Tag Archives: philosophy

Barth on Luther; Luther on Aquinas; myself on neither

Karl Barth, in preparing for his discussion of Calvin’s theology, sets the historical stage with reference to “The Middle Ages”:

An even more striking example is the way i71IhRVGCeNLn which both Luther and Calvin avoided the man in whom they must have recognized, even if he was not then the most widely read author, and whom they ought to have fought as their most dangerous opponent, the true genius of the Catholic Middle Ages. I refer to Thomas Aquinas. We have in his case a demonstration how often even the greatest among us, precisely in fulfilling their deepest intentions, often do not know what they are doing. The reformers engaged in close combat with late scholastics of the age of decline, about whom we say nothing today, when all the time behind these, and biding his time, stood their main adversary Thomas, in whom all modern Roman Catholicism has come to see more and more definitely its true classic; and apart from a few inconsequential complaints by Luther [here Barth footnotes Seeberg, Lehrbuch Der Dogmengeschichte, 74 and n. 2], they left him in peace, apparently not realizing that their real attack was not on those straw figures but on the spirit of the Summa, on the Gothic cathedral and the world of Dante. How could it be possible that in the first half of the 17th century a Lutheran theologian from Strassburg could write a book entitled Thomas Aquinas, veritatis evangelic confessor! All this shows strikingly, however, that the reformers did not see their work in the context of a great philosophy of history but in a fairly relative pragmatic context. Perhaps it is precisely the manner of truly creative people to take this view

The Theology of John Calvin, 22

Luther in “Against Latomus”:

His [Latomus’s] discussions of penance and of indulgences are worthless, for he proves everything from human writings. Neither Gregory nor any angel has the right to set forth or teach in the church something which cannot be demonstrated from Scripture. I think I have sufficiently shown from their own writings that scholastic theology is nothing else than ignorance of the truth and a stumbling block in comparison with Scripture. Nor am I moved when Latomus insinuates that I am ungrateful and insulting to St. Thomas, Alexander, and others, for they have deserved ill from me. Neither do I believe that I lack intelligence [to understand them]. This Latomus himself will admit, and it is certainly not difficult to see that I work hard. My advice has been that a young man avoid scholastic philosophy like the very death of his soul. The Gospels aren’t so difficult that children are not ready to hear them. How was Christianity taught in the times of the martyrs when this philosophy an theology did not exist? St. Agnes was a theologian at the age of thirteen, likewise Lucia and Anastasia–from what were they taught? In all these hundreds of years up to the present, the courses at the universities have not produced, out of so many students, a single martyr or saint to prove that their instruction is right and pleasing to God while [the ancients from their] private schools have sent out swarms of saints. Scholastic philosophy and theology are known from their fruits. I have the strongest doubts as to whether Thomas Aquinas is among the damned or the blessed, and would sooner believe that Bonaventure is blessed. Thomas wrote a great deal of heresy, and is responsible for the reign of Aristotle, the destroyer of godly doctrine. What do I care that the bishop of bulls has canonized him? I suppose that my judgment in these matters is not entirely ignorant, for I have been educated in them and have been tested [in debate] by the minds of my most learned contemporaries, and I have studied the best writings of this sort of literature. I am at least partly informed concerning Holy Writ, and besides I have to some extent tested these spiritual matters in experience, but I clearly see that Thomas, and all who write and teach similarly, have neglected this. Therefore I advise him who would fly to take warning. I do what I must, so with the Apostle I again admonish you: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit”–this I confidently and emphatically apply to scholastic theology–“according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe”–these are the laws of the bulls and whatever is established in the church apart from Scripture–“and not according to Christ” [Col. 2:8]. Here it is clear that Paul wants Christ alone to be taught and heard. Who does not see how the universities read the Bible? Compare what is read and written in the Sentences [Peter Lombard] and on philosophy with what they write and teach about the Bible–which ought to flourish and reign as the most important of all–and you will see what place the Word of God has in these seats of higher learning.

found in Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 257-59

Might Barth have misread Luther, slightly? Might Luther have misread Aquinas, ever so slightly?  I’m not up for adjudicating this one, but I find the material fascinating.

“We Ourselves are the Church”

71gdVElR+4LKarl Barth on the need for the whole Church in the theological enterprise:

To participate in this, and therefore to accompany even the work of erudite theology in the sticter sense, is the task of the community and therefore of each individual member. The Christian is not free to adopt any current religious idea, to espouse his own private philosophy, and then to urge this upon the community. On the other hand, he is both free and yet also summoned and obliged to reflect not he Word which underlies the community and is to be declared by it, and to give responsible expression to his reflections. No one will do this obediently unless he is prepared to let himself be stimulated, advised and guided by others, including professional theologians. No one will do it obediently if he is not in dialogue not only with God but also with his fellow-men and fellow-Christians. The freedom at issue is freedom int he community and not a foolish freedom on one’s own responsibility and on the basis of hopeful or defiant private inspirations. No one, however, can be content at this point to be a mere “layman,” to be indolent, to be no more than a passive spectator or reader. No one is excused the task of asking questions or the more difficult task of providing and assessing answers. Preaching in the congregation, and the theology which serves its preparation, can be faithful to its theme and therefore relevant and adapted to the circumstances and edifying to the community, only if it is surround, sustained and constantly stimulated and fructified by the questions and answers of the community. With his own questions and answers in matters of right understanding and doctrine, each individual Christian thus participates in what the community is commanded to do. If he holds aloof, or slackens, or allows himself to sleep, or wanders into speculation and error, he must not be surprised if sooner or later the same will have to be said about the community as such and particularly about its more responsible members. How many complaints about the “Church” would never be made if only those who make them were to realize that we ourselves are the Church, so that what it has or has not to say stands or falls with us!

Church Dogmatics III/4: The Doctrine of Creation: The Command of God the Creator, §55.3 p. 498


“A Certain Carefree and Joyful Confidence”

415fS1T7xfLKarl Barth with a fantastic metaphor for the main problem with 19th century theology:

The key problem arose from the conviction that the guiding principle of theology must be confrontation with the contemporary age . . . Obviously theology has always been to some extent open toward and related to the world. It should be so . . .

Theology, however, went overboard–and this was its weakness–insofar as confrontation with the contemporary age was its decisive and primary concern. This openness to the world meant (1) that through the open windows and doors came so much stimulation for thought and discussion that there was hardly time or love or zeal left for the task to be accomplished within the house itself. With all its energies captivated by the world, 19th-century theology achieved surprisingly little in terms of a new and positive understanding of Christian truth and truths in themselves, a primary necessity at all times.

The winds were enthusiastically welcomed and allowed to enter freely through the outside doors. This meant (2) that not a few doors inside were slammed which should have been kept open as well. Nineteenth-century theology ascribed normative character to the ideas of its environment. Consequently it was forced to make reductions and oversimplifications, to indulge in forgetfulness and carelessness, when it dealt with the exciting and all-important matters of Christian understanding. These developments were bound to threaten, indeed to undermine, both theology and the Church with impoverishment and triviality.

The outside winds brought not merely fresh air, but also notoriously foul air. This meant (3) that fatal errors blew in, were admitted, and made themselves at home. These errors, far from being simply tolerated, enjoyed birthright, even authority. Countereffects to be sure were not lacking, but there was no fundamental agreement about the absolute primacy of the positive tasks of theology in and for the Church, over against the secondary tasks of relating to the various philosophies of the times.

Finally, we miss a certain carefree and joyful confidence in the self-validation of the basic concerns of theology, a trust that the most honest commerce with the world might best be assured when the theologians, unheeding the favors or disfavors of this world, confronted it with the results of theological research carried out for its own sake. It did not enter their minds that respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics.

“Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century” published in The Humanity of God, pp 18, 19-20


Review: The New Testament and the People of God

The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright512ffv6IEUL

“Show your work, Tom!”

N.T. Wright has written many popular level books. For a new reader, many of his ideas are very different, and use lines of thought that are completely foreign. Many of them are intriguing, but very often the reader is left saying “that was interesting, but I don’t quite see how he got there.” Or as a 3rd grade math teacher would say, “Show your work, Tom!” In the Christian Origins series, Wright shows his work, and it is rigorous and worldview shaping.

NTPG is the introductory book 1 of a 5 part series: 2. Jesus (Jesus and the Victory of GodThe Resurrection of the Son of God), 3. Paul (Paul and the Faithfulness of God), 4. The Gospels (forthcoming), and 5. Conclusion. In NTPG Wright lays the groundwork for the rest of the series methodologically, philosophically, historically, and theologically. He hints at how the rest will follow, but only offers the briefest of sketches of his later books.

After an Introduction, the second section explores his epistemology – “critical realism” and makes the case for coming at the New Testament material with the integrated lenses of Literature, History, and Theology, rather than an isolated and fragmented “specialist” perspective. This was the most rigorous philosophy I’ve read in awhile, but it gives direction to his project, and was enjoyable to read as only Wright can be.

The meat of the book is found in part 3, “1st Century Judaism within the Greco-Roman World.” He reconstructs the history from 587 BC to 135 AD within which the various strands of “Judaisms” developed. This time period came alive to me while reading this. The revolutions, the various sects, the would-be messiahs. I felt like I was breathing the cultural air that was swirling when Jesus came. This was incredibly helpful.

Wright takes it much deeper though, and this is where your entire paradigm is in danger. He uses Israel’s stories, symbols, and praxis to reconstruct a basic worldview, and then delves deeply into Israel’s beliefs in the climax of this section “The Hope of Israel.” Understanding the worldview, beliefs and hope of a 1st century Jew has opened up the entire Bible in ways I never understood before. Wright knows the Old Testament intimately, a well as the later developments showcased in the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and other literature of the period. It takes effort to work through these sections, but the result is a big picture grasp of the whole Bible in which the various parts fit coherently, not bits and pieces tacked awkwardly together.

It is within this historical and theological setting that Jesus comes, lives dies and rises, and the christian church is born. When set against that backdrop the New Testament explodes with significance. I am devouring my Bible with more enthusiasm than I have had in quite a while.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the big picture of the Bible. If you have read the Bible enough times to be familiar with all of its parts and have wrestled with various hermeneutical structures (covenant theology, dispensationalism, all the inbetweens) this book will do wonders for you. The pieces that never quite fit quite right will fall into place. Even the guys who disagree vehemently with specific details or implications (think “justification”) praise Wright for his big picture of the Bible. This is the book that starts it all off.

I recommend plowing straight through, even the difficult sections. Don’t bother with the footnotes – they will still be there the second time around. It will take multiple readings to fully digest all the details and then the implications of Wright’s picture, but it is envigorating and delightful.

“Like gold from a mine”

Bavinck on the preparation for and “threefold task” of theology:

Believers who want to devote themselves to the study of theology, accordingly, must prepare their minds for the task awaiting them. There is no admission to the temple of theology except by way of the study of the arts. Indispensable to the practitioner of the science of theology is philosophical, historical, and linguistic preparatory training. . .

This thinking, thus prepared and trained, has, in the main, a threefold task in theology.

First, it offers its services in finding the material. . . Like gold from a mine, so the truth of faith has to be extracted from Scripture by the exertion of all available mental powers. . .

Next,the theologian must intellectually process the material thus acquired. . . Scripture above all came into its own in all its splendor–not when a single text was literally cited but–when the whole truth contained in many texts was condensed and reproduced in a dogma. . .

Finallyit is the task of the thinking theological mind to gather up and recapitulate all truth in one system. . . Theology does not rest until it has discovered the unity underlying revelation. It may not impose that system from without, nor press the truth into a philosophical system that is foreign to its nature But it keeps searching until the system that is present in the object itself has been reproduced in the human mind. . .

The Christian religion is a “reasonable form of worship”.

From Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1: Prologomena, pp. 617-18

Review: Christ and Culture Revisited

Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson

good analysis and critiques, lacking a clear prescription

Christ and Culture Revisited is rigorous and academic, dealing with complex philosophies and cultural analysis across a wide spectrum. Carson deals with a wide range of relevant literature, and this is a thorough, if somewhat difficult book to read.

He takes his springboard from Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, and his famous five part paradigm for understanding how Christians relate to their surrounding cultures. Carson is convinced “that the famous Niebuhr typology, as useful as it may be for some purposes, drives us toward mutually exclusive choices we should not be making.” (vi) This is because some of Niehbur’s categories are “too broad, if one is trying to limit oneself to the forms of confessional Christianity that explicitly and self-consciously try to live under the authority of Scipture.” (10) The deeper problem is that Niehbur presents the Bible as offering “a number of discrete paradigms,” (41) that is, different options to choose from depending on who you are and where you live. The Bible, however, is a unity, and “we should be attempting a holistic grasp of the relations between Christ and culture, fully aware, as we make our attempt, that peculiar circumstances may call us to emphasize some elements in one situation, and other elements in another situation.” (43) Carson then sketches out the main points of a unified Biblical Theology, emphasizing that a correct view must take all into account, not pick and choose.

He deals specifically with post-modernism, and the post-modern view of cultures, especially “perspectivalism,” agreeing that there are only two kinds of people on the world, those who acknowledge their perspectivalism and those who don’t.

He deals with more “church/state” related issues in the chapters on “Secularism, Democracy, Freedom and Power,” and the longest chapter on “Church and State.” He concludes with an analysis of several different options being proposed today, and subjects them to his analysis.

I found that most of the book was a thorough, detailed way of saying “it’s complicated,” and trying to demonstrate that a Christian view of culture can and must be incredibly nuanced. This is sometimes in criticism of too sweeping of a view (Niebuhr’s) or in defense from post-modernism’s claims that we are not sophisticated enough. Although he does offer his sketch of Biblical Theology as the template for a unified view of how to relate to culture, I walked away from this book thinking “okay, it’s nuanced and complicated,” but without a very clear idea of exactly how to engage.

Carson says in the preface :”The release of this book in paperback format coincides with the publication of The Intolerance of Tolerance. I envisaged the two books together from the beginning. In many ways the Intolerance volume builds its argument on the assumption of many positions defended in the book you hold in your hand: it won’t hurt to read the two together, the first one to establish a framework for thinking faithfully about Christ and culture, the second one to tease out practical implications along one exceedingly sensitive axis.” (vii)

Perhaps my feeling of something lacking is due to this, and I just need to read Intolerance to finish the picture. I do recommend this book as a very challenging read, forcing one to think deeply about philosophy, culture, and the Bible.

Review: The Messianic Character of American Education

The Messianic Character of American Education by Rousas John Rushdoony

A presuppositional critique of the history of philosophy of education in America

This is a thick book: 400 pages, every one densely packed with names and philosophies of education covering the last 200 years in American education. This book appears on several reading lists (for example in Doug Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning), as a devastating critique of the philosophy of the American education system.

This book is “an historical and analytical study of the philosophies of education in state education in the United States.” (x) He starts out with a couple of chapters of historical introduction, stretching all the way back to Rome and then later Scholasticism, and explains how “the university gradually developed its concept of academic freedom, that is, an independent authority for reason and scholarship which made it responsible to none other, and its concept of the redemptive, authoritative and power-endowing nature of knowledge, of reason, of university and school.” (17)

He then jumps into the American history of the philosophy of education, and doesn’t come up for air until the end of the book. 21 of the 28 chapters are each devoted to a particular figure in this history, starting with Horace Mann, and including men like William Harris, Francis Parker, Wiliam James, G. Stanley Hall, and John Dewey.

Each chapter is heavy on original source quotes, so you can read for yourself the sort of language and philosophy that has shaped education in America. This is important, because if you couldn’t see it with your own eyes, you would be tempted to write Rushdoony off as a crackpot conspiracy theorist. His title “The Messianic Character,” put me on guard initially, that maybe he is taking this a little too far, but page after page, quote after quote, from figure after figure and eventually you cry out “Okay! I get it! your point is incontrovertible.”

This history of American education has been shaped by men and women who believed in the innate goodness of man, and his ability to reach utopia through education. They themselves use religious, messianic, salvation language when describing the process of education, specifically apart from the God of the Bible. When you see how these men were the professors of teacher’s colleges, and held positions in federal and state Education departments, you see how we have reached our present condition.

I appreciate the hardcore presuppositionalist reconstructionists for this: they boldly take on ungodly philosophies from the foundation up, and spare nothing in exposing them for what they really are. The Bahnsen/Stein debate is another classic example of this. While I don’t agree with the solution that they posit (theonomy, reconstructionism), their critiques are devastating and extremely helpful, and pave the way for a more truly Biblical solution. I want them on my demolition team, even if I don’t ask them to help me rebuild 🙂

One final note, Rushdoony is hard to read. His sentences are often tangled syntactical messes, and his paragraphs often extend for 3-4 pages in length. Here’s an example that I noted for it’s sheer convolutedness:

“In Idealism, God, however exalted in rhetoric, nevertheless, especially since Hegel, labors mightily merely to bring forth the new universal, man. In Horne, this strange “God” was still on the stage; in Dewey, having brought forth the child of destiny, man, this “God,” like a salmon whose life ends with spawning, faded quietly out of the picture.”

Dozens of names, dates, places, and quotes, combined with the difficult style of Rushdoony’s writing, makes this a laborious read. Nevertheless, if you want to understand the history of the philosophy of American education, this is the book to tackle, if you must!