Perichoresis in Aquinas: Fruit, not Foundation

Emery pic.jpg“Perichoresis” or, in Latin, circumincessio, has been a fairly traditional term in trinitarian theology since at least the time of John of Damascus. Before he applied it to the trinitarian issue, it was used to speak of the mutual interpenetration of the human and divine natures of Christ in the incarnation. But in trinitarian theology, it speaks of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity. Scripturally, the taproot of the doctrine comes in Jesus’ discourses in John where he says things like, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” and so forth (John 14:10-11). The point is that there is a “reciprocal interiority” of Father, Son, and Spirit in that they exist within the other persons in an unconfused, but ineffable unity.

In recent theology the concept has become sexy and made to do a lot of work in broader theological systems. For instance, in the work of types like Jurgen Moltmann, the perichoresis of the persons has been used to secure the unity of the Trinity in a social doctrine of the Trinity, while at the same time speaking to the God-world relationship. Colin Gunton has expanded it out as a “transcendental” that allows us to understand the deep, interpenetrating structures of reality. People have developed spiritualities, political and economic programs, and even marital models out of it, leaving theologians like Karen Kilby to wonder if the process of projection hasn’t been at work here.

In any case, as I was reading Gilles Emery’s exposition The Trinitarian Theology of Thomas Aquinas, he draws attention to the Thomas’ doctrine of perichoresis as something of a synthesis of his trinitarian doctrine as a whole. Given its contemporary importance, it seemed worth reviewing what this giant of Western trinitarianism had to say on the subject.

To be begin, it might seem like he has little to say, simply because neither the Greek term “perichoresis” nor the Latin term “circumincessio” appear in Thomas. But Emery notes that while the specific terms may not appear, a battery of other phrases demonstrate that the concept is deeply rooted in Thomas’ thought:

In presenting the ‘in being’ of the persons, he uses, rather, the expressions ‘union or intrinsic conjunction’, ‘interiority’, ‘intimacy’, ‘existing in’, ‘being in that which is the most intimate and most secret’ (this is how the Son is in the Father), ‘reciprocal communality of “in being,”’ ‘communal union’, etc. In every case, the communal presence of the persons excludes their confusion, because it is based in their real distinction. It rules out the ‘isolation’ of one person, since it implies a communal relationship of persons. The divine persons are not ‘solitaries’: they are ‘inseparables’. (302)

With that linguistic point out of the way, Emery shows that for Thomas, the communal immanence of the persons rests three main bases: their consubstantiality, their relations, and the processions. I’ll try to briefly review them following Emery’s discussion (pp. 302-308).

To begin, following the Fathers, especially Hilary, Thomas places the unity of God’s nature, or the consubstantiality of the persons, front and center:

As to essence, the Father is in the Son because the Father is his essence and he shares it with the Son without any change taking place in himself; therefore because the Father’s essence is in the Son, it follows that the Father is in the Son. Equally, the Son being his own essence, it follows that he is in the Father, in whom the same essence is present. (ST I, q. 42, a. 5)

It’s not just that the persons share the same kind of nature. In fact, they share the same concrete nature. According to his doctrine of simplicity, we have to say that each of the persons are the divine nature. And so, “the nature of the Father is in the Son, and conversely, the Father is in the Son and reciprocally” (Commentary on John, 10.38). The mutual immanence of the persons, therefore, rests on their unity of nature.

Second, the relations also play a role. Emery suggests that Thomas follows John of Damascus by way of his teacher Albert the Great here. The point is that the in itself, the idea or notion of relations include an inherent mutuality. “Likewise as to the relations, it is clear that each of the relative opposites is in the notion of the other” (ST, I q. 42, a. 5). Less abstractly, as realities naturally relating to each other, the notions of “Father” and “Son” are mutually-implicated and included within the other:

In God, the Son is also properly in the Father from the perspective of relation—and that in a more fitting way than amongst human fathers and sons—because it is by his relation that the Son is a subsisting person: his relation is his personality. (I Sent. d. 19, q. 3, a. 2, ad 1)

As Emery highlights, “It is not just that a relative reality cannot be thought without its correlative. It cannot exist as such without it…” (304). For Thomas, persons are “subsistent relations”—the relations constitute the persons. And this is one of the features that distinguishes divine personality from other forms, and makes true reciprocal interiority an exclusively divine property.

Emery also highlights that their reciprocal interiority is not a flat one. At the level of the unity of nature, their interiority is the same. But when you look at it from the angle of the relations, their presence within each other implies a particular mode of relations, a mode of being which is distinct.

Which brings us to the third angle from which to consider perichoresis, which is that of the processions, or origin of the relations. In other words, the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit. Now, one might think that the notion of procession might disrupt perichoresis, since linguistically and even conceptually it implies a “going out.” But Thomas clarifies by distinguishing divine procession from material procession:

In material things, what comes forth from another is no longer in it, since it comes from it by a separation from it in essence or in space. But in God, coming forth does not arise in this way. The Son came forth eternally from the Father in such a way that the Son is still in the Father from all eternity. And so, when he is in the Father, he comes forth. And when he comes forth, he is in him, in such a way that he is always coming forth, and always in him. (Commentary on John, 16:28)

It’s important to remember that Thomas follows after Augustine in thinking through the processions on analogy of mental self-presence. The Son is the mental Word which is conceived and dwells in the mind of the Father. Also, as the Love or bond between the Father and Son, the Spirit dwells within both from whom he proceeds. And so the eternal processions, along with the relations, and the consubstantiality of the persons ground their unity, their distinctness, and their mutual indwelling precisely as eternal Father, Son, and Spirit.

Now, in context, Emery is keen to show in his analysis the way Thomas developed the mutual indwelling of the persons in Thomas in order to combat the dual errors of Sabellianism and subordination, as well as develop the notion of trinitarian action. The analysis is helpful and worth consulting, since I’ve only given a thumbnail sketch here.

What struck me, though, is the way that perichoresis is treated as a summary doctrine built upon and tying together the other threads of consubstantiality, relation, and procession. In Thomas, (and arguably the Fathers whom he follows) perichoresis is the fruit of the three other notions, not their foundation.

This appears to be a valuable approach towards thinking about and deploying the concept of perichoresis. In the first place, it helps pump the brakes against certain expositions treating perichoresis as a stand-alone formula or mechanism, which is supposed to do all the work in trinitarian theology. Trinitarian dogmatics cannot live by perichoresis alone. On the other hand, some of us may therefore be tempted to downplay, or ignore the concept by way of reaction against those formulations. To those, Thomas can help us see its place as a crowning summary concept, allowing us to appreciate the beautifully unifying the whole, and worship more fully the One who is Three and the Three who are One.

Soli Deo Gloria

Called By Triune Grace by Jonathan Hoglund

called-by-triune-graceAt the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). And at his words, the dead man awakes again and walks out of the tomb. He is obedient to the call of the Lord. Indeed, the call of the Lord is what seems to enable the obedience, and even the hearing of the command!

Reformed theologians have historically taken as a picture of what happens in conversion. In God’s calling of sinners from death to life in the gospel (Eph. 2:1-10), those who were dead to God, hear the proclamation of the gospel and find themselves alive anew in Christ. This has traditionally been termed “the effectual call.”

And while this is a mainstay of Reformed theology, there have historically been numerous questions and controversies surrounding it, even down into the present day. For instance, who does the calling? And is the calling that awakens us to new life identical with the outward preaching of the Word? Or what is the semantic content of the call? What is God saying? Or is he even saying anything? Is the language of calling more symbolic or metaphorical? If he is saying something, how different is it than human speech? What about the relationship between calling and regeneration, or rebirth? Are they distinct things? If so, is there a logical order between them? Do you have to be reborn before you can hear God? Or do you have to hear God in order be reborn? Or what about illumination and testimony? The questions just keep coming.

While I’ve read a bit about it in the past, I haven’t been able to take a significant amount of time on the subject. Which is why I was pleased to see this new volume Called by Triune Grace: Divine Rhetoric and the Effectual Call by Jonathan Hoglund in the IVP series Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture. Written originally as doctoral dissertation, in this study Hoglund puts forward a carefully-constructed proposal for thinking about the effectual call in trinitarian perspective.

I won’t give a full-on review try to give a general impression of what you’ll find within.

Integrated. In Called by Triune Grace, Hoglund has given us a model of biblical, historical, and dogmatic reasoning at are fully-integrated. So, you’ll find plenty of sections engaging key biblical material in their historic context, in conversation with recent interpreters, lexical studies, and so forth. Specifically, Hoglund engages Paul’s theology of the call in letters like the Thessalonians, Romans, and others. He also tackles key material in the gospel of John with care and erudition. He wants to show that there is a solid grounding for thinking of the effectual call on multiple levels of biblical discourse, across the canon, and not mere “proof-texts” here and there.

You’ll also find careful examinations of historic contributors to the theology of the effectual call like Augustine, Calvin, Francis Turretin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Claude Pajon, Friedrich Schleiermacher, as well as the more recent proposals of Michael Horton, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Oswald Bayer. These expositions serve both to demonstrate the range of (primarily) Reformed theologians approaches to the issue, as well sharpen the theological questions we have to wrestle with in treating it properly.

But these sections aren’t hermetically-sealed. So the historical sections have an eye on exegesis and the exegetical sections freely consult both historic and contemporary interpreters of the text.  What’s more, all of this is done in a dogmatic key. Which is to say that Hoglund is reading Scripture and history in order to settle constructive, dogmatic questions about how the Church is supposed to confess the work of the Triune God in salvation today.

Triune Rhetoric. Materially, Hoglund is concerned to show that a proper dogmatic account has to take seriously the semantic content of the call–that in the effectual call, God doesn’t deal with us as blocks of stone and wood, but as communicative agents made in his image. That’s something the whole tradition has tried to be careful about, by the way. And yet Hoglund thinks that recent suggestions by Vanhoozer and Horton about the importance of the category of communication for the effectual call are helpful for developing our theology of the call.

He presses beyond them, though, in his deployment of the category of rhetoric as an appropriate analogy for thinking about the effectual call, especially once placed in Trinitarian perspective. To boil everything down into an inadequately distilled form, it’s about capturing the ethos, logos, and pathos of the Triune God’s summons of persons from death to life in Christ. After throwing in all the necessary caveats about the unified activity of the Trinity ad extra, appropriations, etc. Hoglund assigns these three components to the persons of the Trinity and works it out all very cleanly and suggestively.

I was about to try and summarize it all for you, but I realized it’s a bit ambitious to do so without doing damage to the proposal. I’ll simply note that Hoglund is careful to establish that: (a) the whole Trinity is at work in the act of divine persuasion; (b) this persuasion is communicative, not bypassing our intellect, and so is tied to our understanding of the actual content of the summons to trust Christ as our saving Lord; and (c) it is a divine persuasion, such that the Spirit’s work in illumining our mind, will, heart to find Christ beautiful is efficacious in a way that is beyond that of any other speaker, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively.

Honestly, I’m not doing the book justice. It’s a clear, but comprehensive piece of work and I highly commend to anyone interesting in the questions surrounding the effectual call and salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria

To Dance, or not to Dance with the Trinity?

kermit-to-self

Me: Read for your paper. Other Me: Write about that Dancing with the Trinity thing for an hour. Nothing bad can happen.

Fred Sanders critiqued a new book by Richard Rohr on the Trinity, The Divine Dance, yesterday at TGC. As with most of Sanders’ writing, it was playful, with puckish humor. It was also atypically forceful for the ever-genial Sanders, condemning the work as crossing the bounds of Nicene and general Orthodoxy at various points. (FWIW, the location surprised some, as well, because Sanders is a quite openly Wesleyan theologian, quite uninterested in defending Calvinism. Apparently, they asked him because he is a well-respected, expert on trinitarian theology in general.)

In any case, it provoked dismay and chagrin among Rohr’s fans and even some more neutral onlookers. I’ll touch on that below, but one interesting question it raised for me was the issue of whether or not we should use the very popular image of the Trinity as a “Divine Dance” in our preaching and teaching.

Dancing with Lewis and Keller

If you’ve heard a sermon on the Trinity in an Evangelical church in the last 50 years, I would not be surprised if you’ve seen the pastor appeal to a very famous passage in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity where he appeals to the image to explain the dynamic, inner life of the Triune God. I mean, I know I’ve used it. In any case, here it is:

And that, by the way, is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance. The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person. I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus. You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, or club, or trade union. They talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart. It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence. Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person. But that is just one of the differences between God and us. What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God.

So we see that Lewis is in the middle of a discussion of what it means for God to be love. In the middle of it, he appeals to the image of a dance to begin to speak of the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as the loving union of Father and Son (per Augustine, ‘the bond of love’).

Beyond the fact that people suck down anything Lewis writes (yours truly included), I don’t know how many books on the Trinity in the last 50 years have simultaneously appealed to the Greek word perichoresis used by some of the Fathers (Gregory, Maximus, later John of Damascus). Originally, the term was used to describe the interpenetration of Christ’s two natures in the incarnation. Later, the term was expanded to speak of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity a la the Johannine discourses (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me”).

Now, the word’s etymology can be linked to the idea of movement and aroundness, and so somewhere along the line, the link between perichoresis and dance was born.  In the 20th Century, it’s been used by a number of Trinitarian theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and others as a key way of speaking about the unity of the persons of the Trinity, the God/world relationship, and sundry other uses that extend beyond the original purposes of the term. We’ve experienced something of a perichoretic overload. The dance has gotten out of hand.  (BTW, we had a Mere Fidelity episode on it here.)

In any case, Sanders’ critique may have left the impression that to use the image at all was heretical in itself. Mike Morell, Rohr’s co-author/transcriber, responded to Sanders’ criticism by pointing out that if the image is off-limits, that’s quite awkward since one of TGC’s co-founders, Tim Keller, has appealed to the image himself in places like The Reason for God. Here is the quote:

The life of the Trinity is characterized not by self-centeredness but by mutually self-giving love. When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance, particularly if there are three persons, each of whom moves around the other two. So it is, the Bible tells us. Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic pulsating dance of joy and love. The early leaders of the Greek church had a word for this—perichoresis. Notice the root of our word ‘choreography’ is within it. It means literally to “dance or flow around.”

Awkward, right? So do Keller and Lewis fall afoul of Sanders’ critique? How about the likely dozens and hundreds of other authors who have used it? Are they immediately to be considered heretics? Should we ditch the dance? What’s going on here?!

To Dance or Not To Dance

Well, given that I’ve gone back and forth about the image myself, I’ve got a few thoughts on the subject.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between perichoresis and the dance image. The two are different things and you can appeal to perichoresis without invoking the dance. Perichoresis has gotten a bit buzzwordy and goofy, but that’s no reason to ditch the classic terminology. Just use it properly.

Second, there are at least two different uses of the dance image. It can be deployed in an illustrative and modest way, or an intensive and extensive way. In other words, it’s the difference between an image and a model.

I think Lewis is a good example of the illustrative image use. He spends a good deal of time in the book trying to explain things like the eternal generation of the Son, differences in between divine and human personality, and establishing a fairly standard, Nicene view of the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. And then he casually deploys the dance as an image of the livingness and movement of the divine life without trying to figure out if the dance is a mambo, or a waltz, or something else. It’s quick, it’s illustrative, and it’s done. (Given that he basically uses it briefly in a couple books, I tend to think that this is where Keller fits, too, even if he may fall afoul of the common etymological fallacy Sanders’ mentions in his footnote of the review.)

Others seem to take it as something more of a full-blown model, especially when linking it to a view called social trinitarianism, which takes the persons of the Trinity to be more like modern individuals, with three distinct, centers of consciousness, will, and so forth, who are united in being, but tend to look something more like a family. When the dance image gets invoked, at that point it starts to take on a whole different level of meaning, and we have all sorts of psychological and relational dynamics worked out and so forth. It can become far more intensive and extensive.

Finally, as an extreme version of this, you might do what Sanders says Rohr does: make the image central, set it within a relational metaphysic that has shades of pantheism and panentheism, gesture at a fuzziness in the Creator/creature distinction, downplay Scriptural language for the Trinity, openly disdain hundreds of years of reflection on the issue, talk about femininity within the interstitial spaces between the persons of the Trinity, start suggesting humans belong within it, and, on top of that, suggest we should “ignore the dancers” we were talking about in the first place. (Now, I admit I haven’t read the book, but Sanders has provided direct quotes, and since he has sneezed more Trinitarian theology than I have read, I tend to take his word for it.) If that’s what’s going on, then at that point the problem isn’t the dance image, but this whole, relational, “flow” metaphysic that has started to do all sorts of heterodox things with the rest of our theology.

With these differences in view, I think it’s possible to say that the dance image itself, if used modestly, quickly, and as just that—an image, not a model—is still kosher. I do think it’s good to be careful with these things, though. If you’re preaching, we need to connect to our people, and speak to them about the dynamic, living God. But we also need to remember that the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has given us the best image of himself in his works in history as the Son comes from the Father in the power of the Spirit to live, die, rise again, and bring us new life in the gospel.

What God has shown and said about himself needs to be our touchstone for everything we eventually say about him. Use the image as and only if you can reinforce something revealed, but be careful you don’t build an entire world around it.

Theology and Idolatry

And this brings me to a final point I want to make. It came up over the summer when this whole Trinity debate happened as well. Some people were shocked yesterday that someone would come out so forcefully to debate about the Trinity (also, there was probably a difference in interpretation of Sanders’ tone).

Still, I think there’s this thought in broader Evangelicalism, both conservative and progressive, that beyond the mere affirmation of it, it’s super esoteric, difficult, and not the sort of thing to get crazy about, because if you do, you’re probably just an academic protecting your turf, or someone who just likes being right for the sake of being right.The order and nature of the persons, the single being of God, and so forth–that’s no reason to write off a person’s work is it?

I have to admit that, in the abstract, there’s part of me that sympathizes.

But this has not been the attitude of the church for most of its history. What’s more, the Bible contains very strong language about idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first commandment is to not worship other gods, while the second is to avoid making up images of God out of your own head. Don’t picture God as he hasn’t pictured himself. Because when we do, we inevitably get it wrong, and start to shrink God down to our size, distort him, and remold him in our image. All throughout the Scriptures the warnings against falsely worshipping him resound, especially in the prophets. It’s not a minor theme.

That matters because, (a) God is holy and majestic and glorious and we shouldn’t distort that, but also because (b) God wants us to know him, relate to him, love him, and receive love from him in truth. And wrong, distorted, heretical thoughts about him hurts that. Eugene Peterson says “a lie about God is a lie about life.” This is not about logic-chopping but about worshiping God in Spirit and in truth (John 4). God gives himself to be known and loved by us, but not in whichever way we want or find congenial, or fires our creativity. He wants to be loved as he is. If anybody is going to accommodate God to our knowledge, it is God himself.

Listen, I get that the Trinity is hard to think and write about. I have struggled to get my own trinitarian theology straight for so long. And if you’re struggling with it, that’s fine. Especially if you’re someone in the pew who is not ordained, or going around teaching people about it.  Or maybe writing entire books on it.

But if people do go writing entire books on it, teaching on it with authority, and then if they get it severely wrong in a way that threatens to mislead many, many people, this seems like the kind of thing it seems worth having a go around about.

Soli Deo Gloria

Biblical Authority After Babel by Kevin Vanhoozer (Or, An Antidote To Shame-Faced Protestantism)

biblical-authority-after-babel-pic

At Babel, the LORD God pronounced judgment on human hubris. Scattering humanity through the confusion of language, he fractured it into warring tribes and nations. For many, after the Reformation a similar scattering occurred.  On a certain telling, when the Reformers set forth the doctrine of sola scriptura differing theological tribes, tongues, and nations emerged, perpetually at theological (at time actual) war with one another, and a legion of ills followed in the wake of their battles.

The charges are various. For some the Reformation’s “dangerous idea” (McGrath) landed us in a place of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (Christian Smith) which begat such bastard sons as secularism (Brad Gregory), skepticism (Richard Popkin), and schism (Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart). In other words, the crisis of interpretive authority led to a loss of ecclesial unity and, according to many, it could not help but do so.  And you could probably throw in Charles Taylor’s “disenchantment” thesis for good measure too.

Enter Vanhoozer, stage text. In his new book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Vanhoozer moves to defend the Reformation against its critics by articulating it in a broader context with the other four solas (grace, faith, Christ, glory). Together they yield the proper interpretive matrix (the ontology, the economy, and teleology of interpretive authority) shaped by the gospel which yields a properly ‘catholic’ “Mere Protestant Christianity” that is “inflected by the Reformation.”

Now, in what follows I won’t attempt a typical, “objective” review. That would be silly. I’m one of Vanhoozer’s grad students and I saw the thing before it went to print. I also won’t attempt a sort of full-scale summary review. Patrick Schreiner’s engagement over at The Gospel Coalition has a pretty helpful condensation of the main moves of the argument (with charts!).

Instead, I’d like to simply offer a few framing remarks and suggestions about its relevance to the contemporary theological and churchly scene.

What’s It Isn’t and What It is: Retrieval for Ressourcement

First, I think what the book is not should be stated clearly at the outset. Even though the work is an examination of the five solas, Vanhoozer is explicitly not trying to mount an historical defense of the Reformation against these charges. He doesn’t think “the accidental truths of European history” should ever be “the proof of necessary truths of Protestant theology.”

In which case, it should be unsurprising that this is not a book of history. So while there are discussions of Luther and Calvin’s theology, if you’re looking for a nice, historical survey of the key points of the Reformation, you may want to try elsewhere.

Instead, Vanhoozer’s argument is an explicit retrieval of historical theology in order to resource it for the challenges of the present. So when he dips into the theology of the Reformers as summarized by the solas, he is taking them as a historical beginning to be constructively developed or unpacked beyond its original remit in a way that’s consistent with it, but not simply a repristination or rehash.

When you read about the doctrine of sola fide, then, yes, you’ll get a discussion of the historical challenge the Reformers made. But you’ll also see the way that faith alone grounds a broader theology of trust in testimony that undercuts the skepticism so often laid at its door. (See Schreiner’s review for more.)

In that sense, it’s a theological argument for why some of what has been must not necessarily be.

Who It’s For: Embarrassed Protestants (And Others)

I’ve written a before about the tendency for young Protestants in the academy, or just theologically-inclined pastors and students, to tend to feel sheepish about the Reformation. After getting over the triumphalistic Protestantism of their youth, they read all the criticisms, learn that after postmodernity Sola Scriptura just obviously can’t work, and so forth, and they start seeking elsewhere for theological heft and health. I’ve seen it over and over again.

While I think the book’s aims an applications expand farther than this, I believe Vanhoozer’s new work serves as something of a beefed up, theological manifesto for what Fred Sanders called “Glad Protestantism.” In it, many a struggling, young Protestant can find a needed line to save them from being swept away across the Tiber (or the Bosphorous). And this is both at the level of actual communion, as well as theological practice and ethos.

That said, the work also offers a corrective towards the kind of anti-confessional, a-historical, an-ecclesial, me-and-my-study-Bible Protestantism that often provokes these crises of conscience among the aforementioned, embarrassed Protestants!

In other words, it’s an argument for remaining (and becoming) good Protestants, not only in name, but in practice.

Challenge, Defense, and Manifesto

There’s a healthy balance of challenge, manifesto, and defense involved, then. Vanhoozer rightly acknowledges the sort of weaknesses that ought to be worked on. Indeed, the point of mounting a theological retrieval is to urge theological renewal in the Evangelical church through appropriation of the rich veins of ore left to us in our common Reformational heritage.

Beyond that, though, he manages to transfigure some other situations on the ground into glories to be appreciated and leaned into. One such instance is learning to appreciate the proper “Pentecostal Plurality” encouraged by the solas which yield diverse, contextual, theological insights for the whole church. Often our angst at the loss of certain forms of “visible” unity stems from a failure to appreciate the eschatological dimension to God’s work of unifying his Church’s common confession. Appropriate to a healthy, small-“c” catholic, Mere Protestantism (or, if you prefer, Reformed Catholicity) is an appreciation for the eschatological tension at work—the now and not yet of striving for unity where possible, seeking to learn from one another, while not despairing over those areas where we cannot reach it.

Building on this, there is a bit of manifesto relevant to some of the discussions that have been swirling around the issue of Evangelicalism of late. One thinks of the skepticism as to whether bland, a-theological Evangelicalism as a proper heir to the Reformation (Trueman), or calls for the Future of Protestantism to be basically some sort of Reformed Anglicanism (Leithart), or suggestions that, in a post-Trump world, we ought to abandon the word “Evangelical” altogether and redoubt to more solid confessional identities (Roberts).

Following his call for an appreciation of Pentecostal plurality, Vanhoozer argues for developing the kind of strong, Protestant denominationalism that is neither sectarian, nor blandly or generically ecumenical. Indeed, the surprising suggestion at the end of the book is that the sort of revitalized, Reformational, trans-denominational unity supported by the 5 solas is and can be best realized in a denominationally-structured evangelicalism! It is within the solid, older houses of the Protestant tradition, then, that evangelicalism can play the revitalizing role to which it has always been best suited.

In that sense, Vanhoozer’s proposal for “Mere Protestantism” is the needed theological backbone for any movement to take up the term “evangelical” and “steal it back” (Jacobs).

But I don’t want to give away too much, so I’ll let you pick up the book to see that counter-intuitive argument for yourself.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I’ll simply say that this book is vintage Vanhoozer: the gracious, inviting style, the treasure-trove of theological insights, references, puns, and tightly-spun arguments. It’s on an extremely important subject for those concerned with the health of the Church, the nature of Scriptural authority, and the future of Protestant Christianity.

So go ahead and pick it up.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: What is the Relationship Between Biblical Exegesis and Systematics?

Mere FiOver the last year or so, I’ve had to give some greater thought to the question of the relationship between biblical exegesis and the discipline of systematic theology. Questions about which discipline stands closer to the text. Or whether there is a relationship of logical priority or necessity. Which one needs the other and so forth.

Well, on this episode we take up the question and basically Alastair and I fight about it for a while, Matt asks very reasonable questions, and we all come to an agreement that I’m right. Or something like that.

Also, we have theme music now!

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Soli Deo Gloria

Justification by Faith and the Theologian in History

barthFor all the revolutionary claims made about his program, Karl Barth was a historically-minded dogmatician. In section after section of small print paragraphs, Barth will frequently canvas sources from a broad swathe of church history, from the Fathers, through the Medievals, Reformers, down on into the present of his contemporary interlocutors. What’s more, while he makes no bones about disagreeing (strongly) with them when he sees fit, he’s generally quite respectful, quite careful, quite measured in his judgments about his historical forebears.

Some of the working theology behind that approach can be found in another of the small print paragraphs in his discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity (CD 1/1 &9, 377-378). I thought reviewing it in chunks might be helpful for those of us doing theological work today.

First, Barth notes the importance of recognizing the Church has always done its theology as a human institution, that is to say, in the middle of the muddle of sinful history, including the history of the trinitarian controversies:

In the dogmatic and theological history of every age, not excluding that of Protestantism, secular factors have played a part which tends to cover over all else. For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints.

Often-times, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we tell church history. All too often it has been a story of white hats and black hats, with the white hats always managing to defend the Orthodoxy we know and love, never fighting dirty to get there. The danger in this is that we set ourselves up to base our attitude toward the tradition on its utter purity.

In other words, Barth says that it’s good for us to understand that Athanasius’ disputes with the anti-Nicenes weren’t simple theological debates carried on with only the cleanest, lily-white gloves. He may not be the brawler and bully more recent, cynical skeptics would like to portray, but there was plenty of political struggle, maneuvering, and wrangling involved.

Indeed, he says that for us to be dismayed and thereby write him off for that reason wouldn’t be very Protestant:

Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every king, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of an in this worldliness.

Here Barth deploys the doctrine of justification by faith against what we might call a perfectionist, over-realized eschatology.

There’s a very common tendency nowadays that when we start to find out that our theological heroes in the faith were human–dreadfully human, at times–we write them off in toto as possible sources of instruction in the faith. Or, the flip-side of this attitude, of course, is to deny that what these people did was really, truly sinful.

Yes, we’ll admit that all are sinners saved by grace, and so every theologian is necessarily a sinner, but really, if there were politics involved, or theologian X really was a mean cuss, or a sexist, or a racist, or ended up an adulterer, or…then, no, we can’t really expect them to have insight into the Scriptures, or the faith.

Barth’s invocation of the doctrine of justification by faith, though, is a reminder that salvation in union with Christ is a dynamic reality encompassing the now and not-yet of the Kingdom of God. Every theologian and every age of theology is simul iustus et peccator–the object of God’s saving work in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, but at the same time subject to the corruption of the flesh and indwelling sin.

Of course, there is a to be a link-up between life and doctrine, standards for teachers within the Church, and so forth. But Barth’s realism sounds a salutary note for us to pump the brakes on our perfectionism that would prevent us from recognizing the gracious work of illumination even in the lives of God’s flawed saints (and seasons within the Church). If sinners couldn’t learn or mediate truth from the Scriptures, theology would be dead.

Barth then turns a corner and expands the point further with respect to the way we evaluate previous Church interaction with the intellectual and philosophical culture surrounding it. Prior to this section, Barth was engaging the sort of objection to Trinitarian doctrine that makes great hay out of the fact that the Fathers used terminology, concepts, etc. from drawn Plotinian or Aristotelian sources. The “Greek charge“, if you will.

The same may be said about the indisputable connexion of the dogma with the philosophy of the age. By proving philosophical involvement we can reject the confessions and theology of any age and school, and we can do this the more effectively the less we see the beam in our own eye. For lingustically theologians have always depended on some philosophy and linguistically they always will. But instead of getting Pharisaically indignant about this and consigning whole periods to the limbo of a philosophy that is supposed to deny the Gospel–simply because our own philosophy is different–it is better to stick strictly to the one question what the theologians of earlier periods were really trying to say in the vocabulary of their philosophy.

Barth exhibits a humble wisdom here. His point is very simple. Yes, you can probably find a connection between the theology of any period and the philosophy of its time. People have to speak using the language of their time, the intellectual milieu, and so forth.

But this is true of every period–including Barth’s own (and our own). In which case, simply noting that the Fathers or the Medievals used the language and concepts of Aristotle to exposit the faith, doesn’t thereby disqualify them. Nobody can simply carry out a pure, biblical dogmatics, simply sticking to Scriptural conceptualities and language unless they’re simply repeating the text of Scripture (in the original languages, mind you).

In fact, our ability to spot the non-Biblical “philosophy” poking out in the works of earlier ages is likely the result of our own philosophical tendencies drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from our own milieu. We can spot the Aristotelianism so glaringly likely because of our post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, etc. lenses. (And for the record, I have never understood why I am supposed to prefer Hegel over Aristotle).

Instead, we should take these ages and thinkers seriously on their own terms,  figure out as best we can what Biblical issues they were grappling with, and accord them the same respect and care we would hope others would take with our own age and thought. And then critique them on the merits, if we must. But we ought not simply assume that just because a certain philosophical conceptuality is used, the Spirit could not be at work to illumine the work of the Church to stumble onto an essential dogmatic truth. Must we not consider the simul iustus et peccator here as well?

A final caution in this section.

Caution is especially demanded when we insist the differences in the so-called piety of different periods and therefore claim that the piety out of which the dogma of the Trinity arose was completely different from our own piety with its sober focus, as they said some years ago, on “worldview and morality.” What right have we to regard our own piety, even if its agreement with the Reformation and the New Testament seem ever so impeccable, as the only piety that is possible in the Church, and therefore to exalt it as a standard by which to measure the insights of past ages? Let us be sure of our own cause as far as we can. But the antithetical rigidity especially in evaluating the subjective religion of others is something against which we can only issue a warning.

Here Barth is clearly speaking to the temptations of theologians in his own day, who were tempted to moralize doctrine and therefore have little time for “metaphysical” doctrines like the Trinity. But the material caution is relevant.

There is a dangerous tendency to separate our age, our values, our spirituality, our theological concerns and contexts out from the rest of history as the standard of relevance to which all other ages must be held up and measured. As if our age’s questions were the most important, as if our emphases are the right emphases, as if in our day we have reached a sort of eschatological moment that has decisive influence for the way all theology afterwards must be pursued.

Yes, history happens, and so there is a sense in which we cannot simply reverse the flow of history to an earlier period in order to completely ignore questions that have been raised since that time. But we should not cultivate the sense that the Enlightenment (or postmodernity, etc.) is some Rubicon beyond after which the “old answers” simply won’t or can’t do the job anymore. Or more positively, that “after theologian X” (maybe even Barth himself?), if we are truly aware of their epochal significance, we must recognize that we live in an absolutely new theological age. Barth cautions us against this myopia.

Though we strive for fidelity to God in the particular challenges of the contemporary age–its spirituality, its dialogue partners–the contemporary theologian, just as that of every other age of the church, is simul iustus et peccator, is still justified by faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

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.