Straw Men

There are three useful functions that making arguments which are false about something or somebody achieve. The first is to undermine the credibility of the person making the straw man, and it cannot be denied that such is one of the most useful things that person can ever do. The second is that it deceives the uninformed, and this is useful to the father of lies, serving him with that nearly exclusive devotion he most desires. The third achievement of making straw men is to create distrust among those who are informed, to alienate them at the most and to make them suspect bad faith at the least; and there are persons who should be distrusted, and there actually are some from whom we should withdraw. This is information the informed also desire. It is good, if bad faith exists, to discern it, and that begins with suspicion, though it does not, of course, end there.


Library Observations of the Unexamined Life

I don’t know why I should be surprised at how many recent commentaries there are, but, looking on the reserve shelves at the seminary library, there are an extraordinary amount of commentaries there that have come out since I was among them last. Whole series, aren’t there? It must be a profitable corner of the business.

It is getting to the end of the season of finals, and people are tired of studying. Conversations these days obtain a lot more readily. Which also means that soon the library will be a quieter place, one to which you go with a purpose and find that purpose can be accomplished promptly.

I was on an errand to return a sophisticated electronic device. Many admired said device, more than I would have guessed. I had been lent the device on some official capacity of supreme importance and had been unable to make use of it. I get anxious and sad when required to put myself out for the sake of technology; that is just part of being advanced in age, I think. One helpful admirer of the device said it was purposely set up to be intuitive. Ah! That is an observation not calculated to make me anxious and sad but instead the opposite. There ensued a conversation, the outlines of which have probably been divulged here before. I ended with an indictment of the age.

Speaking of corruption and decline, I remember being told once by a majority-texter that all the oldest copies of the correct text were no longer available because they had been worn out. I feel that the first article in the library’s latest issue of the Calvin Seminary Journal, for the same reason, will before long altogether cease to exist. Perhaps, it is now suggested to me, that is also what happens to all the really useful commentaries.

How Long?

I’ve been preaching again regularly, after so long that my skills are exceedingly rusty. Besides that, I think my academic endeavors and other exertions have developed me in ways that would have required smaller, incremental adjustments before and which now come all in a large, unmanageable package. The result is that my own preparations tend to leave me with packages somewhat large and unmanageable. I need to get the better of them.

I don’t like to go long. I remember one good preacher once was going a bit long because there are circles where apparently that consideration is beneath consideration. It was, about halfway through, a good sermon, so I thought, this is like pizza. One sometimes has a slice more than necessary when one is young because it tastes so good. But then he kept adding slices, as it were, and the effect is to make you feel about the sermon, however good, as you would about having consumed a whole pizza.

Augustine says something in his fourth book about the need for considerations when preaching. It is like cooking; we have to be nourished, but it is better if there is some art in the preparation of your nourishment. When you don’t, he goes on to explain, you’ll just end up with the only ones who can take it: the fanatics.

November of the Unexamined Life

The cold is here again.

The sulphur-sour diesel fumes of school buses scent the cold air. Their engines grind on without kids, with just a driver done and headed for the lot. The kids scatter under the grey skies: the last kids, like the last winter leaves still straggling in the wind.

Hooded workmen are siding a new house, sawing sections with the sounds of whining bombs descending. But there are no explosions to be heard; only the seen explosion of raucous birds, of starlings or wrens bursting from the shrubbery, circling from wires to treetops, catching the wind.

The clouds actually scud. You often see just gray and white and sometimes hints of blue beyond the gray. The sun shines on a hazy day, the sky wan from a damp atmosphere. There is repose on the land in such conditions, no matter what the wind is doing.

The wind is always howling at the door on these November days. You open the door and it is quiet; you close it and the wind’s howling starts right up. It batters the house, strains it to groaning, clashes branches and rushes the feckless leaves.

The city’s sucking trucks collect the disorderly leaves. Somewhere there is a great deposit of disintegrating leaves left from the spring and summer, quietly warming the winter with decomposition.*


*This message is brought to you by Socrates, who reminds us that the unexamined life is not worth living.

Aquinas and Salvation

Thomas has made it clear that we can do nothing that effects our salvation without grace. Having been given grace, though, we must act so as to cooperate in God’s work for our salvation. Cooperating grace enables and prompts us to achieve our salvation by our meritorious action. That final question of the treatise on grace addresses the notion of merit. Here Thomas is concerned to forestall misunderstandings, common throughout the church’s history, regarding the relation between merit and grace.

We have seen the Pelagian view of merit – the notion that, if we do our best, God will give us the grace of our heavenly reward – is far too simple-minded. We may indeed do the best we can, but without grace, not one of our actions has any bearing whatsoever upon our relation to God. A more subtle form of the Pelagian view, sometimes called ‘semi-Pelagianism’, contends that we, while yet unaided by grace, must make the initial move. We must merit grace by showing our worthiness, for it and its effects  before we are given it. Once it has been given to us, we can then go on to merit salvation more or less the way Thomas describes. . . . On this view of merit, we would earn our subsequent justification without the aid of grace. Augustine himself later retracted this view, as Thomas notes, acknowledging that faith itself is from its very beginning an effect of grace; ‘we believe, whilst we are being justified’ (ST ½.114.5 ad 1). Any notion that God becomes indebted to us because of our natural efforts is thus ruled out.

-Nicholas Healy, Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life, 116

Contrary to the hagiography that one sometimes encounters, there was development in Aquinas’ thought, and one of the areas in which he developed was soteriology. Joseph Wawrykow chronicles the development through three of Aquinas’ treatises chronologically, showing how he began a semi-Pelagian and worked his way to a more Augustinian view. This is the view which Healy presents above. Wawrykow’s book is God’s Grace and Human action: ‘Merit’ in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas did what everybody who got a master’s degree in theology did in his time, he wrote a commentary on what had become a standard book of theology, Peter Lombard’s Sentences. The Sentences was a 12th century book of which two useful observations can be made.

Lombard’s Sentences represents a response to a growing medieval population and civilization. Books were still hand-copies, laborious, costly and therefore rare items. As a result, books of sentences, books of crucial quotations from the authorities of the past were elaborated and implemented. It was far cheaper and easier to copy a selection than to acquire the necessary library. I have read one historian speculating that Bernard of Clairvaux was probably one of the last figures to read the ancient authorities in context as part of his education. He would have been reading and studying in the late 11th and early 12th century. As the population increased in Europe, the need to train priests to pastor them did too, especially in cities. Along with the cathedral schools came the books of sentences.

As a consequence of compiling assorted quotations, European teachers were faced with the problem of organizing and classifying their material. This development of topics is part of the development of systematic theology. A second consequence was that differences among the authorities became obvious as never before, and this led to the procedure of debate known as the disputation. If you think of Luther’s 95 theses for debate and the Heidelberg disputation, you will realize that the scholastic method of evaluating options, discarding opinions, and reconciling contradictions is exactly what the Reformers were still doing 300 years later. Lombard’s sentences today read like a disputation, the way Aquinas’ works often do. That organization was not original, so that the text was more dynamic than our common ideas of medieval times might lead us to believe. The final organization of Lombard’s Sentences was achieved in Aquinas’ own lifetime.

Aquinas commented Lombard’s Sentences in the 1250s, very early in his career, and it is at this stage that Wawrykow describes his semi-Pelagian view of merit. Aquinas was concerned with grace as a formal rather than an efficient cause, Wawrykow explains. A formal cause is a more intelligible causality, rather than one focusing on agency. It is one that shines as an ideal in the mind. It pulls rather than pushes, I think we could say, and because if this a formal cause leaves the agency unstated, and that tends to shift agency onto the subject of salvation, the human rather than the divine party.

What happened is that Aquinas was able to read Augustine and as a result he worked to reconcile this indisputable authority with his early and vaguer notions of grace. Wawrykow shows the struggle in an intermediate book called De Veritate and then in Aquinas’ developed theology which is found in the first section of the second part of the Summa Theologiae. Here grace is considered an efficient causality, and the principal agent in Salvation is divine. That doesn’t mean there is no room for human agency, but that the Augustinian emphasis is squarely on the divine, so that Aquinas is no longer vulnerable to the charge of semi-Pelagianism.

That is a gross simplification. It is a sketch of a very detailed and extensive book-length argument Wawrykow carefully develops. And it is worth observing that that is the problem when dealing with Aquinas, there aren’t simple arguments in his compendious and subtle thought. He taxes patience because he requires so many complex and seemingly infinite distinctions. And I believe others, just as I am, are tempted to dismiss what he is saying as too subtle just because it requires more work than we are used to putting into things. The question is, however, why should we think causality is simple, or that theology should be? One of the factors helping this conclusion has to be laziness, even though another one is the dubious aesthetic preference masquerading as a rule of thought commonly known as Ockham’s razor. It is, as subsequent philosophy and theology have demonstrated, a knife for cutting oneself off from metaphysics. Aquinas never cut himself off from metaphysics.

Assessing Aquinas’ soteriology, we can see that the problem is not that he is semi-Pelagian. The real objection we would have to his soteriology is that it is considered almost exclusively in transformative or ontological categories, without the familiar forensic or judicial categories that the Reformation gave us. A crucial distinction is missing, and this makes him collapse distinguishable portions that are nevertheless inseparable. If you don’t have some way to distinguish things that need to be inseparable, then you are going to conflate them.

That is to be expected. Luther saw his way to those categories because his thinking was focused by voluntarism and nominalism, so that the resulting tunnel vision allowed him to see only the forensic and declarative nature of justification, and at the beginning to the exclusion of any other consideration. What Aquinas’ and Luther do not have in common is that Aquinas’ was a metaphysical realist and Luther decidedly was not. Aquinas’ did theology in the Christian Platonic approach of theological intellectualism, and Luther did his theology in the Scotist and voluntarist way, coupled with a nominalist approach to metaphysics, in which power, relations, and judicial pronouncements determine reality. If the Christian Aristotelianism of Aquinas focused on the reality of substance, Luther’s nominalist approach focused on the reality in terms of powerful agency.

We need both the categories of law and of being to understand salvation. We need the ontological and transformative categories that have to do with the consequences of what God has done in us, those which foreground the human response to the divine activity. But we need those consequences only after we have the initial cause, the status-changing forensic declaration of justification by faith alone and the double imputation this impliess. What Aquinas’ and Luther had in common, however, was the Augustinian approach, the need for divine initiative. The missing part was a theological development requiring something Aquinas and all good people recognize as a problem: nominalism.

Nominalism gives us justification by faith alone and all the benefits of applied science, including the nuclear bomb and the iPhone. Nominalism has brought clarity in limited areas, by focusing our attention toward something we needed to see. This doesn’t mean that I embrace nominalism, but it does mean that whatever it is we of the human race hold to, it is, however admirable, provisional and in unexpected ways subject to correction. We should think that way of what we have, just as we should think that way of what Aquinas had, and what Augustine himself way back in the day had, whose insight, as the Healy quotation above indicates, came as a retraction.

Men of Their Times

When we tell the story of the Reformation we give pride of place to the Magisterial reformers. Magisterial is a deceptively majestic sounding word. Are the magisterial reformers called magisterial because of the majestic way in which the Spirit of God used them to bring a sweeping revival upon apostate Europe? We behold Luther, Calvin, and even Zwingli proceeding with serene majesty against the venomous mob of enemies, standing above the tumult of the radical reformers, those groveling without discipline and in ignorance.

The magisterial reformation is a band on the spectrum of approaches. It is a band characterized by its determination for two main things: in the first place to reform and in the second place to bring the magistrate along with them, which is to say, it is a reformation of society, not just a reformation of the church. A ministerial reformation would be one that attended to the ministry without regard to the magistrate, but that was not the kind of reformation these men desired. And it is their reformation we labor to remember.

How do we account for this? In Zwingli’s case it was patriotism. Today we call Erastianism that view of the church which makes it a department of the state, which posits a Christian nation united by its religion, a religion under the authority of the government. That was Zwingli’s view. In Luther’s case it was conservatism. He was a hero of the medieval world, a man of the university and deeply attached to the hierarchies that civilized Europe. He mistrusted the Swiss reformation, relying as it did on town councils and devoid of a ruling nobility. In Calvin’s case it was his profound desire for legal procedure and the resulting order, his loyalty to his native land with its centralized monarchy, and perhaps his dreams of a time when debating and reasoning flourished in France under the tolerant eye of Francis I and before the disastrous radical placards.

Already one can discern a spectrum. Zwingli is the most radical of the magisterial reformers; Luther is the least radical; and Calvin is somewhere in between. Beyond Zwingli, of course, lie those who reform without government consent, something which all the magisterial reformers abhorred (with the exception of the marginal John Knox). But this radical position is very close to that of Zwingli, and also close to that of the Puritans, who spawn the Separatists and who also become political allies of Republicanism in the English Civil War. In England, closer to Luther, is the early reformation that Martin Bucer’s cautious friend Thomas Cranmer achieved. Of all the reformers, Martin Bucer was the most conciliatory. There is reason to believe that Cranmer was happy with the more conservative first book of common prayer.

The question is, however, who was right. It is a complex question. Should a state define itself by a common religion? Christendom knew no other way. The wars of religion eventually brought the realization that it was either extermination or toleration. The result for Europe was an established religion that tolerated a limited variety, but socially marginalized dissent. The outcome over the long haul has been that true religion has been driven out of the establishment. Fearing marginalization by the specter of Nonconformity, the Presbyterians in America modified the Westminster Confession and supported disestablishmentarianism, which led to the flourishing of a bewildering variety.

Who but a radical, however, in the sixteenth century could have thought that a state could flourish if it became indifferent to the question of religion? It was a paradoxical position for radicals since what they desired in part was and had to be a political outcome even while abandoning any political participation. The radical position was to depart from society as a whole and have a small but pure society within the larger society to which they were as indifferent as they could manage. Even if the long-term outcome was one the radicals grasped more clearly, the means to it lay in the approach of the magisterial reformation. Perhaps the road did not have to lie through war, but I, for one, am not sure the greater wisdom did not lie in being too much men of their times, with horizons limited by common expectations which turned out to be the limits of the possible.

The Metaphysics of Wonder

For there is this great difference between things temporal and things eternal, that a temporal object is valued more before we possess it, and begins to prove worthless the moment we attain it, because it does not satisfy the soul, which has its only true and sure resting-place in eternity: an eternal object, on the other hand, is loved with greater ardor when it is in possession than while it is still an object of desire, for no one in his longing for it can set a higher value on it than really belongs to it, so as to think it comparatively worthless when he finds it of less value than he thought; on the contrary, however high the value any man may set upon it when he is on his way to possess it, he will find it, when it comes into his possession, of higher value still.

-Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1:38

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.

-Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 2:40

Platonism is an epistemology. It denies there can be real knowledge of mutable objects. The objects of knowledge are therefore immutable. Platonic epistemology differs from the Aristotelian in that it affirms immediate knowledge of these objects, which the latter denies to human knowledge. Nominalism either radically denies that there are permanent objects of knowledge at all or more moderately denies that human kind has real access to them.

The Platonic epistemology has this which commends it to us: it opens up a metaphysics of wonder, as can be seen in the first quotation. That, we can say, is what Platonism essentially is. It begins as an epistemology, one that argues the direct apprehension of the immutable objects of knowledge. This in turn leads to a metaphysics of wonder, which implies an ontology of diminishing and increasing participation in the Good.