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“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”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

Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Historical Penal Substitutionary Atonement

pannenberg volume 2Wolfhart Pannenberg is known for many elements of his theology—eschatology, history, the resurrection, the Trinity—but I rarely see him brought up in discussions of the atonement. This is a shame, because as Peter Leithart recently reminds us, in both his classic Jesus-God and Man and his magnum opus, three-volume Systematic Theology Pannenberg has one of the most helpful treatments of recent times.

I can’t go into all the details, but I simply wanted to highlight a few of the key, brief points, skipping and condensing a large amount of careful material.

First, Pannenberg tries to make sense of the extensive New Testament (especially Pauline) witness about Jesus death being “for us” in an expiatory sense as an interpretation of Jesus’ history. In other words, he tries to trace out the logic of the apostles as they reflected on the history, acts, and words of Jesus to make sense of the death of Jesus as happening “for us.”

Second, the resurrection is actually a key part of that logic. Aside from the strong emphasis on eschatology and resurrection Pannenberg develops in general, he sees it as crucial to the recognition that Jesus’ death happened for us.

If we follow the Gospel accounts, we recognize that Jesus was accused by the priests and teachers of the Law on the basis of the Law. In their eyes, Jesus was a blasphemer and the rebellious son who was trying to lead Israel astray and so they prosecuted him (and with the Romans) executed him accordingly.

But “the resurrection reveals that Jesus died as a righteous man, not as a blasphemer” (JesusGod and Man, 290). The resurrection, for Pannenberg, proves what the apostles testified to over and over again, that Jesus knew no sin—for God would not resurrect him if he had any of his own sin to die for.

Given this resurrection, we realize that Jesus’ claims about his relationship with the Father are vindicated. In which case, “those who rejected him as a blasphemer and had complicity in his death are the real blasphemers. His judges rightly deserved the punishment that he received. Thus he bore their punishment” (ibid). Or again: “The Easter reversal of the significance of the events that had led to the crucifixion of Jesus shows that Jesus literally died in the place of those who condemned him” (Systematic Theology, Volume 2,  425).

One may even want to strengthen this by appealing to the Law which states that false witnesses are to suffer the judgment which they meant to fall upon the innocent they had accused maliciously (Deut. 19:16-21).

Third, Pannenberg highlights the representative dimension to this death. In their condemnation, the Jewish leadership did not merely act as a collection of individuals. They acted on behalf of their nation and as such, the nation condemned this true Israelite as a blasphemer. Jesus dies in place, not only of the leadership as such, but for Israel as a whole.

Pannenberg connects this to Paul’s statements in Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:3, which only make sense in connection to Jesus’ condemnation under the Law:

As Paul saw it, God himself by means of the human judges not only made Jesus to be sin but also had him bear in our place (and not merely in that of his Jewish judges or the whole Jewish people) the penalty that is the proper penalty of sin because it follows from its inner nature, i.e. the penalty of death as the consequence of separation from God. (Systematic Theology, Volume 2,  426).

Jesus’ death bears the character of the natural, non-arbitrary, and just penalty and consequence of sin—separation from God.

But as highlighted by this quote, Pannenberg sees Christ’s death not only as occurring for Israel, but also for the Gentiles. He was handed over to the Gentiles. “Roman participation in the events leading to the crucifixion was perhaps the occasion for extending the understanding of the death of Jesus as expiation to the Gentile world represented by Rome” (ibid. 426). Pilate’s death was not merely an irresponsible act of judgment, but one that involved the collision of human kingdoms with God’s eschatological representative.

What’s more, from another angle, Pannenberg notes the representative character Israel and her Law bore in relation to the nations beyond its borders. Israel is a representative nation and her Law testified not only the particular covenant relationship of God with Israel, but of the moral relationship of the whole world to its Creator. All had fallen under the predicament of death as penalty for sin and Israel represented the world in this. And so, in this way Jesus truly did die “for all” (2 Cor. 5:14), “thereby effecting representation in the concrete form of a change of place between the innocent and the guilty” (ibid. 427).

Fourth, it must be noted that for Pannenberg, the “substitution” in question is not an “exclusive” one, but “inclusive.” Jesus death is, in a very real sense, for us and in our place. We don’t die that death on the cross, he does: “only he died completely forsaken” (Jesus-God and Man, 296). All the same, his death does not exclude our own or mean that we ourselves do not die. Rather, it means that by faith we are included in his death—our deaths are linked with his in such a way that he dies our death for us. In which case, our death no longer means exclusion from the presence of God, but contains the hope of resurrection life which is worked out even now in a life of righteousness (Rom. 6:13).

Each of these points can and should be worked out at length. What’s more, many of the fine-grained discussions of historical theology, Old Testament sacrificial texts, and so forth, which Pannenberg masterfully engages with remain unaddressed. All the same, it should become clear that for Pannenberg, penal substitution is no abstract doctrine disconnected from the history of Jesus, or his resurrection, but as Leithart comments, it’s a plot summary of the hinge events of the Gospels.

Hopefully this whets your appetite to dig into Pannenberg yourself. For all of Pannenberg’s oddities, its a nuanced, robust, orthodox presentation of Christ’s work of reconciliation that might spare us some of the worst mistakes made in popular preaching today.

Even more importantly, it should serve as a reminder that our doctrines are not abstractions floating free from time and space, but rather they serve us best as hermeneutical keys enabling us to understand more fully what the God who does exist beyond time and space has accomplished for us and our salvation through Christ in the midst of history.

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