St. Anselm: A Portrait in a LandscapeHere is a title to judge the book by: A Portrait in a Landscape. If that is not inviting, I hope I never have to send you an invitation.

Southern occupies my pantheon of great church historians. There are at the moment three: Christopher Dawson, Henry Chadwick and Richard Southern. There are other good historians, but these are those who I think are best prepared, most insightful and most reliable. The best historians have carefully digested all the primary sources and know what the secondary literature has done and is doing. For most people, that limits us to a very narrow focus. These three historians have a broader range of mastery than most, and Dawson is by far the greatest. Chadwick is king of the Early Church, and Richard Southern is king of the middle ages up through the 12th century. Anything that happened after that date is probably inconsequential.

Here are two things these three historians do for me, and Southern does in this book. The first is that they can plunge into the details of a remote situation, read between the lines, discern what is going on, and explain sympathetically what the situation is. It is the more remarkable in Southern because he does not seem himself to believe as Christians have. Dawson obviously does, and Chadwick maintains neutrality but is clearly positive. Southern is not, but knows how to understand what it meant to the object of his inquiry, in this case Anselm. Southern has written a whole careful, detailed, sympathetic biography of a man of whom he said, “The only important aim in his life was the discovery of God.” The second thing all three do, and that which raises them above the average good historian, is to be able to discern what is going on in general. The details can be confusing and chaotic. Discerning a general tendency, one that makes sense of the chaos of detail and besides describing, explains, is difficult. It is what requires mastery of what most of us are not qualified to master. It is what Dawson, Chadwick and Southern never fail to do. If the past is a vast, unlit cavern, and historians go into the past with a candle, reading in isolated lit places, then what these historians do is set up a series of candles by which the larger proportions of their cave can be discerned. They provide deft and reliable orientation. Southern does this for Anselm and his times: figures out the man, figures out the broader situation, demonstrates how his writing and responses come together in his character and outlook. It is the most humane thing possible, and it takes a great historian to achieve it at such a tremendous distance in time.

Here are two instances of this: “Among other themes, Anselm’s ideal and practice of friendship remains an important clue to the general character of his life and work. It needs to be understood as an expression of a religious ideal shared by all those who were his teachers, his pupils, and his actual or hoped-for companions in the monastic life.”

And, “The Cur Deus Homo was the product of a feudal and monastic world on the eve of a great transformation. With all its originality, and personal intensity of vision, it bears the marks of this rigorous—and if the word can be used without blame—repressive regime.”

Here is my second favorite greatest thing Southern says of Anselm: “But, even if he had not read the Timaeus, he had imbibed elements of Platonic thought from St Augustine. As we shall see in the dispute with Roscelin, he thought that any other kind of philosophy not only led to heresy, but was also indicative of hopeless intellectual blindness.”

This is one of the most characteristic statements about Anselm Southern makes: “The future lay with minds of a different type—minds which saw that government was a matter of administration, and not an attempt to reproduce on earth a pattern of things laid up in Heaven. Anselm aimed at the latter.”

In Memory

The sadness of David Oestreich’s death is the first I’ve felt this much. I can search out his picture in my gmail contacts, but he will not answer any more. We had some good exchanges, but these are over now.

We met several times: McDonald’s, Highbanks Metropark, Blendon Woods, our apartment, the North Market, Panera, and once in Toledo at the art museum. But we originally met online. We corresponded a bit by postal mail, but he was not one for correspondence that way. He was not so glib at writing things as I.

He was a poet. It had been his aspiration, forsaken for some years, and then renewed with some success. He became devoted to that, and he was good. I saw a lot of his poems in early drafts, and we went back and forth criticizing. There is at least one still forthcoming. We had a literary friendship, a common interest in contemporary poetry, and poetry. He wanted to make sure he understood what American poets up to recently had been saying. He had more enthusiasm than I did, and developed a better technical ability with it by far. He explained free verse to me once, before I read Paul Fussell’s book. He knew how to make it work.

He spurred me to write. Contacted me first about publishing something in his online poetry journal Triage. As the pastorate in Bogota dematerialized, I turned more and more to writing, and he encouraged it, for which I’m grateful. I’m grateful that he understood me, and I’m grateful that I understood him. How many people can you say that much about?

I’m diminished by his death. It brings a change upon me. It is a solemn thing to have something irrevocably removed, a door shut that in this world will never again be opened. My understanding grows, even as I am reduced by the loss. I was writing a blog I thought he’d like when I found out and didn’t dare believe that he had died. He died of pneumonia complications, it cannot have been a protracted affair, but sudden. It is best for the person who dies when it is sudden, and probably worst for those who are left. I am happy for him that he pursues better and more clearly now the thing for which he has been made. May the Lord comfort those of us who have been bereaved, especially his widow and her children.

Meditation XVII

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

-John Donne


I take the train that looms out of the fog through the wintergrey world. It slugs along behind things, exposing the neglected places of Philadelphia. I love the grey weather dullness of it. I can’t wait to take it one day in the snow. You see a lot of industrial decay, empty lots, old lamps and ways, rotting wooden structures, rowhouses with gaps, dark satanic mills all spent and broken. One is almost inspired to take up photography. I love it. It is the only place to live, the city, and Philadelphia is one I am growing very fond of.

I have to go downtown, change trains, and the longer ride is out to Villanova. If I go early I can bop over to the Reading Terminal Market. There: so much food, so many things to smell. I could pop out on the way back, take in the steaming city streets when you can look into the lit shops. In restaurants there are always Philadelphians eating well. I love to see them. I may pop out one of these fine evenings, while it is still dark at 7:30. The only place to live is in the city.

Villanova is well served by the train: a neat little station with a dingy underground tunnel to get to the far side of the tracks. It is a wonderful specimen of water damage, ghastly white paint, ghastlier fluorescent lighting made more ghastly by protective plastic, and terrible proportions. The tunnel is scarcely ever empty, however, students get from one side of campus to the other that way, though they might climb to the overpass on convenient stairs and cross aboveground. They do the tunnel constantly, it is less work. It must be the most constantly used dingy tunnel in the world. The station has what not all stations here do: a heated, sheltered place. And it is an old station, looking, because of the charm of its rotting woodwork, like something from the 1920s, as many of the Philadelphia train stations do. A short walk from the station gets you to Old Falvey, which is connected to the big Falvey library.

I take my class in Old Falvery, with its overheated halls and disreputable couches. It has old doors with curious lettering on them, ancient restrooms, and the very bulletin boards are covered with protective, corrugated green cardboard that has been entirely smashed, faded and torn down to the exposed cork, like deliberate fake mold. Villanova is not like Princeton Seminary in so many ways. It is not new, it is not remarkably organized, it is not scrupulously legislated, it is large but never spacious, it is not upscale. And it is far more welcoming, like Philadelphia, institutional, decaying and being renewed, ordered along massive lines, never fiddly, a good place to live.

In the busy library, the shelving all stands still. They have the A-Ds of their collection (B is where most of a theological library is at) in a incongruous section with lower ceilings, somewhat proportioned like the tunnel in the train station. Motion sensors cue the lights in the neglected darkness. There are ample holdings there, a maze of narrow aisles, discontinued desks and chairs, and inadvertent mechanical noises. You almost expect to hear the train in the remote portions. You can rejoin the wider world of the rest of the library, climb the stairs and find seating on the second, third or fourth stories where tables are ranged along the outside of the stacks along the windows. On the fourth floor most of the chairs were resting upside down on the tables.

My class is large for a seminar: ten people. We sit in a high, narrow room. Most of the space is enclosed by tables set in a rectangle. Along the narrow margins all around are our chairs. There is a window, a whiteboard, an extra table and that is all. No AV stuff. Whiteboard. One student used a laptop, the rest of us notebooks. Bunch of Catholics.

It really made Princeton look austere and aristocratic. Princeton was reserved, paused, thoughtful, hieratic. The teacher never told us what to call him, and we always addressed him with an honorific title. Things were done with a custom of solemnity. At Villanova it is almost manic sometimes, informal, discursive, approaching chaos. Jokes are very welcome. There is a sense of purpose, but not of dignity and nothing solemn. All is mingled and swirling.

Part of it was the Catholic stuff wafting around. Flagrante Verbo and other papal pronouncements, ressourcement, Lonergan, kinds of thomists, Rahner & Von Balthazar, and all that unappealing glitter. It will be a good exercise to get a feel for how their minds go, what they get worked up about and not. It is a whole wider world and one that is not, like mainline Princeton, embalmed by Egyptian ritual investments. It was for me teeming with what I’ve never been much exposed to. Another part of it is that they seem to associate intelligence with going fast, speaking quickly, stuttering, ineffectual gestures, breathless Latin phrases. That can be enervating.

Still, the place is alive. It is a vital teeming. I like the unassuming teacher, her ebullience, her avowed Thomism, the subject (the doctrine of the Trinity), the wider context, the collegiality that you do not get at WTS. And then after two and a half hours I step to the station, wait for the lights of the train, the shaking of its mighty approach, and climb into it and settle in for an hour more of Philadelphia.

Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following Christ by Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt

Thomas Aquinas: Faith, Reason, and Following ChristGood history, good analysis, good explanations of philosophy and theology, good structuring, good everything. It is hard to think how this book could be improved. It has some very dense sections that require careful, intent reading; but then, it is Aquinas we are talking about. If I were to own only one book on Aquinas, this would be it.

The premise is that the way Aquinas ought to be interpreted is as a Dominican, concerned for preaching and its supporting intellectual disciplines. In other words, not as a philosopher stuck in a theological world, but as a Christian minister, wanting to ground a robust ministry in clear and thorough theology.

After a very sensible and useful historical setting, you get a lucid explanation of Aquinas’ theological system, beginning with natural theology, moving through the philosophical underpinnings, a sensible explanation of the arguments for God’s existence, through Christology, salvation, humanity, Christian life, and so on.

The final chapter is an explanation of the approaches to Aquinas through the ages, the kinds of Thomism there have been, which is useful for getting one’s bearings and for consulting subsequently.


History and Theological Method

You have to be rather intensely devoted to the Trinity Debate to be reading the comments on Lee Irons’ blog. I think the comments are interesting because they’re responses by Kevin Giles.

Irons believes the Greek word monogenes ought to be translated ‘only begotten’. He believes that when Giles translates ‘unique’ he is wrong. Now I don’t know about you, but doesn’t it seem that the semantic domain of ‘only begotten’ would have a significant overlap with ‘unique’? I think Giles defends himself in the comments, though he receives no response from Irons there. I’d also like to read Giles’ book now.

Anyway, Giles does something interesting. I think he puts a finger on the part of the issue that really interests me more than anything, theological method. I really think that this is where the historians are exposing a problem with the biblical and systematic theological assumptions about method that allow EFS to come up in the first place. Irons then appears to be reinforcing it, and Giles swings his pick at it.

This is what Giles says.

The Greek fathers basically constructed their doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and eternal procession of the Spirit on logical deductions and inferences. What we need to recognize is that these two doctrines answer a very big question, how can the one God be eternally three persons? For three hundred years really smart theologians could not adequately answer this question. They began with the premise that God is eternally one and in more than one way then tried to show how he became three in history. It was only early in the fourth century that the deduction was made that God must be eternally triune and only then could the best of theologians began exploring how to explain eternal threefold divine self-differentiation. They noted that the NT spoke repeatedly of God the Father and God the Son and they inferred an internal Father by necessity implies and eternal Son. The next step was to argue a Father-Son relationship implies a begetting; a begetting where the nature/being of the begetter is perfectly communicated to the begotten. Having made these deductions they then found texts in support of this inference, Ps 2:7, Prov 8:25 and Ps 110.3.

How many evangelicals want to speak that way about the formulation of doctrine? He goes on from there to lay it out in the rest of the long comment, and apparently his book does too. It is illuminating. It is too bad it is so buried away, but it is there for the avid.

It is also ironic. Irons—in another thing he wrote—persuaded Grudem and Ware. And circumstances, no doubt, helped that persuasion, but the paper by Irons was the stated determining influence. After all, it is the same method.

A Beginning, a Middle and an End

If you don’t know where that comes from, read Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle was a great marine biologist who had an eye for the middle of anything. He was, as we Platonists know, not so great at epistemology, but he was a diligent observer and not altogether misleading in his remarks. He observed that dramatic works need a beginning, a middle and an end. This unilluminating observation turns out to be very necessary. It is good to start with the obvious before proceeding, and you can often count on Aristotle at least for the obvious.

I say it because it was brought to my attention in studying homiletic theory that there are at least three frames of reference for considering a sermon: the theological, the rhetorical and the poetical. In mainline circles, the theological is not always considered. The poetics, in the sense of the drama of your approach, a sophisticated structure, is, from what I gathered at Princeton, mainly in view. They were exceeding scornful of a sermon approach that was not carefully considered (had art) and demonstrated that the preacher understood how what he was saying came across. Being inconsiderate of your audience is, after all, impolite. What was interesting there was my old-school teacher’s insistence on the neglected theological frame of reference.

In present circles, that the sermon should have artistic considerations . . . how would that be received? I get the idea that the main thing is to be doing the right thing, not to be fussing about how it comes across. It is approached as music styles are: who cares, as long as the words are right. Yet there is not exactly an indifference to how things comes across; there is a strict pattern: obtrude your outline and always, always, always explicitly state how the passage proclaims points to Christ. What if an outline is not really meant to guide the hearer, but to give coherence to the sermon?  One is met with incomprehension. What kind of weirdo doesn’t understand that stating the points of your outline is a vital component of a sermon and that by definition a sermon will always end in the same predictable way because that is theologically required? If we were talking about food, we would be talking about boiled potatoes, boiled meat and boiled vegetables, always. It is as if the main thing is to boil and to include potatoes, meat and vegetables because that’s proper nourishment. It will nourish, but what are you communicating about nourishment if you only do that?

Some are good boilers, I will say, and over time acquire a sense of seasoning, and while they never get into frying, baking, grilling, or roasting, they do pretty good boiled stuff. But they are stuck on boiling. Do they wonder what it is like from the pew? I sit there wondering, among all the things preachers are interested in and pursue in their lives besides their faithful study of Scripture, are they interested in being interesting? I know what they hear from the pew: that it is good because one is hearing good things. We do not hear bad things or heresy, only sound things. One is grateful and should be grateful that one can eat, that there is food, that it nourishes, but one struggles to remain grateful and wonders about the benefits of fasting, or cookbooks, or why in other times and places nourishment has been talked of with more relish than one can seem to summon up. Is the problem with one?

I think narrative, because a narrative has a beginning, a middle and an end, ends up most easily satisfying that poetic frame of reference. And because the Holy Ghost is not ignorant of how things come across, there are things built into Scripture’s texts that help this consideration from fading, even when not explicitly attended. But what about saying good things in a way that is uninteresting, that communicates that they are uninteresting however good, and if you have trouble attending to them the problem is something else wrong with you? Can it be that at the heart of the confusion is that the theological frame of reference is the only real one in view, and what properly belongs to the poetic frame of reference is not explicitly and carefully considered? Interestingness can lead to the distraction that is entertainment; that is true. Do not throw out the theological frame of reference. And, all the more reason to think seriously and philosophically about what interestingness is! Speaking of which, an interesting conversation I had recently included the suggestion that perhaps the theological frame of reference has been narrowed to the scope of one sermon, rather than considering more widely the aim of preaching over time. So I wonder if perhaps the individual sermon is more the proper object of a dramatic, an artistic consideration, and the preaching over the years perhaps is the proper object of theological scrutiny. Each has a different scope that changes what is the beginning, the middle and the end.

Friday of the Unexamined Life

Someone must have summoned the geese to a point south of here with a sudden and extraordinary summons. At 8:45 they were flying over Oreland in noisy and multiple flocks, as if they all had to be in the same place by 9AM. Perhaps it has to do with the snow that sifted down overnight.

I went over to Oreland Pizza later on, passing up Rosario’s on the way, climbing over the tracks, back behind our negligible post-office, across the sleepy main drag of Oreland. The best thing about Philadelphia is all the neighborhood steak shops, the little places that supply pizza and sandwiches. Rosario’s has an old plastic sign with a phone number and no area code, and it has three faded plastic Marx brothers in the window. At Oreland the TV is always showing soccer and sounding in Spanish.

Philadelphia has towns and townships. Oreland lies on two townships: Upper Dublin and Springfield. Upper Dublin is the wealthier and more expensive. As you go from Upper Dublin into Springfield you notice the trash cans are smaller. Oreland lies mostly in Springfield township.

The green-eyed not-Puertorican girl at the counter talked me into the upgrade from just a cheeseburger to the lunch combo. She explained that it was fries and a soda, equaling a lunch combo. So the price is a combo, she further elaborated. It was not worth it, but it made me think of the soda tax going down in Philadelphia. Have you heard of the Philly soda tax? It’s a tax on sugar in drinks of 1.5 cents an oz. Not fake news, but any positive effect probably is.

And  yet I think it will stay the course, though people are worked up right now. The reason I think it will stick around is that locally roasted coffee is expensive here–more than in NYC–and I think it is because people just accept it. People are mad about the soda tax now, but they won’t be. It is a laid back place.

I worked on the 19th chapter of the 2nd LBC today: on God’s law. I think if you want to find out who is reformed and who is reformedish, ask them about God’s law. A reformed view of the law has consequences apparent in the observance of the 4th commandment. And it will usually irritate the reformedish if you call them out.

And I am listening to this excellent podcast on Heraclitus. Evan Braun writes long articles in the Imaginative Conservative that I find myself unable even to begin nowadays. But she knows what she’s talking about, and on this podcast says it. Very worth listening to. Ancient philosophy is the only philosophy worth bothering about.

Speaking of which, the used-book scene in Philadelphia is not what I’d like. There are used book stores, but getting to them regularly is not something one finds oneself doing. Not like in Columbus or Minneapolis where it was almost a weekly event. More like Bogota; and in many ways, Philadelphia has the strengths and weaknesses of a third world city. Perhaps that’s why I’m fond of it. But there is a bright spot in the used-book scene: Harvest Books. They buy libraries and then liquidate a certain portion at a rate of $2 a paperback and $3 for a hard. They have their sale once a month, it is small, but it is worth it. I once got a good haul of conservative stuff–Kirk, Chesterton–from the liquidation of a Princeton librarian’s library.

The stack is the five from last Friday, and beside them is a trophy from another time. You find worthwhile stuff, and sometimes more than one or two things.

Brehier, for example, on Plotinus, is a translation from his lectures in French. He did it in 1922 I think: got Plotinus, wrote with clarity, put things elegantly, and is worth getting for more than just $3.

In Focus

Here’s an article that puts things into focus. Why is the left mired in such simple logical fallacies? The author, who offers an answer with clear examples for support, apparently also coined the term ‘virtue signaling’:

The elite are supposed to be educated. So why are they so silly?

Ah! There is a clue. That word ‘educated’. What does ‘educated’ mean today? It doesn’t mean they know a lot about the world. It means they have been injected with the views and assumptions of their teachers. They have been taught by people who themselves have little experience of the real world. They have been indoctrinated with certain ideas.

It is, of course education falsely so called. After a while, exchanging education for indoctrination adds up, and we are living the results. When you start finding out what others had in the way of education, you are glad that what you got at least did not cost that much. Thank you Northland Baptist Bible College!

The upside of it all is that the world has been interesting. The downside is that it may get monotonous.


What a Preacher Needs, and What Preacher is Needed

“As we shall see, his Summa theologiae was not a university text, but was intended to serve the educational needs of the average Dominican friar, preparing him for the task of preaching and hearing confessions. As I hope will become apparent over the course of this book, keeping this in mind gives us a somewhat different picture of Thomas and his work.”

-Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas, 22.

In light of which, in light of the fact that the Summa really is top quality in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity, see also this.

* * *

I did notice that Michael Horton was worked up about who is praying for Trump’s inauguration. It generated some scenarios, quite apart from whatever it was he has to say, which, because it is Michael Horton, I didn’t bother to read.

Perhaps they will amuse you.

Trump Tower, 11:44PM.

Melania enters. “Trump, what are you doing still up?”

“I’m reading Bavnik and Turrenip, honey.”


“I’ve got to find people to pray for the inauguration. I’m trying to figure out the right theology.”

“What has that got to do with the president of the United States? I’m an immigrant, so I actually know the history and civics. What has the theology got to do? It’s a country, not a church.”

“We can’t just have the Catholics pray. Like, say ten Hail Marys–wrong signal! We have to have representation. I was talking to Mitt Romney and when he suggested one of the apostles, I was like ‘ok’ but it got me thinking. I need to make judgments based on good theology and not be mainstreaming Joel Osteen and heretics. How can I live with myself if I mainstream heretics?”

Melania raises her eyebrows. “I see.”

“This country is God’s, you know, and it looks bad for Evangelicals if they vote for me and then I mainstream heresy. They deserve better.”

“Can’t you just ask Jerry? What’s the point of Jerry?”

“Jerry gets me, ok, and he has a better sense of what’s going on than other evangelical leaders I could mention, but I’m not sure he gets theology, you know?”

“Why not, Trump? What’s wrong with Jerry?”

“For one, when they posed for a picture with me it was in front of my playboy cover award. I don’t think he can get up and pray before a whole country now. For another he’s not reformed.”

“Trump, what’s reformed? Are we reformed?”

“Course we’re reformed. Where did we get married? Every time I get married its in a Presbyterian church, sweetie. You know that. That’s reformed, ok? We get baptized and try not to swear in public a lot. That’s reformed. I need some space to read Turrenip, ok? I can’t be asking the Generals, and Kellyanne just recommends Catholics. Ivanka has a Rabbi lined up, I just need someone who’s not a heretic, so I have to figure out what kind of things to ask them about, ok? Don’t worry, it won’t take me long.”

Trump Golf Course, 3:30PM

“Trump, who’s going to pray at the inauguration?”

“I don’t know, Reince. They usually have somebody pray, do they?”

“Course. This is the USA. You can’t start something big without a prayer. Bad precedent. Bad luck too. They’ll be all over you if you pick the wrong person.”

“They’ll be all over me, Reince, no matter who gets picked. Who do you think?”

“Get somebody from a small denomination, controversial, a theonomist or something really obscure like that.”

“Reince, are you stabbing me in the back?”

“No, man. What are you going to get if you get a big name? Just wishy washy religion. The bigger the congregation, the looser the theology. You want something small. Maybe someone who still calls himself a fundamentalist, who is prepared to do battle royal for the fundamentals of the faith.”

“And who would those be?”

“We can find out.”

“Not feeling it, Reince. I want big.”

“Aw, c’mon Trump. I’m telling you, otherwise you’d be mainstreaming heresy. Do you want to mainstream heresy?”

“Will it bring back jobs, Reince? Answer me that. Church staff, janitors, facilities, upkeep, power, trash removal. Jobs Reince. I’m bringing them back.”

“Aw, c’mon Trump.”

“I was thinking of Ted Cruz’s dad’s pastor, actually.”

“That guy even looks fake. Just look at his h . . . uh, I mean, his theology is bogus. Hey, Ted Cruz’s dad is a preacher.”

“Are you trying to stab me in the back, man? He’ll go on a rant about voting your conscience.”

“How about . . . John Piper?”

“Too weird. I do like the hedonism, but maybe we should tone that stuff down, you know? Be presidential.”

“John MacArthur?”

“Dispensational. The slogan is make America great again, not watch it slide into Armageddon from the clouds.”

“How about a Barthian?”

“I don’t want to mainstream Barthianism, are you crazy. All the mainline places are Barthian. That’s why I never go to church, man.”

“Ok, I got it. Russell Moore. He’s in the SBC, isn’t he? Aren’t they big?”

“Wasn’t he a diehard nevertrump, Reince? Are you trying to stab me in the back? We need someone who shares my values man, not some loser who doesn’t even know what [smirks] people he’s supposed to be leading want.”

“How about Al Mohler then?”

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THOSE GUYS HAVE BRUCE WARE AND ARE MAINSTREAMING ETERNAL FUNCTIONAL SUBORDINATION!!! Are you trying to stab me in the back, Reince? I gotta have better theology at my inauguration. Don’t give me all these people outside of my theology.”

“Shucks, what is your theology, Trump?”

* * *

Tolkien’s birthday was yesterday. I cannot imagine trying to make sense of the world without Tolkien. What if I had been born before the Lord of the Rings? All I can say is that I’m glad to have been born to my times.

The World and the Self

I’m reading some Charles Taylor. Never done it before, have seen him favorably noted at First Things, and have received answers to a few questions in class directing me to his book on Sources of the Self–I believe it is.

So I’m reading his briefer book, from which you can sample this:

“The agent seeking significance in life, trying to define him- or herself meaningfully, has to exist in a horizon of important questions. That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demands of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. . . . Otherwise put, I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter.”

Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 40.

2016 of the Unexamined Life

Well, I thought it was a good year.

For one thing, Trump won. I still think it’s great, if only because it has all the experts stumped and flapping. I like the idea of Trump being president here too. I lie in bed and grin in the darkness.

For another, Hillary Clinton lost. It at least gives us an opportunity to catch our breath. And it was just. What a satisfactory outcome!

The third thing that made this a great year is that I did not end up on academic probation. Maybe next year, but not this year. I’ve never sweated grades before. Now I do.

Fourth thing that was great is that my true friend in Bogota has me helping him by Skype. I am so pleased that anybody thinks I have something to contribute that it has been a great boost.

One of the big things that made this year good was the Trinity debate. It was almost like old time Remonstrans. In terms of realizing what is going on, it was exactly like Remonstrans. The Trinity debate and Remonstrans are the best things that have happened to me on the internet.

It has been a good year for my Platonism. My grasp of Plato has matured, my sense of it through the ages has developed, I’ve made a friend of Eriugena, and the vestiges of an argument are accumulating. Best of all, the Great Man is not annoyed, though I think he still thinks it’s weird.

I’ve learned two important related things this year. The first is about distinguishing what is really interesting from what one may find oneself interested in. It is a difficult thing. All knowledge is personal and participatory; the question is how. The great thing is, I begin to see where my mistake is. The second is that I’ve understood that you can want to be a writer without having something to say. And you can be a writer who has said all you have to say. You have to have something to say. It may seem obvious, but desire is a blinding thing. Everybody will agree with that, but now I know what it means.

Another thing that has been great is that I’ve been teaching 3rd and 4th grade Sunday school and it appears to be working. (I talked to a friend who went off to be a teacher and then quickly gave it up. We figured out that the only reward for teaching is that the students are learning. There are no other real rewards in most teaching situations, and no other motivation. That it should be that way is a good thing too.)

To continue would be tedious, but I could.

1689 LBC 15.1

The 15th Chapter of the 1689 LBC follows the Savoy Declaration rather than the Westminster Confession. The difference is mainly one of order, and perhaps of emphasis on the personal and private, rather than the public and institutional. The Westminster Confession begins with repentance and preaching and eventually gets to personal confession, whereas the Savoy Declaration and Baptist Confession stress the Spirit’s work in bringing it about, start personally and end with preaching. Not incompatible, but different emphasis.

It does make one curious why the 1689 LBC and Savoy Declaration start where they do: 1. Such of the elect as are converted at riper years, having sometime lived in the state of nature, and therein served divers lusts and pleasures, God in their effectual calling giveth them repentance unto life.

What is the question in persons like Thomas Goodwin’s mind that the 15.1 answers? Can they be thinking about a failed revolution?

The Hobbit

I must have read it for the first time in Mexico City in the 1980s. It came at a crucial moment and is still a vast part of my mythology–that to which I have recourse in order to explain life. Unlike many other things in our world, this book enchants. Enchantment is its object, and it succeeds like very little else does. It is a star in the darkness.

It is, as well, an endorsement of romanticism and of that which is heroic. It demonstrates the good of these two things, defines them so that they can be known in their right place and as a result properly desired. I think there is always something childlike in more than admiring but also aspiring to that which is heroic, something of early life and proper beginnings, of freely accepting what is given while distinguishing good from bad, fortunate from unfortunate, peril and treasure and wonder and danger. Adventure is what befalls the hero, and we learn that no life should be without it.

I think The Hobbit is full of life and has an indescribable quality that makes it the best way to enter Middle Earth. Luck is providence, we learn, and you need a good amount of it. What other book makes this clear? It is elvishly ingenious. But the whole thing is ingenious in so many ways. The Hobbit is more than the preface to the vaster Lord of the Rings; it is a treasure on its own. If it is a star in the night sky, the shine of its wonder is unlike that of any of the other stars.

Connecting the Dots

Kevin Giles presented a paper at the ETS refuting and condemning Ware & Grudem’s approach.

“In my presentation, this afternoon I am arguing that what Dr Grudem and Dr Ware teach on the Trinity is a sharp and clear breach with historic orthodoxy as spelt out in the Nicene Creed.”

He argued for the 381 Nicene Creed: “In my view, we have in this creed the most authoritative interpretation of what Scripture teaches on the Father-Son relationship.”

And that is the issue.

You can read the argument in the paper. The point of a creed is authoritatively to interpret Scripture. That is why this creed is as prominent as it is. The result is that the creed then serves to include those who subscribe and to exclude those who do not. The question put to Ware & Grudem is whether they do or do not subscribe to Nicene orthodoxy. If yes, then recant the teaching that the Son is eternally submissive. If no, then say so, and come clean. And the simple argument is that the Nicene Creed’s teaching is logically incompatible with what they have publicly taught on the submission of the Son to the Father.

Here is Giles’ earlier diagnosis, which explains the heart of the difference: “All doctrines are best understood when how they developed in history is understood, and nowhere is this more true than with the doctrine of the Trinity in general and the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son in particular. This storm in a teacup over the word monogenēs would not have taken life and flourished if more evangelicals had been better informed by having carefully read Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, Augustine and by knowledge of the Nicene Creed.”

That can be called historical-grammatical interpretation, incidentally.

Anyway, who cares what you mean by eternal generation as long as you’re willing to affirm the language? The issue is that there are now quite a few Evangelical theologians who do not believe doctrines are best understood when how they developed in history is understood. If that is what you believe, then come clean. Albert Mohler once famously held his faculty to account for subscribing with integrity to the founding documents of Southern Seminary. Wouldn’t it be a great paper for the ETS to do a historical investigation and see if any of the parties involved had doctrine of God issues? It would be interesting just to see about getting access to the primary sources.

What is so great about understanding doctrines as they developed in history?  It keeps them anchored to what they are designed to do. There are other forces operating, you know.

Carl Trueman: “If nothing else, the debate over the Trinity of the last six months has pointed to how contemporary economies of power and money, detached from ecclesiastical accountability, profoundly shape the American Evangelical landscape.”

Ecclesiastical accountability has to do with documents which you either agree with or you don’t. How do you interpret these documents? The way they have always been interpreted. No, that isn’t simple, but yes it can be done. I still remember the class on historiography and hermeneutics where the light came on for me: they’re the same thing. It makes the end of the Palookaville paragraph more interesting. The debate “has also revealed how the Evangelical mind is gripped by the notion that, while any deviation on scripture is lethal, considerable flexibility on the doctrine of God is tolerable. History indicates otherwise and Evangelicals need to understand that.”

In this case, you have deviation from the doctrine of God and from Scripture, as the formulation of the Nicene Creed demonstrates. Probably lethal, and it is why the issue matters.


On the tracks the large beast rumbles through the night, and I am up with a sudden renewal of what seems a two-month cold. (It moves from the sinuses into the throat, and fades, and lunges back, and I’ve never had something this bothersome before.) These days and troubled nights I’m working on a paper to do with preaching and wondering how to go about the conclusion. I want to tell my teacher he is wrong.

On the other hand I realize that isn’t the point of the paper. And with that I realize I don’t so much want to tell him he’s wrong or include that in the paper; that is the distraction of something I want to figure out, perhaps several things.

It has to do with how one has convictions. Does one have convictions because one has carefully and rigorously examined each one from the bottom up? I think to think that one would have to be rather shallow or stubborn. I know George Whitefield was an earnest fellow and before his ordination he carefully went through the 39 Articles and Scripture and Matthew Henry and made sure he had all of his convictions straight. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of a man like Whitefield, nor his competence to understand doctrines, to study Scripture, or to make the connections. I’m skeptical, nevertheless, because I know we humans are easily blinded when our activity has a desired outcome. This business of having convictions isn’t a simple thing.

What is there to be skeptical of? In a way nothing. Why should Whitefield not be a committed Anglican? Why not think about these things carefully before rather than later? What is wrong with being earnest? In that way, nothing.

But my question is about the human nature of convictions. Convictions, after all, do not exist independent of the subject holding them. I think there is much to admire about George Whitefield, and much to wonder about. I think the quality of the person—and once it is put that way who can disagree—has something to do with the convictions held.

I think about my doctrinaire professor, Lord Voldemort. His religion is built on the assumption that on the whole the conclusions of the acknowledged learned of his civilization are right. Creationism is not a consideration, the miracles of Scripture have little factual basis, Scripture itself is a witness to God’s bursting into the world in the past, but it is not God’s Word. Scripture has been found out to be in part a hoax. Neo-orthodoxy (a term you don’t hear people using nowadays) is an attempt to keep a supernaturalist religion along with the anti-supernaturalist skeptical attitude which is believed essential to scientific knowledge.

That last is interesting. Neo-orthodoxy I believe coordinates two kinds of knowing, separating the noumenal from the phenomenal but endeavoring not to let the phenomenal absolutely override and utterly crowd out the noumenal. In order to do this, the noumenal needs to have strict doctrinal buttressing that assures its place. I believe he thinks of doctrine as that which safeguards the possibility of something not phenomenal in human experience, and this is the divine.

I think he is as doctrinaire as we can be. Why, for example, do I not believe what he believes? One of the strands of difference is that he subscribes to the theory of evolution. I have never been taught about evolution at all. It does not make me a Creationist, but it makes me skeptical—I can’t see how it would work. I could read about it, find out. The problem is that I really don’t care. I have nothing but indifference, and I can’t help viewing intense degrees of concern over the matter as doctrinaire, on both sides. In fact, I’m inclined to think the theory of evolution will be another passing intellectual fad, but either way, I’m not invested. I don’t mind telling Lord Voldemort I’m a creationist, just to assert I am not with him. I would be leery of being aligned with Ken Ham, on the other hand. There are things I’ll argue about, but this is not one the point of which I grasp.

Lord Voldemort is doctrinaire as a result of lots of higher critical conclusions. In that sense, we live in parallel universes: he has one set of explanations and conclusions, I an opposite set. I’m confident his are based on making wrong assumptions more than mine are. When those who have the spirit and zeal for apologetics get going, they tend to focus on the other’s wrong assumptions. But is it altogether clear that I don’t have any? It doesn’t unnerve me. I am not worried that I’m going to lose what I have. No doubt the amount of errors I have at this point will one day appall me. One looks back on one’s previous ignorance wondering how one managed. What provides clarity in this situation is that I know I clearly could not manage on what he does, or even on what I did before.

We grow convictions and we hold to things, we then get exercised and we do not get exercised. Our context shapes us and so does the desired response. But is it always clear to us why we desire?  We are strange beings even to ourselves, and that for me is a conviction.

When I was interviewed for Southern Seminary I was asked about being a Baptist, among other things. I’m a Baptist by conviction, I had to be persuaded of it, and thanks to Westminster and several other factors am now a confessional Baptist. Confessional does not mean that you simply think confessions are a great idea. It means that you subscribe to one, take it seriously, study it like Whitefield did, make sure you know what it is about and what that means. A Reformed Baptist should be confessional, which includes Sabbatarian observance, Covenant Theology, classical theism. Not because these are arbitrary theological markers. They are part of a system of doctrine that represents a coherent interpretation of Scripture. You don’t make up your own privately coherent approach. Being confessional has meant for me understanding that you can’t selectively discard elements such as the covenant of works. Some do, I know that, but the question then is what does it leave them? It seems a different way of understanding everything, which in turn seems a departure from the confession. (I am not here denying such persons are Reformed Baptists, I am merely illustrating the confessional mentality.)

I was asked about being a Baptist and I said I was one for now. Because the real question for me always remains, how do I sort out what is conviction properly earned and what I will discover to have been convenient for me to believe because of my circumstances? These things surely are sortable. I do not say I have no convictions: I have many. But I want to make space for the utter silliness of man. It is part of our dignity really to have convictions; it is also part of our condition to get mixed up about them and go on being so for long periods of time. At least, it is part of mine.

Preaching as something you say and as something you do

In the old phenomenon of the New Homiletic the sermon was not so much about what you say, it was about what you do with your words as a preacher. The insight that words not only serve to say things but that they also do things, that they are intended to address circumstances, it seems to me, is overstated when the doing eclipses the saying, as is apparently the case with the New Homiletic. But the insight itself if good, and a useful consideration for the preacher.

I have been instructed in three frames of reference for preaching: rhetoric, poetics and theology. I think the theological frame of reference is the one that needs least attention from me. Rhetoric, for all that it is a familiar word, is perhaps not so clear. To what, after all, does it apply? I think rhetoric is the way of measuring what is appropriate to your setting. Public speech is not like a private conversation, and the speaker will do best when most conscious of this.

We will not think rightly of rhetoric if we think it is something trivial such as superfluous adornments, or artificially restricted or enhanced diction. It is not—sorry Plato—a knack for making something seem desirable regardless of what it actually is (though Socrates can hardly be blamed for thinking this way). One of the funny things about public speaking is that it is not your natural speech, but it works best when it comes across as natural. Rhetoric is how you measure what artifice corresponds to your artificial setting in order to offset it. Your setting is contrived, but you must not seem contrived in your speech: plan for that. And so I think I can say that rhetoric is about eliminating distractions.

Poetics, on the other hand, is about creating interest. In this the New Homiletic is on to something, insofar as I understand it. There is a dramatic structure to a sermon, a beginning middle and end to it, a correct and fitting way to make people interested in what you’re doing and where you’re going. It is something your words are intended to accomplish, a place of emotional emphasis to which it builds and from which it winds down, that kind of thing. Too many preachers, blissfully unaware of the New Homiletic, conceive of the sermon as an information dump. That is a sovereign recipe for effectively boring God’s people with God’s word. If you think of a sermon as an information dump, something boring is not what you will intend to say, but that is what you will do. That is not to say that content doesn’t matter, but content can’t be your only concern.

Another thing I find interesting (having been disabused by dissidens some years ago when he pointed me to Edmund Clowney) is to see how many preachers also think an outline is a device for guiding their hearers through the sermon, employed so that they know where they are and so that they do not wander. I was once told to think of outlines as skeletons: something nobody wanted to see. I think that is a good insight. The point of the outline, rather than guiding the listener, is to give your sermons structure and coherence. This, of course, is essential to being interesting, but it is just an element, and probably the least apparent. I think it is probably an element of rhetoric, but since the sermon is one whole, rhetoric and poetics are going to interpenetrate. The poetic and more apparent element to your hearer is that you are obviously doing something: are raising a question, following an investigation, drawing them into the story in the text, etc. They follow you because you know how to create interest in what you want to get across just by the way you approach it.

Augustine had good words on being interesting, from what we may call the Old Homiletic. “If it is done in a disagreeable way, the benefits reach only a few enthusiasts, who are eager to know the things they need to learn no matter how dull and unattractive the teaching may be.” Which reminds me of churches where you get an information dump guided by an extensive, tedious outline. It benefits the few enthusiasts, that is all. That is not all, however, Augustine enjoins. “Learning has a lot in common with eating: to cater to the dislikes of the majority even the nutrients essential to life must be made appetizing.” De Doctrina Christiana 4.72-3

Differences between Westminster TS and Princeton TS

My program at Westminster requires I take two external courses. I did one at Princeton and will do one at Villanova next semester. I bade farewell to the chaps at Princeton Seminary today of PT 9074. Like at Central Seminary and unlike at Westminster, the class was taken out to lunch. I really like that part. It was a very good class too. Here’s some observations based on having taken only one class at PTS.

  1. Class size was a big difference. We were only six total students in the class. Most of us were PhD students and two were MDiv students. On the whole, because I am not in Biblical Studies classes perhaps, at Westminster I’ve had larger class sizes and inverted graduate to post-graduate student ratio.
  2. Students at Princeton in general are more connected to what is going on in class. Part of this is the concern that they not be overcommitted while going to school, and there is lavish supply for their needs. We studied Bernard of Clairvaux in my class. In one of his letters he writes to a monk who has run away from the barebones Cistercian monastery in a swamp to go to sumptuous Cluny. With an $800,000,000 endowment, Princeton Seminary is Cluny. But part of it also is that that kind of engagement is expected, and the teacher was extremely personally attentive to us. Having students doing other things on their laptops, dozing off for legitimate or illegitimate reasons, or just not engaged never occurred. Our teacher was unexpectedly unable to attend one of the first sessions and the students carried the class on with zeal and great profit. It was like being in a class all of girls, except there were no girls.
  3. One of the things Westminster wants to guarantee is its MDiv product. There are various reasons for that: why it was founded, who it answers to, how it is set up. The result of having a clear view of an outcome even in the way the classes you take are structured makes, for better or worse, a kind of conformity throughout, in all classes. It is more noticeable than, for instance, at Central Seminary, and I’ve been surprised. At Princeton there is no sense that you have to come out one way or another (and I inquired about it too). This indifference to where you end up opens up inquiry along the way, and you can sense that all options will be considered.
  4. The weaseling about terms such as ‘gospel’ and ‘resurrection’ and other such key parts of a theological vocabulary is palpable at Princeton. Sometimes we are clear, sometimes we are not clear, and too often the reference is ambiguous. Part of that is the prevailing Barthianism—those are just the conditions that will apply with that kind of theological outlook. Part of it is the religion of nonjudgementalism, which is the religion of polite and affluent America. I think in that regard Princeton is a funny place, a mixture of right and left in various shades. One description one of the students gave me is that it is too conservative for the liberal students and too liberal for the conservative students. The result of the ambiguity is that you sit there thinking: wait, that was properly worded, but do I agree? And then you go home wondering if you spoke out too much and annoyed people about things beside the point, or you go home thinking you didn’t have the courage to disagree with something preposterous. I’ll just say that in terms of theological education, what I believe, how we talk about theology and what we mean, I’m glad I go to Westminster.

A Faithful Narrative of How We Got ‘Silent Night’

Franz Gruber was picking his nose and thinking about Christmas. It had come to his attention recently that lots of people hated the holiday and he was wondering how he could make it worse. At that point, civilization had not declined to where “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” or “O Holy Night” were actually perpetrated in churches. This is the true story of how we got there.

There were flies still trapped in Franz Xaver Gruber’s grubby windows. Perhaps searching for inspiration, he began to catch them one by one, and removed every appendage, dropping the writhing black bodies on the table. Now, he thought, how to proceed?

He considered drums and trumpets, a real ruckus. But, he thought as he finished the last fly, I want to be subtle. I want it to last. “I want something,” he said out loud, peering through the grubby window, “something people will . . .” and he did not say what it was but just smole a smile. He had got the idea, sitting there peering through the window at a couple of drunks lurching together in the ghastly light of a lamp.

Absentmindedly, he popped one of the flies into his mouth. As he pondered his idea, he savored the fly. When he had finished the flies he was still smirking, his idea full-formed.

The door burst open at that moment and in came the failed poet, Joseph Mohr. Mohr had been a theologian. He had at one time championed a view that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father and had as a result been laughed out of seminary and perpetually banned from doing theology. This was long before the decline of civilization we witness today because it was in 1818, but, as we shall see, Joseph Mohr played a part in that decline. He had turned his skills to poetry, unaccountably, but only achieved praise songs, which, because it was 1818, decline of civilization, etc, etc, people of course did not introduce into worship or even consider to have merit whatsoever since, of course, they had none. This is the story of how he pulled one over all of those stalwarts, and it does not end well.

“Nice and quiet here,” he said, sitting down. “I’m surprised you don’t have any flies. Everybody has flies still trapped in the windows.”

Gruber grunted.

“Creeps me out. How can you stand the silence, man? You know what I hate, Gruby, what I really, really hate? I hate Christmas, man. Do you hate Christmas?”

Gruber grunted once more.

“I want to . . . sabotage it.”

Gruber leaned forward, accidentally brushing the flies’ wings and legs off the table in a winking snowfall of insect horror.

“I want to make people . . .” Mohr’s imagination, as usual, faltered.

“Hold hands and sing a Christmas song by candlelight?” Gruber hissed. “Totally feel that it is all about how they feel? Have,” he was unable to hold back at this point a sinister, choking, defunctive chortle, “a last stanza without any verb at all?”

“Eggzackly! Oh man, that is diabolical, Gruby! That would totally sabotage Christmas.” Mohr’s jaw worked and his hands flapped, as was his wont when geeking out. “Wait, no verb in the last stanza? Isn’t that a little too far . . . just, a bit too obvious? Won’t the real theologians smell sulfur?”

“It is daring, but we could start a trend!”

“It would start a whole chain of Christmas songs of dubious merit, descending to utter banality till Christian civilization became so ruined . . . it . . . it would be  . . . uh, ruined.”

Gruber smole a smile, and the devil entered him, and he composed the music then and there while foaming slightly at the mouth.

“Pluckety, pluck,” he hummed to himself,

“Pluckety, pluck

“Munchy, munch

“Munchy, munch

“Grossity, grossity

“Yukkity, yuk,”


Mohr, meanwhile, admittedly managed to improve on his previous praise songs, no doubt spurred by malice and having his natural inhibitions and misguided proclivities suffocated by the terrible, creepy atmosphere pervading the room.

* * *

And that is the most accurate historical account you’ll ever encounter for the origin of that unfortunate song. I hardly used Wikipedia and thought about going through the lyrics in German but was held back by the consideration that there may be a verb in the original in the last stanza, though I seriously doubt it. Anyway, this is what comes of following the Normative Principle: Advent, Lessons and Carols, Silent Night, Candles with those little cardboard shields at the bottom, Holding Hands in a circle, Nausea and Doom.