copyright, intellectual property, and economics on Jon Webster's and Josh Strodtbeck's blogs. I wish I had a developed opinion on the topic, but I'm not an economist and, as Laurel will tell you, my eyes tend to glaze over when such discussions arise--especially around tax season.

Still, at the risk of making a fool of myself, I want to try to think through some of the relevant issues. Part of the difficulty for me is that much of what economists discuss just leaves me scratching my head in perplexity. I believe I am following Scott's discussion of property and scarcity--and on one level it all makes perfect sense--but something continues to bother me about that whole way of framing the discussion.

Perhaps "scarcity" is a term of art here, but theologically I want to say that we live in a world of abundance, a gracious gift from the Triune God who is an overflowing plentitude of love. "Scarcity" surely may be a local phenomenon, especially in light of the effects of sin, but I'm not sure I want to take it as fundamental to the ontology of property or as a necessary condition for the creation of property. But perhaps I'm misunderstanding what economists mean by the term.

Besides my theological reasons--rooted in the doctrines of the Trinity and creation--there are some phenomenological factors at work here as well. I look around my home and, if anything, I see too much stuff, an embarassing cache of riches, often involving multiple instances of the same thing or same sort of thing (clothes, books, glassware, cutlery, pillows, blankets, etc.).

Certainly, if someone were to invade my home and take some of these items, I would be deprived of their use and that would constitute theft. But I would be no worse off, except perhaps with regard to the loss of more intangible goods such as a sense of security. Indeed, I might be better off with less, better able to use my time and resources without the distraction of unneeded items requiring attention and care. In a world of abundance we too easily forget that everything is a gift and thus to be received in thanksgiving and put at the disposal of others, rather than fetishized into a possession and measure of worth.

That leads to another observation. Where there is scarcity, that fact doesn't seem to establish my right to personal property, but to undermine it. I think of St Ambrose's exhortation that, "It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom." When goods are scarce and I have more than I need, theologically I have stolen from those who are in need as much as the Israelite who rebuffed gleaners.

Part of the difficulty in this kind of discussion may be a certain kind of modernist distinction between fact and value or description and evaluation. I suspect terms like "property," "theft," and "scarcity" are supposed to function in an almost naturalistic way, marking out particular, objective arrangements of things in the world and events. But such an ontology appears devoid of teleology and to forget Aquinas' observation that virtue fundamentally involves the ability to discern the apt descriptions for actions and objects.

Perhaps Aquinas has more to add to such discussions, given his notions of property, justice, theft, charity, and liberality. Aquinas' approach suggests that things can be both common property and personal property since the world was given to Adam both as the representative of humanity and as an individual. In terms of the use of goods, Aquinas envisions a continual process of one giving over to the other in reciprocal exchange, so that each thing potentially belongs to another or all, even if the procurement and disposition of goods is largely a function of personal, private property.

In Aquinas' scheme private property exists, in terms of its procurement and disposition, as a matter of establishing order, maintaining peace, and fostering responsibility. Even a plentitude of goods must be organized, peaceably distributed, and cared for. But in its use, property is not to be regarded as one's own, but as existing for the common good of all, so that it might be readily communicated to those in need.

Moreover, such communication of goods is not governed by a homogenized notion of social space in which each possessor of property is indifferently, equally, and disinterestedly related to every other, except in terms of geographical distance. Rather, such space is governed by analogical relations of proximity and affinity governed by bonds of family, parish, affection, and need--by notions of proportionality and fittingness.

In such a scheme, "theft" is not defined primarily in terms of property rights, but by reference to the virtue of justice, which is a habit of character by which we render to each what is due as a matter of a stable and continual will. As such, justice can only function in a situation that presupposes a teleology for the distribution of goods as a manifestation of the divine charity. Theft is wrong then because it is a failure of charity, which is the form of every virtue, as well as being contrary to justice. Moreover, Aquinas insists, every theft involves fraud, since theft seeks to deprive another of his due by cunning and secrecy (otherwise we would be dealing with the violence of robbery rather than theft).

It is also the case, on Aquinas' view, that taking another's property in some instances (e.g. immediate need), would not constitute theft, since the common destination of goods overrides private possession of goods at the marigins. Thus the Torah allowed for gleaning and other means by which the poor could procure what was necessary for themselves, in keeping with the values of order, peace, and responsibility, even if it involved taking another's "possessions." On the other hand, retaining one's own property in some instances (e.g., in face of the needs of others) would constitute a sort of theft for similar reasons.

While common property and its need to be distributed privately are both "natural" for Aquinas (where "natural" designates a rational participation in the divine life of the Triune God), particular concrete arrangements of private property are established through positive law, by common agreement. And this, it seems to me, brings us to the question of copyright and intellectual property.

Against the background of an economics that doesn't prioritize scarcity over plentitude, rejects a sharp distinction between fact and value, situates theft within a teleological virtue ethics, and sees all private property as established and regulated positive law, I'm not sure that we can maintain a strong dichotomy between material property and intellectual property. To be sure, there are differences, but there also analogies.

If goods exists in order to be caught up in reciprocal exchanges for the good of all and if private procurement and disposition of property is regulated for the sake of order, peace, and responsibility, then copyright seems to function fully within the patterns that govern all property relations, even if they govern them differently than certain other goods, whether materials or land or access or services or labor.

Now, particular legal norms governing copyright and intellectual property may be more or less prudent or more or less effective in achieving the ends for which they are established. But I'm not convinced that we should envision such forms of property in wholly different terms than other forms.

The logic internal to various kinds of exchange govern that exchange in keeping with the virtue of justice. Thus, when an artist alludes to or borrows language and images from another artist, this is not theft (nor even fraud), but part of what that kind of exchange is all about: the return of another's words in an intertextual play, drawing upon the surplus of meaning generated by any text.

But if I were to pass off the text of another as my own, that would indeed be theft (as well as fraud since all theft is already fraud), since it involves depriving another of his or her due as the virtue of justice would discern that, whether in terms of obligation or, short of that, in terms of what is fitting. After all, we are obliged to give credit where credit is due and it is only fitting that the producer of a good should have some control over the disposition of that good, in keeping with the common good and property relations insofar as they promote order, peace, and care. The case is not identical with that of stolen material goods, but there are significant analogies and it strikes me as a mistake to assume that the meaning of terms such as "theft" should be taken as entirely univocal in their application.

In any case, I'll leave off there. More, no doubt, could be said, and I've probably made a complete hash of economic theory as that is practiced today. But my intuitions and theological sensibilities push me in the directions I've suggested. Still, I remain very much open to correction.

01 August 2003

the postmodern city

In his Against Christianity, Leithart quotes Graham Ward's book Cities of God where Ward describes the postmodern city:The staging of public spectacle (festivals for this and that, open-air concerts in central parks, etc.), the exaltation of kitsch, the glorification of the superficial, the enormous investment in sports and leisure centers, the new commodification of the city's past (manufacturing a nostalgia that substitutes for continuity and tradition), the inflationary suggestions of its state-of-the-art future, its 'under-construction' technicolour present (China towns, heritage centers, gay villages, theme bars, etc.)--these are the characteristics of the new city-myth.Leithart comments that this vision of the artificial postmodern city "perpetuates the modernist revolt against ritual. Spectacle is no substitute, manufactured spectacle especially. The postmodern city continues the modernist project--civic life without rituals or unifying festivals" (74-75).

I think this analysis is, to a large degree, correct. Still, having lived almost my whole life in Philadelphia, I sense that this city hasn't succumbed entirely to this de-ritualization of culture, the modernist tradition of living beyond all traditions. And that makes me wonder why this is so. This is not to say that Philadelphia doesn't, to some degree, fit Ward's description, but the city hasn't given itself over entirely to the new city-myth.

Several factors account for Philadelphia's resistance, I suspect.

First, we remain a city of organic neighborhoods, often fiercely ethnic in their identity and maintaining inter-generational continuity, but mostly without the kind of self-promotion and ironic self-branding that Ward intimates. The Italians occupy South Philly, the Irish keep a presence in various places, and elsewhere there remain long-standing communities of Poles, Slavs, African-Americans, and others. Even our relative newcomers--Latinos, Koreans, Ethiopians, and so on--have woven themselves into these larger patterns of neighborhood and ethnicity.

Second, Philadelphia is a largely Roman Catholic city. This translates, often enough, into local neighborhood festivals that remain still quite overtly ritual and religious in nature, celebrating the feast day of the parish's patron saint, complete with street processions, or ethnic feasts and parties that overflow out of parish church halls whether Ukranian Catholic or Korean Presbyterian. Thus there is a sense of ritual, rooted in faith and tradition and not yet entirely commodified, that still structures the patterns of festivity and public space of Philadelphia. One thinks also of the yearly new year's Mummers parade with its roots in European post-Christmas festivals, brigades often still receiving a blessing from the parish priest before they embark on their annual strut.

Third, as a city that was central in our nation's founding, Philadelphia's larger city-wide events are often national and patriotic in nature, calling upon significant symbols and rituals of American identity--the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the ritual tapping of the Liberty Bell, the writing of the Constitution, and the marking out of "sacred" sites such as Independence Hall or Betsy Ross's house. Every Fourth of July is marked by the grand center city fireworks display and its smaller analogues in local communities throughout the area, forging a sense of connectedness. These events are not the wholly artificial spectacles that Ward cites, but remain rooted in our common history and heritage, even if they remain merely civic in nature and gloss over the darker aspects of that history.

None of these aspects of Philadelphia are unambiguous or entirely outside the forces of (post)modernism that would seek to appropriate them to their own end. But a resistance remains and I am sure this is true of many other older cities. And such an already present resistance is a source of hope. In the context of that resistance, if our churches can begin to recognize themselves again as public space, then perhaps the church can recover sacramentality as constituting a new civic order and, flowing from that, give rise to and reform existing public festivals and patterns which might help our cities to better embody the fruit of the Gospel.

against christianity

Among the books I picked up at the BH conference was Peter Leithart's recent volume, Against Christianity. And quite the provocative book it is in its attempt to extricate the Gospel, church, and Christian faith from the bonds of modernist thought, whether liberal or evangelical.

Chapters include "Against Christianity," "Against Theology," "Against Sacraments," "Against Ethics," and "For Constantine." The style strikes me as a combination of the later Wittgenstein (particularly Philosophical Investigations) and Nietzsche, with its division into relatively short numbered sections combining meditations, exegesis, aphorisms, and parables.

It's a bombshell of a book and the antithesis of American revivalistic evangelicalism. If it is well-received (and I hope it is), then perhaps it will help shift the conversation in a direction that will draw us back towards a renewal of the best of our biblical, patristic, medieval, and reformational insights.

reformed seminary, russia

Among the attendees at the Biblical Horizons conference was Blake Purcell and his family. Blake is a PCA missionary in St Petersburg, Russia, where he has helped to found a Reformed seminary and to organize a Presbytery of several churches.

bh conference

This year's Biblical Horizons conference was as good as ever, especially the chance to see and talk with people with whom I mostly interact only online.

Jim Jordan, who is completing a commentary on Daniel, spoke on the last part of that book, chapters 10-12, attempting to consider the text in light of its literary structure and typological repetitions of earlier biblical patterns. His reading strategy was to try to discern what an early reader of Daniel--say, from the time of Ezra--would have been able to understand of the prophecies in light of the wider biblical context, though still living prior to their fulfillment.

Jordan reads the end of Daniel as prophetically interpreting events up to the time of Christ and the early church, the "resurrection" in chapter 12 being parallel to Ezekiel's valley of the dry bones: both images of Israel's restoration and only secondarily pointing to eschatological, bodily restoration.

Jeff Meyers (pastor of Providence Reformed PCA in St Louis, Missouri) gave a helpful talk on the Trinity, particularly attempting to undo ways of speaking about the Trinity that remain implicitly subordinationist in their positing the Father as some sort of "origin" within the intra-trinitarian relations. After all, one might suggest, if the Father is only "Father" in relation to the Son, then the sonship of the Son constitutes the fatherhood of the Father as much as the other way around.

But the highlight of his talk was an attempt to set forth an account of creation from a trinitarian perspective in which the creation is a gift from each Person of the Trinity for the Others. Thus the Father and the Spirit prepare creation as a bride for the Son, embodied particularly in the church. The Son and the Spirit prepare creation as sons for the Father, summed up in humanity. The Father and Son prepare creation as a temple for the Spirit, especially by his indwelling the people of God.

Richard Bledsoe (pastor of Tree of Life PCA in Boulder, Colorado) gave two talks that are difficult to summarize. Part of Rich's focus was to talk about ministry in a progressive, liberal city like Boulder and the kind of work that the evangelical pastors of Boulder have been able to accomplish over the years, particularly by uniting together across denominational boundaries as a city-wide church at prayer.

In the process of his talks, Rich gave some helpful reflections on the Gerasene demoniac, the beheading of John the Baptizer and his relationship with Herod, and the dynamics at work in the temptation of Adam and Eve. He spoke of how demonic powers have be vanquished in Christ, but how that takes form in our ministry to other people, particularly those in positions of power in society as well as in our own home and families--especially in an age of sexual confusion, shame, and paranoia. Rich filled out his talks with several encouraging stories of what God has been doing powerfully in Boulder.

John Barach (pastor of Covenant URC in Grande Prairie, Alberta) gave a talk on "liturgical preaching" trying to distinguish and orient the nature of preaching in the context of the liturgy and sacraments as means by which God renews covenant with us. He distinguished the biblical role of liturgical preaching from views, particularly those of some Puritans, that place almost the entire burden of instruction upon the sermon in a context where the sermon in seen in doctrinal terms, as the climax of worship, addressing the intellect as the focal organ for receiving grace, and which discriminates among the baptized between those who are truly teachable and believe and those who, in various ways, fall short of a true faith and regeneration.

Liturgical preaching, on the other hand, John suggested, addresses the baptized as the forgiven people of God in route to his Table, communicating God's own word for them as a means by which he humbly serves his people, holding out his promises to them, building and maintaining his relationship with them. This in contrast with other kinds of preaching, whether doctrinal or experiential, and various kinds of preaching shape various ways of being the church.

Bill DeJong (pastor of a URC church in Kansas City, Missouri) spoke on the covenant controversy in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands back in the 1930s-40s, particularly focusing upon Klaas Schilder. The Kuyperians, with their doctrines of eternal justification and presumptive regeneration, wanted to distinguish between the elect and non-elect with regard to the covenant and sacraments in such a way that baptism for the non-elect is merely a pseudo-baptism, a baptism falsely so-called. They baptize because they presume our children to be elect and regenerate. Schilder and his followers emphasized the objectivity of the covenant, basing baptism on the command and promise of God so that every baptism is a true and full baptism in which God extends the promise of the Gospel sincerely. Thus baptism calls upon us to receive God's promise in faith.

Peter Leithart (professor at New St Andrews in Moscow, Idaho and currently involved in pastoring a church plant there) gave three lectures on the doctrine of justification, attempting to place it in the larger context of the bible, particularly the Old Testament. He began by looking at recent developments in both our understanding of Reformation history and first century Judaism, presenting some of the more recent Luther scholarship as well as criticizing the so-called "New Perspective" for failing to take sufficient account of the Old Testament context of the justification.

In terms of Old Testament background, Peter looked particularly at the stories of Noah and Abraham, drawing some conclusions about the meaning of their righteous standing before God in terms of distinction from the world, entering rest, deliverance, and prophetic standing. He went on to look at the langauge of "vindication" and "justification" in the Psalms and Isaiah as irreducably forensic, but also inextricably tied with deliverance and restoration. After all, the ancient world did not distinguish as we do betwen the judicial, executive, and legislative powers of government. Peter concluded by examining the category of rib--the prophetic lawsuit--both in terms of God's suit against Israel and her condemnation and vindication as well as Habakkuk's suit against Yahweh, calling upon him to stand by his promises to vindication his people. Paul's letter to the Romans, with its focus upon vindicating God's own righteousness, was placed in this context.

I lectured on postmodernism and will probably have more to say about that at a later point. The conference also included some great times of worship, particularly at evening vespers and the viewing and discussion of two films, Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solyaris (though we only viewed the latter). It was also great to be able to eat meal with and other dialogue with people, on a couple occasions fairly late into the evening.

For tapes of the conference, contact James B. Jordan at Biblical Horizons either by phone (800-648-0802), email (jbjordan4@cox.net), or snail mail (P.O. Box 1096, Niceville, FL 32588).