Theology, Social Order, & the Reformed Tradition

If it were not for James B. Jordan and his compadres I perhaps would have never decided to seek ordination in the Reformed church, and it is he (and others such as Peter Leithart and Jeff Meyers) who have provided the theological encouragement to keep  me in the PCA.

This excerpt from Jordan is the kind of thing I’m talking about (note especially the part on Descartes versus Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy near the end):

When Calvin did theology, his fundamental concern was with social order and the restoration of social order: the order between the triune God and human society, between people and people, etc. (See Benjamin Charles Milner, Jr., Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church. Studies in the History of Christian Thought 5 [Leiden: Brill, 1970].) Nor is this concern with order unique to Calvin’ s overall theological approach. It was a characteristic of all Renaissance-period thinkers, and indeed had been how theology was done from the time of Irenaeus forward, including Eusebius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and all the Reformers. All were concerned with Jesus Christ’s restoration of order to all of life. The notion that Jesus came only to cherry-pick a few individuals out of the world and put them in a basket, leaving the rest of the world to flames, would have appalled them.

Doing theology in a context of social thought and with a concern for social order did not stop with the Reformation. The men at the Westminster Assembly were concerned with the same matters. After all, they met during the English Civil War, a time when they were trying to reorder all of society. Samuel Rutherford’ s political treatise Lex, Rex; or The Law and the Ruler begins in its opening paragraph by referring to a whole list of Roman Catholic writers who were also wrestling with the same issues. I mention this because one objection to “ Federal Vision” writers is that they dare to read Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox theologians and thinkers! Anyway, one need only read the literature of the Presbyterians and Puritans in England and New England to realize that they did theology in a context of postmillennial expectations and of concern with society….

Individualism as a perspective has been developing in Western thought for a number of centuries. When Descartes says, “ I can doubt that I exist, therefore I exist,”he reduces everything to the individual. When Rosenstock-Huessy counters, “ Others speak to me, and that’s how I know I exist,” he is rejecting that individualism in favor of a Christian view of reality. But Descartes is still more with us than is Rosenstock-Huessy, and so is individualism.  –  James B. Jordan, Biblical Horizons 194 (May 2007).


Deciding Not to Ruin the Story

Sometimes I think that the word "sin" is an unfortunate word in our day and age. Not an unfortunate concept, rightly understood and articulated, but it just so often seems to throw people (especially non "churchy" people) for a loop, to raise more preliminary objections than it seems to be worth.

Be that as it may, here is the best reason I know of to be faithful to Jesus in one’s own personal walk as a disciple: sin ruins the story. It messes up the story, the drama, the narrative tension, of one’s own life. Every good story relies on, lives on, tension and conflict. This is, or can be, seen as the narrative tension of the individual Christian life.

Whether your issues are food related, or sex related, or pride related, or whatever, when you resist that initial urge to indulge in "the lust of the flesh" (Gal 5:16-24; I Jn 2:16-17) what you are really doing is living into the narrative tension, continuing and developing the plot, of the Christian drama, the Christian life. Without that tension, the story is (temporarily, by God’s grace) ruined.

When a compulsive binger gives into the urge to escape her problems (stress, shame, fear) with food, it has a deadly effect. But not (for me, at least) primarily in some sense of ultimate soteriology. Rather, in the sense that there is now no drama. The suspense has been destroyed.

The open-ended adventure of banking everything on God’s faithfulness has now been shortchanged, and the result, finally, is boredom. Let-down. Nihilism.

I say, damn that. I say, let us, let me, put all of my eggs in Christ’s basket, and continually bank on him, trusting him to complete the good work he began in me. Trusting that he will, based on his promises to me, finish the story, bring it to its utlimate climax (not a fake, self-manipulated climax), one that only he can imagine and bring about.

Then, and only then, can others be brought into the good, true, and beautiful story of the Christian life.


Athanasius, Neoplatonism, & _Opera ad Extra Trinitatis_

I remember well at Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1990’s Professor Sinclair Ferguson expounding the doctrine that the external works of the Trinity are undivided (in Latin, _Opera ad extra trinitatis indivisa sunt_) in our Doctrine of God class.

What I did not know then is that this doctrine, first articulated by Athanasius in his opposition to a party in Serapion’s diocese in Egypt which denied the deity of the Holy Spirit, forms part of a larger argument which relies on a philosophical presupposition of neoplatonism.

That philosophical idea is that energeia (in the latin phrase above this word is translated in the plural as opera) is revelatory of ousia or essence. This philosophical development was worked out (building on the work of Aristotle, who coined the term energeia) in the thought of such neoplatonists as Philo, Porphery, Galen, and Iamblichus. (David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West, 155)

Athanasius’ argument is basically that since in Scripture God’s external acts are always accomplished by all three persons of the Trinity at the same time, and since we know that this kind of “external act” (i.e., within the tradition of neoplatonist Christianity, energeia) reveals an “inner” (“inner” here simply means non-revealed, or independent of revelation) essence, we see that, in his very essence, God (who is Trinity) is one. Thus, the Holy Spirit must be divine.


Palamas & God’s “Acts of Self-manifestation”

In his Aristotle East and West, David Bradshaw writes, “One way to look at Palamas is as inviting us to reconceive what have traditionally been regarded as distinct categories — the eternal, necessary divine attributes [on the one hand], and contingent, temporal divine divine activities [on the other hand] — as species within a broader genus, that of acts of self-manifestation.” (274)

The context here is that, for Palamas (and Dionysius?) God’s energies are eternal acts of self-manifestation on the part of God that “happen” “within” the Holy Trinity “before creation,” and ad extra trinitatis after creation.

Becuase God’s energies also encompasses inner-Trinitarian manifestation(s) (which, again, along with “contingent, temporal activities” [274] fall under an overarching genus) it is not necessarily the case that the eternality of God’s energeiai implicate Palamas as affirming “a kind of organic unity with the creation” (as Rowan Williams accuses him of  in his 1977 article “The Philosophical Structures of Palamism”).

The EO (Eastern Orthodox) view of the divine energies doesn’t implicate EO in pantheism. To say that it does is to fail to appreciate the “pre-creational,” inner-Trinitarian character / aspect of the divine energies.

In this passage in his book Bradshaw goes on to say, “It is interesting in this connection that at least some divine attributes, such as truth and righteousness, are spoken of in Scripture as activities to be performed.” He then lists a footnote with several Bible verses, both NT and OT.


Ferguson’s Critique of the New Perspective

Over a year ago now, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson provided a critique of the so-called "New Perspective on Paul:

1. It tends to argue against "straw men." EP Sanders discounts ancient preaching (failing to realize that preaching is highly indicative of one’s thelogy), especially when it counters his thesis. Ferguson sees Chaim Potok’s novels as providing an example of how "deeply orthodox Jews" do take ergov nomou as being expressed in personal righteousness. Here grace is expressed in the first person (ie, "we") and not the third person (ie, "God"). There is a similar dynamic, Ferguson says, in the NT (and the OT) when "grace is no longer grace." The Reformers never attack the Roman church for being Pelagian ("We are saved by our works") but for being semi-Pelagian ("God’s grace has come to us because we have done our dead-level best in our attempts to be righteous.") Modern orthodox Judaism is like this, and modern orthodox Judaism is also like first century Judaism in this regard. [Weak point overall, partly b/c SF is not doing any exegesis here but drawing on a couple of highly questionable analogies (b/t modern & ancient judaism, and b/t modern Judaism & 16th century Roman Catholics).]

2. Teaching that Paul is without pre-conversion guilt is an exegetical mistake. It is perspicuous, on even a surface level reading of Phil 3 that Paul is not saying he was blameless before his conversion, but rather that he was in the same position as the rich young ruler (a self-righteous prig to whom it is impossible to imagine Jesus’ heart going out, as it does to others in the Gospel narratives) of Jesus’ parable in Lk 15. [Weak point.] In Wright’s exposition of Rom 7, it is not referring to Paul at all, but rather to Israel. In this way background becomes foreground. [Strong point.]

3. It is wrong to see Romans exclusively as a kind of theodicy as opposed to an exposition of salvation. [Weak point: NTW does not limit Romans to dealing with Israel’s problem; also, there is a semantic disagreement going on here precisely on the meaning of the word "salvation:" SF is taking it to be something individual, and, again, soteriological, whereas NTW is going to see it as much bigger than that: having to do with Israel, the church, and the world. The question which SF begs is precisely: What is "salvation?" What does it mean?]

4. "Works of the law" cannot be reduced simply or in all instances to the boundary markers of kosher, circumcision, and sabbath. [Not sure what to think of this. Frankly, I don’t think that NTW wants simply to reduce them down to that. Rather, for him they are telling or indicative of the redemptive-historical shift (fulfilment) that has occurred in the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom. Also he would say that one cannot separate the vertical from the horizontal, so that boundary markers (a "horizontal" thing) are actually extremely relevant to our relationship with God (a "vertical" thing). I would add that the ability to hold the "horizontal" and the "vertical" together in the way in which an orthodox version of the new perspective holds them together does require a fundamental commitment to sacramentality, in which the "phenomenological" or material world (human bodies, wine, bread, etc.) communicates the divine.]

5. Justification cannot be "transformed into ecclesiology." In Paul’s mind the main problem is not exclusion from the community but rather exclusion from God as a result of his wrath. (See CH Dodd on the wrath of God.) [The point about God’s wrath might be a strong point. Regarding justification as being about ecclesiology and not soteriology, I actually tend to see all of theology as being under ecclesiology, not just justification or even just soteriology.]

6. The new perspective is naive with respect to the history of theology. It is somehow telling that the NPP emerged from within the academy and not from within the church, "where the key issue is: ‘how are we to be saved from the wrath of God?’" [seems like he is repeating a previous point here about the wrath of God, and not really showing how NPP is naive w.r.t. the history of theology.]


Jansenism & Marxism; de Lubac & Zizek

“The first section [of de Lubac’s book Catholicisme on the “social” aspect of catholicism] develops the    idea of total solidarity: … since the God of creation and the God of redemption are one and the same, since mankind as created forms a unity as well, God’s intention of the redemption of the world in Christ can once again intend mankind only as a whole. (This position stands against any Jansenistic restriction of redemption to “the elect,” as well as every form of individualism in the matter of salvation. If the church had consistently avoided this stance, Marxism would probably have been superfluous.) Here, as in all succeeding chapters, a superabundance of texts from the great tradition is brought to bear in confirmation.” Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac 36.

One fascinating connection here is with Slajov Zizek, and his contention, as expressed in his The Fragile Absolute, that in today’s world Christianity and Marxism should be fighting shoulder to shoulder. Certainly I’m not endorsing that view right now, but seeing the connections b/t Marxism and Christianity has great value, if only for the purposes of understanding our world today (and how it came to be the way it is).