Michal, the Worship Cynic

a son to meThe story of the return of the Ark to Jerusalem is fascinating and multi-layered (2 Samuel 6). The theology surrounding the punishment of Uzzah’s transgression against the ark. The blessing of the house of Obed-Edom, a Gentile. And, of course, the sight of the King of Israel dancing in the street with a linen ephod, before the whole of the nation. And of course, there is the negative reaction of his wife Michal to the whole display.

Seeing the whole thing go down, instead of seeing the glory of Israel returning, she only saw a shameful performance by David and she despised him. When David returns, she reproaches him to his face, telling him he had disgraced himself by dancing half-naked in front of slave-girls just like any common fool on the street (v. 20).

David’s response is classic. He tells her, first off, he was dancing before the Lord (“you know, the one who picked me over your dad to be king of Israel”) and before him, he’ll be even more undignified (21-22). Second, anybody with spiritual eyes–even servant girls–will recognize his humility and righteousness in doing so (22).

Now, when I was a kid, I remember learning the story and not understanding the hardness in Michal’s heart. Why did she not rejoice as David rejoiced? Why could she not see the blessing of the Ark? How could she not understand the lesson I was learning in Sunday School that day? Surely the Lord is worthy of our most ecstatic worship, and our own dignity isn’t anything to be concerned with.

But then you start to reflect on the story of Michal and the thing becomes more complex. Yes, there was a worldly judgment in her heart about what was appropriate for the king. Yes, she sinned in scorning the return of the Ark. Still, Peter Leithart makes a perceptive qualifying comment worth considering:

Yet, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for here. She had been taken from a loving husband and brought into a house full of wives and concubines. Her bitterness was understandable. And, while David was sincere in dancing before the Lord, Michal’s charge that he was more interested in the young women was prescient. (A Son to Me, 196)

Michal was in this case sinfully cynical. But understandably so. She had been hurt when David took her back into his household, away from a husband who seemed to love and care for her. He was not a full-blown Solomon, but he had been multiplying wives contrary to the command for kings (Deut. 17:17). It did not all seem political.

Where am I going with this?

Well, I don’t know about you, but having grown up the church, I am often tempted to cynicism much spirituality and piety. I am especially prone to doubt it when I have something against someone.

Maybe it’s someone who has wronged me, or someone I know. Maybe I’ve seen them be vindictive, spiteful, crass, or manipulative. Maybe it’s someone whose online persona (and theological positions) I find troubling  and frustrating. In those moments, I just think it’s wise to have a care with my cynical judgments on their spiritual life and their praise of God. The Lord has only ever had sinners as his true worshipers. Including me.

Obviously, this is not an absolute. Yes, we are called to exercise discernment. Yes, the prophets called out false worship. Yes, Jesus went after the Pharisees for their pious displays. And nevertheless, we can sin if our cynical eye leads us to despise or call false the true worship of the Lord. We can get this really wrong.

Second, have mercy on the cynical Michal’s. You don’t have to go along with their cynicism, but it is always wise to consider what has led them to this point. Especially if you are ever called to engage, to love, or pastor them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern In Theology

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

(Ecclesiastes 1:9-12)

If we had to classify the Teacher of Israel, it’s fairly clear he was not a modern.

Commenting on some of the defining marks of the theory of progress and the heart of the modern, Peter Leithart notes:

“The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a ‘great divide,’ between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in ‘chrono-politics.'”

Solomon Among the Postmoderns, pg. 32

Leithart sees this as part of modernity’s appropriation and secularization of Christian theology, particularly its eschatology: “Moderns treat modernity as if it were a new stage of redemptive history” (31). Instead of carving the world up into “in Adam” and “in Christ”, though, it’s “in Copernicus” or “in Aristotle” (or something less flattering like, “in Cave Dweller”). On this view, moderns understand the birth of Modernity as a radical break such that things are forever altered, they are better, we can’t go back, and we shouldn’t want to.

Chronological Snobbery

Now, when thinking about philosophy or theology, it’s typical to note that Modernity’s ditch-digging eschatology funds what C.S. Lewis has called its “Chronological snobbery”: “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.”

Rudolph Bultmann has a famous quote typically used to illustrate the need for his program for demythologizing the message of the New Testament, so that its existential challenge can be felt by modern men and women. In more conservative circles, fairly or not, it’s also a common example of the phenomenon Lewis is describing:

“We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”

Now that we have science and medicine, cars and so forth, who’s going to believe in superstitions like miracles, angels, demons, and the like?

Of course, taken baldly, and after reviewing the actual philosophical arguments for and against miracles and so forth, it’s a rather silly and somewhat arrogant claim. A good dose of Lewis, Aquinas, Plantinga, or other common works of apologetics others can disabuse you of that fairly quickly. All the same, it’s fairly intuitive and recognizable impulse.

Chronological Anxiety

As I’ve read more in theology over the years, I’ve realized that this sort of thing isn’t limited to “traditional” apologetics issues. And even more, it doesn’t always express itself as an arrogant snobbery. Rather it’s a sort of modern anxiety theologians have about the answers we have for the deep moral and existential questions our world is asking.

You can spot it whenever you see someone wringing their hands as they say something like, “the old answers just won’t work for us.”

Usually this can be connected to the Enlightenment and Romantic narratives of heroic doubt and world come of age (see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age). “In our intellectual infancy and innocence—before Copernicus reoriented the heavens, or the Lisbon earthquake, or the shattering of Europe in WW 1, or the Holocaust, etc. (pick your favorite intellectual or moral cataclysm)—we could accept such answers, but now, we simply can’t. And so we must bravely seek out new answers for a new age.”

perfectly simpleStephen Long points out that one of the easiest places to spot this anxiety is in modern revisions of the doctrine of God. He connects the revisionist project to G.W.F. Hegel in a few ways. (And I’ll be condensing and likely bastardizing here.)

First, there’s the bigger Hegelian (and Feuerbachian) impulse of identifying the theology of an era as a manifestation of the Spirit of that era (or projection of the human culture). In which case, the assumption is that the answers accepted in previous eras are particularly (and peculiarly) suited to those eras, and therefore not suited to ours.

Second, there’s the material appeal of his theology as a response the problem of evil that’s loomed large in the modern period ever since the Earthquake of Lisbon down through the Holocaust. Process metaphysics, a number of the 20th Century German theologies, and so forth, have all been influenced to some greater or lesser degree by Hegel’s revised metaphysics of the doctrine of the Trinity. In this revised economy of salvation, God becomes historical, not as the absolute author freely becoming incarnate in history while maintaining his perfection, but rather is dragged into it in such a way that he himself becomes and achieves his own self-realization (and self-salvation?) in the redemption of the horror and pain of history, and so forth.

Long thinks this is mistaken for a number of reasons, but one of them is connected to that anxiety to be modern:

This revised economy has had too much of a hold on modern theology. The need to be “modern” is part of the problem, when the “modern” is understood as a never-ending apocalyptic moment in which everything we have done up until this moment does not prepare us from the “now” that is about to arrive but never does. Everything must be revised; everything must be new. There has been a modern, apocalyptic anxiety about theology that seeks calls for revision and is fated to continue to do so, each call for revision trying to be more apocalyptic and historical than the previous one. The historical situatedness of this assumption need not hold us captive. To challenge this modern anxiety is not to wax nostalgic for premodernity. —The Perfectly Simple, Triune God: Aquinas and His Legacy, pg. 385

There’s much to comment on in this.

For one thing, Long pushes the notion of being modern past Leithart’s single “cut in time” and notes the way the modern ethos (which continues into postmodernity) is to continue anxiously cutting time between this age and that, these people and those.

And so, if we’re to be modern, giving answers to modern people, we need to constantly revise our answers for post-Holocaust, post-industrial, post-colonial, etc. age. Revisions must come by age-bracket now (insert joke about “millennial” eschatology).

Long’s comment also begins to push us towards the problem with such an impulse. For one thing, the thesis of the radically-situated and projected character of all theology is a radically-situated thesis itself. It is not necessary to view the nature of truth, theology, or the world that way.

Another way of putting this is that often enough the refrain, “The old metaphysics won’t work for us,” could be translated as, “The old metaphysics won’t work for some, dissatisfied white kids talking philosophy in a coffee-shop in the late-modern West.” Because something like the traditional metaphysics and economy of redemption seems to be doing fine in a global context, even if there are regional variations.

And even that’s not the whole picture, since there are plenty of late-modern kids in the West who find beauty, power, and strength in the older metaphysics. I know. I’ve talked to them, pastored them, and—surprise!—been one of them.

It seems plausible, then, the modern anxiety and assumption that just because they’re the “old answers” they can’t possibly work in a new context is more prejudice than established fact. Indeed, it borders on fideistic superstition since it exists in the face so many counter-examples sitting in pews across the world.

Nothing Is New Under the Sun

Which brings me back to Ecclesiastes. The Teacher’s early refrain is, “there is nothing new under the Sun.” I don’t want to deny the modern point that history is real, time passes, and cultural and material changes happen. But what we see this modern anxiety can take an extreme form such that it constitutes a denial of the continuity of human nature. “We are Moderns (or Postmoderns), it simply impossible for us to believe such things, since we are a different kind of human.” In that sense, it’s not just an eschatological heresy, it’s an anthropological one.

Coming back around to the problem of evil and the doctrine of God, it’s true that for some reason the problem took on a particular potency in philosophical reflection. But what surprises me in these discussions, though, is how often modern, theological revisionists tend forget that pre-moderns were well-acquainted with death and destruction, as if their answers constructed in a theological vacuum.

People act like Augustine didn’t live through the Fall of Rome or pastor in North Africa before the advent of Penicillin. As if Aquinas didn’t grow up in a world of warfare, or where mothers regularly lost their lives (or their children) in childbirth. Or as if Calvin and the other Reformers didn’t witness Religious wars, or have to pray for plague victims at their deathbeds. In other words, the people who came up with the “old answers” on the basis of Scripture were as well-acquainted with evil and pain as any modern or postmodern. Possibly more so.

In that case, if the “old answers won’t do” it’s possible to question the assumptions shared by moderns which keep them from accepting those answers, instead of the answers themselves?

Wolfhart Pannenberg, something of a reviser himself, has commented:

The fact that a later age may find it harder to understand traditional ideas is not a sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation and thus to keep their meaning alive.
Systematic Theology Vol. 2 , 422

The connects well with Long’s comments. To question this modern anxiety is not simply nostalgia for a straight-line return to premodern theology simpliciter, using all the same texts, formulas, with no alterations or considerations of our changed time and place. None of this relieves us from the task of application.

In order to preach the Word of God in our time, we have to know our time. We must know the moderns and the postmoderns. We should understand their objections, their fears, their particular anxieties and worries, which do exhibit cultural differences. It may take more arduous work “to open up these ideas” about God to the women and men of our times.

And because of the human finitude of our forebears, that may even include subjecting our theology to the Word of God afresh. God may move and show us that prior generations were insufficiently attentive to some aspect of revealed truth. One of my theological heroes, Herman Bavinck, is a fantastic model in this regard, in his ability to retrieve and creatively re-articulate the “old answers” of the Reformed tradition in such a way that attends to modern concerns.

But I suppose my point at the end of this long meditation is to say, when it comes to the practice of doing theology—having a Word from God to our neighbors—in the modern (or postmodern era), “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). Do not think that in this we must constantly start anew with the release of every Mac operating system.

It is not unlikely God has provided you the answers you need through the work of the Church reading Scripture in history. A good many of them might even be premodern.

Soli Deo Gloria

Top 5 Reformedish Books of 2016

This has been a busy year of reading for me. Most years are. But the difference with grad school (at least during courses) is that you don’t have quite the flex you had before in terms reading for pleasure, or randomly choosing what you wanted to take up at any given moment. You also have much less time for popular level works. With all that said, I managed to get in some very fun books this year, and so I figured I’d keep up my cliche tradition of giving you a list of my top 5 Reformedish books of the year.

As always, these come in no particular order. My criteria are pretty basic: was it theologically-stimulating and well-written? Did I enjoy it even when I was disagreeing with it? Etc.

Without further ado, then, here they are.

mountain of the LordWho Shall Ascend to the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus by L. Michael Morales.

Leviticus is a much-ignored book largely because it seems arcane and disconnected from the rest of the dynamic story of Scripture. Morales corrects both of those problems for readers, by setting Leviticus within the broader storyline of the Torah and the Scriptures as a whole, tying it to the basic movement of exile and entrance into the Presence of the LORD. The New Studies in Biblical Theology series is one of my favorites in general, but this volume in particular distinguished itself. I highly recommend it.

crucifixion rutledgeThe Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

I have already reviewed this work and I have to say it might be the most beautiful piece of theological writing I have read in a while. In my review, I said: “Aimed at reinvigorating the dying tradition of “Good Friday” preaching of the Church, Rutledge sets herself the task of examining the cross of Christ in its various biblical, theological, historical, and social dimensions. In other words, while she engages at a fairly academic level at points, she’s not so much concerned with the academy, but with the pulpit—which is why the book is rich with illustrations and reflective sections interacting not only with historical and biblical theology, but with literature, poetry, and newspaper headlines. Essentially, it’s a work aimed at pastor-theologians.” In the review, I note that it’s not without its theological problems, but worth the read all the same.

making-sense-of-godMaking Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Tim Keller

I have a recent write-up of this one too. Also, we had Keller on the Mere Fidelity podcast this week as well. Basically, you need to know that it’s classic Keller. It’s a bit of pre-evangelism aimed at provoking the apathetic to curiousity about Christ, less than defending Christ against the animosity of the skeptic. In the post-Christian culture we’re entering, believers who care about evangelism or explaining the relevance of their faith to their neighbors need to start thinking about how to do this better. Keller offers guide for the path.

triune-godThe Triune God by Fred Sanders

I also wrote a review for this one. Here’s a bit of what I said: “Yes, it’s a work of trinitarian doctrine, but it’s also a master class in how to constructtrinitarian doctrine. Sanders doesn’t just set about telling you how to think about the Trinity, but also how to think about thinking about the Trinity. In that sense, Sanders is concerned with trinitarian doctrine as a species of Theological Interpretation of Scripture; he wants to show us how to read the Bible to arrive at the doctrine of the Trinity without misconstruing either the Bible, or even worse, the Trinity. And all of this for the sake of rightly praising our glorious God.”

Delivered from the elements coverDelivered From the Elements of the Universe: Atonement, Justification, and Mission by Peter Leithart

I also reviewed this one last week. Like Rutledge’s, this one had some moments of significant disagreement, but it was just such good book despite it. I described his work of atonement theology like this: “Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.””

Finally, I should note that Kevin Vanhoozer’s book that came out this year just won the CT Book of the Year for Theology and Ethics. I would have put it my list but he’s my advisor, so y’all might not believe me. I also did a write-up for that one.

Soli Deo Gloria

A More Elemental Atonement (A Review of Leithart)

Delivered from the elements coverThis review was originally written for Books and Culture before its unfortunate closing. Thanks to John Wilson for encouraging me to write it. 

One mark of a constructive theologian is to ask the perennial questions of Christian theology in a contemporary key. In Peter Leithart’s new work Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, and Mission, he reframes St. Anselm’s famous question, “Why did God become man?” as,

“How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and cross-roads for everything?”

To answer that question, Leithart believes we must reconstrue atonement theology as “as social theory”, making social and political questions and consequences central to our understanding of Christ’s work. In that sense, it must be a “theory of everything”, if it is to be a successful rendering of the events that changed everything.

Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.”

Cur Deus Homo?

The work defies simple description and summary. In brief, though, Leithart offers a “Pauline” reading of Scripture that takes its cues from the notion of the “elements of the world” or stoicheia tou kosmou in Galatians 4:1-7. Across cultures in time and space, the world has ordered itself according to the “elements”, the basic “socio-religious principles” and categories such as clean/unclean, sacred/profane, life/death, and so forth. These principles give rise to orders of ritual, sacrifice, and social stratification which, though they can be arranged in a bewildering variety of ways, are the same basic “physics” composing the old creation.

These elemental principles order life in the “flesh.” For Leithart, “flesh” is a master metaphor comprising everything from basic, human frailty all the way to the post-Fall, libido dominandi of phallic warfare, which mortal flesh uses to cover over the fear of death. Fleshly life under the elements is Adamic humanity’s lot: cast out of God’s Garden-house, flesh is divided from Spirit, living under the restrictive regimes of “taste not, touch not” aimed at (yet failing in) overcoming death and restoring communion with God.

On this scheme, Torah is God’s own redemptive set of rearranged “elements” (sacrifice, ritual, holiness codes) which God uses in his history-long war of justice to destroy flesh without destroying humanity. With Torah, God separates a new Adamic people, Israel, out of the rest of the divided world, and with a new set of pedagogical elements, taught them to enter into his presence through sacrifice and purity, though under the condition of flesh.

Of course, the Torah cannot work life, or overcome flesh. Indeed, under the condition of flesh, Torah became an instrument of injustice within and by Israel and worked the curse of death against Israel.

For that reason, the Son came in the flesh to be a new Israel—one who enacted all that Torah aimed at, living out the life of the Spirit. This life and ministry inevitably brought him into conflict with the fleshly authorities, both Jewish and Roman, leading to his crucifixion—a sacrificial (and penal) death on behalf of (substitutionary) Israel and the World in which the flesh was condemned. It also led to his subsequent vindication and justification by resurrection (a “deliverdict”), in which the flesh is raised to life in presence of God by the Spirit. (A similar construction is given by Fleming Rutledge in her notion of “rectification”, which makes sense, since they both draw on themes from the Union school of apocalyptic interpretation).

Baptism, faith, and union with Christ’s justifying life, death, and resurrection leads to the justification and deliverance of the individual (his “deliverdict”), as well as the formation of a new, “post-stoicheic” community animated by Jesus and the Spirit.  As one new man, a just community is made from Jew and Gentile, both now free from Torah and the “elements” of the world. As the of this new community around a new, ritual, and moral order eventually begins dismantling of the old socio-religious hierarchies that surround it, we can begin to grasp how Jesus’ atonement leads to the transformation of social life and human history as a whole.

Promise and Perils of Systematics

One can begin to see, then, that Leithart’s answer to the question is innovative, elegant, multi-faceted, and holistic. I have never read something quite like this.

For instance, in setting the stage for his nuanced, biblical account of Levitical sacrifice and Torah (a brilliant distillation of the complex, often-impenetrable specialist literature on the subject), Leithart offers a literary interlude, consisting of a first-person dialogue between the Apostle Paul and the priests of Egypt, Babylon, and Ancient Greece. It’s something of a crash course in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman comparative studies that manages to set Israel’s religious life firmly in the religious world, without falling into either parallelomania, nor forcing it into some Procrustean bed of a pre-existing theory of sacrifice or religion as so many recent accounts (such as those following Rene Girard) have done. What’s more, it has a literary flair, proving again that theology need not be aesthetically anodyne.

At this point, though, I’m reminded of a story Graham Cole tells about the plight of the systematic theologian. When reading the systematician’s work, a NT scholar will come along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did with the Old Testament, but a few of those bits on the New Testament weren’t so hot.” And the OT scholar comes along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did in the New Testament, but some of those bits from the Old Testament weren’t so hot.” And the historiand comes along and says, “Loved what he did with the Bible, but his historical work could use a tune-up.” The comprehensive holism which systematics demands often leaves exegetical or historical specialists a bit cold (or hot and bothered, depending on temperaments).

Speaking broadly, I’d say that in his attempt to make up for gaps often left unplugged in other accounts, Leithart leaves open a few of his own. For now, I leave it to others to deal with his rough handling of Reformation history, or the idiosyncrasies of his hybridized New Perspective, Apocalyptic, & typological reading of Paul and justification, or even the fuzzy metaphysical status of “nature” in his schema. Brad Littlejohn has explored some of those in his lengthy review, and in the future I may take up his critique of Reformation theology along the lines of the natural/supernatural distinction. For now, I’ll just comment on the pay-out and loss of having opted for his particular reading of Christ’s victory over the elements.

Stoicheia Without Satan 

Reading the stoicheia tou kosmou as the “elements of the world” and the “socio-religious principles” of clean and unclean, etc. has significant payouts in Leithart’s system. As we’ve seen, it allows him to connect Israel’s history to world religious history in its original setting, as well as ecclesiology and the social dimension of atonement. It also allows him to forward a current reading of the scene in which Christian mission happens; the way societies, ideologies, and even other religions like modern Hinduism and Buddhism which have been transformed in their encounter with the continuing impact of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

They also allow him to venture into the contested waters of secularization theory, contending that “we have never been secular.” Rather, modernity is a post-Christian, rationalized reordering of the categories of clean and unclean, sacred and profane, with its own priesthood, and social categories of “other.” It is not the same stoicheic order as the old, but it is a stoicheic order, nonetheless. (Incidentally, this is one of the most interesting parts of the work).

With all these benefits accrued, however, there is one conspicuous absence in Leithart’s story of atonement and his “theory of everything”: there is no Serpent in Leithart’s Garden. (Quite literally, there is no mention of him in the account of Adam and Eve’s Fall.)

In one way this is unsurprising. The other, recent popular interpretation for the phrase stoicheia tou kosmou is to see it as a reference to malevolent, spiritual forces. Opting for the reading “socio-religious principles”, Leithart seems to shelve the alternative almost entirely. With the exception of a few approving references to N.T. Wright’s suggestion that demonic powers or “tutelary deities” stand behind the “powers and principalities”, or a paragraph about Jesus’ exorcisms, the Tempter, the Accuser of the saints, the Dragon, the great opponent of YHWH and his people has gone missing from Leithart’s landscape. Interestingly, the Christus Victor theme is still there, but sublimated—YHWH is still at war, but not so much with demonic powers, but with flesh.

While seemingly unintentional, and while one cannot deal with everything in a single book, this transposition threatens to throw off not only our account of atonement, but our account of churchly mission as well. With respect to the atonement, John tells us that Christ came to utterly destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Paul says one of the great blessings of Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, is disarming the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:13-15). In so doing, Christ liberates us from the fleshy fear of death (Hebrews 2:14), at least in part, by freeing us from Satan’s accusation (Revelation 12:10-12).

Turning to mission, the sidelining of the demonic distorts our understanding of spiritual power at work, lurking behind the “socio-religious principles”, rendering their opposition so potent.  Ignoring this leaves us liable to forget that our struggle is against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), not only a recalcitrant sociology.

I don’t think the narrative he presents can’t be modified to include this line of Biblical theology, but as it stands, the modification is necessary all the same.

At the end of the day, though, even the gaps in Leithart’s exceptional work press us to continually expand the scope of our reflections upon Christ’s atonement to social, political, and cosmic proportions.

Soli Deo Gloria

The End of Protestant Denominationalism and the Beginning of Regionalism?

end-of-prot-2According to Peter Leithart, the history of God’s people is a process of being creatively torn apart and put back together again in new, complex, more holistic ways. With each stage in the LORD’s dealing with his people, beginning from Adam after the fall, Noah after the Flood, Moses after the Exodus, down on into the present, there are separations and reunions. These result in new forms of arrangement, liturgy, and worship according to God’s good pleasure. Single sacrifices become altars, altars become Tabernacle, Tabernacle becomes Temple, Temple becomes Christ, Christ becomes Church, and so forth. Biblical history moves from “glory to glory” in that regard.

In Leithart’s new book, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church, he argues the time has come for American Protestants to recognize that we must move forward once again.  While we should gratefully acknowledge the role denominations have played in God’s good history, they could only ever have been a temporary configuration. Jesus prayed to his Father for unity, but denominations institutionalize division, even if it’s a friendly one, that fails to display the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit. And so we know another form of the church—a more unified one—is still to come.

Against the backdrop of church history, biblical theology, and discussions of the global and contemporary church, Leithart wants to offer up an interim program for Protestants (since he knows Catholics and Orthodox probably aren’t listening). He calls them to abandon their tribalism and to pursue a program of reform and ecumenism at the national, international, and local levels to help lead towards the church of the future. His vision is of a “Reformational Catholicism” that calls us to live out now what we will one day surely be.

In some ways, this amounts to calling for an “end of Protestantism.” It is its end insofar as it calls Protestants to die to the identity of being “not Catholics” or “not Orthodox.” It’s also its end in that it may result in new reforms, reunifications, and configurations that aren’t exactly “Protestant” in the way we typically recognize the concept. Finally, it’s the “end” of Protestantism in that it would fulfill what Leithart takes to be the initial thrust of the Reformers—the reformation of the worship of the Church of God according to the Word of God.

Appreciating the End

As Stanley Hauerwas notes in his blurb, “Leithart simply cannot write a dull book.” I was going to work my way through slowly, but I consumed it quickly this week, as the argument was engaging, the language fecund, and the theology provocative.

Typically, theologians find a natural partner in philosophical analysis, but Leithart mixes things up. One of Leithart’s unique gifts is the way he creatively sets biblical-theology conversation with sociological and anthropological sources. Indeed, those prove to be some of his most interesting sections in the work.

Two sections in his critique of denominationalism stand out as particularly helpful. First, I found his retrieval of H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the “social sources of denominationalism” (along the lines of race, class, culture) to be quite illuminating. Especially since he picks up and summarizes some of the most important work along those lines since then.

Also trenchant is his critique of the way the system of American denominationalism has capitulated and simply gone along with the American system. It’s tendency to allow denominations to play nice while not actually grappling with doctrinal differences fosters a civic religion that (counter-intuitively), plays down doctrine, practice, and therefore witness in the world. There is much to heed in this analysis.

Leithart’s section canvassing developments in the global church is another section worth pondering. This involves a survey of the varying forms of Pentecostalism growing worldwide, not all of which fit neatly under the moniker of “Protestant.” More interesting still are some of the unique new Christian sects (and cults) coming out of the African and Asian contexts, which creatively hybrid liturgical elements, theologies of healing, new festivals, and authority structures. New churches are being born whose members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions that don’t easily map into our typical boxes of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

In a sense, Leithart is calling us to realize that ripping and tearing, the unpredictable reunifications of the future are already happening around us. In which case, not only do we need to start taking the global church seriously as a theological conversation partner, we ought to be prepared to think about Christianity beyond the paradigm of American denominationalism. Whether you buy Leithart’s prescription or not, he’s surely correct in drawing our attention to the ecclesial significance of what’s happening outside our too-narrow, American imaginations.

Beyond that, his sociologist’s (and pastor’s) eye for the local situation, leads to any number of important insights that pastors and theologians looking to preach and pastor their people well in the 21st Century would do well to heed.

A Fuzzy, Regional End?

With all that said, I have to admit, I left the book feeling a bit…fuzzy. Leithart’s very upfront about the fact that he’s prognosticating future not easily pictured. Unsurprisingly, his imagined vision of a “Reformed Church” can feel like a jumble of open paradoxes. It’s sort of like asking to help plan for the 50th anniversary of a confirmed bachelor.

Of course, Leithart is too smart to be a foolish utopian. He openly owns that many, if not most, of his suggestions for implementing his “interim” ethic may just make things a bit messier in the meantime. There’s no guarantee. Which renders Leithart’s proposal pre-emptively impervious to critique. He’s probably conceded that any number of my worries are indeed possible, but insists that we should try anyways.

All the same, I think it’s worth imagining our way through some of his suggestions to see some potential problems down the road.

Among his many proposals, Leithart advocates an ecumenical Reformational Catholicism for pastors that involves a number of moves on the local level. Let’s imagine it for a minute.

Caught up in Leithart’s vision, the pastors from a number of local churches in Milwaukee from different traditions (Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran) start to meet, pray, and read the Scriptures together. Because Leithart rightly insists that doctrine matters, they have face to face debate and dialogue about real theological difference ready to receive wisdom as they try to share joint projects, and so forth. These go well enough they even reach the point where they work towards a common confession of faith, recognizing each other’s baptisms, sharing communion. They even take up the suggestion to form a local council of “Nicene Churches” for shared ministry, discipline, local political witness, and so forth. Overcoming their antithetical institutional identities, they’ve formed a functioning “micro-Christendom” within the city.

Here’s where my questions start.

Now that you’ve got this metropolitan gathering of pastors established, presumably there’s a strong chance some pastors in the same neighborhood did not sign on. Maybe they don’t share the Reformational Catholic vision. Or, maybe they do to a degree. But because Leithart (rightly) insists these conversations around doctrine are happening in light of tradition, history, and Scripture, despite all the prayer, meetings, and readings, one chap happens to stay confessionally Presbyterian.

And this not because he can’t imagine life as a “not-Catholic.” Perhaps he has read all the literature, but he still doesn’t think that New Perspective has brought us all that much closer to the Roman church on justification. Or on papal authority. Or the Mass. Or the saints. In other words, it’s not because he’s been squinting when reading all of the awkward verses in James, but because he thinks his tradition read James properly.

And yet half the neighborhood’s pastors are joining the lovely, new Reformational-Anglo-Catholic-Pentecostal Presbytery of Milwaukee. Including a couple of his fellows in the local Presbyterian Presbytery (who are now very excited about being Reformational Catholics and not every much about being Presbyterians). What of their unity? Or I wonder what the other Presbyteries will think of these councils at the General Assembly? Why is the local, Reformational Catholic unity more important than local or national denominational unity? (Rinse and repeat for the Methodists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, and so forth.)

I also wonder what happens with those practicing the sort of Reformational Catholicity Leithart is advocating in a different city, with a different makeup of pastors? The group in Milwaukee trends more Anglo-Catholic due to presence of several Anglican rectors in attendence, but the one in Topeka starts to look very Pentecostal and Baptistic. And who knows what’s been going on in the Portland region? So now we have new “Reformational Catholic” churches coming to a regional unity that varies from region to region. How do they start to get along?

In other words, I suspect Leithart’s suggestion for local reunion can’t help but initiate and institutionalize series of different divisions across the board. As these new “Reformational Catholic” congregations unite together, they end up becoming divided from their sister churches within the denomination within the same city that don’t share the vision, as well as from their national bodies. On top of that, they’ve set themselves on course to fall into a nascent regionalism of “micro-Christendoms” developing, possibly at cross-trends.

And this is a serious thing. One of the goods of national and international denominations, despite the social sources that may have originally helped form them, is that they keep us in contact with people who do not share all of our same, local myopias, temptations, and tendencies towards shared, cultural drift. Ironically enough, the regional Reformational catholicity of local metropolitan groups, if carried out in this fashion, may end up making them more parochial in a way that national and international denominations and communions help push back against.

My point here is that even if a large portion of the Protestant church in America, and even globally, signs on to become Leithartian Reformational Catholics, you’ve basically created a big, shiny, new polyglot (linguistically, theologically, liturgically), regionalist denomination that will exist alongside of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the Anabaptists. Now, it might be the best, the most biblical, missionally-contextual, and deepest of all, but a new denomination it will be nonetheless.  And I only see things being exacerbated by the various global movements Leithart has charted.

I’m all for recognizing each other’s communions, being charitable, mutual prayer, and a host of the proposals Leithart makes. But I’m left wondering if this is really step ahead towards unity in comparison to the friendly relations between local ministries that often already exists in current denominationalism? Only this time, on top of denominational paperwork you have to do, you’ve got local, metropolitan paperwork as well.

I suppose my main impression is that many of his stimulating programmatic suggestions might work best if we had assumed a different, more classically Protestant sort of unity in the first place.And, of course, that would take rehabilitating and retrieving some of our Mere Protestant theological instincts.

Conclusion

While there is more to appreciatively explore as well as critique, I’ll leave things here and simply say that, as always, Leithart has offered up a stimulating meditation worth attending for all those who care about the future of the local and the global church.

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.

Leithart’s 6 Criteria For A Successful Atonement Theology (+ 2 Of My Own)

Delivered from the elements cover.jpgWhen you read enough works on the work of Christ, to start to get a feel for the questions involved. What conditions must be met for this to qualify as a proper, full, or adequate explanation of  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Anselm famously thought the root question you had to answer was, “Why did God become man?” You can give all sorts of explanations for what Jesus’ activities meant, but if they didn’t justify the conclusion “for this, God needed to become man”, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

Peter Leithart has written a new book about atonement theology. Well, when you look at the title (Delivered From the Elements: Atonement, Justification, and Mission), you realize it’s about a lot more than that, but that’s still the main subject.

In reflecting on it, Leithart has come up with six criteria that he believes must be satisfied if we’re going to get a proper grip on our question:

Historically plausible: Atonement theology is an interpretation of events, not a recital of “bare facts,” which is impossible in any case. But that interpretation must make sense of the historical events, not by transcending phenomena into a noumenal realm of meaning, but by tracing and perhaps extrapolating the logic of the events. Successful atonement theology must, for instance, make sense of Jesus as a figure in the first-century Judaism dominated by Rome. A successful atonement theory has got to show how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to human history, which means that atonement theory has to provide and account of human history: It has to be a theory of everything.

Levitical: A successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events.

Evangelical: Successful atonement theology must arise from within the Gospel narratives rather than be an imposition from outside (even a Pauline outside).

Pauline: Atonement theology must make sense of the actual words and sentences and arguments in Paul’s letters.

Inevitable: A successful atonement theology should leave the impression of inevitability: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Lk. 24:26 NASB). Jesus should appear to be the obvious divine response to the human condition. Like the denouement of a well-constructed drama, the cross and the resurrection should emerge as the most fitting climax to the history of Israel among the nations, as the climax of the history of sacrifice.

Fruitful: A successful atonement theology must offer a framework for making sense not only of the history of Jesus but also of the subsequent history of the church and of the world. It must, for instance, not shrink from addressing the apparent failure of the atonement, the palpable fact that the world Jesus is said to have saved is self-evidently not saved. (19-20)

In surveying them, I have to say, I find it hard to disagree with them. Even that last one, which is probably the greatest stretch in terms of having burst the typical bounds of systematic focus on the work of Christ, leaves an impression on the mind after considering it for a while, “Yes, yes, you should be able to draw some line from that point to the present moment if this event really is the cosmos-shattering cataclysm that Christian preaching has always claimed it is.”

I suppose I’ll follow up by adding couple of my own criteria in something of an Anselmian key.

First, comes a Christological criteria. For your atonement theology to be successful, it must be able to say why Jesus had to be God who became a man for our sake. Why did Christ have to have all the attributes and qualities and exalted titles and power that the New Testament accords him in order to accomplish what he did? In other words,  Leithart’s criteria for atonement theology  are, for the most part, explicitly concerned with making sense of the plot. I’m saying, we also need to explicitly call for a careful account of the characters.

Which brings me to the second criteria, and that is the theological one. For a successful atonement theology, you need to be able to give something of a sketch of the kind of God who would and could become man and why. This is true both for sorts of moral attributes you might think are involved (love, justice, holiness, fidelity), as well as the “metaphysical” ones (impassibility, infinity, etc). And, of course, not only the attributes of God, but his personal being: does your atonement theology assume or dispense with God’s trinitarian being? Must atonement be accomplished by Father, Son, & Spirit, or can we get by with a monad or a binity?

Since I have a full review of Leithart’s work coming at another publication, I’ll simply conclude by saying that it’s Leithart’s ability to ask these sorts of penetrating questions that makes Delivered from the Elements such a stimulating and wide-ranging read. Well worth the time of any serious student of atonement theology.

Soli Deo Gloria