In which I applaud hippie theology

There are few things I  violently hate more than theological liberalism.  It is a colossal failure of nerve.  I’ve since realized that not all non-conservatisms are created equally.  Post-liberal theology, while perhaps incapable of saying anything definitively, is not the same thing as old-school liberalism.  It, like its evangelical counterpart, acknowledges that modernity has failed.  Further, reading critical scholars can pay surprising dividends.  Evangelicals are so quick to defend inerrancy that when there are “tensions” in the text, the Evangelical is quick to smooth them out.  Now, I’m all for inerrancy and the unity of God’s word, but I have to ask if we are missing something.  Maybe the tensions in the text need to remain there a bit longer.  Perhaps this is the way of the author to let us look deeper into the historical situation.

While I don’t agree with the Documentary Hypothesis and the postmodern claim that the different authors are using the texts as acts of violence against one another, I think the different emphases (say between Kings and Chronicles) are perhaps more than different emphases.  Going beyond that is a bit of speculation, though.

The problem is that these guys never really left old-school liberalism.  The problem is illustrated in Walter Brueggemann.  Brueggemann is a talented preacher and I enjoy listening to him.  But when he moves to application, it’s even worse than old-school liberalism.  Old school liberals, for all of their faults, loved high culture and decency.   They would have been horrified at the sexual decadence today.  Brueggemann, by contrast, urges the white male (how come that phrase isn’t considered racist and sexist to white males?) to embrace the coming gay and feminist hegemony.   But as many culture warriors have pointed out, it’s not simply that we don’t want gays to have equal rights.   The problem is that they don’t stop there:  the sexual revolution is simply a weapon to destroy traditional society (which is why godly men and women are being sued because they won’t cater to gays).

Which leads to the next problem:  post liberals and leftists have never really been able to “speak truth to power.”  They are Washington lapdogs.   You can’t say you are “speaking the truth to power” when you line up with the Power’s agenda.

Is the PCA going liberal?

This question rages on the major message boards.  The initial answer seems to be “no.”  For those of us in former Baptist circles, who fought old-school liberalism to the death, and have the scars to prove it (no joke; I was actually physically attacked in college on this point), it would seem that the PCA isn’t going liberal.  The denomination believes in inerrancy (sort of) and the Westminster Confession (loosely speaking).   The objection seems to be:  if we say the PCA is going liberal, that waters down the term.  The PCUSA is liberal and there is a big difference.”

But the road to liberalism takes different turns.  This morning i just finished rereading Gary North’s Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of the Van Til Legacy.  Other issues about theonomy aside, North made several observations which seem to have been vindicated:  With the hiring of Ed Clowney as President, Westminster Seminary moved towards a broader evangelical base.  They never rejected the old Confessionalism, but with the move towards neo-Evangelicalism it became harder to maintain the old Confessionalism.

I actually think Westminster Philly moved back towards a more confessional stance in the last ten years.  However, what North projected of WTS actually is true of the PCA.  If by liberal one means “denying the supernatural,” then the PCA isn’t going liberal, at least not anytime soon.   I think it is better to say they are going “neo-evangelical,” best represented by Christianity Today.  Is neo-Evangelicalism liberal?  Not at first glance.  However, most neo-evangelical movements eventually go liberal.   Christianity Today, a bastion of supposedly right-wing Christianity, at one time hosted a symposium and invited (if not endorsed) pro-abortion physicians and theologians (one of the theologians, by the way, who endorsed abortion, also wrote an essay in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique; just thought I would throw that out there.)

Here is the difference between liberals and mainstream status quo institutional conservatives:  liberals are cunning and they know they are consistent in terms of their covenant-breaking (whereas conservatives think liberals will adopt a common-ground neutral playing field, Roe v. Wade notwithstanding).   They know just how to play the game to marginalize conservative.   And in terms of the PCA, they probably don’t even see themselves as “liberal.” I don’t even think they are liberal.  However, history does play out that when Confessional bodies seek the lowest-common denominator, they usually get it.  At which point the question comes up:  how exactly are you Confessional?

The Creeping Liberalism of Anchoretism

As one who was often accused of convert-syndrome for the past four years, yet ultimately never converting, it is nevertheless interesting to watch how “converts” adapt parts of their theology and politics to distinguish themselves from their evangelical pasts.  As a disclaimer, I understand that many Protestant communions are liberal.  So what?  By the same reasoning, we can say that EO leads to Communism, but in both cases it is a logical fallacy.

I’ve been watching some EO apologists online and on facebook.  One in particular–D.W.–has come close to advocating state socialism.  He praised the Supreme Court’s decision on Obamacare.  This decision, mind you, effectively negated freedom in America.  He has elsewhere attacked the idea of national borders as “racist,” never mind that Marx attacked the very same thing.  He and others have embraced evolution (and by implication, rejected what the Bible, the Church, and the Fathers say about the image of God in man.  Presumably we must now find such an image in squirrel monkeys, from whom we descended).

But this isn’t representative of all Orthodox, is it?  Who knows?  Is the Episcopal Church USA representative of all Protestants?  If yes, then my above criticism applies across the board.  If no, then one is no longer allowed to run genealogical critiques of Protestantism.

So how does the average Orthodox believer line up on the liberal scale?   It’s really difficult to tell because, as Orthodox theologian Bradley Nassif concedes, few really know what the church teaches on this matter.   Are there Presbyterians who are ignorant?  Sure, but they belong to liberal communions. Baptists–by their own admission–do not count as Protestants.  Corollary:  the so-called “20,000” protestant denominations are almost entirely Baptistic, hence, they can’t be used as evidence of Protestant splintering.   I’ve been in quite a number of conservative Presbyterian churches over the past decade and the biblical knowledge, if not always outstanding, is still impressive.

Another question:  who is the real representative of EO:  Cradle Christopher or Hyperdox Herman?

And to prove I am not bashing anyone, Joseph Farrell said as much fifteen years ago.

I also write this because I plan to do a future essay on the likelihood of Armed Covenanting in America’s Future, and the socialist tendencies of some will no doubt figure in as an antitype of the Anglicans who persecuted the covenanters.

Confessions of a Liturgical Inerrantist

EDIT:  I hold to inerrancy.  I have seen where denying it kills denominations and churches.  That said, a hyper-focus on inerrancy, instead of the person to whom it witnesses, also kills denominations.

In college I would have defended inerrancy to the death.  Literally.  I am not being dramatic. In college I was physically assaulted by charismatics and theological liberals for my take on Scripture. If you did not accept the doctrine of inerrancy, you were a liberal.   If you took the easy route and accepted only the infallibility of Scripture, then you were afraid of the hard reality of God’s revelation, and you were probably a liberal anyway.

To be fair to us Evangelicals in college, given our situation we really did not have a choice.   The liberalism in the Baptist world was rank and raw.  At Southern Seminary in the late 1970s (yes that was before my time), so the documentation goes, prayers were began with, “Our Mother, who art in heaven…”*  A hard, if wrong-headed, defense of inerrancy is certainly understandable.

Unfortunately, inerrancy is a dead-end.   The only way it can be salvaged is to immediately water-down its claims.  The prima facie problems with inerrancy are the discrepancies between different gospel accounts and different historical reconstructions in Kings/Chronicles.   I know many apologists have “harmonized” these accounts, but there are some problems with “harmonizations”:

  • harmonizations, especially in the gospels, take away the rough edges from the text and ultimately make the two (or three) texts say the same thing.   There are two problems with this:  the text you have “harmonized” originally wasn’t saying what you wanted it to say.   You’ve changed the text (so much for the inerrancy of Scripture).  Secondly, the “difference” in the text might be pointing to a theological or narratival truth.  Harmonizing that eliminates that truth.
  • Many harmonizations are quite strained.
  • In order to be successful at this, you have to read a whole lot, have an agile mind for smoothing over these problems, and have the necessary rhetorical skills for interpreting these problems.   Few people have this, which means few people can really defend inerrancy.
I’m familiar with the traditional (well, it’s not too traditional since inerrancy is a late arrival) defense that the original mss are inerrant, and not the translations itself.   Fine.   That doesn’t make the problem go away.  You have no inerrant texts with you and at the end of the day you are in the same practical boat as the one who denies inerrancy.
But does this make one a liberal?  Does the truth lie with Wellhausen?  Not for me, anyway.  Theological Liberalism is the most unexciting mentality imaginable.  Liberalism begins with the premise that our universe is a very closed, very Newtonian universe.   Liberals presuppose from the outset, with no evidence for their future claims, that miracles just can’t happen, that God just can’t speak, that ultimately the Author of the story cannot enter the story.  When asked how they know this, they can only reply, “Just because…”
My (metaphorical) war against liberalism is still on.
In this case my position is analogous to C. S. Lewis.  Lewis had a very exciting ontology in which animals talked, new horizons opened up, God became man, knights and shining castles, etc.   Yet Lewis denied the inerrancy of Scripture, and while I was previously critical of his reasons for doing so–and admittedly they aren’t the best–I think I understand that Lewis did not want to be straight-jacketed into a system that can be dismantled very easily.   I also think Lewis did not want to die on a hill which would have been unrecognizable to most of church history.
One of the problems with “affirming” inerrancy, as N. T. Wright pointed out to Gaffin, was that it necessarily commits one to certain ecclesiastical, cultural, and even political agendas.   Granted, this is mainly so in America, but that’s the culture in which I live (and frankly, I think that is the only culture today in which this is an issue).

*Given the doctrine of absolute simplicity, which Tillich says is the abyss of everything specific, one should not be surprised.

A life of Antony by Athanasios

Finished reading St Athanasios’ Life of Antony.   Rather than being a monastic drillbook, it read like a fast-paced fantasy novel.   I will give a longer review of it after I finish Khaled Antolios’ Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought.  Some initial thoughts:

  • While the Schaff editors might be Christians who believe in the supernatural when it applies to Jesus’ divinity, they are utterly modernist beyond that.  Their worldview explicitly denies God operating in the realm of space and time.   They go to huge lengths to deny the narratives where St Antony battles demons–you can read the footnotes and easily tell they are blushing with embarrassment as they deny these narratives. (For even more crass unbelief, see the volume on the life of Martin of Tours).
  • St Athanasios (or Antony) believed in toll-houses. I still don’t understand the hysteria in which people reacted to Fr. Seraphim Rose on this point (actually, I think I do).  Does that mean toll-houses are thereby dogma for the church?  No, for one man doesn’t establish dogma.   It does however show fathers who believed in toll-houses (interestingly, in his book on toll houses Fr Seraphim doesn’t refer to Antony’s narrative in any great detail, even when it provided stronger evidence for his case).
  • Monasticism predated Constantine.  Therefore, the argument that monasticism arose as a response to Constantine’s secularization of the church is false.

Is the Law-Gospel dialectic proto-liberalism?

I didn’t know whether to categorize it as “law-gospel” or “Republication of Covenant of Works,” or simply “Klinean theology.”  You get the idea.     The “law-gospel” divorce is much broader than the other two, but it includes them.  Truth be told, though, “Klineanism” is the more accurate term for the discussion below.

Many decades ago CH Dodd praised the apostle Paul for anticipating higher criticism (JEDP:  the vile heresy that there are multiple–and often conflicting–authors of Torah).   Paul, per Dodd’s gloss, saw different strands of Deuteronomic teaching.   Now, we all know Dodd is wrong and few Reformed authors would want to associate themselves with liberalism, but I have to ask:   are they also Doddians, too?

How far removed from Dodd and the Documentary Hypothesis is the Reformed view that Torah contains both a faith principle and a works principle?  It was not without reason that post-liberal William Willimon said today’s evangelicals are tomorrow’s liberals.  Indeed.

The Klinean–and the unwitting Calvinist who follows Kline–posits a dialectic within Scripture which will ultimately deconstruct his worldview.

On why academic protestantism has no miracles

I am not talking about conservative Protestantism that actually believes the Bible. I am talking about mainline churches and “academic” Protestantism. (On the other hand, I have watched a conservative Federal Vision guy debunk the miracle stories of the holy fathers along similar lines).

Of course, there are always exceptions, but the general rule is that Protestantism is a religion of the word, not the miracle. Granted, the charismatics have abused (ruined?) the notion of miracles. And with our scientific hermeneutics (which Protestantism accepts, albeit inconsistently), there is no place for miracles.

Of course, the Protestant will retort that miracles do not prove the legitimacy of a movement and are often used by demons to deceive the faithful. Very true. However, if that standard is applied across the board, we have to rule out Jesus and the apostles.

Am I saying that Protestantism disbelieves in the miraculous? No (well, mainline Protestantism doesn’t believe in miracles, but that’s another story). I am saying that their worldview often does not have a place for them.

This is revealed in their scholarship. This morning I finished the biography of St Martin, written by Sulpicius Severus, a fantastic read full of the supernatural. The Protestant scholar who edited that volume (volume 11 of Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene series), no doubt an erudite man, was clearly embarrassed by Severus’s credulity (Severus, it must be noted, was very intelligent and classically trained in the Latin language). Now, to the passages in question.

In chapter 24 Severus relates how the devil appeared to St Martin in order to trick him. Martin resists the Devil and the Devil vanishes, leaving the smell of sulfur in the cell. Severus writes,

This event, as I have just related, took place in the way which I have stated, and my information regarding it was derived from the lips of Martin himself; therefore let no one regard it as fabulous.

Several things to note: 1) Severus was a very intelligent man and well-versed in classical and ecclesiastical literature, so he is likely one not easily fooled; 2) St Martin, as the editor admits, was a very godly and pious man, quite remarkable in many ways; godly people do not simply “make up stuff like this.” 3) While not eye-witness evidence on Severus’ part, it’s origin is clearly not “pious legend.” What does the editor, who claims the name of Christ (and I believe him), say of this?

In spite of the combined testimony of Martin and Sulpitius here referred to, few will have any doubts as to the real character of the narrative.

While this is definitely not normal happenings, it is clearly not uncommon if miracle stories have some truth. A similar remark is made at the end of the biography. Severus recounts, in a rather lucid manner, the level-headedness of St Martin, along with his piety. This clearly establishes St Martin as a credible witness. Severus writes (chapter 27),

I am conscious to myself that I have been induced by belief in the facts, and by the love of Christ, to write these things; and that, in doing so, I have set forth what is well known, and recorded what is true; and, as I trust, that man will have a reward prepared by God, not who shall read these things, but who shall believe them.

Indeed. What does the learned editor say?

It seems extremely difficult (to recur to the point once more), after reading this account of St. Martin by Sulpitius, to form any certain conclusion regarding it. The writer so frequently and solemnly assures us of his good faith, and there is such a verisimilitude about the style, that it appears impossible to accept the theory of willful deception on the part of the writer. And then, he was so intimately acquainted with the subject of his narrative, that he could hardly have accepted fictions for facts, or failed in his estimate of the friend he so much admired and loved. Altogether, thisLife of St. Martin seems to bring before us one of the puzzles of history. The saint himself must evidently have been a very extraordinary man, to impress one of the talents and learning of Sulpitius so remarkably as he did; but it is extremely hard to say how far the miraculous narratives, which enter so largely into the account before us, were due to pure invention, or unconscious hallucination. Milner remarks (Church History, II. 193), “I should be ashamed, as well as think the labor ill spent, to recite the stories at length which Sulpitius gives us.” See, on the other side, Cardinal Newman’s Essays on Miracles, p. 127, 209, &c.

Of course it seems difficult if you are stuck in Enlightenment Anglo-American hermeneutics. But if we apply this reasoning consistenly, will you be fair and disregard the miracle stories in the Bible? This is where Cardinal Henri de Lubac can help us out. How do we understand the interaction of the miraculous in history? De Lubac writes,

The supernatural is not a higher, more beautiful, or more fruitful nature…it is the irruption of a wholly different principle. The sudden opening of a kind of fourth dimension, without proportion of any kind to all the progress provided in the natural dimension (466).The Drama of Atheist Humanism.

For Medieval man, the cosmos was porous and the heavenly and created worlds interpenetrate one another. For Enlightenment modern, the cosmos and heaven are walled-off. They are not connected. Secularism rules the day. Miracles cannot happen because the Scientific and Academic Establishment says they cannot happen. Why are they correct? Because the Scientific and Academic Establishment says they are correct? (ad infinitum). Now, given the godly, consistent (and quite mentally respectable) life of St Martin and his awe-inspired reality over against Academic/Scientific Man, who is the more credible? I rest my case.