Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Not All Perfections Are Good: Musings on Intellectual Failure of Nerve

I blew through John Barclay's Paul and the Gift, and will have additional posts on this fantastic tome. However, one section really struck me, but not for obvious reasons. The context of the quote is a summary conclusion of a historical review of a number of theologians interpreting the Apostle Paul's doctrine of grace. He analyzed them according to six types of perfecting, or taking to logical conclusions/extremes, found in grace. However, the key point resides outside of this. Barclay writes:
"Since no perfection of grace can be regarded as its core characteristic, or its sine qua non, we are under no pressure to prove or to disprove that Paul is the bearer of some 'essential' meaning. Nor can we assume that the more perfections of grace, the better. In fact, we may be wary of the tendency to pile perfections on top of each other, or to extend single perfections to a greater and greater extreme. Such tendencies may serve ideological interests, but there is no reason to think that the greater the number of perfections, the better the concept of grace" (187)
Moderation? Spoken like a true Englishman! But I jest. Barclay's point is that there is no essential meaning to grace that St. Paul is the bearer of. In fact, as Barclay is at paints to show, there are diverse ways of understanding "grace", and in that way we may call both Augustine and Pelagius theologians of grace, though they defined their terms very differently. There's no essential core to grace, where if we pile up extremes, we get to a pure concept. As he says, it's tempting to do it, continually radicalizing further and further, to make our particular point. However, this doesn't help us understand what St. Paul is actually saying.

This all cut me to the quick. Why? Because there's a certain kind of temptation to make the Gospel of Christ amenable to those outside, hostile, or indifferent to the Church. Reading many non/a-Christian authors, I can find myself straining to accommodate. What I mean by accommodate is that I find a reading of events that might conform to a pattern that evades judgement.

As long as I've been a Christian, I've struggled with this. The earliest I remember is that when someone pulled up the Crusades, or some other bloody episode, I could claim, with all my Evangelical zeal, that they were not true Christians, if they were, they would've known Christ's commands. This has only expanded, where I've tried to situate myself on a perch immune to attacks. When I've read critiques of Protestantism, I try to find myself outside of Protestantism. When I've heard critiques of Western theological development, I found myself building a fortress on the banks of the Bosporus. When Christianity is accused of x, I find some opinion that can make me immune to criticism.

Now, I'm not hanging my head and surrendering. Not every example of bloodshed in the name of Christ is legitimate, and some of them fit within a Biblical prophetic outlook on such things (Christ was not shy of talking about coming apostasies, faith growing cold, false prophets etc.) None of this is my point. Instead, I am talking about the temptation to incline oneself to another's views almost uncritically. There's a certain virtue in reading your opponents charitably, but they are still opponents and you're locked in an intellectual combat nonetheless.

Instead of seeking to understand the Scriptures on their own terms, I assume that the faith must not fit such-and-such's horrible paradigm, or damning criticism, and thus is radically outside the critique. This is nothing more than a sophisticated variety of "Christianity is not a religion". While this may be true, depending on definitions, this is a radicalization of concepts which might lead to unbiblical, non-Christians, and frankly demonic practices. In debate with someone over this particular claim, it'd be easy to throw away baptism, the Lord's Supper, and any real doctrine of Church in order to salvage immunity to the critic's venom. What I will struggle to reckon is that the sophisticated interlocutor, who is much more intelligent, well-read, and popular, might just be wrong, not necessarily in factual detail but in the conclusions, whether moral or otherwise. I am reluctant to admit that, indeed, the godless do not understand Christ or His Holy Scripture.

Per the Barclay quote, radicalizing is no virtue, and so looking for theological justifications to fit this or that is no help on the quest for truth. For example, some might say that the absolute power and sovereignty of God in the Bible has become a pillar for despotism, brainwashing, and societal oppression. Well, the temptation may be to agree that they're right, and prove that the Bible does not in fact paint that portrait. But this would be untrue, and I'd only handcuff myself to contorted doctrine. So what if it's true? The Sovereignty of God does not mean that Christians should declare themselves regional sovereigns vis. Divine Right of Kings. For all we know, such is not a logical consequence of the sovereignty of God, but its very abuse and manipulation. But, with research, intellectual cut, and persuasive rhetoric, the case can be made that might back some like me into a corner where we'd dare to pioneer novelties to save ourselves.

This is the phenomenon I see a lot of Evangelicals doing. I do not question their motives, as I have no idea what they are. However, I heard both Scot McKnight and Greg Boyd in two different interviews, promoting each of their books, sound like fools. The former tried to reconcile a form of evolutionary theory with the Genesis account through defining imago Dei as "consciousness." Yes, we're back to a certain German's attempt to refute Christianity's Cultured Despisers. I've heard him at conferences, multiple time, metaphorically bang his chest as "I'm a Bible man" in opposition to his theologian interlocutors. But it seems like this has only led to shallow end of theological liberalism, 200 years late to the party.

The latter, who I admire, has handcuffed himself to a bizarre reading of the New Testament that has him saying that God accommodated Himself to Israelite projections of an evil and bloodthirsty God in order to reach them; this was a veritable "crucifixion", foreshadowing God's later crucifixion in Christ Jesus. He spent 10 years writing this book, and it perplexes me, but I understand. In an effort to soothe the conscience and reach out into the World, to disprove the critics, inner and outer, who accuse Christianity of being a religion of blood and violence, you chart an almost novel path (i.e. the review says Boyd utilizes Origen, but from the interview alone, it seems very unlikely to be a good interpretation of an incredibly complicated figure). All of this only proves Luther's snarl that reason is a whore, or, in Cranmer's more accurate appraisal, what the heart loves, the will desires, and the mind justifies.

There's nothing particularly good about finding a safe spot. I confess that I've struggled with, and given in to, the temptation to radicalize for ideological purposes, both in conversation and in writing. A couple of my posts over the life of this blog reflect this, though they remain interesting thought pieces and interactions. However, the truth of things remains, despite wicked abuse and contortions, and remains despite critics.

Lord have mercy.

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