Monday, September 4, 2017

Against Theological Minimalism

Modern Christians like to clearly distinguish between "nonessential" and "salvation" issues. Certainly this dichotomy does exist. Divisions in the Church grieve our Lord (John 17:11). Still, the tendency of minimizing the importance of some issues can be described as "theological minimalism." Maybe some issues aren't essential but they are important.

There are great Christians who are Calvinists and great Christians who are Arminians. There are great Christians who practice paedobaptism and great Christians who practice credobaptism. Yet these are mutually exclusive positions that cannot be simultaneously correct. Theological minimalism is the inclination to paper over these discussions as "nonessential" issues. The question then becomes which is our priority: unity or truth? The answer has to be truth because without it, we only risk "unifying" around falsity.

All truth flows out of God. As a result, one of the main goals for Christians is to pursue that truth with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. Theological minimalism dilutes our theology by creating a hierarchy of "important issues" versus "non important issues," ignoring the fact that all theology is interconnected. For example, one would be hard pressed to divorce their ecclesiology and sacramentology. All these issues reflect fundamental convictions about the nature of reality.

So in the end, we shouldn't be so eager for unity that we downplay the vitality of truth. More than that even, we should oppose any sort of theological minimalism that tells us these are unimportant discussions.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Making Nothing Into Words": Perelandra's Anticipation of Progressive Theology and the Loss of Meaning

C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was recently used to defend Eugene Peterson's recent public discussion of openness to performing LGBT weddings (which has subsequently been retracted). As a giant of the faith, C.S. Lewis is claimed by both liberal and conservative Christians as a champion of their ideals, much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis.

This raises an interesting question: would Lewis' underlying philosophy and theology allow him to travel the same road as former conservatives who become leaders of Christian progressivism like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns, etc.?

Anyone familiar with Lewis' grounded classical worldview would, in fact, see him as mutually exclusive with the progressive mentality in general though there are certainly some issues where he could most likely find some common ground. However, in Perelandra, the second installment of his Space Trilogy, he provides an explicit warning against progressive thinking in the character of Weston.

According to apologist Alisa Childers, there are five symptoms of progressivism in theology: a lowered view of the Bible, emphasizing feelings over facts, essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation, historic terms are redefined, and there is a paradigm shift from sin and repentance to social justice.
All of these markers appear in Weston's character in Perelandra which is the second installment of The Space Trilogy. In it, the main character, Ransom, is taken to the newly inhabited edenic world of Perelandra (what we call Venus). He is tasked with preventing Weston, the returning nemesis from the first book Out of the Silent Planet, from perverting this new world by causing a "fall."

In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston espouses a kind of vulgar and transparently bombastic modernity that is intent on exploiting Malacandra for the progress and preservation of humanity, ignoring its hnau, sentient and conscious lifeforms that, while not human are persons:  
"To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science,     medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower."
He exemplifies the utilitarian secular scientific progressivism so prevalent before the violence of the 20th century. 

However, there is a switch in Weston’s ideology between the first book of the Space Trilogy and the second. See how Weston explains his new-fangled philosophy to Ransom:
    
“all my life I had been making a wholly unscientific dichotomy or antithesis between And and Nature—had conceived myself fighting for Man against his non-human environment…I had been content to regard Life as a subject outside my scope. The conflicting views of those who drew a sharp line between the organic and the inorganic and those who held that what we call Life was inherent in matter from the very beginning had not interested me. Now it did. I saw almost at once that I could admit no break, no discontinuity in the unfolding of the cosmic process. I became a convinced believer in emergent evolution. All is one. The stuff of mind, the unconsciously purposive dynamism, is present from the very beginning…The majestic spectacle of this blind, inarticulate purposiveness thrusting its way upward and ever upward in an endless unity of differential achievements towards an ever-increasing complexity of organization, towards spontaneity and spirituality, swept away all my old conception of a duty to Man as such. Man in himself is nothing. The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything. I say to you quite freely, Ransom, that I should have been wrong in liquidating the Malacandrians. It was a mere prejudice that made me prefer our own race to theirs. To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission. This sets the coping-stone on my career. I worked first for myself, then for science; then for humanity; but now at last for Spirit itself—I might say, borrowing language which will be more familiar to you, the Holy Spirit…I mean that nothing now divides you and me except a few outworn theological technicalities with which organized religion has unhappily allowed itself to get incrusted. But I have penetrated that crust. The Meaning beneath it is as true and living as ever. If you will excuse me for putting it that way, the essential truth of the religious view of life finds a remarkable witness in the fact that it enabled you, on Malacandra, to grasp, in your own mythical and imaginative fashion, a truth which was hidden from me…I have no doubt that my phraseology will seem strange to you, and perhaps even shocking. Early and revered associations may have put it out of your power to recognize in this new form the very same truths which religion has so long preserved and which science is now at last re-discovering. But whether you can see it or not, believe me, we are talking about exactly the same thing.” 

Also, when Ransom brings up the difference between God and the Devil, Weston simultaneously decries and redefines dichotomous thinking: 

“Now your mentioning the Devil is very interesting. It is a most interesting thing in popular religion, this tendency to fissiparate, to breed pairs of opposites: heaven and hell, God and Devil. I need hardly say that in my view no real dualism in the universe is admissible; and on that ground I should have been disposed, even a few weeks ago ,to reject these paris of doublets as pure mythology. it would have been a profound error. The cause of this universal religious tendency is to be sought much deeper. The doublets are really portraits Spirit, of cosmic energy—self-portraits, indeed, for it is the Life-Force itself which has deposited them in our brains…Your Devil and your God are both pictures of the same Force. your heaven is a picture of the perfect spirituality ahead; your hell a picture of the urge which is driving us on to it from behind. Hence the static peace of the one and the fire and darkness of the other.  The next stage of emergent evolution, becoming us forward, is God; the transcended stage behind, ejecting us, is the Devil.”

So what parallels exist between Weston’s thinking and the definition of progressive theology? All five standards are present but some are more prevalent than others. One can certainly see a lowering of the Bible in Weston’s train of thought even though he never explicitly claims it. However, if you really read what it is he’s arguing for, there’s no way to reconcile it with the Scriptures unless you begin to play fast and loose with them. He doesn’t discuss feelings and facts though his argument is more contingent on a kind of sophistry that has to twist Reason to be effective. There’s no discussion of social justice per se either. The strongest parallels between Weston and progressives lies in the fact that essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation and historic terms are redefined. 

For example, take Weston’s definition of the Holy Spirit juxtaposed against an orthodox understanding of him. To Weston, the Spirit is, "The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything.” There’s no real creature/creator distinction. Everything is the Spirit and the Spirit is everything. It’s the forward movement of Life, the catalyst for progress and progress itself. Of course, this is just a misappropriation of the classical Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity who is, according to the Nicene Creed, “The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeded from the Father [and the Son]; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets.” There’s also a redefinition of heaven and hell. Heaven is a vision of progress. Hell is the driving force. God and Satan being to look scarily alike


The point is this: orthodox theology recognizes the objectivity of Truth. It sees Truth as engrained into the very fabric of reality. It comes from God and points us back to God. In Progressive theology, there is a redefinition of these truths. It becomes nominalist. Those words laden with meaning for the historic Church become placeholders for trendy fads and ideas. Theology is not a way to relate to God so much as a way to individually and culturally construct the world. When the very core of our beliefs become subject to constant revisionism, there is a serious loss of meaning. Ransom diagnoses the problem with Weston (and with progressive theology in general, one might add): “You had nothing to say about it and yet made the nothing up into words.” 

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Double Bind for Determinists: Escaping Piper's Theodicy

There are some tough passages in the Old Testament. A good example is Joshua 8:16-25 (NRSV):
So all the people who were in the city were called together to pursue them, and as they pursued Joshua they were drawn away from the city. There was not a man left in Ai or Bethel who did not go out after Israel; they left the city open, and pursued Israel.
Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Stretch out the sword that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand.” And Joshua stretched out the sword that was in his hand toward the city. As soon as he stretched out his hand, the troops in ambush rose quickly out of their place and rushed forward. They entered the city, took it, and at once set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, the smoke of the city was rising to the sky. They had no power to flee this way or that, for the people who fled to the wilderness turned back against the pursuers. When Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that the smoke of the city was rising, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. And the others came out from the city against them; so they were surrounded by Israelites, some on one side, and some on the other; and Israel struck them down until no one was left who survived or escaped. But the king of Ai was taken alive and brought to Joshua.
When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them, and when all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and attacked it with the edge of the sword. The total of those who fell that day, both men and women, was twelve thousand—all the people of Ai.
 Christians have been wrestling with these passages and the tension they create with some of Jesus' teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Some Christians, like Peter Enns, have straight up denied the historicity of these conquest accounts and made claims that Israel was merely projecting these commands onto God. Others, like Greg Boyd, have taken a "missionary God" approach paired with a "cruciform" hermeneutic that subverts violent imagery in the Old Testament through the cross (sort of a Barthian reading on steroids).

While both those attempts are severely lacking, deterministic theologian John Piper has an interesting way to handle this issue that may fail harder than the other two: 
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
To a determinist, whatever happens occurs because God willed it to be so. The problem is that there is no real stable basis for the categories "good" and "bad" (a critique I have made elsewhere).  On that basis alone, Piper's theology is problematic. However, this specific issue creates a double bind in which this lack of coherence in the nature of God is only one of the potential failures of his system.

In order to understand the problems, first, let's take a look at some of the surrounding facts of the conquest narratives:
  • God sends signs and plagues ahead of Israel to drive the pagans out of the land (Exodus 23). 
  • The rhetoric in most of the promises pertaining to the conquest seems more concerned with driving the other nations out of the land rather than extermination.
  • Rahab clearly responds to the revelation of God through his actions (Josh 2:11). 
True to his nature, God communicates to the pagan nations and gives them plenty of time to turn from their wicked ways. Of course, if you keep reading into the book of Joshua, it becomes evident that the people in the land did not listen to God and experienced his judgment as a result.

So here's the double bind. First, if Piper is right and God's eternal will before the foundation of the world was to "slaughter" the occupants of the land, he risks failing the Euthyphro dilemma because God willing mass killing is arbitrary. To reconcile this, one has to create an extra-biblical "hidden will" of God which can contradict his revealed will.

Second, if one avoids the arbitrariness argument, then it raises some issues for a doctrine like irresistible grace. God communicates to the people of the land through a series of warnings, expressing his desire that they need not be killed. The people fail to respond, however, creating serious cognitive dissonance.

If you're interested in getting a good answer to many of the problematic passages in the Old Testament, a good place to start might be Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan's book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God. There's lots of good Christian responses to these issues. Don't fall into the Piper (or Enns or Boyd) trap.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Prevenient Grace According to Leo the Great

I have been discussing the concept of prevenient grace some on this blog. As a reminder, prevenient grace in non-Calvinistic soteriological systems is how God initiates relationship with humans. He enables them to accept his gift of salvation. One of the arguments levied against those who advocate prevenient grace is that it is unbiblical and a late invention. While the biblical debate is an important one, it is also important to establish a catholic foundation for prevenient grace through the writings of the Church Fathers. Today, we will look at an example of prevenient grace in a sermon by Leo the Great.

St. Leo the Great (400-461) was the Bishop of Rome. One of his major accomplishments was dissuading Atilla the Hun from invading Italy. He is also considered by Roman Catholics to be a Doctor of the Church and was an important rhetorical combatant against a number of heretics.

In his Sermon 22.5, he discusses the benefits of the Incarnation and Atonement for the Christian. Here is what he says (emphasis added):
Whoever you are, if you devoutly and faithfully boast in the name of Christian, value this atonement rightly. You were a castaway, banished from the realms of paradise, dying of your weary exile, reduced to dust and ashes, with no more hope of living. But by the incarnation of the Word, you were given power to return from far away to your Maker, to recognize your parentage, to be free when you had been a slave, to be promoted from an outcast to a son. Now you, who were born of the flesh, may be reborn by the Spirit of God. You may gain by grace what you did not have by nature, and--if you acknowledge yourself as the child of God by the spirit of adoption--you may dare to call God Father.
Leo sees that Christ's Incarnation and death provides the means for God to make the first move towards us. Yet, according to Leo, this is a possibility, not an inevitable reality. One may not accept the gift but God gives us the ability to.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Bite Size Aquinas: Question 1-The Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine; Article 6

Article 6: Whether This Doctrine is the Same as Wisdom?

So to the sixth question it proceeds. It is evident that this Doctrine is not Wisdom. Truly, no doctrine which adds to its principles from another science is worthy of the name Wisdom, "he who is wise directs, and is not directed" (I, Metaphysics). But this doctrine adds to its principles. Therefore, this doctrine is not Wisdom.

In addition to that, Wisdom extends to test the principles of other sciences whence it is spoken of as the head of sciences, as is clear in Ethics VI. But this Doctrine is not tested by the principles of other sciences. Therefore, it is not Wisdom. Moreover, this Doctrine is acquired through study, however Wisdom is to be had through infusion. It is counted as a gift of the Holy Spirit, as is clear in Isaiah 11. Therefore, this doctrine is not Wisdom.

But on the contrary, it is said in Deuteronomy 4:6, the original law, "This is your wisdom and understanding publicly for the nations."

I respond saying that this Doctrine is chiefly Wisdom above all human wisdom, indeed not in any type only, but simply. Truly, the Wise person is to order and to judge, however, inferior matters should be judged through a higher principle; anyone is said to be Wise who considers the highest principle in that order. Just as in building, he who arranges the shape of the house is called Wise and architect as opposed to the inferior builders who plane the wood and arrange the stones, whence it is said in 1 Corinthians 3:10, "as the wise builder I have laid the foundation." And again, in the order of all human life, the prudent man is said to be wise in as much as he orders his actions to a fitting end, whence is it said in Proverbs 10:23, "Wisdom is prudence to a man." Therefore, He who considers Himself the highest cause in the whole universe, that is God, is the most Wise. Whence Wisdom is said to be knowledge of the divine, just as Augustine makes clear in de Trinitate XII. However, Sacred Doctrine particularly treats of God that He is the highest cause, not only so far as He can be recognizable through creatures as philosophers recognized Him, "That which is known of God is manifest in them" (Rom 1:19), but truly as much as He is know to Himself solely and through the revelation communicated to others. Whence Sacred Doctrine is the most Wise science.

To the second objection it is said that either the principles of other sciences are noted by themselves and are not able to be tested or they are tested by natural reason through the means of some other sciences. However, the knowledge owned by this science is known by the means of revelation, not, however, by means of natural reason. Therefore, it does not extent to prove those principles of other sciences but only to judge them. Truly, whatever is found is found in other sciences contrary to the truth of this science is condemned as wholly false, whence it is said in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, "Destroying plans and all heights that exalts itself against the knowledge of God."

To the third objection it is said that since judgment extends to Wisdom, the twofold mode of judges creates a twofold Wisdom. Truly, anyone may judge by one mode through the means of inclination, just as whoever has the habit of virtue judges those things which concern virtue. Hence, it is the virtuous man, as it is said in Ethics X, that is the measure and rule of human acts. In another mode, by means of knowledge, just as whoever has been taught in moral science may be able to judge concerning moral actions even though he does not have virtue. Consequently, the first mode of judgment concerning divine things extends to Wisdom which is given by the Holy Spirit, according to 1 Corinthians 2:15, "The spiritual man judges all things." And Dionysius says in Div. Nom. II, "Hierotheus ["sanctification by God] is taught not by mere learning, but by experience of divine things." However, the second mode of judging extends to this doctrine which is acquired by study though its principles are had by revelation.