28 October 2004

big girl

Claire's growing fast, though she's still a bit small for her age, which doesn't stop her in the least from standing up to 4 year old boys when challenged. Now at age two she is talking continually, gaining new vocabulary all the time, and constructing some pretty complicated sentences. I'm always amazed how much she retains of things she's heard and books we read.

Here are a couple of recent pictures from a visit to the nearby playground in Fairmount Park:

She's got quite the head of curly blond hair these days, as you can see.

Claire loves the playground, but also going to watch the trains and wandering through shops in Manayunk. At home she keeps busy with drawing, setting up picnics for her stuffed toys, building with blocks, and setting up tents with chairs and blankets.

It's amazing watching all the changes that she's constantly growing through. And while she has her testy moments and occasional fit of anger, I know I've done nothing to deserve such a sweet, smart, and pretty little girl.

electoral votes

Should be an interesting week. It still looks like things are up for grabs in the Presidential race.

If you don't know where your local polling place is, you can look it up on My Polling Place.

26 October 2004

hart on philosophy

In his The Beauty of the Infinite, David Hart provides a thumbnail sketch of the history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics through the rise of Christian thought. He begins by writing about:

...the pre-Socratic inability to separate wonder at being from brutish awe before nature and fate, part and whole, becoming and totality--that is, the pre-Platonic indistinction between being and sacrifice.

Hart sees Heidegger as returning to just such a pre-Socratic vision. But Western philosophy never stayed with that vision, instead moving past it. Hart writes:

Western thought had attempted to rise from this superstitious subjugation to the world's mere event: Plato and Aristotle, however imperfectly, were both shaken by that effulgent moment of wonder that can free reflection from mere anmal dread--the one could not quite transcencd the irresoluble tensions between change and changeless essences, the other the immanent dialectic of finite form and unrealized potency, and neither could overcome the still "sacrificial" economy of finitude, but both stood within an opening in Western thought that theology could transform into a genuine openness before the transcendent God. Original Stoicism was a step back, in some ways, toward the vision of the universe as sheer fated economy, an order of placement and displacement, as well as a precocious step toward "eschatological" nihilism, the consummation of the sacrificial vision in a cosmic mythology of eternally repeated ecpyroses, of the entire universe as an eternal sacrificial pyre; but even Stoicism was profoundly marked by a kind of wonder before the imperishable goodness of the world's being, and soon drew water from other philosophical streams to enliven its metaphysics. Late antiquity, in its syncretism, opened the Platonic tradition yet further to a possibility beyond the metaphysics of the totality, and Christian thought, with its Jewish doctrine of creation, shattered the totality altogether and, for the first time ever, caught sight of being's splendid otherness, within the immediacy of its mysterious presence--within the gratuity of the gift. (227)

That's a very helpful summary, I think, of the development of western ontology.

25 October 2004

speaking of conferences...

Is anyone planning on attending the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformation Theology, "God's Praise -- Our Purpose"? It's being held on Princeton University's campus this coming weekend, October 29-30.

The topic is worship and there will be several good speakers, though I'll also be multi-tasking, using the time in Princeton to do some research at Princeton Seminary's library.

saint paul among the philosophers

That's the title of the upcoming "Postmodernism, Culture, and Religion" conference at Syracuse University, coordinated by Jack Caputo and Linda Alcoff, and which will feature Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, and Giorgio Agamben as the main speakers.

Judging from the speakers list, it seems like Villanova's conferences on religion and postmodernism have followed Caputo in his move to Syracuse, but, given the theological bent of most of the speakers, perhaps the setting of a secular university removes any constraint that Caputo might have once felt to invite relatively orthodox speakers.

I'm not sure if I will try to attend or not, but perhaps once they post the more detailed conference schedule I'll be better able to decide.

23 October 2004

uniformity in this kirk

Rowland Ward's lectures on the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God reminded me of some of my earlier posts about the history of worship in the Scottish Church up until and including the time of the Directory.

If you look up the Directory in the Free Presbyterian Publications edition, you'll find it prefaced by the Act of Scottish Parliament (6 February 1645) approving and establishing the Directory for the Scottish Church and by the Act of the Scottish Church's General Assembly (3 February 1645) doing the same.

What you won't find is the Act of 7 Februrary 1645, from the 14th Session of the General Assembly, adopting the recommendations of a Committee for "greater uniformity" of worship in the Scottish Church, particularly with regard to the implementation of the Directory. This Act includes various details about worship in general, baptism, and the administration of the Lord's Supper.

Since this Act, as far as I know, is not readily accessible and yet of historical value to those of us concerned about Reformed worship, I'm making it available online under the title, "Uniformity in This Kirk," along with an introduction and some explanatory notes. I hope it proves useful and of interest.

22 October 2004

westminster assembly 2004

The past couple of days, between teaching classes, Bible study, and a faculty meeting, I managed to attend quite a bit of the Westminster Assembly 2004: A Conference on the Westminster Standards at Westminster Seminary, where Richard Muller and Rowlard Ward were the two main speakers. It was really an excellent conference and many thanks should go to Carl Trueman who, I understand, was the chief hand in organizing it.

Muller, a professor of church history at Calvin Seminary and leading scholar of the early Reformed tradition, spoke primarily on the Westminster Confession in relation to Scripture and exegesis. As some of you may know, around the same time as the Westminster Assembly (though prior to the completion of their work), the Long Parliament authorized a comprehensive annotation of the King James Bible, consisting in a series of marginal annotations prepared by a team of divines, a number of whom would also serve as members of the Assembly.

Muller used these "English Annotations," along with the Westminster Confession's doctrine of Scripture, as a context for understanding the exegetical foundation for the Standards' use of Scripture, their shape of their doctrine, and their choices in providing "prooftexts." Though his time was limited and he could only examine a few representative sections of the Confession, he provided a very helpful model and example for how such a project might be undertaken on a larger scale. In particular Muller suggested ways in which the annotations fit into the existing trajectories of Reformed exegesis and how that larger tradition remained the undergirding for the Standards' doctrinal formulations.

Rowland Ward, a pastor-scholar in the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, provided a balanced and relatively detailed overview the the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God, setting it firmly within its historical context, in terms of its fundamental theology of worship, the pragmatics of its choices and recommendations, and the various compromises between disputing parties (Presbyterians, Puritans, Independents) that it represents.

Ward usefully showed the evident structural parallels between the order of the Directory, the 1564 Scottish Book of Common Order and the patterns of worship that were already prevalent in the Church of Scotland in the mid-17th century. The Scottish tradition, though not maintaining the set and fixed prayers of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, had provided a variety of sample prayers for ministers to be either used verbatim or as models. The Independents, on the other hand, tended to favor free, extemporaneous prayer. The Directory represents a compromise, Ward suggested, providing detailed instruction for how prayers might be formed, which, through changing a few words, could be easily transformed into actual prayers.

Much more could be said about these lectures and some of the other presentations, but these brief comments will have to suffice for now.

20 October 2004

thanksgiving service at westminster

This evening I attended Westminster Theological Seminary's 75th anniversary service of thanksgiving. It was a great worship service, with Sinclair Ferguson delivering a powerful homily based on 1 Timothy 3:1-4:8. The time together was a wonderful tribute to the Seminary's ongoing ministry and witness over the past 75 years.

Growing up in Reformed circles in the Philadelphia area, Westminster Theological Seminary has always occupied an important place in my world and theological outlook, a continual part of the furniture of my world for my whole life.

Not only were many of my pastors and teachers Westminster grads, I went to elementary and high school with with the Gaffin and Conn kids, the extended Stonehouse family, and many others with long ties to the Seminary. Clothes I owned that had "JOEL" emblazoned on them I passed along to Ray Dillard's son by the same name. I remember running into Dr. Gaffin in the Flourtown grocery store on a number of occasions after school as my mother and I stopped to pick up some items before heading home. In 9th grade I sat in "Uncle" Sam Logan's living room while he gave me an oral quiz on James Joyce's Ulysses so I could get credit for our school reading program. I'm told that Philip E. Hughes' wife brought me home from the hospital when I was born. And on it goes.

Indeed, with regard to my education, Cornelius van Til was instrumental in founding the elementary day school that eventually grew into the Christian academy I attended from kindergarten through 12th grade. I can remember Dr. van Til occasionally visiting the school and coming to various school functions, always eager to talk with students and, in person, a paragon of humility and warmth, despite the sometimes prickly texts he produced. I remember him as a wispy haired elderly man who, as a child, I knew to be important in some way, though it wasn't until around 8th grade that I began to fathom the nature of his work as I read his Introduction to Systematic Theology in the old, somewhat yellowed, photocopied version my Dad owned from his seminary days.

I remember first obtaining special patron privileges to use Westminster's library over 20 years ago now, when I was in middle school and working on a theology paper for which I needed resources that went beyond what my school library and my father's library could provide. Ever since then I've spent many hours in the Montgomery library, browsing through books and digging up old texts, sometimes running into faculty and having good conversations with them.

And throughout my life I've heard lectures and sermons given by many of the Seminary's always top-notch faculty, too many lectures and faculty to list.

In many ways Westminster has profoundly shaped the theological world I live in and, I feel, has been instrumental in forcing my theological roots down deep into Scripture and the Reformed tradition. Gaffin's handing on of Vos's redemptive-historical outlook, Van Til's trinitarian ontology, and Murray's outlook on issues from imputation to divorce are virtually axiomatic in how I think theologically, even when I find I must disagree with them on matters of detail.

For all these things I am grateful for Westminster Seminary, its faculty, and its witness, and pray that God may continue to enlighten by his Holy Spirit those there who teach and learn, so that, rejoicing in the knowledge of his truth, they may worship Christ and serve him for generations to come.

a non-partisan pulpit

A brief reflection by Phil Ryken, pastor of Tenth PCA, from his weekly "Window on the World," an opportunity during the Sunday evening service to look at the world from a biblical point of view.

19 October 2004

smith on derrida

James K.A. Smith of Calvin College's philosophy department provides a memorial tribute to Jacques Derrida on the pages of Books & Culture.

On his personal website Jamie also provides a page of links to memorial articles and obits.

18 October 2004

the windsor report

The Anglican Lambeth Commission on Communion has released its report.

I'm just a casual outside observer, but I don't think the Report looks especially promising. It says a lot of good things, no doubt, but lacks the kind of definitive plan and measures for the future of the Anglican Communion that I suspect much of the Communion was hoping for.

As I continue to read reactions, both from news services and from various parties within the Communion, it seems the document is getting different spins from different quarters. That's not entirely unexpected, given that it is supposed to provide some way forward for all involved. But it also doesn't bode well for its function as an actual means to greater unity.

17 October 2004

electoral college

I don't know what to make of polls and such, but from the looks of this, if the election were held today, the unenviable task of determining the outcome would once again fall to Florida with its 27 electoral votes.

I actually had Democratic "get out the vote" people show up at my door today, though all they got from me was an apology and a closed door since I was on the phone long distance at the time, the dog was going beserk (the dog is registered fascist and has no patience with the electoral process), and Claire was crying, having been awakened by the dog.

The cat, of course, is a monarchist, under the delusion that he's king.

15 October 2004

westminster seminary

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. On Wednesday, 20 October there will be a service of Thanksgiving, featuring Sinclair Ferguson as the speaker.

The next couple of days after that will be taken up with a Craig Center conference entitled "Westminster Assembly 2004: A Conference on the Westminster Standards," the keynote speakers for which are Richard Muller and Rowland Ward. Other speakers include Sam Logan, Peter Lillback, D. Allan MacLeod, and Chad van Dixhoorn. More information is available on the Westmisnter website.

Is anyone planning on attending this conference? Since the registration cost is reasonable, I'll probably try to make the sessions that fit with my teaching schedule.

another from hart

I've finished reading David B. Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite and have moved on to another volume in my pile of reading. But I marked some quotes from Hart that I though were worth sharing. Here's one:

The God who goes to the outermost of being, in the form of a slave, and even past the limits of being into the silence of death, but who then nevertheless -- and in just this particular and "slavish" shape -- offers himself anew as a radiant and indestructible beauty, forever present in the midst of those who love him, has violated all Apollonian order and, at the same time, left no room for the Dionysian to occupy: the madness, turmoil, chaos, and cruelty of being, the ungovernable violence of the pagan infinite and postmodern sublime, is shown to be falsehood, lying everlastingly under the damnation of the cross, because the infinite that is has crossed all the boundaries of totality (even death, its defining horizon) and remained -- forever -- form. Nietzsche has every right to be appalled. (148)

A run-on sentence, no doubt, but a great summary of the Gospel in relation to philosophy, nonetheless.

14 October 2004

communion and catholic politicians

Last week we had a roundtable discussion at La Salle on the practice in some Roman Catholic dioceses of denying communion to Catholic politicians who consistently vote against restrictions and limitations on abortion. The participants were four Catholic faculty members, one each from the philosophy, religion, political science, and mathematics departments, two of whom favored the practice of denying communion in these circumstances and two of whom found it problematic.

This is not an issue, by the way, that is limited to Catholic Democrats and so one shouldn't assume that it is politicized simply along party lines. After all, there are a number prominent Catholic Republican politicians who have also maintained a legally permissive stance on abortion, even if in some cases they might be personally opposed to it (e.g., George Pataki, Rudolph Guiliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Ridge).

This is also not an issue that is necessarily limited to Roman Catholics. There is a more general question here about the relation between the authority of the church in relation to its members, the disciplinary function of the eucharist, and the church as a public institution in its own right, alongside the civil order.

Part of the roundtable discussion was focused upon differing interpretations of the Code of Canon Law, statements issued by the American Bishops, and the views expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger who, as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has a prominent voice in these issues.

With regard to Canon Law, there is, on the whole, it seems, a presumption in favor of giving the eucharist to the baptized, a presumption only overriden under certain conditions, such as a person known to be excommunicate. Thus, Canon 912 states, "Any baptized person who is not prohibited by law, can and must be admitted to holy communion."

On the other hand, Canon 915 states the following:

Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.

This canon distinguishes between two categories: [a] those who have been barred from communion as a result of a formal penal process and sanction and [b] others "who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin." In the case of Catholic politicans who have supported abortion rights, the discussion centers upon the question of whether they are rightly included in the latter category. If so, then such politicians would fall into the category of those prohibited from receiving communion.

Whether or not an individual is seen as obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin is, of course, a matter for prudential judgment on the part of a bishop. The canon seems to require that several criteria be met in order for a bishop to make such a judgment: [a] that the sin in question be "grave," [b] that it be "manifest" (what the 1917 Code called "public and notorious"), and [c] that it be "obstinately persisted in."

If consistently voting in favor of abortion rights is, in fact, a grave sin (more on that below), then in the case of a politician it would almost necessarily fall into the category of "manifest" sin given that it would be a matter of public record and even more so if the politician were to regularly campaign on a platform of abortion rights.

If it is a grave sin, if the church has attempted to instruct Catholic politicians on this matter, and if a politician persists in his or her actions (at least, perhaps, apart from attempts at reformation, conscientious explanation of dissent, or private confession), then the sin would appear to be one that is "obstinately persisted in."

So, in the roundtable discussion, while some expressed reservations about Canon 915 itself, much of the issue came down to the question of whether or not a voting record favoring abortion rights in itself constitutes grave sin and, thus, whether a bishop could rightly make the pastoral judgment to withhold communion from Catholic politicians who vote in this way.

Part of the question here turns on notion within Catholic moral theology that human law cannot always prohibit all intrinsically evil acts without causing greater harm to the public order (a notion with which I concur). For instance, there are forms of expression that are intrinsically evil (e.g., certain kinds of hate language rooted in racial or ethnic bigoty), the prohibition of which, at least within our current circumstances, would arguably cause greater harm than permitting such expression (e.g., harms resulting from intrusive survellience, ambiguous criteria of what qualifies as "hateful," etc.).

While the government has the general obligation to promote the common good, sometimes the need for public order requires permitting actions which would not exist in a society where the common good was fully pursued by the populace. And some Catholic politicians would argue that restrictions on abortion fall into this category, suggesting that greater harm would be caused, in the long run, by prohibitting abortion in a wide range of cases, than by allowing it to be permitted while working to make it rare by other means.

I can see how such an argument might apply to certain specific pieces of legislation (e.g., those that prohibit abortion in a way that makes no provision for the life of the mother), but it is difficult for me to see how it could be generalized into a wider stance in favor of abortion rights. Even allowing that the Supreme Court would likely strike down any law that was overly restrictive, a Catholic politician, it would seem, should still want to work at least towards restrictions that would pass Constitutional tests or perhaps even a Constitutional Amendment defining what persons are protected under law, inclusive of the unborn.

The American Catholic Bishops, however, have not taken a decisive position on the issue of denying communion to politicians who seem to favor abortion rights, leaving it up the judgment of individual bishops. In July of this year they do issue a statement entitled "Catholics in Political Life" in which they say:

The question has been raised as to whether the denial of Holy Communion to some Catholics in political life is necessary because of their public support for abortion on demand. Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.

Of course, in this very same statement they also make the following observations:

It is the teaching of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, founded on her understanding of her Lord’s own witness to the sacredness of human life, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified...To make such intrinsically evil actions legal is itself wrong...Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.

The teaching of the bishops, therefore, would seem to run against the argument that abortion should be permitted for the sake of public order and avoiding greater harm.

Moreover, in their 2003 statement on "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics" the American Bishops also strongly rejected any political arguments advanced on the premise of a pluralism that makes opposition to abortion a merely "personal opposition" that does not have implications for political order. The bishops state:

We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public roles and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching. No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.

Now some at the La Salle roundtable insisted that Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights are not, in fact, "advocat[ing] for or actively support[ing] direct attacks on innocent human life." Rather, it was suggested, they are merely permitting others to engage in such attacks, while personally opposing abortion, even though they might refrain, for prudential reasons of public order, from legislative restrictions on it.

The bishops' statement also says, however, that "the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the 'rightness' of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community" and that "no appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible." Both these statements would seem to undercut the claim that a Catholic politician might favor abortion rights, even for the sake of wider issues of public order, and remain faithful to the ordinary magisterium of the church.

All of this is consistent with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1974 "Declaration on Procured Abortion," which was issued in the face of liberalization of abortion laws in America and Europe. In this declaration the Congregation states, "It must in any case be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the licentiate of abortion. Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it."

Part of what is at work in these statements is Catholic moral teaching concerning formal and material cooperation with wrongdoing. Obviously, these Catholic politicians--especially the ones that personally oppose abortion--are not themselves directly participating in abortion procedures. Thus it is not a matter of explicit formal cooperation with evil (i.e., freely participating in an act as a principal agent). It is the case, however, that Catholic politicians favoring abortion rights are, nonetheless, materially cooperating with abortion in an illicit way.

Catholic moral theology has traditionally distinguished not only betweem formal and material cooperation, but also among various forms of material cooperation. In general, material cooperation with evil occurs when an agent acts in such a manner that his or her actions contribute in some way to the commission of an evil.

In the case of immediate material cooperation, the agent acts in a way that is essential to the commission of an action such that the action would not occur without his or her cooperation. Such immediate material cooperation with intrinsically evil acts is held to be morally wrong.

In the case of mediate material cooperation, the agent acts in a way that is not essential to the commission of an action such that the action would occur without his or her cooperation. Such mediate material cooperation with intrinsically evil acts can be justified under some circumstances within Catholic moral theology (cf. Paul's discussion of meat sacrificed to idols). In particular, such cooperation could be permitted when [a] it would avoid a greater evil or protect a greater good, [b] it could be done while avoiding the possibility of scandal (such as leading others to do wrong), and [c] the proximity of the cooperation to the evil action is proportionate to the importance of the reason for cooperating.

The conscientious Catholic politician who votes against restrictions on abortion on the grounds the it is permissible mediate material cooperation with evil would, therefore, have to maintain several claims: that these abortions would occur even without his or her cooperation, that lack of restrictions on abortion are only a very remote cause of abortion and that the decision to abort is almost purely private, that greater harm would occur through restricting abortion, and that the politician is not leading others into sin or causing moral confusion by his or her position.

While I can just about see how such an argument would go, it seems to me a significant stretch given the very concrete harm that occurs to the fetuses who are actually aborted, not to mention other difficulties with the argument (e.g. the public confusion and example set by such a leader who identifies as a Catholic). Moreover, the Catholic church has been clear that its position on legal issues related to abortion do not fall into the same category as, for instance, the Pope's teachings on the death penalty or the war in Iraq. While there might be room for conscientious dissent on these latter issues, the Catholic church seems to place its teaching on abortion in a different category.

In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, John Paul II writes:

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection...In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to 'take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it.'

In light of this kind of Catholic Church teaching, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has recently stated in a memorandum to the American Catholic Bishops:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Ratzinger's focus here, of course, is whether a person who dissents with the church's teaching should come forward to receive communion in the Catholic church. But he does go on to address the question of denying communion to Catholic politicians who "consistently campaign and vote for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws."

The Cardinal suggests that proper procedure should involve the politician's pastor meeting with him or her privately in order to give instruction on the church's teaching and that he or she should voluntarily refrain from coming forward to receive communion until the sitaution of sin is brought to an end. Apart from such remedy and in the face of "obstinate persistence" in sin, the individual may then be denied communion.

Given all of these observations, it is difficult for me to see what room there is for a Catholic politician to favor abortion rights without being seen as committing grave sin in the eyes of the church. Even if his position were held as a matter of public order and licit mediate material cooperation with wrongdoing, it would, in any case, put such a politician in a position of, at the very least, conscientious dissent from church teaching.

A number of people at the roundtable, nevertheless, were not comfortable with the notion of using the eucharist as a political tool and seemed to think the church should stay out of any kind of direct involvement with politics. And this kind of thinking about the relation between the church and the civil order has implications well beyond the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church.

I haven't the time or space to provide any in depth reflections on these sorts of views, so I will limit myself to two observations.

First, if there are public officials who are also members of the church, I don't see how the church can carry out its pastoral oversight of the faithful without sometimes doing so in relation to politicians. On occasions this oversight may have to go beyond merely the teaching ministry of the church, speaking with Christ's authority and bearing witness to what is true and good, and include the exercise of further discipline against those--even politicians--who fall into grave sin and refuse to hear her call for repentance. This is not an attempt on the part of the church to "intrude" into the civil sphere, but to exercise its own proper authority over its members with regard to their public actions, out of love and concern for their spiritual well-being and witness.

Second, and more importantly, I am troubled by the notion that such exercise of church oversight is an "intrusion" into the political or public sphere or that denying the eucharist to those public officials who are in grave sin with regard to matters of civil order is to "politicize" the Lord's Supper. The church already is a public institution, with its own story, culture, language, government, discipline, and rites, and the eucharist already has political dimensions inasmuch as it is an enactment of the reign of God within new kind of human community, the true republic of which human governments, at their best, are only an approximation.

Of course, the church often fails at her calling. And she may exercise her authority imprudently or inconsistently, to which recent scandals, dissensions, and difficulties in the church bear testimony. But the solution, I think, is not for the church to retreat from her responsibilites and vocation, but to ever more heed the call of the Gospel and, in faith and hope, strive to be that new humanity to which we have been called in Christ.

12 October 2004

when thou art converted

In Luke 22:32, after Jesus predicts Peter's denial, he adds, "But I prayed for you, that your faith doesn't fail: and when you are converted, give strength to your brothers." The verb that the KJV translates as "converted" could as easily be translated as "turned back." And such a translation is probably preferable.

After all, within the religious culture of evangelicalism, the notion of "conversion" is taken to refer almost exclusively to that initial turning from unbelief, when one first comes to God in faith upon hearing the message of the Gospel. Such a use of the term is not, of course, foreign to the New Testament. For instance, on several occasions we read in Acts of people "turning" to the Lord in response to the apostolic message (Acts 3:19; 9:35; 11:21; 14:15; 15:19; 26:18, 20).

But even in many of these instances, those who turned were already faithful Jews, looking for the Messiah, or righteous Gentiles who had trusted in the God of Israel. As such, their new-found faith was not a faith that arrived de novo, but a powerful work of the Spirit, transforming their faith from one of expectation and anticipation, into one of fulfillment, a resting in the eschatological victory that God had accomplished in Jesus Christ.

Peter's turning back to Jesus after his denial, however, was not an initial turning in faith, but rather a return to God after sin, when his faith had faltered. Jesus had even prayed that Peter's existing faith not fail, indicating thereby that Peter already was "converted" in the popular sense of the term.

More broadly, James speaks of the "conversion" that is experienced by those brothers in Christ who stray from the truth and fall into sin, when they are once again led back to God (5:19-20). Most generally, every time we turn to God in faith, resting anew in what he has done for us in Christ, turning away from sin and other distractions, it is a conversion. We might even speak of a "continual conversion" to which we are committed by our baptisms.

Over the years I have heard many testimonies of conversion and many of these have been wonderful witnesses to the power of the Gospel to call people to faith in Jesus Christ, the Spirit freeing them from bondage to sin and degradation and spiritual darkness.

I have also heard many testimonies--in many ways likewise wonderful--but also, in some respects, rather peculiar. These are testimonies that go something like this:

I was born and raised in a Christian home and learned about Jesus from childhood. But when I got to college, I realized that I hadn't turned my life over to God completely and hadn't trusted him with my very own faith. Yet God's grace met me then, in the midst of some struggles, and I finally became a true Christian.

I've heard this kind of testimony from those who were raised within the Reformed tradition as much as from those raised within other Christian traditions.

Now, let me be very clear on a couple of points.

First, I do not doubt for one moment that at times something very much like what these testimonies describe is quite literally true. There are those who, for whatever reason, were raised in a Christian home of some sort, perhaps even were baptized as infants, and who learned something of Jesus who, nonetheless, never trusted Christ. Sometimes this is due to parents who only had the barest of connection to the church or who themselves understood little of the faith. Sometimes this is due to churches that are spiritually bankrupt and where the Gospel is occluded by legalism, liberalism, or self-help feel-goodism. Whatever the case, I recognize that this sometimes happens.

Second, I do not doubt for one moment that those who give these kinds of testimonies did in fact undergo a significant spiritual experience in early adulthood that can be rightly described, in biblical terms, as a "conversion." God was calling them to new responsibilities and challenges, often within the context of college, often away from their parents, old friends, and home church. And I am confident that the Spirit does often use such circumstances to engender a kind of spiritual "growth spurt," infused with all the earnestness and energy of youth, so that many turn in faith to God afresh. And this too is a wonderful thing.

What I question, however, is the way in which the dominant evangelical culture teaches our young people to interpret and describe their experience: as a "conversion" in the narrow, popular sense, by which these individuals become, for the first time, "true Christians."

Consider the oddness of the following sort of testimony:

I was born and raised in an English-speaking home and learned to speak English from childhood. But when I got to college, I realized that I hadn't embraced the English language completely and hadn't made it into my own personal language. Yet a kind English professor met me, in the midst of a literature course, and I finally became a true English-speaker.

Now, of course, something like that is actually quite often true. Many of my students do come to college with very little self-conscious grasp of the English language and only modest facility in its formal written expression. They just take their English language skills for granted, given that they are native speakers. Then through a series of experiences--some bad grades on essays, difficulty comprehending difficult texts, and so on--they come to a new appreciation for the language, set themselves to improving their skills, and see a sudden growth in their reading and writing abilities.

But none of this entails that they weren't really English-speakers before (except perhaps in a hyperbolic and poetic sense) and it would be very odd to insist that they only truly became English-speakers now, while before they were just "going through the motions."

If we are Reformed, we believe that God is the God of our children and that the covenant and promises are theirs, sealed to them in baptism. Thus we are called to raise our children in the faith, trusting in those promises, in hope that throughout their lives they can honestly sing with the Psalmist, "You made me trust in you even at my mother's breast" (Ps 22:9).

This does not mean that our children will not have significant experiences of spiritual growth, where they turn to God in renewed faith and a sense of Christian vocation. Even later in life, many of us no doubt experience analogous transitions in connection with marriage, birth of children, illness, death of loved ones, change of vocation, struggles with sin, and so on--even if not always accompanied by the same kind of enthusiasm or eagerness of those on the cusp of adulthood.

But we need to think about how we describe these experiences in light of God's covenant and promises. At the very least our emphasis should be less upon the experience itself as something that we undergo or a new commitment that we have made, and more upon the faithfulness of God who continues to call us to himself in the Gospel, even in the midst of new challenges and situations.

What bothers me is that by teaching people to interpret their spiritual journeys in terms of finally becoming "true Christians," we inadvertently disparage that nascent faith they may have once expressed at their mother's knee or in their Sunday School classrooms or when they confessed the Creed in the liturgy. We also may encourage a species of unbelief, by which we come to doubt the reality of the spiritual lives of children, setting a cloud of suspicion over any youthful profession of faith--a childlike trust that Jesus presents as the very model of true faith.

Finally, we run the danger of seeing conversion wholly in terms of a one-time initial experience and blunting the edge of the biblical view of conversion that stands as God's call over our whole ongoing life in Christ, a life which always remains a matter of repentance and faith from beginning to end, time and again turning to God so that we may rest anew in the promises of the Gospel.

09 October 2004


Jacques Derrida, one of the late 20th century's leading philosophers and theorists passed away today in Paris at the age of 74, after a long bout with pancreatic cancer. Very sad.

While I've always thought he was a provocative thinker, the name "Derrida" was also the first philosopher name that Claire ever said, when she was only around 16 months old. And now she'll not get to meet him.

08 October 2004

more from hart

The week has been busy, with a number of meetings, grading, and various distractions on campus and at home. So I've not been keeping up with reading Hart's book as I would have liked. Nonetheless, I did a bit of reading and was intrigued by this passage in a section entitled "The Covenant of Light":

Every act of knowledge is, simultaneously, an act of faith (to draw on Hamann's delightful subversion of Hume); we trust in the world, and so know it, only by entrusting ourselves to what is more than ourselves; our primordial act of faith meets a covenant that has already been made with us, before we could seek it, in the giving of the light. No one can shut his eyes to that splendor, or seal his ears against the music, except as a perverse display of will; then, naturally, knowledge can be recovered again only as an exertion of that same will. But one then has not merely lost the world momentarily, so as to receive it anew as "truth." One has lost the world and its truth altogether, and replaced it with a phantom summoned up out of one's need for a world conformable to the dimensions of one's own power to establish meaning--a world that is nothing but the ceaseless repetition of otherwise meaningless instantiations of that power. (138-39)

The context here is the collapse of Christian ontology and, with it, a view of knowledge that Hart suggests is rooted in the kind of entrustedness that receives everything as a gift, so that, in the words of Aquinas, "in every act of knowledge and will, God is implicitly known and desired." After all, Christian thought had always affirmed the essential goodness of creation as a giftedness that disclosed the glory of God and could only be rightly apprehended from within that sense of wonder and gratuity the world arouses in us, directing us beyond itself to its transcendent ground and end.

The collapse of this perspective was precipitated, Hart argues, by the rise of nominalism in the late middle ages and was fully underway by the time we read the pages of Descartes, where he rejects that call of God's good creation, withdrawing into his own subjectivity. As Hart notes, Descartes writes, "Now will I close my eyes, I will stop up my ears, I will avert my senses from their objects, I will even erase from my consciousness all images of things corporeal; or, at least...I will consider them empty and false."

It is in this sheer act of will that the world is lost beyond all possible recovery on our part. As Hart implies, such an act of will is a rejection of grace--the gratuity of creation--and leaves us only a world of our own making, invoked out of our own subjectivity and suited to it, all as an exercise of power.

What I find intriuging, however, about Hart's description of this, is his use of the language of "covenant," the way in which Adam's fall resonates through his account, and the implied understanding of knowledge and reality. Hart, it seems, posits humanity's initial and proper relation to the world as one of faith, countenancing God as the giver of grace, above all the grace of creation itself in and through which God himself is known.

But through a "perverse display of will," this initial relation is lost so that any subsequent attempt at recovery must itself remain "an exertion of that same will," by which one uses "one's own power to establish meaning." To recreate reality in one's own image and to thereby find ultimate meaning in that act of will is, of course, nothing short of idoltry, biblically speaking.

Clearly, then, if one is to recover the world, it can only happen as it did at first: as a gift of grace. And so, Hart notes, "the incarnation of the Logos, the infinite ratio of all that is, reconciles us not only to God, but to the world" (133-34).

07 October 2004

printer friendly

For some time, I've been meaning to provide a means to make my posts here "printer friendly," but just haven't gotten around to it.

But those days are over. Now you'll find, at the end of each post, a "print this post" link that will generate a printer-friendly version of that particular blog entry.

06 October 2004

gotta love autumn

The weather the past couple of days has been wonderfully cool, only in the 60s, sunny, with a bluest blue sky and the leaves on the trees just beginning to turn. It's also been great for bicycling to campus, barely breaking a sweat as the breeze sweeps me along.

02 October 2004

beauty of the infinite

Over recent days, when I've had a chance, I've been wending my way through David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans 2003). It really is a marvelous read, even if rather difficult at times.

After the introduction, the opening section of the book is entitled "Dionysius against the Crucified," by which Hart borrows a phrase from Nietzsche in order to describe the encounter between Christ and varieties of postmodern thought. Thus he begins a very helpful discussion of Heidegger, Kant, Lyotard, Derrida, Deleuze, Nancy, Levinas, and Nietzsche. The discussion is much too rich to even attempt to summarize.

Still, Hart does have occasional paragraphs and passages that are incisive and concise enough to quote. In one section he is interacting with Nietzshce's attempt to paint the Christian faith as a kind of "other worldly" Platonism that despises material existence in favor of some kind of pure spiritual experience. In a footnote he writes:

Does "another world" that is truly other enter Christian thought except in the theology of someone like Bultmann, for whom the demolition of the architecture of the antique cosmology, in which the heavenly and the earthly were seamlessly joined, leads to the discovery of a truly separate realm of spiritual (or existential) interiority, where faith is enacted not among the concrete contingencies of time but within a secret inner core of time, an inner sanctuary of disembodied illumination? Prior to the turn in modern Protestantism, is not such thought a phenomenon only of gnosticism? (105, n.123)

I can't help but think that a certain bent in certain sorts of Reformed theology also points down the Bultmannian path described here, long before Bultmann's own day.

In his 'A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven': Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Wesleyan, 1978), William K.B. Stoever describes the conflict between Anne Hutchinson (and other Antinomians) and her fellow Puritans as one involving, among other things, God's use of created means of grace in order to bring sinners to salvation. In particular Stoever describes one mainstream Puritan position as maintaining that "spiritual rebirth is accomplished through created means, including [the sinner's] own distinctively human faculties," as they are addressed in word and sacrament (63).

Others, however, incluing John Cotton, tended to downplay such created means in light of the inner operation of the Spirit in accord with God's sovereign purposes. This, in turn, opened the door for people like Hutchinson to call externals into doubt in favor of a kind of spiritual inwardness that, in some respects, doesn't end up very far from Bultmann's later existentialized sense of spiritual interiority.

Whatever the case, the gnostic temptation seems to have nipped at the heels of Protestantism and, in the case of some Puritan theology, perhaps was fed by an at times overly one-sided emphasis on the secret, interior, and immediate work of the Spirit upon the individual soul that downplayed created means. We must take care, I suppose, lest we become the caricature that thinkers like Nietzsche attempt to paint us as.

01 October 2004

first friday

Laurel and I went down to First Friday for the first time in ages, since before Claire was born. Claire joined us on this outing and we all had an absolute blast.

First Friday, sponsored by the Old City Arts Association, is an arts community "open house" the first weekend of every month, year-round, when all the galleries in Old City are open from 5pm - 9pm, along with various shops, bookstore, cafes, street musicians, vendors, and so on.

The galleries often use it as an occasion to launch new shows, complete with wine and cheese. Local independent arts and crafts people who haven't broken into the gallery scene, usually the young and edgy sort, also show off their talents in little sidewalk displays. Groups of college kids beat drums, a small band of musicians plays bluegrass, an elderly African-American squeezes an accordian, an a cappella group makes harmonies. And cafes and restaurants, when the weather is nice, fill their outdoor seats to overflowing.

It's a great opportunity to catch up on the Philly art scene, to watch a diverse variety of folks from over-dressed Mainliners to goth street punks, and to just get out in the streets and enjoy Philadelphia.

Claire loved it immensely, looking at all kinds of art and telling what she saw--shapes, colors, animals, objects, trees, people--still saying as we left, "Daddy, more pictures...another picture, Daddy, please!" She's also very social and really gets a buzz off of being around so many people.

If you're ever in Philly on the first Friday in the month, let us know and we'd love to show you around.

response from trueman

Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary was kind enough to provide a very helpful, clarifying, and gracious response to my post below that was occasioned by his essay on Calvin and Calvinism. Here is what he has to say (forwarded via Doug Green):

I don't normally respond to anything on the web; but as this seems legit and as the person has taken time to critique an article, rather than a book, I'm happy to offer a few lines of friendly response. My article, though only a survey piece, is an attempt at summarising the approach laid out in detail by Muller's PRRD [Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics], and by a number of us in specific monographs and so is, I guess, useful as a starting point for a general assessment of the approach as a whole. Maybe the reviewer would consider posting this (although, as I say, I don't usually have any patience with web discussion).

1. The easiest point to answer is that relating to my perceived failure to bring the story up to Princeton and beyond. This was simply outwith the contractual scope of the essay.

2. The reviewer appears to read me as arguing that form and content are separable in the sense that there is no relation between them, and he correctly points out the theoretical naivete of this position. I agree that it is naive; but I never intended to claim as much as is imputed to me. The point of the approach argued by Muller and co. is not that form and content are completely separable but that scholastic form does not imply particular doctrinal content. In the works of H E Weber, Otto Weber, E Bizer, P Althaus, and lesser lights such as J B Torrance and Alan Clifford, it is repeatedly assumed or asserted that scholastic form necessarily brings with it a particular doctrinal content, whether, for example, a predestinarian determinism or an incipient rationalism. The point of my argument is that such is not the case; I am not arguing for absolute independence of form and content, merely that they are not so related in the case of scholasticism that the presence of the former allows us to make a priori judgements about specific doctrinal loci and their interrelationship or structural and material function. Specific claims made on the basis of the study of specific texts in specific contexts is what I am calling for.

3. I agree that ordering of topics can be doctrinally significant; but again, I would also argue that this is not necessarily so. If one wishes to argue that Calvin's placement of predestination in the later editions of the Institutions has a primarily doctrinal significane, one must prove this from the texts, not assume it as basic. The Melanchthon argument does not exclude the doctrinal motive; but it does makes it unnecessary as an explanation; and thus it raises the evidential bar that much higher for those who wish to make the doctrinal case. Again, specific claims made on the basis of specific texts in specific contexts is what I am calling for.

4. Reception of texts by later generations is, of course, a complex matter. It may well be that the pedagogical motives for a topical ordering in one generation are lost to later generations, that predestination does become axiomatic as a means of driving the system etc. I don't disagree; what I see myself as demanding is that (a) we do not confuse later use of texts for original intention; and (b) any case made for use of a text is made with reference to context and actual usage, not generalised abstractions and a priori assumptions.

5. The final point of response is to the criticism that, because my narrative refuses to do systematics, I have only half-done my task. This is a criticism of my work I have come across frequently -- indeed, my good friend Garry Williams at Oak Hill starts his lectures each year by quoting the relevant section from the introduction to my John Owen book and then telling his students that he intends to do the exact opposite in his classes! The criticism rests, of course, on a definition of my task which I refuse -- or, at least, which I refuse as the only legitimate definition of my task. Does a historian, even a historian of ideas, have to address the 'doctrinal truth' question to be doing proper history? This seems to me to represent a very narrow view of the work of the historian. I could write pages on this in defending the legitimacy of never raising the question of whether these theologians were correct or not.

In fact, I will respond briefly with just two points: first, the idea that Christian history (if one believes in such a thing -- and that is a controversial point in itself) must end up in systematics to be Christian seems a highly contentious point, akin to Christian cake baking having to terminate in cakes made specifically for the church picnic if it is to be legitimate; why cannot history done well to the glory of God be Christian? Why, for example, may I not conceive of the 'Christian' adjective in 'Christian history' as speaking primarily to motivation rather than method or conclusion, as a vocation rather than a methodology? This is a contentious claim, I know, and not one I wish to debate at length at this time, but the larger point is clear: just because the way I do history is not to the reviewer's taste does not render my approach illegitimate or half-finished, even for a Christian.

Second, I think that if one is demanding that history have a contemporary pay-off (and, again, that is claim which needs to be justified, not assumed), then one need not see this in systematic terms: by demonstrating that many apparently doctrinal issues are not completely -- or even at all -- doctrinal is surely a useful function, particularly when one sees the church politics that is so frequently built on contentious doctrinal readings of Reformed Orthodoxy? Does my refusal of the systematic task really make my work mere historicism or, worse still, an interesting antiquarianism? By highlighting the way in which other factors shape and inform the theological task, I think such history fulfils an important critical function. Indeed, to be really contentious, I would argue that the narrative of Reformed Orthodoxy needs to be even less theological than it is is now, taking full account not only of genre and intellectual contexts, synchronic and diachronic, but also of wider political, social, economic, and pastoral concerns. More analytical integration still of the doctrinal documents with non-doctrinal contexts is necessary to enrich the narrative; not an always-potentially-narrowing a priori commitment to producing a theological result.

On the whole, Dr. Trueman has addressed a number of my concerns quite adequately, though I do have some remaining questions. Morever, I think the last two paragraphs make for an interesting discussion, though, naturally I agree with much of what he suggests. Perhaps I'll post some further thoughts and comments when time permits.