- One of the Christian Humanists reads Francis Schaeffer for the first time.
- Wendell Berry in the Atlantic: “Sold.”
- Wesley Hill reviews Peter Leithart’s Deep Exegesis in Books & Culture (subscription required).
- Michael Gibson previews the upcoming fall roster of academic publications.
- Alan Jacobs and Andrew Sullivan go back and forth over the latter’s favorite scapegoat: Christianism. Parts one, two, and three (in which Jacobs suggests that “Constantinian” proves to be the more accurate label).
- Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker profile of Michelle Bachmann provoked some critical responses on the evangelical right (especially on his treatment of Francis Schaeffer), but David Sessions takes a slightly different approach.
I’ll be switching servers sometime over the next week, so the site will probably experience some downtime for 24-48 hours or so. But posting should resume shortly, with one last blogging-binge before the start of the fall semester.
More book notes on Annabel Brett’s Changing States:
Following her last section on human agency, Brett turns next to the changing notions of natural law in early modernity. As she interprets her Protestant and Catholic interlocutors, it is natural law which represents the principles of choice available to “free” human agents in civil affairs. She argues that the concept and space of natural law was gradually “re-framed” during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The initial conditions for this shift were provided by the “critical synergy” of humanist jurisprudence and Protestant reforms of ethical philosophy.
On the Protestant side, Brett takes Melanchthon as the key progenitor and distinguishes between his early and mature theories of law and natural reason. While initially affected by Luther’s allergy to “pagan” reason, Melanchthon came to develop a more constructive system wherein “moral philosophy is a part of divine law.” As such, the law of nature “is truly the law of God” as far as the “virtues that reason understands.” For Melanchthon, then, natural law functions as a civil philosophy, in a properly external sphere of action.
Brett suggests that Calvinist theorists were more resistant to this external/internal division of human agency. The early Melanchthon was especially insistent on this distinction, to the point that he could write bluntly: “I maintain that religious belief must be drawn from the divine Scriptures; but concerning civil behavior, I would prefer to listen to Cicero.” (Brett does not reference this passage, but I would be interested to see whether or how the later Melanchthon would qualify this statement.)
Choosing Melanchthon as the primary discussion partner makes a good deal of sense, considering how Brett’s argument unfolds later on. However, I wondered how this discussion might have looked with at least a sidelong glance at Vermigli, another early Protestant Aristotelian. Melanchthon maintains a rather strong distinction between external natural virtues (pursued via reason) and internal revelations of the sinfulness of humanity and the need for forgiveness of sins. The external/internal distinction doesn’t strike me as anything novel in that early modern context. But how the external and interal relate to each other seems more interesting.
In the second chapter of her masterful new book Changes of State, Annabel Brett examines the early modern Catholic and Calvinist projects to construct human agency in the moral and political spheres. Brett notes that the heirs of Calvin recognized a potential weakness in Calvin’s own definition of freedom as merely freedom from coercion. But does an absence of coercion constitute liberum arbitrium? Can we still say human agency is voluntary? At the very worst, of course, the Jesuits believed the Reformed doctrine of the will answered both questions negatively, and prompted the charge that Calvinism was the “religion of beasts.”
Brett shows how later generations of Calvinists answered this line of critique by making a crucial distinction between the voluntary and the spontaneous. As Pierre Du Moulin (1568–1658) argued, while every action that is voluntary is spontaneous, not every action that is spontaneous is voluntary. Animals act of their own accord (they are not coerced) and with spontaneous “inclinations.” But voluntary actions, which animals are incapable of, “are done with some knowledge and reason.” Brett comments that this “intellectualist tenor” resounds of some of the Thomist critiques of Molinism.
Following on this voluntary/spontaneous distinction, du Moulin is able to carve out a space for purely voluntary (and therefore uniquely human) “civil” actions. Brett intriguingly positions these Calvinist deliberations alongside Thomist-Jesuit parallels, and argues that pretty much everyone at the time (with the crucial exception of Thomas Hobbes) agreed that the human will was voluntarily free in the political sphere. Since the civil is associated with the voluntary acts of the will, the Calvinists (among others) carved out space for a civil government grounded not by physical compulsion, but by command and voluntary agreement. Brett also seems to imply (perhaps this will be validated in later chapters) that the Calvinist account, and not the Lutheran one, de-centered the idea of hierarchical human dominium over the rest of creation. Rather, they emphasize (like some Thomists) the central and internal role of reason instead of the external exercise of that rational dominium (the position they ascribed to the Arminians).
It seems a bit strange to talk of an evangelical rapprochement with something so traditional, so intellectual, or so seemingly Catholic as natural law. During evangelicalism’s civic re-awakening the 1980s and 90s, the activism of the fundamentalists’ heirs far outpaced their political theory. While individual leaders, such as Francis Schaeffer, attempted to root the emerging coalition in some traditional strains of Protestant civic theology, the greater part of the movement relied on more instinctual impulses for biblical application in political and moral action. Sixteen years ago, the old light of American evangelicalism, Carl F. Henry, wrote in First Things concerning his own worries about the adoption of a natural law ethic. According to Henry, “the integrity of Christian ethics requires an affirmation of God in His revelation, and not simply shared values in the public order and deeper stress on the common good.” On this count, natural law may seem innocuous, but remains inevitably a threat to God’s revelatory commands.
But in recent years this entrenched resistance to natural law has begun to change on two fronts. First, as evangelicals have found themselves fighting alongside conservative Roman Catholics on various social issues, they have also encountered agreeable Catholic arguments which operate fully in a natural law framework. Second, on the academic front, scholars have begun to explore earlier Protestant uses of natural law, which remained surprisingly resilient throughout Anglican, Reformed, and Lutheran dogmatics for at least three hundred years. As Matthew Lee Anderson summarized in a recent issue of Christianity Today, “there may be signs that the frost on the relationship between evangelicals and the natural law tradition is melting.” It seems the on-the-ground political alliance between evangelicals and Catholics may have some unintended consequences.
Yet, the situation may not be so straightforward. Contrary to Henry’s belief, the concept of natural law was in fact deeply embedded in earlier Protestant ethics, particularly the early reformers and their scholastic successors. However, as Henry’s essay also makes clear, many modern evangelicals are not familiar with, or agreeable to, the kind of “natural” reasoning that such a system expects. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, evangelicals are often unaware of the surprising diversity of opinion on the natural law, even in Catholic circles. This is to be expected, considering how fundamentalists and evangelicals vigorously disavowed all forms of natural law throughout the twentieth-century, when many of these debates and distinctions were multiplying. For example, Henry’s critique of an autonomous, non-theological use of reason does not apply to every form of natural law theory. Likewise, today, evangelicals may hear one natural law critique of homosexual marriage from a conservative Catholic but not realize that there are many counter-opinions from more progressive Catholic theologians and theorists. In this type of situation, it may be premature for evangelicals for jump on the natural law bandwagon without taking a closer look at the complex history of natural law theory, especially the homegrown varieties within the Protestant tradition itself.
There’s a fruitful discussion still to be had.
Anabaptists and Calvinists haven’t always gotten along so well, for which we (that is, the Genevan side of the reformational family) deserve much of the blame. After the initial and unpleasant debates of the 16th century, the two communities didn’t interact very much at all. Thankfully, in my opinion, John Howard Yoder changed all that. I suspect that many in the Catholic and Protestant “mainstream” first encountered Yoder’s work through the good references of Stanley Hauerwas, who was himself always at odds with the traditional and “magisterial” branches of the reformation.
While there’s no shortage of Yoder aficionados (many of them outside the Free Church tradition), there are still many in the Reformed and Protestant mainstream who find Yoder difficult to understand or appreciate. However, J. Alexander Sider’s new book To See History Doxologically should help to break down the remaining barriers. Sider writes from within the Free Church tradition, as far as I can tell, but he’s quite willing to find fault question Yoder’s theology and methodology when necessary. (In fact, his critique of Yoder’s historical reading of Constantine was picked up by Peter Leithart in Defending Constantine.)
In light of all this, I was fascinated by Sider’s chapter putting Yoder and O’Donovan into conversation about where doxology takes place in this world. Sider notes that both theologians agree on many counts, especially on the key doctrine that the political worship of the church is a participation in the coming kingdom. Therefore, salvation is pictured as the “promise of a gathered community that is called to follow Jesus.”
Sider’s critique of O’Donovan (via Yoder) centers on related issues of hermeneutics and ecclesiology. On the first count, Sider questions O’Donovan’s rather Protestant approach to scripture, which he believes departs from the hermeneutic of Augustine, Origen, and – yes – Yoder. O’Donovan, he argues, keeps interpretation “rooted firmly in history” in way that resists giving “priority” to certain passages over others. There is just a little too much epistemic certainty and autonomy in O’Donovan’s exegesis. Yoder, on the other hand, emphasized that the “community of interpretation” was the “final arbiter of what the text says.”
This leads to a second departure. Since Yoder stressed the ecclesial reception and expression of the text, this also reinforces the notion that salvation itself – like the scriptural text – does not have priority over or outside the ecclesial body of Christ. In other words, Yoder’s view of salvation is one of a communal event or response to the promise of Christ. As such, he resists the kind of historicism that would de-center the community’s ever-new experience of the gift of God throughout history. Sider believes this reveals something even more crucial: A Yoderian ecclesiology resists O’Donovan’s notion that the order of creation itself will receive eschatological vindication. Rather, for Yoder the “vindication” is not for the whole created order as such, but “the creation of the church.” Seen from this perspective, O’Donovan misguidedly talks of the heavenly Jerusalem as if it had no borders, and as if “there remains nothing but the city.” Sider notes here that O’Donovan sounds very much like Barth, whose cosmic definition of salvation is at the heart of a Constantinian dynamic.
Clearly, these are not just surface-level differences. And I imagine that many in the Reformed tradition will be unable to grant many of Sider’s foundational critiques. However, in reading this chapter I was impressed by two things: first, Sider’s non-polemical presentation of O’Donovan’s very Calvinist positions; and second, the many avenues for discussion that Sider opens up. Calvinists and Anabaptists may still be diametrically opposed on these issues, but Sider’s appropriation of Yoder at least has us speaking the same language. (In fact, I wondered whether some Free Church readers might even find Sider’s presentation and language somewhat unfamiliar.) I was challenged by Sider’s articulation of the church’s distinctiveness. And while I remain unconvinced by his conclusion — particularly the juxtaposition of creation and church — I believe he strikes at a fundamental question for both Calvinists and Yoderians: Does the doxology of God’s people acknowledge a rule that exists independently of that praise? Or is it truly realized (and not just proleptically) through the church’s difficult yet graced pursuit of holiness?
In Jeffrey Stout’s critical engagement with natural law theory (NLT), he notes that NLT in its traditional form was embedded in a realist metaphysic which assumed a cosmos with a deeply teleological structure. In early modernity, however, the philosophy of science gradually but decisively made key breaks with traditional forms of moral philosophy (such as NLT). Stout suggests that contemporary moral philosophers must re-engage with the philosophy of science, and how it informs or complicates a system like NLT.
My initial thoughts may only point to dead-ends, but I couldn’t help but think of two potential theological avenues to pursue in this regard: 1) Barth’s ontology of divine freedom and election may help to open up certain metaphysical constraints of the old NLT while simultaneously providing a robustly theological grounding for a philosophy of science and moral experience. 2) Perhaps some of the early modern Protestants could be called on to help out as well. The 20th century anti-realist critiques that Stout references in his essay find some surprising parallels in late medieval and early modern philosophy. Many of the early Reformed theologians turned to the doctrines of providence and redemption (composite accounts of God remaining faithful to His creation) to defend a revised form of the old doctrine of ordo quem ratio non facit. So, while reason does not constitute the moral order per se, there can be a kind of lived expression of human rationality that participates in the divine order.
In a 1975 essay, “The Two Faces of Humanism,” William Bouwsma sketches what he sees as the two ideological poles of Renaissance humanism: Stoicism and Augustinianism. While recognizing the dangers in relying on these kinds of idealized types, Bouwsma suggests that these twin impulses help to create a more rich and complex picture of a humanist movement which is too often analyzed solely through its antithetical relationship to scholasticism. In addition, Bouwsma argues that it would be horribly inadequate to view the rancorous debate between the humanists and schoolmen as a kind of cage-match between Plato and Aristotle. After all, renaissance thought was not hellenic, strictly speaking, but hellenistic — the product of a peculiar Western Christian genealogy.
On this count, Bouwsma reckons, Stoicism and Augustinianism occupy privileged ground, especially for their own rhetorical similarities. The former combined an Aristotelian materialism with the ethics of Socates, and “the hint of an Asian passion for righteousness with … the severe moralism of Rome.” Augustinianism, like its counterpart, reflected a kind of eclecticism in its search for some grounds for order amid confusion. Both streams of thought also rely on a strong doctrine of divine providence in the world and a kind of moral seriousness. Unlike Stoicism, however, Augustinianism articulates a particularly Christian notion of creation which is distinct, even antithetical to a Stoic view of immanence, in which the cosmos itself is inherently eternal and divine. In terms of virtue, then, the recourse of the Stoic was to follow the right dictates of reason, by which the intemperate passions would be subdued. Bouwsma argues that Augustinianism contradicts this view “at every point.” Since every human being is a creature of God, we cannot view reason as divine. It is only possible to know the will of God through the scriptures and particular revelations of God Himself. Unlike Stoicism, in which the will is subject to reason, Augustinian anthropology posits a more mysterious and wily view of the will; it cannot be so easily controlled.
Underlying these various differences is an even more fundamental divide over how we ought to view the order of the universe:
For the Stoics a single cosmic order, rational and divine, pervaded all things…. The perfection of that order meant that whatever is is right, however uncomfortable or tragic for mankind; at the heart of Stoicism is that familiar cosmic optimism which signifies, for the actual experience of men, the deepest pessimism. Against all this, Augustinianism, though by no means denying in principle the ultimate order of the universe, rejected its intelligibility and thus its coherence and its practical significance for man. The result was to free both man and society from their old bondage to cosmic principles, and to open up a secular vision of human existence and a wide range of pragmatic accommodations to the exigencies of life impossible in the Stoic religious universe. In this sense Augustinianism provided a charter for human freedom and a release for the diverse possibilities of human creativity.
I’m making slow but deliberate progress through Susan Schreiner’s new volume Are You Alone Wise?: The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era. About a third of the way through, it’s been surprisingly delightful, considering that early modern epistemology doesn’t generally lend itself to summer beach reading. Schreiner’s initial section, which is primarily a literature review of recent scholarship on early modernity, the via moderna, the relationship of humanism and scholasticism, and so on, is invaluable and quite readable. I likely won’t have time to put together a more polished review, but there were a few miscellanies that I thought I’d highlight here:
- Schreiner wants to protect against the tendency of some to “reify” modernity, particularly in the common (but too easy) move to see its early development “as the beginning of the withdrawal of the transcendent, the fragmentation of the former synthesis, and the division between form and content.” In addition, Schreiner identifies von Ranke as perhaps the most seminal proponent of the thesis that the Reformation birthed modernity. Despite the complexifying turn in 20th century historiography, it’s striking just how pervasive this interpretation has remained. Still, I suppose the heirs of the magisterial Reformation are largely responsible for this (although I found that many Catholics in academic circles still adopt that line of thought with a more polemical intent).
- It’s still common to hear that the 17th century was the critical, rationalistic break with late medievalism. But Schreiner suggests that, while the 17th century was certainly characterized by a rationalistic search for certainty, we shouldn’t contrast it with the preceding quest of the 14th through 16th centuries. In fact, as she later argues, this earlier era was centrally concerned to solve the problem of certitude itself (even if it used a different methodology).
- Although I still find Calvin’s theology to resonate with a kind of noetically modified realism, Schreiner’s interpretation of Ockham gave me reason to pause. She emphasizes that Ockham’s “epistemology stressed both the primacy of direct experience and the importance of the singular.” For Ockham, the “hunger for reality” put “the human being in direct contact with his home: namely, the created or ordained realm.” This concern with experience and the immediacy of knowledge suggests some interesting similarities with Calvin, most particularly among the magisterial reformers.
- Schreiner suggests that the early moderns deviated from Aristotle in a critical way. Aristotle had differentiated between dialectic and logic, since only the latter deals with necessarily true propositions. But the “identification of dialectics and certainty had become frequent by the early modern era.” In other words, it seems dialectic was no longer limited to rhetoric, but could now access or uncover propositional truth more directly.
- The third chapter is a fascinating exploration of how the reformers viewed the prospects for exegetical certainty, first, against the “pious doubt” of Trent, and second, guarding against the fanatici who took the principle of Spiritual inspiration too far, in the magisterial reformers’ opinion. On the latter point, Schreiner highlights the move by Luther and Calvin to emphasize the union of external (Word) and internal (Spirit) meaning/certainty. I wondered: Is this the Augustinian move that ultimately distinguishes between the Lutheran/Reformed mainstream and much of the rest of the early modern Protestant tradition? Also: Are there ways in which this Augustinian ressourcement was carried out more or less succesfully in different areas (I’m thinking here of later Lutheran and Calvinist Christological and eucharistic debates)?