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.

After God’s Own Heart

I was surprised and not surprised in a recent conversation. I asked: “Do you think that when Scripture calls David a man after God’s own heart it has to do with his behavior?” and the response was in the affirmative.

I was surprised because the answer might be, not his behavior as such, but his behavior as an indication of something in his heart. A better answer would of course be: No, not his behavior. It was not because he was particularly well-behaved that he was called a man after God’s own heart. It was because of what he believed about God that he was called one.

Of course, his behavior has to be in some way consistent with what he believes about God. That is why we not only see him committing murder and adultery but also heartily repenting it. That is why we not only see him numbering the people, we see him casting himself on the mercy of God. He believed God to be merciful, consistently, always, whether he was well-behaved or not. Especially when he was not well-behaved, we might say. Isn’t that the point? And that is why he was a man after God’s own heart: he knew how God was, he knew the Lord. He understood that the Lord eagerly forgives sinners and does not despise a contrite heart. David was a man after God’s own heart because he was a sinner, a sinner who never ceased to seek the mercy of the Lord.

I was not surprised, however, because whenever the gospel is not clear there will soon be moralism, at the very least. I think we assume we know the gospel clearly, and the truth is that we do not have a very sophisticated grasp of the gospel. The good news is that you don’t have to have a sophisticated grasp of the gospel for it to be yours, the bad news is that you need to advance in your knowledge or you will be prey to all the attendant weaknesses of failing to strengthen your position.

Moralism, by the way, is when you think your conduct gains you acceptance with God. Why was David a man after God’s own heart, we ask the moralist. Because he behaved himself better than others, comes the reply. That is the wrong answer. With that answer the story of David becomes perplexing. How was it possible for him to have done these things and still be a man after God’s own heart? Mysterious.

But it should not be mysterious. In one sense, the only difference between David and Saul was not that one did worse things, but that one of them repented his deeds.

Later that day I had a conversation with a man who, I understand, has been in the ministry for 50 years. What was unusual about that conversation was his emphasis on learning the shorter catechism. If I understand him correctly, he believes that a requirement for the pastorate should be that you know a good catechism. There have been ages of the church in which that would not sound unusual at all, and there are places in the church in which it still is not. But that is not something you encounter widely in evangelical America, even though it believes itself undoubtedly a champion of the gospel.

And he persuaded me, quite apart from the earlier conversation. But as I think of those two conversations, I am also convinced that they intersect.

Of the Unexamined Life

Things that irritate me, and which ought to irritate me when I myself do them, are things such as the use of an elliptical epithet instead of precise description. “Baptistic” for example, in the context of something disorderly in the church, or “dispensational” to render suspect something to do with putting the New Testament first. Is it more than unscrupulous innuendo?

The use of epithets that way does reveal something about the person using the term. One should, of course, always remember that it is definitely better to suffer an injustice than to commit one.

The word “mystical” is a particularly grievous epithet often imprecisely employed, irresponsibly intended, and mischievously deployed. It is the usage that prompts this post. Is it only scoundrels that use the epithet pejoratively, or is there a pejorative use that actually carries more than innuendo? I doubt it.


As far as I can tell, the antidote is to require substance: a definition, an argument, clarity rather than obscurity. It is enough to make one think that clear expression actually requires good will. Not happy, nice will, but true good-will. Can it be?

Reflections on Jonah

I think the book of Jonah is principally about how much more God cares for his creatures than those who share his creature’s plight often do. It is about the ironically unmerciful prophet who is rescued by an improbable marine monster and who is relieved by an unexplained plant and who is furthermore twice reduced to acknowledging his own need but remains nevertheless ridiculously blind to the unconditional nature of election. Jonah understands that salvation is of the Lord. And that, for him, is the problem.

The fantastic elements in the story of Jonah contrast with what should really be incredible. How did the man survive inside of a fish for that long? Hard to say. What about the swiftly growing plant showing up where and when it did? Very curious. What, though, about a prophet who has no desire to prophesy? Sounds a bit like Balaam, and what do we encounter there also? Of all things a talking donkey. Is there anything quite like a man who goes to an unknown place, cold-turkey preaches that God is about to destroy it shortly, and when his improbable message is spectacularly believed resents it? He was not previously evading his duty, risking his life otherwise, and sulking on the more reasonable grounds that it was a tough assignment. He was actually mad that it worked! Jonah’s attitude is, however, the easiest part of the tale to believe. And I wonder if that isn’t the point.

The pagan characters in the story all contrast with Jonah in how they behave. First the captain wonders how Jonah can sleep when everybody else is praying. Then the sailors are reluctant to doom him to die on their behalf, but at last and at great cost reluctantly yield, and piously demonstrate gratitude at once. (After which we see some of the piety Jonah himself is capable of, which is exhibited in a theologically informed and poetically adept expression, arguing no inconsiderable ability.) Last, the Ninevites exhibit contrition and cry out to God for mercy in a textbook example of repentance. Everybody behaves as he should, does what is rightly expected, all with one exception: the prophet.

You have, in the book of Jonah, a story about a reluctant messenger, an enigmatic messenger, willing to die rather than carry out his commission. Of course, it’s humor. But it is also a sobering view into our own hearts. And it is beyond all this also reassuring; whatever we may think, however we may take the statement, it is nevertheless true that salvation is of the Lord.