Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Excepts from Athanasius on the Incarnation

For Christmas this year, rather than putting up more thoughts of my own, I'll leave you with a few passages from Athanasius' On the Incarnation, a relatively short but very important work expressing the Orthodox theology of the Incarnation.
He, the mighty one, the artificer of all, himself prepared his body in the virgin as a temple for himself, and took it for his very own, as the instrument through which he was known and in which he dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, he surrendered his body to death instead of all, and offered it to the father. This he did out of sheer love for us, so that in his death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in his body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This he did that he might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of his body and by the grace of his resurrection. Thus he would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire. (8)
As, then, he who desires to see God who by nature is invisible and not to be beheld, may yet perceive and know him through his works, so too let him who does not see Christ with his understanding at least consider him in his bodily works and test whether they be of man or of God. If they be of man, then let him scoff; but if they be of God, let him not mock things which are no fit subject for scorn, but rather let him recognize the fact and marvel that things divine have been revealed to us by such humble means, that through death deathlessness has been made known to us, and through the incarnation of the word the mind whence all things proceed has been declared, and its agent  and ordainer, the word of God himself.

He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become god. He manifested himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality. He himself was unhurt by this, for he is impassable and uncorruptible, but by his own impassability he kept and healed the suffering men on whose account he thus endured . In short, such and so many are the Savior's achievements that follow from his incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one's eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one's senses. Even so, when one wants to take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, one cannot do so, even by reckoning them up, for the things that transcend one's thought are always more than those one thinks that one has grasped. (54)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Is Theology a Science?

The following is the final paper for my theological prolegomena (Greek word meaning "things spoken before" or "preliminary matters") class, and the reason my blog has been so quiet lately. I was supposed to take it in late Spring but finished it recently because I was in Europe during the time it was originally offered.

A frequent topic of discussion among Christians is the relationship between science and theology. Usually by this people mean the question of how (if at all) the teachings of theology are to be brought into conversation with the findings of science, and whether they are ultimately in conflict or harmony. But they are also conversant on a deeper, methodological level. In this case the question to be asked is, is theology a science? If so, in what sense or to what degree? More generally, how are "objective" and "subjective" factors related in theological method?

Obviously, thinking about theology as a science has important ramifications for theological method and thus for the resulting conclusions reached, as can be readily seen by contrasting the methods of Hodge (who considered theology a science[1]) and Schleiermacher (who centered theology around religious experience and the feeling of absolute dependence on God rather than reason[2]). More personally, my experience with theology is often, frustratingly, one of beginning with theory and attempting to advance to practice. I suspect that this challenge is not unique to me, and I wonder if it arises from an improper understanding of the methodological connection between science and theology. As well, the challenges to "objective" theology posed by pluralism and postmodernism make wise answers to these questions important for the church, to avoid either uncritically embracing subjectivity or overreacting against it.

As previously mentioned, Charles Hodge considered theology a science, drawing numerous methodological parallels between the fields. Just as nature provides raw data that science systematizes into knowledge, so Scripture contains "isolated facts" to be systematized into theological knowledge: "The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches."[3] He considered this "inductive" method, proceeding from the facts in Scripture, to be a middle ground between strictly rational "speculative" theology and purely subjective "mystical" theology.[4] Millard Erickson also considers theology a science, though in a somewhat more balanced and qualified fashion than Hodge, since it seeks to gain objective, coherent knowledge about its subject (God's revelation of himself) using a definite, verifiable methodology that has some common ground with that of other sciences, with which it also shares certain subject matter. Theology differs from science, he says, in that it has unique data (divinely revealed Scripture), deals with unique subjects, and deals with shared subjects like humanity in a unique way or in a unique frame of reference, in their relation to God.[5] Wolfhart Pannenberg also considered theology a science, drawing several parallels in their respective methodologies.[6] David Clark sees theology as sapientia (wisdom) as well as scientia (knowledge)[7] and believes theology should move toward a sort of "chastened objectivity" that acknowledges the potential for bias but affirms that theological realities outside ourselves are knowable.[8]

Other modern theologians would probably not consider theology a science. As mentioned, Friedrich Schleiermacher, a European contemporary of Hodge, viewed theology in more subjective terms, focusing on Christian experience and the "religious affections".[9] Concerned that conventional, dogmatic Christianity was withering in the face of modern skepticism, Schleiermacher sought to recenter authentic Christian religion in the heart rather than written revelation.[10] Scheiermacher instead believed that gefühl, a deep inner awareness of one's own smallness and absolute dependence on God, was basic to human nature and the true basis of religion. He was willing to waive "all claims to anything belonging to the two domains of science and morality" in order to free Christianity from the advances of science and philosophical ethics.[11] Somewhat similarly, those in the post-evangelical emerging church movement seek to move Christianity from reading Scripture in order to build systems of propositional theology (Hodge's method) to reading it more as an open-ended conversation with an eye for Christlike living rather than doctrinal precision. Brian McLaren, the closest thing to a leader the movement has, discourages reading the Bible as a constitution and instead suggests treating it as "portable library of an ongoing conversation about and with the living God."[12]

It is my belief that simply answering these pressing questions of method is not enough. The real challenge is to get over the need to ask them. This is because they reflect four shifts in thinking away from that of the early church: first, a perceived dichotomy between "objectivity" and "subjectivity"; second, a similar dichotomy between faith and reason; third, a focus on the pursuit of knowledge (however that knowledge is understood) in theology; and fourth, a tendency to consider propositions to be the primary (or only) bearers of theological truth.

The contrast in these four areas between early and modern Christianity can be seen by examining the methodologies of early Christian theologians. For ancient Christian interpreters, the goal of biblical interpretation was far more than discerning the facts of Scripture and systematizing them into doctrine, as Hodge sought to do. This was in large part because they did not view the literal (intended by the author) sense of Scripture as its only meaning, or even the most important.[13] Because the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit, it was thought, they had a higher, "spiritual" meaning, which was not found by following correct hermeneutical methodology but by receiving divine illumination by the Spirit.[14] The literal sense of Scripture is available through sound exegesis with the proper tools and training, but the literal sense alone was not enough. "In the experience of the Church Fathers, God reveals himself most fully, not through rational analysis of the scriptural texts, but through prayer that occurs in the depths of the heart."[15] They relied on the Spirit to bring the Word of God (identified with the Son of God, not just the written Scripture) to life in the contemporary Church, to give them the love for the truth that is just as necessary for sound interpretation as correct exegesis. John Breck summarizes this approach: "The only way we can 'know the Truth' is to seek it, to love it, and to live as thoroughly and faithfully as we can in conformity to it."[16] It is very hard to categorize such an approach to Scripture and theology as either "objective" (much less "scientific") or "subjective".

The early church also saw no disjunction between reason and faith as modern people are apt to do. The ancient Christian view of the human constitution was centered around the heart, "the root of the 'active' faculties, of the intellect and of the will, and the point from which the whole of the spiritual life proceeds and upon which it converges."[17] Truth, then, was something humans interacted with holistically; it was practiced as much as it was believed.[18] The fourth-century bishop and renowned preacher John Chrysostom said that "Virtue is really true, vice is falsehood."[19] Scripture as the word of God was inextricably associated with the person of Christ, the Word of God (Jhn 1:1): "To the Church Fathers ... 'the Word of God' refers in the first place to the eternal Logos, the God-Man who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth."[20] Truth was fundamentally personal as well as propositional. (Though this led to none of the relativism that we usually expect to follow this kind of rhetoric today)

One other component of early Christian theology that is largely forgotten in western Christianity is apophatic (or negative) theology. Apophatic theology (as opposed to cataphatic or positive theology) affirmed God's total transcendence of created being by acknowledging that though we can gain positive knowledge about God through his self-revelation, all positive statements and knowledge fall short of describing God as he truly is; the truest words about God must be statements of what he is not. For Basil the Great, this applied to God's works as well as God himself: "There will always remain an 'irrational residue' which escapes analysis and which cannot be expressed in concepts; it is the unknowable depth of things which constitutes their true, indefinable essence."[21] His brother Gregory of Nyssa said, "It is difficult to conceive God, but to define Him in words is impossible."[22] The apophatic approach can't constitute the whole of Christian theology, for this would amount to a denial of God's revelation and an embrace of pious ignorance, but it is a valuable corrective to a concept of theology as strictly "knowledge".

These few data points from the theological assumptions of the early Church demonstrate some clear contrasts with Hodge and Erickson, and with Schleiermacher and MacLaren. Unlike the theology-as-science view, interpreting Scripture was not simply a matter of determining the single, "objectively true" meaning; Scripture had great depth that could only be explored by a holistic pursuit of the truth, which was ultimately personal that then just doctrinal. There is little in the way of an analog for apophatic theology in "scientific" approaches, besides an affirmation and explanation of God's transcendence; it is difficult to see how this transcendence informs the modern conservative theological method. At the same time, unlike liberal theology, early Christian theology was definitely not human-centered (though the authentic truth experience of the human believer was also essential). God was believed to knowably exist outside of human religious affections, and teaching about him that was true in something like the modern "objective" sense was essential. Central dogmas like the incarnation, the Trinity, and the resurrection were certainly considered to be true independently of whoever believed them. By and large, liberal theology is not known for deeply investigating the transcendence of God either.

Given these contrasts, the natural question is how theological method has shifted through the history of the church. I will focus on the changes that occurred during three main periods of transition: medieval theology, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.

The eleventh through thirteenth centuries were a time of great intellectual development in the Catholic church. One of the main initiators of this period of change was the bishop, monk, and theologian Anselm of Canterbury. He was the forefather of the movement known as Scholasticism in his desire to apply reason to matters of faith.[23] Anselm was heavily indebted to Augustine in his theology,[24] and famously alluded to a quote from his tractate on the Trinity when he said, "I believe in order to understand."[25] He believed that reason could and should complement and strengthen faith, going so far as to say that "men do not 'believe' in God; they know that He exists."[26] In this he represents a break with the earlier tradition of apophatic theology, instead seeking to use reason to illuminate the mysteries of the Christian faith,[27] which he acknowledged rationally but had trouble internalizing.[28] So he sought to explain, from reason alone, the mystery of the Incarnation (in his work Cur Deus Homo?, literally "Why God Human?") as well as to prove the existence of God by developing his ontological argument.

Another precondition of Scholasticism was the growth of universities, institutions where knowledge would be discovered rather than simply imparted.[29] Earlier in the medieval period, monasteries were centers of intellectual life and human knowledge was considered thoroughly teleological, pursued in light of the Christian tradition.[30] But in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries European intellectual life shifted to the university, which was much more specialized and intellectually rigorous.[31] By this transition, "theology" began to be viewed as a distinct discipline,[32] and "theologian" as a scholarly profession separate from the clergy.[33]

These both illustrate the late medieval trend of the growth of "reason" as a faculty independent from faith, which was also reinforced by the philosophy of the newly-rediscovered Aristotle.[34] The increasing intellectual sophistication of medieval theology and its dependence on reason were also driven by the need to refute heretics[35] and thought to be based on the image of God in man. This image was associated closely with reasoning capacity,[36] which was thought to be integral to human nature and intact even after the fall, unlike the moral likeness.[37] Extending Anselm's project of combining faith and reason, later theologians also tried to prove God's existence by reason[38] as well as other Christian dogmas,[39] up to and including the mystery of the Trinity.[40] By the thirteenth century, the patristic tradition of the ancient church had largely been replaced in the Catholic church's intellectual life by Scholasticism.[41]

The method of the Scholastics sought to clarify and strengthen traditional doctrines by defining them more precisely and rationally, like Anselm.[42] The intricacy of the theological matters being investigated demanded a higher degree of intellectual rigor than in patristic theology, which was sought through logical arguments and proofs as well as "disputations" (debates in which participants evaluated the positions of authorities in rationally formulating their own).[43] Through this method, the discipline of "natural theology" (theology constructed from evidence in nature using reason, such as Anselm's ontological argument) advanced by leaps and bounds. Since it was believed that all truth was one, no knowledge, whether from philosophy, nature, or reason, could contradict Christian truth, so Scholastics set out to investigate and confirm the truths of faith by reason.[44] This was thought to fulfill the biblical truth that God could be known through nature, so that men are without excuse. (Rom 1:20)

Thomas Aquinas, the foremost of the Scholastics and an intellectual pillar of Catholic tradition, departed from Augustinian theology by holding that the will naturally desires what is good because good is that which accords with the divine order of creation, that evil is more an error in understanding than a perversion of the will, and that moral and (natural) theological truths could be known by natural reason.[45] He placed such confidence in natural reason on the basis that God wants all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4); human nature was darkened (1 Cor 13:12), but still illuminated by reason.[46] He believed that "that which is natural is not abolished as a result of sin"[47] and that "grace does not abolish nature, but completes it";[48] so he set out to demarcate the scope of each. (This was also the basis of his quest to adapt the philosoper Aristotle, representing the knowledge from nature and reason, to the Christian faith) Because of the significant interplay Aquinas saw between science and philosophy, he was able to consider theology the "queen of the sciences".[49] ("Science" still simply meaning "ordered knowledge")

The legacy of Scholasticism is significant for our present study. Thanks to Anselm and those following him, apophatic theology had largely lost its place in the Catholic church. After Aquinas, theology was openly thought of as a science, though that word still had not acquired its present connotations. Fides and ratio, faith and reason, had been sharply distinguished from each other and conjoined in a union based more on Anselm's personal piety than on any rational basis in a way that would not last.[50] The concept of a theological system had been born: "Scholasticism, a comprehensive system that sought to understand every aspect of reality in relation to the whole, expressed the idea of Christendom itself, the organization of the entire universe according to an overriding spiritual principle."[51]

Only a selective telling of the Reformation is possible in this work. While acknowledging the important theological and ecclesiological breakthroughs made by the reformers, I will be focusing more the frequent theological controversies in which they found themselves, and their unintended effects on theological method. Luther's "evangelical" movement began splintering shortly after its inception,[52] but the first major division was between him and the other major early reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli repeatedly clashed with Luther about what takes place during the Eucharist, a disagreement which arose from two different paradigms for rejecting Roman Catholic theology: Luther fixated on the raw law-vs.-grace paradox of the gospel, while Zwingli saw the gospel as freeing human society to follow the law as God originally intended.[53] Underlying this was Zwingli's higher estimation of the capabilities of human reason, in which Luther put no confidence.[54] Despite an attempt to seek unity at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, the two men ultimately parted ways over their differences regarding the Eucharist.[55]

From Luther and Zwingli came the Lutheran and Reformed traditions of Protestantism, with their own visions of the Christian tradition over against each others' as well as that of the Catholic Church. "The universal tradition of orthodoxy was increasingly being filtered through, and identified with, the particular traditions represented by the doctrinal formularies that had come out of Reformation controversies."[56] On the Lutheran end, much of this drive for systematization came from Luther's collaborator and friend Philipp Melanchthon, who wrote Loci theologici, the first Lutheran systematic theology.[57] The Lutheran-Reformed conversation on the Eucharist in particular led both Protestant confessions to pursue tactics reminiscent of the Scholastics, opening their own universities and turning to the study of metaphysics to make the fine distinctions necessary for their arguments.[58] On the Reformed side, John Calvin led the effort to precisely define the boundaries of his tradition especially in response to Lutheran claims,[59] using the model of "distinction, but not separation" between "reality" and "sign" to arrive at a balanced theology.[60] As both sides gained increasingly extreme wings, the division established at Marburg deepened.[61]

Both confessions also had to deal with controversy within their own ranks. After Luther's death, there arose a debate between followers of Melanchthon and those who claimed to more truly carry on Luther's legacy.[62] They clashed over their estimations of free will[63] as well as whether some elements of the faith could be considered adiaphora, or peripheral and not worth dividing over.[64] The Lutheran theologian Georg Calixtus would extend this idea of essential and secondary beliefs by seeking an essential "consensus of the first five centuries" around which Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed Christians could unite, but he was rejected and denounced by theologians who believed that everything God had said in Scripture (as they understood it) must be believed.[65] On the Reformed side, the Arminian controversy opened up a debate on the nature of God's sovereignty and the role played by free will in his providence. The increasing variety in Reformed theology was marked by the proliferation of confessions and creeds during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, notably the Westminster Confession.[66]

The results of these theological controversies among Protestants (to say nothing of those between Protestants and Catholics) were several. Confessional boundaries became increasingly rigid and dogmatic: the alternative to conformity with your confession was punishment as a heretic.[67] Right belief of all God had said to his people (again, as interpreted through each confession) was thought to be important to properly serve him.[68] To a large degree, doctrines were shaped by controversy and the need to exclude the false teachings of other confessions;[69] the lines remained even after the battles were over.[70] Doctrines were increasingly thought of in propositional terms, since this was the form in which they were debated and defended.

The need to define confessional boundaries led to increasing systematization and attention to theological detail.[71] Despite their objections to Aquinas' assumptions about nature and grace, Protestant theologians found themselves returning to a kind of Scholasticism that increasingly resembled his work,[72] establishing Protestant confessional universities and even turning back to the philosophy of Aristotle to formulate arguments on the nature of the Eucharist. Calvin's disciple Theodore Beza saw the danger of escalating systematization in the Reformed tradition: dogmatism, the need to spell out answers to every theological question, and the potential to be transformed in response to new circumstances or internal tensions.[73]

Theologians of all confessions sought the objective "truth" of the Christian faith which seemed hidden behind the debates. They realized the difference between one's apprehension of truth and the reality, between the words of Scripture and the ways that they were employed in confessional positions.[74] In a Lutheran-Catholic colloquy at Regensburg in 1541, the Lutheran Martin Bucer expressed his hope that "With God's will we shall ultimately find the truth."[75]

Others tried to resolve the controversies in ways other than traditional (dogmatic) theology. Spiritualists like Jakob Boehme and George Fox (founder of the Quakers) sought inner illumination by the Spirit in order to know the truth. Pietists like Philip Jacokb Spener and Nikolaus Zinzendorf prioritized personal, authentic faith and biblical Christian living over doctrinal correctness; they believed that theology should be more for the edification of Christian hearers than for confessional polemics. Still other thinkers placed more emphasis on reason as an "objective" arbiter than dogmatics of theological truth.[76]

As Christian confessionalists seemed to be increasingly deadlocked on matters of faith, increasing numbers of thinkers decided to follow reason instead (which had been confirmed as a separate source of knowledge by Scholastics both Thomist and Protestant), joining what about become known as the Enlightenment. In relation to Christian theology, it represented "the revolution of man's autonomous potentialities over against the heteronomous powers which were no longer convincing."[77] The narrative Enlightenment philosophers would tell was one of the triumph of sober, objective reason over against the arbitrary, superstitious, divisive truth claims of faith. "Sola ratio could achieve what sola scriptura manifestly could not."[78] Sadly, many of their critiques of established religion on the grounds of confessional coercion, oppression, and violence were not unfounded.[79] In contrast, reason would bring freedom from these things and from the ignorant truth claims of faith on which they were based.

Enlightenment rationalism was based on Scholasticism in many ways: it extended its turn to study nature and confidence in the powers of reason.[80] One of its first major exponents was René Descartes, who had experienced firsthand the horrors religion was capable of as a French soldier in the Thirty Years' War.[81] His response was to look beneath the certainties of religious authorities and doubt everything that could be doubted until he arrived at an indisputable certainty: his own existence as a thinking being.[82] He then set out to construct more certainties, such as the existence of God, on the "objective" basis of pure reason. Later thinkers like John Locke also sought to include empirical sense experience as another foundation of knowledge.[83]

The thinkers of the Enlightenment were not categorically opposed to religion, at least at the start. Rather, they sought to save it from fanatical superstition and dogmatic controversy through the application of reason to find the truth. Because all truth was thought to come from God (just as with the Scholastics), it was believed that reason would bring about "an ever more voluntary and purified worship of God."[84] The results of this application of reason were not quite as expected. Rational thinkers could not help but translate their growing knowledge of the "common order of nature" into a categorical skepticism of miracles which purported to violate it.[85] Anselm's difficulty with mysteries of faith was advanced as "mystery" came to be equated in the rational mind with "ignorance", sometimes for the sake of attacking Catholic "superstition."[86]

More positively, rationalists sought to construct a "natural religion" on the basis of reason, thus bypassing the dogmatic controversies of Christian orthodoxy. This natural religion became known as Deism.[87] At the same time, they sought to find the "essence" of the gospel, the "spirit of true Christianity", which was expected to be coterminous with natural religion,[88] as shown by such Deistic titles as Christianity Not Mysterious, or a Treatise Showing that There is Nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, nor Above It, and that No Christian Doctrine Can Be Properly Called a Mystery, or Christianity as Old as the World, or the Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature. Christian teaching was expected to be self-evidently "reasonable", but this goal was becoming increasingly incompatible with anything resembling traditional belief.[89]

A major outcome of the Enlightenment was that where reason had previously been thought of as distinct from, but conjoined with, faith and traditional belief, the two increasingly parted ways. Freed from the straitjacket of revelation the Scholastics placed it into, reason was thought to be able to answer all the questions of the universe that mattered; "the truths of revelation, on the other hand, diminished in importance when they questions to which they were intended to be answers lost their hold on human minds and hearts."[90] Natural theology became a suitable replacement for church theology. Makers of religious truth claims would have to make them reasonably, or else risk being seen as merely confessional controversialists. It was in this period that the word "science" shifted from simply meaning "knowledge" to meaning what had previously been called "natural philosophy".[91] Knowledge itself went from religious to secular in character.[92] And even as the pursuit of "objective" knowledge by reason was championed, the attainability of this objectivity came to be questioned by the likes of Hume and Kant.

Much of the aforementioned four departures of modern theological method from early Christian theology can be traced back to these three historical developments. From the search for theological truth by opposing Reformation dogmatists and Enlightenment-era skepticism about the reliability of reason and sense experience we have the objectivity-subjectivity dichotomy. Medieval scholars like Anselm and Aquinas established the divide between faith and reason, natural philosophers from the seventeenth century onward set about widening it. Apophatic theology and the significance it ascribed to God's transcendence and unknowability were displaced by a (qualified) consciousness of theology as scientia, knowledge, widely conversant with reason. And propositional doctrine, as the focus of dogmatic controversy, became something like the heart and soul of theological discourse. This is, I hope, a quick sketch of how we may have gotten to where we are today. How do we go back?

Recently in conservative evangelical circles there has been a promising effort to respond to these issues by reestablishing an Augustinian epistemology, referred to as "right reason". It has roots in Greco-Roman and biblical cultures as well as the early church, and is also a suitable answer for postmodernism "because it acknowledges that both objective and subjective factors are involved in the process of knowing."[93] In this, Helseth considers it to incorporate the true elements of both modernism and postmodernism. "Right reason" denotes at once "a mode of knowing, a way of doing, and a condition of being",[94] viewing truth as both intellectual and moral (somewhat like Chrysostom). Knowing truth in this way is not simply a matter of properly applying one's intellectual faculties; it depends on the kind of person the knower is.[95]

"Right reason" is based on Augustinian anthropology (from before the Scholastics revised it with their favorable assessment of natural reason). It views the human soul as a "mysterious organic unity" rather than a looser collection of faculties, which takes its cues from the disposition of the heart.[96] The heart is the "fundamental amative orientation" of the human person either towards God or towards sin and self, and the will, intellect, and emotions are all directed by this orientation. What this means is that even if it is natural, human reason is not neutral. It follows the alignment of the heart either towards or away from God. If our hearts aren't turned towards God, none of our "faculties" will work as they are supposed to. "Regenerated knowers alone know 'rightly' not only because they have an intellectual or speculative understanding of that which is true, but also because they have—as a necessary element or essential component of their understanding—a love for the truth precisely because they see it declaring the glory, the moral excellence and beauty, of the one who is the source of truth and the epistemological key to interpreting all reality correctly (cf. Colossians 2:3)."[97]

I think "right reason" does have real promise for returning to a more holistic picture of theological method. However, it also has some significant challenges to overcome. Chief among these is the challenge of internalizing a truly patristic view of things rather than simply seeking to reconcile thinks like objectivity and subjectivity, faith and reason, in their modern forms. For example, are the postulated aesthetic and moral dimensions of truth true complements to the intellectual dimension, or are they simply based on an intellectual assessment of what is beautiful or good? So far, there is little in "right reason" to remind me of apophatic theology. Augustine's well-known command to "believe that thou mayest understand"[98] implies a positive relationship between believing and knowing which leaves little room for the "divine darkness". Our ability to know is conditioned largely on moral, rather than essential grounds.

In my lack of wisdom, I can offer only some basic ideas for returning to a more biblical theolgocial method. At the center must be Christ, the Word (logos; "logic" or "reason") of God (Jhn 1:1), the Way, Truth, and Life (Jhn 14:6). Christ's unifying role as the one to whom all things are reconciled (Col 1:20) is crucial to a biblical epistemology and, I believe, the key to closing the reason/faith and objectivity/subjectivity dichotomies. It means that truth is more than facts, even facts in their proper context. The Truth is a person. We don't just know truth; we love truth, do truth, live truth. Ephesians 4:15 is normally translated as "speaking the truth in love", but Paul does not use any verb for "speak" here; he simply uses alethia, "truth", as a verb. "Paul is really talking about 'truthing' in love."[99] As Christians, our theological method, our epistemology, our lives must be based on who Christ is.

Yet because Christ is truly God, Truth itself is ultimately incomprehensible. This is not just because it is cognitively complicated or because we are not sufficiently sanctified to know it, but because God is God and we are creatures. Of course this does not exclude knowledge from revelation, whether of the creation or of God himself, but it places our knowledge in proper perspective. Apophaticism is not merely a doctrine or branch of theology; it "teaches us to see above all a negative meaning in the dogmas of the Church: it forbids us to follow natural ways of thought and to form concepts which would usurp the place of spiritual realities. For Christianity is not a philosophical school for speculating about abstract concepts, but is essentially a communion with the living God."[100] More practically, we should be wary of oversystematizing; of seeking to say, define, or know too much in our theology. And we must admit our fundamental epistemological limitations, not just as sinful humans, but as humans.

Finally, I believe that the locus of theology must be within the church, its purpose for the church. Theology is not beholden to the standards of academia for "reasonable" scholarship or for establishing Christianity to be "objectively" true. For the reasons described above, theology is not a field like others. It is not strictly a "science", even in the classical definition of the word; use of this word must be heavily qualified and in light of its definitional shift, I consider it more misleading than it is worth. No one is truly converted to Christianity by argument (though arguments have a place in removing modern obstacles to belief, their importance should not be overstated). It may just be that what the world needs is not a Christianity conversant in its language of knowledge and truth, but something refreshingly different.

  1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: Three Volumes in Four Parts (Harrington, DE: Delmarva Publications, 2014, Kindle edition), 1.1.
  2. Justo L. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 389–390.
  3. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1.5.
  4. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1.2.
  5. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 19–21.
  6. David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 213–214.
  7. Clark, To Know and Love God, 218.
  8. Clark, To Know and Love God, 215–217.
  9. Jaroslav Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 173.
  10. Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, 174.
  11. Roger E. Olsen, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2013), 136–137.
  12. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (London: Hotter & Stoughton, 2010), 124.
  13. Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 48–49.
  14. Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture, 43–44.
  15. John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), 43.
  16. Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 44.
  17. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2002), 200–201.
  18. Peter C. Bouteneff, Sweeter than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma and Truth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2006), 22.
  19. John Chrysostom, Hom. XIV. Phil iv. 4-7, v. 9.
  20. Breck, Scripture in Tradition, 38.
  21. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 33.
  22. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 34.
  23. Justo L. González, The History of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 369.
  24. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology (600–1300) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 270–271.
  25. González, The History of Christianity, Volume I, 369.
  26. James Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 176.
  27. Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 2001), 55.
  28. Pieper, Scholasticism, 64.
  29. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 178.
  30. Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 311.
  31. González, The History of Christianity, Volume I, 372–373.
  32. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 311.
  33. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 178.
  34. González, The History of Christianity, Volume I, 374.
  35. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 256.
  36. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 260.
  37. Erickson, Christian Theology, 462.
  38. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 261.
  39. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 262.
  40. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 262–263.
  41. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 177.
  42. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 175.
  43. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 178–179.
  44. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 289.
  45. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 183.
  46. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 181.
  47. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 288.
  48. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 285.
  49. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 179.
  50. Pieper, Scholasticism, 65.
  51. Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church, 185.
  52. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 91.
  53. Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 148.
  54. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 63.
  55. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 172–173.
  56. Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 332.
  57. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 221–222.
  58. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 351-352.
  59. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 248.
  60. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 250.
  61. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 252.
  62. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 223.
  63. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 350.
  64. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 223.
  65. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 227-228.
  66. Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma, 335.
  67. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 228.
  68. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 349.
  69. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 351.
  70. Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma, 333-334.
  71. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 224-225.
  72. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 292 and Reformation of Church and Dogma, 337.
  73. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 374.
  74. Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, 73.
  75. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 230.
  76. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 108-109.
  77. Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, 60.
  78. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 112113.
  79. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 160.
  80. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 237.
  81. MacCulloch, The Reformation, 500.
  82. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 238.
  83. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 240-241.
  84. Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, 61.
  85. Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, 62.
  86. Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, 66.
  87. González, The History of Christianity, Volume II, 241-242.
  88. Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, 102, 104.
  89. Pelikan, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, 106-108.
  90. Pelikan, The Growth of Medieval Theology, 292-293.
  91. Clark, To Know and Love God, 213.
  92. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 307.
  93. Paul K. Helseth, "Christ-Centered, Bible-Based, and Second-Rate? 'Right Reason' as the Aesthetic Foundation of Christian Education," WTJ 69:2 (Fall 2007), 2.
  94. Helseth, "Christ-Centered," 3.
  95. Helseth, "Christ-Centered," 4.
  96. Helseth, "Christ-Centered," 7.
  97. Helseth, "Christ-Centered," 9.
  98. Augustine, De trin. XXIX, 6.
  99. Bouteneff, Sweeter than Honey, 22.
  100. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 42.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Unintended Reformation

I recently finished a really interesting book I've been meaning to read for a long time, so now of course I'm going to tell you about it. The book is The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society by Brad Gregory, a professor of early modern history at Notre Dame. Professor Gregory's principal argument in this book is that "the Western world today is an extraordinarily complex, tangled product of rejections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Western Christianity, in which the Reformation era constitutes the critical watershed." In other words, as the subtitle suggests, he argues that the Reformation, a religious movement meant to revitalize and re-sanctify western Christianity, had an unintended but instrumental role in giving birth to the modern, secular society we live in today.

As an introductory point, he argues against the traditional, supersessionist view of modern history, in which "the distant past is assumed to have been left behind, explanatorily important to what immediately succeeded it but not to the present." Rather, he argues, much of the distant past has not been left behind, but continues to influence the present through its continuing ideas, values, worldviews, and institutions. "If this book's argument is near the mark," he says, "we cannot understand the character of contemporary realities until and unless we see how they have been and are still being shaped by the distant past."

Three Problems

Gregory sums up the argument of his book with three basic problems faced by early modern Christendom. First, late medieval Christianity was increasingly troubled by a gulf between the ethical prescriptions of the Christian faith and the actual practices of its followers, even (and especially) the clergy. This was a problem that reform-minded Christians hit on for centuries before the Reformation, but Luther and his contemporaries took the minority opinion that the church's problem was not simply moral, but doctrinal: the church was failing in its struggle against corruption and sin not simply because of personal or institutional failings to live up to its vision, but because of actual doctrinal error in its teaching. The solution, they thought, was to base the teachings and practices of the Church on Scripture alone, apart from manmade traditions which had led to the present muddle.

Yet this introduced a new problem: turning to the Bible as the sole authority for matters of faith and practice did not produce a renewed Christianity as the reformers hoped, but multiple, conflicting Christianities based on incompatible (but "authoritative") readings of Scripture, which fought with force of arms for more than a century and with words for far longer. In his second chapter Gregory expounds pretty exhaustively on the plurality of doctrinal claims that arose among the Protestants, even within ten years of the 95 theses. "From the early 1520s," he says, "those who rejected Rome disagreed about what God's word said. Therefore they disagreed about what God's truth was and so about what Christians were to believe and do." To list some of his examples:
  • In 1522, Andreas Karlstadt disputed Luther's disdain for the book of James as well as his views on the nature of the Old Testament, oral confession, the Eucharist, and the permissibility of religious images.
  • Luther and Melanchthon famously parted ways with Zwingli over the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
  • Between 1525 and 1527, nine different reformers published twenty-eight treatises against Luther's view of the Lord's Supper, leading to the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 and the split between Lutheran and Reformed Christianity.
  • Zwingli disagreed with his former Zurich colleagues Hubmaier and Grebel about the biblical basis for infant baptism. The early Anabaptists sharply denounced other reformers' practice of infant baptism, again on biblical grounds. In Grebel's words, "the baptism of children is a senseless, blasphemous abomination against all scripture."
  • Leaders behind the German Peasants' War repudiated Luther's distinction between "the Gospel" and social, economic, and political concerns, arguing for a stronger connection between the two. After the failure of the Peasants' War, by the late 1520s, the Anabaptists began dividing rapidly over a host of doctrinal issues.
  • Other attempts to distinguish true Christian teaching from false based on evidence of fruits of the Spirit, direct testimony from the Spirit, or reason were similarly unsuccessful; Protestants disagreed about what exactly the fruits of the Spirit looked like, how reason was to be used in formulating Christian truth claims, and what the Spirit was "saying" to them at the moment.
A few especially powerful summary statements from Gregory, again supporting the point that sola scriptura was (and still is) the source of a great deal of doctrinal pluralism among Protestants:
Christians who rejected the authority of the Roman church and its truth claims, notwithstanding certain alliances and reconciliations (such as the Lutheran Formula of Concord) among some of the constituent groups, never exhibited anything remotely resembling agreement about their own, alternative truth claims. It is thus misleading to say that "Protestantism itself splintered into rival denominations, or 'confessions,'", as if there ever was some point in the early Reformation when anti-Roman Christians had agreed among themselves about what scripture said and God taught. There wasn't. (p. 91)
Had Protestants simply disagreed about the interpretation of Scripture as such, their disputes would have remained much more circumscribed than they became. But more was sought—and needed—because the principle of sola scriptura itself did not yield the desired result. The would-be solution for reforming the late medieval church immediately became an unintended, enormous problem of its own, one different in kind from the problem of how to close the gap between the Roman church's prescriptions and late medieval Christians' practices. ... in addition to their continuous doctrinal disagreements with defenders of the Roman church before and after the Council of Trent, Protestants disagreed among themselves on multiple fronts. They disagreed about the meaning and prioritization of biblical texts, and the relationship of those texts to doctrines regarding the sacraments, worship, grace, the church, and so forth. They disagreed about the broad interpretive principles that ought to guide the interpretation of scripture, such as the relationship between the Old and New Testaments or the permissibility of religious practices not explicitly prohibited or enjoined in the Bible. They disagreed about the relationship among the interpretation of scripture, the exercise of reason, and God's influence in the hearts of individual Christians. And they disagreed about whether (and if so, to what degree) explicit, substantive truth claims were even important to being a Christian, with some spiritualists and alleged prophets radically relativizing the place of doctrines in Christian life. (pp. 109-110)
This problem of doctrinal pluralism among Christians and the resulting contentions (up to and including warfare and executions) that produced little progress towards resolving their differences gave rise to a third problem: "how was human life among frequently antagonistic Christians to be rendered stable and secure?" How could Europe be saved from completely fragmenting along confessional lines? How could future Thirty Years' Wars be prevented?

Gregory's chapters two through six follow the pattern of these questions pretty faithfully in five different areas of late medieval life: truth claims/answers to what he calls "Life Questions" ("serious questions about life, with important implications for life"), the institutional church and its relationship to the state, moral/ethical norms, the economy, and academia. Before the Reformation, each of these things was guided and shaped teleologically according to the faith and teachings of the late medieval Catholic Church. None were perfect, but all were unified and defined by the Church and its Christological vision of what constituted the "good" (virtuous) life.

The reformers, then, saw in the Church's failure to live up to its ideals in these things evidence not just of moral weakness, but systemic doctrinal error. Their goal was to replace human traditions and the false teachings of the Church that had accreted over the centuries with authentic Christianity as laid out in the Bible, the only ultimate ecclesial authority. Due to the unintended problem of Protestant pluralism, however, they did not succeed at this task, but instead added to Roman Christianity numerous Christianities that, because of their mutually contradictory claims, frequently clashed with each other in their visions for "biblically" transforming each of these areas of life.

By the mid-seventeenth century, weary from thirty years of confessionally-motivated bloodshed, many Europeans not at the front lines of their respective Christendoms began to look away from Christianity and its seemingly endless disagreements for a stabilizing principle that would produce societal unity rather than division. Despite their claims to the contrary, early modern Christians effectively excluded themselves from the discussion of what "Christendom" would look like because of their inability to agree on it. But increasingly, people realized that reason might be able to answer questions on life and ethics, that the liberal state could defuse religious conflicts by permitting freedom of worship and mandating tolerance, that modern capitalism and consumerism could meet peoples' needs and even make them quite happy with the "goods life", and that universities actually did much better when they were not protecting religious traditions from free inquiry. With little choice and plenty of motivation, early modern western society learned to function without the Church(es) at its center.

So answers to the "Life Questions", no longer based on Christian truth claims, are now highly pluralistic; the consensus of our culture is to believe whatever you like and live however makes you happiest, as long as you tolerate others' beliefs and lifestyles. The state has power over the churches (even if it uses that power to mandate religious tolerance and pluralism in the guise of "freedom of religion"), harkening back to the magisterial reformers' turn to secular magistrates for protection and civil enshrinement of their beliefs. "The consumerist cycle of acquire, discard, repeat now makes up the default fabric of Western life in the early twenty-first century, regardless of how one assesses it and whether or not one resists it." And knowledge, especially academic knowledge, is considered secular and academic by default, in contrast to religious "opinions". Gregory argues that this is so not because secularism somehow rose up and displaced Christianity as the ideological matrix of the modern western world, but because during the Reformation Christianity retreated from its central position in society into doctrinal controversies and polemicism. Much like how the Church itself rose to fill the space left by the fragmented Roman Empire, so now secular reason came in to take the place once occupied by a now-divided Christendom. Christianity is supposed to apply to and transform all of society, you say? Well, which Christianity?

Excluding God

Gregory's first chapter is different. In it, he explores the origins of the secular, scientific worldview that is so commonplace today as to make atheistic materialism virtually a given in many scientific and academic circles. In this way of thinking, science and religion are seen as being in conflict, with science having gained the upper hand since the Enlightenment. The idea of God is unnecessary and untenable because the advance of science has rendered him useless, "disenchanted" the world. The claims of religion are seen as antithetical to and disproven by the claims of science. He cites Max Weber for an example of this kind of thinking:
And today? Who today still believes—aside from certain big children whom one can indeed find in the natural sciences—that the findings of astronomy or biology or physics or chemistry have something to do with the meaning of the world or indeed could teach us something about it? By what path could one come upon the trace of such a "meaning", if any is there? If the natural sciences lead to anything and are suited to belief along these lines, it is to make the notion that there is a "meaning" of the world die out at its roots! And to conclude: science as a way "to God"? Science, this power expressly antithetical to religion? No one today in his heart of hearts is in doubt that science is antithetical to religion, whether or not he admits it to himself.
And this way of thinking its not today presented as one philosophy among many: it is widely taken as absolute bedrock truth in our culture, on the basis of which religious truth claims can be disregarded out of hand. Gregory says, "the assumptions about God, nature, and science that dominate contemporary intellectual life ... are widely regarded as ideologically neutral, obvious truths rather than seen for what they are: ideologically loaded, contestable truth claims based on unverifiable beliefs." In this chapter he traces the trajectory of western thought regarding the relationship between God and the "natural" world.

Western Christian thinkers up through Aquinas gave prominent place to what is known as an "apophatic" view of God: mysterious, transcendent, rationally, incomprehensible, beyond all of our attempts to describe him. Of course some knowledge of God is possible through what he has revealed to us, but "central Christian claims about God—the reality of his providence, the fact of his grace, the compatibility of his will and power with those of each human being—are unavoidably and irreducible mysterious." God existed in an entirely different, mysterious way than we flesh-and-blood creatures do, but rather than making him remote or totally unknowable, make possible his divine immanence and knowability through all things. Gregory refers to something like this as a sacramental view of reality. Apophatic theology is still alive and well in the Orthodox Church; the twentieth-century theologian Vladimir Lossky wrote of God's counterintuitive transcendence of being, knowledge, and everything else we know:
Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is. If in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in Himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to Him. It is by unknowing that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge.
Later, he quotes St. John of Damascus:
God, then, is infinite and incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. All that we can say cataphatically [positively] concerning God does not show forth his nature, but the things that relate to his nature.
But in the west, two medieval Christian thinkers planted the seeds for the eventual end of the sacramental view of God in western culture. The first was John Duns Scotus, who believed that God had to share at least one predicate, namely existence, with everything else in order to be knowable at all. "Insofar as God's existence is considered in itself and in its most gradual sense, Scotus agreed [with Avicenna] that God's being does not differ from that of everything else that exists. ... Scotus's move made God, in Robert Barron's phrase, 'mappable on the same set of coordinates as creatures.'" According to Scotus, God belonged to a more encompassing reality along with his creatures and and does not "exist", but exists in it in the same way that do.

The second was William of Occam, who extended Scotus' idea of metaphysical univocity (applying the concept of "existence" to God in the same sense as to creatures) and more thoroughly rejected the views of Aquinas, who had still held to something like an apophatic approach to theology. In his nominalist theology, God is not an abstract essence or "the sheer act of to-be" but a discrete thing, however much he differed from every other entity. Occam also contributed his well-known principle of heuristic parsimony, "Occam's razor", the idea that explanations of natural phenomena "ought not to multiply entities beyond necessity." Scotus' metaphysical univocity and Occam's razor, Gregory argues, put in place the intellectual pieces for "the domestication of God's transcendence and the extrusion of his presence from the natural world." Again, these ideas are opposites of the classical Christian consensus even into the post-Schism west; continuing Lossky's quote of John of Damascus, "God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself."

Added to these major pieces were the Renaissance revivals of three major philosophical traditions, which were not adopted wholesale but partially and ended up contributing to the parting-of-ways of theology and science in the late medieval era through to the seventeenth century. From Platonism came the idea of mathematics as an explanatory language—for the physical world rather than the transcendent world of forms. From Stoicism came "a view of nature as homogeneous and deterministically governed by forces"—though without the pantheist underpinnings of "mutual sympathies". And from Epicureanism came a focus on the uniformity of efficient, natural causes with no reference to final causality—though with a physics based on Stoic determinism rather than random collisions between atoms.

But all of these philosophical and theological developments were largely confined to the academy. The central claims of Christianity were not based on any philosophy but on the testimony of God's salvific actions in history, reinforced by the familiar rhythm of the church and her traditions. These new philosophical ideas might have been assimilated into her thought as Aristotelianism had been, "so long as the church's teaching, preaching, worship, devotional practices, and prayer continued to convey and embody the faith's central truth claims."

But if the nature and meaning of God's actions, how Christians were to live, or Christianity itself were called into question, then these ideas might be able to transform the conversation about God's relationship with the world in unexpected and un-Christian ways. This is what happened in the Reformation. As in the other chapters, the continual doctrinal disagreements among Protestants and Catholics effectively made explicitly Christian claims about God and the natural world untenable; again, which Christianity? With little in the way of consensus in the foreseeable future, what was left were confessionally neutral ways of understanding the created world: empiricism and reason. The sidelining of Christian truth claims and the front-and-center inclusion of philosophy in this task turned out to be fertile ground for assumptions of metaphysical univocity and the principle of parsimony. In other words, science and reason did not "disprove" any theological claims, as is commonly supposed. Rather, incompatible views of different Christian confessions about the meaning of God's actions effectively removed theology from its place as, in Aquinas' words, "queen of the sciences". The tenuous alliance between science and theology was broken because "theology" was no longer a singular, coherent thing like the growing body of scientific knowledge.

The Protestant denial of Roman sacramentalism also had unintended consequences, since it tended to involve univocal metaphysical assumptions of which the reformers may not have been aware. As usual, Gregory says it better than I could (can you tell I enjoy his writing style?):
A "spiritual" presence that is contrasted with a real presence presupposes an either-or dichotomy between a crypto-spatial God and the natural world that precludes divine immanence in its desire to protect divine transcendence. But in traditional Christian metaphysics the two attributes are correlative: it is precisely and only God's radical otherness as nonspatial that makes his presence in and through creation possible, just as it had made the incarnation possible. (Otherwise, Jesus would have been something like a centaur—partly human and partly divine, rather than fully human and fully divine.) The denial of the possibility of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, by contrast, ironically implies that the "spiritual" presence of God is itself being conceived in spatial or quasi-spatial terms—which is why, in order to be kept pure, it must be kept separate from and uncontaminated by the materiality of the "mere bread".
Some more quotes illustrating how the modern "conflict" between science and religion came to be, shaped by univocal metaphysics and Occam's razor:
Having sidelined theology, scripture, tradition, and religious experience as source of knowledge about God, the reason exercised by nearly all leading seventeenth-century thinkers, whatever its particular manifestations or emphases, assumed a univocal metaphysics. God existed—and thus, analogous to creatures, God was an individual ens, an entity within being, or God was in some way coextensive with the totality of being. The entire category of God's actions in history had been unintentionally paralyzed by doctrinal controversy. Hence reason—including observation and experiment—bore the full burden of the endeavor to understand God's relation to the natural world. Therefore all theology that sought to avoid confessional controversy had to be natural theology, based on reason alone.
To be sure, God remained important in the reflections and natural-theological theorizing of many scientists throughout much of the nineteenth century.  But whether individual scientists continued to insist on his integral relationship to the natural world, relegated him to a remote first cause, or denied his existence altogether, the combination of two ideas had rendered him expendable. The first was the metaphysically univocal conception of God as a highest being among others: this brought God within the same ontological and causal order as his creation. The second was Occam's razor: if God was unneeded to account for causal explanations of natural phenomena, there was no reason to invoke him. A clear corollary of this notion was methodological naturalism. God simply no longer had a place in the workings of the world, whether spatially or causally: if all natural events were adequately explained by natural causes, God was redundant. So however unrepresentative at the time was Laplace's famous quip to Napoleon in 1802 when asked about the place of God in his physics—"I have no need for that hypothesis"—the leading French physicist of his day proved to be prophetically prescient.
Despite cascades of (post-)Enlightenment propaganda to the contrary, the mathematization of ordinary natural processes could entail no exclusion of God's alleged, abiding, mysterious presence in and through them. That required metaphysical univocity and Occam's razor: if a natural cause explained a natural event, it was though, there was nothing supernatural about either. Therefore, as post-Newtonian deists believed, once all the regularities of nature were understood to have natural causes, God could be no more than a remote first cause. Nor, despite generations of (post-)Enlightenment polemics denouncing allegedly primitive superstitions, did the discovery of laws that explain natural regularities exclude the possibility of extraordinary actions by God. That, as we shall see, required a dogmatic, unverifiable belief that natural laws are necessarily and uniformly exceptionless, such that miracles as traditionally understood were impossible. But if, having absorbed and taken for granted metaphysical univocity, one imagined that God belonged to the same conceptual and causal reality as his creation, and if natural regularities could be explained through natural causes without reference or recourse to God, then clearly the more science explained, the less would God be necessary as a causal or explanatory principle.
The key point is not, as is commonly but wrongly believed, that the empirical investigation of the natural world made or makes a transcendent God's existence increasingly implausible. It is rather that this presumption depends historically and continues to depend on a conception of God as a hypothetical supernatural agent in competition with natural causality ... In diametric contrast, with the Christian conception of God as transcendent creator of the universe, it is precisely and only because of his radical difference from creation that God can be present to and through it. This is the metaphysics that continues to underlie and make possible a sacramental worldview, against supersessionist conceptions of history, in combination with any and all scientific findings.
But as with Newtonianism in the eighteenth century, (neo-)Darwinism can be troubling to Christians on scientific grounds only if they have a univocal conception of being and reject a sacramental view of reality. 


After reading The Unintended Reformation, I have a new appreciation for Bishop Ware's statement in The Orthodox Church that "[Orthodox Christians] have known no Middle Ages (in the western sense) and have undergone no Reformations or Counter-Reformations; they have only been affected in an oblique way by the cultural and religious upheaval which transformed western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." Obviously to turn to Orthodoxy is not to simply rewind the clock five hundred years, for (at least in America) it exists within the religiously pluralistic society forged in the fallout of the Reformation. But it at least offers one Christianity among many that is unique in its freedom from the distorting influences on western faith unintentionally brought about by the Reformation.

This book powerfully confirmed several of the doubts about the basis of Protestantism that I already had confirmed by Orthodox teaching. Specifically, about the unsuitability of sola scriptura for producing a (single) rule of faith and the misguided, factious nature of attempts to recreate Christianity "from the ground up". Such methodologies are fertile ground for disagreement and controversy which, as Gregory shows time and again, can have disastrous effects that no one wanted.

The book was also very distressing. For though it expertly disagnoses the historical origins of modern, western secularism, it offers little idea of how, or if, the hundreds of Christianities out there can be reunited or how the secularization and pluralization of society can be reversed. Should Christians even desire these things? Even as I am increasingly able to believe in the unity of the Orthodox Church, The Unintended Reformation reminds me of a broader, ecumenical kind of unity among all Christians that has been missing for over a millennium before the Reformation, for which I still long and pray.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

My Journey, Part 12: Bridging the Cracks

This is part 12 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

With the basic issues of ecclesiology and Tradition explained, I can get to how I really began to realize that the Orthodox tradition holds the answers to my questions and doubts about the gospel and the Christian life.


I saw many of my scattered trains of thought on epistemology reflected and completed in Orthodox thought. The distinctiveness of the eastern mindset from the western one common to Catholics and Protestants is hard to summarize, but it pervades Orthodox theology like a breath of fresh air. Most basically, it is not so heavily skewed towards rationalism and legalism (the need to find laws and patterns governing everything). The tendency to treat theology as something of a science is entirely alien to the Christian east. The eastern church has had no rediscovery of Aristotle, no Scholasticism, no Reformation, and no Enlightenment; thus, it has preserved something much closer to the thought world of the apostles in its theology, untouched by the destabilizing effects of all of these developments and the distortions they introduced to western theology. I get the feeling that evangelicalism is always seeking to "go back" to the thought life of the early church, trying to reconstruct from the Bible what was once natural. Orthodoxy has no need, because it is still there.

This was a welcome answer to the problems I was realizing modern ways of thinking were causing as I tried to apply them to the Bible. A common pattern with Orthodoxy is that it does not directly answer my questions and doubts, but shows why they are based on wrong assumptions or axioms. Again, as Ware says, Orthodox tend to start from different questions than Protestants and Catholics (I will get into the specifics of this next time regarding the gospel).
Our different, modern context causes many parts of the Bible to raise questions that the authors weren't aware of and make no attempt to answer. (2013-9-29)
I began to realize that modern rationalism informed by the Bible is not the only (or even the best) starting point for a Christian looking to discover the things of God. I wrote this entry not long before discovering how Orthodoxy makes few compromises with modernism.
Instead of viewing everything through my rational, modern perspective, I have to be willing to step outside it and realize it's not the right way to view the supernatural. Modernism tends to stick its nose where it doesn't belong. (2014-2-23)
Truth, as viewed through the Orthodox tradition, is a much more holistic thing. It is unequivocally associated with the divine Logos, that is, the person of Christ (Jhn 1:1,14; 14:6; 17:17), something I had previously mentioned as a possibility, but whose implications I couldn't begin to grasp. To know Christ himself (not just about him) is to know truth. (Col 1:15-20, Heb 1:1-3) The utmost revelation of God to man was not the inspiration of the books of the Bible, but the Incarnation, the "Christ-event" to which they all testify. To live rightly in the truth, according to Orthodoxy, is both to know truth and to do truth. Knowing a truth is not logically prior to "applying" it, as in Protestant thought. As St. John Chrysostom preached, "Virtue is really true, vice is falsehood." (Sermon on Philippians 4:9) This also establishes a solid basis for conversation with nonbelievers, as the equation between Christ and truth goes both ways. Peter Bouteneff writes, "Everything that is true, whether or not it is said by a Christian, is true because of Christ; anything that is approaching truth is approaching Christ. And everyone who is doing the truth is making some kind of approach to Christ, whether or not they name him as Christ."

This is a minimal outline of the Orthodox approach to epistemology. It has been tremendously refreshing for me to discover. Evangelicalism's "bad habit" of placing doctrinal, propositional truth ahead of experiential truth (if only in logical priority) is not universal. There was a way out of the constant struggle to truly "know" the truth and then "apply" it, in which I was increasingly feeling trapped as the truth I was supposed to "know" increasingly didn't even make sense.
We come to know God primarily through experience, not propositional truth. What if the purpose of the Bible is to allow us to experience the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? It's so beautiful, makes so much sense of everything—it must be true. And that, to me, is the Christocentric hermeneutic. (2013-5-6)
Though I came to this realization rather subjectively, it is surprisingly close to Orthodox teaching I would look into a year later. I wrote similarly about this deeper, Christocentric, (unknown to me) Orthodox view of truth again:
What if the point of Scripture is not to simply tell us what to believe, but to enable us to encounter Christ? And we've been mistaking a shallower, more visible purpose (correct belief) for the ultimate one (conformity to Christ's image) and if we seek this ultimate purpose, we will find correct belief "thrown in"? (2013-5-10)
I got the sense that Protestants are always trying to faithfully reconstruct the "biblical" Christianity of the early Church from the Bible. Months before I found the Orthodox alternative to this quest, I was becoming pessimistic about it, longing for a more immediate experience of Truth.
Jesus' death and resurrection were not abstract spiritual objects to the disciples—they were there. They were real. Have we lost that, so that we only teach the gospel instead of experiencing it together? It is from this experience that the New Testament was written. If we simply try to study the writings rather than trying to get beneath them to the apostles and Christ, we are getting the gospel secondhand. (2013-11-10)
These entries all express a desire for a more experience-focused form of Christianity in which the gospel is something lived as well as taught and believed. I see Orthodoxy as the fulfillment of this desire; experience is not subordinated to belief nor belief to experience, but both are treated as essential and indivisible from the personal truth of Jesus. Correct belief (the titular orthodoxy) is treated as essential, but never at the expense of experiencing Christ and becoming like Him. Of course evangelicals also desire to live the gospel out, but is its emphasis on teaching, proclaiming, accepting, and believing the gospel portraying it as something that begins in the head and then must be "worked out" in the rest of life?

Another entry describes my confusion about evangelical teaching. As I questioned and looked into teachings about the "gospel" (which, again, I will cover next post), so often the answers were largely rational derivations of the doctrine from Scripture. Such biblical proofs were assumed to establish them as "true", and having found the truth it was then our job as faithful believers in the truth to live it and love it. I felt as though my heart and intuition were being excluded from in any way shaping my understanding of what was true; the result was a gospel that I could maybe (not always sincerely) say I "believed", but could not meaningfully live on. I expressed a desire for a bigger, more inclusive view of "truth" based on my understanding of the holistic Greek term for "heart", καρδια. Similarly, I again unknowingly journaled my desire for an Orthodox epistemology here:
I don't need the gospel to 'make sense' logically so much as I need it to capture my heart and imagination. (2014-2-7)
Before I began to look into Orthodoxy, I was increasingly tending towards a postmodern view of truth, as I wrote here. My confusion about supposedly "biblical" doctrines was making me painfully aware of how subjective even the best biblical interpretation can be, and so I was becoming skeptical that the "true" interpretation was really knowable, at least through the prescribed methods. I was beginning to see the distance that often existed between reality (which I still very much believed was "out there") and our descriptions of it.
I see [the Calvinism-Arminianism debate] as more about our descriptions of reality and how they must fit into our chosen logical frameworks than about the underlying reality being described itself, which stubbornly remains the same whatever we say about it. Deep down Calvinists and Arminians do know this I think/hope, even if they don't acknowledge it. This approach is arguably more objective than the modernist one. (2013-7-11) 
Now, though, I think the answer is to draw from Christian tradition preceding modernism, rather than trying to forge a path beyond it into the unknown.


Back to the journal entry marking the start of my confusion about the Christian life.
If we grow in relationship with Christ just to help other people know Him, that's circular and pointless. I want it to be more authentic, more real than that. What is the life of Christ? What is the death of Christ in us? ... So much of the time this seems like just idea manipulation, pointless exercises. How do I 'plug into' God and make sense of it? (2011-11-30)
Again, Orthodoxy answered such confusion in two ways: first, with a more immediate idea of theology and truth that doesn't seek to "know" and "apply" them separately, and second, with a gospel vision that actually connected with me, captured my heart and my imagination, that I didn't have to struggle to make sense of. This gave me hope for overcoming the head-heart divide that for years seemed basic to my faith.

One other thing that really helps overcome this divide is the total absence of any "faith vs. works" dichotomy in Orthodoxy. Rather, Orthodox theology is rigorously Incarnational. This is seen powerfully in the theologies of communion and baptism, which (far from being ways to "earn grace" from God) are viewed as concrete ways that God instituted (as Jesus in the flesh) for us to receive His freely-given grace. In the eastern, sacramental worldview, spiritual realities are not cleanly separable from physical ones. Inward belief and spiritual experiences are not logically prior to (or simply outwardly manifested though) visible realities. Orthodoxy views people holistically; we are fallen as whole people, so Jesus redeems us as whole people, and so as whole people we participate in our new life in Him. (I will unpack this more two posts from now)

One other element of Orthodox spirituality that is helpful is its unabashed synergism. There is no ongoing debate over monergism vs. synergism, whether we have to somehow respond to God and somehow contribute to our salvation or whether it is most truly God who accomplishes everything in us. Instead of monergism's dualistic dichotomy between our inability and God's total sufficiency, synergism believes that cooperating with God's grace poses no threat to His sovereignty, but instead gives Him glory as the One who leads and teaches us, His children, to grow and develop into Sons and Daughters of the Kingdom (and as the one who gave us freedom to choose in the first place). Before, I had seen synergism as only a minority view within evangelicalism or the domain of the Wesleyan tradition, considered unorthodox by many; imagine my surprise to learn that it is ancient tradition in Orthodoxy! Again, well before looking into Orthodoxy I expressed my preference for a fully synergistic Christian spirituality
In reformed teaching we are just (presumably interchangeable) passive, imperfect straws through which the spirit blows. But this view misses much. We will get praise from God—for what we have done with what we have been given, for how well we've obeyed. (2013-3-16)
When debating providence, it's important to remember that an action need not be solely God's doing or ours; rather than God regenerating us independently before or after we repent, they can be one and the same action. (2013-5-14)
I should mention that Orthodox theology of synergism is not at all the same as Arminian theology, which I tended towards but never felt comfortable fully embracing, as I explained here. Rather, as I had explained to me in this discussion, Orthodoxy is absent of the Reformed (both Calvinist and Arminian) focus on making a "decision" to have faith in Christ and what exactly is involved in this decision on the divine and human sides. Because of this, Orthodoxy has no understanding of prevenient grace as a necessary component of redemption, as Arminianism does. The commenter who explained it to me said something which I realized perfectly described how I came to be convinced of Orthodoxy: I never really "made a decision" for it, but became convinced as I realized it was what God had been leading me to through all my questions and searching. Here is what he said:
Another telling example to demonstrate the difference here might be how Orthodox converts typically don't say: "I made a decision to follow Christ and accept Jesus into my life" as Protestants often do. Rather, they are more inclined to say "It feels as though I have been guided home all along without ever knowing it". This to me is roughly the key difference: that Orthodoxy resists this "decisionist spirit" and its individualism in favor of the Holy Spirit and divine communion. This formulation is perhaps still too simplistic, but the surface here arguably reflects the theological depths.
One other thing is that the concept of our faith as a "relationship with God" is somewhat relativized in Orthodoxy. No one denies that we do enjoy a "personal relationship' with God—but there is much more to the faith than this. The corporate and historical dimensions of our salvation are at least as emphasized as the individual and personal, which is a most welcome development. It bypasses the occasional tendency of evangelicalism to overapply (or apply overly literally) the "relationship with God" concept by viewing our Christian faith as somehow analogous with our interpersonal relationships, as I noticed in this entry.
I think we allow our relationship with others to inform our 'relationship' with God more than the other way around. What do we miss by construing faith in these terms? (2013-11-4)

Bridging the cracks

The different (at some points radically so) vision of epistemology and spirituality offered by Orthodoxy helped show me that many of my questions and doubts about the gospel had no answers because they were based on faulty preconceptions. Simply to ask them was to misunderstand. When I look at how eastern theologians and church fathers handle Scripture, I am often helped to find ways around my doubts, to question my questions. For example, I found an alternative to the oversystematic, "spiritual object" thinking that so often made reading the Bible more disconcerting than life-giving for me. Orthodox theology turned out to be the "relational theology" that I desired but couldn't clearly define.
Spiritual object thinking tends to miss how the various parts of our salvation and new life can paradoxically combine—God's grace and our effort/works, the divine inspiration and humanity of Scripture, the divinity/humanity of puts these concepts in airtight compartments. We can talk about how they interact as from a distance, but this doesn't go far enough, as a relational model does, which views them as dynamic parts of a relationship. It also leaves the question of how to apply things like 'life by grace' rather open to hidden tradition. Relational theology sees these things as their own application. (2014-1-5)
There is much less emphasis on rationalistic explanation or systematization and a much greater acceptance of mystery in Orthodoxy. "Mystery" here is not meant as a way to push a counterintuitive doctrine or interpretation of a passage past  peoples' conscience or intuition, but to refer to things like the Incarnation, the Eucharist, or Baptism—times and ways in which God enters into our surroundings that are truly, gloriously beyond our understanding. Again, this fulfilled what I wrote in this entry:
I don't need the gospel to 'make sense' logically so much as I need it to capture my heart and imagination. (2014-2-7)
In the eastern vision, it does.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

In Praise of Braid

After replaying the classic puzzle game Braid this weekend, I realized I've barely even mentioned it here! Clearly this must be rectified. Even more than similar works like Portal, Braid sublimely demonstrates how games can be more than mere diversions. Instead, it is a work of art.

The easy first bit of the game.
Braid is a platformer puzzle game with mechanics similar to those of the classic Mario franchise. You run around two-dimensional worlds, climb ladders, stomp enemies, solve puzzles, and occasionally fight a boss. What distinguishes it is the time travel. Your avatar, Tim, possesses the ability to rewind time. Instead of relying on a store of lives to get him through danger, when killed he is obliged to simply rewind time to before his death and try again. The time mechanic is the core of Braid's fascinating, puzzle-based gameplay.

Sometimes the Mario homages are more blatant.
In the first world, the time mechanic simply allows Tim to complete some challenges and puzzles that would be infuriatingly difficult without it, like a blind leap into a pit with strategically-placed spikes. But in subsequent worlds, things get more interesting as more mechanics are added. Objects and characters that glow with green magic are unaffected by Tim's temporal meddling, moving normally as he is freezing or rewinding time. In one world Tim gains a shadow that repeats whatever actions Tim just rewound, allowing you to partner with yourself to solve some puzzles. In a particularly memorable world, the passage of time is directly tied to Tim's position; moving forward advances time, moving backward rewinds it.

One of the more action-packed levels.
Hopefully you can imagine the kind of brilliant, elegant, and diabolical puzzles this allows for. Beyond that, the gameplay is very simple: collect puzzle pieces and rescue the princess. But the time mechanic is so engrossing, so well-executed that the game doesn't need to consist of much else. Pictured below is my favorite puzzle: it took me around half an hour to figure out the simple solution for the first time.

One key, two locked is Tim going to get this puzzle piece?
Beyond the basic gameplay, there is plenty more to enjoy about Braid. The plot is minimal and unobstrusive, but surprisingly well thought-out. Books at the start of each world tell the nonlinear story somewhat cryptically, tying it in with whatever time mechanic is being introduced in that world. Other clues are filled in by the puzzle you assemble from each world's collectible pieces. As you progress, it draws you deeper, leading you to the possibility that the "princess" is more than just a literal damsel-in-distress... I won't spoil the ending, but it is a brilliant twist made possible only by the time mechanic, exemplifying the deep intertwining of gameplay and plot that Braid demonstrates (to say nothing of the secret ending...).

It gets much deeper from here.
The more artistic parts of Braid are what really complete it as an aesthetically fulfilling game. The game's licensed soundtrack is soft, beautiful, and pensive. As you rewind, freeze, or fast-forward time, the music stops or changes its speed accordingly, giving you satisfying audible feedback for your actions; there are also similar visual cues. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous, as the previous screenshots have shown; the game is vibrantly illustrated like a storybook brought to life, and each world has a distinctive visual theme. Mechanics, plot, and eye/ear candy all fit together incredibly well to create a game that is surprisingly emotive and immersive for being so short and two-dimensional.

The screen you are treated to at startup. A burning city never looked more beautiful...
Braid is only $10 on Steam, barring any sales.