Retrieval–It’s What All The Hip Reformed Catholic Kids Do

reformed catholicityThe theological hills are alive with the sound of “retrieval”–the idea that theology can only go forward if it begins by looking backward to the tradition that maintained and fed the faith that came before it. Whether it’s looking back to the Fathers, or Thomas, or the early Reformed tradition, across the denomination divides, theologians are increasingly explicit about their necessary dependence on the theology of their forebears, whether in the Creed, Counsels, or Confessions. In his section arguing for the importance of recovering traditioned thought in The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer listed a number of reasons (Biblical, traditional, philosophical, inevitable, and spiritual), but among them was the fact that it was “fashionable” (pg. 158), by which he meant supported by contemporary movements in literary theory.

In other words, all the cool kids are doing it.

I was reminded of this point as I opened Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s little volume Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation. Part of their project is making the case for a Reformed iteration of this movement that appreciates the traditional shape of even Protestant practices like Sola Scriptura, which commonly is interpreted as precluding this sort of activity. In order to set the stage for their own project, though, they begin by compiling and briefly describing a fascinating list of recent movements in theology that have set the stage, or contributed to the revival of retrieval in theology (pp. 4-12). I thought it might be useful to briefly summarize their summary and comment on their summary list.

  1. Nouvelle Theologie. Earlier in the 20th Century a bunch of Roman Catholic theologians like De Lubac and Congar led the way in trying to reappropriate patristic and biblical theology for systematics, sacramental theology, and liturgical practice. Much of this theology set the stage for the developments of Vatican II.
  2. Karl Barth. Barth’s Church Dogmatics did many things, but one of the big long-term effects it had was reviving the discipline of dogmatics in theology, drawing heavily as it did on patristic and Reformational sources.
  3. Reception History. Plenty of Biblical scholars like working with the historical context of the text, but there’s a big movement to do work on compiling commentaries or studies on the historical reception of texts. In other words, not just asking “how ought we read it?”, but asking “how has it been read in the past?” in order answer the former.
  4. Donald Bloesch and “Consensual Christianity.” Bloesch was a UCC theologian who tried to develop a “consensual” Christianity based on the witness of Holy Scripture and the Church’s tradition as a cross-denominational resource for the Church
  5. Thomas Oden’s “Paleo-Orthodoxy.” Thomas Oden’s conversion from liberal, Protestantism to a sort of “paleo-orthodoxy”, a “pastiche” of patristic and Protestant theology is an approach towards a “consensual Christianity.” He has also headed up the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series in order to facilitate this sort of scholarship and spirituality as well.
  6. Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Christianity. Webber has written various works and developed a number of ministries devoted to helping Evangelicals tap in the Christian past for the sake of engaging postmodern culture in worship and evangelism.
  7. The Modern Hymn Movement. Reformed and Presbyterian churches and ministries like RUF, Indelible Grace, and Keith and Kristyn Getty have been retooling classic hymns and developing new ones for revived congregational worship.
  8. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson’s Evangelical Catholicism. From within the Lutheran tradition, Braaten and Jenson have been trying to focus the church on classical resources as a way forward for the ecumenical conversation and the strength of the church. To that end, they launched the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, begin the journal Pro Ecclesia, and published a number of influential volumes in that vein. Allen and Swain note, though, that while Bloesch and Oden’s retrieval ends up looking like pretty standard classical theism, Jenson and others have still engaged in quite a bit of theological reconstruction, showing the retrieval doesn’t only lead to repetition.
  9. Theological Interpretation of Scripture. One big movement afoot is the drive towards theological exegesis”, or reading Scripture to do theology and not just historical or textual criticism. To that end, a lot of theoretical ink has been spilled, but a number of good theological commentary series have begun as well.
  10. Radical Orthodoxy. The movement by theologians like Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, and John Milbank, to reappropriate a sort of Christian Platonism in order to combat the decline of the Church, leans heavily on the idea of retrieval, even if it has been often criticized for its idiosyncratic and problematic readings of the history it’s attempting to retrieve.
  11. Evangelical Ressourcement. Evangelicals are getting in on the fun too. D.H. Williams has been arguing for recovering the early church as a theological resource and Hans Boersma has been even more specific in advocating a particular sacramental ontology, mostly drawing on the Nouvelle Theologie of Roman Catholic theologians.
  12. The Emerging or Emergent Church(es). Whatever their problems have been, the emerging or emergent movement did have an emphasis on retrieving the various insights, texts, and practices of the Christian past to meet the postmodern future. Of course, this played out differently for various kinds of emerging or emergent churches.
  13. Ressourcement Thomism. Thomism is the gift that keeps on giving. At least, that’s what a number of recent Roman Catholic theologians like Matthew Levering, Gilles Emery, and Reinhard Hutter have been arguing. Engaging with movements in biblical studies, systematics, and philosophical movements, these theologians have been making the case that Thomas still has something to say to the modern church.

As I read Allen and Swain’s list, I was fascinated to note how many of the movement and theologians had their effects on my own journey. When I was young in theology, the emergent conversation was in full swing and so the talk of appealing to tradition was definitely in the air. Thankfully reading some Pelikan and Vanhoozer showed me early that it could be done while keeping your Orthodox and Evangelical wits about you. In philosophy, MacIntyre’s work in After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? had its effect as well. Oden and Bloesch are sitting on my shelf, duly marked up, as well as some Barth, Boersma, and Jenson. I suppose my early classes in the history of philosophy had their effect as well. It’s hard to take a whole class on Augustine’s thought and believe him irrelevant to any theological conversation. This is also largely the impulse behind my big reading projects.

Beyond this personal reflection, though, a few things are worth noting about this list.

First, retrieval is an ecumenical endeavor. Theologians across the major traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are well-represented. Although, one important absence ought to be noted and that is the names of any Eastern Orthodox theologians. The burgeoning awareness of Eastern Orthodox theology has definitely spurred on the movement towards engagement with the Fathers on the part of Western theologians.

Second, retrieval is not a monolith. As already noted with the case of Jenson and someone like Oden, two theologians may be committed to the project and yet their engagement may yield wildly diverging judgments on something like the doctrine of God. What’s more, since it is an ecumenical endeavor with a catholic spirit, it will inevitably bear diverse fruits as theologians approach the catholic tradition from within their own ecclesiastic locations.

Third, and connected to the second, retrieval theology need not yield theological sterility. Some of the most creative theological minds of the 20th Century are included in that brief summary. Indeed, when think of some of the work being done in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, some of the brightest of our own very young century are those looking back to the wisdom of yesteryear through figural and typological readings. Many have ended up breaking the modern, interpretive mold in the process.

Finally, retrieval can be quite practical. Indeed, most of the movements and theologians mentioned are quite heavily involved with the cause of church renewal within their respective communions. Looking to the past is not simply done for the sake of dry antiquarianism, but for the life of the Church in the world today. In other words, it’s not only done to preserve the memory of the victories of church triumphant, but for the battles the church militant is currently embroiled in.

Now the question is, what exactly will Allen and Swain contribute to the discussion? I suppose I’ll just have to keep reading to find out. I’d suggest that many of you consider doing the same. You can purchase the book here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christmas is About The Eschaton

parousiaAdvent is about the coming of Jesus, the arrival of God in the flesh. This is the mystery we look back towards and celebrate with joy. The babe in the manger, come to reveal God, to be God with us: Emmanuel.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Christmas, though, isn’t a holiday that terminates in on itself. Yes, we rightly celebrate it in its own right, but it is a day that points forward to another day, one which has yet to arrive, and we await with a holy longing: the return of Christ. Christmas, at core, is about the Last Day of the Old Creation and the First Day of the New Creation.

I was reminded of this truth by Michael Allen in his recent piece over at Zondervan Academic on the recent trends and future prospects of eschatology in modern theology. He points out the positive movement of the last century in terms of the earthiness of Christian hope: we are waiting a New World, one with earth and sky, not merely clouds and harps. But he also says something has been lost to view that theologians like Bavinck managed to hold on to well:

I do not advocate a return to life prior to the remarkable witness of theologians like Bavinck. His biblical imagination, commitment to the full canonical scope of Scripture, and unswerving determination to let dogmatic eschatology shape Christian ethics are all to be commended and never to be forgotten. And yet it seems to me that one can (and many seem, unintentionally, to) herald something akin to Bavinck’s Augustinian vision without capturing the very center of Augustine’s eschatology (and that of the classical Christian consensus that marked at least the late patristic and medieval eras). There may be something approximating an “Augustinian naturalism” (unintentionally) where the focus and emphasis falls upon the New Jerusalem rather than her chief occupant, forgetting that the best news of Christian bliss is not newness but nearness: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3). Hence the repetition of the promise: “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20).

The good news of Second Coming and the New Creation is not simply the earthiness of it all. Yes, let’s rejoice and look forward to the resurrection of the body. Let us hope for the renewal of the cosmos. Let’s delight in the idea that every field and stream, every star and galaxy will be born anew, shining with the lustre of the glory of God. But let us not forget that it is the glory of God that makes all things shine. God is what makes the New Creation good news.

As Allen reminds us, Revelation 21 presents us with a vision of God dwelling with man:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21 is the consummation of the movement of God on John 1, and indeed, Genesis 1. God, the Triune Creator, the Eternal One whose glory makes the brightest supernova seem like a child’s night-light, has reunited Heaven and Earth, so that we might be near him without being consumed by the beauty of his holiness.

Christmas is about the eschaton.

Soli Deo Gloria

Greek’s Bearing Gifts (A Couple Quick Responses To The “Greek” Charge in Theology)

platoaristoFor some time now, one of the main charges made against the early Church Fathers and the Medievals has been that in translating the gospel to their Greek contemporaries, they ended up altering (or disfiguring) it. Or at least in part. This kind of thing usually comes up most with respect to the doctrine of God. The idea is that in order to make the gospel intellectually respectable, or simply because they couldn’t recognize their own presuppositions, the Fathers constructed their doctrine of God in ways that were dependent more on principles of Greek philosophy, rather than based on the picture of God given to us in the Israel’s Scriptures. On this view, speech about an “impassible” and “immutable” God has less to do with the God of Jesus, than with Aristotelian or Platonic ideas about apatheia and so forth. Typically this has been dubbed the “Hellenization thesis.”

Now, this was an extremely popular charge over the last century or so, especially among those looking to ditch some old doctrines, and reconceive God along other lines. It’s still quite popular today, at least among the bloggerati as well. When you want to retool something, or reframe it differently than it’s been taught for a few hundred years, or longer, it’s usually good to have a story for why people used to teach something, and why we need to move on from it. A story of unfortunate corruption and decay fits the bill quite nicely.

I bring all this up because Michael Allen had a great post over at the Zondervan Academic blog, “Common Places”, on the way the Hellenization Thesis needs to be put to bed. I quite agree. Allen goes about showing the way it’s been dispatched by more careful historical and theological work of late. To summarize the situation, he quotes Robert Louis Wilken:

“The notion that the development of early Christian thought represented a Hellenization of Christianity has outlived its usefulness … a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism, though that phrase does not capture the originality of Christian thought nor the debt owed to Jewish ways of thinking and to the Jewish Bible.”

From what I’ve read of the literature, which admittedly is limited, that sounds about right. Allen then goes on to make a number of helpful suggestions about the way theologians ought to adjust to life after the death of the Hellenization thesis, all of which are worth your time. It’s dying in academia, but in the popular theological mind it still stalks about like a ghost clinging to life among the living.

Most people often don’t have the time to do the specialized studies of the Fathers and the Medievals to demonstrate this, however. So, I thought it might be helpful to note briefly a few ways of responding, or thinking about the “Greek” charge when coming across it popularly.

“Prove it”, or The Genetic Fallacy.  The first is to note simply that many forms of the “Greek” charge are a form of the genetic fallacy. In other words, the assumption is that because an idea came from a Greek source, it is therefore unbiblical and false. But just because Aristotle came up with an idea, it by no means follows that the idea isn’t true. It still has to be demonstrated according to Scripture that some Greek idea is incompatible with the gospel. In other words, “Prove it.”

Two Biblical doctrines ought to give us pause in connection with this. First, is the doctrine of the Image of God. Without getting into the issue of natural revelation or the possibility of natural theology, despite the fall, humans can still get some reasoning done. It’s not salvific, or anything, but it’s still there. Second, is the doctrine of common grace. God gives out good gifts to both Jew and Greek, Christian and non-Christian, by his mercy and the common work of the Spirit in creation. The fall has corrupted our knowledge of God, and every philosophical principle needs to be held up to the light of Scripture, but we shouldn’t be too surprised when some of them lineup.

Jesus Has Layers  – Closely related to this is an idea forwarded by some that the intellectual interaction between Biblical revelation and Greek philosophy was a good part of God’s providential ordering. Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has written about the critical role the attempts of the early Greek apologists played in the project of making the gospel intelligible and plausible to non-Jews. Gentile like us shouldn’t so quickly turn on the very principles that played such a significant role in their own conversion (ST: Vol 1, pg. 72).

C.S. Lewis wrote positively in Miracles about the way certain Greek philosophizing could “cleanup” biblical imagery without substantially changing, or weakening it. Indeed, it seems not improbable that God had a design in mind for the clash and encounter of Hellenistic and Biblical thought. Biblical truth is thick, with many layers.

Some theologians have made the point that it’s quite possible that with each new culture and thought form Christian theology encounters, more dimensions to the unchanging revelation of God will unfold. It’s not that the truth changes, mind you. It is that with each new culture and life situation, the same earth-shattering gospel of Christ crucified, risen, and reigning speaks to the particular problems and paradigms of those people in a new way. The meaning is the same, but it’s significance and implications expand.

It could be that the interaction of the Jewish-shaped gospel with the Greek intellectual culture brought out some of the implications inherent in the message itself. Jesus has always had surprising layers and depths to him. Is it really so hard to believe that Greek Christians managed to discover some enduring ones?

Soli Deo Gloria