Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Canonical Primitive Purity, or the Peculiarities of Apostolic Succession

When Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics, a grab-bag of various teachers and philosophers, some of whom ran their own schools or churches, he claimed the mantle of apostolic succession. In contrast to these teachers, Irenaeus asked which of them had sat at the feet of the Apostles. He could trace the lineage of the bishop(s) of Rome, and even himself, showing a line from Polycarp, his teacher, to St. John. Irenaeus' account is usually paraded as proof of the earliest claim to apostolic succession, but usually the apologists and polemicists who appeal to it are bad historians.

To understand Irenaeus' argument is to understand why he would make this appeal. We are far from Augustine's almost mechanistic description of how the grace (what exactly?) of the office transfers from one bishop to another through the laying on of hands. Irenaeus is writing in the form of a public written debate, meaning his texts were intended not only for the teachers he wrote against, but the wider literate audience of people who might be persuaded to follow the Gnostic teachers as true Christians. Thus, the argument of apostolic succession, like much in Irenaeus' work "Against Heresies", is arguing within the parameters of his opponents. Otherwise, it wouldn't make sense. And while it's possible that Irenaeus was a bad apologist and poor debater, the assumption would be that he's at least trying to put his finger on the problem and flip it.

It would make little sense for Irenaeus to appeal to the sheer fact of teachers who could be traced to the Apostles. That's exactly the point the Gnostics were making: we have the true teaching, while you merely count heads and think according to the flesh. Irenaeus' point must be in regards to teaching. He can trace, through word of mouth, the teachers who carried the truth of Christ forward. The Gnostics cannot claim they were the true students because they weren't there. They're forced to claim special revelation, undercutting any appeal to the apostles themselves. And given texts like the Gospel of Judas, where Jesus entrusts Judas with the true wisdom that the other apostles misunderstand, Gnostics were keen to emphasize some form of continuity. Therefore, using Irenaeus to justify later forms of apostolic succession are disingenuous at best.

But that's just the starting point for my much deeper question and critique. Irenaeus understood the importance of teaching, traced through the succession of teacher-disciple relationships. That's not what modern proponents of Apostolic Succession depend upon, especially as the bishop is no longer considered a true teaching authority. Rather, authoritative power is generally removed to confessional symbols, a supreme authority, or some quasi-magical explanation. The doctrine of the Church is stored in ecumenical councils, a magisterial teaching authority, papal ex cathedra, or some lazy historical logical fallacy viz. post hoc propter hoc. But that's besides the point. Irenaeus clearly has an understanding of apostolic authority as rooted in possessing the true doctrine, and that's found in the above relationship between the apostles and their disciples, these disciples and their disciples, and so on ad infinitum. But the point Irenaeus is making is that the Apostles had the right teaching, and the primitive is pure.

Irenaeus is not making a facile claim about the Apostolic Age, as he's barely removed from it and he has plenty of problems. I believe it was Irenaeus who repeated an anecdote about St. John not entering a bath-house when he heard Cerinthus, a heretic, was there. What Irenaeus is saying, which most Christians adhered to until the post-Reformation crisis of historical meltdown, was that the Apostle's possessed the fullness of Christ's teaching, which the churches would continue in until Christ's return.

However, it was the Reformation that sparked an internal crisis among Christians. Reformation figures began to cast aspersion on the lives of saints, many of which was thinly glossed versions of Pagan gods and heroes, or contrived to make a political point or a historical justification for something in the present. However, as things usually go, these critiques went too far, and as Catholics rebutted, the quest for historical scholarship spiraled out of control. Pyrhonnic skepticism became fashionable as an ancient resource for troubled times, a cheerful apathy about all knowledge of all things. There was hope that if people could recognize their intellectual failures and humility then the potential social chaos would calm down. For as the scholars spilled an ocean of ink in scholarship and polemic, so too did the princes of Europe use these debates, whether as pretext or true belief, to spill an ocean of blood. Deadlock resulted in greater panic, resulting in a larger historical quest to find the basis for society, stemming the tide of skeptic atheism and confessional bloodshed. Eventually the historical resourcement burned itself out, with a turn to a-historical philosophy as a an attempted way out of the mess. And it was from this point that "Enlightenment" began to take root. I give a simplified account.

But it was not until Cardinal Newman where there was a forthright, and increasingly popular, rejection of the primitive purity argument. There had been arguments for something like the development of doctrine, but it remained idiosyncratic. The development of doctrine is not saying that the Apostles were stupid or wrong (though Newman disparages the saints of Israel as materialistic barbarians, only concerned to sit under their vine). Rather, it was a point to say that things had moved on, matured, along organic lines. As Chesterton would later argue, it's the same way a puppy turns into a dog; it's a natural evolution. Thus, Newman could concede to the infidels and the Deists that the Trinity doesn't exist in the NT, but was a proper outworking of seeds within the text. Newman was unpopular in his own lifetime for this teaching, viciously castigated by his fellow Tiber-swimmer, Cardinal Manning, who instead claimed Rome's infallibility in interpreting history to square the circle.

However, in the wake of historical criticism, Newman's doctrine has become the norm, especially among many Roman Catholics and some Eastern Orthodox, who can relish in playing a game of pick-and-choose when it comes to historical referents. It's dishonest, but the blindfold of ideological loyalty short-circuits any self-critical rational scrutiny. In the long run, it's hard to say that the Protestants lost. They proved, even to their own destruction many times, that the historical facts do not back up many claims of tradition as neatly as defenders would like them to be. The results destroyed many of the claims of the Magisterial Reformation as well as Papists, and the need of a given political crisis did not permit many orthodox Christians to properly get a handle on debating Deists, agnostics, and Socinians.

Scholarship today has cleared many roadblocks, even if it does not, nor can it, prove certainty. But if Apostolic Succession for Irenaeus was to prove the succession of teachings, it always requires a normative element. Here, Irenaeus took Scripture as a given, and understood the New Testament as the hermeneutic that the Gnostics rejected. It's here we must remain in continuity with the bishop. It is a mistake for Christians to give up the primitive argument, for it otherwise requires becoming a slave to time and events as they unfold. We must not think the Apostles were deficient in anything when it came to the teaching they passed on, which we possess in the New Testament, even if it has to be understood and worked out in a different context. That's not the same as saying that the teaching of the Apostles requires further development int something more true, more accurate, and more refined. For Irenaeus, his reading of the Scriptural narrative proceeded through the New Testament as an interpretive lens, not merely something jammed together with the Old Testament. They were a single book, but possessed different functions.

But given heresies within the churches of Christ, with varying breaks and disputes, the obvious direction should not always be within some obscene, and usually only tenuously rooted in fact, list of mechanical connection. Rather, the continuity should be with the teaching, and that's a teaching demonstrable through generalities among the churches of Christ as they emerged from the Apostles. The "patristics" should be helpful guideposts to always check our reading, though with recognition they are not immune from error. Normativity should always rest with the Apostles. Not because they are ancient fetishes, but because we believe Christ taught them how to handle Scripture, and that the Holy Spirit worked through them to make clear the gospel. Otherwise, the only other option is to become a Roman Catholic or a Mormon, given over the seducing spirits of whichever age we happen to find ourselves in. We either find the fullness of faith with the Apostles, or we are lost forever.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Mark of a Confessionalist Hitman

I'm relatively sympathetic to Richard Baxter. He was a godly man who struggled through the chaotic events that swirled around him, living through the English Revolution and into the life-after of the Restoration. After the Revolution, with the victory of Parliament, succeeded by the power of the Roundhead Army, the execution of Charles I, and the reign of Cromwell, Baxter's head was spinning. Yet he kept his cool. He remained strong for Dissenters, those Protestants who were ejected from the restored Church of England in 1662 for refusing to fully submit to the prayerbook. Even while he engaged with national theological controversies, he poured his life out serving the people of Kidderminster. He died a frustrated, but ultimately hopeful, Christian who remained faithful to his Master.

Baxter usually gets a rep for being "Arminian", usually because of his fight with John Owen over the nature of justification. However, even with my basic knowledge glanced from a few articles on him, it's clear that most of Baxter's critics don't really understand him. That's not to say that he was right, only that he is being misconstrued.

Hence, the link in the above article. Clark, like most Confessionalists, is a Pharisee, and he takes pride in his man-made boundary markers and the self-righteousness they accrue through being one of the few guardians. Thus, the obscene smugness is palpable. For Clark, he's being a good steward of the Reformed confessions against the "wolves" like Baxter. Of course, the sad thing is that Clark is an academically trained historian. He quotes Allison's work on the rise of Moralism, even as it has basically become defunct for understanding the development of theology through the 17th century. It's a crude caricature, up there with the idea that the Reformation created liberal democracy, that Protestants were ultimately about Weber's worldly-ascetic Calvinist, or that 'sola scriptura' inevitably spiraled into secular rationalism. These stories are neither true nor clear-cut. To the contrary, the mid-late 17th century into the 18th century was a time of renewed efforts at piety, involving not only moral uplift, but sacramental practices, affective theologies, and communal devotions. There was no progressive curve towards the irreligious moralism that has mistakenly been ascribed to the Hanoverian era, and becomes a reality in the Victorian era.

And Clark can't help but throw around double-edged slurs. He mocks Baxter's pastoral efforts, announcing that his moralist and rationalist efforts proved themselves in his church falling a part and becoming Unitarian within a century. And yet he cites, as a Reformed luminary, Turretin whose own son abandoned the Reformed creeds, and whose city apostatized to the extent that, within a generation, it housed J.J. Rousseau. My point is not to play the same game, only to highlight the poverty of this accusation. It's a naive, if not foolish, claim that historical change happens through some sort of overshadowing of a legacy. How exactly did the supposed faults of Baxter create a Unitarian Kidderminster in the century after his death? Don't wait for an answer.

But the real give away, I suppose, is the claim that Baxter's understanding of justification is similar to N.T. Wright's and Norman Shepard's. This point is meant as a slur, but for those outside Clark's coven of clerics it's telling. Wright's major work is in trying to give sufficient attention to the Biblical context of the New Testament, including its covenantal framework. What becomes clear is that the justification by faith alone, as articulated in the Protestant polemics of the 16th century, does not stand up under scrutiny. But, of course, it's more complex than that. Wright may assault how Luther understood Paul's attacks on the Judaizers, but Luther never uncoupled the mysterious grace of baptism and the supper from the enactment of salvation. Baxter's understanding of faith as not "consent", but as "trust" seems like a radical departure, but only if one cleaves too closely to the gnosticizing elements and cheap-grace approaches of the state churches that the Reformed confessions were built within. Baxter, as a creative and, yes I'll say it, Reformed theologian was in response to the crisis of the mid-17th century. To equivocate Baxter with Arminius, let along lumping Baxter and Amyraut as the equivalent as Arminius, as Clark does, is not only intellectually lazy, but faction-motivated slander.

But here's the rub: Baxter's condemnation comes from a poor interpretation of history. Clark's faithful echoing of Luther, and Calvin to an extent, that justification is that by which the Church stands or falls is telling of a bizarre ecclesiastical methodology. It involves a dishonest reconstruction of Church history that seems always pregnant with Protestant doctrines, which are only visible to the eye post hoc, and even then highly disputed. Since the Confessions are functionally equivalent to Scripture, any deviation should warrant censure. And on top of that, the play of history is functionally the play of dogma. There's no sense that these ideas have any relationship to a world around them besides in polemical books and letters. Hence, Clark is relatively knowledgeable about the doctrines of the Reformed Orthodoxy, as ideas, but barely has handle on their context. And if you read any of his writings involving American history, especially if it's Fourth of July, it's hard to tell if he's just utterly ignorant or mendacious. But perhaps it's a symptom of the Confessionalist mindset: the difference between lies and truth blur as your faction's narrative drives all things forward.

And none of this is to say that Baxter is 100% right, or that his theology is without imperfections and flaws. Only that this sweeping condemnation emerges not from careful historical scrutiny, but from a rabid tribalism. Yes, Baxter does not fit the parameters of Westminster theology. So what? It's neither the arbiter of Reformed theology nor the gospel truth. Yes, it's a barbed wire fence for certain Reformed prelates, and hence Clark's piece. But it hardly understands the real problems not only afflicting Baxter's 17th century England, but the contemporary world as a whole. But don't stop schismatic factions from carving out their little fiefdoms, trying to wait out the secular storms until they can try to take over and build their tower of Babel. Thank God for men like Richard Baxter, even in all their faults and frailties. And so the words are true:

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves."

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

We're Beggars All: Some Moderated Reflections on Luther and Lutheranism

I've raged pretty harshly against Luther over the past year. And I stand by all of it. I still believe that Luther's theological work left many open doors that many exploited, even as the Lutheran orthodox (for lack of better nomenclature) attempted to bolt them shut. It was from Luther's theology that sprouted the perverted despotism of Zinzendorf over the Moravians. It was from this fountain that a kind of existentialist atheism emerged, found in 20th century figures Heidegger, Bultmann, and Tillich. It has become the well-spring of heterodox maniacs like Forde. These monstrous offspring promiscuously mix in a pop-Lutheran theology that is among many trendy bourgeois self-helpers.

I also still despise Luther's betrayal of the peasants in their revolt in 1525. While I am not saying the peasants were right to revolt, it was surely they who were right to reject the Feudal political theology that kept them as slaves. Luther's cold-hearted denouncement of these forces revealed a deep complicity with and desire to be numbered among the gentry and burghers. This spirit was not unique to Luther, but common among most Magisterial Reformers. Luther was at least mildly suspicious of civil power, easily turned against the gospel and used for greed and lust. He was not a politique actor like Zwingli, a man-pleaser like Melanchthon, a would-be jihadist like Knox, or a burnt optimist like Calvin.

Still too I abhor confessionalism that surrounds much of conservative Lutheranism. According to confessionalists, it's strict adherence to these documents that prevents the slide into liberalism. But the relaxing of confessions among mainline groups was a sign of integration into the American mainstream, a relaxing of terms to influence the world. The relative conservative of a confessional Lutheran body has nothing to do with the confessions as theological statements, but due to a kind of sectarian existence, whether of circumstance or choice. To consider any written document outside of Scripture to be a timeless canon of perfection is insane. The Spirit did not promise anything but the Scripture, and thus we see a sick game of canon lawyers trying to squeeze novelties into "possible" interpretations of the confessional symbols. Not only does it create historical dishonesty and ignorance, it's ultimately a meaningless pursuit of man-made purity. It's pharisaical to the core.

But given all of these things, I thought I should give reference to many of the things that Luther and Lutherans do right.

First, I appreciate that Lutherans ground their understanding of monergism, justification and election in baptism and the Lord's Supper. They can hardly be accused of being Pelagians, and yet they see no contradiction in understanding that baptism actually does save, and yet it is entirely a work of God. There is little problem in appreciating the various parts of Scripture without subjecting them to a contrived system based on syllogisms. There's no contradiction in saying that God is the one who saves, but salvation is open to all, and that the gift is given in the waters of baptism.

Second, I appreciate Lutheran concern for liturgy. Not all Lutherans, some of whom engage in near idolatrous discussions of sacred music and architectures. However, there is general understanding that there is a distinction between the heart of worship and its surrounding. They see the Supper as the center, and its significance, the Word, as what envelops it. Whether it's hearing God's pardon, singing psalms/hymns, or hearing exposition from the text, it's all to appreciate and understand that in receiving the Supper, we're receiving the fullness of Christ. Victory over sin, death, and the devil is manifest in our participation. However, even as the Supper is necessary, the Word is necessary in content, if not form. The Supper must be accompanied with the proclamation of the Gospel, but this Word can come in a variety of forms besides preaching. Rote prayers, songs, and patterns of worship, even images, are a kind of decoration, teaching tools to instill the truth of the Supper. None of them are necessary, and if they become hindrances, they can (and should) be discarded. It's what makes known Christ's person and work.

Third, I appreciate the Lutheran concern for the Gospel. What I mean is that there is a general concern that preaching involves preaching Christ crucified, risen and ascended. This point is not unique to Lutherans, and is a generally Christian phenomenon. But the emphasis, even obsession, on distinguishing law and gospel helps stake out that the Supper is a redemptive meal, a participation in Christ's sacrifice, spiritually feasting upon His flesh and blood. I'm not exactly keen on how many Lutherans talk and schematize law-and-gospel, but it at least forces an emphasis on heralding God's work. Much preaching can be dry moral exhortation, totally detached from Christ except in the most superficial ways.

Fourth, even though I find Luther's Two Governments an ecclesiastical error and mistake, his secularization of civic affairs is far superior to Medieval notions of sacral kingship. While Lutherans end up embracing a sacralized Christian Society, at least the bifurcation between the Gospel and doctrinal truth and the civil/ecclesial drained some of the sacral glow out of civil government and brought about some secularization. Lutherans institutes the wrong kind of antithesis and distinction, they at least began to recover some disjuncture in Christ's work and the world as it is. The Babel totalitarian impulse of a wholly unified society was checked, even if in the most nominal and half-hearted way.

Thus, the real bone in dealing with Luther is his own myth. Being considered by both friends and enemies as a world builder, Luther is hard to assess reasonably. It's hard to chalk him down as a mere man, who did only as much as his friends and networks allowed him to. He did not have control of his ideas or his legacy, even as he in fact influenced the shape that it would, and could, take. I despise much of what he did, even as I admire much too. As a Christian, he was a beggar as the rest of us, a truth he continued to profess. May the chaff burn up, and may the gold continue to shine.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Progressive March to Doom: Post-Millenialism is Anti-Christ

The above link is a 50min~  video that explores what the speaker believes to be the biblical pattern of state and society. It's not worth listening to unless you wanted tortured logic and poor exegesis, but it's a good example of the fundamental problems in post-millenial thinking. The speaker explains how there is a biblical pattern that proceeds from priestly to royal to imperial within a society. This method is explored through a concatenation of biblical texts, but also paralleled to "history" of social developments elsewhere. There's not much practical import, though as the speaker is a self-professed monarchist (and quasi-libertarian), there is a brief list of possibilities as to how a Christian empire becomes established.

The speaker draws upon the thought of Peter Leithart and, thus, James Jordan, who are both postmillenialists and also depend upon this general schematizing of covenantal history. Unlike them, however, the speaker is Orthodox, but as a convert. What they all share is this sense that the goal of the Church (which, for Leithart and Jordan, is poorly defined) is to be a fountain to form a new socio-political order which gains power. The post-millenial vision in their hands is the dream of a Christian empire. And while Jordan and Leithart may disdain Byzantium as idolatrous and heterodox, eastern Orthodoxy and this form of magisterial Protestantism agree. The Church forms a priestly and prophetic ministry that forms the base of a political order where Caesar wields the royal sword on behalf of the goals of the Christian Church. The bishops/ministers of the Church represent the conscience of the society, not wielding power directly, but exercising a legitimating role of a given order. Against Hobbes' Leviathan, where the sovereign of the state wields absolute power and authority, this "biblical" social polity separates authority and legitimation from the exercise of power. In theory, the goal is symphonia, an equilibrium between the magistrate and the minister, between king and bishop.

But in the above piece, the speaker slips in at the end a reference to Jesus as the Emperor. And this tell is not odd because no one denies this fact. However, it's inclusion should raise immediate questions as to what this claim actually means. If Jesus is the emperor and the High Priest (again, few would deny this point), how do we understand the delegation of His authority, and where is the logic of the bifurcation? Here is where post-millenial theology goes off the rails, and, functionally despite all protest to the contrary, embraces anti-Christ.

When I say anti-Christ, I am defining the term in the way St. John does in his letters: the denial that the Messiah came in the flesh. While some attribute this definition to a proto-gnostic or docetic heresy, I think it's equally applicable to the Judaizers Paul deals with. To continue under the strictures of Torah without recognizing a rupture point, a fulfillment and completion, is to say that the Messiah had not yet come or did not accomplish His work. Jesus is the Christ, the Real who reveals that the previous dispensations had been shadows of a coming future. To labor under the shadows was to deny that anything had occurred.

Post-millenial theology usually depends upon a recognition that Israel's original mission still continues unhindered. There was no change, only a lateral shift. The work of the Messiah is reduced to a broadening of the franchise. Gentiles now become centers of the covenant. The age of the Spirit is the mechanism for self-professed teachers to claim their ability to broker with God. Whether it is Eusebius claiming a special relationship between Constantine and the Logos, or Scottish Covenanters claiming to be able to make a national covenant between their nation and God, it's priestcraft of the worst kind, a comical play-acting if it weren't for the deadly consequences.

Having read Leithart for years, especially his work on atonement theory and justification, it's hard to see what exactly Jesus accomplished. He seems to be an abysmal failure, in the sense that the Christian empires accomplished little good, spread much evil, and have collapsed, or are collapsing, into the dust. In his Delivered from the Elements of the World, Leithart has no grasp of how silly his theorization about a Christian culture seems. He has few concrete examples, most of which were historically vitiated by all sorts of political double-dealing. The closest he gets to his vision is the Jesuit kingdom of Paraguay among the Guarani, which didn't have a chance to collapse, being consumed by the Christian kings of Portugual and Spain.

I'm not sure where I stand with the doctrine of the Covenant of Works. However, this concept, at least, recognizes a break within Scriptural history, though one prophetically predicted and understood. Post-millenialism, with its many conceptual schemas about how the single Covenant of God is divided into different periods of development, qualification, or maturation, fundamentally rejects the category of the apocalyptic. An unveiling is nothing more than a step along the way, not a stopping point, or an overhauling. Again, the prophets foresaw this break-point, therefore it's not the radical apocalypticism of atheistic-Lutherans. What is unveiled makes sense of what came before it, even if there is a rupture with the past. In the hands of the Apostles, taught by the Messiah, the Scripture becomes the Old Testament, a source of shadows now unveiled to be fully realized in the person and work of Christ. All the major concepts of Scripture, the kingship, the land, the temple, the covenant, the law, etc. become radically reworked and fulfilled. They did not have power in themselves, nor were they absolute, but their immortality and inspiration become fully recognized in the coming of the Christ. As St. Peter would say, the prophets wrote better than they knew.

Thus, not only is post-millenial a kind of Judaizing, denying the shadows of the old covenant, but it is always functionally anti-Christ. It does not really have a place for the shift of the Spirit, the radical reconfiguration of all the types of Scripture. Most clearly is in the attempt to apply features of Israel's polity to contemporary issues, or, more broadly, the attempt to justify Christian's waging war or building nations. Without the category of a Christian state/society/empire, which depends upon the post-millenial schema, the whole project falls a part. If, as St. Paul seems to clearly say, that Christians now wage war in the Spirit, not fighting flesh and blood but powers and principalities, it's hard to justify a sacralization of a judicial order. But that's what inevitably happens. And when that happens, Christ is relegated far and away, even as divine kings and ecclesiastical authorities continue to reign in His name. This phenomenon is the whore riding the beast, which God revealed to St. John.

Even though there are post-millenialists who seem to embrace both what I'm saying and what I'm critiquing, such as Oliver O'Donovan, I don't see much merit to their case. O'Donovan argues Christendom is the secularization of the state, drawing upon Augustine. However, as this paradigm is still linked to concepts of a Christian society, and is tenuous at best, it's a hard sell. O'Donovan is not exactly a post-millenialist, nor does he have to, but his theories still contain too thorough an optimism. There's no serious thought as to whether a Christian can even wear the purple, which, in this regard, makes Augustine the worst kind of optimists. His theory was, within his own lifetime, modified by his student Orosius, becoming the backbone for the sacred kingships of the Middle Ages. The potential of Augustine's thought for a secular Christendom is a redherring. The closest approximation, Roger Williams' Rhode Island, was continually under siege and collapsed within a generation.

Post-millenialism depends upon a shape of time that is ultimately calculable. It may be as Christ reveals it, but it takes the truth of Christ's victory and spins a web of Progress. There's no sense singular direction in the Bible. Instead, just like in real life with real people, there are contradictory moves backwards and forwards. People can mature in body, but remain immature in mind. Regeneration can occur simultaneously with degeneration. Schematizing wings of covenantal history in progressive forms not only has little warrant besides creativity, but it makes a mockery of Scripture's intent. It is precisely at the least predictable moment that Christ interceded, which is what the prophets foretold. If we are to praise, worship, and be conformed to Jesus Christ, who we claim to be our God and King, we should not embrace any model or polity or schema that seems too easily ram the shards of historical truth into a mold to suit our purposes. sic.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Jesus is the Will of God: A Brief Reflection on Election

I've marveled at the elegant simplicity contained in Irenaeus' fully formed, but unsophisticated, biblical theology of the Trinity. While it cuts across the grain of those advocates for Absolute Divine Simplicity, the saintly bishop is able to clearly mark off the Word as the revelation and revealer of the Father. But, following this point, the Word is simply the Word, namely a revealer of a particular content. He is the Father's Wisdom, the Father's Word, the Father's Will, Scripture's peculiar 'hypostization' (to put it in a later technical term) of what would otherwise appear to be an attribute. The Word acts, speaks, and constitutes a particular character, a "second" overlapping with the God He serves. Irenaeus does not struggle with philosophical problems the way Origen does. He merely immerses himself in the logic of Scripture.

Thus, for Irenaeus, Scripture does not hold anything back, but becomes the site of Christ's revelation. The totality of the Bible becomes linked around a single canon, namely the person and work of Christ, which unlocks Scripture, the secret prophecy fully revealed. In light of His work, Jesus is unveiled as the Christ, who is none other than the Word of the Father. And what does the Word do? He reveals the Father's plan.

Here, I want to briefly intersect with Reformed theology's distinction between secret and revealed will in God. T.F. Torrance was right when he condemned any position that put a god behind the back of Jesus Christ. If one does not see the fully revealed will of God in Jesus Christ, then one cannot see. However, Calvin's distinction between these wills was not to posit schizophrenia or disjunction, but a way to reconcile the seemingly mysterious and brooding shadows of Scripture with the light of the gospel. Christ's work is open to all and for all, but it was only marked out for the elect. Calvin had a pastoral objective: the covenantal arrangement of salvation was to bring one to rely on God's work, not turn inward, fearful if one was elect or reprobate. The gospel proclaimed a free offer, not a polarizing mysticism of interior shadows.

But as any student of puritanism, or Reformed theology in general, knows: this shift to interiority came quickly and often. Whether it was probing one's good works, the course of one's life, or the flux of emotions, there was a quest to know whether one was elect. There's no iron logic that forced the Reformed down this path, as if justification by faith automatically created these conditions. However, the separation seemed to always cut away at the structures of Christian living, where participation in the covenant was constantly reduced to mere externals. At first questions of church government and internal life gave way to questions of baptism or outward marks. There is a logical line between experiential calvinism and the Quakers. And, as modern Evangelicalism shows, accepting Jesus in your heart with a "praying-the-prayer" is a strange mix of pietism with a non-biblical covenantal nomism. If we can speculate on God's hidden will, merely tracing the outlines of an enigma, then what use is the revealed will, with the latter slowly eroding until it is fully identified, and then collapsed into, the former.

The problem is not so much Calvin's formula, but how it is unpacked. For Calvin spoke of a secret will, but it was a will still revealed in Scripture. If it were not for St. Paul, how else would he know about the elect and the reprobate? Romans 9 clearly distinguishes between the chosen seed of Jacob and the common seed of Esau. In the Messiah, the latter may finally rejoin the former in his finished work, or be left to destruction. And that's the key, because this "secret" will is itself a revelation of God's created pattern. For the whole of Scripture, under the shadow of Christ, reveals the will of God. If we are to speak of secret will, we're asking for incoherence. Scripture reveals that the race of Adam had to cultivate and protect Eden unto maturity and perfection, even in the presence of a draconian serpent. The division among men is between those born of the serpent and those born of the woman, those who now live as slaves under the emptiness of the flesh and those who cling to a promise even in their chains.

Thus Scripture reveals what the shape of the world is and its hope. But what of specifics? While the revealed will shows both elect and reprobate, God's secret will involves my name, or its blotting out, in the Book of Life. But these questions depend upon a logic of the world that could be anything other than it is. Temporally, many things seem open, but perhaps extra-temporally to ask whether things could be different is to ask if I had to be me. Or, when it comes to the specifics of who is saved, it's the equivalent of asking whether the circle had to be round. Not only do these questions remain hidden, but they're nonsensical. But, at the same time, who "I" am is not something random or without shape. Scripture provides the forms for us to see ourselves. I sinned against my Lord: will I image Peter or Judas, will I repent or despair? Here is a place for a good introspection, shaped and formed by Scripture. To say Scripture reveals Christ, who is none other than the Will of God, is to say that the parameters of all of my actions, all of who I could be, is laid out before me. Even those who reject, twist, or despise the Christ and His Scripture are accounted for! If there is a secret will, it is in the future, for I know not who I am yet to be. These identifications are not fully realized. Hence, there's a real possibility of falling away, yet from God's future vantage, all of His chosen are accounted for. Thus, as Christians, we have confidence: for in seizing upon Christ's promise, we can take heart that we have already been lifted up.

A lot of these points are not foreign to Reformed predestinarian theology, but I would emphasize, and fully ground, these thoughts in Scripture. For the Bible does not provide a seedbed of ideas that then can become formulated and systematized into doctrine that we adhere to, but is instead the backdrop to which our theological methods and questions arise. Scripture does not incidentally reveal universal truths under the cover of particulars, but the particulars, the characters, objects, places, etc. are themselves universals. Jacob is not merely Jacob for himself, but belongs to Christ, and His shadow covering over the world. Like Irenaeus, we'd have a clearer and more colorful concept of predestination and election if we'd immerse ourselves in the drama of Scripture, then float above the page. Thankfully, there were Reformed theologians who were not beholden to scholastic methods and were careful readers, and lover, of the Scripture. Hence, Biblical theology's return came from among the Reformed (to their credit), even if sometimes wrongly applied or understood.

As the doctrine of trinity does not depend upon later systematization, but naturally flows, so too does election not require sophisticated and philosophically derived Reformed dogmatics, but can be more purely seen and considered when pondering the two thieves next to our Lord. And the answer to that question depends upon whether we would be baptized with Him or not.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Crucified Lord of All Ages: Typology, History, and Time through Scripture

One easy distinction between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance/early Modern period is how the reigning intellectuals dealt with time. Even though Medieval was a term coined by dismissive humanists, it can have two meanings. The first is a diminutive to refer to a mere gap between antiquity and its rebirth. The second is a referent to the time-between-times, the Augustino-Orosian Sixth Age, the Church Age, after the Ascension and before the Parousia. The first definition reflect actual historical usage, but the Medieval philosophers and theologians, I'm sure, could pick up my secondary definition as their own.

For the Medieval man, time had, in a sense, froze. That's not to say they didn't know how to count days, but the circular rhythms of the yearly calendar reflected an era of Christ. Days were regulated according to life of Christ and His saints. As Charles Taylor, and others, put it: there was a temporal gate between the holiday and the original event. Every Easter was an overlap with the crucifix, temporally closer to that even than the day before. Medieval art reflected a blurring of time. Christ stood before Pilate in a feudal court of law. The Apostles would reflect contemporaries styles. It's not because Medieval people were stupid, that they necessarily thought St. Peter had a council of cardinals or wore an imperial tiara. But the Medieval conception of time froze difference; it was the same era. Our common conception of historical realism would come off as strange and bizarre. There was a shared epoch between the Apostles and the University of Paris.

The major shift in the Renaissance, due to a variety of reasons I don't quite yet know, was to distinguish then and now. Hence the demarcation of the Middle Ages. Antiquity didn't depend upon a complex theological identity of the ages. Even the Middle Ages blurred the differences before and after Christ. Instead, humanists began (and it was not immediate, or all at once) to distinguish themselves from a foreign past. Investigation into texts, especially law, opened up a window on radical difference. Roman law did not seem to be quite as universal as some jurists considered it to be. It contained formula that fit times and places that no longer existed. An emphasis on the alienness of Scripture began to creep upon commentators. Words, especially in their Judeo-Hellenistic originals, did not merely possess a timeless continuity. Hence, Erasmus, for the purposes of reform, clarity, and to correct Jerome's barbarous Latin, re-translated the Byzantine texts into Latin, providing the original and his translation side-by-side. Not everything had a timeless quality. It was from the Renaissance that a new form of historical inquiry was born, sifting through a now alien past.

It was not until much later that our modern notions of historical criticism, and the far less practical academic discipline of history, appeared in the 19th century. Today, we take much of the Renaissance shift for granted. We assume there was a past that was not quite like our present, and that these things in the past need proper grounding in their own context on their own terms. Butterfield's attack on the whiggish interpretation of history was an assault on history as a normative moral forming discipline, though the pop-result was a cynical myopia, mutated through Continental philosophy into an obsession with language and a narrowing scepticism. But this point is neither here nor there.

The point I want to address is how best Christians should handle Scripture. The Modernist-Fundamentalist crisis has defined much of what passes for Scriptural interpretation in the Anglophone world, but has produced mainly heat and little light. Both sides of the debate had assumed historical criticism, which damned the Fundamentalists to ultimate futility. On these terms, the Fundamentalists were forced to argue that an ancient set of texts were normative for behavior now, which only could seem absurd in the wake of great industrial and scientific gains. The Modernists may be coat-riders, but with historical criticism draining most utility from resourcing the past and the new philosophy of science and Progress leading the way, they could parasitize the wave of the "Future". I will come out and say that, on their own terms, the Modernists were right: an ancient text cannot have this bizarre weight of normative weight. The early modern period grappled with utilizing the past to perfect the distant present, an awareness of having fallen away, whether it was in terms of philosophy, politics, or the life and practices of the church. It could not give definitive answers, and historical research and polemic could not provide any exact and conclusive answer. Times had, indeed, changed.

However, besides these two approaches there still remained quietism/pietism/mysticism and typology. The former involved utilizing the break between outer and inner that Kant helped make a philosophic mainstay, quietly adhering to an infallible kerygma while conforming outer life to the times. In a way, this approach damned time as a sort of meaningless flux, headed nowhere particular, finding salvation in the heart. God could still bring salvation into the heart of the believer, whether through the more normative means of word and sacrament or through some experience of repose, ecstasy, or something. The truth could be nameless and wordless, even as the world went on its way. It allowed a way to avoid the conflict, pursuing a more orthodox interpretation of doctrine, but dividing it from questions of  society, polity, etc.

Besides this option, there was typology which became the purview of outliers and weirdos. Of course, there is the more normative question of what, exactly, the signifier signifies. And here was the problem with the Middle Ages. Through the paradigm of the Sixth Age, everything seemed to be typologized. Rome was a universal; the whole of Scripture could become a single, undistinguished, book of signs and symbols. Even if the latter point didn't devolve into a quest of philosophic speculation, and a more properly Augustinian understanding of a specifically New Testament era was in place, it had limited impact. Eusebius, through the reign of Constantine, had ushered in a shift to a single social Christianity. There was only differentiation, not difference, within the Christian Empire. It now came as a package; Christian society was now the norma normans which shackled hermeneutics.  Interpreting canon law with a bit of Scripture was not qualitatively different than resolving a legal dispute with an appeal to a bit of Roman law.

Christendom, through the Renaissance and beyond, practiced different methods to resolve conflict, ultimately eroding through the use of historical scholarship to provide a stable platform of normativity. Too many divergences, too many schools, too many pieces of conflicting evidence exhausted the well of Christendom proper, from which apologists turned to broader, more universal and natural definitions of a unified society. From these set of practices the Enlightenment happened. And I, for one, am glad that it did. I think it's good that historical research took the turn it did in the Renaissance, a fixation with context, an awareness of then as against now, refusing to collapse all difference and begin to parse out the alien wilderness of the past. Ancient texts became specifically ancient, their distance and difference began to tear at the seems of an easy or clear-cut application.

However, as Christians, we still believe that the Scriptures are normative, and yet recognize that they have historical provenance and context. What to do? We must cleave deeply to St. Paul's simple, but profound, assertion that "all Scripture is God-breathed". However, what this means is not merely that Scripture is "special" or somehow inerrant or infallible. I don't dispute infallibility, but rather how infallibility becomes an argument for normativity. Just because a document has no error does not mean it has anything useful to say! The debate over inerrantism in the US has become a redherring for more substantive issues of how Scripture is to norm Christians. It's from the failure to engage this question that all sorts of obscene debates about "gay Christians", among other things, erupt. If Evangelical only means you believe Scripture is perfect, then it's absolutely meaningless. Hence, to pick a trivial example, it may infallibly true that Paul asked Timothy to bring him his pens and scrolls, but what does this mean? Anything? Or bizarre trivia that had a historical contingency? Scripture, as such, can be banished to then, ultimately losing all of its normativity, even as it is championed as God-breathed and perfect in every way.

But, and maybe it's a hard pill to swallow, if all of Scripture is God-breathed, and profitable for a variety of purposes, that means that Paul's request, or his admonition for Timothy to drink some mixed win, means something significant. It's not bizarre leftovers of a historical text. Well, it is excess of a historical text, like any other text. However, the specifically Christian claim about Scripture's inspiration is that even as a historical text it possesses a pan-temporality, able to speak across the ages. Barth was wrong to distinguish or thickly demarcate the Scripture as a dead-letter, historical text, and the Spirit's inspiration, through the preaching of the word. However, he was right to emphasize that this normativity requires a two-step that, according to St. Paul, cannot be taken a part. The Spirit's work is, still, speaking through the prophets. Again, you can't cut up moments where people read the text as a dead letter and a time when people read the text in the power of the Spirit. Lest it be forgotten, the Spirit kills and makes alive; God can blind readers and open their eyes. Every reading of Scripture involves this exercise of power. And not because God is a mechanical genie, but because He's faithful to His promise. In fact, it's God right to not disclose Himself, to hide Himself, which refutes any mechanical view of Scriptural presence. God is a God who hides, and Scripture is always inspired even if it does not disclose. All of these claims are articles of faith.

Where does typology fit into this schema? Because, as Christ and His Apostles point out quite frequently, all of Scripture points to Him and all things are made by and for Christ. As Pascal and the Jansenists understood very well, the ultimate shape of time, even in its ambiguity, obscurity, and invisibility, is the shape of Christ crucified and risen. Christ is the ultimate mystery of all things, the very fulfillment of Israel that reveals the world to itself. The problem with Augustino-Orosian paradigm of the Ages is not that Christ should not comprehend all things, but that they failed to understand the mystery of the mystery unveiled. For God to be revealed as the Messiah crucified was not merely a step along the way to glory. It not only reveals a deep pattern of creation (i.e. Eve is born from Adam's side after God puts him in a deep sleep; let the reader understand), but the utter sinfulness of creation. For as much as Augustine is labeled a pessimist, he's hardly one when it comes to elite governance. To think that man is a worm, and that human governors are capable of punishing and restraining him has a high view of man's political capabilities. Augustine is hardly the gushing optimist, like Eusebius of Caesarea, but he barely had a handle on the extent of human depravity. His genealogy of Rome has to be cut off from his call for imperial authorities to suppress the Donatists. I think they're of a piece, and reflect Augustine's anthropology. But I digress.

If creation is utterly sinful, languishing under chains, then until the fullness of redemption is manifest, it will remain so. The reign of sin is not only wickedness in high and low places, it means cloudy vision, a misty historical gaze. Why things happen in their own order does not make sense, we can only hope that it will, one day, be made to make sense. The Middle Ages did not understand that the times stood under the sign of the cross, which is the ultimate axis for historical contingency. We do not understand the times, we only now know what shape the times look like. The Medieval freeze of history depended on a crude and failed use, not a methodological problem. As the past century has proved conclusively, the notion of history leading anywhere, or it have a particular engine or destination, is bust. History does not provide its own logic; it can only grope to reconstruct past eras for the purposes of thinking through our own contingent set of problems. History remains, and will remain, under the signa crucis, which even Constantine understood, even if he turned out to be little than a Jeroboam harboring a court of lambs with the voices of dragons.

Thus, this is a call for all Christians to take up the historical task if they are able. Contingency, excess, and ambiguity are the order of the day because our Lord has revealed it as such. We are left among the various shards of the times, sifting through the equivalent of broken glass, seeing what we find.* It is only the image of Christ, in the power of His Spirit, who, as I said, still speaks through the prophets, interprets these days. We are, truly, in the Last Days, but this era requires a hardened intellect, wise as a snake and learning even from the children of This Age, to face facts. Satan, indeed, has fallen like lightening, and it happened through the battered and bloodied body of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God made flesh. May we all have the mind of Christ in this work, and be historians of the cross, both as professionals and amateurs.

*I take this imagery from Ephraim Radner, whose work has been unbelievably helpful in posing the right sort of questions. I owe much of the meat of this piece to his intellectual and spiritual efforts.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Samson Didn't Save Himself, or Against Votive Candle Politics

Disgraced and shorn, blind Samson groped pillars in a desperate gamble. His foolish devotion to a seductress led him to a point of absolute humiliation, yet he still believed in the LORD. Samson cried out to his God for vengeance, to kill the Philistines that had put out his eyes. And with that bitter cry the Spirit returned, granting Samson the power to gain his desire: to die with the Philistines. The temple collapsed, killing more than his entire career as Israel's judge, and his family fetched his body for a proper burial.

While there are clear parallels with Christ's work, we should notice what Samson asked for and on what terms God gave. Samson did not ask for forgiveness in a game of exchange. The context is clear: God's name was being blasphemed, where Dagon was being celebrated as the deliverer of Philistia's enemies. Israel, in the person of her judge, failed in its mission. I think it's fair to suppose that Samson thought his own death warranted. He does not mewl or beg like worldling. And yet God grants him his straightforward request for vengeance against his, and Israel's, enemies. The end is as sudden as the collapse, a settling dust of an unsettled life.

But the key point I want to focus on is that Samson did not sacrifice him for something. His death did not pay off anything. It's a common trope I see in a lot of media, the idea of a sacrificial atonement for wrong. It's the anti-hero who seeks a kind of redemption in his own self-immolation. It's an easy and pat solution to our, perhaps western, moralizing. The evil and obscene character can only leave on good terms by a penitential quasi-suicide, usually to the benefit of the story's band of protagonists. The circle of a sinful life is squared through this death, without which would leave the penitential villain in an infinitely deferred death. Perhaps this mode of thinking is a legacy from certain theological traditions from Medieval, merit oriented, Christianity, but I don't know. The idea of self-regenerating suicide is common to the Samurai notion of seppuku.

It's not relevant where it comes from, but it's certainly not what's present in Samson. From what's clear in St. Paul's gloss of world history, God does not judge sins all at once or on an individual level. He will leave them to be dealt with in the time He chooses. From this vantage, we should be able to easily recognize that Samson's death didn't save Israel, and it certainly did not save himself. Samson's faithlessness and whoring did not vanish in a cloud of literal smoke. His sins remained, and yet his sacrifice accomplished his God ordained office and task: to rescue Israel from her enemies. Samson's self-immolation did nothing for himself, and it was not an unmitigated tragedy: it got the job done, even if he remained a riddle of God's continued presence and work among His people.

All of this points to the general trend and trope within western, at least American, talk of this penitential quasi-suicide of the ex-villain. It's the way people (usually white and well-adjusted bourgeois) will talk of the need for white, well-adjusted bourgeois to move out of the way for the minorities that "they" wronged. As a commentator put it: white guilt, and the accompanying self-laceration, can function as a penitential purgative, a way of atoning for sins. It's the ironic reinstantiation of a Medieval complex: it's a social concept, but one that depends upon the individual to walk barefooted to Canossa. The result is not so much a transformed world, but the salvation of the soul. The attraction is self-apparent: you, and you alone, upon your raft of good deeds, earned and purchased, will float above the massa damnata and escape the judgement. Flagellation is the way to paradise.

Which leads me to this recent article on the German left: here.

Diana Johnstone analyzes the resurgent left, and its split between a national and globalist focus. Why, she wonders, do German globalist politicians offer policies that not only can't work, but offend their potential voting base? Why do they promise high standards of living, but invite all the peoples of the world to enter their borders with little asked of them? Contrary to globalist and neo-liberal supported polemic, it's not only because the regular peoples are racist, xenophobic, backwards, and every other faux-paus of the chattering classes. Rather, it's because there's a general awareness that these policies will not, in fact, benefit them. The result, as Johnstone points out, is that it undermines the ability for established social groups to actually form and effect change. The deluge of diverse immigrant peoples can, maybe not so inadvertently, break down social programs and turn people into cheap, alienated, labor. National does not necessarily mean nationalist, and concern for language, borders, and established social bodies does not necessarily mean myth, blood-and-soil, and militarism. To say otherwise is to play the polemical game of ideological purity, which is what is happening with those American leftists who have anything good to say about the elective victory of Donald Trump. Self-proclaimed "real left" will accuse these commentators as being stooges and fools, red-brown, the same people who opened the door for Hitler.

But that begs the question that that's how it actually panned out. As Johnstone points out, the German left needs to grapple with the real issues of an immigration crisis before it becomes a lightening rod for a rightward, nationalist, slide across the board. The Weimar regime angered many average Germans because its policies did little to ameliorate their conditions, but instead was mired in an international game of prestige politics. Hitler's success was premised that he could do both: suckle the working Germans, as well as restore glory to the old Prussian aristocracy and dividends to Germany's massive industrial capital output (as well as international investors).

But my point narrows on the issues of immigrant in the United States, and how many Christians have taken to votive candle politics (a phrase I'm coining from Diana Johnstone's apt imagery) on the issue. Let me be plain: I'm not saying Trump's immigration policies are humane or just, or that they deserve any backing. I'm not even saying Christians should necessarily advocate any specific set of policies or become wedded to a specific political order. Thus, many bleeding-heart Christian commentators should be rebuked for turning the Lord's commandments into cheap political virtue-signals.

However, these supposedly humane Christian commentators do little to contextualize the situation, failing to notice why there are immigrants in the first place. They do little to think on the United States' role as global policeman (or global terrorist). They seem to think that the role of the United States (not far from the millenarian politics of the Social Gospel) should be a self-immolating body, atoning for its sins of chattel slavery, Indian extermination, racism, whatever. Again, I'm not necessarily keen on being a border enforcer myself, or that I would much care to be caught in the dragnet of another country's border policy. If I am fleeing to better myself and my family, I'd prefer not to be harassed too much. But that's not the same thing as a vocal policy of invitation. Instead, the current regime's policies (inherited, not invented, though exaggerated) fit the bill for the general strategy-of-tension when it comes to the War on Drugs. Central American nations are kept permanently destabilized, where flows of people moving here and there are easy to prod. The obscene harassment on the border is at a piece with the actual drug and weapons trafficking going on right under the surface. The reign of chaos allows anything to go, and readjusting the field of play does not take much.

What Christians should not do is use politics as a means to become a penitent, a little Christ in all the wrong ways. Part of the glory of the Reformation was attempting to overhaul atonement theology, resourcing Scripture to rework what union with Christ really means. It did not mean a recapitulation or a repetition, so much as an echo or unveiling .The Medieval theory of merit put Christ on the same playing field, where the pope had access to a treasury of merit, excess earned by Christ, Mary, and the saints, which could be distributed. Thus, Christ's real achievement was in building a spiritual apparatus that was entrusted to the fantastical Peter of Rome and his papal descendants. When it comes to salvation, you can, from a particular frame, save yourself. It would never be framed that way, because you're working in a system God designed according to rules that God laid down and powers He distributed. To call it Pelagian is to obscure, but it is not Scriptural account of Christ's salvation which reformers like Tyndale and Calvin worked to disclose.

It is not from a position of real politique or Machiavellian callousness that I'm writing. On the contrary. It's those puppet masters who help bankroll organizations like the ERLC of the Southern Baptists to turn their pulpits in this direction for the neo-liberal purposes of labor exploitation. Instead, Christians should get out of the game, and not peddle the gospel like a used car salesman.

If we are to involve ourselves in the politics of our communities, seeking justice while we dwell in Babylon, and blessing those nations we come across on our way to the Promised Land, we ought not sanctify the profane. As I've argued elsewhere, Christian involvement in the politics of This Age, a world-order (cosmos) of necessity and zero-sum-game, is one of suspension and paralysis. We should give thanks for secularity, a social plurality that can't decisively sacralize its own social order and polity. Like Johnstone's nuance: nation does not mean nationalism. Advocating open borders and globalist policies out of a misguided notion of catholicity or charity does neither. Instead, it furthers the goals of the sacral order of capital, the Atlanticist regime ruling for over two hundred years.

The point is not that we, as Christians, should support a particular border policy, but that our politics do not become tokens of a neo-Medieval piety that is quite popular in America/the West. Repentance is not penance, and pulling the log out of one's own eye is to better help the brother with the speck. Finis.