Random musings on life, the universe and nothing in particular...
Saturday, April 30, 2005
Response to Questions on 'Top-Down' Social Change 1
A number of questions and some objections have been raised in feedback to my post on James Jordan’s argument for top-down social change. Within this post (which will be followed by another, shorter post) I would like to clarify the manner in which I understand Jordan on this point, by making a number of observations in response.
There are different ways in which we can understand Jordan’s assertion that social change comes from the top-down. I do not believe that this assertion is intended to rule out the possibility of powerful social movements arising outside of the ruling elite in a given society and going on to transform the whole of the society. As some have pointed out in response, the early Church arose in such a manner (I will have more to say on this subject later on). One could quite reasonably argue that most movements that go on to transform society have started, in some manner or other, outside of the ruling elite. The elite tend to be too conservative to spearhead radical social change.
Jordan is not primarily, in my reading of him, arguing for the ‘top-down’ model as the temporal pattern of change (i.e. that all change begins with a change in mind on the part of the elite in a given society). Such a claim would be highly debatable. Although Jordan does seem to hold that (temporally) change on the part of the elite generally precedes that of the main body of the masses, I do not think that this is his main point. Rather, Jordan’s principal point concerns the normative structural pattern of change (perhaps Kuhnian distinctions between revolutionary and ordinary science have some place in the discussion at this point).
To employ an analogy: an agent can be introduced into my body at many possible points. I could inhale, ingest, touch or inject the agent. However, the speed, scale and pattern of its spread within my body are greatly dependent on the point at which and manner in which the agent is introduced. On occasions this might mean the difference between life and death. The various systems that are at operation in my body can be invaded in various ways. However, the success of this invasion will be limited if certain strategic and central organs or functions are not taken over. A particular disease may advance far in my bodily system and yet still be conquered, because it has not been able to overrun a crucial organ, function or process with my system. A ‘populist’ approach to evangelism is similar to an understanding of a disease that focuses on how many individual cells (or whatever) have been overrun; an ‘elistist’ approach is one that focuses on how successful the disease has been in compromising bodily systems.
It seems to me that Jordan understands society as being analogous to such a body. The normative structure of society grants particular controlling power to an elite. It is possible to transform society, even though we start from outside of the elite. Nevertheless, if we are to be truly successful in bringing about lasting and effective social change we must either convert or replace the elite. If our evangelism is merely directed at converting the masses, without a corresponding concern for developing or converting an elite, we will fail in the goal of long term social change. Without the development of a robust elite of our own, and ministry to the elite of the societies that we are trying to reach, the success of our labours will be short-lived. It is possible to survive the persistent hostility of the existing elite and still bring about lasting social change. However, this social change will come as we create a rival to the existing elite, a counter-elite. Whether we convert the existing elite, or create a new elite to take its place, our approach should always be ‘elitist’.
The long-term effectiveness of our evangelism is not so much measured by how many people we reach, as by how far our evangelism succeeds in taking over the systems of authority, thought, culture and influence that exist within our society. If we neglect to develop our own elite and address existing elites we will never be effective in bringing about the transformation of our societies. Many evangelicals have proclaimed the gospel to the masses in the past, only to find their work blighted by the ability of elite liberal scholars to take over the minds of their best young men.
Another objection that has been raised against Jordan’s ‘top-down’ claim is that ‘bottom-up’ revivals have effected more long-term social change than ‘top-down’ social movements have ever done. The example of the Evangelical Revival under Wesley and Whitefield is given.
I hardly think that the Evangelical Revival is a good example of ‘bottom-up’ social change. To begin with, the Revival did not start with common men off the street. Men like Wesley and Whitefield were far from regular laymen. They were both educated in Oxford University and had considerable intellectual prowess. Wesley was a gifted linguist (he wrote grammar textbooks in seven of the eight foreign languages that he knew) and was also well-read in the Patristics. His study was broad as well as deep. He read widely in philosophy and science and authored books on history and medicine.
Wesley started off with a very elitist high church mindset. Even in 1745 (eight years after his evangelical conversion) one finds Wesley arguing that the ministry of bishops in the Church of England is dependent upon the pope as the Bishop of Rome. Wesley benefited from many of the elitist structures already existing within Anglicanism. The early Methodist leaders also gave attention to ministering to the elite within the society of their day (opportunities being opened up by people such as Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who was held in high regard by many in the nobility and by King George III himself), though not without a great degree of success. Whitefield and Wesley preached to many within the aristocracy in their day (quite often to private congregations composed solely of members of the nobility) and so retained a ministry to every level of society.
Wesley was strongly in favour of hierarchical structures in Church government and provides us with good examples of an elitist approach at work. Throughout his life Wesley sough to develop strong hierarchical structures. We should not be surprised at the far reaching effects of the Revival, when we take into account such things as Wesley’s establishment of the circuit structure and class-meetings, which served to give the Methodist movement a strong hierarchical structure and cohesion as a movement.
The attention that Wesley and the Methodists gave to education should also not be overlooked. Wesley was a fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford for twenty five years. He taught Greek and the classics. He founded a number of schools. He insisted that his lay preachers study for five hours a day. The education provided by the Methodist movement served to create a new middle class.
Wesley’s approach to evangelism was decidedly ‘top-down’. This may still seem to be a strange conclusion to some. Explaining why I believe this to be the case may help to clarify what is meant by ‘top-down’ evangelism.
Elitist evangelism should never ignore the masses. The leader of any society must be the servant of all. Any elite that is not concerned with the evangelism of the masses is failing in its ministry. The ‘top-down’ approach to social change is not argument for the neglect of the evangelization of the masses; quite the opposite.
Elitist evangelism presents us with a particular way in which to reach the masses. Elitist evangelism approaches the evangelization of the masses with an appreciation of the necessity of reaching existing elites and creating new elites. The effects of mass evangelism will be short-lived unless they are accompanied by the formation of effective top-down hierarchies. Wesley sought to develop hierarchical structures within which gifted men could be advanced and new leaders could be groomed by existing leaders. Wesley sought to cultivate the gifts of the various members of the Methodist churches and societies. He tried to establish hierarchical structures to ensure that power would not be exercised by those who sought to compete for it or grasp at it (as is so often the case in an egalitarian ‘bottom-up’ church structure). Rather, power would be given to those who submitted to the existing leadership within the hierarchical government of the churches and societies and had cultivated the character necessary for advancement.
Wesley may not have converted the ruling elite in the Britain of his day. However, he did seek to create a new hierarchical structure of his own. He sought to groom future leaders on every level of society with his emphasis on education and with his establishment of structures to encourage the cultivation and training of new preachers for his churches and societies. The scale of social change brought about by the Wesleyan Revival cannot be understood apart from a recognition of all of this. We must not forget that Wesley was at heart an Episcopalian, who applied a ‘top-down’ understanding of social change to his evangelism.
Christian evangelism should always go for the head.
The early Church followed this pattern. Lest we forget, the early Church did not primarily spread through children’s clubs and women’s coffee mornings. I am sure that the early Church provided for the catechesis and training of its children. It is also quite clear that women played an important role in the early Church. The Church has a God-given responsibility to minister to all people. If the leaders of the Church abdicate this responsibility, we should not be surprised when God raises up others to take their place. Nevertheless, the early Church appreciated that successful evangelism aims primarily for the head. For this reason they seem to have focused on the conversion of men and heads of households (not all heads of households are men — e.g. Acts 16:14-15).
Modern evangelicals seem to adopt a democratic, egalitarian approach to evangelism and have failed to recognize the strategic importance of adopting a top-down approach. Often with this has come a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach to evangelism that avoids the mind altogether and addresses itself solely to the feelings. As a result the existing power structures within our society often remain largely unchanged. [Evangelicalism’s susceptibility to personality cults is a symptom of many of these deeper problems. When you consistently fail to transform the hierarchical structures of society and develop strong structures of your own, you will end up increasingly reliant on the short-term benefits of charismatic leadership.] Even when we do reach those at the head of the different structures within our societies, the message that we present them with is far too shallow to be of any real use to them in the fulfilling of their roles in leadership. Their mindsets will tend to be shaped by other forces.
Take, for example, the family. Many evangelical Christian fathers and husbands today learn how to run their families more from the surrounding ungodly society than from the Church. The Church does address these fathers, but seldom as ‘fathers’. They tend to only really be addressed with a message about how, as individuals, they can enjoy a personal relationship with God. They are not adequately trained for the exercise of their demanding role. Due to evangelicalism’s almost exclusive concern to convert detached individuals, to the neglect of forming Christian families and other such social structures, the Church often merely floats like oil on the water of the more determinative structures within our society.
The shallow message and populism of evangelicalism result in its limited impact on the deeper structures and higher powers within our society. As Jordan points out, evangelicalism has marginalized itself by abdicating its duty to minister to the head/elite within society. Evangelicalism has also failed to cultivate new elites of its own. Society often views the Church as a place for women, children, the uneducated and the physically and emotionally infirm. Ann Douglas comments on the manner in which liberal pastors in the nineteenth century began to focus on the time of death as the greatest opportunity for their message winning an entrance:—
The clergyman’s chance, like the woman’s, was now coincidental with the weakest moment of his parishioners. No longer confident that he could meet his congregation at their strongest or impress its ablest representatives—the men of intellect and talent in their stores, counting-houses, and courtrooms—the minister increasingly fell back upon an inner parish of women and those men who had been reduced to playing the woman’s role; his congregation consisted of those who were feeling rather than thinking.
A similar approach seems to have been adopted by many sections of the evangelical church in our own day.
In arguing for elitist theology, Jordan is not arguing for some ivory tower attitude on the part of theologians, nor is he arguing for obscurantism. Jordan is also far from arguing that laymen are stupid. A few pages before his treatment of episcopalianism, he writes as follows:—
Presbyterian seminary students are taught, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, that laymen are stupid and can only be fed pabulum. (Laymen must take a lot of the blame here too, of course.) Thus, the student is told to take a text of Scripture, process it through some “analytic/synthetic” method (or some other method), reduce it either to one big point or three points, spruce it up with artificial illustrations (from some illustration book), and thereby mush out some general thoughts on the passage. Somehow, it just isn’t “preaching” (or rather, “PREACHING”) if we simply go through the passage verse by verse and explain it, drawing together conclusions at the end. Not only does such a method give out far too much content for the cretins in the congregation to take in, but it also has the obvious disadvantage of sticking right with God’s own words. Who wants that? How much better to use the process, reduce, and spruce method? (By the way, I’ve never found laymen to be all that dumb, particularly when they have an open text in front of them. Even if they are, it would be better to teach God’s word and trust the Spirit to bring people up to that level, than simultaneously to insult God and feed processed leftovers to His sheep.)
What Jordan is arguing is that, although the common man should be challenged to think more deeply on theological issues and should not abdicate this responsibility simply because of the existence of professional theologians, the common man will never be sufficiently equipped to understand theology on the level at which much of the most important theology is written.
I know few laymen who could really digest Zizioulas, Milbank, Van Til or even Wright to a degree that would enable them to understand the inner workings of their theology. Whilst the works of some of these theologians (Milbank in particular) may be, not unfairly, charged with an unnecessary degree of opacity, I fail to see how some of the most important aspects of their thinking can be made easily accessible to the grandmother in the pew. In addition to this we must recognize that much theological discourse necessarily demands a deep knowledge of biblical languages, philosophical discourse, ancient history, sociology and the like, which simply cannot be attained by the average Christian (even by determined dilettantes like me).
This does not mean that such elitist theology is to be avoided. Elitist theology is essential for the health of the Church. The practice of theology is part of the Church’s mission. Theologians serve to mark out the Christian Church from other communities. They serve as apologists. They serve to educate and train the whole of the Church, so that it will be more effective in its mission to each level of society. Theologians also serve as the conscience of the Church, challenging the Church to retain the distinct identity that is God’s gift to it in Christ. They exercise a ministry for the sake of the whole Church.
Every Christian must be a theologian to the degree that God has gifted them. The roles played by the theologian are roles that we all need to play to some degree or other. Theology is the task of the Church as a whole; it is not merely something to be practiced by the theological elite alone. The elite do not fulfil their theological task in order to excuse the rest of the Church from any theological role. Rather, they exist to equip all within the Church to exercise their respective theological tasks.
As the Church recognizes that God has especially gifted particular of her members and granted them deep theological insight, she calls them to exercise their ministry in higher positions, as servants to the Church as a whole. It is the task of such theologians to ensure that the Church does not become misled in its mission. In other words, it is the task of such theologians to preserve the authority of Scripture within the Church and to ensure that both the Church as a whole, and individual interpreters of the Scripture in particular, are continually held accountable by the Word of God.
Whilst there is a simplicity to the gospel, theology is often far from simple. The complex and difficult task of the theologian is to ensure that the gospel retains its true simplicity. If it were not for the work of theologians the gospel would, quite literally, be all Greek to laymen. It is the theologian’s task to present the gospel to the various members of the Church in a manner accommodated to their understanding. To the theologian also falls the task of mental ground-clearing, challenging the hardened mindsets that prevent the gospel’s simplicity from been appreciated. This ground-clearing is hard work, there are many deeply ingrained ways of thinking that resist the inculcation and growth of true orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
As many authors have observed, evangelicalism has not always been the best at producing theology. Many evangelical churches are infected by an anti-intellectualism and resist the idea of elitist theology, producing only material designed for a popular audience. Tim LaHaye may sell over 75 million copies of his books, Bruce Wilkinson may sell over 15 million, but ‘elitist’ theologians like James Dunn and John Milbank will, in the long run, I believe, prove to have the greater effect. Writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye, for all their popular appeal, will not change the world. They have opted out of process of historical change. Mediocrity seldom has a lasting impact. However, one should never underestimate the significance of an elitist theologian (think of all the balls that someone like E.P. Sanders set rolling).
Elitist theologians do not take writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye seriously (I am using these two writers as classic examples of evangelical populism; many others could be listed). In fact, despite their huge popularity, they do not feel at all threatened by the presence of such men, although they are (or at least ought to be) concerned that people are being led astray by them. Wilkinson and LaHaye are not going to change the course of history, no matter how many people read them. Their material lacks the theological backbone necessary to actually persuade anyone who has really studied theology for any significant period of time. I might add that they are also of little interest to those who have not imbibed certain of the values of American culture to some degree or other.
The power of the works of evangelical writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye tends to reside in the manner in which they largely adopt their readers’ starting points and take on board their assumptions (assumptions, I might add, that owe more to seculiar Americanism than to anything distinctively Christian). Writers who swim with the spirit of the age, and lack the strength to resist the various social currents, do not change history. The widespread appreciation of writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye merely manifests the pervasive character of certain cultural and religious values within American society. They do not significantly change the mindset of society; rather, they serve to expose the scale of previous changes in the mindset within our society. They are largely at the receiving end of the history that the various elites have created. Elite theologians know this and so they generally ignore them. Writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye are more like the symptoms of the disease than the disease itself. They only receive their readership due to the lack of biblical teaching in many churches.
All of this said, popular Christian literature has an important place. Jordan recognizes this. His point is that such literature is far from the most important theological literature. Popular Christian literature will generally lack the necessary weight to challenge and break the ruling anti-Christian mindsets (that is, when it is not in thrall to these mindsets itself). These mindsets need to be challenged at the highest level and few Christians are sufficient to be able to challenge them there. Christian leaders also have a responsibility to produce good popular literature to replace the foul swill that is offered in many Christian bookstores (Tom Wright is an example of a leading theologian who has done a lot of good work in this area). Laymen should also be taught to think more deeply. This is probably the best response to writers like LaHaye and Wilkinson. A little rudimentary biblical teaching should be sufficient to inoculate people against false teachers of their ilk.
If they were given more education I see no reason why most laymen could not begin to digest the works of many leading theologians. Elite theologians should never forget that their task is one of service to the Church as a whole in its theological task. They cannot remain indifferent to the failure of the laity to fulfil its theological role.
I may not give much weight to IQ tests and the like, but I find this research on the effect of e-mails quite scary.
E-mail has certainly affected my life. I believe that the quality of my writing has gone down. I may write more, but I do not put quite the same thought into that which I write. I generally receive well over one hundred e-mails every day (fortunately, I don't have to answer e-mails at work). I do not have the time to give them all the attention that I would like to particularly when I have so many other jobs that need doing. They control more of my free time than I would like them to. I also observe a compulsive urge to check up my e-mails every few minutes. As a result my mind is not as focused as it ought to be. It fragments my time and, being bombarded with new (and disconnected) information all the time, makes it harder for me to develop wisdom and the consistency and constancy of personhood necessary to be of service to our Lord in the world.
E-mail's effect on me is well summed up in Hugh Mackay's comments on info-glut (quoted by Marva Dawn in Unfettered Hope):—
[Information can be used as] a distraction from thinking (as long as I keep absorbing this information, I won’t have to make sense of it); or as an insulation from reality (as long as I’m immersed in information, I don’t have to confront what is actually going on around me); or as a form of constant stimulation to create the illusion that something is always happening (I’m never bored … there’s always the TV or the Internet, or the latest CD-ROM).
I also find that, while I would love to give extended thought to particular questions, answering e-mails tends to scatter my thoughts in many different directions. Whilst this is occasionally helpful and can increase the possibility of serendipitous solutions to vexing theological problems, it also has many downsides. It makes a lengthy treatment of any particular subject far harder.
I am also increasingly aware of the fact that my thought is not as clear when dealing with e-mails as it is much of the rest of the time. The ease of e-mail does not lend itself to the sort of careful thought that I would like to cultivate.
At the moment I am trying to think of ways in which I can successfully use e-mail, without it dominating my life. Cutting back on e-mail is hard, harder than cutting it out altogether (I do not believe that I need to do this unless all else fails). I would be interested to hear how other people have gained control over their e-mail.
Reading Justin Dombrowski's recent post on the WCF doctrine of God reminded me to recommend that everyone read James Jordan's brief critique of the WSC's definition of God, found at the bottom of this page.
It also reminded me that I was thinking of raising an issue for discussion. In The Eucharist Makes the Church, which I finished recently and cannot recommend highly enough, Paul McPartlan articulates Zizioulas' understanding of the 'oneness' of God. Whereas many seek to discover the unity of God's being in some divine 'substance', Zizioulas argues that the unity of God is to be found in the hypostasis of the Father. McPartlan writes:—
The 'one' in God is the Father, thus the 'one' in corporate personality is not the total, overall unity, but the specific person at the heart of the 'many'. Moreover, the 'many' include the 'one'; the 'one' is one of the 'many' and does not stand outside them. Thus the 'many' in the Trinity are three (not two), just as, in ecclesiology, Christ is one of the Church.
This particular claim, underlying, as it does, Zizioulas' approach to understanding corporate personality in general, is crucially important in the structure of Zizioulas' thought. If the so-called 'second leavening' of Greek ontology (involving the claim that God the Father in his particular hypostasis is the cause of the Trinity) is resisted, almost the entirety of Zizioulas' theological project is compromised. As Zizioulas presents a very different understanding of the Trinity than that which seems to be held by many Protestants, I thought that it would be worthwhile bringing the issue up to hear people's thoughts here.
For my part, I am pretty much persuaded by Zizioulas on this (it took a little time to win me over). Among other things, it seems, to my mind at least, to tally more readily with the way that the Scriptures talk about the unity of God. Its implications for our understanding of corporate personality are also profound.
Marva Dawn comments on the effect that the technological milieu has had upon our relationships:—
[S]exual union, which is most satisfying as the culminating expression of growing intimacy in many human dimensions, has been ripped out of that context and placed as the initiating act for relationships. Since it then has no corresponding intimacies, improvements must deal with the very act itself, and consequently we have to write manuals on techniques to make “sex” more exciting.
It just occurred to me that this is very similar to that which many modern evangelicals have done with worship. Lacking the courage, love and patience necessary to devote ourselves to growing in fellowship with God day by day, the entire weight of our relationship with God has been shifted onto worship (in the more particular sense of the word). The ‘worship experience’ becomes all-important. We begin to worship worship (thanks to Gaines Redd for the link to this post).
In fact, for many today, God is not necessary for the ‘worship experience’ at all. Quite a number of people seem to care far more about their own (private) spirituality than they do about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They have made worship itself into an idol, always seeking new techniques to improve the experience. Worship has become a form of spiritual onanism. Just look in many Christian bookstores and compare the number of books devoted to expounding techniques designed to help the reader ‘get spiritual quick’ and the number of books that are devoted to knowing God — as a glorious end in itself, and not merely as a means to grant us a better spirituality.
All of this is daily brought home to me as I look through the material sold and produced by the Christian radio station that I am working for at the moment. There is nothing terribly wrong with most of the material. However, it is the rarity of books dealing with subjects to do with God Himself and His work in history that strikes me and troubles me; almost all of the books are about the spirituality of the individual and how to produce a good worship experience. The difference between these two forms of literature is, to some degree, comparable to that which exists between books teaching you how to grow in your love for and relationship with your spouse and books teaching you how to improve your sex life.
Yesterday my brother Jonathan drew my attention to a testimony in one of the leaflets produced by the organization, which contained a phrase that read something like the following: ‘…my higher spiritual power, which I choose to call God…’ This is material being produced by a Christian company. This comment is, fortunately, not representative of the vast majority of the material this company puts out, but it is, nonetheless, extremely concerning (it is also something that I intend to raise in an appropriate context). It is also not unrepresentative of the destination that many current approaches to worship in evangelicalism are leading us. It is high time that the gradual growth of such gross idolatry in the heart of many evangelical churches is brought to light.
In such a time as this, it is crucially important to recover the idea of worship as a place of communion, within the context of many deep and developing intimacies. We need to fix our attention on Christ and retain this focus when undertaking our studies of worship.
There are dangers here that can attack any of us. For example, those of us who recognize that the Eucharist is the culminating expression of our relationship with God must beware of the slippery slope that can lead to the idolization of the Eucharist as a thing in itself, and forget that it is the place of ‘Communion’. The analogy of sexual union is quite appropriate to our understanding of the Eucharist, for the act of feeding on the flesh of the Bridegroom that takes place in the Eucharist is clearly sexual in character. Our participation in the Eucharist becomes sterile and vain, if it does not take place within the context of deepening relationships with Christ and His Body. The centrality of the Eucharist should never blind us to the necessity of these things. A marriage without sexual union — or in which meditating on the spouse’s body replaces feasting on it — may be a mockery, but a marriage that has the sexual union apart from anything else is far emptier. So it is with the Supper.
I will probably be quite busy over the next couple of days and will be away in Liverpool on Saturday, so there is unlikely to be much in the way of posting activity here until next Tuesday. When I get back to posting I will probably interact with some of the questions that some people have raised about my previous two posts. In the meantime I would suggest that people read this post by Peter Leithart on baptismal justification.
Having just posted an extended passage from James Jordan, in which he challenges the primacy of the ‘bottom-up’ understanding of social change assumed by most evangelicals, I thought that it would be interesting to follow it up with some extended quotes from Peter Leithart, who challenges the ‘inside-out’ understanding of disciple-making. These quotes are taken from Leithart’s essay, “The Sociology of Infant Baptism”, from Christendom Essays, which is available from Biblical Horizons (really, get it!).
…[B]aptism is an external application of water, a striking fact that receives too little attention in theological literature on baptism. Much of the water symbolism in the Bible has to do with drinking: people thirst for God, God is the water that everlastingly satisfies all thirst, water in the wilderness is for the thirsty. These water themes do have some links with baptism, but it still seems strange that baptism is applied to the outer body. Is it not the inner man that needs cleansing? And, is not the cleansing of the inner man precisely what the New Testament promises? Why not, then, a drinking rite, with the water of cleansing applied where it is needed? An external application of water fits better, it seems, in the Old Testament system, with its cleansing rites that removed “external” ceremonial defilement. [In a footnote: The form of baptism thus challenges the belief that inner piety is the sole or primary location of religion; for the Bible “true religion” involves bringing the whole of life into conformity to the covenant. And, the church’s continued use of a washing rite challenges the implicit Marcionism of much traditional and modern sacramental theology, for the sense that an external washing is out of place in the New Testament is a lingering trace of the notion that Old and New Covenants relate according to this ratio: Old:New::Material:Spiritual.]
Rather than change the rite that Jesus instituted, of course, we should take the oddness (to us) of its form as a starting point for reflection. If baptism is one of the means by which we are made disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), and if baptism marks us on the outside of the body, then it follows that we are made disciples from outside-in.
Without wishing to claim that an “inside-out” pattern is unbiblical, in several senses the “outside-in” is the more basic movement….
…[T]he means the Spirit uses to bring us to fellowship with Christ come from the outside. The gospel comes as an external word (verbum ex auditu). [This is one reason why the common terminology of ‘internal call’ can be so unhelpful.—AR] Whether we hear God speaking directly to us, or read the Scriptures, or listen to a sermon, the Word is communicated by another and confronts us from outside….
In its “outside-in” pattern, Christian discipleship follows the tracks laid down by creation. We can see this if we consider the place of moral prohibitions and sanctions in culture generally. Every culture, as Philip Rieff puts it, teaches its own rules of life, its own dos and don’ts, its “thou shalt nots,” and every culture has a particular way of enforcing those “thou shalt nots.” Cultural life involves, among other things, setting boundaries to human behaviour and enforcing those boundaries. The boundaries taught and enforced by a culture do not, however, stay on the “outside” but become coordinates of one’s map of reality and impress themselves on one’s experience. As Proverbs say, the rod and rebuke purge foolishness from the heart of a child (22:15; 23:13-14). Even when one resists external constraints, they have their internal effect; as Paul says, he would not have said “I will” in his heart if he had not first heard “thou shalt not” (Romans 7:7-11). A milder example: How many adults raised in teetotaling households still feel a twinge of guilt when they sip their white wine?
In cultural life generally, external discipline and teaching form intellectual, moral, and practical habits, shaping personal character and identity. Infant baptism suggests that Christian nurture does not reject the “external” of cultural training in favor of purely internal transformation. Christ instead redeems the external.
…Personal identity and character are always and permanently shaped by the relations, loyalties, circumstances into which we are thrown.
The coming of a new creation does not dissolve the web of unchosen circumstances into a shapeless mound to be moulded by autonomous choice and consent. What is good or evil is the way of life itself, not whether it is “freely” chosen. Contrary to existentialists, the human problem is not that we face unchosen givens; the tragedy of the human situation does not lie in our “thrownness.” Adam was thrown into a garden, wholly without his consent, and yet the Lord said that Adam’s situation was “very good.” The problem then is not the reality of unchosen constraints and givens but the nature of those givens; the tragedy of the human situation — which is not really tragedy in the classical sense — is that the trajectory of human life in Adam is a trajectory toward the grave.
From the perspective of infant baptism, we can see that what the gospel announces is not absolute choice, but an alternative givenness, equally unchosen. Baptism does not liberate us from society, but from Adamic society with all its pathologies, and engrafts us into an alternative society that, like the old society, begins to impose its patterns on an infant as soon as he enters it. Life still begins with a trajectory, but this alternative givenness has been reordered and redeemed so that its trajectory is (however imperfectly) toward righteousness and life.
…[T]he “inculturation” of the infant into the Christian culture of the church takes place through symbols. Confusion concerning symbols and symbolism is so pervasive among Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, that a few comments on the role of symbolism need to be made. First, symbols do not merely express what we already know and desire but also shape knowledge and desire. The clearest example of this is language, a system of symbolic sounds and visual shapes that forms our thoughts and guides our basic perceptions of reality….
Even what we think of as most deeply our own, as our deepest personal feelings, desires and aspirations, are formed by the symbols of the communities in which we are nurtured. Children aspire to be film or sports stars, and these aspirations touch their identity to such an extent that they become defined by their aspirations. But where do these desires come from? Surely they are not generated from “inside.”… Identity, with its aspirations and desires, is shaped by those whom we choose to imitate, those who serve as “types” into whose image we wish to be molded….
...I do not want to trivialize the question but from the perspective I have been outlining, we might say that the question, “Why baptize infants?” is similar to the question, “Why speak to infants?” Why talk to them when they cannot understand anything you say? The answer is of course that it is through speaking to them that they learn to understand and even to speak for themselves. Unless we deploy linguistic symbols in their direction, they will not develop the skills they need. Similarly, we do not baptize babies because they understand what is happening to them, but in order that they might come to that understanding. Through the water of baptism, God speaks to infants so that they might come to know and love Him. And through that symbol and others, they are trained to respond.
Pierre Bourdieu has argued that the status conferred in a rite [Leithart is writing about “rites of passages” that move a person from one status to another.—AR] must be constantly reaffirmed by the community for the “magic” of ritual to have its effect. William Jefferson Clinton is inaugurated President, and what makes this rite of passage real is that thereafter everyone treats Clinton differently. Everyone defers to him, calls him by his new name — “Mr. President,” cozies up to him seeking support for legislation or urging him to ignore human rites abuses in Indonesia or China. Each of these is a reaffirmation of his new status and each affirmation reminds Bill Clinton of his status and the obligations it places on him…
We can see how this applies to baptism. James Jordan has repeatedly said that we should count and treat the baptized as Christians. That is correct, but it would be a mistake to understand this as something purely “external” and “outside” that has nothing to do with who we really are, as a game of “let’s pretend.” Counting and treating the baptized as Christians is one of the important ways in which their Christian identity becomes internalized and the Christian culture of the church becomes formative of their personal character….
I find all of this very helpful (everyone should read the whole article). Giving primacy to the ‘inside-out’ approach seems to be quite prevalent in evangelical churches. It can lead to all sorts of problems that a strong emphasis on the ‘outside-in’ paradigm and a robust view of sacramental efficacy can avoid, as Joel Garver has observed.
It seems to me that giving primacy to the ‘inside-out’ approach can be related to some degree to giving primacy to ‘reality’ over ‘symbols’. Symbols are ‘external’ and denigrated for this reason; reality is ‘internal’ and to be prized over everything else. Accompanying this is a whole form of religion that downplays external ceremonies and exalts the inner realm of the individual’s heart as the great seat of religion.
Leithart’s position stands opposed to this approach. James Jordan, in the following quote from Through New Eyes, takes a similar line:—
The power of symbols is the power of worldview presuppositions. It is the greatest power in the world. All of language is symbolic, of course, but symbolism is not limited to words. Symbolism “creates” reality, not vice versa. This is another way of saying that essence precedes existence. God determined how things should be, and then they were. God determined to make man as His special symbol, and then the reality came into being.
The essence of man is not something purely internal, but comes from outside; his essence is found in his symbolic relationship to God. Our personal identity is not something we possess within ourselves. Rather, we are who God says we are. Jordan goes on to argue that:
Grace gives us redeemed and restored men. The saved are re-symbolized as righteous and whole before God.
Being re-symbolized (in Baptism) in such a manner transforms our very being. We become essentially different people. From the point of a person’s Baptism onwards, we must ‘count and treat’ them as Christians, with all of the privileges and responsibilities that this entails. When God declares us to be righteous in Baptism we really are essentially righteous from that point onwards. Most Protestants seem to hold the idea that justification effects no essential change for the person justified. Even after justification, it is supposed, one is still ‘essentially’ a sinner. God’s declaration that a person is righteous, it is presumed, leaves their fundamental being totally untouched; it is merely an 'external' status. Leithart has commented on Berkhof’s formulation of the doctrine of justification in this regard (see also his post on Bruce McCormack’s doctrine of justification).
The supposed dichotomy or sharp distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ also needs to be rejected. In reality ‘internal’ and ‘external’ continually mingle in various ways. The internal/external dichotomy only really works once you have assumed that the impossibility of two items interpenetrating each other. There is nothing purely internal; nor is there anything purely external. Fergus Kerr’s book, Theology After Wittgenstein should serve to explode this myth. The quest for the purely internal (seen particularly in the quest for ‘mentalese’ — the private language) is the quest for autonomy — the quest for the self, unshackled by anything outside itself. The quest for the purely internal is a key expression of man’s rebellion against God. Kerr writes:—
The ‘foundations’ upon which I exist as a self-conscious and autonomous being are the innumerable practices that collectively establish the tradition which is my native element. There is nothing deeper — there need be nothing deeper — than the unending ‘game’ which is ‘the whole that consists of the language and the activities with which it is interwoven’ (PI 7).
Initiation into, and growth within, community is the only manner in which I can arrive at selfhood. Initiation into, and growth within, the Christian community serves as the manner by which one arrives at Christian selfhood. As Leithart has observed elsewhere: “Paradoxically, we become ourselves, and become aware that we are selves, only as we love, speak, and live with other selves.” There is no aspect of my internal life that was not forged on an external anvil. No aspect of my internal life is untouched or unshaped by the external. Religion is irreducibly social because there is no such thing as a private language. The ‘outside-in’ approach must always take priority over any ‘inside-out’ approach.
In the light of all of this, the idea that Baptism and its continual reinforcement and reaffirmation only change me ‘externally’ seems fundamentally wrongheaded and nonsensical. Furthermore, the idea that Baptism is somehow only the ‘external’ aspect of our salvation and requires an ‘internal’ aspect to go with it is also false. God certainly demands that we ‘internalize’ our new identity, but all that is needed in order for us to do this comes to us from 'outside'.
I am rereading James Jordan’s book The Sociology of the Church at the moment (this book is also available online). As usual, Jordan is provocative, controversial, stimulating and — generally — right. I thought that I would post this extended quote, in which Jordan gives some thoughts on what Presbyterians and Baptists might learn from Episcopalians. Hopefully it will provoke some discussion.
Some of us like to believe that our American Christian culture is based on Presbyterian and Baptist values. Obviously this is to a great extent true. The fact is, however, that both in Britain and in America, the dominant religious group has been Episcopalian. Like it or not, the Episcopalians have exercised more effective social dominion than have the rest. The strengths of Presbyterians and Baptists have been harnessed, monitored, directed, and overseen by Episcopalian rulers in both nations.
Why is this? Why are the Episcopalians, as a group, the strongest, and that in spite of the fact that after the War of Independence they were associated with despised loyalists? …
I believe that the salient factors are three: the promotion of excellence, the respect for tradition, and a certain primacy of the institutional church.
First of all, it is my impression that the Episcopal churches, more so than any others, are careful to advance and promote their best men. If this is true in their church, it will also be true in their society at large. If one looks to see who the big name theologians of Episcopalianism are, they are frequently bishops. The Episcopalians identify, promote, protect, and prosper their best men. They provide large salaries, good homes, secure retirements. For their scholar-bishops, they provide domestic servants and secretaries, so that the man of the cloth is free from ordinary worries and duties and can devote his time to pastoral and literary work.
Is anything like this ever done in Baptist and Presbyterian circles? I dare say not. To my knowledge, there has never been, in the entire history of Presbyterianism, a man who was set aside to be a scholar and writer. Without exception, Presbyterians load their best men down with detail and trivial tasks, so that they accomplish little. Their best thinkers are made teachers in theological institutions, where they are made to spend their days going over basics with young, immature men just out of generally worthless college educations. The rest of their time is taken up with committee meetings and administrative tasks. It is a wonder that any of them ever get any writing and research done. It is no surprise that the most brilliant of them, Cornelius Van Til, seldom was able to get his writings into polished English style — he had no time for it.
We can contrast this with the armies of scholars maintained by Rome, and the small cadre maintained in Episcopalian circles. The difference is marked, and points to the fundamental difference between these two groups. The catholic party (Roman and Anglican) is frankly elitist. It strives to convert and control the elite in society, and it arms its best men for that task, giving them time for reflection and writing. The evangelical party (Presbyterian and Baptist, especially the latter) is infected largely with the heresy of democracy, and believes (wrongly) that the conversion of society comes with the conversion of the masses.
Americans (evangelical) like to believe the myth that society is transformed from the “bottom up” and not from the “top down.” This flies squarely in the face both of history and of Scripture. The history of Israel, as recorded in Scripture, is not a history of revivals from the bottom up, but of kings and their actions. Good kings produced a good nation; bad kings a bad nation. The order is always seen from the top down, though of course with real feedback from the bottom up.
Christ is the head of the church, the New Testament repeatedly tells us. The church, however, is also a body politic, with eyes, hands, and feet (1 Cor. 12). Each part is necessary, but each part does not have the same function. There are rulers and governors — a hierarchy — in the church. There is no virtue in trying to evade this obvious fact, by objecting to the term “hierarchy,” or by ignoring the issue. Clearly, the greatest danger to the church comes not from wayward sheep, but from false leaders, savage wolves (Acts 20:30, etc.).
Of course, we must say by way of a comprehensive philosophy of history that the Triune God always moves all at once, reforming from the top down at the same time as He reforms from the bottom up. The point, however, is that there is a small group of elite leaders and controllers — a hierarchy — in every society. There always will be. Whoever ministers to that elite group will control society. Paul knew that. That is why he wanted so badly to get to Rome. The Episcopalians also know it. The Presbyterians and Baptists have tried to pretend that this is not so, and have thus left the elite to others, as much by default as by anything else.
Life and death flow from the head. This is true of Adam and his posterity, and of Christ and His. In smaller ways, the same principle is true in all of life. Good kings bring up a good nation; bad kings a bad one. That is why kings are likened to fathers and mothers in Scripture (Is. 49:23). Influence, for good or bad, flows from the head. People imitate those who are high and mighty.
This is the invariable posture of Scripture. It was the belief of the early church, which arranged its elders, each of which had the same power, in ranks according to the pattern of Exodus 18. Modern presbyterians, infected with the heresy of democracy, try to make all elders equal in function as well as in office. This does not work, of course, as lay elders do not have the same time nor the same degree of concern for the day to day workings of the church as do fulltime elders. Their speciality lies elsewhere. Modern presbyterians, arguing against the Episcopalian notion of the bishop as a separate office, have gotten rid of higher ranks of elders (bishops) altogether, so that age is not really respected, and a truly spiritual hierarchy is never groomed. One bad result, because hierarchy is inescapable, is that power often, though not always, falls to those least qualified to wield it. Another bad result is that the Biblical pastoral hierarchy is replaced, in democratically infected denominations, with impersonal bureaucracies.
Along with this goes a polemic against envy. A society that is openly hierarchical, as is the Episcopalian church, does not have near the problem with envy as does a society that pretends to democracy. A society that recognizes that there is a diversity of gifts, and that actively promotes its best men, has gone a long way toward stripping the envious of their power. Baptist and Presbyterian bureaucracies not infrequently have their least capable men in high position, in part due to the greater prominence of envy in their midst.
We may question whether Baptist and Presbyterian bodies really even want to minister to the elite. It is easy to say “there are not many mighty called.” So what? What about those who are? And what about influencing those who are not? Men who are big frogs in small ponds have a vested interest in keeping the pond small. They don’t want an invasion of elite people, who have more money, more education, and more power than they do. Thus, they really don’t want to minister to the elite. They don’t want to take over the elite. They don’t prize excellence, and they don’t reward it. They move to cripple the capabilities of their best men, as I have described above. They cling to the myth that literature oriented toward the masses will do more than scholarly material oriented toward the elite. That this is baloney does not bother them, because they really do not want dominion.
…The production of literature aimed at the masses has its place, of course; but it does not affect the transformation of society. It is a legitimate ministry, but it will not change the world. In fact, in the history of the church, to my knowledge it has never been possible to reduce hard, intellectual, elitist theology to the level of the common man. The effort to do so seems wasted. (This is not to reject the need for genuinely content-full Biblical preaching.)
This is not to despise the poor and the simple. One of the ministries of Episcopalian churches in town after town is the Episcopal Thrift House, where the used clothing of the wealthy is made available to the poor at extremely low cost. I got through college wearing coats from the Episcopal Thrift House. These stores are staffed by volunteer ladies from the Episcopal church, ladies whose husbands make so much money that they can afford to donate lots of time free to this ministry. This kind of ministry is simply impossible among churches that do not have wealthy members.
The second factor that has made Episcopalianism strong is its respect for tradition. Unlike most other Reformed churches, the English church was blessed with reforming bishops. The bishops were not the enemies but the friends of reform. As a result, the English church never reacted against the Medieval tradition, and sought to conserve the best that was there. All the Reformers were experts in the early church, and also in the Medieval theologians. After a century, however, the other Reformed groups had begun to ignore the Fathers and the Medievals. The myth arose that the Medieval church was wholly evil from A.D. 606 on. The great advances of the Christian centuries were overlooked. The real accomplishments of the Papal See were rejected. Only among the Anglicans did Patristic and Medieval scholarship retain a strong footing.
Thus, the Episcopalian churches have never lacked a strong sense of tradition. They subordinated tradition to Scripture, but never threw it out altogether. They have built enduring institutions, both physical and literary. They are here to stay.
In their respect for tradition, they are like the Jews, who are the other group that makes up the elite in British and especially American culture.
Third, the Episcopalian churches have put the visible church in first place, before theology and before personalities. The history of the Baptist churches is a history of personalities (preachers). The history of the Reformed churches is a history of combating theologies and theologians. Both groups have a history of one schism after another. This is not true of the Episcopalian churches. This is because they permit various theologies to exist under the common umbrella of the institutional church.
Is this bad or good? Before answering that, let us look at how it works, and how strong it is. The Episcopal churches bind their people to the church and to the tradition by the careful and plenary use of profound symbol and beautiful ritual. These things, contrary to the rationalistic and intellectualistic criticisms of it heard in the Presbyterian and Baptist world, sink deep into the consciousness of the people. The result is that the church becomes something more than merely a collection of people, and it transcends their differences. Not until the Episcopal church began ordaining women and homosexuals, and openly denying the faith, did any schism come.
This makes for a strong church, if a rather closed one. There are a lot of analogies to the Jews here, not least in the failure of either group to evangelize for itself. (Elites seldom feel any need to evangelize.) Provided the various theologies tolerated in the church are each basically orthodox, and in line with the historic creeds, there is no problem with having a strong church. The problem comes when liberalism creeps in, and of course the Episcopal churches today have rotted out as much as any others have. Doubtless Episcopalian readers have been amazed at how I have described their church. Doubtless if I were an Episcopalian rather than a Presbyterian, the grass would look greener on the other side. Doubtless what I have written here is more an occasion to set out some of my own thoughts than it is an accurate description of Episcopalianism. We ought, therefore, in closing to look at the glaring problem in Episcopalianism.
That problem is the lack of discipline in that body. Do Episcopalians ever declare anyone excommunicate? (Nobody else does either, but for different reasons.) Episcopalianism has been tied to the cultural elite, with the result that Episcopal churches often can become little more than religious country clubs. The cart (the elite) begins to pull the horse (the church). This is the danger and corruption of Episcopalianism.
The answer to this problem is seen only in the Roman Catholic church. That body alone has retained a ministry to all levels of society. The result is that no particular cultural group controls it. A second result is that there is no reticence about disciplining apostates.
Clearly, the reconstruction of the Christian church must take a catholic (though reformed) approach. The point of this essay is that there are things in evangelical protestantism today, which is basically Presbyterian, that prevent this wholistic type of ministry. In particular, if we want to capture the leadership of society, we have to take seriously those things that enabled the Episcopalians, in the early days of America, to emerge as the dominant social force.
James B. Jordan, The Sociology of the Church (pp.15-23)
Sometimes, Christians think that the transition from old to new is a transition from a corporate form of religion to a more individualistic form of religion. In fact, something like the opposite is the case....
...When we oppose individuality and corporate participation, we set off on the wrong foot from the beginning. They are mutually defining.
This seems to be a classic example of what Marva Dawn calls 'intimatizing our technology and technologizing our intimacy'. As the predominance of techniques and technologies lead to the attentuation of the fabric of intimacy within our society we seek to reattain the intimacy that we have lost in the only way that we know how: by developing new technologies and techniques. We also 'intimatize our technology', trying to disguise its sterility with a veneer of sexiness or personality.
This introduction to N.T. Wright's theology of justification seems promising despite a few (generally minor) flaws.
Perhaps the most obvious flaw is that of describing Wright as a 'monocovenantalist'. It seems to me that such a description of Wright is a retrojection of certain aspects of his theology into the categories of older theological frameworks, categories which are ill-equipped to do justice to the pattern of his thought. I sometimes wonder to what degree the problems that many Presbyterians and Reformed folk have in understanding Wright flow from the Ramean philosophy of the Puritans, which seems to have the tendency of transforming the covenant from an organic and historical relationship into an abstract and static theological construct, with historical covenants as 'dispensations' of this ahistorical entity. The fact that I find Ramus' philosophy positively unhelpful may serve to explain why I find the huge stress on the faith/works, law/gospel, covenant of works/covenant of grace debates by turns both frustrating and baffling.
I recommend Tim Gallant's article on the subject.
Thanks to Team Redd for linking to the following questionnaire.
Name- Alastair Roberts
Hometown- Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England
Native Language- UK English
Occupation- I work in the supporter services department in a Christian radio station
Level of Education- Diploma in Theology from the Evangelical Theological College of Wales. I will be returning to theological education in September.
1-Do you blog?
2-What is the name of your blog?
'40 Bicycles' and the long dormant 'Sacramental Blog'
3- How long have you been blogging? Why did you want to start? (What was its appeal?)
Since 15th September 2003. I started blogging after coming in contact with a number of bloggers on internet forums. When I found out how easy it was to start a blog I decided that I had to give it a try. Once I had started I was soon hooked. The discipline of writing down your thoughts is a very good one; it serves to hone your thinking considerably. However, I guess the central appeal lies in being able to interact with interesting people from all over the world. My blogging is, among other things, a reaction against the anonymity of cyberspace. If there was no discernable community of bloggers, I don’t think that I would bother. Through this blog I have been able to get to know people from a whole variety of different walks of life, ecclesiastical backgrounds and age ranges. This has done me much good. I trust that, by God’s grace, I may have been the means of good to some of my readers too.
4-How often do you update your blog? Are you happy with how often you update it? Why or why not?
It varies: sometimes I post daily; at other times I can go a week without posting. From time to time I get annoyed with myself for posting irregularly. On such occasions I try to remind myself that my blog is my servant and not my master. However, I do feel very bad about letting people down. I have started a number of series of posts in the past that I have yet to finish. I feel very disappointed in myself when this happens.
5- How would you classify the people who read your blog? Can you categorize them? (In other words, who do you believe is your audience?)
My audience (there needs to be a better collective term for the readers of a particular blog: something that falls between 'audience' and 'readership') consists chiefly of thinking Christians. They tend to be predominantly Reformed and seek to express this identity in a manner that avoids unnecessary sectarianism and keeps faith with the broader ecumenical tradition of the Church. I also have readers from a number of other backgrounds, whose interaction is especially valuable. They challenge me to give other traditions their due weight and not to screen out opinions that might not tally with my own. They challenge me to interact with grace and love with concrete positions and not just with abstract generalizations — to be ‘catholic’ in my sentiments and not merely in my words.
6-Do you know any of the people who read your blog personally (or in ‘real’ life)? Why or why not? If you do know any of them personally, why did you choose to meet him or her?
Yes, I do know a number of my readers personally. My family and close friends all know about my blog, as do a number of people I have met over the last few years. I have also been able to meet some people in ‘real’ life, who I first met through my blog. These have been great experiences and I hope to get to meet more of my readers in the future, particularly among those who live in the US. I firmly believe in integrating my ‘real’ and ‘online’ life as much as possible. I want to form real friendships with people online and deepen these friendships by taking any opportunity I have to get to meet people offline.
7-Do you keep any other kinds of “journals” besides your blog? Why or why not?
Not really. I don’t have the time. I have done in the past. I do, however, write a short review for myself of every book that I read. I suppose that some might count that as a journal.
8-If you do keep a “traditional” journal, is there any difference between your online version and the pen and paper version? What kinds of similarities are there? Differences?
9-Which do you like better, online journals or traditional journals? Why?
They both have their advantages. Writing a journal with a pen, rather than with a keyboard, tends to make one’s style more personal and considered. The ease with which one can create blog posts can sometimes detract from the quality of the message that they contain. My writing style on my blog is frequently very poor when compared to my writing style with paper and pen. Typing, as opposed to writing, tends to encourage laziness in certain areas. I do not resist this as much as I ought. The advantage of the blog is primarily to be found in the wider readership and the ability to link to other articles and websites. The strange intimacy that is created by a blog is something that could not be easily replicated offline. This form of semi-public intimacy, in turn, has both advantages and disadvantages. I have had to try to avoid using it as a substitute for concrete friendships. This is a real temptation.
10-What is your language itself like when you blog? Do you edit for spelling errors, capitalization, or grammar? Why or why not?
My writing style on my blog is overly functional and lacks the beauty that the subject matter (generally theology) is worthy of. I am frequently ashamed of it. I do not generally edit for errors; however, I do try to discipline myself to take these things seriously whenever I write. I generally try to write in a gracious manner (I frequently fail).
11-Do you think it is important to do this? Why or why not?
Given the sterility and ephemerality of most of the writing that we encounter from day to day, I feel that I have a duty to invest myself in my posts and give thought and consideration to my style. As I have already confessed, I do not do practice this as consistently as I ought to.
12-What subjects do you write about in your blog? Is there any topic that is off-limits? Why or why not?
Most of my blogging is concerned with theology. Is there any topic that is off-limits? There are certain things that I do not want to talk about. I do not think that it is helpful to use a blog as a place to air personal grievances. Such things should be dealt with privately. I would like to say that my blog does not often descend into rants. However, I have ranted far more often than I ought to.
13-Is there anything else you think I should know about why blogging is important or about why you blog?
Not off the top of my head.
Wow! It's quite some time since I last posted.
Over the last few days my free time has largely been occupied checking dissertations and theses for friends and attending meetings. I did sit down and start to write a long post against Mariolatry a few days ago. Unfortunately I was not able to get it completed and decided that I would leave it unfinished for the time being. Perhaps some time I will sit down and work on it again, when the mood takes me.
I did get to watch Babette's Feast for the first time last week. It was such an amazing film that I just have to see it again as soon as possible. I have read Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace? and Leon Kass' The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of our Nature, both of which outline the story of the film at length, so the plot was not a surprise to me. Nonetheless, the film still profoundly moved me.
I just finished reading John Howard Yoder's classic, The Politics of Jesus, a book which I will undoubtedly return to on a number of occasions over the coming years. Whilst I may not always agree with Yoder (or his great fan, Stanley Hauerwas) I am always better off for having read him.
I am also taking the opportunity to reread Wright's The New Testament and the People of God during my lunch breaks at work. I have read this book a couple of times already and have studied some parts in detail. However, I have set myself to reread all of Wright's major material before the end of the summer.
I have been exposing myself to Brian McLaren's work, A Generous Orthodoxy, for the first time. I might post some thoughts on the subject when I have time again (i.e. not for another week or so). I have also been reading Hendrick Stander and Johannes Louw's book, Baptism in the Early Church, which is by far the best argument for the 'Baptist' reading of the development of the rite of Baptism in the early Church that I have come across. Whilst I do not find their position entirely persuasive, I strongly recommend that those who hold to paedobaptism read it and interact with it. At the very least, it will show that the historical record is quite a bit more complex than some apologists for paedobaptism would like it to be. Peter Leithart's essay from The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, "Infant Baptism in History: An Unfinished Tragicomedy" gives a more balanced paedobaptist reading of this history. Jeremias' Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries is also worth reading, even though it is not without its fair share of flaws.
I have also been reading, at the suggestion of one of my cousins, Jiddu Krishnamurti's Beginnings of Learning (we exchanged books: I gave him a basic introduction to Derrida). It is the first encounter that I have had with Krishnamurti's work. I don't have any knowledge about Krishnamurti, the Theosophical Society and a whole host of other things connected to the work. Is anyone able to enlighten me on this issue?
I have also been reading Marva Dawn's Sexual Character: Beyond Technique to Intimacy. It isn't bad, but I have read or heard a lot of what she says elsewhere, either in one of her Regent Radio talks, or in another of her books. She also tends to rely quite heavily on other writers at certain points of her argument. In Unfettered Hope, for example, the first few chapters of her book were heavily dependent on Albert Borgmann and Jacques Ellul. Whilst Dawn's material is good, one often feels that one would prefer to be reading Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays or any of the other writers she makes use of first hand. To the extent that Dawn serves as a popularizer for their work, I suppose there is cause to be thankful.
I watched Wright’s Channel 4 programme on evil last night (thanks to a friend who videoed it for me; we don’t have a TV, but we have a video player and monitor). For those who are wondering, he is against it.
I was disappointed with the programme, but not really any more than I had expected to be. Television is not a very good medium for theology; even a communicator as gifted as Wright cannot easily express his message on it. Wright’s presentation was essentially a very condensed version of his Westminster Abbey lectures on evil and the justice of God (available online). The problem is that Wright’s treatment of evil consists of a very developed argument. Such arguments do not translate well onto the screen. By the end of the programme one could imagine that most viewers would fail to understand the complex logic of Wright’s presentation.
I also felt that there were certain elements missing or muted, that are usually present in Wright’s treatment. There were also some ambiguities that made me wonder to what degree Wright was constrained in the expression of his position. One of these ambiguities was the current status of the Jewish nation. Are the Jews still the chosen people of God? I can’t imagine Wright’s position on such issues going down well in many circles.
There was also the question of the place of the wrath of God at the cross. This dimension seemed to be absent from Wright’s presentation. I believe that evangelicals who watched the programme will wonder where the penal aspect of the cross went to (although I think that Wright emphasized aspects that should be regarded as more primary). I wondered where they went to too, although I know full well that Wright has argued in favour of penal substitution in many different contexts before. Perhaps you can only go so far on public television.
Having begun with a broad-brush presentation of the problem of evil, Wright moved into a treatment of God’s solution to the problem. He worked from the calling of Abraham, through the conquest of the land, to the exile and the expectation of a future Messiah (cryptically spoken of in such passages as Isaiah 53). The focus of Wright’s presentation was on a Christus Victor account of the atonement, following on from a brief account of Christ’s public ministry. Evil is concentrated in one place and Jesus goes right into the eye of the storm to defeat it. Evil is defeated at the cross and the new world order is ushered in by the resurrection. [The Christus Victor motif is the primary one for Wright in all of his writings, taking priority over other perspectives on the cross, but not excluding them. Penal substitution comes under the category of Christus Victor for Wright: God’s confrontation with the powers of evil must bring about the proper condemnation of the powers in me and my deliverance from them, which necessitates penal substitution.]
The programme then turned to the manner in which we must deal with evil in this day and age. This part seemed to be a bit detached from what had been said previously. Somewhere after the description of the death of Christ the gathering force of the argument seemed to dissipate. Wright himself has warned of the danger of failing to go beyond the cross as the greatest statement of the problem of evil and moving into an understanding of the cross as the great solution to the problem of evil. Wright’s argument from the beginning promised that the cross provided this, but I did not feel that the argument delivered as much as it could have done.
What was given was a challenge to forgiveness, with a number of examples from South Africa. It was good enough, but it failed to go much beyond treating Jesus as a great example or moral teacher. This is sad, because Wright’s theology has many powerful things to say to this issue that were not said. Many liberals would not disagree too much with what was said in this final section. If the presentation had been clearer they should have done. Wright needed to address more directly the question of how our practice of forgiveness grows out of Christ’s achievement on the cross. He also needed to speak of the new world order that the gospel creates and how this provides a solution to the problem of evil. Perhaps more of an emphasis upon the resurrection would have helped. Of course, his argument was too involved for television as it was; adding these extra elements would not have helped the lay viewer.
There were a few other aspects of Wright’s approach that disappointed me. For one, I think that it would be far more helpful if he worded himself more carefully when speaking about Satan. One could easily be excused if one got the impression that Wright denies the existence of Satan. He doesn’t, but his refusal to speak of Satan as a ‘personal’ entity (for involved theological reasons) leads to unfortunate confusion. In passing, I think that Wright’s account of the quasi-personality of Satan might go some way towards opening up his understanding of hell and the removal of man’s ‘image-bearing-ness’ within it. I was also disappointed that Wright seems to over-accent political evil and mute his expressions of the evil that exists within each one of us. This is characteristic of a number of his works and, along with some of his proposed political solutions, frustrates me somewhat.
Overall, I felt that the programme was far too full. You simply cannot say that much and expect a lay television audience to take it in and properly digest it. Those who want to encounter a far better account of evil from Wright should be directed to his Evil and the Justice of God lectures, which are quite excellent.