Blog Moving — Come Along!

After a year or so of inactivity, I’ve decided to start blogging again, but I’m moving to a new, self-hosted blog. It’s an opportunity (read: headache).

Come along!

The new blog is

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Published in: on June 11, 2014 at 1:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

2 Books on Reformed Natural Law / Theology

A popular (mis)perception of Reformed theology is that it rejects natural approaches to theology and ethics. However, this thesis has been challenged recently by a number of Reformed scholars. This dual book review considers two books that make a great pair, as they make a thorough case, historically and philosophically, for the presence and positive use of natural law and natural theology in the Reformed tradition.

The first book is Stephen Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2006), x + 310 pp.  The thesis of the book is the consistent use of natural law in Reformed theology:

The Protestant Reformation carried over, though with some critical modifications  certain theological, philosophical, and legal ideas common to the western Christian church. These common teachings include the idea that God promulgated a natural law that directs and binds human creatures; that this law of nature has been written on every human heart; that conscience and reason serve as natural lights leading people to act in accord with natural law; that the natural law and the Old Law (Decalogue) differ only as means (or conveyors of moral information) but not in fundamental moral content; that while human cognition of the natural moral order was obscured by sin, the natural law still yields sufficient data to assist people in distinguishing between good and evil; that neither knowledge of, nor adherence to, natural law is sufficient for either justification or redemption; and that a natural-law jurisprudence is crucial to maintaining just and well-ordered temporal polities, regardless of whether they are governed by Christian princes or legislatures. (2)

Grabill believes that a recovery of natural law would be useful to contemporary Reformed theologians, because it would give them more contact points with the broader Christian tradition and because it offers an approach to moral conversations with secular culture. However, he does not develop this theme in any detail.

Rather, the book is a historical examination. It begins, somewhat counter-intuitively, in the 20th century with the theologian Karl Barth and a few other theologians. Grabill starts here because Barth and his conversation partners are largely responsible for the perception of Reformed theology as opposed to natural law. Grabill surveys their objections to natural law, but stresses that their objections to natural law stem from their own theological projects and represent a departure from traditional Reformed theology. Their historical claims are suspect because (1) they illegitimately separate Calvin from the Reformed tradition and privilege him against it and because (2) their appeal even to Calvin is suspect.

The second chapter deals with a second source of the misconception that Reformed theology is opposed to natural law. Many Catholic scholars have asserted that natural law belongs to the realist (predominately Thomist but also Scotist) philosophical tradition of the Middle Ages, whereas Protestantism is tied to the nominalist philosophical tradition, which has at best a defective natural law theory. Grabill argues that the difference between the two medieval philosophical traditions has been exaggerated and alleges that, in any case, significant Reformed theologians fall on the realist side.

The rest of the book covers four Reformed theologians, representing the various phases of Reformed orthodoxy according to the periodization of historian Richard Muller. John Calvin (1509-64) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-62) both belong to the pre-orthodox phase, but both are necessary to demonstrate, contra the Barth thesis, that Calvin was in substantial agreement with his Reformed colleagues. Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) was an exceedingly influential Reformed jurist and political philosopher in the period of early orthodoxy; Grabill shows his indebtedness to the very early orthodox systematic theologian Jerome Zanchi (1516-1590). Last, Francis Turretin (1623-1678) was the preeminent Reformed systematic and polemical theologian of the high orthodox era. Also, a conclusion sketches the way natural law thinking succumbed to rationalist influences in the late orthodox era and was transformed into a rather different project.

The first achievement of this book is its thorough coverage of a few highly significant but unfortunately neglected Reformed thinkers. Grabill’s analyses are sure to become a point of departure for other interesting projects. The second contribution lies in its success at reframing the conversation about Reformed theology and natural law. Examining the Reformed tradition as a partial critique of the medieval Western church rather than as a full rejection of it makes possible a more nuanced discussion of continuities and discontinuities, perhaps leading to even more clarity about the distinctive character of Reformed theology. I thought the one weakness of the book was the conclusion, which hastily covers the 300 year gap from Turretin to the present. I would rather have seen a more thematic conclusion that strove to answer the question of what makes Reformed natural law theory distinctively Reformed, or how the broader framework of Reformed theology transposed the medieval natural law tradition into a new key. Despite frequent intimations that this happened, the details are scant.


The second book is Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009), xii + 238 pp. This book is a hybrid of historical analysis and analytic philosophy. Sudduth’s goal is to determine whether Reformed theology provides a cogent objection to natural theology, and his conclusion is that it does not. Sudduth distinguishes between natural theology α, which is natural knowledge of God either implanted or acquired, and natural theology β, which consists of formal theistic arguments that codify and develop the raw materials from natural theology α. Sudduth maintains that Reformed theology allows for both types of natural knowledge.

Natural theology can be developed and employed in various ways. The first distinction is between dogmatic and pre-dogmatic natural theology. Dogmatic natural theology occurs within the sphere of Christian theology (i.e., dogmatics), as Christians assert, with the support of Scripture, that there is natural theology. Dogmatic natural theology is used several ways: “(i) confirming and explicating the natural knowledge of God as a biblical datum, (ii) assisting the systematic development of a biblically based doctrine of God, and (iii) strengthening and augmenting the Christian’s knowledge of God” (53). A pre-dogmatic natural theology purposefully brackets out all theistic faith commitments and attempts to construct through reason alone a natural theology that will serve as a foundation for dogmatics. A third use is the apologetic use, which defends theism against skeptical claims. Sudduth shows that the dogmatic and apologetic uses are predominant in Reformed theology. After the Enlightenment some thinkers take a pre-dogmatic approach while others, reacting against the pre-dogmatic approach, back away from natural theology entirely.

After an opening chapter that surveys a very wide range of Reformed thinkers from the Reformation to the present, Sudduth moves on to his main theme of looking at potential Reformed objections to natural theology. He is particularly interested in project objections, ones that do not merely target a particular argument or mode of employing natural theology, but rather insist that the entire enterprise of natural theology grounding theistic arguments is inconsistent with Reformed principles. He identifies three general approaches that might generate project objections.

The first set of objections concerns immediate knowledge of God. If natural knowledge of God were exclusively immediate, then any inferential theistic arguments would be at best redundant. One way of developing this objection would be to say that the naturally implanted knowledge of God is immediate. Sudduth argues instead that the Reformed tradition asserts that there is, alongside the immediate sensus divinitatis, a knowledge that is spontaneously inferred from creation by mature, properly functioning minds. It is inferred in the sense that it rests on premises (e.g., the beauty of the cosmos implies God), but spontaneous in that the inference does not take concentrated reflection over time. It is similar to the automatic inference of seeing a light turn on in a living room window and concluding (perhaps even unconsciously) that someone is inside. Sudduth takes an entire chapter to cover the recent objections of Plantinga and Baillie to natural theology and concludes that the logic of their own positions actually allow for more natural theology than they suppose.

A second set of objections arises from the noetic (cognitive) effects of sin. The thrust of these objections is that whatever theoretical validity theistic arguments might have, the presence of sin  keeps people either from recognizing them or being persuaded by them. Sudduth appeals to the Canons of Dordt and to Calvin, which affirm an ongoing natural knowledge among unregenerate people. Some natural knowledge is necessary for it to perform its role of rendering people culpable for not acting on it. Sudduth does acknowledge, though, that sin affects both the range and scope of natural knowledge for the unregenerate, rendering their knowledge unreliable or at least less reliable. However, he thinks that some objectors have gone astray by focusing on non-propositional or existential knowledge of God, which is not the sort of knowledge natural theology delivers. Also, some have connected too closely the concepts of natural theology and the image of God. Sudduth affirms that regenerate people are in a good epistemic condition to recognize and use natural knowledge. Scripture both authorizes and guides theistic arguments

The third set concerns the logic of theistic arguments themselves. The first type of objection asserts that the theistic arguments are unsound. An underlying premise for many of these critics is that the arguments must function as logically demonstrative proofs. Sudduth agrees that they fail if employed in this manner, but argues that they can be employed as probabilistic arguments that do not form the basis for the knowledge of God but are useful for showing how the knowledge of God is justifiable. Another objection is that the theistic arguments, even if true, supply an inadequate description of the God of the Bible or perhaps even misrepresent God. Barth and other criticized the theistic arguments for not being Trinitarian. Sudduth points out that, if one is not looking to the arguments as a basis of one’s theology or for salvation, they need not be Trinitarian. Further, natural theology in general is not Trinitarian, but it is true knowledge of God; why should theistic arguments, which merely codify natural theology, be held to a different standard? A related objection is that the theistic arguments do not even yield a robust theism, but perhaps simply an Aristotelian first cause or a very powerful but not infinite, eternal, omnipotent being. Sudduth gets into some detail here, but one of his key insights is that the theistic arguments taken simultaneously and cumulatively yield a far more robust theism than they do individually. For theistic arguments to be valid, they do not need to give a complete description of God, but merely offer enough overlap that we can identify the being they represent as compatible with the God of the Bible.

In summary, Sudduth argues that all people possess some knowledge of God and that regenerate people are authorized and guided by scripture to codify that natural knowledge into theistic arguments. These arguments serve to reassure Christians that there is no conflict between rational reflection on God and the biblical witness and to ward off counter-arguments by unbelievers. They may also decrease unbelievers’ warrant in their own positions and increase his willingness to consider Christian claims. The Reformed tradition provides no objection to this project.

I found this book very useful and persuasive. One note of caution is that certain sections use techniques from analytic philosophy that may be off-putting to the uninitiated. However, the book is still intelligible even to those without analytic training, and if a reader decided to skip or skim those parts, I don’t think she would miss any crucial elements.

Together, these two books provide a firm basis for Reformed thinkers to engage in natural theology and natural law from within their own tradition. I hope many do.

To Reading and Reviews

Augustine – The Hope of Rationality (Comprehensive Exam)

The following is from the comprehensive exam at the end of master’s program in theology at Villanova University. I had 3 hours to write a short essay on a question that I did not know beforehand, although I had been working on the general topics most of the semester. Because it was improvised, it is unpolished. But I decided to leave it as it was, except for correcting a few typos.

The question:

How might a retrieval of the thought of Augustine ground the dialogue between Christianity and culture, specifically in engagement with the North American socio-cultural world dominated both by positivism and postmodernism, and in the culturally-informed Christian traditions of East and West?

My answer:

Augustine – The Rationality of Hope

The West is decadent, the East reticent, the future immanent; hope springs eternal. Cultural historian Jacques Barzun titled his saga of the modern West (1500-2000) From Dawn to Decadence. By decadence he meant a loss of confidence in strategies either previously employed or presently at hand to chart a course toward a brighter future. The modern project was full of confidence; it had both a goal and a method. The goal, insofar as it was attained, was ambiguously valuable. After circumnavigating the globe, walking on the moon, and connecting the entire globe in a world wide web, the consensus of the Western world has enshrined as its greatest achievement the HDTV. Ichabod! The glory has departed and with it the hope of significance. Insofar as the goal of modernity was not obtained, the dominant attitude has been iconoclastic reveling at its failure. The aptly titled “play” of postmodernity shakes its head at the hubris of those who made the attempt, any attempt, to overcome fragmentation. So the only remaining goal is to discourage goals. Eros has departed and with it the hope of transcendence.

Eastern Christian culture smarts from its history of domination and its present economic and political unimportance. The dominant impulse is withdrawal and ressentiment. Thicker, thicker, weave the tabernacle curtain, lest the divine presence be seen by outsiders! But write on the outermost face, “Here and nowhere else dwells the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of the hierarchs, Symeon, and Palamas.” The hesychast culture offers a stinging critique of Enlightenment modernity, one absolutely true but almost redundant, since every Westerner knows it deep in his bones. On the other hand, the hesychast leap into supra-rationality, in the name of selfless love, is a jump off the speeding train of science and philosophy. The critique of scholasticism in the end turns into a critique of integrating faith and reason, and the mind is finally left behind as a barrier to divinization. Lost is the hope of integrity.

Calling on Augustine to chart a course forward is no simple task. Which thought? He covers so many topics. Better, which Augustine? It sometimes seems impossible to believe that the Augustine of Cassiciacum, so sure in the powers of mind, so confident in the approach of the schools, so optimistic about the possibilities of the moral life should come to regard himself as one of the “little ones,” nursing on Scripture along with his congregants, radically dependent upon the persuasive impulse (suavitas) of the Holy Spirit for any good act. Is there something that unites Augustine in himself and to us? I believe it is his hope.

C. S. Lewis once observed more than argued that if he found in himself desires that no object in this world could satisfy, the best explanation was that he was ultimately intended for another world. This remark is nothing less than an Augustinian insight, a transcendental critique of the restless heart. This desire for happiness in all its permanence and insistence drove Augustine from the early pages of the Cassiciacum dialogues to the densest portions of City of God to demand we recognize the inability of anything merely immanent, merely temporal, to satisfy us. The heart cries out for requiem.

What does it mean to be human? It means to be made oriented toward God (fecisti nos ad te) and destined to possess God (Deum habere). The starting point of an Augustinian retrieval is a firm belief in the existence of a homeland. Yearning for the homeland provides the eros to attempt the journey; glimpses of it furnish the hope that sustains pilgrimage. The epistemological ramifications of this assertion are tremendous. One of Augustine’s earliest works, the dialogue Contra Academicos, is a critique of the skepticism of the New Academy. Augustine’s refutation does not at bottom spring from a list of incorrigible foundations that produce through proper method equally incorrigible conclusions.[1] Thus, for all the similarity between the Augustinian si fallor sum and the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, the intention is wholly dissimilar. Nor is it a retreat from harsh critical thought into the safety of authority or supra-rational experience. Rather, skepticism is dismissed as self-defeating and ultimately as dissatisfying. Epistemology is only a vehicle, and the skeptical rocket will never break escape velocity.

If Augustine is certain of the homeland, he is suspicious of the pilgrims themselves. Human reason, left to itself, is a fragile thing. A person’s thoughts are so influenced by desires, conscious and unconscious, that we easily become an enigma to ourselves. It is unlikely that we can ever pierce below all the veils and layers of our ego to find the real us. Left to ourselves, we are a constant flux of desires. Yet Augustine has latched onto something. He comes to recognize that God is more inward than his most inward self. Interiority pursued sufficiently yields to exteriority; personal identity is maintained in the interplay of relationship, in our tethers to God, each other, our memory, and our future (hope?). To say that we are toward God is not to list an accidental characteristic of man, but a defining characteristic. If this is true of ourselves, how much more so anything that we study? Scientific inquiry, far from an attempt to “save the appearances,” is the concerted effort to penetrate through them to the constitutive relationships that lie beneath.

Modernity, particularly in its positivist form, has no room for relationship as a constitutive element.  Its ontology is atomistic; a thing is a self-contained world. Certainly one might apply force to an object, giving it a relation of sorts, but this is a purely external and contingent affair. Modernity cannot grasp the towardness of being and is thus destined to produce reductive analyses. Wholes disappear into an aggregate of parts. Love reduces to psychological states, to brain waves, to biological patterns, to chemical properties, finally to the freewheeling play of atoms.[2]

Postmodern relativism fares little better. In an extreme distention of Heraclitus, all is flux, ergo flux is flux, or rather, flux fluxes. Postmodernity eliminates the subject, but cannot completely remove its echo, and behind every deconstruction whispers a haunting question, “What fluxes, and to where?” An Augustinian inquiry seeks the modus, species, and ordo of each thing. Particularly in terms of ordo, a thing’s system of constitutive relationships, relativity (as in relation-ality) need not imply radical instability or lack of substantiality. If postmodernism has seized the dynamic, whirling character of existence, ordo insists that a dance, no matter how rambunctious, has a rhythm and character that grounds its intelligibility.

An Augustinian alternative to Western modernity or postmodernity lies in hope. If modernity eliminated the need for hope by restricting knowledge to clear vision, and if postmodernity cannot find the strength to hope, Augustine offers this advice: “Dear reader, whenever you are as certain about something as I am go forward with me; whenever you hesitate, seek with me; whenever you discover that you have gone wrong come back to me; or if I have gone wrong, call me back to you. In this way we will travel along the street of love together as we make our way toward him of whom it is said, ‘Seek his face always’” (De trinitate 1.3.5). The certainty of truth, of rest for the restless heart, is an eschatological vision held gingerly in anticipation. The objectivity or realism implied in the identification of the homeland does not preclude fallible maps, wrong turns, or faulty starts. The insistence upon truth is itself a precondition for fallibility, for one can be corrected by a compass only if one admits the existence of North. The adequacy of any philosophical or interdisciplinary project is its promise for getting us home, a judgment that is constantly being made in via as more results come in. An Augustinian rationality might provide the confidence that theology and other disciplines can be related within an intellectual framework without committing theology to any one philosophical framework that would dominate the conversation.

The Eastern Christian tradition presents something of a different challenge. The Orthodox have observed the Western fade from dawn to decadence and chosen to blame Augustine for it. Was it not Augustine’s eudemonism, his insistence that the end of man is to be happy, that led to the West’s narcissism, materialism, and individualism? Was it not his rationalism—his identification of God as idipsum esse (being itself) rather than beyond being and his illegitimate probing into the intertrinitarian relations—that accounts for the hubris of the Enlightenment? Did not his failure to grasp the essence/energies distinction and thus the way of divinization lead him to a legalistic, deterministic view of human nature?

The accusations of the East are all the more serious for being Christian accusations. The nature of God, the purpose of humanity, and the way of salvation are matters of highest moment. If Augustine deviated from the Christian tradition in these areas, it is a serious failure indeed. Yet, it is difficult to answer the charges, largely because they remain vague. Eastern critics of Augustine for the most part have not integrated themselves into the scholarly community, and as such their criticisms often do not interact with the secondary literature and may make idiosyncratic and selective use of the primary literature. Also, a figure in the Eastern tradition is often used as a standard of judgment; if Augustine is to be condemned for not being Gregory Nazianzen or Gregory Palamas, it may be impossible to exonerate him to the satisfaction of Eastern eyes. Thus, we are left with incommensurable judgments.

Yet, perhaps Augustine can throw a challenge to the East, and on some of the very points for which he is criticized. The pursuit of supra-rational divinization can be seen as opting out of the hard work of integrating science, philosophy, and theology. It is appealing insofar as it is anti-elitist, but it leaves the question open of whether there is any unity to our human experience. Can my Christianity truly inform my thinking, or do I simply take comfort in the Jesus prayer as I go about my daily existence? In Augustinian terms, one might wonder whether the East has a tendency to forgo the intellectual journey toward the homeland and content itself with a long-distance phone call, one that encourages a strong foundationalism regarding theology and a relativism regarding everything else. Also, the critique of eudemonism can be seen as an attempt to gain a supra-volitional status, in which a creature’s end no longer falls within that creature’s consideration. Both the alleged rationalism and eudemonism of Augustine could be interpreted rather as the insistence that the pathway home lies in and through the human faculties of reason and will, not by circumventing them. If Augustine offers to the decadent West the hope of a homeland, perhaps he offers to the reticent East the hope of a journey.

[1] Augustine is a foundationalist insofar as he believes there are axiomatic or self-evident truths. But I do not think he is a foundationalist in the sense that he believes one can erect an entire intellectual system on them.

[2] “Play.” Perhaps postmodernity has grasped the logic of modernity better than the moderns ever did.

Published in: on March 26, 2013 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Ideal Scholar: Introduction

In a series of articles, I hope to explore the ideal of scholarship. Since scholarship is the activity of human beings, this means exploring the practitioner, the scholar. An ideal, though unattainable, is nevertheless useful both as a standard of comparison and as a spur to improvement. An ideal could be produced more than one way: (1) inductively, by examining recognized great scholars and abstracting from them the qualities that seem jointly to contribute to their greatness; (2) transcendentally, by considering the aims of scholarship and asking what human qualities would be necessary to produce such work.

The inductive method, if carried to the exclusion of the second, could result in non-explanation. The result of such a process would not necessarily tell us why they are great scholars; it would tell us only why others recognize them as such. Unless one is committed to a thorough anti-realism, surely one acknowledges the possibility of a gap between someone being recognized as a great scholar and someone being a great scholar. The problem becomes apparent when one tries to determine whether a particular scholar ought to be recognized as great. To say that she should be recognized so if she is similar to great philosophers is to raise the question  of what makes her similar. To say she participates along with them in the “form of greatness” is an approach unsatisfying to most people since Plato. Rather, a two-tiered explanation is necessary, one that (1) justifiably asserts the correspondence of her work to a standard or greatness and (2) renders the standard of greatness intelligible. The first requires an examination of the formal quality of her work; the second requires an explication of the final cause of scholarship.

The transcendental approach, if blind to the historically situated human limits of scholarship, could easily come to an unrecognizably inhuman ideal. An omniscient, eternal, perspectiveless (or omni-perspectival?) being could easily emerge as the ideal scholar. But these qualities would create a practitioner laboring under such different conditions that no useful comparison to or strategy of improvement for real scholars could be drawn from the ideal. Thus, even the ideal of scholarship is not a pure abstractions, but rather a pure, concrete instantiation of scholarly practice.

What is scholarship? It is the extension of an existing body of knowledge by human beings employing methods appropriate to their respective subject matter.

A few comments on each part are appropriate. First, the goal is extension of knowledge, not merely the reformulation or handing on (teaching) of knowledge. This extension can be by discovering new facts, rendering existing facts more intelligible, or bringing facts and theories in one discipline into meaningful  connection with those of other disciplines. Negatively, it can include elimination of false “facts” or theories, insofar as falsity inhibits the attempt to extend knowledge.

But “knowledge” is a historical product of human activity, not some sort of abstract concept (such as truth). A scholar’s work always takes place within a tradition of knowledge, which renders the work intelligible. The study of particle physics presupposes the creation of the theory of particle physics, which in turn was invoked in order to explain other phenomena. As new knowledge refigures the ontology of the cosmos, the very definition of an entity or field of study can change over time. Hydraulics may be the study of liquid motion (let us simplify to water), but someone studying “water” as a hydrogen-oxygen compound and someone studying “water” as one of the four basics elements, the one opposed to fire, can scarcely be said to be studying the same thing.

“By human beings employing methods appropriate to their respective subject matter” defines the two poles limiting inquiry. First, human beings are limited in the types of questions they can ask. Our sensory faculties and brains can only receive and store certain types of information, which may not be the only types of information in the universe. Through tools, we are in a way enabled to enhance our faculties, but never in the absolute sense of transcending our humanity. This does not mean that the empirical world is the only world there is, or even the only world that matters for us, but it does mean that it is our primary access point to reality outside the self. From the other pole, any particular object of inquiry brings its own limitations. There can be no universal scientific method that applies to all natural phenomena, much less to human sciences and arts. We are able to perceive things only in the ways that they reveal themselves to us; the scholar must respect the partiality of their revelation.

The two poles of limitation lead naturally to discussion of methods. Significant methodological differences imply differences about the ontology of the object of inquiry. If chemists and alchemists both at times attempt to transform one object into another, the reason they go about doing so differently is that they have differing assumptions about what sorts of things the materials they deal with are. Thus, scholars using significantly different methods are in a very real sense not working in the same field. Rather, they are in parallel and competing research programs, struggling to determine the very identity of their field. A Newtonian and an Einsteinian can each have more productive conversations with other fields of research than they can with each other.  [Sometimes the extension of knowledge will even result in the discovery of a whole new strata of reality, a new field of inquiry to be extended. The scholars whose work results in this are likely the most significant scholars, but not necessarily the best. The consequences of one’s work do not determine its quality.]

So, an ideal scholar would be one who, understanding the current state of knowledge in a field, consistently chooses the best methods for extending that knowledge. Future installments in this series will explore how one might come to realize this ideal.

Published in: on March 1, 2013 at 11:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Reading, Annotating, and Reviewing Books: My Method

As a scholar, my job consists of assimilating and disseminating information. The process of reviewing books entails both. My method prioritizes efficiency: reading as quickly as possible with as much comprehension and long-term retention as possible. The information also needs to be stored in a format that makes scholarly work on the material easy. For me, reading is aimed at reviewing; reviewing completes the process of reading. A book is assimilated only when I can express my reflections on it. The method is divided into three steps: 1) setting up the reading environment; 2) reading and taking notes; and 3) drafting the review.

1. Setting Up the Reading Environment

Reading is both a physical and mental activity. People vary as to what they find congenial writing environments, but some physical requirements are invariable. My method uses 1) a book stand, 2) a physical book, 3) a pencil, and 4) a computer. The book’s spine should be broken in to the point that it will lie flat on the book stand without falling shut. If you have to keep holding the book open, you can’t type with both hands. (If you can’t type with both hands, learn.)

The book stand should be positioned so that the book hits your eyes at a 45-degree angle. This improves reading speed. To minimize eyestrain, lighting should be bright but diffuse. Diffuse  lighting is generally from multiple sources or sunlight and doesn’t cast dark, sharp shadows when you hold your hand over the page. You should be able to see both the book and the computer without turning your neck too far. For typing ease, your computer’s resting surface should be at about elbow height when you’re sitting with your arms hanging down. Too high and you will scrunch your shoulders. All of these factors are aimed at allowing you to read comfortably for long periods of time. The book stand is especially important, since you lose too much time typing if you keep setting the book down and picking it up again or try to hold it one hand.

2. Reading and Taking Notes

a. Setting Up the Note File

A few minutes of preparation before reading saves time later. I create a file in OneNote, but other programs are fine. I type the title and author in the page title slot. Then, I type next to it the complete bibliographic information. I operate under the assumption that I may never see this physical book again; this note file needs to contain everything necessary for the review and any future scholarly work. Then I go to the table of contents and copy the chapter headings, giving me a skeleton for my notes. Here is an example of the first stage of setup:

setup shot

b. Reading and Taking Notes

I take notes by chapter; if the chapters are unusually long, I may subdivide the chapters into sections. With a pencil in hand, I focus on reading quickly but thoroughly. When I see a section that looks significant, such that it might be worth making a note, I mark its boundaries in the page margin with my pencil. I don’t write comments or underline each word, because the goal is to interrupt reading as minimally as possible. When the chapter or section is finished, I go back and decide whether the sections I marked are really worth making into notes. Often I find that a passage I marked contains a concept that the author expresses more succinctly later in the section, or even that the idea wasn’t as profound as I originally thought. Sometimes I read books without my pencil, typing notes as I go, and I always end up taking too many notes.

Having chosen the passages, I make a few types of notes. Regardless of the type of note, I always include the page number(s)! A note without page number is worthless for citing later. The first type is a verbatim quote. I make these fairly often, but I tend to sprinkle ellipses liberally to condense the best parts of paragraphs. The second is a paraphrase, in which I state a proposition from the book in my own words. The third just marks content that didn’t get detailed notes. For example, recently I came across a section on Manichean beliefs in a book about Augustine. This section wasn’t particularly relevant to my current resource, so I didn’t take any detailed notes, but I wrote “Manichean beliefs – 72-84” so I would know this section was there in case I need to look up that topic later.

Sometimes I mark up my notes to make them more useful. I often preface a note with a topic to put it in context. For example: Ambrose’s influence, “quoted portion.”  If there is a key word or phrase embedded in a longer quote, I highlight it. Likewise, I might mark listed items embedded in a paragraph. If a particular claim seems unsupported or I suspect the author has made a factual error, I mark the note in red.

c. Writing a Chapter Summary

Once the notes on the chapter are finished, I go back to the beginning of the chapter in my note file and write a summary of it. The summary is really more like a mini-review, as I am already thinking about and interacting with the material. The goal is to write the summary using only the notes in my file. If I did a good job understanding what I read and took good notes, I won’t have to refer back to the physical book. If I do, I may take an additional note or two to remedy the situation.

Here is an example of a section of notes:

notes sample

3. Drafting the Review

A book review’s purpose is to allow the reader to determine whether to read the book and what priority to place on doing so. The reviewer does not just give a generic recommendation, because people are not generic. The reviewer needs to keep in mind individual readers’ interests and abilities. I am still developing my style as a reviewer, but I make adjustments based on the criterion of the review’s purpose. [My reviews are listed here.]

My first paragraph gives a general overview of the book. I introduce the author and outline the theme and general plan of the book. A few body paragraphs summarize the content of the book. However, a review is not an abstract. I try to take a few body paragraphs to highlight remarkable themes or arguments. Here I interact with the book, offering some evaluations and showing how it has influenced my thinking. Toward the end I try to make general remarks about register (academic, literary, popular) and style. I offer an evaluation of the book as a whole and suggest what types of readers would benefit most from it.

The review completes the process of reading by forcing me to think through how the book as a whole fits into my broader intellectual development. It is only in teaching, in the sense of speaking authoritatively to others after a period of reflection, that one completes learning.


The above is my method. Was this helpful? Do you have questions? Do you want to share your own methods?

Published in: on January 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm  Comments (6)  
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Review – Petrarch and St. Augustine by Alexander Lee

Alexander Lee. Petrarch and St. Augustine: Classical Scholarship, Christian Theology and the Origins of the Renaissance in Italy. Brill’s Studies in Intellectual History 210. Leiden: Brill. 2012. Pp. x + 382.  Hardcover.

A review of Lee’s Petrarch and St. Augustine could also be a definitio status quaestionis, both for Petrarch’s use of Augustine and for Petrarch’s relationship to later Italian humanists. This volume reviews the current scholarly consensus on these questions and directly challenges them on almost every point. The opening chapter is a critique of common methods used to interpret Petrarch. The following chapters vary between more textually oriented and more topically oriented investigations: Stoicism in Secretum, otium in De otio religioso, solitudo in De vita solitaria, amicitia in various works, and the relationship between eloquence and philosophy throughout Petrarch’s career. In each case, Lee concludes that classical influences have been overstated while Augustine’s has been underappreciated. Furthermore, Lee reads Petrarch’s moral thought as self-consistent and straightforwardly based on St. Augustine’s early moral theology. Petrarch uses classical authors selectively and creatively to create an Augustinian-classical synthesis in which Augustine’s theology is dominant. Finally, Lee argues that Petrarch’s grounding in Augustine’s early works sets him apart from later Italian humanists, making his “forerunner” status more symbolic than direct.

Lee sees his project as both continuous with and transcending earlier scholarship. Scholars from Burkhardt to the early twentieth century tended to view Petrarch as the founding father of a humanist school interested in recovering classical antiquity. From the 1920s onward, the Christian and specifically Augustinian components of his thought began to receive attention, but he was still being described as eclectic and inconsistent. This supposition of inconsistency received support when Kristeller’s characterization of humanism as a movement concerned primarily with rhetoric became dominant. Kristeller also continued to view Petrarch as a founding father of humanism. Charles Trinkaus took more interest in humanists as religious thinkers and also acknowledged Augustine as an inspiration, but continued to view Augustine more as an exemplar of subjectivity and bridge to the classical world rather than as the source of a coherent moral philosophy. Recent years have brought many works on the relationship of Petrarch to St. Augustine, but have not significantly altered the framework of the discussion. Until this one.

Lee believes that two erroneous assumptions have misled most scholars up to this point. The first is what he calls “a question of attribution.” Scholars have tended to assume that when Petrarch quotes from a classical author, he endorses that author’s thought, and perhaps also the philosophical system represented by that author. In short, citation implies agreement. The second, and related, error is assuming that Petrarch perceived himself to be navigating monolithic bodies of thought.  In particular, scholars have treaded “Augustinianism” as a hegemonic concept. Lee stresses the diversity of Augustine’s thought and argues that, depending on which books one reads, or how one reads some works in the light of others, very different Augustinianisms could result. Thus, it is wrong to evaluate Petrarch’s Augustinianism against any single modern reconstruction of Augustinianism.

As an antidote to these errors, Lee reminds readers that quotation does not signal affirmation. Petrarch read classical texts from his Christian perspective and had no problem quoting from texts, even when he disagreed sharply with some of the ideas contained therein. Petrarch practiced a creative style of authorial recombination, in which elements of earlier authors were remolded into an entirely new synthesis. He could borrow extensively from Cicero or Seneca without being in the least Stoic. Denying that quotations affirm the views of their authors, the modern interpreter is free to read Petrarch’s works as synthetic wholes rather than as collections of fragments.

These differences in method lead to strongly revisionist conclusions. Lee reads the Secretum as a straightforward piece of moral instruction. Contrary to most interpreters, Lee believes that intellect rather than will is primary for Petrarch. He points to how Augustinus tells Franciscus that no one who truly understood his misery would stay in it. Augustinus’ remedy, meditation on death, is drawn from Augustine’s De vera religione and Soliloquies. The purpose is to give self-knowledge, which will wean the soul away from the sensory and direct it toward the intellectual, so that reason can properly move the will. Lee reads the key assertion, “It is better to will the good than to know the truth,” not as affirming voluntarism but as censuring Aristotle’s failure to recognize that the proper end of knowledge is true happiness. Knowledge is primary, but only as directed properly to love of God and not to curiosity. Likewise, the seeming disagreement between Augustinus and Franciscus over grace and ability is resolved according to the interplay of grace, reason, and human action found in Augustine’s early treatises. If Lee’s reading of Petrarch stands, it could considerably distance Petrarch from later humanists such as Salutati, a clear voluntarist. It would also distance him from Salutati’s predestinarianism, drawn (Lee claims) from Augustine’s later works.

The next two chapters, on otium and solitudo, overlap considerably, since the concepts are similar. Lee stresses that where Petrarch departs noticeably from classical concepts, he does so in ways reminiscent of Augustine and of the later Christian tradition. Unlike classical authors, but like Augustine, Petrarch casts otium and solitudo in terms that refer primarily to the resolution of interior tension rather than to physical location. A city dweller may be virtuous, though with difficulty; likewise, a trouble man carries his cares with him to the wilderness. The purpose of otium and solitudo is to find the knowledge of God essential to salvation, a knowledge that includes corporeal mortality and the vanity of worldly things. The exposition reinforces Lee’s earlier argument for the priority of the intellect over the will. Lee finds significant verbal and conceptual parallels between Petrarch’s treatment of otium and Augustine’s in Enarrationes in Psalmos 45. Again, this distinctively Augustinian approach calls into question Petrarch’s relationship with later humanists, whose similarly titled treatises were concerned more with the classical debate over the active vs. the contemplative life.

The chapter on friendship, a comparatively unexplored field, is quite diffuse and acknowledges significant continuities between Petrarch’s and classical authors’ concepts. However, Lee highlights the importance of placing amicitia within the Christian moral context of amor, a context heavily influenced by Augustine’s view of love as orientation.

The chapter on the relationship between eloquence and philosophy is highly controversial. Lee notes that many scholars, such as Trinkaus and Siegel, read Petrarch as asserting the superiority of eloquence over philosophy. In contrast, Lee divides Petrarch’s thinking on the topic into three phases, in which his ideas remain essentially consistent but reach more systematic expression. In Petrarch’s mature phase, he viewed philosophy as the source of moral wisdom and described it as a tree with many branches. Eloquence was one of those branches, a τέχνη that employed various figural devices to communicate and instill the love of good found in moral philosophy. It is dialectic rather than philosophy itself that Petrarch censures. Petrarch’s use of eloquence as means rather than end echoes Augustine’s treatment of rhetoric in De doctrina christiana, as well as medieval commentary on it. Also, Petrarch’s relative lack of interest in the res publica distances him from certain classical authors. If Petrarch’s humanism is more Augustinian than classical, Kristeller’s characterization of Petrarch as the forerunner of Italian humanists needs reworking. This opens space between Petrarch and Salutati, who views eloquence less as an expression of moral philosophy and more as an aid to philosophical learning.

Petrarch and St. Augustine is a formidable piece of scholarship, quite long and audacious in scope. Yet, I am left with a few areas of nagging concern. First, though I agree with Lee’s methodological starting point regarding questions of attribution, I am not convinced that the scholars whom he criticizes are always so guilty of it. Especially more recent scholars operating with a more literary approach are keenly aware of Petrarch’s philosophy of authorial creativity. Carol Quillen discusses the issue at some length, yet still concludes that Augustine’s influence on Petrarch is deeply ambiguous. One might turn the issue back on Lee. If Petrarch values not strict repetition but creative recombination, how is it that Lee reads him as unequivocally restating Augustine?

A related concern is whether Lee is flattening Petrarch. One of the joys of reading the Ascent of Mt. Ventoux or Secretum is the ambiguity. In the Ascent, Petrarch’s awareness begins to dawn in the valley, and when the moment of enlightenment comes at the peak, the result is a subversion of expectations. The desire to ascend is rebuked rather than confirmed, and Petrarch’s “conversion” is disappointing compared to its literary archetype’s. Yet Lee describes this as “a Christian conversion drama.” Likewise, the reader of Secretum is captivated by the witty back-and-forth between Augustinus and Franciscus, and the conclusion certainly appears to be open-ended. Whereas more literary scholars have taken this as evidence of real struggle or uncertainty in Petrarch, Lee reads the text as a one-sided moral lesson. It is unfortunately too common that a great intellect’s work is simplified and flattened by later interpreters, but Lee would have us believe that a simple treatise has been universally complexified by scholars. I am not sure that Lee accounts for Petrarch’s playful polyvalence. Has the pendulum swung too far back from form to content?

Another concern regards Lee’s appeal to Augustine. He criticizes those who have a monolithic view of Augustinianism, suggesting instead that scholars respect the diversity of Augustine’s thought and the multiplicity of possible readings. Yet, Lee himself seems to be dependent on a particular kind of periodization, in which Augustine’s early moral and rational works form a consistent whole over against later, “fideistic” works. Lee does not explain what he means by calling Augustine’s later works fideistic, but it appears to entail a combination of voluntarism and predestinarianism. I acknowledge development in Augustine’s theology, but am skeptical that such a division of Augustine’s works is possible. However, because Lee stresses specific verbal and conceptual parallels between Petrarch and Augustine, his main points may hold even if some of his representations of Augustine are faulty.

Lee’s contribution is not easy to evaluate. The new interpretations are so numerous and so drastically revisionary that it will take time for the scholarly community to assess them. However, this work has become the new first word on Petrarch and Augustine, due primarily to its impressive synthetic reach.[1] In casting Petrarch as an intellectualist rather than a voluntarist, and in putting distance between Petrarch and subsequent humanists, Lee’s work has the potential to alter significantly the received story of Italian humanism. In suggesting that differences between Petrarch and later humanists could be caused by their different ways of appropriating Augustine, he opens the door to much more nuanced accounts of St. Augustine’s reception in the Renaissance. No longer can Augustine be viewed merely as a symbol of the humanists’ Christian attachment or as an exemplar of interiority. He merits attention as a true intellectual source alongside classical influences.

[1] Meredith Gill, Augustine in the Italian Renaissance, offers readings of Mt. Ventoux and Secretum, but devotes only about 30 pages to Petrarch. Carol Quillen, Rereading the Renaissance: Petrarch, Augustine, and the Language of Humanism, provides a counterpoint to Lee’s work, but confines itself mainly to literary matters. Evelyn Luciani, Les confessions de saint Augustin dans les lettres de Pétrarque, provides extensive philological research within a narrow range, but little synthesis.

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Published in: on November 1, 2012 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Liberalism Without Illusions by Christopher Evans

Christopher H. Evans. Liberalism Without Illusions: Renewing an American Christian Tradition. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press. 2010. Pp. 207. Paperback.

Liberalism Without Illusions is a retrospect and prospect for American Protestant liberalism. Evans seeks both to reconnect contemporary liberals with their theological heritage and to refocus them on the future. Undergirding both is a frank assessment of liberalism’s present.

Evans acknowledges liberalism’s birth in Europe, but stresses the distinct shape it took in the United States. He plays up the continuity between the goals of American liberalism and nineteenth-century Christian social activism. Continuity is also evident in that liberalism did not found new institutions, but rather populated the oldest and most established American denominations. He points to Unitarian Walter Channing and Congregationalist Horace Bushnell as precursors to modern liberalism. Both envisioned new ways of understanding the significance of Jesus and the role of the church in society. The influence of biblical criticism broke up the exegetical monopoly of various orthodoxies, while Albrecht Ritschl’s focus on history and the kingdom of God offered new ways of conceiving God’s action in the world.

Indeed, the kingdom of God in history became a central concept for American liberalism. Shailer Matthews’ The Social Teaching of Jesus looked at Jesus as a historical figure. On the popular level, Charles Sheldon’s question, “What would Jesus do?” underscored Jesus as our moral example. Washington Gladden kicked off the first phase of the social gospel, seeking to apply the Golden Role on a societal level. Walter Rauschenbusch, however, gave the movement its theological shape. Combining his experiences as a pastor in “Hell’s Kitchen” of New York City and as a professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, Rauschenbusch articulated a public Christianity bent on transforming societal structures to approximate the values of the kingdom of God (see his A Theology for the Social Gospel.)

The liberal tradition was never homogenous. Critics, known as neo-orthodox or Christian realists, arose from within the ranks and critiqued the naïve optimism and cultural establishmentarian of an earlier generation. Evans notes, however, that these critics nevertheless remained indebted to the liberal heritage of a public Christianity, concerned with the fate of society and engagement with secular culture.

Liberalism moved increasingly away from the churches and the popular level to reside in the academy, where it has motivated several theological approaches. Process theology, which stresses the reciprocal interaction between God and history, grew out of the personalism and immanentism of liberalism. Liberation theology, which declares God’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed, radicalized certain political tendencies. Postliberalism Ecumenical movements looked for rapprochement between divided Christian traditions. All of these movements, though, have lacked significant grassroots support.  They remain largely the province of the divinity schools that birthed them.

Shifting to the prospect of liberalism, Evans displays an exceptional ability to sympathize with liberalism’s critics. The title Liberalism Without Illusions testifies to Evans’ desire to take seriously criticisms and failings. One chapter is devoted to conservative evangelicalism, which Evans views neither as the enemy or the opposite of liberalism, but as an alternative brand of American Christianity, one from which liberalism may need to learn a few things. In particular, liberalism needs to learn to deal with disestablishment, no longer having a direct pipeline to cultural elites and political movers. Evans also discusses J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, which raised the question of what is particularly Christian about liberalism. Evans recommends a retrieval of liberalism’s early theological, and not just political, heritage, as well as sustained engagement with the whole of Christian tradition. Of course, there is the challenge from Barth and the Neibuhrs that liberalism downplayed sin and was naïve about human perfectibility. Evans admits the presence of this tendency while also pointing to nuanced liberals, suggesting that at times this critique has been overstated.

Evans presents four questions that liberals need to face to renew their vitality. First, “Are liberals truly addressing the deepest needs and anxieties of the culture?” questions whether ministry centered on social justice and not on spiritual enrichment can be sustained. Second, “To what extent can and should liberal churches emulate popular models of ‘church growth’?” raises the issue of Protestant disestablishment and whether liberals ought to embrace evangelical ministry models. Third, “To what extent should the future of liberalism be predicated primarily upon specific political agendas?” cautions against reducing the religious to the political and against hitching liberalism to one political group. Finally, “How do liberals see themselves continuing to shape the larger Christian heritage?” rephrases Machen’s challenge to articulate liberalism in continuity with the Christian tradition.

Liberalism Without Illusions is a satisfying read that is likely to instigate urgent conversations. Though aimed at liberals, it can serve as a winsome introduction to liberalism for non-liberals. Evans’ interaction with criticism is characterized by thoughtful interaction rather than defensive bravado or spineless capitulation. His sympathy for the best of the liberal tradition is infectious. His cautious but hopeful attitude toward the future is inspiring.

There are, of course, some weaknesses. One could wish for a bit deeper interaction with liberalism’s theological heritage, as only the kingdom of God concept receives sufficient treatment.  Postmodernity, a serious challenge to liberalism, receives scant attention. Evangelicalism’s appeal is cast mainly in terms of popularism and apocalyptic fervor; the spiritual depth and clear theological statements of evangelicals are underestimated.  One could also ask for some more pointed recommendations, but Evans did build his prospect around questions. Several of these weaknesses are offset by an excellent bibliographical essay that should guide readers to the answers they seek. Overall, I enjoyed reading Liberalism Without Illusions and would recommend it to pastors, students, and the average, interested reader.

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Published in: on October 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Augustinian Order and Papal Power

The papacy created the Augustinian Order; the Augustinians in turn created the papacy. By the Augustinian Order I mean Ordo Eremetarum Sancti Augustini (OESA, today OSA), the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine. The hermits part distinguished them from the other Augustinian Order, the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine (CRSA), with whom they often squabbled, debating who had the better claim on Augustine’s legacy. The Hermits came into being when Pope Alexander IV gathered representatives from several hermetic groups and announced that they would all be fused into a single, new religious order under the Rule of St. Augustine. He confirmed this a bit later in the bull Licet ecclesiae catholicae (1256).

Boniface VIII helped the newly formed order gain parity with other orders. His Ad consequendam gloriam (1295) prohibited other orders from building establishments within 140 rods of an Augustinian church. His Sacrae religionis merita (1298) allowed them to elect their own prior general. His Tenerem cuiusdam constitutionem (1298) protected them from the forced consolidation of newer religious orders decreed by the Second Council of Lyons. Sacer ordo vester (1299) placed the Augustinians and Carmelites under his personal rather than diocesan jurisdiction. Inter sollicitudines (1303) allowed the Order to preach and hear confessions, protected their burial spaces, and generally granted them the same privileges enjoyed by the Franciscans and Dominicans.

The summit of papal favor toward the Augustinians was John XXII’s bull Veneranda sanctorum (1327). The bull ordered the Canons Regular to share with the Hermits the religious services at San Pietro, the tomb of Augustine. By giving the Hermits partial custody of Augustine’s body, the pope acknowledged them as true heirs of Augustine, reinforcing the corporate identity they had spent the last 70 years crafting. Thus both their existence and their identity were secured through the beneficence of the papacy.

The Augustinians merited the popes’ grace. From the beginning, they were staunch supporters of the papacy, despite its sometimes scandalous condition in this period.  Doubtless political maneuvering and quid pro quo considerations factored into their tenacious support, but the DNA of the Order also disposed them to lean toward the pope. Unlike the Dominicans and the Franciscans, the Augustinians had a bishop as their founding figure. Whereas modern people tend to encounter Augustine as the introspective, poetic voice in Confessions, medievals knew him in many ways, perhaps primarily as the bastion of church authority against heretics. The Augustinians, seeking to be true sons of their father, developed an ideal of Christian perfection that was as much ecclesiastical as it was communal. Church reform was envisioned as the task of bishops, and above all of the bishop of Rome. The Augustinians, a relatively new order, set about constructing an ecclesiology that made room for them in the Church, one that matched their ideal of Christian perfection.

Giles of Rome (1243-1316) set the theological course of the Augustinian Order. He was a distinguished theologian throughout much of his career, becoming prior general of the Augustinians in 1292 and archbishop of Bourges in 1295. He worked tirelessly to articulate the role of his fledgling order in the Church, and a vision of the Church amenable to the ideals of his order. His De renuntiatione papae (1297–1298) defended the legitimacy of Boniface VIII’s papacy. His most notable work on the Church was De ecclesiastica potestate (On the Church’s Power, 1302), which may have even been a source for Boniface’s bull Unam sanctam (1303), one of the strongest claims to papal power in the middle ages.

De ecclesiastica potestate was a sweeping synthesis, as was typical of high scholasticism. In such a work, earth mirrors heaven, the physical moves to the rhythm of the spiritual. Two arguments in particular stand out. The first rests on the spirit/body relationship. As the human soul is meant to rule the human body, so the spiritual power of the Christian empire (the Church) is meant to direct the physical power (the civil magistrates). Any other state of affairs would flout virtue. In this way, Augustine’s doctrine of the ordered soul was transposed into politics. The second argument relates the hierarchy of the Church to the hierarchy of angels outlined by Pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy. (Of course, it is quite likely that Giles believed the document to have been written by Dionysius, the disciple of Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34.) The threefold division of angels matches the threefold division of the Church (bishops, priests, deacons). Erik Saak summarizes Giles’ position:

Just as God sits at the helm of the angelic hierarchy, so does the pope, as God’s vicar on earth, preside over the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is synonymous with Christian society. As God’s vicar, the pope is the spiritual being that judges all and can be judged by no one. And just as God has complete and supreme sovereignty over all creation, so does the pope have complete sovereignty on earth, a true fullness of power. Moreover, the pope possesses the same divine discrimination in the exercise of his authority as does God. Just as God by his absolute power can do whatever God chooses to do immediately without secondary causes, so the pope, who in the usual administrartion of his authority employs secondary causes as his instruments, can by his absolute power affect whatever he chooses immediately and directly in his plenitude of power. Only thus, based on the pope’s ordained powers, does temporal sovereignty come into being and exercise a distinct realm of jurisdiction…. The pope, as pope, is the embodiment of the Church, the embodiment of God’s reign of earth, exercising the authority of Christ himself, through whose Passion all will be saved who will be saved, in the final triumph of the kingdom of God (High Way to Heaven, 38-39).

Several other Augustinians contributed to the extreme theory of papal power. Augustinus of Ancona’s Summa de potestate ecclesiastica (Summary of the Church’s Power, 1326) awarded the pope infinite power, placing him above all law and human judgment. William of Cremona’s Reprobatio errorum (1327) defended the Church’s hierarchy against the more egalitarian theory of Marsiglio of Padua.

Thus the Augustinians gave back to the papacy by establishing a theology that bolstered its claims to supremacy over both princes and councils. Giles’ analogy between the celestial hierarchy and the Church became a stock argument even through the Reformation. In all these documents, a particular interpretation of Augustine’s legacy is evident. Augustine reforming the Church as bishop became the inspiration for a theology of top-down reform. The Church was its hierarchy for the Augustinians, and it was through this hierarchy, particularly through the vicar of God on earth, that God would reform his Church. This was the position of the Augustinians until one Augustinian, Martin Luther, superseded it, appealing beyond the pope to God himself.

Published in: on October 24, 2012 at 8:39 am  Comments (3)  
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The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson: My Bible

In the religious education of Charlie Johnson, the Bible was, and in many ways still is, everything. I was raised a “biblicist,” a term I will try to describe rather than define, at least at first. Even the qualification “religious education” is somewhat misleading here, because for a fundamentalist, all education is religious education. The Bible is authoritative, not in a limited sphere marked “spiritual,” but for all of life. It speaks clearly and authoritatively to hard sciences, social sciences, politics, and daily choices as much as it does to God, Jesus, or morality.

For a biblicist, the Bible is understood primarily as a collection of verses, that is, fairly self-contained sentence-length authoritative units. (The verse structure of the Bible is not part of the original text, but was developed later to facilitate advanced study and public reading.) Children learn the Bible by memorizing verses, lots of verses, sometimes arranged thematically and sometimes with no seeming order at all. I remember the first (partial) Bible verse I memorized, with my kindergarten teacher off of a flashcard: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). I think I remember this verse because the kid in front of me couldn’t get it right. He kept saying, “God loves us.” The teacher would say, “No, God is love.” “God loves us.” “Listen, I’ll say it slowly: God…is…love.” “God loves us.” Wow, kid, I know you’re new at this, but really? Three words. Yet, was he so wrong? Often in my religious education, familiarity with exact wording was stressed over meaningful appropriation. Later in my education, I had teacher who insisted that I memorize the punctuation perfectly and follow sometimes strange capitalization rules. I realize now that part of this was driven by a stance my Christian school held, that the King James Bible was God’s perfectly preserved Word in the English language. (Not even touching that. Yet.)

I loved memorizing the Bible. It helped that there were Bible memory competitions, because I also loved to win, or at least hated to lose. I would spend hours memorizing them out of my gigantic hardback Ryrie Study Bible. One summer, in Neighborhood Bible Time (think Vacation Bible School on Holy Ghost steroids), my friend Jeremy and I were neck and neck for first place. I studied all day and unleashed a slew of Bible verses on my teacher. He failed to show up that night, rendering my victory a bit hollow. My prize for winning? A cheap gift Bible signed by the pastor and NBT evangelist. Because obviously the kid who memorized the most Bible verses needs a Bible. In fact, I have never stopped memorizing the Bible. In high school it turned from verses to chapters, in college to whole books. I also began to memorize from the Greek New Testament. As I became less attached to biblicism and to a single Bible version, though, my Bible memory efforts lessened to make room for other ways of studying the Bible. That’s for later.

Memorization was a means to an end. One of the purposes of memorizing Bible verses was to resist temptation. The rationale for this was the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Three times Satan came to Jesus with a temptation, and three times Jesus responded with a quotation from the Old Testament. Foiled, Satan left. Also, there was Psalm 119:11, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Thus, I was taught “silver bullet” Christianity. When the Devil came whispering a temptation in my ear, I was supposed to dredge up the appropriate Bible verse and dispel the temptation. Tempted to lie to a teacher? “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Steal a candy bar? “Thou shalt not steal.” Disobey parents? “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Sometimes I used the silver bullets to resist temptation. Sometimes it worked. But this superstitious, incantational use of the Bible can’t function over the long term. The Bible isn’t a spell book, and it’s one thing to know what’s right, another thing to do it.

My education stressed not only memorization, but meditation. I was taught to read my Bible by myself every day. Usually, I would pray before or after, or both. I was supposed to think about how to “apply the words to my life,” an exercise for which no real instructions were given, and seemed to be easier with verses such as, “Be ye kind, one to another” than with, “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18). Application note: when buying a field with the reward of iniquity, watch my step.

I did these daily devotions, as they’re called by some, sporadically as a child, but with ardent fervor as a teenager. From 8th grade through college, I doubt I missed more than a handful of days. Sometimes I tried reading programs, such as reading through the Bible in a year. Sometimes I concentrated on specific books. Sometimes I “let the Spirit lead” by reading randomly. Psalms are good for that, by the way, except for imprecatory Psalms, where the Psalmist calls down divine judgment on God’s (his) enemies. They don’t quite deliver that warm fuzzy that one looks for in devotions. For years I prayed two verses during my devotions, John 17:17 “Sanctify them by thy truth; thy word is truth,” and James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” I believed then and still do now that God answered those prayers.

I have been confused, frustrated, and even angered by the Bible. I have been enraged and mortified by the ways Christians, including myself, have used the Bible. Some of those uses, as I encountered them, I will try to explain in my next installment. But I have always loved the Bible. I consider the greatest advantage of my religious education my thorough knowledge of and deep reverence for Scripture. So deeply ingrained is it in me that I simply cannot imagine God, myself, or the world in terms other than those provided by the Bible.

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Published in: on October 19, 2012 at 10:45 am  Comments (1)  

Blended Parables: St. Augustine’s Footprints by the Starfish?

One day, though I can’t remember when it was or how I got there, I was strolling along the seashore. In the distance, I spied a small boy slowly making his way down the shoreline. As I came closer, I realized that he was picking up starfish, which were littering this beach to an absurd degree. One at a time, he would throw the starfish back into the ocean. When I reached him, I addressed him abruptly: “It makes no difference. There are too many of them. And they’re washing up faster than you can throw them back in. You’re just wasting your time.”

At this, the boy froze, starfish in hand. He dropped it back on the beach, and sauntered over to me, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Of course the starfish don’t matter,” he quipped derisively, “This is about you. And could you have walked any slower? I’ve been doing this all morning just waiting for you to notice so I could spin my clever moral allegory.” As I reeled from this sudden reversal, he pressed on.

“Isn’t throwing starfish exactly what you’re doing, you would-be Augustine scholar? You want to study one of the world’s most complex thinkers. Yet you have so little hope of even finishing his works, 5 million words written in a Latin that Erasmus described as ‘ talkative, wrapping up much information in tortuous sentences, which requires a reader who is experienced, shrewd, careful, endowed with a good memory and willing to do tedious, hard work.’ And it is not clear that you are such a reader.

“Even if you were somehow to finish his works, you have no hope of keeping up with the secondary literature. It’s being written not only in English, French, and German, but also in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Polish. Good luck learning all those. Even then, you have no hope of reading more than a fraction of the studies already listed in the Augustinus Lexikon‘s bibliography, and the Revue d’Etudes augustiniennes et patristiques lists hundreds more each year. As for your interest in later Augustinianism, do you not realize that the forthcoming Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine is 2250 pages and contains only overview articles? You’d be better off saving starfish.”

At that point he handed me a starfish to make his point. Standing still staring stupidly at the starfish, I stammered, “But… I like studying Augustine.” He rewarded me with a patronizing nod. “I know, I know. The difficulty of reading Augustine and the sheer quantity of work keep you from recognizing the utter futility of it all. But speaking of the old bishop, I have an appointment with him in a few minutes, and I’m delivering some bad news. So get lost.”

Had I not been in such a state of disequilibrium, I might have challenged the chronological possibility of the boy’s statement. But I submissively shuffled off away from the ocean. Then the boy called out to me one last revelation: “Oh, and the mystery of the one set of footprints? It’s because Jesus walks on water.” At least that made sense.

Published in: on October 4, 2012 at 10:27 am  Comments (2)