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.


He entered into a covenant of life with him, upon the condition of perfect obedience.

“Christ by suffering the penalty, and so making atonement for us, only removes the guilt of our sins and so sets us in the same state that Adam was in the first moment of his creation: and it is no more fit, that we should obtain eternal life, only on that account, than that Adam should have the reward of eternal life, or of a confirmed and unalterable state of happiness, the first moment of his existence, without any obedience at all. Adam was not to have the reward merely  on account of his being innocent; if so, he would have had it fixed upon him at one, as soon as ever he was created; for he was as innocent then as he could be: but he was to have the reward on account of his activeness in obedience; not on the account merely of his not having done ill, but on the account of his doing well.”

-Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone


Consistency can really turn some people into nutjobs. If that statement is too concise and idiomatic, there is always Emerson’s jingle: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

I have to wonder if the issue is one of means and ends. Is consistency a criterion which should not be pursued as an end in itself but rather as a tool for testing what you really want to keep? Here’s an illustration in search of the answer.

It begins with a boat at sea. Nets are cast and then drawn in, and they come back teeming with fish of varying kinds. Consistency is what you use to sort the fish, to make sure you discard what you can’t or shouldn’t keep. And so you have a ship carrying inconsistencies as you test what you’ve retrieved, and sort it, and fill your freezers with a consistent sort of fish. The water pours from the deck, the nets are emptied, the measure is applied, and afterward the sea receives again a good portion of the catch. The hold of the ship is full of the bounty of the sea.

The illustration ends with the man who insists above all on consistency. He goes to sea on a smaller boat. He shakes his head at the disorder of the volume of the aforementioned fishing. Instead of using a net, he dives into the water with his measure and carefully obtains his consistent catch. No inconsistent fish come on his little boat, and in his ice-chest three or four fish are laid out neatly, like a shop-window display and all perfectly consistent.

And that illustrates two things: the mode of operation and the yield. I think of this in connection with G. K. Chesterton’s logician and poet. When I think of nut-jobs hammering on consistency, the resulting absence of both sense and wonder is what I respond to worst.

I don’t want to say that consistency is something we dispense with, but I think dispensing with it is dispensing with a means to something, such as a tool is—something useful and therefore good. So I conclude that making it an end is what generates the anomalies.

Continuities and Discontinuities

Sounds like a post on dispensationalism, doesn’t it? It is a post about historiography, and so it is a post about hermeneutics, and if dispensationalism is principally a hermeneutic, then there is no wonder that it sounds like a post on dispensationalism. It was a hermeneutical and historical issue for the early church to distinguish themselves from the OT economy without separating themselves from the OT message, after all.

I’m studying the period known as the modern church in most periodization, which in terms of what I need to know can also be described as the American church (the other periods leave it out, so perhaps it is only fair). The American church begins with the puritans in the 17th century, leads into that struggle over its heritage of the 18th century as experience gains prominence and collides with doctrine, as the resulting kaleidoscope highlights one thing and another and you come into the modern sensibility of what were then first called Evangelicals. The great awakening is when they take the stage, and it really is a watershed.

You can tell it was because preaching changed. The history of homiletics seems to me a useful one for marking some of the most important changes in Christians’ sense of what their religion is. One of the things that would spark awakening in New England was exchanging pulpits, which seems like a very curious fact. It was also the time for the introduction of a greater informality not only in venue but also in manner of preaching, and this of course led to a flowering of informality in worship and adherence. Here, then, is a study in continuity and discontinuity.

Individualism, for example, is often bandied about. One of the reasons that Benedictine monasteries were allowed to grow and thus grew up in Europe the Christian civilization without which the Reformation would not have taken place was that there was a weak sense of the individual in the early middle ages. If a person could have monks on his land praying and doing holy things, then it was really perceived as a spiritual benefit to him just by virtue of his connection. It cannot all attributed to superstition but was in large part due to a weak sense of the individual. If you read C. S. Lewis’ Discarded Image you’ll get an idea of the connectedness that the premodern notion of the cosmos encouraged.

Emerging from an animistic cosmos into one more deterministic and mechanistic meant strengthening the sense of the individual which had been simmering along in the Renaissance and in humanism. A person who is cut off from his connections stands more alone. The protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone strengthened it also, coming as it did from the nominalist world in which declarations and power were the overriding realities, a world of a profoundly legal character. When you go to the law you are no longer in a world of presiding ontologies, you are in a world of relating persons.

Relations require individuation, and the more immediate and newly forensic soteriology of the protestant reformation, as opposed to the mediate and mainly ontological soteriology of the medieval church, leads eventually to the logic of personal conversion, and a further individualism of personal experience, and to a further individualism of personal preference and taste, and so on.

Empiricism is another factor. No Nominalism, no empiricism, as Heiko Oberman has argued. Once you dismiss the overriding reality of the invisible, then you affirm the overriding reality of the visible, and you turn to it with all your philosophy. The trajectory is suggested in Roger Scruton’s quip about the Enlightenment being a form of light pollution. The Enlightenment is the exclusion from consideration of anything violating the Nominalist prejudice. Attention was focused on the visible; that is, the lights were turned on and turned up so that the stars were no longer visible. The stars of metaphysical reality were relegated to the land of fairy, and the result was a boon in applied science by which modern man defends all his ignorance.

The epistemology of Nominalism is experimental. Not surprisingly, then, as Aristotle’s instrument of education is abandoned for Bacon’s new one, you also get in theological circles a concern for experience. It begins to overshadow doctrine because it is part of the bias of its underlying and presupposed Nominalism to be empirical. So you begin to see Pietism, and Preparationism, and experimental Calvinism.

What strikes me as interesting in experimental Calvinism is that Jonathan Edwards takes a Lockean sensualism and psychology and does more than merely idealize or ‘spiritualize’ it. It is common for people with Nominalist assumptions to think that metaphysical realism is nothing more than a premodern idealism. No doubt the exact nature of realism and idealism and that continuity and discontinuty is something more than less characterized by confusion in our times. What, after all, is mind? What was it for Edwards? As Ahlstrom comments about The Nature of True Virtue, “One who consults it now can see clearly how Edwards’ highest thought moved out of the realm of Lockean psychology and into the great tradition of Christian Platonism.”

Great tradition indeed!

And that is my point. How are these things to be interpreted? Mercersburg theology held that the Reformation was the flowering of the best medieval piety, which is a way of accenting the continuities, the way the Oberman – Steinmetz – Muller – historiography is once again doing . . . with discontinuities. There can’t be history, there can’t be an account of how one things develops, or breaks with, or comes after in an intelligible way without continuity or discontinuity. The question is which do you accent. And why.

Edwardian Considerations

One of the distinctions that I’ve long appreciated and which I got from Jonathan Edwards is the distinction between a natural and a moral inability. Edwards understands, I understand, that human beings are responsible before God because we possess no natural inability to respond as God wishes, but we in fact do not, lacking a moral ability to do so. That is to say, human beings fail to respond to God because they culpably lack any desire to do so, not because they are unable to do so otherwise. So he distinguishes a moral and a natural inability.

This is something of which Richard Muller is extremely dubious and of which I have been wanted to inquire. There is a pervasive but not altogether clearly defined (at least to me) distrust in confessional Calvinist circles—which are not of the experimental variety—of the theology of Edwards. Theology, changes with him, they suggest, or, alternatively, they wonder what his underlying philosophical categories are, intimating they are not those of reformed scholastics. Why after all, the aspersion goes, is he the patron saint of something so terminally dodgy as American Evangelicalism? Why indeed.

Can it be that to distance oneself from experimental Calvinism—experimental Calvinism with its affinities to pietism, with its tendencies toward conversionism—is the result of an occult anthropological intellectualism? I find it a most tangled issue. I have found that those who are wary of experimental Calvinism tend to be more strict confessional types with a definite rational (in the sense of thought being primary) take on things, foregrounding that which is noetic over what is moral. That is, head over heart guys, rational over affective. (Of course, it may be that it is how I perceive them because I’m a heart over the head guy. Perhaps they maintain both equally and because of my point of view I distort them. I am temperamentally of the romantic rather than the classic persuasion, no doubt of that. I also think in the end you will be judged by what you desire, that what is most fundamentally you is what you want, that your desires are the core of your being, and so depravity is that you desire anything but God.)

Here is a bit of the issue, in terms of reliable documents made by professional theologians back when the underlying philosophy was still the perennial philosophy:

Q. In what consists the sinfulness of that state into which man fell?

A. The sinfulness of that state into which man fell consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the lack of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin, together with all actual transgressions that proceed from it.

‘The corruption of the whole nature’ is what I want to bring to your attention. Is my way of taking Edwards not entirely what the catechism expects? Is nature what Edward’s has in mind when he stresses that we have no natural inability? I don’t think so. The distinction been a natural and a moral ability is one that qualifies the corruption of the whole nature, not one that denies that corruption. It specifies the pervasive corruption by locating its ground or core, and so it fits with more general statements.

Shedd however, says: “he differs from the elder Calvinists, who regarded a mental faculty and its moral condition as inseparable.”

Really? Inseparable is not the same as indistinguishable, which latter is the domain Edwards actually moves in. Perhaps this confusion is why Shedd is able to utter this enormity: “Edwards conceives of the will abstractly and separate from its inclination, and as so conceived contends that it is ‘naturally able’ to obey the law of God. The elder Calvinists denied that the will can be so conceived of.” And so, as I understand him, did Edwards. Shedd is being a bit unsympathetic to a necessarily abstract consideration of something handled in distinction to other things but not in absolute isolation from the whole of man. One of Muller’s reservations about Edwards is that he is no longer a faculty theologian as the ‘elder Calvinists’ were, which I think neutralizes Shedd’s reading.*

Because I think an anthropological voluntarism with a moral inability specifies the pervasiveness of the corruption by locating it precisely at the core of the nature and from there radiating to all of it, which is not, after all, separate from moral considerations, but is distinguishable nevertheless.


*Can we therefore not say that Muller takes Shedd to the shed?

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to FacebookThis book is an engrossing, long collection of short chapters about how networks and hierarchies can help us to understand history, in particular, recent history. The history is credible and sometimes brilliant, the premise about networks is sometimes compelling but often rather creaky, and the network diagrams are the silliest thing in the book. I don’t know why making little charts appeals so much to the learned of our age, except that it gives them something to do with their computers.

Ferguson is concerned that at the present the networks of internet usage are eroding the stability that hierarchies provide; and, being one of the world’s elites, he’s concerned that the president of the US, who does not process things the way he does, will not steer us as well as persons who understand what Ferguson himself does might through these present troubled waters. It is amusing, therefore, because he shows that Donald Trump sits at the top of a hierarchy (which is exactly what elites have made it their life goal to do), and yet he has not done so by playing the game as today’s elites have (which is what makes them so nervous). It is more than amusing, of course, it is worth thinking about.

The Calvin Congress of the Unexamined Life

Calvin scholars gathered to WTS this week to do what they do: read academic papers.

I’ve never been to an academic thing like that. I’ve heard Roger Scruton deliver interesting remarks, I’ve found George Marsden disappointing and Mark Noll really dumb. But I’ve never been to a sustained, full-on, bunch of people who know more and more about less and less gathering so protracted.

The value of these is not hearing the writer read the paper. Some of them do have public speaking abilities, though. The value of these things is the collegiality. They know who is doing what, they meet the person whose work they’re interacting with, and that helps. They can interact informally, ask follow up questions, and they can do it in a way that everybody knows which direction people are interested in inquiring toward. They sit around and have inside jokes about recondite things. That, oddly enough, can also get old.

Look for a gathering of interest on Beza in the next years. Beza, it is generally felt, is remarkable, underappreciated, and not very well available. So Beza is probably going to have the spotlight of reformation studies coming his way. I am not surprised that this should be one of the take-aways from a Calvin Congress.

And for all the scholarship debunking the Calvin against the Calvinist stuff out there, do not look for some smug eminences to quit still pitting Calvin against the Calvinists. I was shocked when I heard it, and that I heard it in a room with some who had labored patiently against it. Academia is as all of life is: the good and the bad are intermingled higgledy-piggledy.

The best thing I attended was a workshop on Zwingli. It was interesting. It may be that it was just interesting as a relief from Calvin. I’m . . . not a Calvin man myself. Zwingli is my reformer, more than Luther, though I’ll take Luther over Calvin any day. Anyway, this paper had the thrilling account of a battle and made clearer Zwingli’s independent approach to reformation. It was also interesting, as these things can be, because a chap from the U of Zurich was there to moderate questions and supply information. Helpful, that. As was the moderator of another workshop who turned out to be better at the subject than the one preparing.

Made me glad for the historians I have had some proximity with. And it did highlight the use of including accounts of battles in academic papers.