Category: Bible and Theology

The Hugh Hewitt/Andrew Sullivan kerfuffle has been mentioned a few times on the PowerBlog (here and here, for example), and while the dust has largely settled from that event, the issues that it raised continue to be addressed in various corners of the blogosphere. The most interesting (and extensive) commentary that I’ve read on Sullivan and his new book is by the Rev. Dr. Mark Roberts, who serves as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California. Roberts’ critique is well worth a read in full, but here’s a sample to get you going:

I find Sullivan’s thoughts about Christianity fascinating for several reasons. One is that he epitomizes something I’d call “Retrofitted Christianity.” What do I mean by this? If you look up “retrofit” in the dictionary, one definition reads: “To provide with parts, devices, or equipment not in existence or available at the time of original manufacture.” If you retrofit a classic car, for example, you might give it a new engine that wasn’t available when the car was first built. So retrofitted Christianity is a version of classic faith that includes new parts that weren’t there at first. Some people, like Andrew Sullivan, think this is a better or even more authentic version of the faith. Others, like me, for example, are concerned that the retrofitted version of Christianity exemplified by Sullivan lacks some essential parts, even though it gets some things right.

This post concludes my series on the largely forgotten catholicity of Protestant ethics, with a few brief remarks and reflections.

My goal for this series, as stated in Part 1, was to show that voluntarism and nominalism are not the same thing, that two important Reformed theologians (Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi) had more than a passing interest in Thomism (or intellectualism as Pope Benedict XVI referred to it in his now famous Regensburg address), and that evangelicals need to revisit their wariness on the capacity of reason to discern moral truth. Much more could be written on each of these topics, and likely will be on this blog and some others, but the fundamental point should not be missed that two significant sixteenth-century Reformed theologians break the modern mold for Protestant ethics. Among the thinkers and writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I can assure you there are numerous others who also break the mold.

For almost one hundred years now, Protestant theologians and ethicists have held natural law at arm’s length. During this same period, Protestant theologians have also largely shunned any vestige of the scholastic and metaphysical base of Reformation-era theology in order to gain acceptance in the modern Academy and to increase their contemporary cachet. Whether this strategy has been successful, or if it is even coherent to begin with, is beyond this blog series to determine, but I have my doubts.

It is enough to simply point out that natural law is tied to philosophical realism — the belief that the created world is the external foundation of knowledge for all science. (Read Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1, pp. 223-33). And that a realist metaphysic, was the agreed upon philosophical approach from the very beginning of Christianity to somewhere in the eighteenth century when modern currents of thought began to chip it away. (For those who doubt whether this is so, take up and read Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine). According to the Belgic Confession, the world “is a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.” It is high time that Protestants recover a sense of their connectedness with the broader and older Christian moral tradition and take up once again “the invisible things of God.”

“If nominalism is correct,” as Bavinck warned, “we can forget about science altogether.”

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

Blog author: jcouretas
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
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Over at NRO, Jerry Bowyer looks at the left’s use of Scripture and Biblical history in making its case for higher taxes.

It’s hard to believe that recent attacks on the religious right in America are attacks on wealth itself. Where would the Left be if George Soros had sold all his possessions and given those proceeds to the poor? Where would John Kerry be if Henry John Heinz had done the same a hundred years ago?

It seems more likely that many of Bush’s American critics are not really calling for the elimination of all wealth accumulation, but more likely using (or misusing) these passages for their rhetorical value in a battle over the president’s tax cuts. I’m afraid, however, that the Biblical tradition offers no more succor to opponents of tax cuts than it does to opponents of wealth in general.

Read “The Gospel According to St. Marx.”

This post sketches out the rough outline of Jerome Zanchi’s understanding of natural law. An interesting difference between Zanchi and Martyr is that Thomistic elements are far more important in Zanchi’s theology than in Martyr’s theology.

The historian John Patrick Donnelly thinks Zanchi is the best example of “Calvinist Thomism,” meaning a theologian who was Reformed in theology and Thomistic in philosophy and methodology. Zanchi was born and raised near Bergamo where he entered the Augustinian Canons and received a Thomistic training. Martyr was his prior at Lucca and was instrumental in his conversion to Protestantism. Zanchi spent ten years as a Nicodemite, or crypto-Calvinist, teaching theology before fleeing north to Geneva in 1552, where he studied for a year under Calvin. Later he served as professor of theology at Strasbourg, Heidelberg, and Neustadt until his death in 1590. After his death his relatives gathered most of his writings into his Opera in eight large tomes, which went through three editions. In all, there were about seventy printings of his writings. (See John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 444).

Zanchi planned a great Protestant “summa” modeled after Thomas’ Summa theologica. According to Donnelly, the first four volumes of Zanchi’s Opera, which appeared under separate titles as he finished them at Heidelberg, cover the same material at twice the length as the first half of Thomas’s Summa. Even though Zanchi never completed his “summa,” it is unrivaled for thoroughness and synthetic power in sixteenth-century Protestant theology. (See Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 444).

Zanchi begins his analysis of natural law by noticing that canon lawyers and theologians restrict their idea of natural law to human nature, defining it as “the law common to all nations and that’s obeyed everywhere by natural instinct not by any statue.” Civil lawyers also use this definition for the law of nations because all people employ these laws and are led by them. Examples of such laws include statues concerning God, public worship, religion, obedience to superiors and the state, and defense of oneself, one’s family, and the state. (more…)

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

–U.S. Book of Common Prayer, “Of the Reign of Christ,” (1979), p. 254


“My kingdom is not of this world.”

–John 18:36 (New International Version)

On this eve of the mid-term elections in the United States, it’s worthwhile to reflect a bit on the impetus in North American evangelical Christianity to emphasize the importance of politics. Indeed, it is apparent that the term “evangelical” is quickly coming to have primarily political significance, rather than theological or ecclesiastical, such that Time magazine could include two Roman Catholics (Richard John Neuhaus and Rick Santorum) among its list of the 25 most influential “evangelicals” in America.

When the accusations came to light about Ted Haggard, which led to his resignation from the National Association of Evangelicals and eventual dismissal from New Life Church, the first instinct by many was to see this as primarily a political event. Late last week James Dobson said of Haggard, “It appears someone is trying to damage his reputation as a way of influencing the outcome of Tuesday’s election.” Perhaps the timing of the charges did indeed have political motivations, but Haggard’s admission of guilt carries with it implications that reach far beyond mere politics, into the realm of the spiritual.

It should be noted that after Haggard’s guilt came to light, Dobson did say that the scandal had “grave implications for the cause of Christ,” and Pastor Larry Stockstill, head of the oversight board in charge of Haggard’s investigation, said “that politics played ‘zero’ role in the haste of the process that led to Haggard’s removal, and that the oversight board received no political pressure from anyone.” But even so, the fact that Haggard has been portrayed as a political heavyweight (with access to the President) and the National Association of Evangelicals has been called “a powerful lobbying group,” rather than an ecumenical and ecclesiastical organization, speaks volumes. (more…)

This post examines Peter Martyr Vermigli’s understanding of natural law, while Part 6 will take up the natural-law thinking of Jerome Zanchi, Martyr’s former student and colleague.

Martyr was born in Florence in 1499, entered the Augustinian Canons, and took a doctorate in theology at the leading center of Renaissance Aristotelianism, the University of Padua. His favorite authors were Aristotle and Thomas. In Italy he enjoyed a distinguished career as teacher, preacher, and abbot. By 1540 he was already Protestant by conviction; after persuading many citizens and canons, including Zanchi, to convert, Martyr fled to Zurich in 1542 to escape the Inquisition. During the last twenty years of his life he taught at Strasbourg, Oxford, and Zurich. He died in 1562 two years before Calvin. Over half a dozen of his students became important theologians. And all together there were about 110 printings of his various writings, which consist of about twenty-five massive volumes. Within Reformed circles he was universally admired for his piety, prudence, and scholarship. (This paragraph is adapted from John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 442).

While Martyr disagrees with Thomas nearly as often as he adopts his teaching, they both view theology as a science whose principles are borrowed from revelation. In fact, Martyr’s discussion of the nature of theology borrows the content, language, and examples of the opening question of Thomas’s Summa, but without acknowledging their source. Like Thomas, Martyr tries to incorporate as much from Aristotle in his system as is consistent with Scripture; thus in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics Martyr usually concludes each chapter by showing the agreement of Aristotle’s teaching with the Bible. (Adapted from Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 443).

In his theological works Martyr cites Aristotle ninety-eight times — more than ten times as often as Calvin does in the Institutes. Martyr’s works cite thirteen other Aristotelian philosophers a total of eighty-five times. Martyr also refers to twenty medieval scholastic authors, particularly Peter Lombard and Thomas. And he never cites a nominalist work with approval. He agrees with Thomas far more often than he lets on. This is so because their theologies are a synthesis of Scripture and Aristotelian philosophy. (Adapted from Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” 443).

For Martyr, like Thomas, all knowledge is either revealed or acquired. Theology is revealed knowledge and philosophy is acquired knowledge. (Some might even say philosophy is an acquired taste.) Knowledge of God breaks down along parallel lines as revealed and acquired knowledge. Revealed knowledge of God is restricted and refers to things that can only be known by special revelation, such as the doctrines of justification, forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body. Acquired or natural knowledge of God, however, is unrestricted and refers to things that can be known through nature, reason, or conscience.

Martyr uses two explanations to account for the natural knowledge of God. First, knowledge of God can arise simply from reflection on the Creator’s workmanship. And, second, it can arise from certain information the Creator hardwired into the mind. Martyr thought the hardwired information led people “to conceive noble and exalted opinions about the divine nature” and, as a result, to pattern their behavior consistent with those opinions. Martyr calls the first type contemplation, and sees it illustrated in Romans 1, and the second he calls practical, and sees it illustrated in the natural moral law of Romans 2. Like Luther and Calvin, he held to the existence of a universally imprinted knowledge of God that justly holds people accountable for their innate moral consciousness and awareness of God.

According to Romans 2:14, the classic natural-law passage, even though the Gentiles did not have the Decalogue, they did “by nature” the things contained in it. “The light of nature,” declares Martyr, allowed them “to discern between honesty and dishonesty, between right and wrong. So if we look upon the life and manners of Cato, Atticus, Socrates, and Aristides, we shall see that in justice and civil comeliness they far excelled a great many Christians and Jews. Therefore they cannot excuse themselves for not having had a law.”

Martyr disagrees with Augustine and Ambrose who both thought the apostle Paul was referring to believing Gentiles — and not unredeemed humanity — in Romans 2:14. To justify his position, he gave two reasons why knowledge of the moral law is implanted in the human mind. The first is to take away all excuses by providing objective and universal knowledge of the moral law and the fact of future judgment. The second is to motivate us to do what we know to be just and honest. This is what prods us to pursue righteousness and serves to renew God’s image in us. According to Martyr, “The image of God, in which man was created, is not utterly blotted out but obfuscated in the fall, and for that reason is in need of renewal by God. So natural knowledge is not fully quenched in our minds, but much of it still remains….” While natural law takes away excuses, Martyr thinks it can only effectively motivate believers to pursue righteousness because apart from Christ, as they already know, it is impossible to please God.

So much for Martyr, in the next post we will take up Zanchi.

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
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Hugh Hewitt interviewed Andrew Sullivan on the radio last week about Sullivan’s book, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back.

Discussing the value of various figures throughout history as moral heroes, Sullivan speaks of “the great question that Pilate asked, what is truth? The truth is not quite as easy and as simple as we sometimes think it is. And the truth about everything, the meaning of the whole universe, is something that is, by definition, very hard for humans to grasp. I mean, God, if God exists, must, by definition, be unknowable to us.”

Mark Judge, who passes along the transcript (HT: Instapundit), says that Sullivan’s favorable quotation of Pilate made him “once and for all feel sorry for Sullivan.”

Chuck Colson, who delivered an address at the Acton Institute’s Annual Dinner last week (mp3) has a somewhat different take on the scene between Jesus and Pilate:

Truth is the great issue, always has been. When Jesus was hauled before Pilate, turned over to him by the Jews, and Pilate couldn’t figure out who he was. And Jesus said, “I am the truth, and those who are of the truth hear my words.” At that moment, to me it was the great clash that has continued all through the ages. When Pilate said to him, “What is the truth?”

Except that’s not what Pilate said. Every one of the translations of the Bible I think get it wrong. They all have question marks after Pilate saying, “What is the truth.” Mel Gibson, great theologian, got it right in The Passion of the Christ, when he has takes the Aramaic, the voice Aramaic, and translates into the subtitles and has, “What is truth,” exclamation point. Pilate was saying exactly as our culture is saying to us today, “What is truth!” Scoffing disregard for the very concept of truth.

What is truth? What is truth is ultimate reality, what Jesus meant by that answer. And of course there’s truth, unless you believe everything you are seeing in this room is an illusion. And so we are the people of the truth, we believe there is ultimate reality and we believe it is knowable. And that puts us right up against our culture.

Now of course the translators of the Bible aren’t wrong (Pilate’s phrase in the Greek begins with an interrogative pronoun and ends with the punctuation equivalent of a question mark), but Colson’s point is well taken. Sullivan’s emphasis on the ineffability or unknowableness of God undermines the truth that God has definitively revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

But instead of anchoring himself to this firm foundation, as you might expect a Roman Catholic to do, Sullivan flounders for a moral compass in a sea of relativism:

And what I find very troubling about today’s…some of today’s, not everybody, but some of today’s fundamentalists is their absolute certainty not only about what God is, but their right to tell other people how to live their lives, according to their view of what God is.

For more one the term “fundamentalist” as a term of opprobrium, check out Al Plantinga’s examination of the term’s usage in discussing his epistemological model in Warranted Christian Belief,

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged to first define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relative conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’ (pp. 244-45).

It seems to me that Sullivan exemplifies this usage of the term pretty darn well.

As promised in Part 3, this post will begin a discussion of natural law in the thought of the Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), but first I want to touch on the broader issue of natural law in the context of Reformation theology.

More than any other Reformer, John Calvin is appealed to for his insight on natural law. This is probably due to the stubborn persistence among scholars to single him out as the chief early codifier of Protestant doctrine. While this approach is understandable given the force of habit, the discussion should be widened beyond Calvin to include those Reformers who either preceded him or were contemporaries of his and the later representatives of Protestant orthodoxy. Though Calvin talks a fair bit about natural law, his treatment of it is unsystematic and imprecise compared to the medievals and some of his contemporaries. Susan Schreiner, a Calvin expert and University of Chicago Divinity School professor, thinks Calvin’s discussion of natural law should be seen as an extension of his doctrine of providence. In her view, Calvin uses natural law for the practical purpose of explaining how order is preserved after the fall in society, law, and morality.

As time passes in the sixteenth century, however, Protestant theologians develop increasingly sophisticated doctrines of natural law that they situate in the wider context of the grand moral tradition with Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, and many others. What is striking here is the degree to which Martyr and his fellow Reformer and former student Jerome Zanchi, for example, show continuity with Thomas and Scotus. The Jesuit historical theologian John Patrick Donnelly expresses a similar viewpoint. “Does Martyr’s scholasticism have affinities to any particular medieval school? Yes. Martyr cannot fairly be called a Thomist, yet his scholasticism stands far closer to Thomism than to any other major school of the Middle Ages. His training was mainly Thomistic and he cites Aquinas far more than any other scholastic except Lombard.”

The astonishing thing about the rise of Reformed scholasticism in the 1540s and 50s is that its medieval roots run heavily to Thomism and Scotism, hardly at all to nominalism. This challenges the opinion of several prominent contemporary Roman Catholic and Protestant intellectuals, who credit the emphasis on the will in Protestant ethics to the influence of William of Occam rather than to medieval Augustinian antecedents.

Use of traditional natural-law terms in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant orthodoxy show significant points of continuity with the thought of Thomas and Scotus. The discontinuities stem from disputes over the interpretation of key biblical passages, an expanded sense of how sin affects reason and human nature, and a criticism of works righteousness, to mention a few key areas. Calvin, Martyr, and the Reformed scholastics all share the conviction that Scripture is the cognitive foundation of theology and that moral arguments can be based on precepts drawn from that foundation.

Part 5 will begin to sketch out Martyr’s view of natural law.

This entry has been cross-posted to my blog, Common Notions.

I ran across the following quote from Søren Kierkegaard recently (HT: the evangelical outpost):

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

On the surface, Kierkegaard’s critique of so-called “Christian scholarship” is quite powerful. The depiction amounts to a view of rationalizing Christianity that uses the wiles of reason, which Martin Luther in some of his more polemical moments said was “the Devil’s greatest whore,” to escape the implications of the gospel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely had Kierkegaard’s complaint, or something very much like it, explicitly in mind when he wrote in Discipleship that “we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks.” He goes on to say, “If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment’.” The point is that “all along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience.”

Herman Bavinck, on the other hand, writes,

There are also many words put down in Scripture which God spoke to a definite person in peculiar circumstances, but which are not directed to us, and therefore need not be followed by us. Thus He commanded Abraham to offer his son, Phinehas to kill the adulterous man and woman, Saul to bring Agag, and, so as not to mention more, thus Jesus commanded the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Human society would be in a sad state if Christians had to follow this example literally and had to apply this in their surroundings. Yet a few have indeed tried this and have displayed by this their wrong interpretation of Scripture.

At this point he might have in mind the sort of radical pacifism practiced by certain kinds of Anabaptist groups, highlighted most recently in the case of the Amish and their reaction to the recent schoolhouse shootings. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession in its original form denounced the Anabaptists as anarchists, in part because they denied the power of retributive justice to the civil government: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”

Part of the difficulty comes in properly understanding what is a particular command or duty in an individual circumstance and what is a general and universally binding divine law. In agreement with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, I don’t think we should simply be able to move facilely and simply from the explicit and clear teaching of Scripture to something completely opposite. The interpretation of difficult passages in light of the whole of Scripture’s testimony, which may ultimately result in a doctrine like just war, should be as genuinely and equally principled as the Amish interpretation of commands to peace and non-violence.

I conclude with a final note I gleaned from my reading of Timothy Wengert’s study of the the debate between Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola over contrition and repentance, Law and Gospel:

As important as it may be to notice the commentaries on an exegete’s writing desk, it is equally crucial to pay attention to the controversies raging outside the study door. In the days before it became stylish to pretend that exegesis was pure science or simple description of a long-dead world, the interpreter of Scripture, especially evangelical theologians like Melanchthon and Agricola, thought their task incomplete until they brought the word of God to bear on the issues that confronted them on every side.

With regard to the relevance of God’s Word to our times, I am in complete agreement. And as Bonhoeffer also said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”