Zwingli the Northern Humanist

“At Glaurus he began to realize that he, like most other clerics, had been accustomed to pay far too much attention to externals and to Bible commentaries instead of to the text itself.” – Potter, 39

A master of the secondary literature is not necessarily a master of the primary literature. It is the primary literature you must master if you are to understand a subject. The problem is that only those who have some mastery of the primary literature can judge whether another has mastered it. What mastering the secondary literature gives you is access to exactly that: the secondary literature. It is an illusion to think you have mastered the primary simply because you have mastered the secondary. It is an illusion anybody can maintain as long as there are few who have mastered the primary texts. But there are no alternatives to dealing with the primary material. And it is the same when it comes to the Bible and its secondary literature, commentaries.


Doings at WTS

Westminster Seminary is at present in the same pickle it was a few years ago with Old Testament faculty. Now it is Church History. The CH issue is that the great man is out for the year at Princeton U., administrative leave has knocked out the provost, and the last remaining CH faculty is the president. One does not preside at WTS and carry any sort of regular teaching load. It means it is a tough year in the CH department for Westminster. There is a posting for a job.

Coincidentally, the world’s leading authority on the Westminster Standards has been on campus, doing chapel, reading a paper and doing a lecture, and probably having meetings with various and sundry. From the way he carried himself, I think he rather wants the job.

Not wishing to break my non-attendance at chapel streak, I can tell you nothing of how he preaches. Having heard him read the paper and do the lecture, however, I can tell you he’s quality. You know the one thing I wish he had had more of? Historians present to hear what he did. From the ensuing questions, I am afraid I got the impression that some of what he did was lost on the audience. The questions tended to exhibit that the politics of WTS are complex, and that the subject is aware of this.

What he did was tell stories, and he told them well. He knows how to read a paper properly, because he knows how to write it so that he can read it interestingly and amusingly. Americans are for some reason taught to read books NOT pronouncing as they would when speaking naturally. Even John Lukacs has complained: Why don’t they write way they talk? It would improve their style immensely. This guy is a Canadian, so maybe Canada does not encourage this. Even if he has a Canadian advantage, writing prose that will read well aloud is nevertheless a feat.

He also has the historian’s sense of humor. Observers of human kind who are dull-witted tend to fail to satisfy. Dull-wittedly is just not how human kind ought to be observed. Where is the dignity of man in that? There is also a sophistication implied in proper wit, a consciousness of how people follow what you say and a consciousness of how to surprise them, and please them. You can be a decent historian without this, but you will not be a quality historian. This skill is based on being observant, on being able to express what is observed exactly, on tact–the right touch, on putting what is said in the proper order, and on timing the manifestation of the point well. Which is, come to think of it, the way stories are successfully put together.

One of the things I’ve been mulling around while reading good, mediocre and bad history, writing things, and observing this illustrious chap, is that historians have to know two things: how to avoid saying too much, and how to make sure they say enough. In a way, that is all. The best historians are precise: in their words, their observations, their descriptions and their conclusions. Historiography, if I may offer my present definition, is a warm curiosity: about dead human beings, disciplined by skepticism, expressed with integrity and issuing in stories. If it were appreciated how hard that is to achieve, historians would be held in higher esteem. Whether they are or not isn’t that important. But I wanted to pass on that the feat has been achieved in the past couple of days. I hope it all works out.

My Recent Brush with the Law

Springfield Township has a strip of Paper Mill Road on which it has deposited, more or less in a row, all of its schools. From East to West you get the low, the middle and the high schools, and after that all the township stuff they’re putting up in an effort to rival the establishment displayed along Loch Alsh Road in Ambler. I happen to live just exactly beyond the Springfield Township border, in the rival establishment’s township. As I was driving through those purlieus of Oreland which are contained in the township on which I do not depend for services, I noticed that the decrepit flashing signal for a school zone was emitting erratic signs of being active and in season. These monitory emblems here in Philadelphia tend all to suggest having been the original devices placed when President Washington himself first signed the order requiring such traffic regulations (here in Philadelphia, where the capital of the USA then resided). Apparently ever since they’ve kept the wee ones safe. Not only do the lights fulminate in decidedly pre-industrial hues, they also still proclaim a maximum speed limit of 15 MPH. One can understand conveyances drawn by domesticated animals requiring a reduction proportional to the difficulty of stopping them. What one cannot understand is why in the year 2017 we still keep the limit so low or believe it is anything other than absurd to think modern conveyances are unable to deal with contingencies from a less inhibited rate of speed. Surely even the Amish have better brakes on the buggies nowadays.

As I passed under the signal, slowing obediently, I crawled ludicrously up to the traffic light at Church, where the Oreland EPC is. I remember thinking the trick would be to remember the temporary speed limit after the light turned green. It is the kind of detail from which my mind readily drifts. You’d have to have the sentience of an insect to focus on something so insignificant for long enough to keep it before you when next you accelerated. Apparently, in Springfield Township, that is about the average level of sentience. The light delayed.

I next remembered that there was a reduction in the usual permissible rate of passage through those regions when I caught a glimpse of what might potentially be a lurking cop car.

Why is the first thing you always automatically notice after glimpsing a cop car the rate of your own speed? And you never know how fast you actually were going because before the eye can move, your foot has left the gas and you never get a true reflection. And why does this slowing as if one is guilty occur before one has determined by carefully considering the facts whether one actually is guilty or not? Of if there was even a cop present? It turns out I was going at the not unreasonable rate of twice the flashing speed, thanks to the normal and unimpressive acceleration of my Focus.

I thought at first he had not twigged, but a second glance (you glance at the speedometer and then at the rear-view mirror, don’t you? Which strikes me as an undesirable sequence of events for a cop to set up in a driver when said driver ought to be carefully looking for random wee ones perambulating the street) showed he was in motion. A fourth glance showed the dismaying lights that never fail to be registered by a physical sensation in the stomach.

The delay makes one think: Was he on the border of pulling me over and then decided to go ahead with it? Is there hope for me? Can I get off with just a scold? I’ve had everything from cops: puzzled, sad, friendly, aloof, searching, brusque. What will it be this time? And why is everything but one’s emotions all a blur on such occasions?

I did register there were two of them. One from each side, and the guy on the right fingering the armaments they include to impede the free swinging of arms so important to cop locomotion. That is when you start thinking: Are they going to get me out of the car and taze me or something? Why does this require a cop on each side of my car? Was the other one watching traffic while his partner was exposed to the predations of drivers storming through doing 15 MPH?

He informed me of my infraction (thirty in a school zone) and requested the three items they tend to request on these occasions. I offered the explanation that the traffic light made me forget I was in the zone, man. Then I thought: he’s going to nail me for a foreigner. I should have said “buddy.” I didn’t even greet him in native fashion: Howeedunebuddy. He glanced at my stuff and asked if my address was still where it said, just across the border, in a rival jurisdiction. Then he and his lateral colleague returned to the flashing SUV.

Time elapsed.

When he came back I  had eyes for the papers in his hand alone. Was there a ticket? What do tickets look like these days anyway? I can’t remember the last time I was pulled over. Funny how it all comes back, though. I was overjoyed to see he was not holding a ticket, just my stuff. I immediately formulated the obsequious resolution to take any opportunity presenting itself to call him Sir, this fine, upstanding, clean-cut cop. Model of decency, salt of the earth, law & order & peace & goodwill & this great country. I felt great happiness, and went so far as to begin to think of the future and my plans and what I would do with my new-found freedom and innocence.

He had a long spiel for me, however, said it was a warning, admonished me to drive safe and drive slow, reminded me that school was back, and advised having a great day. In retrospect, this recitation was carried out in a perfunctory way, and without the ominous lateral colleague. Does that mean the lateral colleague was a safety measure they now employ in case I come boiling out of the car and they do have to taze me? How fascinating the ways of cops, these upholders of decency and proper behavior, these friendly guys looking out for the wee ones out there when absentminded drivers such as myself get out of hand.

Anyway, nothing greater was inflicted on me. Other than a bit of the awe of the law, and I did not, to my credit, call him Sir or have to address him even as buddy. As I was returning four hours later I passed a cop SUV at the same intersection and looked to see if it was my pal, the same cop. No such luck. He gave me a long look though, for eyeing him, I suppose, with more than necessary interest.

Plato and the Body

“If human existence sans bodies is better, could you blog about why God made us with bodies and why we will be raised with them?”

The question was posed to me on twitter. The request was to answer on my blog.

I’m happy to blog.

Have I said human existence without bodies is better? I do not remember having done so. I am looking forward to the resurrection because I’ll have a better body. Let me also say, I prefer Plato and I think he is defensible. But I’ll abandon Plato if it can be demonstrated that he is incompatible with Christianity. I defend Plato, also, because I think he is ignorantly dismissed. You can be very learned and ignorantly dismiss Plato. Plato is not easily dealt with.

The assumption, I am guessing, is that because I’m a Platonist I believe existence without bodies is better. For the pagan Platonist, the body is a prison. Even for Origen, the body was a punishment. But Origen was disciplined by Scripture, and this changed his Platonism; a punishment is not the same as a prison. I got the sense reading him that 1 Cor 15 was a very important passage for him. He believed in the resurrection very much, and thought hard about how the body of the resurrection differs from the perishable body that is sown. Just there we can see a development of Platonism, and that is an important thing to remember.

Some persons who are not sympathetic to Platonism, or ignorant of it, find it convenient to take a view that allows for no development. This is what they think Plato said (which may or may not be right), and this, then, must be what Platonism actually is. Is there more than a superficial acquaintance with the more popular and less technical of Plato’s writings? I have often not found that there is not. If Platonism is allowed to be Platonic, however, it is an idea, it is formal, it is a principle of intelligible coherence which can be grasped more clearly as we learn more about it. If you are not a Platonist, you may not believe that about Platonism. It is just a concept, you may think, that Plato invented. But a Platonist must be allowed to believe it is something independent of Plato to which we can have better access than Plato did. It can be seen more clearly, apprehended better, since it is, after all, an object of knowledge. We must be allowed to believe that Platonism is the Form of philosophy (as I suppose Hegelians believe Hegel’s is philosophy come of age).

If Platonism may develop (that is, if our apprehension of a better philosophy may proceed on the assumption that Plato first discovered the broad outlines of what we hold), then pagan Platonism may be corrected by Christian Platonism, and Christian Platonism become more robust and consistent. I believe Platonism is true, and so I think the Christian appropriation leaves us with a better Platonism than Plato held. Did Aristotle get things right? Is he valuable? Of course. But Plato is fundamental in a way Aristotle can never be. Do I believe in the transmigration of the soul? I do not. I do believe I’ll transmigrate from this old body into one that is better, and therefore different. I’ll take Aquinas’ description of the resurrected body, for example. I find it eminently Platonic. That is not the same as the reincarnation which Plato believed.

Platonism and Gnosticism

Another thing to consider about the conditional above, is that unexamined views of Platonism tend to get distorted by views on Gnosticism. It is assumed that Gnosticism is Christianity ruined by Platonic thought. If you think that, then you get a debased view of Platonism. Let me counter that view with three names: Irenaeus, Origen and Plotinus.

When the church needed champions to take on Gnosticism and defeat it, who did it call on? The most obvious name is Irenaeus. According to Eric Osborne, a qualified and respected historian of the early church, Irenaeus was a Platonist. That is how Osborne characterizes Irenaeus in his monograph on the same. So who did the church call on to write a manual in tedious detail listing all the many wrong teachings of this variegated phenomenon later designated as Gnosticism? A man whose philosophy is clearly identifiable as Platonic. It was not a bad move. Irenaeus is still our main source and the main argument against Gnosticism.

The other person the church called on repeatedly was Origen. Origen traveled to debates against Gnostics, was valued for refuting them, and probably knew them very well. I say this because he lived in the epicenter of the more reputable Gnosticism, Alexandria, and even went to some of their secret meetings when he was young. Was Origen a Platonist? There is little doubt on that score. Platonism sometimes overwhelmed his Christianity. No Christian of his day would have called him a gnostic though (except for Clement who also resisted the Gnostics and called himself the true gnostic). Yet he was called on to debate Gnostics and refute them. He understood and repudiated them without, obviously, repudiating Plato.

These two are the main champions of the church against Gnosticism that I know of, and both can accurately be described as Platonists. The problem with Gnostics is not that they used Plato. It is that they got two things wrong: Plato and Christianity. Nobody orthodox will deny they fiddled and took liberties and distorted Christianity. We need to realize they were doing the same with Plato—a popularized, bowdlerized, irresponsible appropriation of some Platonic elements.

After Plato, the next greatest pagan Platonist was Plotinus. He had some Gnostic students attending his teaching sessions in Rome. The way Plotinus taught, we are told by his pupil Porphyry, was this. His students would read a portion of some philosopher (Aristotle say, or Numenius) and then discuss the philosophy. Or they would present papers about things. There would be a discussion which Plotinus would observe, mostly in silence. After a few days, when the discussion was winding down, Plotinus would pronounce himself. Porphyry encouraged him to write these pronunciations down, which Plotinus did. One of them was a treatise against Gnosticism. The Platonic Plotinus was decidedly against Gnosticism, and if his manner of teaching is accurately described by his pupil, then he no doubt had some familiarity with the Gnosticism his students embraced. He hated it.

Plotinus criticized Gnosticism on three points. (1) It was disordered in its metaphysics. For Plotinus there is the One, there is Mind, there is World Soul, and that is all. This was a reasoned and for Plotinus non-negotiable metaphysical structure. It made sense of the forms, it provided a Divine Simplicity, it mediated eternity to the world. He has whole treatises that argue cogently for his structure. The Gnostics had a chaos of inelegant and, what is worse, unreasoned emanations. Plotinus hated the lack of philosophically sophisticated dogma about the structure of reality. I think it made these students gawking adherents rather than real intellectual companions, for Plotinus. Hard to be an intellectual companion to Plotinus, but he was a serious guy and I think expected much of his pupils. (2) He also rejected Gnostic teaching on the ground that it despised the physical world, the created order. This is something people nowadays struggle with. To believe something is inferior is not to believe it is evil. I just read in an otherwise reputable history book something implying that people in the past were misogynists because they believed women were inferior. Some people in the past obviously have made the mistake people in the present make: inferior = bad. Inferior, however, can be morally neutral. A dog is inferior to me, but not therefore a mistake or somehow evil. Gnosticism believed the created order was evil, but Plotinus was shocked by such a non-Hellenic attitude. The world was good, its order was marvelous and intriguing, and it was all because this beauty was derived from, and therefore manifested, a greater transcendent order: that of the forms. That it was derived made it inferior, but not therefore bad. Everything turning toward the forms and participating in them aspired toward them, toward the Good, and this is good. (3) Plotinus also rejected the Gnostics for their irreverence: they made things up, they were incoherent, they ascribed too much to personal creativity without rigorous examination and thought. I think when it comes to defining the variegated phenomenon of Gnosticism, attitude is what really defines them, not dogma. They were the manifestation of a pagan attitude in a Christian context. Not only was Christianity at war with the pagan attitude and its irreverence, Hellenic philosophy was its other historic nemesis and one of the great causes weakening the totalitarian pagan consensus which was collapsing in late antiquity.

If that surprises you, go read his treatise and you’ll see what I say. Plotinus is tough to read, I’ll warn you. I tried and was unable to make sense of him without first reading a few very difficult introductions. But once you get what is happening, he is admirable and amazing. The rigor he expected he practiced, and he wrote his treatises all at one go without revision because of his weak eyesight. His weak physical eyesight, I should say. The mind of Plotinus is wondrous. What he writes against the Gnostics should put to rest the notion that Gnosticism made responsible use of Platonism. Neither in the church nor in philosophy did Gnosticism find acceptance. To think of Platonism through the lens of Gnosticism is to be irresponsible about a serious philosophy, and ignorant.

Which is all to say: do not assume unexamined conclusions about Platonism in order to deal with it.

What is the Body?

Now to the heart of the matter. What about Platonism and the creation of man as an embodied soul. That the body is a prison is not altogether true, but I don’t think it has for the Christian to be altogether false. Platonism is first of all an epistemology, and then it is everything that follows from that. If you do not understand that, you do not understand Plato. Plato was first concerned with certain knowledge. What can we know? Can we know this mutable world? No, you can’t know something that is always changing. So if we know, there has to be a realm of certainty, an immutable world. Is this consistent with Christian teaching? Yes it is. There is a realm of certainty; there is truth; we can know; and it is an invisible realm. The visible realm manifests it, but is not identified with it. The relation is of symbol to the meaning of a symbol.

Our body is a symbol. That is not to say it is unreal, but what it is derives what it is from something greater. I don’t know how you can be a Platonist and escape from language of levels of being. Is the created world real? Of course. Is there a higher reality? Oh yes, and one, therefore, more real. If you look for ultimate reality in the material order you will go crazy. It is beyond it. So we have material bodies, but matter only acquires anything by form. Is there a form of Body? There must be, and that is true bodiness. My body is me in a derivative way. It gets my meness from what I am essentially: my immaterial part. It is me in the mutable realm, but when I am resurrected will my body be corruptible or incorruptible? Is this a more material body? A more substantial one? (It has to be at least as substantial.) Is it made of superior matter? I am not sure. I am sure it will be incorruptible, and the Platonic epistemology leads me to conclude that this present matter is not incorruptible.

Angels do not have physical bodies, we believe. They have bodies though, just not made out of physical matter. Some might say it is a subtler substance. What is this? I am not sure how you can have subtler atoms. Do they use subatomic particles exclusively, and not in compounds that we know as atoms and molecules? I think that kind of thinking is just barking up the wrong tree. They are spiritual beings with bodies that are constituted by a higher reality, not a differently physical reality, but that is a preference making me say that. What, after all, can a higher reality be? Not sure, though I am sure it exists. C. S. Lewis suggests it two ways: one in The Great Divorce (a hardness that makes our present hardness looks like softness, or a substance that makes our present substance seem more insubstantial) and another in The Last Battle (I like this one, and not just because he acknowledges Plato as the source: all the best parts are present in greater abundance and nothing else). We can only speak of it in terms of what we presently know. We can only gesture at what we haven’t yet experienced. Just because we can’t imagine something clearly, doesn’t mean it is not within the realm of possibility.

Which is to say: I affirm the resurrection of the body. I conceive of it in Platonic terms in so far as I can. I do refuse to think of it as a slightly enhanced but essentially similar state to the present condition. I’d like more. I realize that is what makes me weird, but the alternative to me is to be flat-footed, uninteresting, plodding and dingy of both mind and heart. Still, if Platonism can be demonstrated to deny that (which an intelligent Platonism to date has not been demonstrated to require), then cheerio to Platonism. I’m doubtful, having understood Christian history to be full of Christian Platonists who were powerful, consistent, penetrating thinkers, that my Christian Platonism is under any real threat. I have found that even attacks from learned people are based on ignorance.

So Why the Body to Begin with?

We are lower beings than angels. Inferior, but not therefore evil. Good, after our kind, like dogs are good after their kind. One day, however, we shall judge the angels, and I think that is because we will be greater than them. We will transcend their order of being because unlike them we have been made to grow. Growth, mutability, change—do these belong to all finite beings or to some? You can be made to occupy your place forever: not bored, not weary, perfectly capable for you responsibility and endlessly satisfied with it. I do not think that is how we are. I think we are made to grow, and this requires the material where all is change. So we must begin there, become conscious there, almost like animals, as we are when we are young. If Angels grow, we do not know about it, but I think to grow you have to start out how we do, in matter which is the most mutable. But we do not remain there. And we will have incorruptible bodies.

John Eriugena was the greatest Christian Platonist ever. In his book on the divisions of nature he begins with the division that gives us nature: God on the one hand, and everything that is not God on the other. Everything that is not God is nature. What is the principle of coherence of nature? That which is not God is image of God. And what is the image of God? Man. Man is like Plotinus’ Nous in Eriugena’s scheme. Is that not grand? I think it is. Do you know how much room to grow that provides creatures who begin in the epitome that is practically an infinity of finiteness?



The Bible and Dualism

“Luther departed from all religious anthropologies that divide the person, whether it be into body and soul; body, soul, and spirit; flesh and spirit; or inner and outer. For Luther, the person is always the whole person. . . . Flesh and spirit do not designate parts of a person but refer to the whole person’s relationship to God. Living according to the flesh means the whole person in rebellion against God. Living according to the spirit means the whole person in confidence in God’s grace.” Lindberg, European Reformations, 68 (Cites LW 35: 371-2).

I like how it ends, and it is a reliable source. Lindberg, however, overstates his case. Not only is his beginning problematic (as if Luther could not make a distinction without creating a division), he claims, for example, that Luther is more “biblical and theological” which is simply to beg the question. The contrast is “dualistic and anthropological,” which poses the odd distinction between the Bible on one hand and dualism on the other. I believe Lindberg has at this point smuggled in an assumption. It is the question I would like to pose: is this the case? Is not posing two realms (flesh and spirit), two principles, two anythings at all by definition dualism? It is Scripture that poses them, after all. How can there be a distinction without at least two parts to be distinguished?

Scripture has to be understood. It has to be interpreted so that we understand what exactly it means by flesh and spirit. Is the flesh literally our muscles and skin? Probably there’s more to it. Some tell us spirit means the Holy Spirit, always. I’m skeptical of precise limiting of the meaning of words in such an absolute way. It goes the opposite direction of saying flesh is muscle and skin, and I simply do not think the communication of Scripture is precise in the sense of providing a technical manual in which objectivity is the main criterion.

Why not, can’t the Spirit of God who inspires the text achieve that? No doubt he can. The problem is whether he would be expected to. It expects that the writings of Scripture are like modern scientific manuals on matters of theology. The assumption is that modern scientific manuals provide certainty in what they address, and that this kind of certainty is not only to be expected of Scripture, but is the best and surest. My question is, can its first readers be expected to have shared this assumption? Can anybody until very recently?

I know how heretical it sounds to question the conventional wisdom of our age, but I like to live on the edge. Anyway, these are the assumptions we base our interpretation on. Because we have to interpret, because the interpretation is important, it is perhaps worth questioning them in an attempt to come to grips with what exactly it is we are doing, don’t you think? We tend to think that applied science, because it deals so surely with the empirical phenomena of creation, has figured out the way to approach every question of knowledge. You know what proceeding on that assumption will get you? Richard Dawkins.

Theologians of limited philosophical exposure, who are set apart from their peers because they have any philosophical exposure at all, tend to prefer the hylomorphism of Aristotle. Man is a hylomorph, he is a composite substance of flesh and spirit, distinguishable but not separable items. Materialists deny the spiritual component: man is just reasoning matter, somehow. Neuroscience speaks of the brain thinking, as if the brain could do what only mind can: that is a materialistic assumption. Platonism, on the other hand, denied the material portion as essential. Can man be man without a body? Man is more man when he is disembodied, in terms of the physical shell, Platonism would say. He has a greater, more real, more adequate body when it is purely formal. Substance, Plotinus argued, refuting Aristotle, is formal and in no way dependent on matter. To Aristotelians, that is an absurdity because body is a substance and always requires some kind of matter. So Aristotelians bang on about hylomorphism.

Clearly, Luther was not a Platonist. But the Platonist way was preserved in the Augustinian approach which believes the body is somehow tainted. Today’s youthful theologians, of course, tend to repudiate such an approach. They avoid preservatives and enhanced food, they work out, they value the good of physical health. They value it so much that one often gets the sense they value it as much as they value the good of spiritual health. The Gospel, we are told, seeks to minister to both spiritual and physical needs.

It is there that the problem manifests itself for me. I do not, as a Christian Platonist, deny the good of physical health. With Plotinus I condemn the Gnostics who despise the physical creation. It is good, and it contains many goods because it is informed, after all, by the greater forms, from which any good it has is derived. Derivative good is still good! But physical goods, the good of physical health for example, are an inferior good to the good of spiritual health. Spiritual health is infinitely to be desired, even at the cost of physical health. In fact, having undergone the Fall, we know that physical health derives from spiritual health and not vice versa. Also, what good does it do you to have all the world’s good and lose your soul? There is a hierarchy of goods and it is of the greatest importance that you understand something of this hierarchy. You have to value good things because they are good, but you also have to learn to distinguish between those which are better and more worth having. This is the biblical dualism of flesh and spirit.

If you walk according to the flesh, you do not necessarily walk according to things that are positively evil or strictly speaking of the body. You are walking according to a distorted or an uninformed and not sufficiently discriminating approach to the various goods to which you have access. You may live moderately, love oatmeal, drink water, exercise naturally and regularly and aspire to nothing but a smooth, comfortable, healthy existence on this planet. If that is all you want, you are doomed because you can’t have these things indefinitely and you will never have them long. You are looking for resignation, and really what you want is annihilation, but that is not an option. Wonder is on the cards. To walk according to the flesh is to worship lesser things as if these are ultimate, to value them not for the good they derive from something greater, but as if their goodness were intrinsic. It is to pretend satisfaction with things that never can satisfy; it is therefore perverse. To walk according to the spirit is to understand that there are greater goods and to be devoted to these. To walk according to the spirit is to live according to the Spirit which indicates to the believer that all goods derive their good from the Good, who is revealed to us in Christ whom we possess by that spiritual apprehension called union, which is participation—to speak in Platonic terms.

And in this Luther and Lindberg are right: the point is not a division of the human being, but a hierarchy of values. Is this more biblical and theological? Of course it is, but that has to do not with having less dualism and anthropology, but with having better philosophy: the concept of properly ordered values. It is a biblical dualism.

Dualism, after all, is the most basic component of the kind of order that hierarchy provides.

, after all, is the most basic component of the kind of order that hierarchy provides.


School is back. Emails are going out reminding students to be cool about not eating in classrooms, that the speed limit is 15 on campus and the one way signs are there by design. The tone of these emails will change over time, though the message will remain constant. I park in the lot of outer darkness and notice with surprise I’m parked by a black SAAB covered in pine needles that can only be the one belonging to R. Kent Hughes. Westminster’s legal council’s blue Tesla was down there the day before. Everything is back, and Westminster runneth over.

With my postgraduate privileges, I recalled a book some diligent graduate student was using to get ahead on his semester. No longer, dude. I need it though I don’t have a semester. I went in to pick up the book that I will read with considerable care, and while there further depleted the resources available to graduate students for the next three months.

Then I left. No classes for me. Only reading.

I kind of miss the whole thing already.

Metaphysical Confrontation

Sometimes exegeting a passage is not going to resolve the dispute.

When I was being taught by premillennialists I heard this rule: the obscure passages must be interpreted in the light of the clear passages. And I was informed that amillennialists failed, among other reasons, because they did not follow that simple rule. If only they did, they would become premillennialists.

When I was taught by amillennialists I heard this rule: the obscure passages must be interpreted in the light of the clear passages. Same rule, no kidding. I have lived to hear it from both. And, I was given to understand, the problem with premillennialists is that they fail to observe this obvious rule. If only they did, they’d be amillennialists.

Clearly the relative clarity or obscurity of passages is the issue. How to determine which is which? It is at this point that it becomes clear, at least to me, that simple exegesis of the passages is not enough. We are now talking about the assumptions with which we arrive at the texts we want to understand.

I think this passage is plain, so I will now use it to interpret this other passage. Yes, but how do you determine clarity and obscurity? What do you mean by these terms? I think in these cases we often determine the outcome and then assign clarity and obscurity. And I think many will at least agree that this is what the other side often does.

When I read of the Marburg Colloquy I see Luther and Zwingli frustratingly debating texts and their meanings while miles above them their assumptions were clashing unwittingly. Luther was a Nominalist, and the almost Marcionite conception of a chaotic, unpredictable God of the Old Testament who makes himself kind and approachable in Christ is evident in the way he expresses himself. His nearly irrational statement that the divinity of Christ by which he is omnipresent cannot be unaccompanied by his humanity is stunning. No wonder Zwingli, responding, expressed the wish that nobody would take his own strong words too personally. It is hard for someone to distinguish at most times between that which is above reason and that which lies below, but this makes all kinds of ways to do so leap to mind. Had I been there I might have been thinking of Luther: Who put this guy in charge of anything?

For a Nominalist, reality is the here and now. For Luther, then, for there to be a real presence it had to be along with the bread and wine. I am not sure why he denied transubstantiation—his position was that not only did the elements become the body and blood of Christ, they also remained bread and wine. Was it that he hated Aristotle and thought the language tainted? Perhaps. He hated Aristotle as much as Erasmus did, and it was silly of them both. But the physical presence to him was a reality necessary to give gravity to the concepts. Sure we feed spiritually, he said, nobody disagrees about that. But we also really eat, that is: physically, of course. The point is that we have a mystery, and it doesn’t make sense, and so we must believe it (I read his words and wonder if at this point he wasn’t bellowing at Zwingli). To Luther, this made sense.

It obviously did not to Zwingli. I have heard, and am interested to find out to what degree it is the case, that Zwingli was a Platonist. Platonism was enjoying a revival thanks to humanism, and there were serious and not-so-serious (Erasmus) Platonists abroad. It would make sense of Zwingli’s views of the supper if indeed he was a Platonist. He was decidedly of the humanist persuasion, as were in varying degrees most of the rest of the reformers, with the notable exception of Luther.

Zwingli’s argument had two points. One is that “is” means signifies. How did he arrive at that interpretation? By his second point. He did it on the basis of the saying in John 6 that the spirit makes alive but the flesh is not profitable. Our Lord is there explaining his hard saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. I think it is ingenious of Zwingli, but I think so because I’m a Platonist. If he was a Platonist, then we can understand why he argued this way (whether we agree or we take Luther’s more irrational or Calvin’s still irrational but not quite as irrational interpretation). For a Platonist reality is not material, not physical, but spiritual. Meanings are more real than symbols. The real presence is not a physical or material presence, but a spiritual one. Real eating is really being nourished by faith by the obedience and righteousness of Christ. At least that is how I assume he would put it. He denied transubstantiation on this basis: it insisted that what Christ said was not profitable somehow was.

As you can surmise, this reading of Zwingli, if I’m right, is not something a Nominalist is going to take to readily. Luther didn’t. But did they debate Platonism, Aristotelianism and Nominalism at the Marburg Colloquy? It would appear that they did not.