One Reason I Can’t Swim the Tiber

"Swimming the Tiber" is a euphemism for Roman Catholic conversion, as it is the river identified with the Vatican.

“Swimming the Tiber” is a euphemism for Roman Catholic conversion, as it is the river identified with the Vatican.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 1

Commenting on the pastoral nature of the creeds and catechisms, Carl Trueman highlights a couple of the questions and answers in the Heidelberg Catechism, especially the way Q&A 1 highlights the heart of the Reformation:

Question 1 shows the glorious Reformation Protestant insight into the fact that assurance is to be the normal experience of every Christian believer and not merely the preserve of a few special saints who have been given extra-ordinary insight into their status before God, as was the medieval Catholic position.

This is perhaps one of the great Protestant insights of the Reformation. We live in an age where conversion to Roman Catholicism is not an uncommon thing among those who have been brought up as evangelicals. There are many reasons for this: some speak of being attracted by the beauty of the liturgy in comparison with what is often seen as a casual and irreverent flippancy in evangelical services; others like the idea of historical continuity, of knowing where the church has been throughout history; still others find the authority structure to be attractive in an age of flux and uncertainty. Whatever the reasons, most Protestants would concede that Rome has certain attractions. Nevertheless, the one thing that every Protestant who converts to Rome loses is the assurance of faith. –The Creedal Imperative, pg. 124

Lest people think Trueman is exaggerating, it must be remembered that Cardinal Bellarmine is reported to have written that assurance is the greatest of all Protestant heresies. Indeed, discussing the subject of assurance with one of my brilliant Catholic professors was one of the most challenging conversations I had in my undergaduate degree. She asked me repeatedly–not threateningly, but forcefully, the way a good philosopher should–how could I be so sure that I was going to be saved? It seemed so arrogant and, well, assured. I’m not sure I gave her the best answer I could have at the time–I mean, I was 20. Ironically though, I realized I was more assured of her salvation than she was.

Trueman continues:

The insight of the Reformation on assurance was key, theologically and pastorally. And, given that it is one thing that every convert to Roman Catholicism must lose, it’s worth noting its priority in the Heidelberg Catechism. The answer is beautifully phrased; and yet if one ceases to be a Protestant, one must cease to claim HC 1 as one’s own. That is a very high price to pay. Speaking for myself, all of the liturgical beauty of Rome, all of the tradition, all of the clarity of the authority structure (and the clarity is often, I think, more in the eye of the beholder than the Church itself) cannot compensate for the loss of the knowledge that I know I have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ that conversion to Rome requires. –Ibid, pg. 125

To be clear, I am not saying that my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are not saved, or are not actually united to Christ, or can’t experience the Spirit’s wonderful assurance; I know far too many beautifully Catholic people, including my professor, to make that mistake. I am pointing out that formally-speaking, I couldn’t claim it in the sense that the catechism teaches it.

That’s far too precious a thing for me to risk in those waters.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Reasons We Tend to Ignore the Past

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

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

Unfortunately, all three are increasingly problematic.

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

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

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

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

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

Pastors, we have our work cut out for us.

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Were the Westminster Theologians “Proof-texting”?

Eventually in any discussion of good exegesis and theological method, the issue of proof-texting will come up. Proof-texting is that time-honored method of biblical interpretation that consists in citing a verse to justify some theological conclusion without any respect for its context or intended use. If you’re nerdy to care enough about this sort of thing, please keep reading. If not, here’s a video of a cute cat.

Now, as I was saying, proof-texting is often brought up in discussions as a prime example of decontextualized readings–readings that irresponsibly ignore the literary and historical setting of the text. As the popular saying goes, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Daniel Treier notes in his article on the “Proof Text” (pp. 622-624) in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible that the charge of “proof-texting” is almost universally negative, and usually aimed at pop-preaching, or increasingly by exegetes at theologians’ handling of texts. Indeed, it’s fairly common to read biblical scholars prattling on in their commentaries about theologians abstractly “theologizing” and “propositionalizing” texts. (Of course, this happens and it shouldn’t and it ought to be called out. Literary and historical contexts must be respected. I’ll just confess I’m annoyed with biblical studies types acting as if attending a Methodist church instead of a Presbyterian one has no effect on their readings, as opposed to those theologians.)

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

In any case, chief among the alleged offenders are the post-Reformation scholastics such as the Westminster Divines (pastors and theologian-types) who wrote the Westminster Confession. Indeed, at first glance the classic confession seems to be a prime example of it. In traditional printings, a quick review of the various chapters will show you very short statements with footnotes listing various single verses allegedly supporting the proposed doctrines. On their own, a number of the verses seem only tenuously connected to the doctrine at hand.

Carl Trueman has an excellent article on the way recent historical work has led to critical re-appraisal of the development of Reformed Orthodoxy and the Post-Reformation scholastics, which, in part, sheds light on their alleged proof-texting:

…the new approach has demonstrated that Reformed Orthodoxy was grounded in exegesis but engaged in constant dialogue with the history of theology. This is in part evident in its eclectic nature but also has direct application to some contemporary issues. For example, one common complaint about the Westminster standards is that they are based upon proof texts. The concern seems to be that Reformed theology has thus been built on simplistic, decontextualized reading of isolated texts. Many, of course, will be aware that the divines themselves did not want the proof texts included and that they were overruled in this by Parliament. That in itself should give pause for thought about how such texts function. Yet [Richard] Muller has explored this issue further and demonstrated that the divines were not only competent exegetes themselves and that Reformed Orthodoxy is exegetically grounded but also that proof texts in the seventeenth century were not intended as simple, blunt answers to complex questions. Proof texts operated rather as exegetical markers, directing the reader to the key verse but doing so in the expectation that the reader would check the classical expositions of that verse.

So, first off, the Westminster Divines didn’t even want the proof-texts included precisely because they were aware of the dangers of poor exegesis and context-less readings. Second, the texts were supposed to be used as pointers to further research, both of the text, and of the deeper history of interpretation. Basically, they wanted readers to do their homework.

Trueman then uses the example of the “covenant of works” to highlight the way this re-appraisal might shape our judgment about historical, Reformed orthodoxy.

One criticism is that the only reference to the pre-Fall arrangement with Adam in the garden as a covenant is Hosea 6:7. The Hebrew is ambiguous and could indeed be read as “like a man.” As such, it seems remarkably slender textual ground upon which to build such a crucial doctrine as the covenant of works. In fact, as Muller has shown through his study of the Westminster Annotations, the divines were well aware of this ambiguity. Their use of the language of covenant to refer to Adam in Eden was not built on this text, but upon Romans 5, which they saw as pointing to the conceptual presence of covenant in Eden, even as it was linguistically absent. Such a point would seem significant in assessing John Murray’s criticism of the covenant of works.*

Were the Westminster divines proof-texting then? In the sense that they are usually accused of, apparently not. Now, does that mean every reading of every text they cited was absolutely perfect? No, but the giants of Westminster probably deserve more credit than they’re typically given on this point.

If I might suggest two take-aways for contemporary biblical types:

1. When criticizing the hermeneutical approaches of different periods, we need to be careful of rushing to judgment. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in biblical studies knows that the methods are constantly up for debate (form-criticism, redaction-criticism, literary, etc.). Who knows what readings we’ll find silly, mistakenly or not, in 20 years, let alone 200?

2. This also means we probably could take a cue from the Reformed scholastics at this point. They knew that one way of guarding against our interpretations being over-determined by the cultural and literary prejudices of the day, was by being in dialogue, both with the text, and with the history of interpretation. May we humble ourselves enough to do the same. Who knows? We might even want to throw some scholastics into the mix.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For more on the exegetical grounding of the covenant of works, G.K. Beale has some good stuff on the covenant in Gen. 1-3.