Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift” According to Barclay W/ A Couple Of Notes

paul and the giftEverybody has been raving about John Barclay’s Paul and the GiftPeter Leithart’s given the work some extended attention and my Mere Fidelity podcast compatriot Andrew Wilson has been blogging through it with his characteristically incisive analysis. The word on the street is that this is the book that’s going to blow up a number of paradigms in New Testament studies, especially studies in Paul, for the next couple of decades, upsetting (or delighting) advocates of both Old and New Perspectives on Paul. As someone who originally cut his teeth theologically on these debates, and has long had the intuition that something of a middle way” was likely closer to the truth than has been typically granted by advocates, I was immediately intrigued.

Thankfully, Eerdmann’s heard my plea for a review copy (yes, I was provided one, though without the requirement of a positive review or anything like that). As soon as a clear bit of space opened up this last weekend, I dove in. And, well, after the first hundred pages or so, the hype appears well-deserved. Barclay’s thesis about the nature of grace in Paul is surprisingly unique, nuanced, and extensively well-researched. What’s more, for all the heavy footnoting and sourcing, as of yet, the writing is clear, elegant, and the argument flows quite naturally, even intuitively once the lines have been drawn out. When you hear what Barclay’s up to, you almost begin to think, “Well, of course, how come we haven’t framed it like this before?”

Which raises the question some of you may be asking, “Well, what is Barclay up to?” At this point, there have been a number of helpful summaries of some of the key moves that Barclay makes, but as it happens, Barclay himself cleanly lays out his three main moves, sections, or theses (however you want to put it), early on in the work. I figured I’d just let the man clarify the project on his own behalf:

  1. “Grace” is a multi-faceted concept best approached through the category of gift. It is susceptible to “perfection” (conceptual extension) in a number of different ways, which do not constitute a unified package. Some who discuss this theme will maximize the superabundance, the priority, or the efficacy of grace, and others its incongruity with the worth of the recipients (as gift to the unworthy). Others again will urge the singularly of grace (that God is nothing but gracious), and some that God’s gifts are given “with no strings attached.” These are not better or worse interpretations of grace, just different, and it is perfectly possible to speak of grace without defining it, for instance, as gift to the unworthy. These perfections have been various deployed in the history of reception of Paul, though some are better supported than others by Pauline texts themselves. Much in Jewish interpretations of grace, and in the history of interpretation of Paul, can be clarified by distinguishing between these six perfections.
  2. Grace is everywhere in Second Temple Judaism but not everywhere the same. Instead of uniformity, a careful examination of the texts indicates diversity in their representations of divine beneficence; they differ, for instance, on whether God’s mercy is properly applied without regard to worth. Paul stands in the midst of this diversity. His theology of grace does not stand in antithesis to Judaism, but neither is there a common Jewish view with which it wholly coincides.
  3. Paul’s theology of grace characteristically perfects the incongruity of the Christ-gift, given without regard to worth. This theology is articulated within and for Paul’s Gentile mission, and grounds the formation of innovative communities that crossed ethnic and other boundaries. This incongruous gift bypasses and thus subverts pre-constituted systems of worth. It disregards previous forms of symbolic capital and thus enables the creation of new communities whose norms are reset by the Christ-gift itself. Grace took its meaning in and from Paul’s experience and social practice: the nature of the gift was embodied and clarified in novel social experiments. In the subsequent interpretation of Paul, within and established Christian tradition, this motif has played a number of other roles, but has generally shifted from undermining the believers’ previous criteria of worth to undercutting their self-reliance in attaining to Christian norms or their understanding of this effort as necessary for salvation. (6-7)

Again, I’m only a little over 100 pages in, but so far he’s delivering up the goods. I’ll make a few observations early on, all the same.

First, his literature review on the subject of the gift in modern anthropology and philosophy is, as I said, extensive, though, without the sense of being overwhelming. Actually, for those interested, it pairs well with Leithart’s work in Gratitude: An Intellectual History that I just noted last week. This conversation sets up his analysis of, not only contemporary Western thought on the nature of the gift and the way that it has shaped our interpretation of Paul, but also sets up his discussion of the Greco-Roman milieu into which Paul would have been preaching.

Which brings me to a point that’s worth highlighting on the relationship between biblical studies and theology in general. There are times where it seems that biblical scholars beholden to philosophical categories and presuppositions–whether in the Medieval, Reformation, or Enlightenment period–have distorted and misread the text. We’ve imposed our own culture’s categories and read binaries that simply don’t apply to the text, or blurred lines that should have been kept sharp. Barclay’s use of the anthropological and philosophical nature of the gift, though, appears to be one of those cases where we see that extra-biblical conceptual analysis can help us cut through our own cultural fog in order refine our reading of Scripture in ways that highlight and clarify the text, rather than obscure it.

Second, before actually tackling Paul Barclay devotes a little over 100 pages to analyzing the reception history of Paul’s theology of grace throughout a diverse series of historical figures such as Augustine, Marcion, Calvin, and down on into recent critical scholars. What’s more, as Wilson noted, he does it as someone who actually seems to have read the historical sources and not simply resorting to hackneyed, caricatured, hand-waving about them. And guess what? It seems also to have paid exegetical dividends in allowing him to engage in finer conceptual analysis of the nuances of the various “perfections” of the concept of grace. This is but one more area where we can see that a solid grasp and greater engagement with historical theology have salutary effects beyond mere antiquarian interest. Modern exegetes can learn from the readings (and misreadings) of the past for today.

Well, I’ll wrap things up here for now. Suffice it to say, I don’t imagine I’ll agree with everything Barclay has to say–that rarely happens with anybody in NT scholarship, I’m excited to engage it nonetheless. I plan on offering up at least a couple more posts related to Barclay’s work and the the Mere Fidelity boys have already committed to having an episode (or two!) on the subject. So keep an eye out for that.

Soli Deo Gloria

Gratitude: Leithart’s History of Western Philosophy According to Grandma’s Tureen

gratitudeI love a good intellectual history when I can get my hands on one. Intellectual histories, if done right, give you a solid blend of philosophical (theological, etc) engagement, history, and joy of a well-told story. That’s exactly what Peter Leithart delivers in his recent (2014) offering Gratitude: An Intellectual History. Many will know that the idea of “the Gift” has gotten a lot of attention over the 20th Century in philosophy, anthropology, and related fields. When anthropologist Marcel Mauss “rediscovered” the reciprocity involved in the process of gift-giving in the tribal culture of Polynesia and Melanesia, he kicked off a chain of reflection on the conditions and reality of the gift. What goes into making a gift a gift? What are the ties implied in the giving of the gift? Contemporaries tend to think of gifts as, of necessity, having “no strings attached.” But if every gift implies an obligation, a “debt” of gratitude, can there every truly be such a thing as a gift?

Leithart noticed a gap in the literature. While there’s no end of resources on the gift, there’s little that’s focused on the corresponding category: gratitude. Gifts and gratitude go together. But just exactly what that means, it turns out, has been a matter of debate and controversy over the centuries in the West. Gratitude hasn’t always been simply an issue of thank you cards after your wedding—indeed, it probably never has been simply an issue of anything. The circle of gifts and gratitude have made the world go round, encompassing everything from the deepest questions of political theory, interpersonal ethics, and the nature of the divine-human relationship itself. Paul, lest we forget, says ingratitude–not acknowledging God’s gifts for what they are–is at the heart of human rebellion against God (Romans 1).

Taking an expansive view, Leithart, then, aims to tell the story of the Western history’s various political, philosophical, theological, and cultural orientations towards the nature of gift and the corresponding enactment of gratitude. Guided by Leithart’s steady hands, we are led through a movement from circles of honor in ancient Greece and Rome, to the ingratitude of Jesus, on to the patron(age) saints of the Middle Ages, the disruptive ingratitude of the Reformers, an attempt to bend the circles into straight lines in modernity, and up through the methodological ingratitude of postmodernity. Summarizing this engagement is beyond me. That said, it’s not beyond Leithart to summarize himself. And that’s exactly what he does at the end of the work, using a delightful thought experiment: Grandma’s gift soup tureen.

Leithart asks us at the beginning of the book to enter into the dilemmas of gift of gratitude by imagining this situation:

Imagine that your beloved grandmother gave you a rather ugly soup tureen as a wedding gift. Seeing as you have no use for the tureen, how ought you respond? You would, of course, write an appropriately deceptive note of thanks, but what then? Would you box the tureen away and never use it? Would you use it to feed the cat? What if Grandma were coming for dinner? Would you let her see you using her gift to feed the cat?…Variations on the hypothetical can be spun out further…but the point is clear enough. Gifts, especially from a respected giver, carry something of the giver with them. (16-17)

Gifts carry a responsibility, then, of showing proper gratitude and an ethic that is associated with it.

With this in mind, Leithart decides to summarize his story by playfully imagining what a variety (though not the totality!) of the figures treated in his narrative would tell you about how to respond to Grandma’s ugly, gift tureen:

  • Aristotle would warn you that receiving the tureen puts you in a position of inferiority and that, if you want to be a virtuous and independent person, you should pay Grandma back with a bigger gift as soon as possible. Then forget you ever received the gift in the first place.
  • Cicero would tell you to follow accepted custom, take the gift, look for a chance to reciprocate, and expect that your good offices will advance your political career.
  • Seneca would encourage you to exaggerate the quality and beauty of the gift, to appear at Grandma’s door every morning to accompany her on her way to the grocery store, loudly celebrating her generosity at every stoplight. He would encourage you to look for the right time and way to repay her.
  • Jesus and Paul would tell you to honor and love Grandma, thank God with sincerity, and move on.
  • The Beowulf poet would encourage you to pass out soup tureens to your employees to display your largesse.
  • Calvin and Luther would tell you to thank God, while recognizing you do not deserve the tureen or your grandmother’s love. They would remind you that grace is a gift that can never be repaid.
  • Hobbes would tell you that you should receive the tureen in such a way that Grandma will never regret having given it to you, which means, do not use it to feed the cat.
  • Locke would say that you should thank her and show esteem for her, so long as her gift was not an attempt to influence your decision to vote Democrat.
  • Adam Smith would tell you that gratitude is a proper sentiment in response to something that give pleasure, like a tureen.
  • Kant would tell you that since Grandma gave first, you are obligated to her by a sacred duty, a debt that can never be repaid.
  • Kierkegaard would remind you that we are to thank God even in suffering.
  • Nietzsche would urge you to show gratitude especially if the tureen is ugly, to show Grandma how powerless she is to harm you.
  • Heidegger would mumble something incomprehensible in German, hike up his lederhosen, and leave with Nazi salute.
  • Mauss would be at the head of a gaggle of anthropologists warning you that there is no such thing as a free gift, that Grandma might return later to reclaim her property, and that her display of generosity is likely a power play intended to put you in her debt.
  • Derrida would say that you soiled the gift as soon as you said thank you.
  • Marion would strip the tureen to its essence of pure givability, and you and Grandma would both disappear into phenomenological vapor. (217-128)

And there you have it: the history of Western thought on gratitude, served up in Grandma’s tureen. If this hasn’t whet your appetite, I’m not sure what else I can say. I suppose I’ll say this: Peter Leithart has written first-rate book. It’s a gift for which I’m very grateful. (To God, of course.)

Soli Deo Gloria

Augustine Against the Gods and the City of God For a New Age?

course of empireAs I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve finally taken up Augustine’s City of God in my reading and after the first seven books (of twenty-two) have been finding it immensely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. I’d been exposed to small sections in my undergraduate courses, but now I’m finally taking in the full sweep of the argument and it’s quite a different experience. For those of you who don’t know, most of the first ten books (roughly 4oo pages), is caught up with Augustine’s polemic against the pagans. They had charged Christianity and Christ with the sack of Rome by the Goths, so Augustine launches a sweeping counterattack against the official theology of Rome as well as its most “enlightened” interpretations via Varro and some of the philosophers such as the Neo-Platonists.

Though not quite through the polemics, I thought it might be worth highlighting a few observations worth reflecting on briefly.

Augustine Against the Gods

First, on the material critique of the gods, it’s fairly amusing to read Augustine pick apart the official state religion and the popular iterations presented in Homer and the poets on its own terms. Augustine takes the time to comb through the writings of the poets and point out the various internal inconsistencies and between common Roman morality and the lecherous, shameful gods that are celebrated as ‘select’ among the pantheon. And then he goes on to document in detail the licentiousness that’s passed off as the proper worship of the gods: prostitution, castration, drunkenness, and countless other abominations. The gods weren’t simply non-existent for Augustine–whether figments of the human imagination or demons masquerading as gods–they were positively dehumanizing.

Looking at the practice and reality of idolatry, one Augustine’s main lines of attack is that it’s all rather untidy. Why the multiplication of so many gods to various functions? Why one god for the planting of seeds and another for their growth? If Jupiter is both father and mother of all, why the profusion of feminine and masculine deities? At one point he quite humorously points that there were about six different gods supposed to be invoked at weddings in order to ensure the consummation of the marriage, making things a bit too crowded for the Bride and Groom to get any of the work done themselves. The spirit of Elisha against the Baals on Mt. Carmel stalks Augustine’s work.

Beyond this, it’s not just that polytheism is metaphysically untidy. Augustine points out that the idolatrous spirit, once it begins down the road of multiplying deities, has no natural way of stopping. The logic of polytheism takes over and gods and goddesses begin to pop in the places that you’d least expect them. Indeed, that’s one of the problems with it. As soon as you lose the one God who creates, redeems, directs, and orders all things, you begin to need more and more gods to keep the system going. It’s not as if idolaters simply switch out the True God for another main deity. This creates the perpetual duty to please and propitiate all of them, or the anxiety that comes in making sure you pick the right one for your needs. There is no rest in polytheism.

Augustine’s polemical vision is broader still, though. He takes aim not only at popular piety, but even the more sophisticated and academic attempts to save or reinterpret the worship of the gods by Varro or even Cicero. Poet or philosopher, it didn’t matter. Augustine aimed both high and law. Actually, one of the more interesting features of his polemic is to show the way that even the more sophisticated constructions of Varro and others eventually fall prey to the same faulty metaphysical assumptions, or else fall prey to others that, while possibly less crass, are no more plausible. Idolatry is idolatry is idolatry. Of course, in order to demonstrate that, Augustine had to be familiar with both popular piety and it’s more academic variations.

In modern polemics, if it’s engaged in at all, theologians and pastors tend to stick to one level of discourse. Some love to get into the thick of more street-level apologetics, whether it be Mormons, skeptical Dawkinsians, or your run of the mill “spiritual-not-religious” critic.  Others enjoy the high-level “apologetic” conducted in academies–the kind of apologetic that doesn’t like being called an apologetic–with conversations centered around “modernity”, deconstruction, critical theory, and abstruse ruminations about the hope of a Christian theo-ontology. Usually, the two modes of discourse don’t mix. For Augustine that wasn’t an option. Chapters skewering the lewdities of the Bacchanalia or the foolishness of multiplying principles of being, give way to an examination of the metaphysical shortcomings of the Neo-Platonists.

One of the other features of note is that Augustine’s critique is conducted at the historical level as well. Indeed, after an initial defense of Christian providence against the pagans, Augustine’s critique of the gods begins there. If Christ and the worship of Christ is allegedly responsible for historical evils, for the loss of the blessings of the gods, Augustine will go to history to answer them. If the gods were such great protectors, why had the Romans suffered such great military losses in the ages when there was unquestioned Roman devotion? What of the horrendous civil wars that cause tumult and death? Or how about the various “natural” tragedies and plagues that this pantheon was responsible to deflect? Had not every god they ever worshiped failed them? Indeed, if Virgil’s press and spin-doctoring of history was to be believed and Rome was supported by the old gods of Troy, why did they have any hope in them? Why should the gods that failed Troy be expected to be the salvation of Rome?

Finally, in terms of material content, Augustine’s critique always contains an appreciation of the true desires contained in Roman values and attempts to show their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Though his judgment is almost unrelentingly negative in terms of the actual worship or philosophical positions of those whom he engages, he has a knack for recognizing those noble elements in Varro, Seneca, or some of the heroes of Rome such as Regulus. Some of them are clearly groping towards the truth, but they are unfortunately weighed down by tradition or a lack of courage to recognize the truth. In some cases, he looks at the gods they worship and points out that what they really  ought to worship is a different one like Felicity, who offers all that the Romans seek. Of course, that’s merely a set-up to point out that true felicity comes from the one God in Jesus Christ who is the source of all good in this world and the next.

A Modern City of God?

As I have read and reviewed Augustine’s work, I’ve been wondering what it would take to write a contemporary City of God for the current age. As the West enters (and in Europe has been in) a post-Christian era that increasingly resembles an earlier, more pluralistic and pagan age, what would a full-dress assault on the “gods” look like? Does it already exist? There are a number of good apologetics works out there, but I’m not sure I know of something engaging in as far-reaching, or exhaustive examination of the philosophies, popular spiritualities, and secularized idols (ideologies) that compares to the City of God. Possibly the David Bentley Hart duo of Atheist Delusions when paired with his more recent The Experience of God could be thought of as a contender in that way.

One of the challenges to reproducing Augustine’s work in the contemporary period is that there is no recognizable “religious” system on par with the Roman cult in contemporary Western culture. Thinking about the systems of worship we tend to call religions in the West, the pluralism involved seems to be of a somewhat different sort than the variegated worship of the pantheon in ancient Rome. To take on the “gods” of positive religions like Hinduism, Islam, and so forth, would be a massive undertaking, and in the West, is probably largely beside the point. No, the only comparable reality would likely be the sort of secularized idolatry of the deification of the goods of modern culture. In other words, the sort of “hyper-goods” Charles Taylor talks about like freedom as autonomy, unfettered choice, or more obvious candidates such as money, sex, power, celebrity. In that sense, something like Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods might just do the trick, only on a bit of a grander scale (and I say that loving that book).

I suppose, then, that the elements are probably all there in works that are out on the market, simply chopped up into smaller works and spread out, devoted to tackling more specific, niche issues. Perhaps City of God simply isn’t meant to be rewritten and the age calls for another kind of work altogether. A more impatient age can’t take the time to work through a thousand page onslaught on idols of the age.

I wonder, though. Maybe there’s space yet, for another Augustine to meet the current challenges.

And I suppose that’s where I’ll end this ramble. If you have any thoughts, opinions, ruminations, or recommendations, feel free to weigh in through the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria


STAHP Confusing Physics with Metaphysics

remthologizing“Well, according to quantum physics we now know that God’s activity in the world must be…”

“Biology has taught us about the human anatomy so our Christology needs to reckon with…”

“In light of our knowledge of emergent properties…”

Ever hear something like this in a conversation, or on a blog somewhere? Statements of this sort are among my least favorite to run across in a modern or contemporary text in theology. In our contemporary context, many are concerned to participate in the growing dialogue between the physical sciences and the science of theology, trying to figure out how to relate the two properly. Given that the reality of God speaks to every dimension of reality, spiritual as well as material, I can appreciate the intent. The problem is that many attempt the task without the proper philosophical, biblical, or theological categories in place, which leads to a confused view of God’s activity in the world.

One common place where this occurs is in conversations with some sorts of relational theists, panentheists, process theists who argue that God restrains himself from too much intervention in the world, or restricts it to a limited “persuasive” sort. One given reason is that for God to intervene too much in the physical world, that would disrupt the natural order, rendering his action coercive and, therefore, unloving. While there are numerous mistakes involved in this sort of view, Kevin Vanhoozer points out that there is one basic mistake underlying them all:

Underlying this categorial confusion of Creator and creation stands a metaphysical postulate that reduces what is logically possible for God to what is physically possible in the natural order. It is precisely this metaphysical postulate that leads some panentheists to dismiss divine interventionism  on the grounds that such divine action competes with and, at the limit, negates the natural order: “The category mistake is thus a confusion between natural causality and divine action.”  When it comes to the God–world relation, however,  there is no competition,  for the relation is enveloped by an even greater Creator–creation distinction: “For no similarity can be asserted between creature and creator unless an even greater dissimilarity is included.”  —Remythologizing Theology, pg 168

At core, it is a failure to properly reckon with Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” As the Creator of all reality besides himself, God is the transcendent Lord of all reality besides himself. He is not in competition with it, but upholds it by his very word. He is not on an even playing field with the rest of reality, but sustains the playing field in existence.

I was reminded of this point by several passages in Turretin’s discussion of the nature of theology in the first subject of his Institutes. In several places, he makes salient points that ought to be kept in mind as well attempt to think of reality in light of God and vice versa.

First, we have to understand the way that theology studies the reality of the world and God. Each science or area of study takes its cues for how it knows on the basis of what its object is, but also on the way it approaches the object.

Although physics, ethics, and medicine treat of the subject, they do not cease to be distinct sciences because they consider man in different relations: physics as a species of natural body; ethics as capacious of virtue and happiness; medicine as curable from diseases and restorable to health. Thus although theology treats of the same things with metaphysics, physics, and ethics, yet the mode of considering is far different. It treats of God not like metaphysics as a being or as he can be known from the light of nature, but as the Creator and Redeemer made known by revelation. It treats of creatures not as things of nature, but of God (i.e., as holding a relation and order to God as their Creator, preserver, and Redeemer). (Topic 1., Qu.5, V.)

Theological approaches to the relationship between theology and science need to remember their own particular mode of study.

Next, theological approaches to the problem need to remember the limits of reason with respect to God’s power. Turretin affirms the place of reason, and even the judgment of contradiction in the theology, especially since Scripture itself authorizes that. Nonetheless:

Although the judgment of contradiction is allowed to reason in matters of faith, it does not follow that the human intellect becomes the rule of divine power (as if God could not do more things than human reason can conceive). God’s being able to do something above nature and human conception (which is said with truth in Eph. 3:30) is different from his being able to do something contrary to nature and the principles of natural religion (which is most false). Nor is the power of God in this manner limited by the rule of our intellect, but our mind judges from the word what (according to the nature of a thing established by God ) may be called possible and impossible. (Topic 1, Qu.XI, XIV)

Human reason’s reach can only go so far, but we must remember that the power of God can extend much farther. He is the author of our reason and so is transcendent of it, as are his works. That said, it’s not simply the case that what theology teaches simply contradicts what is in the sciences or philosophy and we mustn’t worry about the relation between the two. It is a matter of thinking clearly about which order or of reality we’re speaking of.

Although theology teaches many things which philosophy knows not, it does not follow that a thing may be false in philosophy which is true in theology because truth is not at variance with truth, nor is light opposed with light. But care must be taken that philosophical truths be not extended beyond their own sphere and the ordinary powers of nature to those things which are supernatural revelation and power; that the physical be not confounded with the hyperphysical or human with divine things. For example, it is true in philosophy that a virgin cannot bring forth, that a heavy body is carried downwards, that fire burns matter placed in contact with it, that from nothing, nothing can come–the contraries of which theology maintains. But they are not on this account opposed to each others because these things are spoken of in different relations. In philosophy, they are denied with reference to the laws of nature, but in theology they are affirmed with reference to divine omnipotence and supernaturally. -(Topic 1, Qu. XIII, XII)

In other words, we have to let the Creator/creation divide properly frame our thought on God and the sciences. As always, whenever the Creator and the creature are confused, mixed, or held under the same category, the darkening of reason follows (Romans 1).

Soli Deo Gloria

The ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

Matthew Levering makes a point I’ve seen confirmed time and again in my own preaching and teaching with college students and young adults:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

–Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

Bold Theologian.

Bold Theologian.

Just the other night in Bible study with a group of young adults, working our way through Gospel of John, we had to stop and begin to parse doctrine of the Trinity in some detail. This wasn’t my own theological orientation jumping at the opportunity to explain eternal generation. We were forced by the logic of Jesus’ own words to attend to the trinitarian grammar of what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Without a proper doctrine of the Trinity, or a working Christology, I don’t believe you can make it through half of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, or dialogues with the disciples in that Gospel.

I mean, think about it. You can’t even make it past the most bottom-of-the-barrel proclamation represented by that guy holding up the poster of John 3:16 at the football game without encountering “the technical stuff”:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Well, okay. But what does it mean that God “gave his only Son”? God has kids? How? Where is His Wife? Why does Mrs. God get no headlines?

You see where this goes?

All that to say, at some point, for everyone, the “technical details” matter. It doesn’t matter that all you want to do, young pastor, is “preach the gospel” or “just love people.” If any of that involves more than the most shallow truisms and generalities, you’re going to have to do some theological digging. What’s more, for those who think you had all that handled in seminary, aside from the fact that there’s no way you covered all that questions you’re going to face in ministry, or that arise when worshipping an infinite God, just realize that while our basic theology may stay the same, the popular landscape is always shifting. More study is always required.

So roll up your sleeves and get to reading. We’ve got some work to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Common? High? Pop? What Kind of Culture Is It? (With Some Help From Roger Scruton)

The notion of ‘culture’ has fascinated me ever since I first got my hands on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in which he lays out his vision for engaging Western culture for the Gospel. It was around the time that the whole emergent church thing was still a thing and it seemed like everyone was talking about the shift to “postmodern” culture and what that meant. In middle of that conversation I started to realize that ‘culture’ was an important issue for evangelism, discipleship, and just ministry in general.

As I went on to read more about the issue, I found that almost everybody in the theological literature agrees that if you’re going to do ministry, then you have to understand cultural context you’re set in. Whether it’s modern culture, postmodern culture, indigenous cultures, or church cultures, ‘culture’ is everywhere and ever-so-important. Of course, this raises the issue of what exactly we mean by the term ‘culture’.

Seems like something we ought to have nailed down if we’re going to be talking about it so much.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

Now I’ve had my own working definition of it for some time. The problem I’ve found is that, depending on the publication, author, or discipline you’re reading, everybody seems to have their own definition of it, many which seem to be at odds with each other.

This is why I was so pleased when I found that in first pages of his insightful little work Modern Culture, Roger Scruton helpfully lays out three different senses of the term ‘culture’ that are typically used today:

  • Common – The first is what might be called ‘common’ culture. It takes its cues from Herder, whose notion of kultur indicated the unique spirit of a nation or people as opposed to zivilization which could be shared with various other nations. This, apparently, was taken up and developed by the German romantics who pointed to the idea that culture is what shapes and is found in the various songs, art, traditions of a nation. In this view, it is what is common to all the people in a nation or tribe. This means that nobody, “however ill-educated, is deprived of culture, since culture and social membership is the same idea.” (pg. 1) It is this interpretation that most of the early anthropologists and sociologists of our day work with.
  • High – The second is what might be called ‘high’ culture and takes its roots in a more classical understanding that is linked to the idea of culture as cultivation and virtue. It is not common to all, but must be acquired through education, which usually requires some intellect, as well as leisure and resources for study. To have culture on this view is the province of the few and the well-educated. It comes with a knowledge of the broad literary canon, an appreciation of the right sorts of music and the arts. Culture, in this view, is a sort of moral-technical expertise. This idea has been championed by literary critics such as Matthew Arnold, and later by T.S. Eliot, and of course, Scruton himself. In fact, the book as a whole should be seen as a defense of high culture. (pp. 1-2)
  • Pop– Scruton says that a third sort of culture has emerged recently from the battles between the two. As we noted, the idea of common culture is usually attached to a tribe or a nation, a set, identifiable grouping of people whose culture can be identified and is generally shared. One of main characteristics of the modern/postmodern world which we inhabit is the breakdown of the various tribes associated with ‘traditional society.’ (pg. 2) There are no uncontested practices, thought patterns, songs, and narratives which can be appealed to without a sense of irony. That being said, humans still have need for a sort of solid and stable identity-shaping environment just as the traditional societies gave. It is in this situation that what might be termed ‘popular’ culture emerges, as a sort of tertium quid, a third thing, both like and unlike both of the prior conceptions. Pop culture is the province of ‘cultural studies’ programs in college and is thought of by its defenders as an equally valid ‘culture of the people’. Essentially pop culture is what’s involved when the notion of high culture as something that is a feature of “choice, taste, and leisure” in the sense of cultivation is merged with the common such as pop art and entertainment.  (pp. 2-3) As Scruton notes, “Any activity or artefact is considered cultural, if it is an identity-forming product of social interaction.” (pg. 3)

Of course, Scruton looks upon this last development with dismay, and, as mentioned earlier, in the rest of the work will launch a defense of high culture against any relativistic, postmodern deconstructions, or anti-elitist protests of the equal validity of popular culture.That doesn’t concern me at this point.

For Christians and ministers of the Gospel in particular, there are a number of theses I would like to simply list for reflection, without much additional comment.

  1. While these categories are not air-tight, uncontested, or always easily-distinguishable, it’s good to have some baseline working definitions to think with, especially when you’re reading about cultural engagement. It’s helpful to know what your author is dealing with because prescriptions for one category don’t always carry into the others.
  2. Christians should be engaged with culture at all levels. Common, high, or pop, there is no level or layer that can be ignored by ministers of the Gospel. Anything that is forming our people for good or ill, is our concern.
  3. Accordingly, effective ministers will become students of the common culture of the communities they inhabit.
  4. Depending on the type of congregation, or minister, they should also try be serious, not merely cursory, students of both the high and pop culture that our people draw on for their social-identity construction. (I emphasize ‘try’ because pastors have a lot on their plate already.)
  5. Preaching that both affirms and critiques in light of the Gospel needs to be alert to both the unconsciously formative, and consciously chosen elements of cultural formation. Sometimes it is the common cultural assumptions that are most difficult to expose, simply because they are assumptions.

As always, there’s more to say, but I don’t want to say it right now, so maybe I’ll say it later. Or maybe you should say it in the comments. Knock yourself out.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

The man, the myth, the father of needlessly obscure German philosophers.

So one day when I was really bored in my modern philosophy class, a not infrequent occurrence, I wrote a poem using only Kantian terminology which I found, and still find, to be ridiculous. I presented it as a token of my affection to my TA at the time. She said I used all the terms properly, which I took as a victory. I present it to you now because it’s my blog and why not?

Depending on the response, more ridiculous poetry might follow. I have a classic one about neutering a dog and another about ties. My college years were fecund with creative rapture. Also, I had an intro to poetry writing class.

The Love Song of Immanuel Kant

The a priori concepts

which allow

Intuitions of your


to be given to me

through sensibility

are more precious to me

than all

Other conceptions

of Metaphysical Reality.

I (taken as the thinking self)

would give up all other

a posteriori intuitions

for the possibility


a mere empirical

apperception of