Archive for the 'theology' Category


I’ve just finished reading Book I of Calvin’s Institutes, his book on knowledge of God the Creator. In some of the concluding sections he discusses predestination. Although perhaps I’m passing over far too much in saying this, what was most interesting to me is a word he does not use anywhere in his discussion: sovereignty. (This word, in fact, is rarely used in the Institutes and seems more often used in polemics against Rome than in descriptions of God). Calvin’s first treatment of predestination occurs in the context of a larger section on the providence of God and it is this concept, rather than that of sovereignty, that dominates his analysis.

Therefore, since God assumes to himself the right (unknown to us) to rule the universe, let our law of soberness and moderation be to assent to his supreme authority, that his will may be for us the sole rule of righteousness, and the truly just cause of all things. Not, indeed, that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power — but Providence, that determinative principle of all things, from which flows nothing but right, although the reasons have been hidden from us.   (I.XVII.2)

‘Supreme authority’ is somehow sovereignty, but it is interesting how Calvin steers away from bald accounts of power and toward something else.

And truly God claims, and would have us grant him, omnipotence — not the empty, idle sort that the Sophists imagine, but a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity. (I.XVI.3)

Towards identifying the ‘Sophists’ my footnotes provide this:

What the Sorbonne doctors say, that God has an absolute power, is a diabolical blasphemy which has been invented in hell. (Sermons on Job, Job 23:1-7)*

I can’t pretend to have a full understanding of what Providence is for Calvin, but it is clear that it is tied to a constant and sustaining engagement of God in the world, that it is directed to the eventual good of the world, that its understanding is tied to a life of piety and should encourage and direct the pious. It is the working of God towards His good plan and the Scriptural incidents through which Calvin discusses it are all placed within a larger understanding of the work of God as just and righteous.

By contrast, compare the approach of a modern apologist for predestination, R.C. Sproul. In his popular defense of predestination, Chosen By God, he moves straight past a consideration of Providence to sovereignty (cf. p. 23), which becomes the predominant consideration in his approach. This is the sovereignty which seems to hang on the question of whether there is anywhere in the universe a “maverick molecule” running around free of the sovereignty of God which might frustrate His plans.

It seems to me that Sproul has reversed Calvin’s approach. Sovereignty becomes the guarantor of God’s plan; for Calvin, God’s plan and Providence are determinative — an account of power over molecules or else plays a role of secondary importance. 

I apologize to all committed Calvinists out there if I am procuring a straw man from the world of contemporary Calvinism. But I find this comparison interesting and instructive against an approach that trades on sovereignty, omnipotence, etc. as concepts ready to be plugged in to a logical argument abstracted from the larger account of God’s Providence within which Calvin sets his argument.

File this under my improving impression of Calvin, confirming my suspicion that some of his later apologists do not do him nearly enough justice. But, lest I give the impression that there is nothing to butt heads against in the Institutes or that Calvin is ever-congenial here’s how he closes the sections on Providence and predestination:

Let those for whom this seems harsh consider for a little while how bearable their squeamishness is in refusing a thing attested by clear Scriptural proofs because it exceeds their mental capacity, and find fault that things are put forth publicly, which if God had not judged useful for men to know, he would never have bidden his prophets and apostles to teach. For our wisdom ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture. Those who too insolently scoff, even though it is clear enough that they are prating against God, are not worthy of a longer refutation. (I.XVIII.4)


* Ockham, Gabriel Biel and Duns Scotus are cited as Calvin’s chief opponents here by my version of Institutes.

Athenagoras of Athens and purposive imago dei

Athenagoras (ca. 133-190) was a Christian apologist who lived during the second half of the 2nd century of whom little is known for certain, besides that he was Athenian (though possibly not originally from Athens), a philosopher, and a convert to Christianity. There is some evidence that he was a Platonist before his conversion, but this is not certain.

The treatise on the Resurrection of the Body, the first complete exposition of the doctrine in Christian literature, was written later than the Apology, to which it may be considered as an appendix. Athenagoras brings to the defence of the doctrine the best that contemporary philosophy could adduce. After meeting the objections common to his time, he demonstrates the possibility of a resurrection in view either of the power of the Creator, or of the nature of our bodies. To exercise such powers is neither unworthy of God nor unjust to other creatures. He shows that the nature and end of man demand a perpetuation of the life of body and soul.

On this last point: Athenagoras gives a purposive reading of the creation of humans in his argument for the resurrection. 

Therefore, if man has been created neither without cause and in vain (for none of God’s works is in vain, so far at least as the purpose of their Maker is concerned), nor for the use of the Maker Himself, or of any of the works which have proceeded from Him, it is quite clear that although, according to the first and more general view of the subject, God made man for Himself, and in pursuance of the goodness and wisdom which are conspicuous throughout the creation, yet, according to the view which more nearly touches the beings created, He made him for the sake of the life of those created, which is not kindled for a little while and then extinguished. For to creeping things, I suppose, and birds, and fishes, or, to speak more generally, all irrational creatures, God has assigned such a life as that; but to those who bear upon them the image of the Creator Himself, and are endowed with understanding, and blessed with a rational judgment, the Creator has assigned perpetual duration, in order that, recognising their own Maker, and His power and skill, and obeying law and justice, they may pass their whole existence free from suffering, in the possession of those qualifies with which they have bravely borne their preceding life, although they lived in corruptible and earthly bodies. … But since this cause is seen to lie in perpetual existence, the being so created must be preserved for ever, doing and experiencing what is suitable to its nature, each of the two parts of which it consists contributing what belongs to it, so that the soul may exist and remain without change in the nature in which it was made, and discharge its appropriate functions … and the body be moved according to its nature towards its appropriate objects, and undergo the changes allotted to it, and, among the rest (relating to age, or appearance, or size), the resurrection.    

                                  — On the Resurrection of the Body (Ch. XII)

So, for Athenagoras, the nature of humankind is known in its purpose, a purpose implicit in our creation, which cannot be for God (God cannot need, for Athenagoras) or the rest of creation. Instead our purpose is found and understood only in light of transformed, resurrected existence, natural to how we are created.

In their essay “The Chief End of All Flesh”, Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman work from a purposive reading of imago dei in their treatment of human relations to other animals. 

Christians must not understand “image of God” to be based on any metaphysical or morphological difference between humans and other animals but must reconceive “image of God” in terms of the particular purposes that God assigns to humans. Specifically, Christians need to discover what it means for a human to act as an image of God’s rule in the world. 

Perhaps Athenagoras would not agree with the argument Hauerwas and Berkman have to bring against anthropocentric readings of imago dei (given his characterizations of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ creatures) but the end result of an attention to purpose in creation is similar and very appealing to me. The focus in the end is not on creation as an explication of our static existence and certain special qualities, but as a preparation for our true purpose, directed by the statements Christians make about our future hope. For Athenagoras this is resurrection as our true future and purpose; Hauerwas and Berkmann further draw out the eschatological hope of the peaceable kingdom:

As a result, Christian lives are to display this purposive understanding of the image of God. In Genesis 1, the image of God is part of the vision of a peaceable creation, both between human and animal and between animal and animal, a peace where it is not necessary to sacrifice one for the other. Similarly, for Christians to live as the image of Christ means to live according to the call of the kingdom of God. In Gethsemene—in taking up the way of the Cross—Christ shows us clearly that the way of the kingdom of God is not the way of violence. In reaching the ultimate end of all our strivings, in the peaceable kingdom of God, we shall finally live in true shalom with all creatures of God. 


A theologian I would like to read

American Lutheran systematic theologian Robert Jenson, as read by Stanley Hauerwas*:

[For Jenson,] theology cannot be timeless, for no other reason (and it is the only reason that matters) that the God who is the subject of Christian theology is not timeless. The God of Israel and Jesus, the God we find in Scripture, is a storied God. That we learn of God, or more exactly, that we learn who God is through a narrative is not accidental but rather indicative of God’s nature. God’s storied character expresses, as Aquinas maintained, that “God’s act of being is constrained by no other form than itself.” Accordingly, the biblical God’s eternity is not immunity from time, but faithfulness. “God is not eternal in that he secures himself from time, but in that he is faithful in his commitments with time. At the great turning, Israel’s God is eternal in that he is faithful to the death, and then again faithful.”

” ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is simultaneously a very compressed telling of the total narrative by which Scripture identifies God and a personal name for the God so specified; in it, name and narrative description not only appear together, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but are identical. By virtue of this logic, the triune phrase offers itself as the unique name for the Christian God, and is then dogmatically mandated for that function by its constitutive place in the rite that established Christian identity. The church is the community and a Christian is someone who, when the identity of God is important, names him ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ “


Hauerwas quotes from Jenson’s Systematic Theology. A narrative reading of the Trinity — awesome!

*in the essay “Only Theology Overcomes Ethics: Or What ‘Ethicists’ Must Learn from Jenson” in A Better Hope.

Learning from the social gospel

rauschenbuschThe future of Christian theology lies in the comprehension of Christianity into history. The future of Christianity itself lies in getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history.

So Walter Rauschenbusch in Christianizing the Social Order, published 1912. In his article “Walter Rauschenbusch and the Saving of America”, in A Better Hope, Stanley Hauerwas quotes this and responds: “Christian ethicists after Rauschenbusch will never write a line like that.”

It’s odd and fascinating to watch Hauerwas give a fairly sympathetic appraisal of a man who could write a line like that and who, as Hauerwas notes, more or less identified democracy as the Christianization of politics. The purpose of the essay is not to critique, but to explore a piece of the history of Christian ethics in America and understand its influence.

Rauschenbusch was the greatest, and one of the last, proponents of the Social Gospel movement, which argued against individualistic conceptions of religion and for social embodiment of Christian principles. The kingdom of God was a main theological touchpoint and the prophetic tradition, and its recovery by Jesus after laying dormant, its main Biblical and historical touchpoint. This was the movement partly responsible for Prohibition and for WWJD which, long before acronym bracelets, was the key phrase in social gospeller Charles Sheldon‘s In His Steps.

Hauerwas notes many interesting things about Rauschenbusch’s social gospel. As best I can represent them, one is the combination of “liberal” theology with personal piety: “That liberalism and pietism might be at odds is a later development that is inappropriately applied to Rauschenbusch and his social-gospel friends. Their ‘social work’ was but a continuation of their understanding of the significance of their experience of Christ.” The social gospel was about reform, “but it was equally about prayer, hymns, and devotional practices.” Witness Rauschenbusch’s Prayers of the Social Awakening, which includes prayers for morning, noon and night.

A second interesting point is that for Rauschenbusch, theology was history and ethics were journalism. There was a movement in history running through the prophets, through Jesus, through democracy for the poor and the common good. To do theology was to narrate this historical reality and his ethics were “theologically and morally informed journalism. He narrated the social realities of his day by redescribing them Christianly.” Seeing historical realities of justice embedded in the work of Jesus was essential. I’ll quote Hauerwas at length for an interesting comparison of Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr:

Beckley notes that Rauschenbusch never proposed any universal principles of justice; rather his emphasis on the importance of, as well as his understanding of, the content of justice was grounded in his analysis of socio-historical circumstances. This is certainly the case, but I think what must be further said is that justice does not play a central role in Rauschenbusch’s work. This may appear a scholarly quibble, but it is important if we are to understand the significance of Reinhold Niebuhr. Justice becomes the overriding term for Niebuhr, and for many who follow Niebuhr, exactly because they no longer share Rauschenbusch’s account of Jesus. Put simply, and in a manner that is simplifying, once you no longer have Jesus all you are left with is the dialectic between love and justice. (his emph.)

I can’t pretend to know how well Hauerwas is doing his analysis of Rauschenbusch, but I think it would be interesting to chart the modern incarnations or echoes of the social gospel movement on the axes Hauerwas points out. I’m thinking of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd, of the growing social justice and creation care concerns in conservative Evangelicalism, and the social stances of some of the mainline denominations (my own United Methodist church, e.g.). I have no desire for us to recapitulate Rauschenbusch, but I find the unabashed connection of social concern and practices of piety like prayer, hymns and devotion appealing. Do we see this anywhere now? My guess is yes for conservative evangelicals*; my guess for Sojourners is less so (although I’m not sure). For my own church (and some of the Sojo types too), I think there is a major temptation to subsume piety entirely  into social justice concerns, or (my church!) let them coexist in a sometimes-uncomfortable orthogonality.

A second question: how are current groups grounding their appeals to justice etc? Where are they on the Rauschenbusch-Niebuhr divide — working from a grounding in the historical person of Jesus, or off of principles of love and justice abstracted therefrom? I know this sounds nebulous, but I think it’s important. I don’t know where to place conservative evangelical social concern. My recollections of God’s Politics and my browsing of Sojourners websites convinces me that they are leaning heavily toward principles. At my own church, I think definitely the same — we are not connecting social concern with the particularity of Jesus at all.

Do I read things correctly? And tell me, what ought we be learning from the ways the social gospel reinvents and relocates itself? If we can never repeat with Rauschenbusch that Christianity is getting the spirit of Christ incarnated into history, can we say why?


* See here for an interview with Rick Warren in which he discusses the social gospel. Follow links there for a response from Rauschenbusch’s great-grandson, who argues Warren owes more to his great-grandpa than he realizes.

Hauerwas: marriage and capitalism

from Stanley Hauerwas’s essay “Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality” collected in A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy and Postmodernity:

Capitalism thrives on short-term commitments. The ceaseless drive for innovation is but the way to undercut labor’s power by making the skills of the past irrelevant for tomorrow. Indeed, capitalism is the ultimate form of deconstruction, because how better to keep labor under control than through the scarcity produced through innovation? All the better that human relationships are ephemeral, because lasting relationships prove to be inefficient in ever-expanding markets. Against such a background, the church’s commitment to as lifelong monogamous fidelity may well prove to be one of the most powerful tactics we have to resist capitalism.

This obviously cries out to be fleshed out at length, something Hauerwas doesn’t do in this short piece. Three pointers from the essay that might help in constructing marriage as resistance to capitalism:

  • Hauerwas calls for reshaping the church’s discourse on marriage around its practices regarding promiscuity, rather than ideas regarding sexuality. So formal commitment within the alternative polis of the church replaces negotiation of preferences.
  • He asks that all marriage be open to children, not in the sense that each must produce biological heirs, but in the sense that each must give an account of how it fits into an ongoing community practice that is procreative rather than consumptive. Mentoring, teaching, childcare etc. could all be filled in here.
  • And, of course, he rejects the romantic as the basis of marriage — moving away from marriage as desire-fulfillment.

I’d add

  • The marriage ceremony is an obvious place to work out a witness in the midst of capitalism, not just in the obvious ways like expenses and gift-giving, but in emphasizing the commitments the couple makes to the larger community and its projects as it receives their blessing.
  • This is a prime arena for an exercise of reclaiming the imagination, in the sense that Walsh and Keesmaat argue for in Colossians Remixed, regarding desire and need.
  • Periphery’s suggestion that gift theory would be really useful for Christian ethics might find especially great applications in conceiving marriage as a response to economics. It might be a really good language for working out the connections.

Read Jean with me — you know you want to

CS009556Having several years ago been shamed by Marilynne Robinson‘s essays* in The Death of Adam into feeling I ought to stop having impressions of John Calvin without actually reading any Jean Cauvin (as she prefers to style him)..

Having also done nothing about it in the subsequent time…

Having an interest in filling a hole in my knowledge…

And seeing no future time when I’ll be more likely to undertake this…

I’ve decided to join in on Princeton Theological Seminary’s program, in honor of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, to read through The Institutes in a year. The details are all here, where they post the daily (except no reading on the Sabbath!) readings in text and audio form, which you can even import into iTunes or something like that. Reading per day is actually not too bad, maybe a few pages, and the pleasant female voice who does the audio readings (at a leisurely pace) took twelve minutes for today’s text.

So join me! I have a bit of catching up to do, but hope to be able to sustain this. I mean, why not toss in 12 minutes over lunch at least for the opportunity to be able to say I did it later, let alone what I might learn in the process?

(Oh, and mark your dance cards now for Church Dogmatics in 2018, the 50th anniversary of Barth‘s death. At the rate the Institutes are being read, CD will take about 4 years.)

*The relevant essays are “Marguerite de Navarre” Parts I and II — if I remember correctly, Robinson is trying to recover some sense of the influence Marguerite may have had on Cauvin as a sort of patroness.

2,245 footnotes later…

rsgJust finished NT Wright‘s Resurrection of the Son of God, his massive argument for the historicity of the resurrection. One of the most interesting things about it is how Wright’s approach to the question of the resurrection is fitted to the theological content of the same.

In his first first chapter he outlines objections to a project of interrogating the question of the resurrection via historical study. One set is historical in nature and deals with whether it can be done — whether history has the tools or data to approach it. The second set is theological and questions whether it should be done — whether the ground of the Christian faith should ultimately be approached using anything but profession of faith.

Wright argues that history can approach the resurrection. He does so by, well, doing it… and doing it carefully, extensively (seriously, I counted up the footnotes) and strongly. And, in the course, a beautiful parallel between his method and the theological content of the resurrection emerges that answers the question of whether it should be approached using history. He is very concerned to argue that resurrection is not solely a cipher for a purely spiritual reality, having no place in the  physical or historical world. To grant that only faith and not history may access it is contrary to this. Further, approaching the resurrection historically, as Wright notes at the end of his book, is fitting in light of creation: “History matters because human beings matter; human beings matter because creation matters; creation matters because the creator matters”. It is also fitting in light of incarnation. Finally the resurrection’s ushering in of new creation parallels Wright’s suggestions towards renewed epistemology. The historical study of the resurrection inevitably brings one to worldview considerations, but out the other side of these, there is a new world accessible to renewed study.

All in all, an excellent book. Two questions about it:

  • Wright bases his argument in the belief of the early church. He notes that questions of authority and continuity still have to be addressed to draw conclusions for the modern church. How is this to be done, and will an approach with a foothold in history be able to do this, or does it require something else?
  • He approaches the Easter story via Paul first, then the gospels, which seems somewhat backwards, but is important in that his approach is via historical development, and Paul comes first. Where does this place him in relation to other theological approaches to the resurrection?