Posts tagged with: Metaphysics

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, July 15, 2013

Lewis Hine Power house mechanic working on steam pumpOver at Think Christian, I reflect on an “authentically Christian” view of work, which takes into account its limitations, failings, and travails, as well as its promises, prospects, and providential foundations.

The TC piece is in response to a post by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, in which they juxtapose the pscyhologizing of work as subjectively authentic self-expression with their own preferred view of work as something done simply “for the sake of sustenance.”

Critchley and Webster are right to point to the dangers of unchecked subjectivism, but are wrong in devaluing work as merely instrumental. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary penned a monumental indictment of the inroads radical subjectivism has made in Christian, and particularly evangelical, circles in his 1994 book, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams. As Wells puts it, the difference between the objective and subjective points of departure for our knowledge amount to two different ways of seeing the world; one is biblical, the other is worldly. “The one belongs to those who have narrowed their perception solely to what is natural; the other belongs to those whose understanding is framed by the supernatural. The one takes in no more than what the sense can glean; the other allows this accumulation of information to be informed by the reality of the transcendent,” writes Wells.

More recently, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia analyzed the shift from objective measures of oppression to subjective psychologizing in the context of political ideology. “Supplementing the economic categories of Marx with the psychoanalytic categories of Freud, Marcuse and his followers effectively broadened the whole notion of oppression to include the psychological realm. Such a move is dramatic in the implications it has for the way one views politics. Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations,” writes Trueman. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, October 9, 2012

At the online Prager University, lecturer Frank Pastore asks: “Do you have the ability to shape your own destiny? Is there a difference between your mind and your brain? Or is free will just a convenient delusion? Are you really just a product of physical forces beyond your control?”

Listen live online to The Frank Pastore Show — The Intersection of Faith and Reason here. In Southern California, tune into to KKLA 99.5.

Greg Forster’s latest response to Sam Gregg, Acton’s director of research, on the utility of John Locke’s thought today is up over at Public Discourse. There’s a lot to learn from reading these exchanges, but right now I want to focus just briefly on one of the criticisms that Sam levels against Locke. Comparing Locke’s definition of Law to that of Aquinas, Sam finds Locke to be quite wanting. For Locke, “Law’s formal definition is the declaration of a superior will.”

“How different this is from Aquinas’s understanding of law,” writes Sam, “as ‘an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community.’”

In one sense Sam is quite right. These are quite different formal definitions of law, the former presumably more voluntaristic (defined in relation to the will, the volitional faculty) the latter intellectualistic (defined in relation to the intellect, the rational faculty). For Sam this is in microcosm the problem with Locke, as he embodies the voluntaristic and therefore nominalistic proclivities of Protestantism, abandoning the eminently reasonable teachings of the Angelic Doctor.

My point here is not to defend Locke. Greg goes on to do that ably enough and in great detail. But I do want to reiterate the point that even apparently quite different definitions of law can be reconciled depending on how the relationship between the will and the intellect is defined. Thomas certainly has his own view, but so did lots of other medievals, and the Reformers picked up on the diversity of medieval opinion.

And it simply isn’t the case that the big bad “nominalists” like Ockham, d’Ailly, or Biel, were in principle opposed to defining natural law in terms of right reason. They just had a different way of relating the question of the divine intellect and the divine will. Maybe they were wrong. But at least on the question of voluntarism/intellectualism (the former of which need not lead to nominalism: see John Duns Scotus), there is ample Augustinian precedent for not seeing a “rationalistic” and a “volitional” definition of law as necessarily incongruent.

Thus Lombard, following Augustine, writes, “God’s will is reasonable and most equitable” (Sentences, bk. 1, d. 42, cap. 1).

And as a concluding aside, for an example of a Protestant scholastic who directly appropriated Aquinas’ definition of Law, see the recently translated scholia of Franciscus Junius in the Journal of Markets & Morality, “Selection from On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity.” His first thesis? “The Law is the ordering of reason to the common good, established by the one who has care of the community.”

It has long been customary to distinguish characteristically Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to ethics by understanding Protestants to embrace a dynamic divine-command approach and Roman Catholics to pursue stable natural-law methods.

James Gustafson, for instance, writes that the strength of Roman Catholic moral thought is “an ordered pattern of moral thinking, based upon rather clear philosophical and theological principles with positive moral substance.” On the Protestant side, we find “a theology and an ethics that has a looseness and an openness which is responsive to modernity as the context in which the Christian community has to find fresh and relevant ways to counsel and to act.”

In an incisive piece at Christianity Today earlier this week, Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy highlights why evangelicals tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments, “Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable.” But Anderson does this in a way that avoids identifying Protestant ethical thought as univocally opposed to natural-law thinking.

Anderson writes,

As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully persuade people in public on the basis of universally accepted moral norms.

Anderson goes on to note Carl Henry’s opposition to natural law, but also observes that Protestant reticence about the approach does not always result in wholesale rejection of the doctrine of natural law.

Anderson refers to Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics as leading the charge in an array of recent attempts to more fully and responsibly understand the role of natural-law thinking in Protestant traditions. Anderson also notes David VanDrunen’s latest work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.

VanDrunen in fact points indirectly to the central role that the Acton Institute has played in fomenting this kind of corrective work. He writes, “2006 alone saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines.” On the former front, he points to Grabill’s work and his own monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, each of which are connected directly to the Acton Institute. VanDrunen rightly observes that the fact that “such books would appear within a few months of each other is rather remarkable.” VanDrunen also makes use of primary source works that have appeared in the institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, including pieces by Johannes Althusius and Jerome Zanchi.

The upshot is that Protestantism has had its own variety of characteristic approaches to natural law, and these are not reducible to the stereotypical divine command occasionalism or neo-Thomistic rationalism. A quote from Al Moehler represents these middle paths perfectly: “As an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”

Anderson’s piece has sparked some broader conversation, particularly at the First Things site. This includes posts from Joe Knippenberg and Greg Forster. Forster concludes, “Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it.”

Also noteworthy is a recent conference on natural law and evangelical political thought. Although I wasn’t able to attend, given the variety of speakers I would hope that the real diversity of natural-law approaches from various traditions was well-represented.

As I noted in the context of the Witherspoon Center’s recent project, the characteristically and uniquely Protestant views of natural law have not always been properly appreciated. Thus far in the most recent rounds of conversation, the particularly Protestant emphasis on the voluntarism of the anthropological problem, that even though we know what is good we willingly choose not to do it, when sinners “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” warrants greater emphasis.