Something Up Above Was Calling Him Imperiously

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

The Wind in the Willows

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Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig A. Carter

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern ExegesisCraig Carter’s argument in this book is that modernity has changed our attitude toward Biblical interpretation, and if we wish to interpret as the church whose doctrine and practice we inherit interpreted, we need to recover the premodern attitude toward biblical interpretation. He explains that originally he set out to write a book on the classic theism of Nicene Trinitarian doctrine; but then he found that before he could do so, a preliminary volume on the interpretive practices that gave rise to that theology was required.

I think his argument is sound. Carter begins with Isaiah 53, posing the interpretive problem of whether we can legitimately see Christ in that text. He points out that modern hermeneutical procedure goes against it. He also points out that Christian homiletics nevertheless harvest Christ from that classic text, having the example of Scripture to guide them. What he wants to show is the inconsistency between our actual practices on the one hand and the hermeneutical approach we get from the academy on the other.

What Carter wants is a way to bring theory and practice together. He does this first by setting up the theoretical framework and second by vindicating his framework in historical examples. The theoretical framework, he argues, must be premodern. Modernity evacuates the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions without which Scripture cannot be interpreted coherently. He defines Christian Platonism as an adaptation of Platonism which took place in the early centuries of the church. Any historian reading this section is going to feel that the historiography is a bit thin. There is plenty of room for work to be done that will make a more solid case for the adaptation of ancient philosophy to Christian purposes. But we must remember that Carter is writing a preliminary book to deal with another concern. He cannot get lost in the endless regression that is the historian’s constant temptation.

Carter sticks to Lloyd Gerson’s analysis of Platonism (Gerson who argues that Aristotle was for all practical purposes a Platonist) and defines it as: antimaterialist, antimechanist, antinominalist, antirelativist and antiskepticist (79-81, for more detail). It is not a bad definition of Platonism, but it is hardly the most satisfying one. One of the weaknesses of the book is that since Carter is trying to make a case without provoking unnecessary fights about it, he thins Platonism out so much that he has no trouble calling Calvin a Christian Platonist, nor including Vanhoozer and Carson in his Great Tradition (Great Tradition = Christian Platonism). There is a good point to be made by this, but he is opening his thesis to criticism which will destabilize, I am afraid, some of what he achieves. Still, if he is read in the spirit of his argument, it is not altogether implausible.

Carter not only sets up a theoretical framework to explain his proposal, he then goes on to defend it from history, making a series of points about how his Great Tradition is a demonstrable tradition of interpreting Scripture Christologically, responsibly controlled by the literal meaning, though not limited to it, and rather than implementing typology—which he dismisses as a modern strategy and not a premodern one—is allegorical and prosopological. Prosopological exegesis, to risk being reductive, is finding the face of Christ in Scripture by hearing his voice in the Old Testament specially.

Carter’s explanation of prosopological exegesis demonstrates one of the strengths of this book: Carter is able to synthesize and assimilate diverse and large quantities very recent scholarship. It is a great shift in biblical interpretation, or perhaps the most unanticipated aspect of what is shifting (back—as Carter would remind us). It may be bewildering, but the bibliography is generous and more than competent. Skeptics should inquire before dismissing, because Carter gives every evidence of knowing what he is doing, for all that he does seem sometimes to be rushing ahead too fast. His bibliographical support ought to be considered carefully.

Carter concludes the book demonstrating from Isaiah 53 how the Great Tradition operates, using as his chief example Alec Motyer. It is a good strategy, calculated to allay suspicions. I think Carter knows that the terminology of Christian Platonism and of an exegesis continuous with the practice of Origen and Agustine is not calculated to allay suspicion, and so his exposition and argument endeavor to do so, though sometimes with perhaps too much zeal.

Carter is right. What is happening in this book is part of the ongoing recovery of a catholic approach to Scripture and a general attitude of ressourcement in protestant theology. He very helpfully lays out the cards of his influences and where his sympathies lie in the first chapter. We need books like this because we are finding that our doctrinal formulation has no stable meaning unless it is in the context of a theological culture. That means that a bare subscription to a confession without a culture of interpretation is not enough. A theological culture is a theological tradition, and if theology is Scriptural, then it is an interpretive tradition. Carter has opened a way, and much remains to be done and to follow. Christian Platonism requires better exposition, better understanding, better definition, and it deserves much more attention. But Craig Carter is opening the way. This book is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, no doubt about it.

Not Enough Virtue Signaling

You know you’re a theistic mutualist when you write a review of James Dolezal’s book that cracks down on him for not having sufficient theistic mutualism. You know you are a theistic mutualist when you think it is balanced to include some theistic mutualism to the doctrine of God as a concession to modern theologians, since so many of them are. Dolezal’s excellent book argues that theistic mutualism is wrong, and he shows that it is far more pervasive than we might think. This book review inadvertently demonstrates both things.

What is theistic mutualism? It is the confused assertion that God really changes in response to us.

One form of theistic mutualism is process thought and open theism. In open theism God responds to us because, like us, he is not altogether sure what is going to happen and his being is dynamic. That is one way of accounting for what Scripture teaches, but it is not a Christian way of doing so. And yet it is more consistent, alas, than the second form of theistic mutualism, which is Dolezal’s target.

The newer kind of theistic mutualism affirms that the immutable God changes in response to us. The mechanism here is sovereignty. Sovereignty, for Calvinist theistic mutualists, is God deciding he can behave in a way that really contradicts what he actually is; God gets to do so. And it is explained as if this is in some way mysterious and not simply irrational. Not only is God unchanging, they might say, he also can at the same time decide to change . . . somehow. That, they say, is what Scripture plainly teaches.

From Dolezal: “Let us again consider Bruce Ware’s doctrine of God’s relational mutability in chapter 2. Ware writes, ‘God changes from anger to mercy, from blessing to cursing, from rejection to acceptance. Each of these changes is real in God, though no such change affects in the slightest the unchangeable supremacy of his intrinsic nature.’” I know it sounds arrogant to theistic mutualists for me to say that this is nonsense, so I won’t. I’ll go with what Dolezal says, who goes on to argue that if you posit real changes that are not part of God’s nature, then you no longer affirm simplicity in any meaningful way. You can affirm the words, but divine simplicity is an idea incompatible with any divine change, and what divine reality is not . . . all that is in God? Call the change real, unreal, or whatever category you please. Be honest, then, and just say you deny divine simplicity.

At least Andrew Moody is honest: he plainly denies it. “Dolezal’s refusal to allow any complexity in God’s inner life creates some other peculiarities in his theology of creation too.” What is baffling is that he commends Dolezal for affirming it. “As Dolezal rightly points out, if it isn’t a real unity of essence it isn’t monotheism.”

Theistic mutualism can be charitably described as full of paradox, and it can only arise in a theological climate in which the reliable philosophical insights (clear thinking about difficult things) are ignored, distorted, despised, or repudiated altogether. The result is what Dolezal describes in his book. Exhibit A could be the book review.

“Dolezal is right to insist that humans can’t affect who God is in himself. Yet Scripture also makes it abundantly clear that there is a sense in which we can increase God’s glory—in the sense of his renown—by declaring his praises. In fact this is the very reason we exist.”

What is the word ‘yet’ doing there? What exactly is it Moody affirms? That we somehow enhance what God is in himself by bringing him glory?

I love how he makes it sound as if Dolezal has denied the very reason for our existence! What enormity will Dolezal commit next? Here’s my absolute favorite thing Moody says: “Unhappily, however, there is not a single reference to the cross in this book.”

What would a reference to the cross add to the argument of this book? It amounts to a statement about not understanding what is being argued. The book needs a reference to the cross like it needs a reference to Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty or Baptist ecclesiology. It has nothing to do with what he’s arguing, it just sounds pious.

Who would have thought there are so many things you can say about God that you can write a whole book on the doctrine of God and not mention the cross? Could it be that Dolezal talks about it when he’s dealing with Christology, or even Soteriology or writing on the doctrine of God exhaustively rather than just refuting theistic mutualism?

I wonder, is it that it is reviewed by the Gospel Coalition? Is that why the cross comes up? If you add things that do not have to do with the argument but push buttons for certain people you know what you’re doing? Virtue signaling.

And that is the real problem with Dolezal’s book, isn’t it? There is not enough Gospel virtue signaling.  The problem is that virtue signaling is not sound judgment or a persuasive argument, which is what Dolezal’s book actually contains.

___________

Note: David Bentley Hart calls theistic mutualism monopolytheism, and if that terms works for you (it is my favorite) then it explains a lot. Hart’s argument is that when you deviate from classical theism what you get is a lesser god, a god of the realm of the pretty amazing gods of polytheism but not the utterly transcendent God of classical theism. What sets the God of classical theism apart? Incomprehensibility, immutability, impassibility, infinity, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and above all, simplicity; he is God without potency because he is pure act, altogether perfect and in no way potentially so; there is in God no distinguishing being and existence, for his being is absolute—there cannot not be God. If you deny that which makes him wholly other, even if you nitwittedly first affirm his wholly-otherness, because you don’t understand what can and has to be understood about his transcendence you have put him in the realm of the gods, which is the inferior realm of polytheism. So when you diminish the one true God but still claim only one, Hart calls you a monopolytheist.

Natural Theology

A book was written on Aquinas recently, and published by Crossway P & R. Richard Muller wrote what I understand is an 11-page book review (for the Calvin Seminary journal) exposing the historiographical shortcomings of this book. Someone (perhaps Muller himself) has reduced that book review down for blogging and is posting one section a week every Monday on Reformation21. Next Monday we should see the third and last installment of the most fascinating series posted on Ref21 in living memory.

The problem with the view of Aquinas Muller dismantles is that it is not uncommon. And when it comes to history, the problem with failing to understand something is that you can’t remember what you don’t understand. Richard Muller can be nit-picky; Richard Muller can be tedious; but Richard Muller is seldom wrong, and there is something to be said for that.

Jordan Peterson said it, and it is true: if you can’t understand it, you can’t remember it. Not only because you may have something that was not the case, but also because you can’t retain it until it makes sense. Which last consideration also means that if misrepresenting Aquinas makes sense to you, it is because you have a whole higher order of nonsense in which it is set. I think it also means, in this case, that Aquinas is forgettable, and that should cause any serious theologian alarm. There is a reason why in all these present skirmishes the better historians are consistently lining up on one side, not another. It is worth thinking about!

Richard Muller demonstrates that the book Crossway published on Aquinas is riddled with inaccuracies. It ought, incidentally, to be an indication of the climate of evangelical thought and of the integrity of the publisher if the volume is not pulped once Muller gets done. Really, it is hard to read what Muller wrote and not feel embarrassed for his object. What the book represents is a problem in terms of history because for us human beings neither the past or the future exist: all we have is the present. The only way we have the past is by way of human memory. If we cannot understand, if we distort what happened, we cannot remember what actually happened. We won’t have the past, won’t be informed by it, and are adrift in the present merely. So it matters.

The most amazing thing about the series of blog posts is how easily they expose the error being perpetrated on Aquinas. After all, it isn’t as if Aquinas were a writer who made his views unclear. To get him wrong because he is difficult is one thing: he is difficult. But to get him wrong in what is not that difficult, in what is not that recondite but obvious and foregrounded in his writing just comes across as careless at best or perverse at worst.

I personally think that any historian tainted with presuppositionalism has to live with some contradictions. It is an ideology contrary to honest memory, because it has counterfactual controlling assumptions, such as the denial of natural theology. Let me offer a small example, continuing along the trajectory of apologetics.

David Bentley Hart as a book called The Experience of God. What an amazing book! I do not mean that there are things in there with which I’d disagree, but unlike presuppositionalist books, I can find nothing unintelligent in what Hart writes. In fact, there is so much wonder and wisdom, one hesitates to apply to him the category of mere apologetics.

One of the main things Hart does is natural theology. Hart has apparently done a lot of work in interfaith dialogue; and I think that if you accept the premise of natural theology, in some sense you’re committed to interfaith dialogue. What better way to explore the actual limitations of natural theology? If there is such a thing as natural theology, then there are religions that have a better grasp of it than others. The way to test it would be to go to false religions and measure the amount of truth available, what has been actually done in terms of unaided natural theology. The older the religion, the better, right? If you think about it, those that have a greater degree of truth are more likely to have endured over time and are less influenced by special revelation.

The problem with denying natural theology is explaining the historical instances of it. Plotinus worshipped a divine simplicity, and it is a dodge to say that he somehow extracted it from special revelation. He was no Christian, he had no decent hamartiology to speak of, but his theology proper was not undeveloped. What Plotinus did with what he had was not sufficient for salvation, but that hardly means that it was not breathtaking and sophisticated. It cannot be said he did nothing with it. (Let us not here lapse into a presuppositionalistic totalitarianism of language, the heads I win, tails you lose tricks they play with this sort of thing.) All one has to do to defend Plotinus is go back in time. Plato does natural theology, was he influenced by special revelation? (Augustine amusingly claimed that Plato met Jeremiah while sojourning in Egypt.) You could say that the case against Socrates Plato gives us was a case against what he got right in terms of natural theology. And what about Xenophanes? He was the first one to criticize the gods of polytheism. He understood that God has to be transcendent, immutable, impassible, and disembodied ( and this is where Hart is so brilliant, calling theological mutualists monopolytheists because they have put God back into the realm of the gods, which is, incidentally, a view substandard even in rudimentary Greek philosophy). It makes more sense to me (though I don’t agree with it) to make the argument that Greek thought polluted revealed religion than it does to agree to the classic theism of Christianity and still argue against natural theology.

All of this needs a quotation, doesn’t it? How about the stalwart of Geneva, the pillar of Old Princeton theological clarity, Turretin the Reformed Thomist? “The principles or axioms drawn from reason or philosophy in order to prove some article of faith are not so peculiar to philosophy as that they cannot be supposed to belong also to natural theology (which ought to come before supernatural and revealed).” I.9.18.

Observations of the Unexamined Life

I’ve never read Sydney Ahlstrom’s book. Didn’t much know about it. It is aparently the gold standard on American church history in general, has been around since 1974, and I don’t remember once ever encountering it. How did I manage that?

It is huge, and it looks engaging, which is more than I can say about some of the English church history I’ve been doing. All my life I’ve lived with this ridiculous fear that I’d reach the end of all the good books there are and be condemned only to read bad ones. There is a tide to this feeling, and right now it is decidedly at an ebb.

I’ve read through most of the stuff I need to for comprehensive exams on the Reformation, barring primary sources. Now I am reading into Modern church. After that I only have Systematic Theology and Apologetics to read for. After that I can study for the exams. I can see this taking two whole years easily, three. Necessity is going to force me to discover the value of pragmatic approaches to this dilemma.

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper

Martin Luther: Renegade and ProphetThis biography of Martin Luther is unlike most. Study of Luther usually endeavors to understand his doctrine and its development; this biography is not uninformed about doctrine, but does not center on this important aspect of Luther’s life. As a result, it provides valuable information we do not usually get. Reading almost like a novel, Roper’s book displays a wider picture, including, specially, relations and psychology.

We get, for example, more about Karlstadt’s sartorial peculiarities, which are clues to his character. We also get a better sense of how the conflicts which shaped Luther’s thinking were perceived at the time, through detail found in correspondence. Roper has soaked in the records. The Leipzig debate brought insights and a breakthrough in Luther’s thinking, but she shows it ended with a sense of defeat at the time. We get a better understanding of Luther’s personality, specially a better view of his ego. The man did heroic things, and was not unaware of this. When the moment for his heroic deeds was past, he was also not unaware that he was being eclipsed. This is not flattering, but it is persuasive: it helps account for some of the things he did at the end of his life.

What is the value of knowing what is not flattering? Reflect on one of her conclusions: “Adulating Luther, the movement also saddled itself with a model of preacherly authority that encouraged each local pastor to counter anything he considered a deviation in doctrine as though it would open the door to the Devil—a recipe for acerbic, public argument.” (399) Mistakes are only valuable if we put them to use by learning from them.

Of all the insights Roper has, to me the best was her explanation of Luther’s attitude toward the human body. He was very earnest in his monastic career about the macerations, vigils, and the penance required of him. She argues that this contributed to his unusually positive attitude toward the body and physical pleasure when he realized that none of these privations really availed against his sin. He did not confuse, as many in the Church through the ages had, Paul’s ‘flesh’ with his body. Not only does this help us understand his unusually positive attitude toward eating, drinking, and even overindulgence in matrimony, but also his irrational insistence on the physical presence of Christ in the sacrament. I cannot condense Roper’s carefully marshalled persuasions, which run through the book in many threads and strands, without going to more trouble than it is worth here, but if you seek them, you shall find them.

Roper is decidedly an above-average historian (regius professor of history at Oxford!), and her 416 page biography is documented with another nearly 100 pages of notes. Above all, she is a good writer, without the awkward prose, the clichés and jargon that too often make reading history tedious. Roper reminds me of Perry Miller, though without as much of the glee. She is deft in using detail and circumstance to explore what for historians is often unacknowledged: temperament, feeling, failings, and attitudes. There are also explanations sympathetic to Luther that one does not expect. One is reminded of what John Lukacs says, not only when he dismisses objectivity and subjectivity as illusions, but when he positively affirms that our knowledge is personal and participatory. Here is a view of Luther in which can be so characterized.

Extracurricular

I had never read while in a swimming pool before, but now I have. I read in the bathtub all the time, of course. It is a good way to spend an hour, and most wholesome. This morning I was able to read in a hot tub. It’s more splashy, but if you’re reading one of your own books you can do it. The pool can be perfectly dry—for the book in question.

I enjoyed the last chapter of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant that way. Anthony Powell’s novels are not long, but they are only divided into four or five chapters, which it is best to do without enormous interruptions. I do not know what general status he has as a writer. I find that what he does is humorous, melancholy and wise, and I think that if it provides wisdom, then in some way it must be literary—not just an interesting story. A Dance to the Music of Time is aptly named. Characters enter and depart, re-enter predictably as in a dance, but changed by time. Powell permits himself reflections, once a book or so, and these help you understand what he’s doing. I find the cumulative effect is working on me, and I look forward to each chapter and each of these nine volumes.

More conventional settings await my science fiction. The Lost Fleet has some interesting insights, and I hope his writing will improve as I advance in his long series. I find that reading a mediocre writer is useful because one can think of the mistakes. And there are things he does well. As well, I have The Expanse, which has returned me to science fiction with renewed enthusiasm, for which I’m grateful. The Expanse, I find, is irresistible.