Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Nominalism Didn't Make Him Do It

I've been reading Eric Mascall's The Recovery of Unity (958) lately, thanks to Bill Tighe who sent me a copy. Mostly, however, I'm not very impressed. His overall theological framework followed that of Dix closely (for my comments on that see here), arguing for a less clericalist view of the sacrifice of the Mass, in which the body of Christ as a whole -- not just the priest -- offers the body of Christ to God the Father. He is a bit more cautious about bringing the offertory into the sacrificial act and more aware of the possibility of a low view of sin that might be result from that.

Theologically, he followed Louis Bouyer in seeing the Reformation as a confused and damaging attempt to escape the serious errors of late medieval scholastic theology, especially nominalism, a subject about which Chris Jones once made a post here.

But I find this argument unconvincing. First of all, nominalism appears to be far more complex and multivocal theologically than Bouyer allowed, having theological positions "all over the block." Alistair McGrath has made this point at length (I summarize it here).

Further, he argues that because of nominalism Evangelical theology cannot assign any meaning to the idea of sanctification, and hence flatly denies its possibility, something which I was not aware Evangelical theology asserts. Evangelical theology denies that one can find assurance in sanctification, but it does not deny that sanctification happens; indeed sanctification inevitably takes place in the believer. Mascall offers no citations of Luther -- or of the nominalists, most of whom were completely comfortable with the Catholic affirmations that Luther denied -- and without that he's hard put to convince me that he's really hit the key points.

I'm also a little wary since he obviously gets wrong the root of Luther's objection to the "sacrifice of the Mass" idea; it's not fundamentally about whether Christ must die numerous times, so much as it is about synergy of sinful man with Christ in propitiating God. A Catholic might argue that Luther's wrong, but that's the major argument that has to be met.

Nor can I follow Mascall when he follows Bouyer in saying that Erasmus was a good Catholic Christian who was just forced by his nominalism (shared with Luther) to sound like a Pelagian for whom the grace of Christ hardly matters. I've read Erasmus against Luther -- several times -- and I have concluded he WAS a Pelagian for whom the grace of Christ hardly matters. Nominalism did not force Erasmus to write "St. Socrates, pray for us."

And finally of course there is the missing Bible. I would like to suggest that one's interpretation of a relatively small number of passages will determine one's theology.

For example:

Romans 7:14-25: Is this about Paul as an unbeliever, as a new convert, or as a mature believer? Jerome said the first, Augustine the second. The second leads straight to simul iustus et peccator.

The Law Paul says cannot give righteousness in Romans and Galatians: is it only the ceremonial law as Jerome says, or does this inability extent to the moral law, and the Ten Commandments, as Luther said? If the first, justification by faith apart from the Law is simply a minor piece of anti-Jewish polemic. If the second, it is a fundamental fact about the role of moral actions in religion.

Deuteronomy 30:19 "This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live" When God calls on us to make existential choices like this, or in the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount, does this mean we necessarily have the ability to do the things commanded, to make the right choice? Those who say yes, like Erasmus and Rodney Stark and many others, will believe in a Pelagian free will and interpret all the Bible as a law book. Those who say no will have no reason to see what Paul says about the world-wide unshakeable dominion of sin in Romans 3:9-20 and Galatians 3:22 and the bondage of the will in Romans 7 and 9 as hyperbole and "exaggerating to make a point."

If someone could show me how nominalism can change your belief about what Paul was talking about in Romans 7 or the precise referent of "Law" in Galatians, then I would be willing to see it as crucial to the Augsburg Evangelical Reformation. Otherwise, not.

I've provided some follow-up for the points made here in these posts:

Who Is "The Man of Romans 7"?
More on Luther, Augustine, Jerome, and Paul's Epistles
Jerome and Augustine Again
Is Circumcision Sinful in Itself for a Christian?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Puritanism vs. Fundamentalism: Two Types of Religious Revival Movements.

Islamic "fundamentalism" is a real misnomer as many people have pointed out. The classic "fundamentalists" of the 1920s American Protestantism were apolitical, pessimistic, separatist, and completely uninterested in social change or revolution. Since Islamic "fundamentalists" are political, optimistic, engaged with society (often to society's grief!), and totally focused on social change and revolution, Islamic "fundamentalism" is obviously a gross misnomer.

But one is not going to get a correct "nomer," until another general category is given. Much as I dislike the comparison, Protestant history supplies a strong, clear parallel: Puritanism, particularly the Puritanism that seized power in England from 1640 to 16660, founding a Christian republic in place of the English monarchy. Thus Puritanism, can be seen as a general religious category found within all Abrahamic religions (Shinto or Hindu puritanism is a flat impossibility).

Here are the marks:

1) Scripturalism: radical down-grading of commentary and a delight in shocking trespass of the oldest traditions.

This brings in its wake relative religious simplicity which in turn by reducing the amount of religious knowledge needed enables non-specialists to participate in religious discussions. It thus reduces the distinction between clergy and laity.

2) Theonomy: belief that God has given a relatively detailed prescription of social-political forms and laws that is transcendentally valid and a precondition for right social existence, and the added belief that the state has the duty to enact these laws and no more, and that the legitimacy of any state is dependent on whether it enacts these laws or not.

3) Iconoclasm: in defense of God’s transcendence a total rejection of material symbols/icons/idols of God’s presence.

Note though, in line with theonomy, puritanist groups stand out by actually doing it–they actually destroy religious images of other peoples’ religions (by definition, since they themselves don’t have their own icons to destroy). In this sense what marks the difference between an anti-iconic group and an iconoclastic group is more a factor of beliefs about relation of church and state than one of the role of icons.

4) Anathemization: Members of other sects within the religion are seen as falling into the emblematic negative category, whether that of the anti-Christ, or of kufr/jahiliyya (Arabic for infidelity/ignorance). This character is seen as thus fundamental to the era as a whole; one’s era is under the rule of Satan/jahiliyya, yet is also the dawn of the era of true religion and rule.

Compared to fundamentalism, puritanism is similar in its scripturalism and anathemization, but fundamentalism was/is neither theonomic (in fact it was both sectarian and distinctly anti-nomian), nor iconoclastic (although non-iconic). In addition, fundamentalism is apocalyptic (believing in the imminent annihilation of this wicked world), yet puritanism (Christian and Islamic) is, in fact, not particularly apocalyptic, believing in the end of the world, but not putting it imminently, and being optimistically more focused on seizing power here and now. In this picture, the early Christian church can be seen as a kind of fundamentalist movement emerging out of Judaism.

The prophetic tradition of Israel, by contrast, would be strongly puritan, differing only by the more strong apocalyptic element and its pessimism.

Given the puritan character of Israelite prophecy, and the fundamentalist character of the early church, neither style of religion can be categorically rejected as in itself always bad or wrong. (Both -isms here I am taking as general styles, apart from their specific doctrinal content.) The question is, how do we know whether either style is applicable today?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Why the Jews Don’t Try to Ban Piglet

The pig is having hard times in England these days. Muslims and sympathizers have decided that public display of porcine affection (PDPA) is an insult to their faith. (The original news story is here, and there’s commentary here).

What’s the dog that didn’t bark in all this? Well, this isn’t the first time a region or city has seen a big advance in the demographic representation of people who don’t like pigs. The Jews are a large percentage of the population in many urban and suburban areas of the United States. How come New York City or Palm Beach employees never had to exile Piglet from their cubicles?

One could, of course, point to the presence of a large and vocal secular presence in the Jewish community, for whom pork products, suitably stir-fried, are the very sign of liberation. But even religious Jews, while of course excluding the pig from their homes, don’t seem to mind PDPA in their Gentile neighbors. Why is that?

It is because Judaism explicitly distinguishes specifically Jewish rules of righteousness from universal human rules of righteousness. The latter are limited to the Noachide laws, derived by Rabbinical speculation from Genesis 9:1-17. The distinction of clean and unclean animals is seen as a specifically Jewish rule, not binding on the rest of humanity.* The same is true of the Jewish calendar, the Hebrew language, the ritual practices of Judaism -- all are restricted to Jews alone, the religious requirements for Gentiles being simply monotheism and renunciation of idolatry. In this sense, Judaism distinguished natural, trans-cultural religious truth (in the rather watered down form of seven laws) from the specific revealed religious truth of the laws (and oral tradition) of Moses. Following the words of the prophet Jeremiah ("Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers you too will prosper"), religious Jews outside of Israel draw strict boundaries between their own conduct and that which they expect of their Gentile neighbors.**

Islam, by contrast, insists that it is a universal, natural religion, more or less incumbent now on all humanity. (Past prophets were valid in their day, and followers of their revelation can be tolerated today, but really followers of Moses, Jesus, Adam, and so on ought to see that Islam is the corrected and completed form of their faith). As a result, the Islamic food laws, the Islamic lunar calendar, the Arabic language in which the Koran was revealed, the specific postures and Arabic words of Islamic prayer: these are not just something for one religious community and one nation, but for all. Thus pork is not just something "we Muslims" don’t eat, it is something that really no one should eat, even if out of the generosity of Islam its private consumption is allowed to the benighted. Much of the peculiar nature of Islam from the Jewish or Christian perspective is its insistence on things that seem so clearly culturally relative (food, calendars, specific prayer forms, etc.) are in fact part of the natural religion of humanity. As Alain Besançon argued in this fascinating article (unfortunately not available free on the web -- I highly recommend you dig it out in print), it is the peculiar relation of Islam as a revealed natural and universalized particular religion that makes it different from either pole of the Christian-Jewish continuum.

Christianity recognizes the same disjunction between the laws of Moses and the laws of Noah (even if we hesitate to codify the specific seven Noachide laws) that Judaism recognizes. The difference is, is that the Christian religion refuses, or should refuse, to make salvation dependent on religious culture, while still being a true religion, rather than the purely abstract, bloodless natural religion of Judaism's "Noachide religion." This is the heart of Paul’s revelation about Christian liberty and both his teaching and the "Noachide laws" are differing reactions of parochial Judaism to the wider world of Greco-Roman culture. Unfortunately, Christianity has often back-slid into designating particular foods, or calendars, or prayer forms as incumbent on all mankind. The Eastern Orthodox church, for example, declared fermented mare’s milk (Turkish qumyz or Mongolian esüg or airag), part of the staple diet of the Central Eurasian nomads, to be unclean, something that caused great hardship for Christians in the Mongol empire, and made conversion to Orthodoxy essentially impossible for Turco-Mongol nomads.

Even more strange -- and dangerous -- is the tendency in some corners of the Reformed world to adopt the laws of Moses as the positive code of Christian life. If we take the laws of Moses and universalize them, then the Christian church becomes Joshua’s Twelve Tribes and the whole world becomes Canaan. The result is a universal duty of iconoclasm, of destruction and replacement of the unclean idolatrous inhabitants with the clean Biblical ones.

*Curiously, though, the distinction of clean and unclean animals is found in the account of the flood itself (Gen. 7:2-3), which would suggest the clean vs. unclean food has some universal basis. This ambiguity at least in phrasing -- were pigs really unclean before and then cleansed by an act of God, or was their uncleanness never more than a special command of God? -- is continued in the New Testament; compare Mark 7:14-23 with Acts 10:9-16.

**Judaism also restricts a number of Mosaic laws to the Promised Land itself. For example, in Rabbinic interpretation, the laws on releasing debts in the Jubilee year or leaving fields fallow every seven years, and the attendant divine promises, are valid only in the Land of Israel. Jewish farmers or businessmen in Ukraine or America are not expected to follow these laws and have no promise of plenty if they do. Thus it is also true that religious Judaism in the Land of Israel is far less tolerant than it is in the lands of exile. PDPA can be pretty risky in some Jewish quarters of Jerusalem!



Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Political Quote of the Day

I've commented before on this guy, who seems (from the occasional things I've seen) to be one of the most interesting figures in politics today:

Here he is on the Republican Party's rough night yesterday:

"Things aren't going well for the president or the Republican Party nationally," he said. "That's fairly obvious."

In a more lighthearted vein, [Minnesota governor Tim] Pawlenty joked: "I hope voters are smart enough to know that I'm not involved in the Valerie Plame affair; I didn't leak the name of a covert agent." That was a reference to the outed CIA agent whose case now threatens the top echelons of the Bush administration.

Pawlenty also qualified a recent statement -- that he would stand by Bush even if he were at "2 percent" in the polls -- saying that he was not pledging "blind allegiance" to the president.

Rather, he said, it was a statement of personal friendship. "I don't embrace everything Bush says," he said. "I don't mean I'm going to blindly follow every policy initiative. But politics is smarmy enough without people bailing out on friends just because times are tough. That's a weenie move. I'm not going to run away like a little chicken from President Bush because he's unpopular."

I like that: "that's a weenie move." And I like how he's loyal, but not blind.

P.S. I'm going to be real busy up through Thanksgiving, so probably no posts before then. Happy turkeys to every one. And if you can, check out the Rev. Edward J. Balfour's article in November's Lutheran Witness on Jewish evangelism. He's a great pastor and a great writer.

Monday, November 07, 2005

On Viewing Ruins

Yang Xuanzhi (also spelled Yang Hsuan-chih) spent his youth in Luoyang (also spelled Lo-yang) in the north China plain, when it was the opulent capital of the Northern Wei dynasty. He finished his life, however, in the city of Ye, under a new dynasty, while the old capital fell into decrepitude. Returning to the site of Luoyang a decade later, he was moved by the ruins of the capital he had once seen in splendor, and wrote a nostalgic account (more background here) of the old city and its stories, secular and sacred, hung on a survey of the city's monasteries. In his preface, he wrote:

During the troubled Yongxi years [that is, A.D. 532-534], the emperor moved to Ye accompanied by monks of the various temples. It was not until the fifth of the Wuding years, a ding/mao year [A.D. 547], that I revisited Luoyang while on official duty. The outer and inner city walls lay in ruins, palaces were toppled, temples and monasteries were in ashes, and stupas [Buddhist reliquaries] were no more than deserted graves. Walls were covered with wild vines, and streets were dotted with thorny bushes. Wild beasts lived under deserted stairways, and mountain birds bode in trees of abandoned courtyards. Wandering youngsters and cowherds walked back and forth through the nine intersections of the city, while farmers and ploughmen grew crops on the grounds where palace towers once stood. Then I began to realize that it was not Weizi alone who lamented over the ruins of the old Yin dynasty [1765-1123 B.C.], but indeed any loyal official of the Zhou dynasty [1122-256 B.C.] would have been saddened at the sight of millet growing in deserted palace grounds (adapted from Yi-t'ung Wang's translation, pp. 6-7)

The reference to Weizi is to a Zhou official, who in the early years of the dynasty was summoned to court and passed by the old Yin capital's ruins:

Weizi was setting out to attend the Zhou court. As he passed the old ruins of the city Yin, he saw the wheat stalks growing richly there and thought, "This was the kingdom of my father and mother" . . . his will was moved and his heart sorrowful . . . so he composed the song of the wheat stalks.

The last ruler of the Yin dynasty was, in legend at least, an evil ruler and rightly replaced by the new and vigorous Zhou. Why then should he or anyone else mourn the ruins of the bad old Yin? Because it was the dynasty of his fathers and mothers.

In 1992 in Mongolia, I came across a ruin of the Soviet empire near the city of Sainshand in the Gobi: an air base, where jet fighters had once been on 24-hour alert to confront the threat of Maoist China. The rows of underground bunkers swelled out of the ground like graves in a cemetery of giants, but the metal shutters were gone and the shards of engines discarded by looters rusted in the sun, as the sand slowly blew over them. In the capital Ulaanbaatar, the new regime was rapidly removing almost all the posters and statues of the once eternal Soviet-Mongolian friendship, but out here in the desert was this reminder of the Soviet empire that had once terrified the world.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the ideological and non-ideological way of looking at the rise and fall of states. To the proclamation by the kingdom we live under that our kingdom exists because we have made it so and made it the best of all possible kingdoms, the Lutheran responds:

"I am indeed loyal to you, but not because of all the things you so pride yourself on. I am loyal and submit to you because, whether you know it or not, or acknowledge it or not, you have been raised up by God as my particular regime." The Lutheran thus can and should be the best and most loyal citizen with his body, but must deny to any ideological regime the one thing it craves: assurance that its ideology is the true solution of the "regime question."

Regimes rise and fall from God. The errors of some are obvious, of others less so. To see the ruins of the past is to see God's judgment on all regimes, that He overthrows just what is most flourishing and strong. In face of this judgment it is not our place to jeer and mock as the Edomites did over the ruins of Zion (see the prophet Obadiah). Still less is it our place to attempt to reverse the judgments of God and battle His providences and set up again what He has thrown down. Our place as we serve the kingdom God has given us, is to be silent, remember our father and mother's kingdom, and with fear and trembling place our confidence in God alone. Why remember our father and mother's kingdom? Because whatever the particular greater or lesser faults of this world's kingdoms, in the end they fall for one reason: they are flesh and all flesh is grass.



Friday, November 04, 2005

Against Shane Rosenthal's Attack on the Lutheran Teaching About Holy Communion

Josh S., speaking on behalf of someone hesitating between the Reformed and the Evangelical teachings, has asked us all to respond to this critique of the Augsburg Evangelical teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Here are my thoughts for his consideration:

The first big mistake of this critique is right there in the first line: treating the Holy Supper as simply a species of the genus sacrament. The writer goes on to define sacrament according to the Paul's view of circumcision: which is not actually a sacrament, but a typological ritual of the Old Covenant. So right there in the first couple of sentences, we have already assumed that baptism and the Lord's Supper cannot have any more real significance than any OT typological shadow. Sasse already made the point in This Is My Body that Augustine’s idea of sacrament as a sign (something nowhere asserted in Scripture about either baptism or the Lord’s Supper) can have all kinds of pernicious effects if taken too seriously.He then adds later the idea that since the Lord's Supper is like the Passover it must be ontologically similar -- forgetting the fact that the New Testament Lord's Supper is part of the reality of which the Old Testament Passover is the shadow. Shadows and realities are ontologically different.This foundational argument is basically circular, assuming what needs to be proved.

The Biblical argument of 1 Corinthians 10:2-4 is likewise invalid. In that passage, where Paul speaking of Moses and the peregrinations through the desert, he says "the rock was Christ." This is then a use of "is" (actually "was", which as a predicate of someone who is the same yesterday, today, and forever already has an inherently figurative sense, but never mind) which is indeed figurative. Now the use of "is" as figurative demands something very specific: a series of relations between multiple symbols and multiple things being symbolized. For example, one could say, "This bread here, see? This is the body of Christ, this knife here is the cross, and just as I break this bread on the knife, so His body was broken on the cross." In such a case, where something is acted out, or else where a scriptural type has multiple parts, context makes it clear that "is" is being used to identify the various parts in the metaphor. For example, I might say, "This ark is the church, see? And the clean animals, they represent Lutherans, and the unclean animals, well, those represent the Zwinglian blasphemers of the Holy Sacrament." (Sorry, I couldn't resist that naughty little comparison.) But "is" can only be used in this sense if there are multiple symbols in question and you need to know which one "is" (i.e. signifies) Christ’s body (as opposed to this other thing which signifies something else). Since only one thing is in question in the words of institution, it is not rational usage to use the verb "to be" in that way. If Christ wanted to set up a metaphor, he would have done it the other way around: "My body is bread."

Much of the rest of the argument is simply guilt by (pseudo-)association. So our division of truly efficacious sacraments from Old Testament shadows and signs is "proto-dispensationalist"? Big deal -- it is abundantly confirmed by Biblical evidence. If admitting that makes me dispensationalist, then good, I'm a dispensationalist.*

The irony is, of course, that dispensationalism came not out of Lutheranism, but out of Reformed Christianity.

And it is not the Augsburg Evangelical church and tradition that boggles at the full truth of the incarnation, or virtually ignores the Ascension, or has spawned a doctrine teaching a set of multiple returns of Christ, or turned the communion of the saints either into some invisible nothing that no one can see or touch, or else divided it in practice into a thousand sects each more pure than the next.

Finally, Shane Rosenthal is also simply ignorant of Evangelical Lutheran Biblical interpretation. When he writes: "Now they argue that we cannot truly feed on Christ unless it is by way of the physical mouth." this clearly a reference to John 6, which Luther himself concluded did not refer to the Lord's Supper (for the reason that baptized infants, etc., certainly are saved without partaking of the Supper, and others who do partake are certainly not saved). The word "cannot" here is a misrepresentation of Lutheran doctrine. "Ordinarily do not" would be the correct formulation, with "ordinarily" understood in the Christian, doctrinal sense of God's appointed means.

As for why it is good, right, and salutary for our Lord to have ordained a way in which we could receive objectively the benefit of His atoning death, just as those in Israel received typologically the benefits of the typological deaths of lambs and bulls, I’ve offered my thoughts here.

*For some arguments that Old-New Testament continuity can be over-emphasized, see here. Also relevant here is Luke 7:28, in light of John 3:5-6, and Rev. 7, which describes the already accomplished number of Old Covenant believers in the Christ to come, and the numberless multitudes who will believe in the Christ already come.

Originally posted at Here We Stand.



Thursday, November 03, 2005

Why Utilitarianism Cannot Be Right

Eric Rasmusen, a colleague and good friend of mine in the Business School, is a leader in the field of law and economics, which seeks to explain how legal structures can be/should be explained as rules to maximize utility for society as a whole. In my outsider's impression, a brilliant law and economics paper will frequently take some seemingly bizarre or unfair law and explain how it in fact serves to maximize utility. Utility here is of course subject to the usual economic ambiguity, being sometimes treated as material gain, but at other times defined as simply "anything people want." (That's more sensible, of course, but somehow ends up giving me a whiff of circularity about the whole enterprise.) This enterprise is, of course, a new avatar of the old utilitarian, radical Whig project which began as a critique of the British legal system, and which deeply influenced the American constitutional project.

This whole project can be given an atheist cast, as Jeremy Bentham, its founder did, but has over time acquired a number of Christian defenders, such as Charles Murray -- and Eric Rasmusen himself. Despite its origin in the radical Whig tradition, the results of modern law and economics often tend to a distinctly conservative bend, finding real, but obscure, rationales to laws that were once deemed survivals of the irrational past. (Indeed, law and economics professors seem to be today the most consistent practitioners of Chesterton's adage, "Never tear down a fence until you know why it was put up.")

Despite this useful vindication of tradition, I find the whole way of thought very alien. First of all there is the unpleasant fact that if traditions are to be vindicated on the basis of rational maximization of utility, then what do we do with those whose rationale has not yet been discovered. Experience suggests that law and economics professors might well discover some utility to them, but on the other hand might not. So in the interval, do we obey or not?

This becomes even more problematic when applied to religion. One avenue of investigation is, for example, the exploration of how some of the more funky laws of Moses might actually be rational for society. (I've indulged in a bit of this sort of speculative reasoning here.) Despite this useful reminder that things that seem nutty to us may well have a purpose, this makes our focus almost entirely horizontal; what is rational for society, what helps us achieve utility. God is present only as a the intelligent designer of a social system able to run of itself. Secondly, the focus tends to shift to law (that's obvious, right?) -- how we should live. And thirdly, the problem of motivation becomes insoluble. If the laws of God are the perfect blueprint for a healthy, wealthy, and wise life, then our obedience tells us nothing about our love for God.

Eric's weblog has a post on a recent law and economics lunch, in which the disposal of dead bodies was discussed. The assembled brain-power was unable to find a reason why the manner of disposal of dead bodies (assuming the relevant hygienic considerations are taken care of) should matter to us. But as the participants themselves recognized, we do care about what happens to dead bodies, even ours. The conclusion seems to be that even its most avid proponents recognized that there was a real problem with utilitarianism. Perhaps ingenuity will eventually solve this problem. But I doubt it.