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.

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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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Review – How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West by Perez Zagorin

Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press: 2003, xvi+371 pp, hardcover.

“Of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant” (1). These provocative words open Perez Zagorin’s incisive book, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. As the title suggests, the book is concerned primarily with the idea rather than the practice of religious toleration. It is an intellectual history focusing on the documentary heritage. The successive chapters trace the appearance of new arguments for, bases of, or concepts of religious toleration in European and North American writings. Its thesis is that religious toleration was not simply the result of religious skepticism or political expediency, but was developed and advocated by sincerely religious people acting in the best interests of their religion: “In advocating a policy of peace and tolerance toward religious differences, their supreme concern was the welfare of religion itself. They acted from the primary conviction that persecution was contrary to the mind of Christ and a terrible evil which did great harm to Christianity” (289).

The first chapter address the historiographical background, the difficulties the historian faces when attempting to treat this topic. Zagorin is sensitive to definitional ambiguities and situates the book’s subject alongside similar ideas, such as religious freedom and freedom of conscience. It examines some explanations given for these phenomena and offers instead its own thesis of religiously motivated religious freedom.

The next two chapters address the historical background, the context out of which the concept of religious toleration emerged.  Chapter two discusses the rationales given for persecution in the Christian West. This Christian theory of persecution forms the intellectual background against which the figures in this book offer their alternatives. Saint Augustine receives the most attention, since the most brutal repressions of the Middle Ages justified themselves largely by appealing to him even when they extended his basic premises. The third chapter addresses the societal changes caused by the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation both fractured Western Christianity and forced a reconsideration of the relationship between the political and religious spheres. Followers of multiple Christian traditions co-existing within the same political units acutely raised the question of how authorities ought to treat their religiously divided subjects.

The rest of the book is organized chronologically, following the thread of religious toleration from through various authors toward the present. The body of the book deals with the 16th and 17th centuries. Several chapters treat individuals, and even those that claim to treat a time period or group (Arminians, Levellers) in fact single out a representative spokesperson who most effectively embodied a new idea or argument. The figures who receive the most extensive treatment are Sebastian Castellio, Dirck Coornhert, Baruch Spinoza, Roger Williams, John Milton, John Locke, and Pierre Bayle. A somewhat haphazard conclusion covers the gap between the 17th century and the present. Zagorin notes that religious toleration took a secularizing turn during the Enlightenment. I would have preferred a conclusion that reinforced the narrative rather than attempted to extend it.

In all, this book is quite well written. Zagorin’s success stems from limiting his scope and doing an excellent job covering the most important figures. Extensive endnotes offer plenty of opportunity for those seeking more detail or a bibliography of more comprehensive treatments. This work will likely stretch the boundaries of those who read it: historians and philosophers may encounter more explicitly theological reasoning than they normally do, whereas students of Christianity will be forced to consider the considerable influence of unorthodox Christians upon their own religious heritage, as well as the sometimes disappointing stands of the more orthodox.

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Published in: on August 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed by Philip Benedict

Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, Yale University Press: 2002, xxvi+670 pp, hardcover.

15 years in the making, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed is the product of herculean effort by Philip Benedict, currently the director of the Institute d’histoire de la Réformation in Geneva. Its covers the full geographical scope of the Reformed churches from their founding to the end of the seventeenth century. It is essentially a replacement of John McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism, bringing the best of new approaches in historiography and recent studies to the task. The introduction, itself a fine piece of scholarship, delineates four goals for the work:  1) to provide a clear narrative of the Reformed tradition’s development that answers important analytic questions; 2) to assess classic theories of Calvinism’s importance/influence in development of Western society; 3) to highlight church institutions and the struggle over church institutions; and 4) to trace the emergence of various Reformed modes of piety. Regarding method, Benedict states, “This book seeks to exemplify an alternative kind of social history of religion. It is a social history insofar as it attends to the actions and beliefs of all groups within the population and draws upon the methods pioneered by social historians. It does not assume that the religious can be equated with the social or is ultimately explained by it” (xxi).

The work is divided into four parts, each containing several chapters. The first three parts are arranged chronologically, covering the formation, expansion, and transformation of the Reformed churches. The first and third parts present fairly straightforward narratives, as the first details the original impulses of the movement and the third the common challenges facing Reformed churches in the seventeenth century. The second part, which covers the expansion of the churches past the second generation to the end of the sixteenth century, is arranged geographically. The fourth part breaks from chronology to discuss key topics: the reformation of the ministry, the exercise of discipline, and the practice of piety. This fourth part examines the effect Calvinism had on the peoples who embraced it, evaluating popular theories of Calvinism’s role in modernity. The book can be (ought to be!) read straight through, but the ransacking researcher will be glad to find that each part has its own introduction and conclusion. It is possible to glean Benedict’s approach and conclusions without reading every page.

The book is commendable in both its depth and breadth. Despite the subtitle, intellectual concerns receive significant treatment throughout, including an entire chapter in part three. Benedict has drawn on a plethora of secondary sources, incorporating census data, diaries, private correspondence, town registers, church records, and other sources to draw a remarkable portrait of daily life in the Reformed churches. He is always sensitive to the limits of quantitative studies, suggesting at several points that previous conclusions may be overextending the data. Many maps, illustrations, figures, and graphs are included. Almost all of them are well-fitted to the text; very little is filler or decoration.

Benedict’s lack of theological agenda is refreshing. His avoidance of the term “Calvinism” (despite the subtitle) in favor of “Reformed” is a welcome choice to many students of the Reformed tradition. He shows no interest in ferreting out one particular church as truly Reformed at the expense of others. He adopts a flexible approach to Reformed identity, asserting that churches identified themselves as “belonging to a common tradition by accepting one of a relatively narrow range of positions on the doctrine of the Eucharist, by endorsing one or more of a common set of confessions of faith, by inviting one another’s theologians to their synods, and by sending future ministers for higher education to one another’s universities” (xxiv). He attempts to assess the influence of individual theologians relative to one another and to chart the prevalence of certain kinds of worship, institutions, theology, and personal piety in various regions. The result is a rich tapestry in which several key markers of Reformed identity stand out amid gradual yet continual change.

I consider Christ’s Church’s Purely Reformed to be an unqualified success. Little more could be asked of a single volume treatment spanning two centuries of a major Christian tradition. Benedict’s style is admirable: inviting, precise, and concise. Frequent humorous anecdotes drawn from primary sources enrich rather than detract from the intellectual force of the work. Copious endnotes permit the scholar to indulge while leaving the text free of minutiae. The balance of approaches and extensive use of secondary sources ensure that even specialists will come away from this work with some fresh perspective.

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Published in: on May 29, 2012 at 8:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – Reading for Life by Margaret Miles

“When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life.” ~ Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

This Dickens quote, mentioned by Margaret Miles in Reading for Life, captures the passion behind this book. Miles, a philosopher and historian with experience at Harvard and Berkeley, demonstrates her own desperate, lusty, gasping, grasping, and unflinchingly critical approach toward reading. Miles chooses the six authors that have most influenced her and narrates how she reads them both generously and suspiciously.

So far from a book report, the chapters light up with intellectual fireworks, as Miles brings her whole soul into engagement with these authors, seeing through their eyes a new world and seeing through their pretenses their reality. Like a lover, she plunges into their depths, but not blind to their narrowness, their faults, their inconsistencies. She has lived with them too long to fail to notice those. Miles’ capacity for love is revealed in her refusal to abandon these authors. Whenever she is dazzled by their rhetoric, she sidesteps and sees the carefully concealed flaws. When confronted with their inadequacies, she embraces them as fellow human beings and praises their intentions.

Her choice of subjects is not prescriptive. No “great books” curriculum is outlined. They are simply the authors she happened to find and never let go. Two of them, Plotinus and Augustine, were the subjects of much of her academic career. Both the care she has taken to know them all the way down and the pleasure feels in doing so radiates from the pages. Plotinus’ vision of the universe as an interconnected whole became the foundation of her worldview. Augustine’s expansive treatment of beauty and love framed her juxtaposition of the perception of beauty with social responsibility.

The modern authors are an eclectic bunch. Carl Jung, whom she discovered before studying psychology in college (what didn’t this woman study?), remains a voice in her subconscious, teaching her to balance knowledge of self and knowledge of other. The poet Rilke inspired her to become a writer, even though she had to spite his sexism to appropriate his work. Leni Riefenstahl was the most gifted film producer during the Nazi era. Consumed with her aesthetic work, she ignored the reality that her work was being used for propaganda purposes.  She spent most of the rest of her life defending her actions. For Miles, she is a fantastically inspiring woman but also a cautionary tale of the potentially blinding love of beauty for beauty’s sake. Perhaps the best chapter of all is on Toni Morrison’s book Jazz, a story of grown-up love, of making grown-up love out of unlikely materials. Miles suggests that novels matter because they give us the concrete imagination necessary to make sense of the abstracts we assent to through philosophy books.

For Miles, reading is serious. It is pleasurable. It is serious because it is pleasurable. We construct ourselves in part through our imaginations, and reading expands and shapes the imagination. The aesthetic  sense is something that can be honed through practice. It is a conscious decision to be aware, to be porous. Reading is one way of honing our awareness, at first by taking note of what others have noticed. Miles, raised a Christian fundamentalist, has not forgotten the power of testimony. Her book is an impassioned recounting of her own journey through reading, and it poses to the reader the same question that every testimony does: Will you accept my story as somehow your own as well? Yes, Dr. Miles, I will. I will read not just for fun or for facts, but for life.

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Published in: on April 2, 2012 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Review – Passion and Paradise by J. Warren Smith

J. Warren Smith
Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa
New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2004

 Gregory of Nyssa, long recognized as one of the most intellectually original of the church fathers, is perhaps most remarkable for his distinct theological anthropology (study of humankind). This work, based on Smith’s 1999 Yale dissertation, explores how the passions function in Gregory’s teachings on God, human creation, and salvation.

The majority of the early church asserted that God, being an utterly transcendent and simple spirit, is without passions. That is, he is not subject to the sorts of reactive states  (anger, desire) that creatures in the realm of change and becoming undergo. Despite the subtitle, very little space is given to establishing and extrapolating divine impassibility in the text. It functions mainly as an underpinning assumption.

As created in the image of God, humanity shares a certain likeness but not identity to its divine exemplar. Two considerations color Gregory’s vision of the image. The first is that unlike Aristotle’s way of defining things, which emphasizes both difference (species) and commonality (genus), Gregory explains the image of God in man wholly in terms of man’s uniqueness from the rest of creation. This leads him to emphasize man’s higher rational functions and downplay (but not entirely discount) his embodied nature. Already the passions occupy an ambiguous role. Second, Gregory constructs his vision of the original humanity by looking ahead to the final humanity after the return of Christ and the consummation of history. He reads in Paul that there is neither male nor female in Christ and concludes that essential humanity is in fact genderless, but that gender was added in view of the coming fall to provide a means of procreation. Also, since the Christian’s goal is divinization, and God is without passions, the status of passions in human existence appears yet more tenuous.

Passions, however, are not so easily uncoupled from humanity. Scripture portrays certain passions, such as desire and anger, as potentially virtuous. Also, the passions are a part of navigating bodily existence, and Gregory accepts as certain a future bodily resurrection. The goal, then, must be to sublimate the soul’s impulses under the intellect’s control and eliminate errant belief claims that would rouse the passions improperly.

The passions may help solve another problem. Origen had developed a theory of the fall, in which the pre-existent souls who contemplated the divine essence became satiated with God and grew cold, turning away from him and falling into bodily existence. Gregory rejects this account of the fall but nevertheless tackles the question of how the soul could not become satiated with God once vision of him has been attained. Gregory’s answer involves both the nature of man and the nature of God. God is infinite, but not only that, he is infinitely novel, fresh, exciting. How can man avoid being overwhelmed by this infinitude? Man’s soul has an infinite capacity for growth. The very beauty of God revealed to it moves it by an erotic impulse to move ever deeper into the mystery of God’s energies.

The way toward God is through perpetual cycles of moral purification, kataphatic illumination, and mystagogy. Gregory employs the allegory of Moses’ ascent of Sinai to explicate the soul’s ascent. The allegory, which I will not reproduce here, is fascinating, absolutely worth reading either in Smith’s account or the original. The point is that only after an ascetic life through which the passions have been completely mastered is one able to enter into the highest contemplation of God. We can participate, in a limited way, in the incredible transformation that the end of history and the restoration of all things will usher in. Gregory’s doctrine of epektasis, the “stretching forth” of the soul after God, portrays the soul as a ship sailing toward an eternal horizon, exploring innumerable islands, each more magnificent than the last. In this state, our yearning for God will no longer be, like hunger and thirst, desire springing from lack; it will be a contented and receptive fullness based on past enjoyment and continued anticipation. The passions, it seems, are never completely eliminated, but are transfigured into something that appropriately reflects the divine apatheia.

The preceding has merely been some highlights gleaned from Passion and Paradise, rather than a full summary of the argument. One of the outstanding strengths of the book is its accessibility. It is quite surprising that it is so readable. Gregory of Nyssa is not a simple figure. The issues of the image of God, the constitution of the soul, the purgation of the passions, and eschatological hope are thorny topics. The Greek philosophers and Christian theologians lying behind Gregory’s thought are themselves quite complex. Yet, without sacrificing precision or scope, Smith has managed to fashion an investigation that should engross both specialist and relative neophyte. A clear thread of argument runs through the book. Questions of source and relation to other figures illuminate rather than distract. Extensive endnotes keep the main text clean while allowing the interested reader significant additional insight. Smith’s controversial synthesis of Gregory’s divergent eschatological strains is enticing and logical, but not dogmatic.

This is one of the best historical studies—one of the best books—I’ve read in a while. It is a rare treat to find a book that delivers much more than is promised in the title and on the back cover. Of obvious interest to any student of the church fathers, I believe this work would also prove stimulating for contemporary theologians who wrestle to relate creation and redemption within a theological anthropology.

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Published in: on March 15, 2012 at 11:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – At the Origins of Modern Atheism by Michael Buckley

Michael Buckley’s landmark intellectual history, At the Origins of Modern Atheism, proves that one can combine meticulous analysis and profound insight with a straightforward thesis. An overarching theme of the work is that atheism is produced by the (perceived or real) internal contradictions of theism, and thus takes its shape in response to theistic claims. In order to understand atheism, then, one must examine the theism it denies. Atheism is distinct in the modern period, because only in the modern period are there atheists. In the ancient and medieval worlds, atheism was a hypothetical position or a polemical insult; in the modern world, there is a group of people who recognize themselves as atheists and are proud to be labeled so.

True to his premise, Buckley traces the peculiar character of modern Western atheism to the choices made by theistic philosophers in the early modern era. At the turn of the 17th century, Leonard Lessius, a Flemish Jesuit, wrote De providentia numinis (On Divine Providence) to combat atheism. Yet his attacks are not against any modern atheist (they are apparently too shrewd to announce their unbelief openly) but against the classical figures associated with atheistic belief.  As Lessius’ “atheists” are drawn from classical antiquity, so are his refuting arguments. This approach makes atheism primarily a philosophical, not a religious issue.  Another Jesuit, Marin Mersenne, likewise sought to combat present atheism along classical lines. He too excuses faith, but designs an argument for god upon ancient Epicurean and Neoplatonic lines. In the distinction between faith and reason, the battle against atheism is conducted by reason in the method of philosophy. Jesus and traditional theology scarcely appear, and will continue to play only a token role through the Enlightenment.

The two most pivotal intellectual figures of the early modern period are René Descartes, the founder of a Universal Mathematics, and Isaac Newton, the founder of a Universal Mechanics. Both were theists, and both insisted that the existence of god could be defended by reason alone. Rather, reason is the only justifiable foundation for theistic belief. Yet, the two offer different approaches. Descartes’s skepticism argues not from the world to god but from god to the world. God is necessary as the guarantor of human reason, and then as the connection between the mind and the external world. Since we must be indubitably sure of god’s existence, and since indubitable knowledge must be gained by the geometrical method, there is no place (or need) for revelation or personal experience to establish god’s existence.

Newton, however, takes the physical world for granted, and seeks an explanation of its predictability and order. God appears as a necessary postulate for the Newtonian universe to function as it should. Absolute time and absolute space must be necessary effects of god’s existence. He must be the one who formed great astronomical masses and determined the correct distance of the planets from the sun to ensure stable orbits. Further, Newton’s calculations revealed that the universe is not quite self-sustaining; god must periodically wind the clock to keep it from getting too out of time.

Some theologians jumped on the chance to develop the Cartesian or Newtonian philosophies into even more rigorous proofs. Nicholas Malebranche, a French priest, pressed Cartesian dualism to the limit. Since mind and body are separate substances, all sensation must be due to the direct intervention of god. The soul and god are more closely united than the soul and the body. Our idea of god is the idea of the infinite, which is not really an idea at all but the direct presence of god in the human consciousness. Samuel Clarke, an English philosopher of unorthodox Christianity, sought a Newtonian path to god. He argued from the non-necessity of matter to a necessary being. Then, “necessity requires immensity and immensity requires omnipresence” (184). Likewise, an examination of intelligence in the world leads us to an intelligent cause.

Thus, the stage is set for the atheism of Denis Diderot. Diderot did not begin an atheist, and in fact earlier in his life wrote proofs from design and order for the existence of god. However, during his research into the intellectual formation of the blind, Diderot uncovered the dark side of the argument from order. Order is not the only characteristic of the universe; there is also disorder. If god is invoked to explain order, what can explain the disorder? Dualism was not an acceptable answer for Diderot or any other early modern philosopher. Instead, Diderot sought a single principle capable of explaining both: matter. If matter is to be the explanatory principle, however, it cannot be as Newton suggest, mere inert bulk to which motion is added extrinsically. Rather, following Democritus’ atomic theory, matter must be imbued with its own motion and potentiality. As a seed contains within itself the entire organism which will follow, so all matter contains within itself its own dynamic principles, eternally in motion. Life can thus come from non-life through recombination, and the intelligible world can be understood as a higher echelon of development in matter.

Baron Paul Henri d’Holbach extended Diderot’s line of argumentation and systematized an atheist polemic against theistic belief in his groundbreaking work, Le Système de la nature ou des loix du monde physique et du monde moral (The System of Nature or the Laws of the Physical World and the Moral World). From the title one gleans d’Holbach’s proposition: nature, sufficiently examined and systematized, suffices to explain both physics and morals. The supernatural is reduced entirely to the natural. “Motion as a result or inherent attribute of matter gives natural philosophy its own enclosed world, its own principle, and eliminates the natural theologies of either the religious believer or the deist. Matter carries the attributes of god. It is the necessary being. It is contradictory, inconceivable, to imagine a moment when it did not exist. And since motion is a necessary property of matter, it is coeval with matter” (282).

As Diderot had explained both order and disorder by a single principle, d’Holbach explained both atheism and religious belief by the single principle of nature. At the heart of human motivation is a single principle, self-conservation. Pain and fear—and the corresponding impulse to avoid them—explain every human action, invention, and belief. Some people handle their pain and fear by philosophic investigation, allowing them more control over them environment. Others turn to religious hypotheses, soothing themselves by thinking that the deities can be rendered propitious by a certain type of living. In d’Holbach’s reading, religious belief is caused by ignorance of nature, so he predicted that advancing scientific progress was destined to destroy religion. The common argument for god by appeal to universal human worship is refuted by pointing out the great variety of beliefs between cultures. There is no single concept of god underlying all of them.

At the end of the Enlightenment, the grounds for both theism and atheism had shifted. Kant’s critique had rendered Cartesian rationalism impotent. Laplace’s corrected Newtonian equations left no need for god to interfere with the operation of the cosmos. Schleiermacher’s existential defense of religion changed the grounds of the debate; atheism, as is its habit, adapted and followed suit. Theistic arguments continue to be formed and deconstructed.

Among the lessons Buckley draws from his investigation, two stand out for special consideration:

“The Christian god cannot have a more fundamental witness than Jesus Christ, even antecedent to the commitments of faith; Christian theology cannot abstract from Christology in order to shift the challenge for this foundational warrant onto philosophy. Within the context of a Christology and a Pneumatology of both communal and personal religious experience, one can locate and give its own philosophical integrity to metaphysics, but Christology and Pneumatology are fundamental. If one abrogates this evidence, one abrogates this god” (361).

“If an antimony is posed between nature or human nature and god, the glory of one in conflict with the glory of the other, this alienation will eventually be resolved in favor of the natural and the human. Any implicit, unspoken enmity between god and creation will issue in atheism” (363).

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Published in: on January 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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Review – Union with Christ by Robert Letham

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology by Robert Letham explores what many have called the central teaching of the Reformed doctrine of salvation. Indeed, one of the purposes of the book is to unravel the many threads that tie union with Christ not only to personal salvation, but also to creation and recreation, the incarnation, and the Church. Union with Christ, then, is a comprehensive perspective on God’s activity toward mankind, especially toward his elect. Union is not so much a locus of theology in itself as it is a way of relating and integrating the various themes of theology.

Because union is the sort of doctrine that is discussed in relation to other doctrines, Letham does not organize the book according to Scripture, history, and theology. Rather, he arranges the book thematically, incorporating the three components into each chapter. The first chapter, “Creation,” establishes the foundational principles for union: Christ as mediator of redemption and man as the image of God. These two truths provide the cosmic or natural foundations for union, which provide a platform for a higher level of union in grace.

The next chapter, “Incarnation,” develops the theme of union by showing that in the person of Christ, God and man are perfectly united. The history of Christology comes to the fore in this chapter, as Letham retells the early Church’s struggle to articulate the Incarnation as the basis of salvation. As a man Christ had to live in perfect conformity to God’s law, die as a propitiation, and conquer death with new life. However, the Incarnation does not, by itself, ensure our salvation. Christ was united to human nature in general, not to the elect. Thus, the third chapter, “Pentecost,” explains how the Holy Spirit unites the elect to Christ so that they, as individuals and as a corporate body, share in him and his benefits.

So far the book follows a redemptive-historical format, explaining the trinitarian and narrative basis for union. The final three chapters explicate in what union with Christ consists, grouping aspects of union into three categories: representation, transformation, and death and resurrection. The chapter on transformation is masterful. It covers issues relating to the ordo salutis (order of salvation), the relationship between the Greek Fathers and Reformed theology, and the bumpy history of Reformed thought on sacramental theology. It concludes with ten theses on union with Christ and transformation. It is worth reading the book simply for this chapter.

On the whole, though, the book is a bit disappointing. Despite its admirable breadth, logical progression of thought, and interdisciplinary awareness, it possesses one fatal flaw: length. The book is simply too short to develop properly the ideas it contains. Letham’s previous book, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, comprises 551 pages. This one is a miniscule 164. Often, a provocative statement is left unsupported or a significant historical figure is given the most cursory treatment. Detailed exegesis is sorely lacking, insufficiently compensated for with abundant parenthetical citations. Almost all the chapters seem more like sketches than finished products.

Also, the book varies in style. At times, it reads in a popular, almost unscholarly, tone. At others, long strings of Latin obscure the text. For example, Letham is relating a comment by Calvin, “Paul testifies that we are of the members and bones of Christ (Paulus nos ex membris et ossibus Christi esse testatur).” More often than not, the Latin takes up space rather than clarifies a point. A few times, I noticed that something was underlined in the Latin, presumably for emphasis, without any correspondingly indicated emphasis in the English translation. Since I read Latin, I found these choices to be mere annoyances, but I suspect non-Latinists will be much more frustrated by this. The Latin should have been either omitted or moved to the footnotes, except in cases of special significance.

Nevertheless, I am glad I read this book, especially for the chapter on transformation. Letham’s overall approach to union with Christ is highly illuminating, and the germs of many worthy thoughts reside here in nuce. Also, the upside to it being a short work is that if you don’t like it, at least you didn’t invest too much time in it.

Published in: on January 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – The Trinity by Gilles Emery

The criteria for an introduction to the Trinity are several: reasonable length, clearly defined terms, biblical reasoning, historical sensitivity, logical progression, and doctrinal synthesis. By these standards, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God by Gilles Emery, O.P. has earned its subtitle.

In the first chapter, the doctrine of the Trinity is located within the liturgical practice of the Church and within the movement of redemptive history. The New Testament allows us to follow both the path of the human Jesus leading to Easter or the path of Jesus’ pre-existent filial divinity. In either case, the Holy Spirit is the key to our knowledge of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the Trinity is manifested in the economy of salvation.

The second chapter contains a biblical examination of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with their relations and simplicity. The third examines “Confessions of Trinitarian Faith,” both in Scripture and in the later practice of the Church. It includes an overview of early heresies and a luminous close reading of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, relying heavily on patristic sources.

The fourth chapter clarifies the nature of the divine “persons” or “hypostases.” It moves deeper into the person/nature distinction, the ramifications of simplicity, analogical language. It also features reflections on the relationship between divine and human persons.

The fifth and longest chapter is a “Doctrinal Synthesis on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It explains in depth what is proper to each person, thus distinguishing generation from procession. The filioque is explained, defended, and asserted to be substantially agreeable to Eastern trinitarian theology. The Holy Spirit as personal Love and Gift receives special attention.

The final chapter reintegrates the economic and immanent aspects of the Trinity. It explains how modes of action may be “appropriated” to one person without compromising the indivisible action of the Trinity. The Father acts through the Son and in the Spirit, both in creation and in salvation. The missions of the Son and Spirit reveal God and save the just through “divinization,” a reception of the Trinity and communion with the Father. The book wraps up with a punchy conclusion and a glossary.

Emery’s specifically Catholic approach is visible in several ways. He remains at all times sensitive to the liturgical and sacramental dimensions of trinitarian theology. Thomas Aquinas is his primary influence. (Emery has written a 4oo+ page monograph on Thomas’ trinitarian theology). Most references to modern writings are to official documents of the Catholic Church or individual Catholic theologians. Probably also because of the introductory nature of the book, there is very little interaction with contemporary trends in trinitarian theology.

Trinitarian doctrine is not easy, but Emery (with has translator) has rendered it intelligible and attractive. The prose is straightforward, the subdivisions are logical, and the tasteful use of italics highlights key themes. Exegetes, theologians, historians, and liturgists alike will find the Trinity related to their discipline. Most importantly, The Trinity will prepare its readers to enter higher levels of discussion about the Trinity. That is ultimately what makes it a successful introduction. I highly recommend this book for your library, whether you are a beginner or not, Catholic or not.

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Published in: on September 14, 2011 at 9:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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