Archive for October, 2008

Blessed Reformation Day!

And Eve of All Saints. I have posted some brief reflections on the connection between those two at another place; and this gives me the opportunity to draw readers’ attention to that place, a new site called Basilica, which has grown out of conversations between some contributors and readers here. It is not at all intended to replace or supersede this one. But whereas this forum is a less directed dialogue between participants of very widely divergent adherence- a free for all dialogue which at its best it very useful and illuminating- the new site is a confidently and consistently evangelical catholic inquiry into first principles and the fields of Christian wisdom, in the spirit of CS Lewis. It aims to offer useful resources to pastors, other leaders, and interested laymen. It will maintain a high editorial standard, and the conversations will be carefully moderated and directed to ensure the most fruitful engagement and exchange of ideas. The site can be found here:


Peace to all, and blessed Reformation Day.

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Couldn’t help myself.

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Education has always played a large role in my thinking on the hope of future reunion of the Protestant churches, because I am convinced that a major reason (though not the only reason) for our disunity is lack of education about our theological heritage. Christians generally have no idea what the real issues that divide them from other Christians are or how those differences came about; much less do they have the first clue about how these divisions might be healed. This lack of historical and theological perspective serves only to increase defensive and militant postures towards opinions foreign to us and those who hold such opinions. And this is by no means a problem which simply exists among the laity. It is in fact just as much a problem within the theologically “educated” clerical ranks.

Playing a part in rectifying this problem has thus always been in the forefront of my mind as I have pondered where to exercise the gifts I have been given. I was at one time convinced that the best place for me was in the academy, working to educate the future leaders of the church and hopefully playing a part in instilling in them a desire to be united with their brothers and sisters with whom they may differ, or at least helping them to understand why they differ. A laudable goal, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, I have since decided to seek ordination to pastoral ministry, and what follows lays out, in all too brief a manner, my basic line of thinking which initially convinced me that I should forsake the idea of pursuing a career in the wonderful world of academia.

I remain convinced that God does indeed call people to work in the academy in order to serve the church in that capacity, so I don’t want any of my comments here to be taken as a deprecation of the academy per se or those who work therein by any means. However, I am concerned about a rather troubling trend which I have noticed for some time now. Most of the best Christian scholars are going to the academy while those who are not “academic” are going into the pastorate. Thus, our seminaries are full of a sort of intellectual hierarchy amongst the students (I say this as one who has observed closely the student life of two very prominent Protestant seminaries): the majority of highly intellectual students go for PhDs and a career in professional theologizing, while those who are not quite so intellectual enter the pastorate. Thankfully there are exceptions here, but this, it seems to me, is the general rule.

This is a dangerous trend, and one I hope to play a part in breaking. Theology exists for the church, not the church for theology. This is the natural order of things, and I am convinced that it has been reversed in recent years.

One thing we desparately need in order to reverse this situation is pastors who know the entire breadth of Christian thought and its history; who can speak intelligently to the church and the world in our day and effectively combat the fragmentation of church and society.

But also, it is imperative that the locus for theologizing move back to the church. The primary place where theologizing is done has been the abstract world of the academy for far too long. In this situation, the theologizing of the church has come in one of two forms: either a trickle down of ideas originating in the academy, or a reaction against the academy. But in both cases, the academy has dictated the direction in which the theology of the church has moved. But history furnishes us with numerous examples for the rule that most of the best theologians (and by “best” I mean those who have had the most wide-ranging impact) are generally also pastors, so this situation is needless, not to mention very unhealthy.

Thus, I don’t think it is too much of an overstatement to say that the professionalization of theology is a plague on the modern day American churches, and I am convinced that it has played perhaps the biggest role of all in the continual fracturing of the church in this country.

I am not the only one who has seen this. In fact, professional theologians themselves are pointing it out. E. Brooks Holifield, in his magisterial work Theology in America (New Haven: Yale, 2003) provides a very revealing assessment of the beginning of this phenomenon in the nineteenth century:

Presbyterians, both Old school and New, assumed leadership in the professionalizing of theology. As a full-time theologian who never held a position outside the academy, [Charles] Hodge joined the ranks of a new kind of American religious leadership. And as theology moved from the parishes to the seminaries, rivalries among the schools intensified theological disagreements. Princeton saw Andover, for instance, as dedicated to making ‘Old-School doctrines appear ridiculous and odious,’ and it viewed Yale as an enemy of orthodoxy. Old School seminaries competed also among themselves; the southerners at Union, Danville, and Columbia tried to ‘break the charm’ of Princeton’s ‘ascendancy,’ and northern ultraconservative kept Princeton on the defensive by threatening to create new schools whenever the Princeton faculty strayed. Other seminaries, including Auburn in New York, Lane in Ohio, and Union in New York City, became centers of New School thought arrayed against Old School institutions. (371-372)

And, as many of us well know, this was only the beginning.

This is a shame, and I believe it is the calling of our generation to begin an effort to reverse this situation. There is a place for the academy and for academics working therein, of course. But there also needs to be a place in the church for pastors who undertake rigorous academic work and also for career academics who are deeply immersed in the life of the church. And a healthy relationship will never exist between the two institutions unless the church begins to reassert its role as that place for which theology exists and in which the task of theology is to be undertaken.

Also, it is necessary that theologians be pastoral in both perspective and ethos if their ideas are ever really going to have any impact on people. To steal an immortal phrase from The Fearsome Pirate: “If you don’t give a crap about people and their crap, it all goes to crap.” I am convinced that a major problem with the church’s theologizing in our day is that it exists only for the most part in the form of abstraction. Our theology is “out there” somewhere. It exists in an ideal world. But the problem is that the church (for the good of which theology exists) does not exist in an ideal world. The church is a real life, messy place, full of sinful men and women. Jesus Christ took on flesh so that we would no longer have to theologize about a God “out there” with endless theorem. Theology—if it does not exist in the real world and for the real flesh and blood people who constitute the church—“all goes to crap.”

And indeed, it has very much gone to crap in a variety of ways. We find ourselves in a lamentable situation. But it is not a hopeless one.

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Keeping in mind that this blog is a collaborative effort between several authors who do not necessarily always agree with each other, I’d like to offer the following reflection on the notion that pre-Reformation Christians allowed the Faith to be disastrously co-opted by “pagan philosophy” rather than remaining faithful to and consistent with Scripture, the understanding of which requires no significant interaction with an outside world that is taken to have its own created integrity, goodness, and usefulness.

Speaking for myself and not for the other authors on this blog, I take it as (almost) axiomatic that if one wants to practice catholicity, one must not start to approach the thing by confusing the sectarian with the catholic. What this means for the following reflection is simply this: the presumption that we, with our post-Reformation standards of biblical exegesis and theological activity have managed to do what our fathers in the Faith did not (could not?) because, supposedly, they were just not quite “into the Bible” as much as we are and thought too highly of “philosophy,” has to be jettisoned as a merely sectarian and not a catholic belief.

Said belief has been proposed by only one small sector of the Church (the Reformed sector – or really, the post-Machen Fundamentalist sub-sector of the Reformed sector), and, because it is soundly rejected by most of the rest of the Church, can thus in no way be taken seriously when it claims to be the standard-setter for everyone else. Indeed, that sub-sector of the Church is one which is arguably in the grip of several serious philosophical prejudices and a reactionary mentality that borders on Manichaeanism in its suspicion of the integrity of man as created. It’s not a catholic belief, and if it is embraced and consistently sought, it actually isolates us as Evangelicals from the only exemplar of living, on-the-ground catholicity which we have – the pre-Reformation era of Christendom.

Anyway, enough of that. Here’s my reflection on the topic at hand.


Just as the idea of a great yawning antithesis between all things non-Christian and all things Christian can be overdrawn, yielding pessimistic excesses, it seems that the idea of a “prisca theologia” (ancient theology) in which the best of non-Christian thought virtually mirrors later developed Christian ideas, can be overdrawn, yielding optimistic excesses.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), king of early Renaissance Platonists, translated a 14th-century manuscript of an older Greek work known as the Corpus Hermeticum, which was believed to be a work by one Hermes Trismegistus and was dated to the time of Moses. Ficino and his contemporaries joyously celebrated the fact they discovered from the contents of the Corpus that apparently much of Christian theology had been known (albeit in a veiled, less developed form) by the best educated pagans many generations prior to the actual advent of Christianity. Ficino, indeed, wrote of a grand lineage of six pre-Christian philosophers – Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaus, and Plato – who together developed the prisca theologia. Writes Ficino:

…In this way, from a wondrous line of six theologians emerged a single system of ancient theology, harmonious in every part, which traced its origins to Mercurius [Hermes Trismegistus] and reached absolute perfection with the divine Plato. Mercurius wrote many books pertaining to the knowledge of divinity,…often speaking not only as philosopher but as prophet….He foresaw the ruin of the old religion, the rise of the new faith, the coming of Christ, the judgement to come, the resurrection of the race, the glory of the blessed, and the torments of the damned. – Cited in Brian P. Copenhaver and Charles B. Schmidt, A History of Western Philosophy, Vol. 3: Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1992), pg. 147

Unfortunately for this joyous story, actually the Corpus Hermeticum was written early in the Christian era, not the time of Moses. In this sense, its celebration as an early non-Christian parallel with Christianity goes along with the mistaken Medieval attribution of the Neoplatonic works of Pseudo-Dionysius to the Dionysius whom Paul converted in Acts 17, the warping of papalist theology by the spurious Donation of Constantine and the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, and the like. To be sure, all these problematic attributions of authority to documents which were either fraudulent or not clearly seen for what they were had very human causes that, upon careful study of the circumstances often render the errors of the past based upon their acceptance much more understandable. We ought not to hold ourselves better than those who in times of great distress (the feudal chaos of post-Carolingian Europe which produced the Donation and the False Decretals) or starry-eyed rediscovery (the early Renaissance) made errors of judgment which had long-lasting and systematic repercussions. We likely wouldn’t have done any better ourselves, had we been there.

Still, keeping in mind the fact that for all our Modern sophistication we are able to be just as frail and fallible as our fathers, there is still a benefit to hindsight. Somewhere or another I read someone learned saying that one big problem with the Medievals was that, books being exceedingly rare and as a general class of things quasi-sacred, they had such a high reverence for them that they would believe just about anything if it was found in a book – especially an old book. The problems to which such a naive trust in the written word – or perhaps more accurately, such a naive trust in our culture’s (or subculture’s) interpretations of the written word – can lead are evident to any serious student of history and culture. While we should not spurn the wise counsel of the fathers, neither should we be too hasty to believe them unconditionally – the best of men are men at best. As Peter Abelard wrote in Sic et Non, all books not belonging to the canon of Sacred Scripture “are to be read with full freedom to criticize, and with no obligation to accept unquestioningly; otherwise they way would be blocked to all discussion, and posterity be deprived of the excellent intellectual exercise of debating difficult questions of language and presentation.”

The notion of a yawning, unbridgeable, antithetical chasm between all things non-Christian and all things Christian is a serious exaggeration of the truth. On the other hand, the idea that even after the Fall man’s rational powers remain able to discern, explain, and preserve really substantial outlines of truth such that perhaps only by changing a few words and phrases Plato or Aristotle might be thought of as Christians-in-disguise is a serious exaggeration of the truth. Yet, like all great myths, both of these exaggerations have a kergyma of the truth buried deep inside. The pessimistic antithesis idea retains the truth that whatever prisca theologia might actually exist, it always has to be subject to ongoing dialogue with and correction by the final theology, the revelation of God in Christ. The optimistic continuity idea retains the truth that at the end of the day God’s creation does actually reveal something and men are actually able to understand it in more than a trivial manner.

Contrary to the optimists, there really is such a thing as being taken captive by philosophy which is according to the basic principles of the world rather than according to Christ (Col. 2:8). However, contrary to the pessimists, there really is such a thing as a pia philosophia (pious philosophy) which prepares the way for Faith and after Faith is embraced, continues to function as the ancilla theologiae (handmaiden of theology). While we should remember that the antithesis-thinkers are properly interested in safeguarding the integrity of the final revelation, at the same time we should remember that for synthesizers like Ficino, the goal of the whole project was not some muddle-brained attempt to mix oil and water on account of a silly fascination with self-evidently dumb pagan ideas, but rather, as Ficino himself put it, a noble quest to “free philosophy, God’s holy gift, from impiety…[and] to save holy religion from detestable ignorance.” [ibid., 148]. Seen in this light the prisca theologia and the pia philosophia can hardly be all that objectionable.

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The Presbyterian Controversy

As I’ve begun studies at Westminster Theological Seminary, I figured it might be worth while, given my interest in the history of Reformed theology in America, to write up something on the events in the Presbyterian Church which led to the founding of that institution. Nothing ground-breaking or original here, just a brief narrative for those who may be interested in hearing the story but who to this point have lacked the time.

As a Reformed catholic, I both sympathize with and shrink back from Machen in certain respects. Doctrinally, I agree with him wholheartedly with regard to the importance of orthodoxy and the un-Christian nature of theological liberalism. However, I do have my reservations about his seeming eagerness to pursue division within the Presbyterian Church. At any rate, as one who is a conservative American Presbyterian and therefore an heir of Machen, I do think these things are worth discussing.

My narrative here is taken almost exclusively from Bradley Longfield’s excellent work, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford, 1991.), as I lack the time at the moment to produce anything resembling a full research paper with a variety of sources. However, I’d also recommend Darryl Hart’s biography on Machen for a more sympathetic look at the great New Testament Scholar and champion of “Presbyterian orthodoxy.” Hart’s thesis that Machen was not, in fact, a fundamentalist in the strict sense, is intriguing, and one which I tend to agree with.


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Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), of whom I have written a biographical sketch elsewhere, wrote a work called De Pace Fidei (On Peace in Religion), which is a dialogue between the adherents of various religions. In the dialogue the following interesting discourse on justification appears:

Thereupon Paul, a teacher of the Gentiles, rose up, and by the authority of the Word spoke the following:

Paul: It is necessary that we show that salvation of the soul is not obtained by works, but rather from faith, for Abraham, the father of the faith of all those who believe, whether Arab, Christian, or Jew, believed in God, and he was considered as being justified. The soul of the just will inherit life everlasting. Once this is admitted, these varieties of ritual will not be a cause of dissension, for as sensible signs of the truth of belief these things that have been instituted and received as signs are capable of change, not so the thing that is signified.

Tartar: Tell us how, then, does faith save?

Paul: If God should promise certain things because of His liberality and generosity, should not He, Who is able to provide all things and Who is truth, be believed?

Tartar: I’ll have to admit that. No one can possibly be deceived who believes Him, and if he fails to believe him he would not be worthy of obtaining any gift.

Paul: What, therefore, justifies him who obtains justice?

Tartar: Not merits, otherwise this would not be something gratuitous, but a debt.

Paul: Very well put, but because no living person can be justifed through works in the sight of God, but only gratuitously, the Omnipotent gives whatsoever He will to whomsoever He will. Then, if anybody would be worthy to acquire a promise that was purely gratuitous, it is necessary that he believe in God. It is in this, therefore, that he is justified, because from this alone will he obtain the promise, because he believess in God and expects the Word of God to take place.

Tartar: After God has promised something it is certainly just that He keeps His promises. The person who believes Him is justifed rather through the promise than through its faith.

Paul: God, who promised the seed of Abraham, in which all were to be blessed, justified Abraham, that he might acquire the promise. But if Abraham had not believed in God he would have obtained neither justification nor the promise.

Tartar: I agree with that.

Paul: The faith, therefore, in Abraham was only this, that the fulfillment of the promises was just, because otherwise it would not have been just, nor fulfilled.

Tartar: What did God promise?

Paul: God promised Abraham that He would give him this one seed in the person of Isaac, in which seed all races would be blessed, and this promise actually took place. Since according to the ordinary laws of nature it was impossible for Sarah, his wife, to conceive or give birth, yet because he beleived he acquired a son, Isaac. Later on God tempted Abraham, in that He asked him to offer and slay the boy Isaac, in whom His promise of the seed had been fulfilled. And Abraham obeyed God, believing no less in the future promise, even though it would involve the resuscitation of his dead son. When God discovered this faith in Abraham, then he was justified, and the promise was fulfilled in this one seed which descended from him through Isaac.

Tartar: What is this seed?

Paul: It is Christ, for all races have obtained in Him a divine blessing.

Tartar: What is this blessing?

Paul: The divine blessing is that final desire for happiness which we call eternal life, about which you have alerady heard.

Tartar: Do you desire, therefore, that God should promise us the blessing of eternal life in Christ?

Paul: That is what I wish. For if you believe in this same way you will be justified along with the faithful Abraham, and obtain the promise that was found in the seed of Abraham, Christ Jesus, and that promise is the divine blessing.

Tartar: Do you mean to say, therefore, that this faith alone justifies and enables us to attain of eternal life?

Paul: I do. – from “De Pace Fide,” in Unity and Reform: Selected Writings of Nicholas De Cusa, ed. John P. Dolan (University of Notre Dame Press, 1962), pp. 227-229

Note that this was written in 1453, thirty years before the birth of Martin Luther.

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