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

Why?  Why not?

Why not?

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

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

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

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

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

Barth and the ‘Absolute’ Historians

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

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

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

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

Protestant Thought: Rousseau to Ritschl, pg. 36

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

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

On Avoiding Snobbery

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

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

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

–ibid, pg. 208

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

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Reasons We Tend to Ignore the Past

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

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

Unfortunately, all three are increasingly problematic.

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

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

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

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

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

Pastors, we have our work cut out for us.

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

Soli Deo Gloria

Ireneaus Summarizes the Faith

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

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

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

Soli Deo Gloria

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

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

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

A few take-aways from early Christian history:

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

Soli Deo Gloria