Archive for August, 2008

Political Immediacy

(I posted this first in the comment thread of the previous post, but thought it might be more useful as a post of its own.)

Since we’ve been discussing Kuyper and the doctrine of immediate relation of the soul to God in Christ, I was wondering whether any of you would find this selection objectionable, and if so, in what way:

“Men already dwell in this society of the three blessed persons of the Trinity. Their minds and wills already go straight out to God, unbroken in their course by the intervention of measures made by human authority: their faith rests on the first truth of God, not directly on any articulate dogma or the (teaching authority) of the Church….These are the theological virtues, directly related to God, and not modulated by the reason. Their effect is not to produce a good citizen, or even a reasonable fellow, but to make men move at ease in the extravagances of divine friendship. Christianity offers more than a superior sort of civic philosophy.
The philosophers may counsel it, but they cannot plan for this adventure beyond the severely rational country of the good life where the political virtues are displayed, of men sensibly and justly comporting themselves. Reason may go far, but not into a higher and more mysterious region. At least,not alone. For it is not a place of things clad in meanings and forms, but of naked existents…..Here is no justice content with accommodations to the present city, but (rather a) soaring off to God….and less mysterious, the insistence that no man should suppress his own sincere conscience in the name of an obedience to an extrinsic code.”

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Until recently my exposure to Kuyper was purely through secondary sources. Recently I got to read some big chunks of his Lectures on Calvinism. While a good bit of what I read resonated with me, I have to say I was surprised to read in his first lecture a ringing endorsement of the idea that one of Calvinism’s great virtues is its ideal of the direct, unmediated relationship between God and the human soul. I don’t have the book sitting in front of me, so I can’t cite it, but perhaps someone here knows what I’m talking about. I’m given from other sources to understand that Calvin himself, at least, had a pretty high view of the institutional Church and the sacraments, so I don’t understand Kuyper’s enthusiasm for the unmediated relationship idea as supposedly intrinsic to Calvinism and one of its great virtues. It reminds me of a critique I saw a few years ago that said Warfield messed Calvinist sacramentology up pretty bad with his own idea of the unmediated relationship. Any thoughts on this?

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Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) is one of the greatest and most profound thinkers which the Reformed tradition has to offer.  His four volume Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatick) is required reading for any student of Reformed theology or history.  (Thankfully, the translation into English of the fourth volume of this work was just recently published.)  Picking up on my previous couple posts which have had Reformed confessionalism as their theme, I figured I’d offer a brief selection from Bavinck’s Prolegomena, on dogma quoad nos (for us). (more…)

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Since we’ve been talking a little lately about what it means to be “confessional,” I figured I’d offer these brief thoughts on what it means for me at least, as a catholic and Reformed Christian, to be confessional. This is from a comment which I left this morning over on Sacramental Piety .

The historic Reformed confessions are not to be adhered to in a slavish manner, with the church simply going along reciting the same old things over and over as though our confessions are on a par with Scripture. To be a confessing church is to be a church that confesses here and now, and this necessitates, at times, making progress on earlier forms of thought. Schaff has rightly pointed out that this idea of progress upon older forms is indeed a fundamentally Protestant principle, for without the validity of progress in light of Scripture and the ongoing tradition of the Church (which did not reach canonization in 1647), the Reformers had no right to do what they did: that is, question hundreds of years of Medieval dogma and reformulate church doctrine in the light of Scripture.

Thus, we must continue to build on their work, and continue confessing our faith. Just because someone disagrees with a Reformer on this or that point, or articulation of a common point (and the Reformers were no monolithic bunch, anyway), does not necessarily imply that one is an enemy of the Reformation. In fact, if the views which such a person is advocating are Scriptural, it may even be the case that said one’s agenda is more in line with the spirit of the Reformers than detractors who claim the title “confessional.”

Now, let me be clear: Confessing and Reformation are acts of the Church. It takes a Church to confess and it therefore takes a Church to revise a confession. If a man brings to the table a doctrine with Scriptural arguments in support of it, which he claims should lead to a revision of our confessional standards, and the confessing Church (represented by her appointed presbyters) as a whole finds those arguments lacking, then said man ought to submit to the faith of the community. However, this does not mean that we ought to reject all such attempts out of hand as being “opposed to the confession” or “against the Reformation,” for the Reformed confessions themselves were never meant to operate in this way, and the Reformation itself was never about holding up a certain stage in the church’s theological development as the standard by which all later developments might be judged. This right is reserved for Scripture.

The Reformed churches must never, of course, abandon their doctrinal heritage or the theological trajectory set by our forefathers. But we must be a continually confessing and Reforming church, building upon the thought of past ages with a perceptive eye turned to the present and the future. As a committed Presbyterian, I believe that Wesminster Confession 1.10 was included in the Standards of my particular tradition for precisely this purpose.

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This started out as a comment, but evolved in reflection on recent posts touching theological self-definition (What is “Reformed Orthodoxy) and continuing developments to circumscribe theological development (In Defense of Westminster Seminary).

Ah, Foucault would have fun with these threads, noting the proprietary claims over words as a quest for the power to include and exclude. Perhaps we all would be well-served if we were to take a deep breath and admit to a bit of creeping idolatry here.

If recent studies in lexical semantics have taught us anything it is that there is no inherent stability in a word’s meaning. Rather, it finds its meaning in pragmatic usage and its semantic range is delimited only by its difference from other lexemes in the given discourse.

Perhaps Wittgenstein might also be of use here…

On one hand, Hoss and others are certainly correct to note that words like “Reformed” and “regenerate” are much more elastic than than the public strictures that Hart and others would wish to impose. If we are playing a language game where the rules are informal or irenic or deliberately constructive (as in constructive theological discourse), “Reformed” can embrace something as broad as “corrected” (as when Trent is often described as a “reforming council”) or more narrowly Protestant (Lutherans, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, are all communities originating from the “Reformation”) or even more narrowly not Lutheran (Zwinglians and Calvinians are usually described as “Reformed” in the academic literature).

The problem, however, is undefined or non-stipulated use in specialized, stipulated, or politicized contexts. This practice (whether unintentional or intentionally subversive) virtually guarantees miscommunication and a breakdown of a common discourse. Here, Hart has a point and should be respected for his desire to think and self-define as a Presbyterian and Reformed churchman. One may disagree with the narrowness of his scope and demur at his intransigence with regard to definitions, but his posturing is not simply a self-supplied character defect or evidence of muddleheadedness. Rather, it is more akin to a Catholic theologian who remains unwilling to describe Protestant ecclesial communities as “churches”. Stipulating the Catholic definition of “Church,” he is simply working from the integrity of their own horizon in speaking as he does. It certainly does not imply sin against charity (though the Roman definition itself might be uncharitable) or ignorance of Protestant self-description.

Hart’s ecclesial/academic community is currently engaged in a long, self-conscious effort to shore-up its heretofore fuzzy boundaries. By this, his community hopes to renew some of its flagging integrity as a body distinct from others. Anyone who has read “Deconstructing Evangelicalism” (a book with which I largely agreed, BTW) should have seen this coming like a neon-lighted parade float up 5th Avenue.

This branding of Hart and his OPC/WTS/NAPARC compatriots is nakedly ideological and utopian (both terms intended as Ricoeur uses them) and much of the soreness I detect in Hoss, etc. flows from a self-conscious repudiation of that particular ideological/ utopian power-grab. I have shared in much of that repudiation which is why I am no longer a Teaching Elder in the PCA.

It is certainly fair to note how history attests to self-described “Reformed” adherents outside of strictly Presbyterian contexts and to defend the notion that most of the Magisterial “Reformed” luminaries (Calvin, Bucer, Vermigli, etc.) would leap to agree. The fact that Calvin signed the Wittenberg Concord (containing an explicit declaration of loyalty to the 1530 edition of the Augsburg Confession) when he became pastor in Strassburg testifies that he didn’t seem to self-define as Hart’s later Reformed communities have. We might also note how Calvin attended the ecumenical colloquies at Hagenau, Worms, and Regensburg (1540-41) as a “Lutheran” representative.

It is also quite fair to note that the OPC/WTS/NAPARC agenda is misguided and quite probably quixotic. If we have learned anything from the Norm Shepherd affair, the creation days debate, paedocommunion, Auburn Avenue/ Federal Vision, the New Perspective on Paul, and now the Enns dismissal from WTS, it is that a 17th Century White European confession cannot possibly be employed to speak with unequivocal force to define a 21st Century, multi-ethnic, and  globalized Christian body. Such a refusal to engage in the hard work of communal introspection, continuing reformation, and renewed self-definition (John XXIII’s ressourcement and aggiornamento) impedes the all the [super]natural linguistic, spiritual, theological, and ecclesial developments of faith communities. This strikes me as an effort to close the barn door after the departure of the horses. The result will only be continued “group think” and  increased irrelevance in a globalized Christian context.

Barring accord on these issues, it would be my hope that we could at least be clear with regard to our own ideological commitments and charitable with regard to those who do not share them.

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