Luther’s Very Scholastic Reformation

Luther hammerI’ve been enjoying working my way through William Jan Van Asselt’s edited volume on Reformed Scholasticism lately. One of the main points the various contributors have been underscoring is that far from being a specific body of content, scholastic theology ought to be seen rather as a method of approach that could be used by various theological perspectives. Indeed, nowhere is this highlighted best than when we consider what is usually painted as the explosive, revolutionary act that kicked off the Reformation:

When, as tradition has it, Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his theses on indulgences to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg in 1517, the hammer blows appeared to usher in a new era for the church. Luther’s act is often considered the beginning of the Reformation. However, a close look at the theses will make it clear that they do not condemn indulgences as such, but only the misuse of them. When it comes to content, Luther’s first act of reform was therefore more medieval than has commonly been assumed.

But the form of this important act in the history of the church also must be seen against a medieval background. Nailing theses to a door was not an unusual thing to do, since theological disputations were regularly held on theses that previously had been made known. When Luther nailed those famous theses to the door, his intention was to enter into a theological disputation. The disputation genre had developed in the medieval schools and formed an important part of the scholastic method. Luther’s hammer blows may have drawn the curtains on the Middle Ages and heralded a new era in church history, but as such his first act of reformation was entirely medieval.

Added to this paradox is the fact that Luther engaged in disputes against scholastic theology only shortly before nailing the ninety-five to the door. In his attack on scholastic theology, Luther thus used an element from scholastic method, the disputation. This was because Luther understood the concept of scholasticism in terms of content, as representing the teaching of Aristotle and William of Ockham. Luther’s Galatians commentary (1519), whose contents identify it as a Reformed commentary, was similarly the fruit of a medieval pedagogical method, the lectio (reading), in which a (biblical) book was read and commented on by the master during his lectures.

–Pieter L. Rouwiendal, “The Method of the Schools: Medieval Scholasticism.” in Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Willem J. Van Asselt. Ed. (Kindle Locations 1140-1152). Reformation Heritage Books.

Far from being a great anti-scholastic revolt, Luther’s initial reformatory foray was scholastic, both in content and in method. It was somewhat of an unintentional revolution initiated by professor thoroughly shaped and formed from within a tradition, not the work of an outsider rebel disrupting the system from without.

At the expense of moralizing an interesting historical tidbit, there might be a bit of cautioning, or at least chastening, word for would-be theological revolutionaries. Luther, Calvin, and the other great Reformers were all, for the most part, trained and schooled in the classic texts, sources, methods, and theology, which is what allowed them to be so devastatingly effective, both in retaining the best of the catholic tradition, as well as criticizing its excesses. There is likely more value in learning and submitting to the tradition, doing the hard work of study and so forth, than hot-blooded young types looking to reshape the Church want to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Importance of Context in the Conquest of Canaan (The Story Notes #7)

jerichoMy church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

Text – Joshua 6 and the Invasion of Jericho

While a lot of us have trouble with most of what they read in the Old Testament, up until now a lot of us could get by okay. Let’s not play around here, though–there is a serious difficulty for many of us reading and understanding texts like this. The invasion and conquest of Canaan presents an assault on the modern mind, with modern sensitivities, horrified at what strikes us as a simple war of conquest in the name of God. We live in a post-9/11 world and the specter of religious terrorism, and not to mention modern ethnic cleansing, so this stuff understandably terrifies us.

Problem is, it seems like the Bible is full of awkward sections like this. What do we do with these pictures of violence? Or all the weird laws that we find in the Torah? How do we accept them as the word of God and possibly relate them to our own lives when they seem so terrible? We have to do something with them don’t we? This isn’t just an academic question for a lot of us. These are the texts that get thrown in our faces by our atheist and agnostic classmates when the Bible comes up. And, if we’re honest, they’re the ones that keep some of us up at night, doubting if what we’ve been taught in Sunday School is really all just a made-up, human construction.

What I want to do tonight is try to deal with this text, yes, but also the importance of reading the troubling texts of Scripture in context. In this case there are three contexts that I would tell you that you have to consider: historical, redemptive-historical, and the Gospel. But to set that up, let’s recap the story.

The Story Recap- At this point, the 40 years are up, and the Israelites are beginning to enter and take the promised Land. Joshua, Moses’ Second in Command, is now leading Israel’s armies and beginning to fight the Amalekites, and the rest of the Canaanite peoples, in order to take possession of it. That’s pretty much the story so far from last week.

1. Historical Context – So, here they are, about to take the ‘city’ of Jericho, and here’s where it becomes important to start examining the first context, the historical one, in order to understand what we’re reading.

a. Geopolitical-Theological Power Centers – Most of us, when we hear about a city like Jericho, make the mistake of thinking of a modern city, or maybe an old town, filled with normal life, families, etc. with Israel camping around, ready to invade. Here’s where modern archeology and biblical scholarship begins to shed some light. See, the reality is, most of the “cities” we see listed as being taken are really concentrated military/political/theological centers that controlled the regions.

They were small, maybe about the size of Trinity (our church campus). Realize, this is not LA or even Tustin we’re talking about. These were small, composed of maybe a couple hundred people which is why Israel can march around seven times in one day, and then still have the energy to conquer it. Beyond that, they consisted of military personnel, local royalty, slaves and prostitutes, with the civilian populations (if significant) living outside the walls. This was an attack on the equivalent of a key military base.

And here we come to something important: there is every reason to think that these civilian populations cleared out as the armies approached. There are a number of texts in the Law and in Exodus where God promises to “drive them out” before the Israelites:

I will send my terror in front of you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send the pestilence in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. –Exod 23:27-31

So, when Rahab talks about the “Fear” that had fallen on the land, there is the strong implication that most of any civilian population had cleared out before the Israelites ever got there. If they didn’t, before, then after 7 days of watching Israel marching around the gates, they did. These were not large massacres, but strategic strikes on key religious and political centers.

b. War Hyperbole and Rhetoric-- Beyond that, we need to address the language about total destruction in these texts right? Because we read these awkward phrases about “men and women and children”, “left no one breathing”, “left no survivors”, etc. According to Scholar Paul Copan we need to know that this is typical Ancient Near Eastern War Rhetoric:

This stereotypical ancient Near East language of “all” people describes attacks on what turn out to be military forts or garrisons containing combatants — not a general population that includes women and children. We have no archaeological evidence of civilian populations at Jericho or Ai (6:21; 8:25).8 The word “city [‘ir]” during this time in Canaan was where the (military) king, the army, and the priesthood resided. So for Joshua, mentioning “women” and “young and old” turns out to be stock ancient Near East language that he could have used even if “women” and “young and old” were not living there. The language of “all” (“men and women”) at Jericho and Ai is a “stereotypical expression for the destruction of all human life in the fort, presumably composed entirely of combatants.”9 The text does not require that “women” and “young and old” must have been in these cities — and this same situation could apply to Saul’s battling against the Amalekites.

So we have good reason to doubt that there was even close to the picture of  families and dense, civilian populations here. And this is not an issue of the text lying either. This is typical ANE war rhetoric and most people would have heard and read it that way.

c. Infiltration as Well — This is backed up by the fact that If you look at the earlier sections of the Law, there are dozens of laws talking about not inter-marrying with people of the land, or later on in Judges, the Bible talks about fights with the Canaanites, that assume they weren’t all wiped out, but continued to be a significant presence in the land. Again, as we saw in this Exodus text, the strategy wasn’t coming in and actually totally wiping people out, but slowly infiltrating key power centers and moving into the land that way. This is not the indiscriminate wholesale slaughter that we might be tempted to picture.

These and a number of other historical factors need to be considered when reading these texts. We live at a distance of thousands of years from these text and bring assumptions to it that the original readers wouldn’t have shared, and don’t assume things that they would have. So whenever you run across a difficult text in the OT, realize that there are a times when a lot of confusion and heart-ache can be avoided with a good commentary and some historical scholarship. Not entirely, of course, but still significant.

2. Redemptive-Historical Context – That said, the historical context isn’t the only one to consider. Another level that we have to consider is the “Redemptive-historical” context–or the whole story of the Bible. These events take their place in a longer story and must be understood within that context or they don’t make sense.

a. God’s patient judgment - One angle on this is to consider why God says he is driving out the Canaanites. Back in Genesis 15:13-16 God says:

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

Then again, we read in Deuteronomy 9:4-5:

“Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you.  Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

In these texts we see that God was using the Israelites as his sword of judgment. This is not God just looking around at random and destroying a people. The cultures that were invaded were abysmally dark, notorious for their rampant injustices towards the weak and the poor. They were conquerors and bloody bullies who soaked the land in blood and death. These are not peaceful monasteries in Tibet we’re talking about here. Their worship was corrupted to the point that it involved bestiality, temple prostitution (which like involved sex-slavery), and, most horrifying of all, child sacrifice. We have archeological digs with pits, full of the skulls of children these cultures offered up to the flame. As an associate of mine pointed out, just consider Rahab the prostitute–how weird is it that she was willing for invaders to come? No, for her, and those like her, this was not just invasion, but in many ways, liberation.

See, God tells us that he is the God who care about poor, powerless, etc. He cannot and will not let injustice go on forever and so, at times, his final judgment breaks out in the present in order to stop gross injustice. Beyond that, in the first text we see that God waited 400+ years for the people to become corrupt enough to justify thing. He didn’t just pick a land and take it, he waited until the culture became so corrupt and wicked that their judgment was merited and necessary. This was God’s extreme patience towards the Canaanites–he waits hundreds of years for their sin to ripen and mature (far longer than we probably would have), until even God’s patient mercy must give way to judgment.

b. God will give them no taste for conquest — The other thing we need to note is that this is not a set-up for empire-building. In Deuteronomy he commands them not to have standing armies, chariots, or any of the other paraphernalia of empires. This a limited project, undertaken at one time, for a specific purpose. This is not a program of Empire to be appropriated later, or used to justify other violence. “You get this land, about half the size of California and no more.” This is part of the logic of the total destruction of these key sites. Israel is not to get a taste for war. And you see in the rest of the OT, the rest of the Yahweh-approved wars are fought defensively.

c. God’s other purpose is to create a Redemptive Space — The second reason that needs to be considered is what were God’s purposes with Israel. God had project: he wanted to create a people through whom the world would see what God was like. What’s more, the ultimate goal is not for Israel alone, but that all the nations of the world may be saved and blessed by God through Israel in the coming of her Messiah. For this to happen, Israel needed a land, a space to develop a culture as a people, set apart from other peoples, for the redemption of all peoples. They needed space to practice the 10 commandments. A set-apart, holy land devoted to justice, peace, and the true worship of God, in a way that would be un-corrupted by the local Canaanites and their distorted practices.

This is another, if not the key reason to understand that this was not a whole-sale killing, genocide or ethnic-cleansing. Israel took Rahab and her family in as they acknowledged the true God, and as a friend pointed out, this is likely just a shadow of Israel’s mercy to other people–the accounts don’t cover everything. Just as they included repentant Egyptians in the crowd as they left Egypt, it is not unlikely that repentant Canaanites could join the people. Of course, this points ahead to the Gospel of Jesus and the inclusion of the Gentiles. Clearing out the nations serves the purpose of one day bringing in the nations.

So what we’re seeing then, is a tactical, limited invasion, whose goal was to establish beach-heads, driving out the surrounding peoples and their corrupt cultures slowly. Why? For God’s specific, purposes of judgment on a wicked people, and the grand redemptive purpose of saving all peoples. (Incidentally, this is why this can’t be used as a warrant for modern violence–different covenant, no divine command, etc.)

This is where I make an analogy that might not work. Most of us look back at WW2 and think there was a lot of horrible stuff that happened on both sides. I mean, I think I’m only now reconciling myself to the horror of the firebombing of Dresden and the terror of Hiroshima. These were…damnable. Thing is, with all of Europe in the choke-hold of a monster, and the gaping jaws of Auschwitz and the camps devouring millions of Jews, I don’t think any of us would say that no bullets should have been fired or that no bombs ought to have been dropped.

If that holds true for the temporal salvation of some people and one point in history, how much more then for the salvation of the whole world? Again, this may not work for you. I get that. I’m not sure it does entirely for me either. Still, it might put the breaks on our rush to rule this out as something God “couldn’t” do. We have a God who has committed to saving historical beings, precisely in history. We shouldn’t be surprised if that involves some messy moments.

3. Theological Context of Christ - Of course, the final context I would say we need to look at this in, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. On the one hand, you can’t understand Jesus without the rest of the story of the Bible. On the other, you can’t understand the story of the Bible without look at the Gospel of Jesus. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are like a light at the center of the Story-line that allows us to see all things properly in its light.

In this case, I think the Gospel reminds us of a couple of big-picture theological truths that we need to keep in mind when we look at these stories.

God Hates Sin – One thing these texts remind us of is the radical seriousness with which God takes sin. I was talking to a buddy the other day and he was telling me how it just really occurred to him that God hates sin–like, he really can’t stand it to the core of his being. But honestly, that’s a good thing, right? If God is good, loving, just, great, righteous, and holy, he really can’t love sin. He can’t and shouldn’t put up with it forever, right? I mean oppressing the poor has to end sometime right? Violence, arrogance, racism, rape, child-sacrifice, sex-slave trade, and idolatry can’t go on forever. And we don’t want it to.

This is what we see in the Cross of Jesus. The cross of Jesus is God judging sin for what it is–something damnable and horrifying–something that has not place in God’s world and will ultimately be done away with. What happened to Jesus is what ought to happen to us, and will, if we don’t allow him to be judged in our place.

God Loves Sinners – Now, while that’s one truth we need to see, there’s a far deeper one beneath it that is essential for us to consider–God loves sinners:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:6-10, ESV)

The fundamental truth about God that we see in the Cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that his will is to save them. He loves them. He doesn’t want to judge us. He doesn’t want to ultimately condemn us. He is just, so if we refuse to turn, if we continue to hate good and choose evil, well, he’ll let us do that and suffer the consequence. But his deep desire is to draw us to himself. He looks at us and says, “Though I can’t stand what you’ve done, both to me, your neighbor, and yourself, yet I love you. I would separate you from your guilt. I would remove from you your sin, that I might hold you to my own heart that loves you still.”

So in order to do that, he suffers judgment himself. Realize, the God we see in the OT, is the same God who was willing  to become a man and suffer the worst pain that anyone in human history has ever faced. This is the God who suffers the rejection of Hell for us, so that we might not face it. In the end, God conquers sinners through judgment–His own, on the Cross. This is ultimately what I have to look to.

We’ve gone through a lot of these different contextual issues and historical considerations that change the shape of how we think about these text. They’re important to consider and helpful as we wrestle with the awkwardness of the story of scripture. At the end of the day, though, I have to put my trust in that God is who I see in Jesus Christ and him crucified–the God who proved himself perfectly just and perfectly loving in a way I could have never imagined. I never could have fathomed a God so good he was willing to die for those who wanted to put him to death in order to save them from death.

So when I come to these troubling texts, no, I don’t just read them and say, “Welp, it’s the Bible, so, no problem here.” I have doubts and struggles. What I do say is, “God, you’ve already proven yourself to be unfathomably just and unfathomably loving beyond my finite and fallen comprehension. I still don’t have a grid for the Gospel. I’m having trouble accepting this, but I trust you, so shine a light on this.” Then I wait. I study, pray, and wait. And you know what? I think God’s okay with that.

If you’re struggling tonight, that’s okay. Church is meant to be a place where, yes, we confess, praise, trust, and grow. It also should be a place where you can safely struggle. What I do hope you’ve seen is that when it comes to difficult texts, context matters–a lot. And can make a big difference. So before you chuck your Bible across the room, slow down, ask questions, do a little digging and prayer and trust God to show up.

Soli Deo Gloria

Okay, so, I know this is an incomplete treatment of the text, or even the whole conquest. I didn’t address God’s rights as creator, scratch the surface of the epistemological issues, moral grounding, and the authority of scripture over culture. Honestly, I had a half hour, and I try not to push my students beyond that. For those who are interested in exploring the question in greater depth, I would commend these resources to you:

1. Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan – This has three chapters devoted to the question of the context that are extremely helpful on this question.
2. How Could God Order the Killing of the Canaanites? by Paul Copan – Short article summarizing much of the book.
3. Is YHWH a War Criminal? by Alastair Roberts — Another thoughtful, article-length treatment of the subject.

The Order Doesn’t Matter Because a Painting is All We Need

Why?  Why not?

Why?
Why not?

Anybody who’s given the Gospel accounts more than a cursory reading knows that there are apparent inconsistencies between them. Were there one or two angels at the tomb when Jesus arose? Did the Transfiguration happen 6 or 8 days after his teaching on  the cost of discipleship? Issues like these have motivated theologians and biblical scholars to write works of apologetics and “harmonies” of the Gospels reconciling these issues. Sometimes the answers work quite well and other times you end up with “solutions” that are worse than the problem they’re trying to explain.

Now, most of us might suspect that the older an author, the more conservative and likely to try and come up with an answer, no matter how odd, in order to “cover” for the Gospel-writers. That’s why it was funny to run across this little tidbit in Calvin’s Harmony of the Law on the temptation accounts. When you read the accounts in Matthew and Luke, you see that the order of the temptations is switched up. How does Calvin account for this?:

It is not of great importance, that Luke’s narrative makes that temptation to be the second, which Matthew places as the third: for it was not the intention of the Evangelists to arrange the history in such a manner, as to preserve on all occasions, the exact order of time, but to draw up an abridged narrative of the events, so as to present, as in a mirror or picture, those things which are most necessary to be known concerning Christ. Let it suffice for us to know that Christ was tempted in three ways. The question, which of these contests was the second, and which was the third, need not give us much trouble or uneasiness. In the exposition, I shall follow the text of Matthew.

Harmony of the Law, Matthew 4:5-11; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:5-13

Long before modern historical and literary critics came on the scene, Calvin knew that we must not impose modern standards of historiography on the Gospel writers. Their intent was not to give us a perfect blow-by-blow, video-camera-replacing description, but to give us those things “most necessary” for us to know about Jesus’ saving ministry. This isn’t imputing error or falsehood to them, but recognizing the nature the of the account they’re trying to provide. It’s no insult to recognize a wonderful painting for what it is; the problem comes when you’re expecting an HD photograph. God has given us what he knows we need in his Word, not what we think we need.

Soli Deo Gloria

Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis on the Birth of ‘Chronological Snobbery’

progressivismIn assessing various arguments across over the years, I’ve found C.S. Lewis’ notion of the fallacy of “chronological snobbery” to be extremely helpful. He describes this flawed thought process as the “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” (Surprised by Joy,  p. 207) In other words, “That’s what people a hundred years ago believed, surely you can’t expect me to agree to that?”

Although writing off an idea simply because it is old is a fairly common move in our context, ancient philosophers, theologians, and moralists regularly appealed to the antiquity of a doctrine in order to establish its authority for the present. Somewhere along the line the witness of history ceased to be a source of credibility for an idea, and in some cases, became a liability.

I was reminded of this after writing the other day about Barth’s characterization of eighteenth century man as “the absolute man.” His attitude towards life, the natural order, politics, philosophy, the inner and outer self is that of an autonomous master who has come, or is coming, fully into his own such that his power and potentiality is increasingly limitless. It is an impulse that can be traced throughout various spheres of life including, as Barth points out, his attitude towards history.

Barth and the ‘Absolute’ Historians

Barth notes that the Enlightenment is often unfairly criticized as being historically “deficient.” He recognizes that it was during the birth of the modern academy and the proliferation of the various fields of academic discipline which accompanied the time that much careful research into ancient history was conducted.  At the same time, and it is here that Barth sees the force of the accusation, it is at this point that the problematic “critical study of history” began:

But what else can this mean but that it was in the eighteenth century that man began to axiomatically to credit himself with being superior to the past, and assumed a standpoint in relation to it whence he found it possible to set himself up as a judge over past events according to fixed principles, as well as to describe its deeds and to substantiate history’s own report? And the yardstick of these principles, at least as applied by the typical observer of history living at that age, has the inevitable effect of turning that judgment of the past into an extremely radical one. For the yardstick is quite simply the man of the present with his complete trust in his own powers of discernment and judgment, with his feeling for freedom, his desire for intellectual conquest, his urge to form and his supreme moral self-confidence.

What historical facts, even, can be true except those which to the man of the age seem psychologically and physiologically probable, or at any rate not improbable? How, in face of such firm certainty about what was psychologically and physiologically probable and improbably could eighteenth century man conceive of the existence of historical riddles and secrets? And what else in fact could the past consist of than either of light, in so far as it reveals itself to be a preparation and mount for the ever-better present ‘You’ll pardon me–it is my great diversion, to steep myself in ages long since past; to see how prudent men did think before us, and how much further since we have advanced’–or simply of darkness–a warning counter-example and as such, if you like, a welcome counter-example–in so far as the past had not yet sense the right road to the future, or had even actively opposed it.

The third thing which this attitude precluded was that the historian should take history seriously as a force outside himself, which had it in its power to contradict him and which spoke to him with authority. One way or another the historian himself said that which he considered history might seriously be allowed to say, and, being his own advocate, he dared to set for both aspects of what he alleged history to have said, its admonitory and its encouraging aspect.

-Protestant Thought: Rousseau to Ritschl, pg. 36

Apparently if we’re looking for the birthplace of chronological snobbery as a dominant intellectual instinct, we need look no farther than eighteenth century man. At root, the impulse to chronological snobbery is the absolute one; it is the confident assurance that history has been in motion leading moral and historical thought to culminate in the worldview or cultural assumptions of the critical historian. Like nature, history was the raw material of time upon which the absolute historian could impose his moral will to reshape and retell the story of his own understanding of greatness. It must be understood, not on its own terms, but from the historian’s own, critical standpoint–one which at no point could be challenged by the object of its study.

Barth draws out a number of deleterious effects this mode of historical inquiry had on this generation of historians, one of the most instructive and damning of which was that, “although as a race they were very learned in historical matters, they were at the same time singularly uninstructed, simply because their modern self-consciousness as such made them basically unteachable.” (pg. 37) When you come to believe that the judgments of this age are inherently superior to those of prior generations simply because they are further down the time-stream, you’ve rendered yourself unteachable; you can’t be corrected or called to account or caused to question any of your own assumptions by any other age than your own.

On Avoiding Snobbery

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment’s absolutist instinct towards history is alive and well in popular Western culture. The myth of progress, and the unconscious tendency to assume a posture of historical maturity and superiority towards our benighted forbears is part of the intellectual air we breathe. Of course, 200 years on some of the details are different; a certain postmodern fuzziness enters into the equation. A touch of historicism or relativism may prevent some of us from judging the past too harshly, and yet the basic structure of thought, in which our ancestors cannot speak a real word of correction or instruction to the present still dominates.

How might we avoid rendering ourselves unteachable by the past? Lewis gives us some sound advice at this point. He says that whenever we encounter an idea or an assumption that we deem regressive, passe, or “out of date”:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

–ibid, pg. 208

In the words of Tim Keller, be prepared to “doubt your own doubt.” Be “radical” enough to question the assumptions of the present age–even the radical, progressive ones–in order to listen to ages past, which, at times, had a better feel for what life in the “age to come” is to be.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Reasons We Tend to Ignore the Past

creedalCarl Trueman notes 3 main assumptions that underlie confessional Protestantism in his incisive, recent work The Creedal Imperative:

  1. The past is important, and has things of positive relevance to teach us.” (pg. 22)
  2. Language must be an appropriate vehicle for the stable transmission of truth across time and geographical space.” (pg. 22)
  3. There must be a body or an institution that can authoritiatively compose and enforce creeds and confessions.” (pg. 23)

Unfortunately, all three are increasingly problematic.

In a chapter outlining the cultural case against creeds, Trueman notes various trends that make them untenable to an expanding number of postmoderns and Evangelicals. I’d like to focus on the 4 that he identifies as weakening our appreciation for the past:

  1. “Science” – First, we must be clear that Trueman isn’t attacking science per se but rather the cultural mindset that science inculcates. The essential point is that for “science”, used in this sense, the “present is better than the past” (pg. 24). Our bias is tilted towards the present in such a way that we are increasingly skeptical that the past has anything to teach us. For instance, nobody wants to consult a 16th century medical text-book to learn how to heal a cold, so why should the Christians in that same century have anything to say about religion and spirituality?
  2. Technology – Technology has reversed the typical flow of information. In the past, elders taught children the various skills they need to live and work in the world. Youths were apprenticed to masters who were experienced experts in their trades. Nowadays technology has reversed the knowledge flow. If they’re over the age of 5, unless you’re a tech expert, your kids know more about technology than you do. Grandparents are particularly hopeless, needing tutorials in basic social requirements, like how to use a smart-phone. The general environment created is one where the old are dependent on the young, and, in a tech-dominated age, no longer relevant to the creation of culture or knowledge. If old people don’t know much, then dead people definitely can’t help us.
  3. Consumerism -Consumerism is problematic in the first place, simply as a species of materialism. Still, one might wonder what this has to do with an antipathy for creeds. Trueman points out that that central to modern consumerism is not just simply materialism, but the process of buying and consuming these new goods. Marketing strategies are aimed at creating a sense of the inadequacy of what is presently possessed for happiness: last year’s clothes, cars, and tech just isn’t good enough now. All of this feeds into the creation and funding of a culture in which the young and the new has status, while the old does not. 18-year olds rarely want to dress like 40-year olds, but the opposite is assumed in almost all modern marketing strategies. This is part of why young pop stars are interviewed on subjects like politics, religion, and morality. “Apparently, the lack of ‘baggage’ (to uses the standard pejorative) is an advantage to being able to speak with authority on complex subjects. In other professions, of course–‘baggage’ is generally referred to as ‘appropriate training.‘” (pg. 29) In which case, who cares what a bunch of old, dead religious “experts” thought about the matter? What’s Lady Gaga think instead? Or for Evangelicals, who cares what a Ph.D. in historical theology thinks about this? I wanna hear what the hip kid with the skinny jeans, candles, and an iPad says.
  4. The Disappearance of “Human Nature” – Without getting too technical about it, we are painfully aware of our social location in a way that no other society has been before us. You are a Hispanic, middle-class, single female navigating life primarily in your minority-culture community in the 21st Century, while the Westminster written by well-educated, upper-class, married, English, white men in the 17th. What could the latter possibly  have to say to the former? We have little sense that there is some stable “essence” we can call human nature that is constant enough, in history and space, that binds us all together, how could anybody speak across history and space to another. The framers of the Nicene Creed had no idea what the internet is,  who was Osama Bin Laden, or current geopolitical realities, so how could their thoughts on “spirituality” impact me today?

Again, none of this is meant to imply that science or technology are bad, just that some of the philosophical baggage and attitudes that comes with them, when paired with consumerism and the disappearance of human nature lead to some heavy currents leading us away from trusting or valuing the past as a source of knowledge of any kind. The idea that an ancient document might actually be binding on us is an even bigger pill to swallow.

All of these cultural trends are at work, not only against creeds, but against trust in the Scriptures and the Gospel itself. Christianity proclaims a truth tied to history, a salvation accomplished once and for all by a Jewish prophet 2,000 years ago on bloody Golgotha, and testified to by his disciples writing in the contest of Roman Imperial authority. To be a Christian is to stake one’s life on the importance of the past. Pastors and preachers need to be aware of the currents they’re navigating and trying to guide their congregants and hearers through. Wise as serpents they must learn to enter the world of their hearers, in order to present the truth from inside in a way that gently unravels (or explodes) their bias against the past.

Speaking practically, they might begin unraveling their own bias first.  American Evangelical pastors especially, swimming against/in a tide of anti-intellectualism and a strong cultural history of mantras like “no Creed but the Bible”,  are often-times just as jaded against the past as their congregations. Ask yourself this question: When was the last time I read a book that wasn’t published in the last 5 years? How about 50? How about 500? You  don’t need to become an expert in patristics, but it makes sense to become familiar with some Athanasius yourself, if you’re going to tell people that holding to the doctrine of the Trinity as taught in the Nicene Creed is important. Maybe lay your hands on some Calvin (not just Calvin as mediated by your favorite current author) before you go into the importance of the doctrines of grace.

Pastors, we have our work cut out for us.

Thankfully, deeper than even our own studies, stronger than any cultural force, we can to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit who makes present the historically-completed work of the Risen and Ascended Christ in the preaching of the Word and the sacraments.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ireneaus Summarizes the Faith

saint_Irenaeus_Early_Church_FatherHistorical myopia is a perennial danger to Church, especially in the area of theology. Every generation has its own particular, culturally-conditioned ways of talking about the Gospel, even when it works from the same biblical texts and recites the same creeds. In our own sin and shortsightedness, we have themes we love to highlight and those topics we’d rather not bring up in polite company. This is why every once in a while it’s good to stop, expand our vision, and listen to Christians of other generations expound or summarize the faith, especially the giants, those respected teachers known for speaking well for the Church as a whole.

On that note, here’s St. Irenaeus, the first great church theologian of the post-Apostolic period, laying out the Church’s faith in contrast to the convoluted Valentinian Gnostic system:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. -St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 1.10.1

Soli Deo Gloria

Christians Are Book People (Seriously, We Were Into Books Before Everybody Else Was)

booksChristians are book people. Many of us have heard the claim before and it makes a certain sense. Christians worship a speaking God–an authoring God who reveals himself in the script of history as well as in the scriptures. That being the case, they ought to care about the written word. Now, being an avid reader myself, I’m inclined to agree. Still, we might wonder at times if the claim’s been exaggerated, especially given the fact that a vast portion of Christians throughout history have been illiterate. Apparently not. According to Robin Lane Fox we’ve been book people from the beginning:

…from a very early date there were Christians able to communicate with the literary culture of their age. As a “religion of the book,” Christianity had a particular relationship with texts. In Rome, several paintings in the burial chambers of the catacombs show Christian arriving at the Last Judgement clutching their books. When the governor of Africa asked a group of Christian prisoners what they had brought with them to court, they replied, “Texts of Paul, a just man.” One of the fundamental contrasts between pagan cult and Christianity was this passage from an oral culture of myth and conjecture to one based firmly on written texts. In the first communities, there had already been a significant break with contemporary habits of reading: Christians used the codex, or book, for their biblical texts, whereas pagans still vastly preferred the roll. The Christian codex was made of papyrus, not parchment. It was more compact and better suited to people on the move, and it was an easier form in which to refer to and fro between texts. This Christian revolution lies at the beginnings of the history of the modern book; for scriptural texts, on present evidence, it seems to have been universal…Gradually, this concern for the book extended to pagan culture too.
Pagans and Christians, pg. 304-305

A few take-aways from early Christian history:

  1. We are book people. I mean, not to be a hipster about it, but we were reading books before everybody else got into them.
  2. Building a personal library is the Christian thing to do. I do not have a book problem. ;)
  3. Apparently the NRA stole “..from my cold, dead hands.”
  4. On a more serious note, the early Christians knew where their strength and hope was: the word of God. When facing the judgment of men, or of God, they clung to the promise of the Gospel in the scriptures. May we do the same.

Soli Deo Gloria