Home » 2011
Yearly Archives: 2011
Martin E. Marty on Fundamentalism
Martin E. Marty, “Fundamentalistm,” Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, vol. 1. ed. J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, 2 Vols (New York, NY: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003): 345-347.
Although admitting that the term “fundamentalism” originated as a term to define a group of Protestants in the 1920’s, Marty wants to define “fundamentalism” most broadly as a phenomenon of aggressive conservatism that “fights back” in the face of change. Although with this definition fundamentalism is not restricted to religious adherents, Marty admits that the term is most often associated with religion. Fundamentalism is especially present in religions “of the book” (346).
The problem with Marty’s approach to the term “fundamentalism” is its incredible flexibility. For example, if Islamic fundamentalists became the majority in America and decided to overthrow our form of government in favor of a dictatorship, it would seem to be the case that conservative Americans who “fought back” in the face of such change could, by Marty’s definition, be dubbed as the “fundamentalists” all the same. In this definition, any group that fights back when their beliefs or culture are attacked are “fundamentalists,” regardless of context. This incredible flexibility of the term “fundamentalism” virtually strips it from its unique historical meaning and makes it synonymous with “conservative reactionaries.” Chinese citizens who “fight back” whenever their government suppresses local traditions would thus be fundamentalists, even if those local traditions include things like free speech, political gatherings, sports competitions, or religious pluralism.
The other problem is that Marty’s description of “fundamentalism” would not include Bible-thumping inerrantists who isolate themselves from mainstream culture and mainstream Christianity in a reactionary fight against pluralism and higher criticism, who also interpreted the Bible literally and work up their congregations into a doomsday frenzy about the coming end of the world—provided that they accept certain aspects of reality can be explained by science (e.g. Keplar’s laws of planetary motion, certain laws of relativity, the chemistry of diseases, plate tectonics, etc.). The reason they would not qualify in Marty’s description is because Marty defines fundamentalism as wholesale opposition to “the scientific worldview.” Marty explains:
Ordinary people can live with the two worldviews, which do not always have to be seen as competing. Religion can address some aspects of life and science can address others. But fundamentalists have great difficulty picturing how the two worldviews can coexist in the same mind and the same culture. To fundamentalists, one worldview must be right and the other wrong. One is of God and the other is anti-God, perhaps of Satan. (346)
Other moves Marty makes in his encyclopedic entry also seem counterintuitive for purposes of taxonomy. In agreement with a scholarly consensus that sees fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity, Marty argues that technology is the most significant impact of modernity. By associating technology with modernity, he is able to characterize fundamentalists as either “anti-technology” or as accepting the results of science while paradoxically denying the “scientific worldview” that enabled them. By defining fundamentalists as anti-science and anti-technology, he is forced to think of the fundamentalist who uses a cell phone as a walking “paradox” since fundamentalists are supposed to be anti-technology via anti-modernity. But does this fit with scholarly taxonomy of religious fundamentalist groups? Certainly fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity, but did the Protestant fundamentalists in the 1920’s reject all science wholesale or all scientific explanations of reality? Here it seems Marty’s approach to taxonomy is in need of more careful distinctions. Fundamentalists are typically opposed to Darwinism and philosophical naturalism, but Marty’s translation of this as wholesale anti-science (along with his humorous befuddlement that fundamentalists are comfortable with modern technology) reflects a problematic taxonomy.
Brenda E. Brasher on Fundamentalism
Brenda E. Brasher, “Introduction,” Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism, Brenda E. Brasher, ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), xv-xviii .
A more robust and helpful approach to fundamentalism as a historical movement is formulated by Brenda E. Brasher. In her Encyclopedia of Fundamentalism, she defines it as a popular means of revolt against modernism by traditionalist Christianity that has three distinct characteristics.
First, the movement was ignited by a struggle between liberal and conservative Protestants over how to define Christianity. In this struggle a conservative constituency banded together and over the period of fifteen years wrote The Fundamentals, a series of articles defining Christianity in terms of what they considered to be the most fundamental doctrines that constitute a uniquely Christian faith (e.g. the Trinity, the virgin birth, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the inspiration and authority of Scripture, etc.). The articles also attacked trends in higher criticism and liberal theology, fearing these movements were inimical to orthodox Christianity. While others were defining Christianity in terms of social ethics or political action, the fundamentalists opted for a doctrinally oriented definition instead (xvi).
Second, fundamentalists identified the Bible as the inerrant and perspicuous conveyer of divine truth (xv). A corollary to this doctrine was a denial that higher education was necessary to understand the Bible, and attacks on modern intellectual trends perceived to threaten a literal interpretation of the Bible such as higher criticism, Darwinian evolution, egalitarianism and feminism (xvi). The historical event that did more than any other to turn the word “fundamentalist” into a synonym for “uneducated conservative” or “narrow-minded religious bigot” was the famous Scopes Trial of 1925 in which William Jennings Bryant defended Tennessee state law that outlawed the teaching of evolution. The journalists covering the story successfully exposed Bryant’s lack of familiarity with evolutionary science and depicted him as out of touch with the modern world.
Finally, in their defense of the “fundamentals” of the faith, fundamentalists advanced absolutist claims of religious truth that bred a spirit of intolerance in reaction to the new “Global Village.” They had a very negative view of ecumenical and inter-religious cooperation and dialogue, resisted it and “denigrated the tolerance of religious pluralism intrinsic to the civil society that modernity brought” (xv). “They maintained that the compromises of religious truth necessary for the modern state to exist were blasphemous, and must be rejected” (xv).
Brasher also distinguishes between two “waves” of fundamentalism. The first wave of fundamentalists had a separatist approach to the modernist controversy, along with an “internal orientation” that made it seem to the larger public that fundamentalism had all but disappeared (xvi). It would become quite evident, however, with the “second wave” of fundamentalism that the movement had simply went underground. The second wave of fundamentalists were “sophisticated players in contemporary media culture,” keen on public image, possessing charisma and engaging the mainstream culture (xvi). Although still holding to an inerrantist theology and sympathetic to the original “fundamental” doctrines that defined Christianity for the movement, they were engaging, less ideologically rigid and militant, politically active and savvy.
The hardest part in defining fundamentalism is explaining the relationship between this second-wave movement and evangelicalism. Is there really even a difference? Although admitting significant overlap, Brasher thinks “the easiest way to distinguish the two is by the adage that Evangelicals cooperate with other Christian groups, while Fundamentalists do not” (xvii). She also notes that fundamentalists do not consider the largest portion of evangelical Protestants (Pentecostals) as part of their movement. She later admits, however, that fundamentalists did engage in some “intra-religious cooperative ventures” (xvii).
William Trollinger on Fundamentalism
William V. Trollinger, Jr., “Protestantism and Fundamentalism” in The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism, eds. Alister McGrath and Darren C. Marks (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 344-354.
Historians are quick to admit the line between fundamentalists and evangelicals is more than a bit fuzzy. “The line here is admittedly quite blurred,” writes Protestant historian William V. Trollinger. “Fundamentalists shared and share with other evangelicals a commitment to the authority of the Bible, the necessity of a conversion experience for salvation, and the importance of sharing the good news of the gospel with others” (345). He then goes on to add, however, “what distinguishes fundamentalists from other evangelicals … is that they are stridently opposed to ‘modernism’ including theological liberalism, Darwinism, and secularism” (345). This way of parsing the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals sound strikingly similar to Brasher’s way of distinguishing between first and second-wave fundamentalists. Are Brasher’s second-wave fundamentalists, then, the same as Trollinger’s “evangelicals”? It seems hard to distinguish them.
Alister McGrath on Fundamentalism
McGrath, Alister. Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.
Alister McGrath, following academic trends in defining fundamentalism more broadly as “an oppositionalist mentality arising in response to a major threat,” distinguishes fundamentalism as a certain attitude not shared by evangelicals (392). The advantage of this genericizing of the term is that it makes for a definite distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Nevertheless, this approach is also historically problematic. For example, historians like Trollinger believe this taxonomy reduces the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical as a mere personality difference. If it lies in a “certain mentality,” it may turn out to be a difference in the psychological makeup of the individual, which makes the judgment about whether one is a fundamentalist or evangelical very subjective. An evangelical is simply a fundamentalist with social awareness to modern sensitivities and a sophisticated smile. A hell-fire and brimstone pastor with a tendency towards biting rhetoric and polemical tirades may be only a personality away from another pastor with the same theology who has a certain charismatic optimism and a lighter tone to his preaching and teaching. Trollinger’s point is well taken.
Conclusions and Suggestions
So then, are we to despair of delineating the precise distinction between a fundamentalist and an evangelical? I would suggest that perhaps one frutiful key is in realizing that a different “posture” towards culture may entail certain beliefs also, not just a personality difference. For example, the posture of evangelicals toward the critical tools of modernity demonstrate that they believe these tools are legitimate tools of critical inquiry, and this compels them to “engage” those who are using the tools to undermine aspects of their faith. Here we have an agreement between the fundamentalists and the evangelicals about a problem—certain “fundamentals” are under attack by modernity—but different beliefs about the weapons of attack and how to respond. Fundamentalists isolate and disengage from these weapons, forfeiting the intellectual battle, whereas evangelicals, being less afraid of these tools, have come to believe that these modern weapons of ideological warfare can be enlisted and used in defense of the “fundamentals.” This goes beyond a personality difference to a substantial difference in beliefs about modern tools of critical inquiry. Thus in the evangelical tradition there exists a tradition of critical inquiry that started within the bounds of the “fundamentals.” This “posture” is both ideological and includes a tradition involving the practice critical inquiry and use of modern methodology. This makes evangelicals more “dangerous” and influential, for they are often able to best the skeptics at their own game and appeal to modern minds.
There is, however, a consequence to this posture. In a tradition that has adapted many forms of modern scholarship also has a tendency toward higher levels of tolerance for whatever differences exist between those who are on the same “team” and fighting the same battle using the chosen tools of modernity. It is more difficult, for example, to find evangelicals who believe all denominations except their own are going to hell (would such evangelicals really be evangelicals?). They have too keen an awareness of the astronomical difference that exists between believers in Jesus’ miracles and resurrection and modernists who have de facto ruled out anything supernatural under the philosophical assumption that such phenomenon are opposed to historical and scientific fact. Although no less confident perhaps in their own denominational convictions, they are often therefore less dogmatic about them, seeing more clearly than fundamentalists who the “real” enemy is.
Perhaps what is even more important, as evangelicals encourage the best and the brightest of their own intellectuals in the use of the critical tools of inquiry and to engage secular aids and writings, it often turns out that once committed evangelicals, after being immersed in modern methods, defect from their evangelical heritage and either significantly modify their heritage (thus challenging the boundaries of evangelical identity) or join modernity altogether. Having come from a tradition of outspoken zealots, evangelicals who defect and modify frequently become the most vocal critics of whatever part of their heritage they now reject. This means the boarders of evangelical identity are always being challenged as a result of their new posture towards modernity. Many evangelicals are prolifically critical of biblical creationism and defend more nuanced approaches to the interpretation of the creation narratives in Genesis, holding that evolution is not incompatible with these biblical narratives. Other evangelicals are also critical of traditional gender teachings in Christianity and champion an egalitarian theology. Perhaps this diversity of evangelicalism is part of what distinguishes it from fundamentalism’s more rigid anti-modern ideology. Evangelicalism has allowed for the use of critical tools in shaping evangelical faith and biblical interpretation. Those who go further than a modification of evangelical faith and defect to join forces with modernity likewise can become the most vocal critics against Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular (e.g. Bart D. Ehrman).
If fundamentalism is defined by its “stance” toward modernity and the tools of modern inquiry, then evangelicalism’s new stance toward such tools seems to constitute something new and not merely a second “wave” of the same sort of people. It must also be said that evangelicals are not always primarily in a posture of attack against modernity, although they habitually use the very tools of higher criticism to undermine many any trends of such criticism unfavorable to their brand of orthodoxy. These critical tools are constantly shaping the variety of approaches evangelicals take to biblical truth, the art of hermeneutics, tones of disagreement, styles of argumentation, methods of apologetics, the production of literature, ideas of what makes a good “faculty” at a seminary, etc.
Critical forms of inquiry so characteristic of modernity have been, in other words, validated by evangelicals, even while being selective in choosing among varied conclusions drawn by the use of these methods. When choosing among positions to take with the use of these methods, evangelicals will characteristically choose and argue for the positions that favor their own ideology. For example, they will not allow for the conclusion that the Bible contradicts history, science, or itself. Among positions drawn by critical methods, these are off the table for most committed evangelicals in America whose identity is bound up with inerrancy.
We all know our legal rights … or … wait. Do we? Actually, the unfortunate fact is that most of us don’t know our rights. The woman on COPS who screams “I know my rights!” when a cop pulls her over usually proves my point because she is being put on national television for doing something stupid (and illegal). People who know their rights are more confident. They don’t have to say it, they show it by saying things like “I don’t consent to searches” or “Are you detaining me now or am I free to go?.”
Flexing your rights, however, can quickly annoy police officers who are already an edgy group because of the dangers and stresses of their line of work. These videos (especially the third one) show that police will often lie to intimidate you to get you to comply with their orders even when you have the right to refuse them. The first two videos are from FlexYourRights.org (a marketing idea to educate people on their rights). The second pair of videos are real life examples of citizens successfully flexing their rights. For more educational videos on how to both know and flex your rights, go to Flex Your Rights.org
Flex Your Rights :: The Right to Refuse Searches
Flex Your Rights :: Police Tactic of Compound Questions
Citizen Standing up Calmly For His Rights
Citizens Making a Statement About Their Rights
John H. Armstrong, a personal friend and author of the book Your Church is Too Small has added his personal reflections to my recent post on Russell Moore’s charge against Pat Robertson (that Robertson’s view of divorce entails a denial of the Christian gospel). His post is entitled: How Evangelicals Misuse the “G” Word. Peter Lumpkins charitably chronicles the difference in perspectives on his blog SBC Tomorrow.
I stumbled upon some great Mark Knoll lectures on how the American civil war was (in large measure) a fight about how to interpret the Bible, and another lecture on the changing face of Christianity in the Global South. Fascinating (courtesy of Calvin College). If you don’t know who Mark Knoll is, here is the scoop: Mark Knoll is one of the most respected historians of Christianity in the United States. He now teaches at Notre Dame.
I enjoyed reading Al Mohler’s article Are Evangelicals Dangerous? on the CNN blog, one of the best pieces I’ve read from Mohler.
A surprising move by James MacDonald to create something called The Elephant Room, where conservative Reformed evangelicals actually decide to have a conversation with (rather than just criticize from a distance) people they disagree with, hoping to come to a better understanding of one another by talking about “the elephant in the room.” This is an interesting development that I was very pleased about. I began to wonder, however, whether these conversations are designed more to bring attention to a Reformed evangelical perspective on things in a way that could be seen as “outreach” to non-Reformed evangelicals (seen to be out-of-touch with sound doctrine in some way) by Reformed evangelicals. Controversy is brewing about the show already over James’s invitation to T.D. Jakes to be take the hot seat (note: T.D. Jakes does not adhere to a traditional doctrine of the Trinity, but something closer to one of the views labeled as heresy from the early stages of Christian theological development during the early ecumenical councils).
Sidney H. Griffith, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007). 220 pp.
How did Christianity change and develop differently for Christians outside the Roman Empire during the Islamic Expansion? In The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque Griffith wants to emphasize the contribution of the Arabic-speaking Christians in the East to the Christians in the West (128), the influence of Islamic culture on Arabic-speaking Christians under Islamic rule, and to the formation of the religious identities of the Christian communities of the Nestorians, Melkites, and Jacobites (130). He is concerned to demonstrate the shift in articulation of the Christian faith that took place under Muslim rule. For example, Griffith notes that Christian Trinitarian theology took on “a design and vocabulary very different from that of the Patristic era and largely unfamiliar to Christians outside of the Islamic world” (96). The genre’s of apologetics were heavily influenced by the world of Islam. Griffith is concerned to show how the terms of discourse were basically set by the Islamic attacks on Christianity. For example, the list of topics found in popular genres of Christian apologetics in Syriac and Arabic in the early Islamic period are “distinctively Islamic” (97). Christian kalam is basically a borrowing of the “Islamic style of religious discourse in Arabic” (89).
Our author is also concerned to point out that although the characters are often fictional or symbolic in the popular apologetic genres that depicted dialogue between Christians and Muslims, these texts nevertheless shed light on real historical circumstances of open dialogue between Muslims and Christians (102-103). Griffin also shows a concern to demonstrate that Christians made use of the authority of the Qur’an to validate their Christian doctrines to the Muslims (168-70). Finally, Griffith thinks that Christianity should not discount the churches that were considered as “dissident churches” by the exclusive Roman imperial authority (129). Latin Christians in particular, Griffith thinks, have wrongly considered Christians of the Orient as heretical and schismatic. He thinks that “now is the time to take steps to remedy this situation” (3). He refers to those normally considered heretics (Jacobites and Nestorians), not as non-Chalcedonian heretics but as “non-Chalcedonian Christians” (130).
Taxonomy of Christian Groups & Literature
The main groups into which Christians in the Islamic world were divided in the period Griffith discusses were Greek, Syriac, and Arabic. Although Greek works were translated into Syriac and Arabic, Greek was distinctive in that it was the language of the Hellenized culture in which the first doctrinal positions of Christians were articulated. Greek culture was heavily influenced by philosophy—particularly the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle’s works had an especial influence over the churches in Syria through the translation and appropriation efforts of Hunayn ibn Ishaq who was a Nestorian Christian. Syria served uniquely as the culture that “passed” the baton of Aristotle’s philosophical legacy (114). Syria, after the time of Alexander the Great, was often caught in the middle of the Roman and Persian empires (115). Nestorianism had its origins in the Syriac-speaking academic communities of Edessa and Nisibis (131). These communities were influenced by the Syriac translations of Theodore of Mopsuestia, “the blessed interpreter” whose patriarchal see was in Persia (131). The Jacobites also flourished in the Syriac-speaking communities under the influence of the bishop Jacob Baradaeus in Edessa who wrote in Syriac (135).
A distinctive feature of the Arabic language was that it often carried anti-Christian (or non-Christian) connotations within its very language, making translation of Christian words like ousia, for example, difficult to translate into the Arabic idiom. The understanding of certain religious terms in Arabic language was also heavily influenced (biased we might even say) toward the exclusive Islamic faith. The domination of Arabic language—which set the tone for theology in the East—alienated the East from the West to some extent and created theological and genre developments that were distinctively shaped by the Islamic-Christian dialogues and polemics (130). By the time of The Great Schism, the East was speaking a different language (literally and figuratively) than the West, and this only made their differences all-the-more difficult to resolve.
The Copts, who possessed their own identity and language (Coptic) are usually lumped in with the Jacobites because of their common theological identity through the articulation of the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria, although Griffith is concerned to point out that “they are the much larger community and have their own independent church structures” (137). Likewise, the Armenians professed the same faith as the Jacobites, but had their own language and independent hierarchical structures (137). The Maronites and Gregorians, although Syriac/Aramaic speaking churches, were Melkite and eventually came into communion with Rome (139-140).
Griffith’s book is more-or-less a taxonomy and introduction to Arabic Christian literature. As such, the book is more useful for those who actually plan on spending a great deal of time following up with Griffith’s suggestions on literature to read. But for those wanting a stimulating introduction to the history of Christianity under Islamic rule, the book is more of a letdown. In other words, it’s a useful and indispensable resource for those specializing in Arabic studies, but not much else.
In a recent article by Christianity Today and a recent interview on CNN, Russell Moore responded to Pat Robertson’s recent comments about divorce. The title of Moore’s article says it all: “Pat Robertson Repudiates the Gospel.” In short, Moore’s interpretation of Robertson is that he said Alzheimer’s disease is an “understandable” grounds for a divorce (Moore translated him as having said it was “morally justified”).
Robertson has since claimed that he was misinterpreted and all he meant was this: if a man is going to have an affair with his wife because she has Alzheimer’s he would be better off getting a divorce than to continue having the affair. This is how I had initially interpreted Pat Robertson’s words before reading Moore’s interpretation, thus I do think Moore was taking his comments out of context. Yet in fairness to Moore we might still say Robertson was not very careful in how he articulated his view and should have seen this one coming. Moore has stood by his initial interpretation of Robertson’s remarks and argued that Robertson was now backtracking.
Robertson did not, in fact, say that. He said, “I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again.”
Now when Robertson said “if he’s going to do something,” I took him to mean “If the man is going to continue in an affair” thus addressing a very particular context. Nevertheless … This post will not be about what he really meant to say or what he really believes, but will (for the sake of argument) assume Moore’s interpretation of Robertson was right. Here was Moore’s opening words of response:
This week on his television show Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said a man would be morally justified to divorce his wife with Alzheimer’s disease in order to marry another woman. The dementia-riddled wife is, Robertson said, “not there” anymore. This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
These are fighting words, and clearly Moore believes he is fighting for the truth of the very gospel itself. His argument was something like this: because marriage is supposed to be an icon of Christ and the Church, marriage is therefore an icon of the gospel. This means that if we fail to live up to the standard Christ set for us by loving the church sacrificially and selflessly–even to the point of suffering on a cross to die–we fail to live up to the gospel. The implication he has obviously drawn is this: to selfishly leave your wife just because she has Alzheimer’s and abandon your calling to suffer with her and take care of her is a failure to live up to the gospel. It would have been more respectable to ensure his wife was well cared for in an adult day care center in Smyrna than to leave the ailing woman because of of disease.
But Moore takes it further, arguing that Pat Robertson, by allowing for a divorce in such a situation, has not only failed to live up to the gospel and Christ’s example of loving the Church (something every Christian has done), but he has in fact repudiated the gospel (something not all Christian do).
It’s one thing to fail to live up to Christ’s example in loving the Church in one’s own marriage; I don’t think Moore or virtually any Christian would claim they never stray from Christ’s example. It’s quite another thing, however, to repudiate the very gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet it appears that Moore believes that in this case, Pat Robertson has done both.
Although I (and so many countless others) disagree strongly with Robertson’s position and would more-or-less agree with most of what Moore has said about why it’s wrong based on the Christ-Church analogy, nevertheless I think the strong words used by Moore in this article do not do justice to the careful distinctions that must be made in light of Al Mohler’s theological triage. Dr. Mohler has defended Christian unity for a long time by teaching that not all doctrines are equally important (for an animated video clip of his defense click here). He calls this the process of theological triage. His initial piece on this appeared in Daniel Akin’s book A Theology for the Church (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 927-34. He has most recently written on this topic in the book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011). As I sight Mohler I will abbreviate my source in parenthesis (V = video, ATC = A Theology for the Church).
In a nut shell, theological triage distinguishes between three orders (or “tiers”) of doctrine: first order, second order, and third order.
In Mohler’s own words, “first-order doctrines are those that are fundamental and essential to the Christian faith” (ATC, 930). One must believe certain things to be recognized as a fellow Christian, such as the physical bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ or the doctrine of the Trinity.
The second order doctrines are those that “are essential to church life and necessary for the ordering of the local church but that, in themselves, do not define the gospel” (ATC, 931). The importance of this distinction for Christian unity should be obvious. Although these doctrines are important enough to divide distinct ecclesial bodies (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc.), they are not important enough to define Christianity per se. Baptists, for example, don’t have to try to “save” their Presbyterian brothers and sisters or tell them they are not real Christians just because they believe in infant baptism. Cessationist Baptists can still consider Pentecostals (at least the one’s who still believe in the Trinity) as their brothers and sisters in Christ even if they have serious misgivings about these charismatic churches. We can have respectful disagreement over these differences as Christians. As Mohler says, this is because “one may detect an error in a doctrine at this level and still acknowledge that the person in error remains a believing Christian” (ATC, 931).
There is a third tier of doctrines “that may be the ground for fruitful theological discussion and debate but that do not threaten the fellowship of the local congregation or the denomination” (931). Even Baptists (believe it or not) can disagree over things like eschatology or areas of Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinist Baptists and Arminian “Free-Will” Baptists can consider each other as deeply mistaken brothers and sisters in Christ and even be on the same pastoral team. These also are doctrines over which we can have respectful disagreement.
The Implication of Russell Moore’s Language
According to this theological triage, it would appear that Moore has located Robertson’s position on divorce and remarriage as “first order” in terms of importance. In other words, it appears that Moore believes that if you have the wrong view of “marriage and divorce,” you are not even a Christian because you have repudiated the gospel. I strongly and respectfully disagree with Moore on this one, and find his article unnecessarily divisive. Perhaps if Moore were to read this post he might say “No. I do not believe Paterson’s view on divorce is a ‘first order’ issue.” But if so, the strong language he uses certainly has no regard for Mohler’s triage. Perhaps he might respond by saying that he thinks Robertson has denied the gospel by some other position he takes and not by the particular position on divorce he so aggressively attacks in his article. But if so, his article certainly makes no such case, but appears to ground his accusation in Robertson’s position on divorce, which would make his article dreadfully misleading.
In surveys that have been done on what people think of Baptists, for so many people the word “Baptist” immediately conjures up the notion of “legalism.” What I believe fits very well with those statistics. There is a tendency in fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to make every point of strong disagreement a disagreement over “the gospel,” when in reality it’s just a second tier disagreement. This helps feed the public impression that Baptists are divisive and legalistic. The word “schismatics” is usually applied to people who tend to be unnecessarily divisive when they disagree with others and are excessive in their criticism of other Christians. I think this word is appropriate inasmuch as such divisive discourse violates the biblical doctrine of Christian unity (a biblical doctrine you will not find treated at any great length in today’s systematic theological textbooks, but that was actually one of the most fundamental doctrines of the early church).
It is strong enough language that Moore (in the article) calls Robertson a “cartoon character” we evangelicals “allow to speak for us,” and calls his theology “Canaanite mammonocracy.” But to argue that he has repudiated the gospel by his view on divorce and dementia is going too far and demonstrates the importance of Mohler’s theological triage.
The great challenge for our generation, as Dr. Mohler says, is that we get the “right doctrines in the right tier” not just for the sake of protecting first order doctrines, but for the sake of Christian unity (V).
If we take first order doctrines and make them third order doctrines–disaster will ensue and we will end up abandoning the faith! If we take third order doctrines and make them first order issues and say “People have to believe this to be a Christian,” then we do violence to the New Testament. (V)
What “tier” should issues of divorce and remarriage fall under? It seems to answer this question we must consider questions like these: Is it possible for someone to be a Christian and yet be too loose with their divorce policy? I think a more humble, charitable, reasonable, and biblical response to this question is “Yes.” Thus while I think Moore was right to lash out publicly and decry Robertson’s advice, his choice of rhetoric was overboard, and he could have publicly disagreed with Robertson without accusing the man of denying “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
To put it strongly, if we take Robertson, as Moore interprets him, as having “morally justified” divorce for a Husband who is in adultery with his Alzheimer’s stricken wife, we can say that Robertson’s advice asks followers of Christ to lay down their cross; to only follow Jesus when it is easy. We could say Robertson’s position subverts and inverts the sacrificial, cross-carrying example of Christ’s love for the church, cheapening the biblical imagery to accommodate the husband’s self-ambition. I could say more about this, but the point is this: There are many ways to offer sharp and public criticism against Robertson’s advice without blowing the anathema trumpet and accusing him of having repudiated the very gospel of Jesus Christ.
By choosing our words more carefully, we can not merely defend the sacredness of marriage and the calling of the gospel to love sacrificially after the example of Christ, but also do so in such a way that does not undermine Christian unity and also avoids feeding into the already widespread impression in Christendom that Southern Baptists (as a microcosm of conservative evangelicalism) are “legalistic,” “judgmental,” and “schismatic.”
Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011), 778 pp.
About Gregg R. Allison
Although Allison has written a theology book here or there in the past or contributed chapters here or there to certain academic works, there is no doubt that this work is his first major theological tome and demonstrates his life-long engagement as an academic professor with historical theology. Allison has taught courses at several eminent evangelical institutions in the U.S. He held a position at Western Seminary in Portland, and taught as an adjunct at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. He also taught in Europe for the Institute of Biblical Studies. Currently Dr. Allison is Professor of Christian Theology in Louisville at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he presently resides; he also continues to teach for the Institute of Biblical Studies.
As a former student (and ongoing friend) of Dr. Allison, I can attest that in addition to his ability as a lucid writer, he is an exceptionally gifted teacher. His pedagogical style of lecturing is unlike any other professor I had the privilege of sitting under at SBTS. His tendency would be to lecture for half the class and save the other half for a mind-wrenching Socratic dialogue between himself and the students, prodding us with questions and inviting the same. His wife Nora is also an exceptional woman. I had the privilege, for a time, of working with her in an outreach ministry of Walnut Street Baptist Church for at-risk inner-city students in Louisville when her and Gregg were both members there. They both have missionary mentality in their blood, having spent a great deal of their lives as missionaries in Italy and Switzerland as a part of their service for the Campus Crusade for Christ International.
First, Allison’s Historical Theology must be seen in context. Allison came to know Wayne Grudem while working on his M.Div. and his Ph.D. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where Grudem, having completed his Ph.D. from Cambridge, taught New Testament. He and Grudem became friends and Grudem encouraged Allison to pursue further studies after his M.Div. After spending over 3 years as a missionary in Switzerland with Campus Crusade for Christ, Allison returned to TEDS to pursue a Ph.D. Grudem was his doctoral supervisor for his dissertation, which was on the perspicuity of Scripture (which immersed him in a vortex of exegetical, systematic, and historical theology). After teaching a while at Western Seminary in Portland, Allison tells the story (via e-mail correspondence) about the genesis of his book:
I began teaching at Western Seminary in 1994 and three years later Wayne contacted me about a book project that needed to happen: a book that would cover everything his Systamatic Theology book did not treat. It sounded like a great idea! Then he told me he wanted me to write it and that he had already cleared the way for me to do so with Zondervan.
Over a decade in the making, then, Gregg’s Historical Theology is written as a companion to Grudem’s Systematic Theology, which itself is a monstrous introduction over 1200 pages long that is one of the most widely used systematic textbooks in evangelical seminaries. Grudem’s work has been a key resource for the popular resurgence of Calvinistic theology with a charismatic twist (i.e. Grudem makes a case against cessationism in this book).
If Grudem’s Systematic Theology deserves to be called the “Blue Beast” for its breadth and wide usage, then surely Gregg Allison’s new Historical Theology (both written and styled as a companion to Grudem’s book) can be worthily dubbed the “Green Grizzly.” A mere introduction to Historical Theology (in spite of the breadth of its scope), Allison’s new book is more than a worthy companion to Grudem’s systematic introduction. For those who do theology in conservative evangelical circles, Allison’s complementary work will hewn out a narrow path for exploring historical perspectives within the boundaries of an unwavering conservative evangelical framework. Allison’s arrangement of materials is often presented with the intention of showing that many of the evangelical doctrines have strong historical precedent in the Church’s pre-Reformation theologians.
Far from a dry, disinterested, and neutral presentation of historical facts, Allison’s survey presents a uniquely shaped historiography of doctrinal development that strongly favors conservative evangelical theology and has an apologetic posture built into its structure. As with any theologian, of course, Allison’s confessional commitments decisively shape his evaluation of the Church’s litany of eminent theologians. As an unashamed Protestant, for example, rather than sounding his own critiques of “misguided Catholic formulations,” he gives particular attention to the historical critiques used by the Reformers themselves (13). He likewise gives particular attention to the apologetic critiques of modernity’s attacks against Christianity (13).
Although it is an introduction to “Christian Doctrine,” he clarifies in the introduction that he is focusing only on the Western theological tradition, and thus leaving out a great deal of Eastern Orthodox perspectives (16). Characteristic of his humility, however, Allison admits “while I do tell the story … it is not the whole story” (14). Furthermore, although I often lament the exclusion of Orthodox perspectives in the West, one must certainly appreciate the space constraints forced upon Allison’s work. If Allison would have had his way the book would probably have been two or three volumes long. The final product we have in our hands is therefore an impressively condensed version of Allison’s work.
Evangelicals using Grudem as a key introductory source will now have a way to supplement their systematic theology with more historical sensitivity and awareness. This book could easily be used as a research launching pad for students wanting to delve deeper into a particular point of interest in historical theology while attempting to simultaneously evaluate and appropriate these theological sources through the guiding lenses of the Reformation slogans: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria.
For these reasons (and more) Allison’s book is sure to become a widely used tool in the North America’s evangelical churches, colleges and seminaries. Like Calvin’s french edition of the Institutes, Gregg’s Historical Theology is a masterpiece of evangelical pedagogy. It has the potential to subvert the stereotype of evangelicals who are ignorantly detached from the Christian past and imagine that all the key theological insights find their genesis in the sixteenth century Reformers. Allison’s consistent engagement with the Fathers of the Church may even prove a fertile ground for renewed interest in the patristic witness and therefore more theological discussions between evangelical theologians and theologians of the larger Christian Tradition.
Links to Other Reviews
The book may not be written for academicians (it’s an introduction for students), but I am still hopful that eventually we will see peer reviews in academic journals. There is already a catalogue of praise from readers at Amazon (myself included).
Tim Chester (UK) director of The Porterbrook Institute says that although it has its minor drawbacks and inaccuracies, he compares Historical Theology favorably to Grudem’s Systematic Theology and adds that it is easy to read and flows like a narrative. He gives this glowing conclusion: “If you like Grudem then you’ll like Allison even more.” Click here to read his full review.
Owen Strachan thinks it’s an ideal reference tool for a study of the Christian past. Click here to read his full post.
The following is a summary/review of: W.P. Loewe, “The Historical Jesus,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 6 (Gale, 2002), 863-868.
The quest for the “historical Jesus” is aptly defined by W.P. Loewe as an attempt to reconstruct the earthly life of Jesus with the use of historical critical methods. Since the sources of the life of Jesus are laden with theological interpretation and are not historical biographies in the modern sense, moderns attempt to look past the theological interpretations to siphon reliable historical data. Although Loewe’s more modest claim is simply that the discipline of critical history was a child of the Enlightenment, his following account of the exploitations of critical historians who used critical methods to undermine the “Jesus of faith” demonstrates that the Enlightenment reconstructions themselves are inevitably fraught with their own unique modern interpretations (and there is good reason to believe that getting behind “interpretations” to discover bare historical facts about Jesus is a naïve quest only imaginable by an Enlightenment prejudice).
Certain authors mark turning points or trends within the critical approach to Jesus studies. Albert Schweitzer’s “magisterial survey” marks the end of the first phase in which critical inquiry was most premature. Writers like H.S. Reimarus, D.F. Strauss, and B. Bauer saw an opportunity to wield critical methods as a weapon against the Christian Church (863). Such authors eagerly dismissed Jesus as a revolutionary messianic failure (Reimarus), an inspirational personality who inspired a myth (Strauss), or a superfluous hypothesis (Bauer). Likewise, Protestant liberals such as A. von Harnack used critical methods to play a version of Jesus’ simple message off against traditional doctrine to make him more palpable to their contemporaries (864). Critical methods, then, were serving various and contradictory agendas. Schweitzer himself believed Jesus was an apocalyptic delusionary who tried to “force God’s hand” by his passion and death (864). In retrospect, of course, we can see that Jesus was mistaken in his apocalyptic fervor.
In the wake of such a quest for the historical Jesus, there was left open a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the so-called “historical Jesus” and the so-called “Christ of faith” (864). Jesus studies even fell on hard times, with Bultmann even arguing that any attempt to validate historically the biblical call to faith is in effect “an effort to win salvation by intellectual works,” while as a form critic also arguing that reconstructions of Jesus ministry were “practically impossible” (865-66). Loewe attributes the revival in optimism for Jesus studies (the “New Quest”) to Ernst Käsemann. The distinctive characteristics the author describes as 1) a more positive attempt to find underlying continuity amidst the discontinuity and 2) a far more “critical” attitude toward its sources—only those passages that met a “stringent criteria” could be “accorded historical probability” (865).
The scholarly corrections of E.P. Sanders brought into sharp focus new insight about the Judaism of Jesus’ day that showed a bias in Protestant scholarship to read the Catholic-Luther conflict back into the Jesus-Pharisee conflict (866). A number of new sources such as The Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered in 1946-56) have contributed crucially to the ongoing revisions within Jesus studies. The novel approach of the Jesus Seminar was to vote on each saying of Jesus to create a consensus (including some of the extrabiblical Gnostic material and the hypothetical Q source). The recent work of John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew (several volumes) is taken more seriously by Loewe.
The article concludes that 1) historical reconstructions are always subject to revision in principle, 2) appeals to any particular reconstruction as the “real Jesus,” played against the Christ of faith are simplistic and naïve, 3) although there is a diversity of historical probabilities, this does not make the results of the discipline arbitrary or purely subjective, 4) one can move beyond the historical while still being informed by the historical methods, and, finally, being true to the Catholic perspective, the author concludes that 5) historical Jesus research is a safeguard against “temptations to docetism” (868).
What did Augustine say about the love of God, better known as Christian charity? Is it a self-interested love, one that seeks God as a means to happiness? Some have interpreted him in this way. The following are some key texts in Augustine that have been (wrongfully I think) interpreted this way. I have included numbered sources, commentary, and some quotations.
1. Augustine, “The Spirit and the Letter,” in Augustine: Later Works, edited and translated by John Burnaby, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 36 , 51 [235-236]. Augustine considers the gift of grace primarily in terms of love, and love as caused by faith. This is also how he interprets Paul’s doctrine of justification—God’s making us love God by the gift of faith, which makes us likewise delight in doing whatever he commands.
2. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, translated and edited by R.P.H. Green, Oxford World’s Classics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999), I.35-37 [25-26].
Augustine admits that even in someone’s compassion for the needy
… somehow there also results an advantage to us, since God does not let the compassion we show to the needy go unrewarded. This reward is the supreme reward—that we may thoroughly enjoy Him and that all of us who enjoy Him may enjoy one another in Him. For if we enjoy one another in ourselves, we remain as it were on the road and put our hopes of happiness on a human being … When you enjoy a human being in God, you are enjoying God rather than that human being. For you enjoy the one by whom you are made happy, and you will one day rejoice that you have attained the one in whom you now set your hope of attaining him. … Yet the idea of enjoying someone or something is very close to that of using someone or something together with love. For when the object of love is present, it inevitably brings with it pleasure as well. If you go beyond this pleasure and relate it to your permanent goal, you are using it, and are said to enjoy it not in the literal sense but in a transferred sense. But if you hold fast and go no further, making it the goal of your joy, then you should be described as enjoying it in the true and literal sense of the word. This is to be done only in the case of the Trinity, the supreme and unchangeable good. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, I.35-37 [25-26]
Augustine makes a distinction between loving someone “in ourselves” and loving someone “in God.” I.76-80 [25-26]).
Here is Augustine’s famous definition of love:
By love I mean the impulse of one’s mind to enjoy God on His own account and to enjoy oneself and one’s neighbor on account of God. … What love does to benefit itself is self-interest, and what it does to benefit a neighbor is known as kindness. And here self-interest comes first, because nobody can do good to another out of resources which he does not possess. The more the realm of lust is destroyed, the more the realm of love is increased. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 3.37-38 
There is still an element of uncertainty here. I am saying that we enjoy a thing which we love for itself, and that we should enjoy only a thing by which we are made happy, but use everything else. God loves us [but] if he enjoys us, he stands in need of our goodness, which only a madman could assert; for all our goodness either comes from him or actually consists of him… So God does not enjoy us, but uses us. (If he neither enjoys nor uses us, then I fail to see how he can love us at all). Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 1.73-74 .
3. Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, translated and edited by R.W. Dyson, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (New York, NK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Augustine thinks the chief folly of pagan philosophers is to seek the “Final Good” or “the Supreme Good” in something temporal such as the body, the soul, or virtue, and then seeking to achieve it “by their own efforts” (Augustine, The City of God, 19.4 ). He goes on to underscore the limitations of the best of pagan virtue and scrutinizes as absurd the notion that this life, with all its attendant miseries, can truly be called happy, concluding: “Let them no longer suppose that the Final and Supreme Good is something in which they may rejoice while in this mortal condition” (Ibid., 19.4 ). Even though Augustine puts great stress on how “we do not enjoy a present happiness,” yet he affirms that “it is in hope that we have been made happy” (ibid., Italics added). This paradox demonstrates that Augustine’s language is imprecise, and when he denies present happiness, he does not intend to rule out present delight or happiness altogether, but considers this life a sad prospect for ultimate happiness. There is no doubt that Augustine’s contemporary circumstances (read: the fall of Rome) as well as Scripture itself greatly shaped his concern to emphasize the temporal limitations of the “city of man.”
Michael S. Sherwin, O.P. By Knowledge and By Love: Charity and Knowledge in the Moral Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005. 270 pp.
While the aftermath of Alasdair Macintyre’s Enlightenment critique and return to the virtue theory of Aristotle and Aquinas has caused a timely and refreshing revitalization that has exploded onto the scene of Catholic moral theology, Protestant ethics, and moral philosophy, by now it has produced different interpretations of the authorities of virtue ethics. It is in the context of an interpretive dispute over the virtue theory of St. Thomas Aquinas that our author, Michael S. Sherwin, enters the fray as a new voice in the conversation. A school of thought within Catholic moral theology that Sherwin calls the “theologians of moral motivation” have appropriated Aquinas’s complex Aristotelian moral theology to give added credibility to their peculiar Rahnerian notions of option fondamentale and transcendental freedom (xix).
In particular, Josef Fuchs and James Keenan have developed the Rahnerian doctrine of transcendental freedom in a way that views the will’s motion in transcendental freedom as antecedent to, or independent of, practical reasoning and objects of choice. Hence a separation is made between one’s goodness (one’s fundamental orientation) and one’s rightness (one’s concrete moral judgments and actions); one’s wrongness in actions therefore may be seen as not necessarily undermining their goodness on the transcendental level (which is more important). Sherwin’s book is nothing short of a penetrating polemic against theologians of moral motivation (Keenan in particular) who claim that such a distinction is implied in Aquinas’s mature thought on the will and charity. The author argues that although there was indeed development in Aquinas’s mature thought, nevertheless there remained in Aquinas a basic continuity on the point in question: knowledge always has a structural priority over the will.
Aquinas held that the intellect has a certain causal priority in the act of specification (specifying the good in particular based on a perceived notion of the good in general) while the will and its appetites for the end have priority of the intellect in the act of exercise (the intellect is moved by the will’s appetites to consider the good and to choose the means for attaining this good). This does not lead to intellectual determinism, however, because the will influences our judgments, how we perceive things and whether we consider one aspect of something over another aspect. Since intellect and will seem to presuppose one another, Aquinas escapes the problematic of an infinite regress by attributing the cause of the will’s and the intellect’s first act to human nature and thus to God. Since voluntary action presupposes rational choice, to choose apart from knowledge of the good is actually a “form of insanity” (100). Sherwin finally shows that for Aquinas, as it is with the intellect and the will in human nature, so it is with faith and charity in the infused virtues. Faith has a similar structural priority over love while love informs all the virtues. Finally Sherwin demonstrates that if charity has its act apart from the intellect’s knowledge, it ceases to be a virtue because it no longer has a recognizable concrete form in an account of human actions—it is not “recognizably human” (224).
The strength of Sherwin’s book is surely his rigorous analysis of Aquinas’s virtue theory (building on Henri Bouillard and Max Seckler) that consequentially yields a more intelligible view of human action that leaves little wanting. His is also more faithful to the Christian tradition’s Augustinian insight that one cannot love what one does not know. The book has a helpful index and contains figures that depict the dynamics and principles of human action. A more believable interpreter of Aquinas, Sherwin’s Aquinas helps us see the folly of spoiling the proper relationship between the intellect and will and between knowledge of God and love.
Bradley R. Cochran
Was Aquinas a Calvinist? Well … sort of. I realize the question is anachronistic, but Aquinas retained the doctrines of grace propogated by Augustine that the Calvinist tradition borrowed from during the Protestant Reformation (e.g. the doctrine of unconditional election, predestination, infallible grace, etc.). There are many qualifications to this claim I do not have time to write about here (perhaps in a future post).
Those who hold a Calvinistic notion of predestination have also been known to hold that nevertheless God desires that all people be saved because Scripture affirms it. For this reason 1 Timothy 2:1-4 also appears to many to be a major stumbling block (read: contradiction) to the entire soteriological system known as Calvinism. How can we say that God desires all people to be saved when we know that ultimately God decides who is and who is not saved, yet does not choose everyone. Does God not always do whatever he desires? Does he not desire that all be saved?
I will now call upon Thomas Aquinas, however, to explain to us why this verse, and God’s desire that all be saved, does not contradict the doctrine of predestination. I will first quote the verse itself, then Aquinas:
First of all I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority. … This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. — 1 Tim 2:3-4 (NASB)
Aquinas thinks that the word “all” in this passage likely means “applying to every class of individuals, not to every individual of each class; in which case they mean that God wills some men of every class and condition to be saved, males and females, Jews and Gentiles, great and small, but not all of every condition” (ST I.19.6.ad.1).
He also offers Damascene’s notion of “the antecedent will of God” which is to be contrasted to “the consequent will” of God. Here the point is this: God’s will considered absolutely entails that all men should be saved, but by adding “some additional circumstances” or “by a consequent consideration” the verdict of God’s will may turn out to be reversed (ST I.19.6.ad.1).
For example, considered absolutely it is good that all men should live and be free, unless or until that one person is considered an extreme danger and menace of society by killing and raping others, in which case a good judge may will him to hang or be thrown in jail rather than live and be free.
Thus it may be said that a just judge will simply the hanging of a murderer, but in a qualified manner he would will him to live … Such a qualified will may be called a willingness rather than an absolute will. Thus it is clear that whatever God simply wills takes place; although what He wills antecedently may not take place. (ST I.19.6.ad.1).
While Damascene refers to “antecedent will” and “consequent will,” Aquinas prefers to speak of the former as “willingness” and the latter as “simple will.” Willingness is what God wills with all things being “equal” (as it were), apart from circumstantial suppositions. Simple will is God’s final will once all circumstantial considerations are in view. Not that Aquinas would imagine that there is ever a time when God’s brain fails to consider something with all its attendant circumstances (God is outside of time and doesn’t have a brain). Rather, this language is metaphorical and taken from human speech. God wills that all be saved in the same way that a judge wills all men to be free and live, although given good reason, this will may be reversed. But this does not destroy the “good will” of the judge; therefore, neither should it cause us to call into question God’s good will to those who are damned.
It is indeed striking to me that I had only been exposed to this kind of reasoning through the Calvinist tradition, yet here Aquinas is found using the same reasoning. But my amazement does not stop there, since Aquinas gets his distinctions from St. John of Damascus (Damascene), a Syrian Christian monk and priest († 676-749) venerated as a Saint in both the Catholic Church and in Eastern Orthodoxy.