Holy Teaching

We do strange things to texts that are important to us – annotate them, teach them, put them on a shelf and pretend to read them. Some of that came home as I was reading Holy Teaching by Frederick Bauerschmidt. Bauerschmidt translated and heavily annotated Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (with some significant help from the previous work of the English Dominican fathers) – giving an easy and relatively short introduction to his thought.

Bauerschmidt came close at times to drowning Aquinas’ thought in massive footnoted explanations. At times, these helped, but at times I felt as though I was reading more of his interpretation of what Aquinas thought rather than the actual teaching of the Summa. Still, I’m not going to pretend that I would have made any actual headway through the text if I didn’t have a helpful guide, so significant thanks are due to him.

What I was most amazed by is the kind of theologizing and philosophizing that Aquinas did (again, this is interpreted though Bauerschmidt, so take it with a grain of salt). He would take certain things on faith, because of revelation, and then attempt to show how they are fitting to reason – how they integrate into a larger scheme of revelation. Aquinas doesn’t seek, that is, to prove the incarnation, merely show how it might make sense that the eternal God would become incarnate. This argues strongly against the traditional image of Aquinas as seeking to merely make the faith purely logical and amenable to reason. He acknowledges that there are certain things that humans cannot know without revelation. But this does not condemn the theological task to irrelevance, but rather means that it needs to be understood as subordinate to divine revelation. That sounds a lot like some of the presuppositionalists I’ve read (although with perhaps a slightly stronger position for unaided reason). Thomist apologetics mode would sound a lot like reformed apologetics.

This make places where Aquinas disagrees with my tradition all the more astounding. I was fairly astonished to read, for example, Aquinas’ argument against the Immaculate Conception. He claims that Mary was merely made sinless immediately following her conception. I come from such a strong protestant tradition that even this sounds ridiculous.

Then I read Aquinas (who I’ve agreed with so far) upholding Mary’s sinlessness. It did, I must say, throw me for a loop. Still, reading his arguments with the most charity I could, I’m not convinced. It still seems to mar the uniqueness of Jesus to say that Mary was also sinless, in the sense that Aquinas does. That being said, Mary is still an exemplar of faith, if only for her response to the Annunciation.

Reading this text was intended to give me a break from other, more ethically oriented, books and give me something to read that wasn’t explicitly post-liberal/Hauerwasian. And then I read the dedication to Hauerwas. Hmph. Still, it also got me to read a substantial chunk of Aquinas, and understand his thought a bit better. Bauerschmidt does introduce Aquinas well here. Although I’m still not qualified to have a conversation about him, maybe I can keep up a little better when people name-drop Thomism.


A Peculiar People

I always find it kinda disturbing to realize that I don’t actually say anything new. For better or worse, I wrote an impassioned paper for my last history course at Geneva arguing that the church is the only social institution with the ability to make things better (on a world-historical scale) and the moral reason to do so. I used a lot of “church as polis” arguments, and  they served well to make my point. After reading my paper, the esteemed Dr. Miller (who has heard all of this before) asked the excellent question, “So, what do we do then?” and pointed me in the direction of Rodney Clapp’s A Peculiar People.

Needless to say, A Peculiar People makes most of the points that I wanted to make, albeit better. And it did so in 1996, when I was thinking about first grade in Australia.

I shouldn’t get caught up in what C.S. Lewis calls chronological snobbery, right? After all, isn’t one of the big appeals of the church as polis argument is that it is historical, that there are pre-Constantinian arguments for this kind of ecclesial behavior? Besides, I think there is something different that I bring to the table. I approach the problem of the Church in a post-Constantinian world from a different standpoint than these people usually do.

Most of the people that I’ve read in Clapp’s position have a loosely Anabaptist approach to government. They argue that since Christianity became the official state position in the 4th century, it has become fatally compromised by being tied with power. More than this, they would say that the church itself should not have power: this is fundamentally against what the nature of church is. Since Christ came as a servant, so also the Church should be fundamentally lowly.

I tend to think that many of their same points can be made from a covenanter (that is, traditional Reformed Presbyterian) position. And, if I can say that, I don’t have to worry quite as much about all of those reformation texts condemning the error of the Anabaptists. The covenanter position would argue that the government ought to confess Christ, and follow Christian moral principles (the latter part, at least, is fairly well agreed on), and if it doesn’t, then the individual has the responsibility not to lend undue support to the false claims of the government for sovereignty. Obedience and respect are still, obviously, mandated (the Roman empire, far from Christian, was still to be obeyed by the early church), but that doesn’t mean that the Christian ought to be involved more than necessary with an unchristian group.

If someone was born, say, into a Mafia family, then they owe the family the respect and obedience that they always do. It is still one of the commandments. But they should limit their involvement with the family business, until the Godfather repents and turns the family to legitimate business. And wouldn’t, to continue with the same example, it be wise for the Christian in this situation to start a family business of their own, and show the kind of profitable and safe activities that could be run legally? Shouldn’t the church then seek to do the same thing with regard to the heterodox state that the Christian Mafioso does with his family?

I do hear the Anabaptist position (which is, by the way, stated excellently by Clapp: this book is really a lot of fun) echoed in a Covenanter position. Both would argue that the church ought to be a distinct people, and that this has political, economic and social implications. There are still important differences, but the similarities strike me as interesting, and worthy of further study (if I should get the time).

The Company They Keep

C.S. Lewis is a really big deal at Christian colleges, and Geneva is no exception. We have a philosophy class dedicated to his thinking (that is always over-enrolled), and have more books authored by him in McCartney than we do from Dickens. Of course, he is an important author, but, as Ryan Harper at HuffPo points out, he isn’t quite that important. There are other resources, other authors, and other philosophies that also need to be encountered as the Church faces (post)modernity.

That being said, I recently read a book about Lewis. Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep is, in my defense, less about Lewis in particular than about the whole cadre of Oxford writers “The Inklings” (a fairly large group, including Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams). Glyer makes the argument that the members of the Inklings influenced each other in distinct and positive ways, using a very flexible definition of influence: that the works produced by each author would be different if they were not in contact with each other. The four ways that she says this is done is by influencers acting as resonators (who support the author, either materially or emotionally), critics (giving the spice of intellectual controversy), editors (providing constructive criticism) and collaborators (working on particular works in close conjunction with each other). She argues that the Inklings give examples of all four (though she has to work hard to make collaboration fit).

The reason I didn’t feel too guilty reading this text (I usually leave Lewis to future-roommate Keith Pinson) is because it really isn’t about the Inklings per se. Glyer does seek to combat a common interpretation of their work, first from Humphrey Carpenter, saying that they didn’t really influence each other at all, but were merely a group of friends. Still, she is mainly making an argument about the communal nature of authorship, and saying that the Inklings clearly fit into a post-modernist troubling of the concept of authorship. Karen Burke LeFevre, in Invention as a Social Act, provided the basic structure for her argument (the fourfold roles that comrades can play). Fortuitously, McCartney has a copy of that book as well, so I checked it out, and will see if Glyer did any original theoretical work herself.

The theory side is why I read it: literary theory of this type, particularly when it involves sociological insights or history, fascinates me.  This was a book not involving theology or church history, and I needed a break from those topics for a while: something that was on the first floor rather than the third of McCartney. It also squarely hit one of the qualifications of a good book by directing me to a handful of other books that I ought to read (LeFevre’s book mentioned above, a collection of Charles Williams’ poetry, and a couple of others). Although her thesis seems obvious, it does make an original contribution to Inklings’ scholarship. A large part of why it seems obvious is because she does such a good job making her point.

I wonder about her argument in the context of an intellectual community such as Geneva: students and faculty do influence each other, so how can that influence be made more positive and productive? I wonder if LeFevre’s and Glyer’s work might help us figure out how to do that.


Carl Trueman is always a lot of fun, and I had to check Republocrat out – a short book of essays arguing, straightforwardly enough, that conservative theology ought not be confused with conservative politics. In the US they are often merged, but Trueman argues (from an ex-pat’s standpoint) that this is merely a cultural oddity of the United States. In other countries, Christians pioneered socialism and other leftist concepts (even quite conservative evangelical protestants – look at Wales for an easy historical example).

Trueman’s point is well taken. Still, he seems to make lots of strange missteps along the way, mainly as a result of overgeneralizing the conservative tradition and almost entirely failing to recognize the validity of the new left’s critique.

Trueman doesn’t engage fully with the conservative tradition. And that’s OK – it wasn’t his goal in the book. He recognizes that politically conservative Christians have strong reasons for believing the way that they do, that these reasons are rational, and that they play little part in the public discourse. He is trying, if I’m reading him correctly, to push the conservative Christian public closer to a rational discourse that acknowledges religious orthodoxy on many sides of the political question, not to push his style of old school liberalism. That would have taken another, quite different, book.

If Trueman fails to engage fully with the conservative tradition (which, looking around, is the most common critique of this book), he also sells the new left tradition short. Much of what he simplistically calls ‘identity politics’ grew out of real oppression – not merely a psychologized failure to be actualized. And many of the arguments of the left now similarly are not merely threats to self-esteem but real social and economic problems. Look at environmental justice (admittedly, a buzzword): most of the pollutants of modernity are dumped on the poor and ethnically marginalized. This, for one brief example, seems to be a case in which “identity politics” has a real health impact. On top of that, how can we, if we have a robust sense of sin, dismiss some kinds of oppression as merely psychological? Human depravity goes beyond the physical, and suggesting that only more ‘real’ forms of oppression count politically seems to make the world an oddly materialistic place.

With those critiques being made, this is a really fun book. It would have been difficult for him to address these problems sufficiently without adding dramatically to the bulk of the book. Some of his taunts (such as that against Christians who vote Democrat and then talk about how naughty they are, on page 15; or his chapter-long diatribe against Fox News) are well taken. It really isn’t healthy for the conservative protestant church to be so closely tied with the politics of any one party. Jesus’ disciples included both a Zealot and a tax collector – think they agreed much on politics? We should nevertheless love one another, and work together, though it be difficult, to seek the prosperity of the city in which we sojourn. One of the key ways to do this, as Trueman argues, is through politics.

The Church in a Postliberal Age

I’ve been telling people for the past six months or so that I was interested in post-liberalism, at least as much as I could understand it. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I understood it very well. I still don’t, even after reading Lindbeck’s The Church in a Postliberal Age. What I can understand is that he is worlds apart from my own conservative protestant upbringing –not necessarily be a bad thing. Lindbeck’s focus on ecumenicalism is strange to my ears, although it certainly jives with some of the rhetoric I’m hearing from my own church’s leadership. That being said, Lindbeck’s quasi-universalism (with, sad to say, echoes of Rob Bell ringing in my ears) or his strong ecumenicism (seeing the Lutheran church as simply a reform movement within the larger Catholic church) would not go over too well in my Presbyterian circles.

Although it might not go over too well, I still think there are things here that we need to listen to. It ought to be a priority to seek theological formulations that tend to unity, rather than to division. If this means restructuring our doctrine, that is not necessarily bad. The truths passed down to us are important, but they need to be understood in the context of the whole church as well as scripture. I’m less confident than Lindbeck that I know what that looks like, but it does seem that it ought to happen.

Perhaps a more consistent pattern for unification could occur on the local level. Churches and communities coming together in a recognition of common needs and the theological grammar that they share (to put it in Lindbeck’s terms). Although, as he notes, this is a classically protestant way to view the problem, I have difficulty imagining that real change can happen by the meeting of large ecclesiastical bodies such as he continually describes. Although it may be different in Roman Catholic circles by the nature of their polity, if change is imposed from the top in a more Presbyterian or Congregationalist system then it often has trouble winning adherents on the local level. This occurs in massive polities (such as the SBC), but even in relatively small bodies such as the PCA. The life of J.P. Boyce should provide a good example of the difficulties of doing anything organized in the Baptist section of the reformation – even when almost everyone agrees that the goal is important. Not everyone, by far, thinks that ecumenicism is important.

One last nitpick on an essay “Ecumenism and the Future of belief.” Here Lindbeck claims that the best case for the survival of Christianity in a post-constantinian world is to become an ecumenical sect. Ecumenical in that traditional divisions are subsumed to a deeper unity (while keeping distinctives), and sectarian in that it maintains a sharp distinction from the outside world. His argument here is built on the idea that religion is dying. Although it might be difficult to thread this distinction, it seems as though in spite of the fact that we are entering a post-constantinian world, threats of overbearing popular secularism are overrated. He uses the secularization thesis, which seemed plausible in the 1960s when the essay was written but not now. That being said, his description of an ecumenical sect doesn’t seem to be a bad model for the church to use, if only in its response to cultural elites.

This collection of essays does provide an interesting insight into the mind of someone I’d heard about, and a movement I’d been interested in. And that in itself makes it worthwhile, although some of the essays are outdated and the focus on ecumenicism doesn’t particularly interest me. And I’m still not entirely sure I could give you a good thumbnail description of postliberalism, other than describing some individuals involved in it. Hm. Probably should work on that.

God, Truth and Witness

Festschrifts (or, as Wikipedia tells me to call them, Festschriften) are interesting books, particularly when they concern someone as controversial as Hauerwas. Though, honestly, they usually just succeed in boring: a compilation of essays that couldn’t cut it anywhere else. Still, the essays in God, Truth, and Witness (edited by Jones, Hutter and Velloso) manage to avoid this, mainly. They do interesting pirouettes between expressing thanks to Hauerwas and then disagreeing with him completely. Combined with that, the genre of the essays included is wildly variable – from an essay of appreciation/biography to one on Augustine and truth, (whose only connection to Hauerwas is a vague “well, this is how he would have done it”).

What I find most interesting about this volume, however, is the spread of authors represented. We can see everyone from Eastern Orthodox to Mennonite and in between. With a wide geographical spread as well, the extent of Hauerwas’ work becomes apparent, as does the incestuous nature of academia. Most of the authors have some kind of formal relationship with Hauerwas, or at least have corresponded extensively with him. Part of that is due to his many years in the academy but it also points to the narrow social world of intellectuals. In order to have intelligent conversations about his work, Hauerwas needs to cast a broad net. And this is in the area of theology and ethics,  churches that take part of their mission as educating their membership about these things. How much worse must the situation be in, say, theoretical physics?

That is one possible interpretation of the geographic and sectarian scope of the authors. The other is that the editors, in order to demonstrate the extent of Hauerwas’ influence, chose from the broadest spectrum of possible authors that they could. To be honest, this is probably true. Still, it seems that the main thing academia is good for is talking at itself, and does very little in extending its message to the broader populace. This has good and bad aspects.

Positively, it is easier to get results and make improvements in knowledge when you are able to make complicated technical arguments as you usually are only to a small and select audience. There is a real difference between homoiousios and homoousios and it is actually important for Christian life and practice. Still, technical greek philosophical language was necessary to explain and clarify the difference. Though jargon can serve as much to exclude as it can to clarify, it still serves a necessary function.

At the same time, in the humanities (which I would include the theology and ethics that Hauerwas does), there is no actual application if we cannot communicate the real knowledge that we make with a larger populace. We still face the question if there actually is an educated populace, but it still is necessary to share knowledge with the people.

This is the classic problem of the reformation – particularly the Calvinist end of it and it seems like the classic response is still the best. With a large emphasis placed on education and quality preaching, a literate population can be developed, and knowledge developed in universities might be able to actually have an influence on real people. I know enough churches with crazy-smart laity to believe this cannot happen. So, churches need the university, but just as much universities need the church.

Hm. I’ve wandered pretty far. But, I think, similar to an essay in a Festschrift, this is something which might be tangentially related to the given topic. Also, we could draw some connections, I’m sure, between this and some of Hauerwas’ themes. And as a Festschrift, this isn’t a bad book. It’s just a book in a very mediocre genre.

Cult of the Saints

            As a fairly reformed fellow, I have an instinctive disgust for sainthood in the sense that Peter Brown uses it in Cult of the Saints. The idea of specially sanctified individuals making intercession on our behalf rubs me the wrong way – after all, isn’t Christ alone supposed to be the mediator between God and Man?

Still, Brown does a fantastic job delineating exactly how sainthood fit in the context of late antiquity: how it worked within a Roman model of patronage and both responded to Roman concepts of death and the supernatural. It does make me curious, however, how the cult of the saints has changed, particularly in since the Enlightenment and how sainthood is being used by African Christians who face a partial cultural divinization of ancestors. Does venerating saints provide a way for these cultural expressions to happen without leaving the fold of the Christian faith, or are they simply a capitulation to an unchristian culture? I don’t know, but Brown’s discussion of the cultural politics of sainthood show that these questions are very much live within the older Christian tradition itself. Late antiquity has a lot to say to the African church today (I think you lent me a book about that, right Dad?)

One of the things I found fascinating about Brown’s work methodologically here was his use of dialectic to discuss cultural patterns. The graves of the martyrs, he claimed, were places fraught with power in part because they were unclean places. The grace of God, as shown through the martyrs suffering, transformed death into victory and made places that were usually despised into sites of pilgrimage. Thus Brown connects martyrdom with the resurrection – a chief paradox of the Christian faith. That, needless to say, is cool. Dialectic has always seemed deeply helpful to me, but I was never entirely sure how. It is good to read an example of it being used with faithfulness to historical texts and as a way to illustrate rather than being used to force historical facts to fit with pre-conceived theories.

All of these good things being said, however, I still have trouble with the concept of sainthood as practiced in the cult of saints. It smacks more of magic and paganism than a true Christian practice ought. Although Brown is, I am sure, correct in saying that the cult of the saints worked against late Roman practices in helpful ways, it seems to have grown stagnant throughout the middle ages. In biblical language, the saints are the community of believers in a particular city – that is the way that Paul uses the concept to be sure. And how can we make distinctions in grace between members of the church? After all, we are all covered by Christ’s righteousness and can do nothing by our own strength. We do see differences in levels of sanctification – the older members of our churches do deserve respect, for they’ve grown more in the faith than those of us who are younger. Still, because we share the same mediator, these men and women do not have a special access to God that the younger among us lack.

But, with these caveats, Brown does some really fun work here. This book was originally a series of lectures, and his voice still comes through. As part of an increased self-education in early Christianity, Cult of the Saints was very helpful. I’m just not going to pray to St. Peter for help anytime soon.