On Theological Novelty and Cultivating Catholicity (Or, A Bit On Leithart)

Delivered from the elements coverPeter Leithart has just posted an interesting response to a critical review of his book Delivered From the Elements of the World by Brad Littlejohn. It’s worthwhile interaction, especially since it occurs between a renowned mentor and worthy student.

The nub of it revolves around the issue of theological novelty. Littlejohn has accused Leithart of indulging in too much of a passion for newness for newness’ sake (even in those moments where he tends to be appealing to a more primitive past), whereas Leithart says redeploying the past for the sake of the present is at the heart of good theology.

I don’t want to do too much summarizing because you can (and should) read the posts for yourself. I do think there’s been something lost in transmission here.

As I see it, the question is not about using the past for the present or theological retrieval. On this, I think it’s obvious that Littlejohn and Leithart agree (Leithart making a great case for it in his response).

Nor is the question is not whether we should be open to new exegetical possibilities in light of new research, textual sources, and so forth. Obviously we can, we have, and we should.

Nor is the question of whether doctrinal development (or at least correction within the tradition) is possible. We’re Protestants who hold up the Word as our final authority over the dogmatic tradition. It is certainly possible in principle.

The question (and, I take it as Littlejohn’s main critique) regards the way we present and pursue newness and continuity within the theological tradition (in this case, especially our own Protestant tradition).

When presenting a theological proposal of the sort that Leithart has in his work on atonement, there are a couple of ways of understanding his “new” interpretive or doctrinal moves. One is to simply take it as a real novum. That can and does happen. But another way of looking at it is to see him as actually saying something quite old in a new way. This is what I think Littlejohn sees happening much of the time in Leithart’s work.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying old things in new ways. The problem comes when this “new” proposal sets itself up by claiming the older tradition was saying something different than it actually was. Or again, when the “newness” is played up by using different terminology than the tradition has for what amounts to the same move. In either case, the difference with what comes before is emphasized over the continuity at the expense of the past formulations of the older, theological tradition.

(In Leithart’s work, usually the culprit is some deviation within the Orthodox Protestant tradition, which unfortunately capitulated somewhere to some foreign metaphysic or ontological blind alley.)

I think this relationship, this privileging of the new at the expense of the old, of novelty over continuity, is the actual issue at stake. We might call it “The N.T. Wright Problem.”

And here, with some trepidation, I think I have to register my sympathy with Littlejohn. I have said again and again that I have great appreciation for Leithart’s work, especially as a biblical scholar and creative, theological polymath. His ability to synthetically bring together diverse disciplines into sophisticated formulations, especially when illuminating readings of Biblical texts, is rather unique. So please don’t take this as a personal critique, especially since this is a move that is by no means unique to Leithart.

That said, I see the tendency to drape those gifts in this rhetoric of newness presents us with three dangers.

First, I see it possibly encouraging the vice of curiousity (per John Webster) in younger theological students who lack the discipline and judgment of a senior scholar like Leithart. While studiousness ought to mark the theological student, there is an unhealthy corruption of the appetite to learn which”in acute form…becomes a species of intellectual promiscuity, driven by addiction to novelty and a compulsion to repeat the experience of discovery” (Webster). The luster of newness, the thrill of the novel itself is what commends something to us.

Second, I would argue that the tendency to robe our theological arguments in the rhetoric of the new, contributes to strife within the church. When we don’t try to connect the dots between us and our forebears, this can cause confusion and unnecessarily raises the hackles of the conservative defenders of the older tradition. Some may tend to take the “newness” rhetoric at face value and gear up to defend orthodoxy against a foe instead of opening up their ears to learn from a brother. (This, incidentally, is the “Wright” point. Lord knows I love his work, but I do think some of the jabs at the tradition don’t do him favors with his conservative critics.)

Third, for those unfamiliar with the tradition (especially the younger theology students), the dichotomizing between this “novel”, revolutionary, etc. option and the “older” theology ends up creating an unnecessarily skeptical ethos towards the tradition that birthed it. It cultivates the attitude that the older writers are there more to be corrected, than learned from. That is, in fact, a failure to encourage a proper theological, dare I say it, “Reformed catholicity” of the sort Herman Bavinck cultivated (not one afraid to correct or buck the tradition when necessary).  And I see this especially as a danger for the younger sort of Protestant scholars who are perpetually tempted towards guilty self-flagellation over the blunders of their blinkered forebears.

Obviously, I’m not accusing Leithart of trying to actively cultivate these dangers. Indeed, given Leithart’s laudable concern for theological catholicity, it’s likely quite the opposite of his intent. That said, these are the sorts of things that, as a younger, theological student, legitimately worry me when I read Littlejohn’s critique.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. As it happens, Littlejohn has posted his own rejoinder to Leithart here.

Mere Fidelity: Alan Jacobs and “Christian Intellectuals”

Mere FiA couple of weeks ago, Alan Jacobs wrote a widely-discussed piece on the disappearance of the “Christian Intellectual” from the public scene. We thought it was a great piece, but we wanted to take a deeper stab at the issue. So here are Matt, Andrew, Alastair, and I analyzing and arguing with Jacobs, each other, and possibly persons unknown.

We hope you enjoy it as much as we did. What’s more, we hope our small conversation contributes in some small way to the very important one Dr. Jacobs has begun.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why The Church Actually Needs Dogmatics

man-praying-in-churchSay whatever else you may about Karl Barth, the man was a fierce advocate for the indispensability of theology and dogmatics for the Church. For Barth, at the center of the Church’s work and being, it’s chief responsibility as the Church, is the call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Dogmatics is the derivative discipline of critiquing (analyzing, correcting, maintaining) the proper proclamation of the Church against deviation, weakness, and heresy. In which case, yes, Dogmatics is secondary and derivative of the regular proclamation of the Church, but it is vital nonetheless.

Barth has a smashing bit in one of his small-print paragraphs (CD 1.1, 76-77) where he takes to task the idea that the work of theology and dogmatics can be put to one side as the Church goes about its business doing all the other “important” work it must accomplish:

How disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if, on whatever pretexts, it can dream of being able to undertake and achieve anything serious in what are undoubtedly the important fields of liturgical reform or social work or Christian education or the ordering of its relation to state and society or ecumenical understanding, without at the same time doing what is necessary and possible with reference to the obvious centre of its life, as though it were self-evident, as though we could confidently count on it, that evangelium pure docetur et recte administrantur sacramenta! as though we could confidently leave this to God and in the meantime busy ourselves with the periphery of the Church circle, which has perhaps been rotating for long enough around a false centre! as though we could put ourselves in God’s hands without a care in the world for what happens at this decisive point!

It’s funny to read this paragraph written in 1932 now about eighty-five years later in 2016. Barth may as well have been writing about so much of the contemporary, North American church scene.

Oh yes, there are a great number of bright theological points on the horizon. I’ve had the privilege of spending my time around many of them (both as a member and on staff). All too often, though, we find churches, even whole denominations, who set about doing the “real” work that needs to be done—social programs, youth ministries, evangelistic crusades, political activism, and so forth (all good things!)—all the while simply assuming there is a theology in place to fund it (if even that).

He continues on:

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theology is the business of a few theoreticians who are specially appointed for the purpose, to whom the rest, as hearty practical men, may sometimes listen with half an ear, though for their own part they boast of living “quite un-theologically” for the demands of the day (“love”). As though these practical men were not continually preaching and speaking and writing, and were not genuinely questioned as to the rightness of their activity in this regard! As though there were anything more practical than giving this question its head, which means doing the work of theology and dogmatics!

There’s a sort of pragmatic mindset that thinks of theology and dogmatics as the work of an educated few, so they don’t want to get caught up in all the fine logic-chopping and pouring over dusty tomes.

No, all too many of us are good Americans who simply want to roll up our sleeves to “get things done”—even if that means not stopping to consider whether the thing possibly should or shouldn’t be done. Or whether it’s being done under a false premise. Whether our attempts to “further the kingdom” rest on a faulty notion of the kingdom (or, Lord forbid, of the King himself). Or whether our attempts to unify the Church rest on an un-biblical notion of unity. Or whether the “tone” we have taken in our proclamation to reach our neighbors has actually falsified the actual content of the Gospel in our rush to be relevant.

Barth says that those who take this attitude are dangerously fooling themselves on this score.

Again, how disastrously the Church must misunderstand itself if it can imagine that theological reflection is a matter for quiet situations and periods that suit and invite contemplation, a kind of peace-time luxury for which we are not only permitted but even commanded to find not time should things become really serious and exciting! As though there could be any more urgent task for a Church under assault from without than that of consolidating itself within, which means doing theological work! As though the venture of proclamation did not mean that the Church permanently finds itself in an emergency! As though theology could be done properly without reference to this constant emergency!

What’s interesting here is the way Barth takes the regular rhetoric of urgency and turns it on its head. Regularly you might hear someone contend that we don’t have time to putter around arguing over the finer points of doctrine when the war is on. When there’s a global crisis of terror and refugees and economic disaster. Or when our kids are walking away in droves, disaffected and disillusioned. When there’s racial strife. When our churches and denominations are shrinking year by year.

Who has time for theology when we have to do something?!

But that’s precisely the point: it is precisely in the heart of crisis that the Church needs dogmatics. If proclamation is truly at the heart of the Church’s responsibility, if it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that funds, fuels, and forms all of our work in all of the great movements that threaten to overwhelm and assail the Church, then it is precisely in the midst of the storm of battle that we need dogmatics most.

How can we do without a proper theology of atonement and reconciliation if we’re to set about the great work of proclaiming and practicing the gospel of peace in nation torn by racial strife? What else do we need but a proper theology of the church if we’re going to set about reordering our worship and Christian education to address the exodus of our youth? Why do we think we can ignore the question of eschatology when we go about our work “for the kingdom” in the broader social order?

Barth closes this paragraph with a sober judgment:

Let there be no mistake. Because of these distorted ideas about theology, and dogmatics in particular, there arises and persists in the life of the Church a lasting and growing deficit for which we cannot expect those particularly active in this function to supply the needed balance. The whole church must seriously want a serious theology if it is to have a serious theology.

If there is to be a corrective in the Church in this area, yes, it will be a matter of the preachers and teachers being more broadly awakened to the need to pay attention (and even participate) in serious (though not necessarily academic) theological spadework. But it will also need to be a matter of churches as a whole—elders, deacons, members—seriously desiring and calling for it.

This will only happen, of course, by the grace of God. And for this we must pray.

Soli Deo Gloria