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Monday, April 18, 2016

Review of Morgan Guyton, Part 2

Chapter 7 of How Jesus Saves the World from Us, "Communion, not Correctness," deals with the question of doctrinal orthodoxy. Morgan compares doctrine to a blues jam, in which there is a basic "orthodoxy"--a particular scale and set of chord progressions--but lots of freedom to improvise within this. Morgan illustrates his principle with examples of his own practice, following the usage of local churches even on points where he might not agree. So, for instance, he says "Our Mother and Our Father" in a progressive church, but "Our Father" in a more traditional one, and says "Hail Mary" along with the Catholics even though he holds to "a traditional Protestant perspective on the naming of the Trinity and the role of Mary in our spiritual life." I like Morgan's musical metaphor a lot--it reminds me of Clement of Alexandria's wonderful opening to Exhortation to the Heathen, in which he plays on the musical connotations of "nomos" (law) to suggest that Christ is the one who retunes the broken harp of humanity to play God's music. But as with some of the other chapters, I'm not sure Morgan thoroughly resolves the ambiguities in his contrast of "communion" and "correctness." He acknowledges that some doctrinal errors really are incompatible with the music, but at the same time he wants to excoriate those who "stop the song" every time they think somebody has made a mistake. (Dare I mention Norman Geisler's persecution of Mike Licona here?) But surely nearly everyone (even Norman Geisler) would agree with this in principle. The problem is that we don't agree on where to draw the line between the two things. I think that the views found in John Shelby Spong's "Twelve Theses" render the music of Christianity unrecognizable. But some people within the Episcopal Church, while not necessarily agreeing with Spong, would say that I'm "stopping the music" by saying this. On the other hand, I find Geisler's vehement objection to Licona's very careful and nuanced understanding of Biblical inerrancy to be completely indefensible--but someone for whom Biblical inerrancy is a central truth of the faith, the basic "scale" of the Christian music, would naturally disagree. This is one of the reasons why I am drawn to Catholicism. I view the "Magisterium" very much as a conductor (excuse me, "band leader"--perhaps the fact that my primary musical idiom is classical is not entirely unrelated to the fact that I'm more theologically conservative than Morgan, by the way!), with the responsibility of deciding when the music needs to be "stopped" to fix a major problem. To be sure, I think it's hard to deny that the Magisterium has frequently been guilty of "stopping the music" unnecessarily (not to mention the little problem of calling in the police to arrest the offending players for their musical crimes). Having a Magisterium doesn't solve all our problems, by any means. But I think it does play an important role within the broader "music" of orthodox Christianity.

Chapter 8, "Temple not Program," addresses worship. This is the chapter Morgan particularly invited me to comment on, but I have relatively little to say here, because I agree with it pretty much in its entirety! But I do wonder how Morgan's endorsement of the idea of "temple" as a paradigm for Christian worship fits with his hostile attitude to the idea of "sacrifice" and ritual purity in chap. 2. Temples, after all, are sacred spaces set apart by ritual purity regulations. They are traditionally places where sacrifices happen. Morgan describes at some length the experience of attending Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. This is his primary example of "temple" worship. But of course, at these same Masses people are expected not to receive communion unless they are Catholics who have been to confession; only men may serve as priests; and so on. I don't bring this up to endorse all Catholic "purity" practices, but to suggest that we might need to think carefully before throwing overboard the notion of "sacrifice" altogether, as Morgan seemed to suggest in chap. 2.

Chap. 9, "Solidarity not Sanctimony," argues that Christians should respond to sin by showing solidarity with sinners, rather than condemning them for not following the "rules." Morgan provides some very thoughtful and helpful reflections on what that solidarity looks like. He points out, for instance, that Jesus shows solidarity even with sinners whose sin oppresses others (such as tax collectors). But then he qualifies his position a bit by saying that the rest of us shouldn't necessarily "emulate Jesus' tactics here," but simply shouldn't "unfriend or judge" people who do "dine with rich scoundrels." A couple of pages earlier, he says that we should show solidarity with sinners and with the victims of their sin, but when there is a conflict we should side with the person who has the least power. Morgan's desire to qualify his statement about Jesus showing solidarity with rich, oppressive sinners is understandable. Obviously one could take Jesus' dining with tax collectors as an excuse for not challenging sin and oppression in powerful places, and clearly that would be a disastrously wrong interpretation. But I think Morgan's hesitancy and haziness about how to apply Jesus' dining with tax collectors illustrates the problems with his "X not Y" approach, and in general with the "progressive" tendency to approach morality in terms of picking an "oppressed party" to have "solidarity" with, rather than by following "rules." The freedom of having "rules"--moral principles that tell you that certain behavior is sinful--is that you don't have to tie yourself into knots holding together solidarity with sinners and solidarity with the oppressed. Accepting the traditional and now much-despised maxim "hate the sin and love the sinner" (which is not the same thing as repeating it glibly as if just saying it solved everything) allows us to show solidarity with sinners and their victims, because "solidarity" is not set over against "having moral rules and judging behavior by them." In other words, I don't think the principle of "solidarity with victims" gives an out to the problems posed by rejecting the view that there are moral principles, accessible either to reason or faith, which allow us to distinguish certain behavior as sinful. One of the most fundamental moral principles is that we shouldn't abuse or oppress one another, and that includes the abuse and oppression that hide under the mantle of "condemning sin." So as usual, I'm not sure Morgan and I are too far apart, and I find much of what he writes in this chapter extremely valuable.

Chapter 10, "Outsiders not Insiders," continues the themes raised in the previous chapter. Morgan writes eloquently about the Gospel call to identify with the outsiders. He follows John Howard Yoder's argument that "taking up your cross" means standing against the powers of the world on behalf of the marginalized rather than just enduring discomfort patiently. As Morgan puts it, we have "domesticated" the Cross. The most moving story in the chapter--perhaps in the whole book, is Morgan's "conversion story" telling how he found emotional stability and renewed faith through the ministry of a church made up mostly of gay people. This leads into Morgan's brief discussion (as he says, he's gone into it in more detail on his blog) of "queer" issues generally. Morgan argues that "queer" people are God's gift to the Church to save us from our "friendship with the world." This, of course, upends the way conservatives typically put the issue--and that's deliberate. For Morgan, the true "worldliness" and "compromise" is the way Christians have bought into a hierarchical picture of the world which has supported colonialism, slavery, the oppression of women, and so on. It's a powerful argument. He may well be right. It's one of the reasons all conservative Christians should read this book. But as in the previous chapter, I have questions about the intrinsic relativism of making "outsiders vs. insiders" the primary category. Identifying with certain outsiders may actually blind one to others. Las Casas, with whom Morgan begins the chapter, is a really good example. Unquestionably he was one of the most admirable figures--one of the few admirable figures--in the sorry mess of Christian colonialism. He was a man of wisdom and conscience. And yet he was guilty of suggesting the importation of African slaves in order to slow the genocide of Native Americans. Again, an absolute rule like "chattel slavery is always wrong" may actually be more liberating than a relative principle of "find the most marginalized people and side with them." Another example: I know a Methodist pastor, a good and compassionate man, who is a blind supporter of Israel because of his quite proper sense of how badly Christians have failed to defend Jews in the past. For him, to criticize Israel is to continue the Christian legacy of anti-Semitism. He doesn't seem capable of seeing it any other way. Thus, while I find Morgan's basic spiritual teaching in this chapter to be powerful and convicting, I'm once again unconvinced that this is a formula that will reliably "detoxify" Christianity.

Chap. 11, "Servanthood not Leadership," is largely a meditation on the temptation of Jesus. I have little to disagree with in this chapter except perhaps its rejection of the use of the "shepherd" metaphor for Christian clergy--"pastor" is a pretty venerable term and I wouldn't want to throw it overboard altogether.

Chap. 12, "Kingdom not Stadium," is one of the book's finest chapters. I particularly like the section called "stadium envy," which addresses the common problem of mainline congregations worrying about their numerical decline and wondering what the neighboring megachurches are doing right. In Morgan's words: "those dying mainline churches are where I found the gospel that saved me." This final chapter is an exhortation to be faithful and to view the Christian faith as a pilgrimage rather than a "stadium" that we try to fill with converts. It is an appropriate summing up of the message of the book as a whole.

I've focused on points where I disagree with Morgan throughout this summary of the twelve chapters, both because I'm that kind of guy and because I want to make it clear that my enthusiastic recommendation of the book doesn't depend on agreeing with everything in it. I think Morgan does fall into what I would see as some typical progressive cliches. I agree with Derek Rishmawy that the "X not Y" format of the book often forces Morgan into unnecessary dichotomies. (I also get why Morgan wrote the book that way, and I'm not necessarily saying he was wrong to make that choice. But every choice comes with some costs.)

But in the end, what matters is that this book "convicts" me, to use the language of my Holiness heritage. Or, in the language Morgan uses from Acts 2, it "cuts me to the heart." It fills me with a desire to be holy. I will never be quite the same person, I think, after reading this book. Perhaps the message of the book can be summarized best in a passage from the conclusion of the book. (The first sentence is, by the way, a paraphrase of one of the constantly repeated themes of Martin Luther's early work.)


To be a true Christian is to expect a lifetime of personal repentance. It means admitting over and over again how wrong we are and being liberated over time from the slavish defensiveness of needing to be always right. . . . it's not enough to go through the exhibitionist humility of talking about what horrible sinners we are and how unworthy we are of God's grace. . . . . The goal is to lose ourselves so thoroughly in the freely given love of an extravagantly generous God that we become vessels by which this love can be shared with others.

Morgan writes as someone who has known this repentance, and continues to practice it. And in this gracious and challenging little book he invites us all to do the same.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review of Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves the World from Us (part 1)

Christianity does not have a good reputation among non-Christians in contemporary America and Western Europe. For that reason, a large number of Christians find it hard to describe themselves as Christians without disclaimers: "I'm not one of those Christians"--those people for whom a "Christian worldview" is identical with right-wing Republican politics, for whom Christian morality primarily means disapproving of other people's sex lives, and for whom "salvation" means a private legal transaction with Jesus which enables one to escape hell. These disclaimers sometimes take the form of books explaining how to rescue "true" Christianity from its corruptions. This project, of course, goes back far beyond the problems of contemporary Western Christianity. Indeed, ever since the Reformation the genre of "finally getting it right" has become central to Protestantism. Books claiming to straighten Christianity out, when written by people of a "progressive" way of thinking, tend to cover certain predictable bases, attacking penal substitution, Biblical inerrancy, and the conservative Christian condemnation of homosexuality, among others.

 Morgan Guyton's How Jesus Saves the World from Us obviously falls into the progressive sub-genre of the "fixing Christianity" genre, as the subtitle indicates: Twelve Antidotes for Toxic Christianity. But at the same time, this book manages to transcend its genre. If you read one "progressive Christianity" book, read this one. If you hate "progressive Christianity" books, read this one. If you've read a bunch of them and are tired of them, read this one. And if you have read them and are happy that they have delivered you for toxic Christianity already and you aren't like those nasty conservatives any more--then by all means read this one. 

Morgan's choice of title, and his choice to relegate the "toxic Christianity" theme to the subtitle, are significant. When he says "how Jesus saves the world from us," he really means it. When he says "us" he really means it. This book does indeed cover the typical "progressive" bases. But it is far more than yet another attack on the distortions of conservative Protestantism, and the Christianity it offers should challenge anyone who thinks that "progressive Christianity" is just a watered-down, culturally accommodated version of the real thing. This is a winsome, beautifully written, passionate presentation of the central truths of Christianity. This book preaches the Gospel.

 This quickly becomes evident in the first of the twelve chapters, which presents the doctrine of justification by faith in a way that is both psychologically cogent and theologically orthodox. (I particularly appreciate the prominent role Henry Nouwen plays in this chapter--Morgan draws on a Catholic author to elucidate a key Protestant concept.) Morgan diagnoses the human condition as one in which we are trapped by the need to "perform" for other people or even for God. Acceptance of God's unconditional grace--"becoming the Beloved" in Nouwen's terms--frees us to live lives of joyful abandon. This is perhaps my favorite of the chapters and the one that spoke to me most personally. The conventional accounts of justification by faith don't do much for me, because I never thought of God as an arbitrary judge who would expect me to earn merit in some legally defined way. My Holiness upbringing did incline me, however, to think of God as a demanding perfectionist who was always checking up on me to see if I was doing the right thing for the right motive. My problem has always been a problem of identity--defining myself by my sins rather than by God's grace. Morgan's account of God's grace was freeing and empowering for me, and I think it's a great gateway to the book as a whole.

 The title of the second chapter, "Mercy Not Sacrifice," is the same as the title of Morgan's blog, and was I think one of the titles originally considered for the whole book. My friends who are OT scholars would, I think, take issue a bit with Morgan's characterization of "sacrifice." There is a long debate within Christianity about just how the OT sacrifices should be regarded. Morgan's position, like that of many other progressive Christians, seems to be that sacrifice as a concept has little value. He deals with Rene Girard's theories about sacrifice briefly in a later chapter ("Communion not Correctness"). Morgan's own primary understanding of Jesus' sacrifice is that Jesus dies for us to free us from our need for sacrifice. I'm not sure I find this convincing. However, a great deal of this chapter is still clearly true and powerful. Morgan discusses Peter's sermon in Acts which resulted in the hearers being "cut to the heart," and argues that this is what it is like to be moved by God's love so that we accept mercy. He also argues that when Jesus cites the Hosea passage about "mercy not sacrifice," he is changing the context--originally God was asking people to show him covenant love, whereas Jesus makes the passage be about showing mercy to others. (I'm not entirely convinced that Hosea wasn't also talking about our treatment of others, but it's an interesting point.) We show God covenant love, in other words, by showing mercy to other people. Thus, even when I'm not sure I agree with everything Morgan's saying, he still has plenty to say that challenges me. There's a lot to chew on in every chapter of this book.

 The third chapter, "Empty not clean," contrasts two different models of Christian holiness--one in which we try to get rid of things that violate some sense of ritual purity, and another in which we clear out the "clutter" that keeps us from being filled with God's love. I basically agree with what Morgan's trying to say here, but I question whether the metaphorical dichotomy works. Contemporary Americans are, it seems to me, often very concerned with "clutter," and a house freed from clutter is often a sterile space in which no real living actually happens. But that's a concern more with the style than the basic message.

 "Breath, not Meat" is a fresh and powerful discussion of holiness, building on the previous chapter and addressing sex, food, and money. The title is Morgan's re-translation of "spirit not flesh," arguing that when Paul uses that language he's not contrasting physical and spiritual but two different ways of living an embodied life. This is another chapter that transcends conservative/progressive disagreements altogether to provide a simply stated but theologically rich meditation on a central Christian truth.

 "Honor not terror" addresses the concept of "fear of God." Here I think there's a certain tension between two different things Morgan wants to say: one is that the "fear of God" is about acknowledging God's "wildness." (He quotes Jonathan Martin to say that monsters, according to the Bible, are God's "pets.") The other is that the fear of God is about moral behavior--being faithful to standards of truth and goodness even when it's radically inconvenient to do so. I agree that both of these are part of the fear of God, but I'm not sure Morgan really brings them together successfully. I also wince a bit at his closing peroration about what the fear of God means for him, because it starts to sound like the concept of holiness I grew up with, in contrast to the first chapter's insistence that God is not like a demanding coach who requires perfection. I have always been more worried about "disappointing" God than about being punished by Him. Perhaps I don't respond to this chapter as much as some people might because I was fortunate enough not to grow up with a religion that primarily emphasized "fire and brimstone." That being said, Morgan is spot on in most of what he says here, and I particularly like his acknowledgment that secular people can show "fear of God"--that scientists, for instance (secular or religious), fear God when they pursue honest inquiry into natural causes, and that Huck Finn feared God when he chose to "go to hell" rather than betray his friend Jim. 

"Poetry not Math" hits one of those standard "progressive" talking points--the need to read the Bible in a more "poetic" way rather than treating it as a cut-and-dried set of rules. Horace Bushnell, in the preface to his book "God in Christ," provided the classic statement of this idea, and I largely agree both with Bushnell and with Morgan. I think Derek Rishmawy has a good point that both here and elsewhere in the book Morgan tends to create overly sharp dichotomies. I believe in doctrinal boundaries, and I believe that they need to be based on Scripture. But again, I basically agree with Morgan's overall point. I particularly like the point that math is something we conquer, while poetry conquers us (maybe that's a bit unfair to math lovers, to be sure).

 (Summaries of the last six chapters, plus my closing thoughts, will follow in another post.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Is the falsifiability of Christian claims a conclusive argument for Christianity?

This article argues that it is, but I think the argument is pretty much bunk. Christians do indeed make specific historical claims, but that's only proof of Christianity if you start with the premise that religions should do that. It isn't true that Buddhism is non-falsifiable. Buddhism claims to be a means leading to peace of mind and freedom from the inner suffering that arises from selfish desire. If you practice the Buddhist way for a period of time and find yourself more and more miserable and torn apart by conflicting desires, then a good case can be made that Buddhism has been falsified, at least for you. He's assuming from the start that other religions should make the kinds of claims Christianity makes and then faulting them for not doing so, and that's just ridiculous. Furthermore, it isn't really true that Christianity is falsifiable, at least now. We don't have a time machine. We aren't in a position to check the New Testament's claims by direct observation. Yes, when first made the claims might have been falsifiable, but again, we don't know enough about the circumstances under which they were made to be too sure about this. And the fact that Christians put so much time and energy into apologetics isn't necessarily a point in favor of Christianity. A case can be made that these efforts are necessary because Christians insist on pinning their faith to very contingent historical claims, against which in many cases there is a good bit of prima facie evidence that has to be explained away. From a certain point of view, this is a massive waste of intellectual and spiritual energy. I myself find apologetics to be, in most cases, spiritually arid. In fact, Muslims do engage in a lot of apologetics as well--most of it even worse than standard Christian apologetics, in my limited experience. To be clear: I believe that the historical evidence on the whole supports the claim that Jesus rose again, and I believe that there are very good reasons why Christianity makes contingent historical claims. I glory in belonging to a religion that makes such claims. But I think it's silly to use the fact that other religions don't make such claims as an argument against them.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Further thoughts on Isaiah

I have now finished reading through Isaiah in Hebrew (I did this quite a while ago, actually, and have been making heavy work of Jeremiah so far, what with more goats to milk and the garden picking up and articles to write for Christian History). In my earlier post I wrote about the language of creation and chaos in "Second" Isaiah and how it connects to the book's critique of Babylonian idolatry.

But there's another cluster of language that struck me in Isaiah 40-55--the words "nasa'" and "sabal," both meaning "to carry." For instance, Isaiah 46, which describes Babylonians (and their animals) carrying heavy idols around from place to place: "Bel bows down, Nebo stoops, their idols are on beasts and cattle; these things you carry (nasa') are loaded as burdens on weary animals. They stoop, they bow down together, they cannot save the burden (masa'), but themselves go into captivity" (1-2). Just as humans are the makers of idols, so humans are the ones who carry the idols. Again, in v. 7: "they lift it (nasa') to their shoulders, they carry it (sabal), they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries out to it, it does not answer or save anyone from trouble."

Sandwiched between these condemnations of idolatry is God's assurance that in his relationship with his people it's the other way round (3-4): "Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne [by me from your birth, carried (nasa') from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray I will carry you (sabal); I have made, and I will bear (nasa'); I will carry (Sabal) and will save."

So when Isaiah 53 announces that the Suffering Servant has "borne (nasa') our infirmities and carried (sabal) our diseases," it is using the same language about the Servant that it uses about humans carrying idols and about God carrying his people.

Here, I think, is one way Christians can legitimately make a case for the divinity of the Servant from Isaiah 53. Isaiah 46 has established that a key difference between God and idols is that God carries us, while we carry idols. Now Isaiah 53 tells us that the Servant will do what Isaiah 46 says YHWH does. And it says it in stronger language--not only will the Servant carry us, but he will carry our "infirmities" and "diseases," the consequences of our own sins and idolatries.

Isaiah 53:4 is not simply an isolated "Messianic prophecy," but part of an extended poetic description of the ways in which YHWH will redeem his people from idolatry and show himself to be the true God. And how more powerfully to demonstrate this than by carrying their very sins? Idols are burdens to us. We are burdens to God.

I heard a marvelous sermon this morning at the Methodist church about the Psalms of Lament (specifically Psalm 31). The pastor, Bruce Nettleton, frequently finds creative ways to "cover the liturgical bases" while doing his own Protestant thing. And this was a great example. He used Psalm 31 as a window into the genre of Psalms of lament, leading to an explanation of why Jesus would quote such a psalm (22) on the Cross. Jesus takes upon himself our laments, our brokenness--even our anger at God. (Bruce ended by inviting people to practice Ignatian prayer and imagine themselves as part of the story of Holy Week--a traditional practice that I admit doesn't do a whole lot for me.) This, I think, is how Christological exegesis of the Old Testament should be done. Here, as in Isaiah 53, the passage is "Messianic" not in spite of its apparent "original meaning," but because of it. The point is not to "prove Jesus from the Old Testament," but to immerse ourselves in the strange world of the Old Testament and understand, from that standpoint, how Jesus fulfills the trajectory throughout the Hebrew Scriptures of God entering into and taking upon himself the sufferings, and even the sins, of his people.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Shaped by a Tangle of Stories

I haven't posted for a while because I've been working on articles on the Reformation for the next Christian History issue, among other things. Here is a piece I wrote the other day on religion and myth for the Public Square at Patheos.

Friday, January 29, 2016

James Payton, Part 2

Chapter 7 of Payton's Getting the Reformation Wrong focuses on the Anabaptists and other radical groups. His main point here seems to be to establish the diversity of 16th-century Anabaptism and to explain why both Catholics and mainstream Protestants found them so threatening. Payton's emphasis on diversity is in keeping with scholarship in the past 50 years, and is certainly something non-specialists need to hear, but he carries it too far. Menno Simons and what would become mainstream Anabaptism get only one sentence, at the end of the section on "Militant Anabaptism" (explaining, correctly, that Menno led Dutch and north German Anabaptists away from the revolutionary Anabaptism of Munster and toward something more like Swiss Anabaptism). The result is that this chapter reads too much like an apologia for the mainstream Protestant Reformers, and the Anabaptists don't get adequate treatment as a serious alternative.

Chapter 8, on the Catholic Reformation, is much better, presenting a sympathetic and richly textured account of  the various strands of Catholic reform that led up to the official reform agenda of the Council of Trent. There isn't much to say about this chapter except that it's a very good summary of scholarship on the subject.

With chapter 9: "Changing Direction," Payton moves out of the initial phase of the Reformation to address the question of whether Protestantism fundamentally changed character with the growth of "Protestant scholasticism" in the later sixteenth century. Here, Payton goes flatly against the most influential recent scholarship on the subject, which is that of Richard Muller, to affirm a decidedly old-fashioned understanding of Protestant scholasticism as a corruption of the original teaching of the Reformers. To his credit, Payton admits that he is doing this and refers readers to Muller for an alternative interpretation. I'm not convinced, however, and this chapter touches on perhaps the most fundamental point where I disagree with Payton throughout the book. His entire treatment of the Reformation is marked by a disdain for the scholastic tradition. For instance, in chapter 4 he uncritically accepts Erasmus' characterization of scholasticism as disputatious and arrogant, so that Luther's frequent bad temper and unfairness to opponents become typical scholastic behavior. In my opinion, this just isn't accurate. Humanists could be extremely nasty to opponents and could engage in vicious invective. Scholasticism could give rise to disputatiousness, but it could also foster a dispassionate love of the truth, which humanism in principle excluded. Here in chapter 9, Payton's animus against scholasticism becomes particularly evident. He argues--as many Protestants have argued ever since the rise of Pietism--that scholasticism fundamentally changes the nature of Protestant teaching. But I'm not convinced this is the case. Payton presents a passage from Johannes Wollebius analyzing the different causes of justification, its matter, form, etc. Payton comments, "It is a challenge to view this as an exposition of what Protestants believe about the doctrine of justification. In this treatment, justification seems little more than window dressing for technical distinctions from the Aristotelian canon about how to think appropriately." Similarly, he describes Johann Gerhard's Aristotelian analysis of the four causes of the Incarnation as an explanation of "how to ratiocinate" rather than "an exposition of Christian truth." But this dismissal strikes me as mere prejudice against Aristotelian language. Payton claims that any discussion using Aristotelian concepts simply becomes a discussion of those concepts--but this "overwhelming" of the subject being discussed by the Aristotelian machinery happens primarily in Payton's mind and the mind of other readers either untrained in or hostile to Aristotelianism. To someone for whom this was already a comfortable part of their mental furniture, the Aristotelian analysis would not necessarily "overwhelm" the subject at all. It is extremely odd to say that if I use a particular method of analysis, my discussion becomes merely a discussion of how to use the method. That would mean that we can never use any method of analysis at all, and Payton can't mean that. To be sure, no one is going to find the Protestant scholastics as appealing or pungent as the original Reformers. But that's not the same thing as saying that they fundamentally changed Protestant teaching.
Payton's reasons for taking this hard line against Protestant scholasticism will become clearer in chapter 11.

Meanwhile, chapter 10 addresses the complex question, "Was the Reformation a success?" To attempt to answer any such question in 23 pages is a hopeless task, but Payton delivers a careful, nuanced, but incisive analysis of the goals of several major Protestant figures (Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Calvin) as well as the Jesuits. He concludes that none of the Protestant figures accomplished what they themselves would have regarded as a success (though I think he's least convincing with regard to Calvin, who was probably the most successful of the Protestant figures he discusses), but that the Jesuits largely did. Thus, for Payton, it was ultimately the Catholic reformers who could claim the greatest success. I'm not sure that's true, since the Jesuits and other Catholic reformers would have defined true success as including the reunification of Western Christianity. However, it's clear that in this chapter Payton is trying to provide a reality check to the common triumphalist Protestant narrative, and I think this is wise and salutary.

Chapter 11 asks, "Is the Reformation a Norm?" Here Payton's overall agenda becomes clear. Payton argues against regarding the Reformation as a norm for Protestants, pointing out that the Reformers themselves saw the early Church, not their own time, as the "golden age" to which appeal should be made after Scripture. I think this needs to be qualified--as I said in my last post, Luther's views on the Fathers were much more qualified and frequently critical than Payton acknowledges. Ironically, to try to prove the superiority of the Fathers over the Reformers as a norm by appeal to the Reformers itself reinforces the treatment of the Reformers as a norm. To say that the Reformers (with, in my opinion, the exception of Luther and the possible exception of Calvin) didn't regard themselves as normative is to say that most of them were reasonably modest and sensible people, not to say that they shouldn't be regarded as a norm. Payton is arguing for a position with which I entirely agree--that all Christians should take the early Church as normative and that Protestants should radically relativize the Reformation by comparison. However, I think he's trying to argue for it in too "Protestant-friendly" a way. Furthermore, this agenda explains why he throws the scholastics under the bus. Scholasticism is the era in which the Reformers were first treated as a norm. Scholastic theology takes the insights of the first generation and systematizes them. Payton recognizes (as I do) that the Reformers had profound theological insights, and he wants to resist (as I do) the attempt to make those insights confessionally normative as a definition of orthodoxy. But I don't think there's any way to do that without challenging the Reformers themselves more than Payton wants to do.

Payton's goals become even clearer in the final chapter, "The Reformation as Triumph and Tragedy." Payton affirms that the Reformation was a "triumph" insofar as it "rediscovered and boldly proclaimed the apostolic message, the Christian gospel." But at the same time, it was a tragedy for that same Gospel, because of the endless divisions to which it gave rise. Again, Payton calls his readers to follow the example of the Reformers in looking to the early Church rather than to the Reformers themselves as a doctrinal norm. But if the Reformation really rediscovered and proclaimed the Gospel in a full and authentic way, surely it would not have had effects that were, as Payton himself says, "a tragedy for the Christian gospel"?

Payton's book is well worth reading. It is an accessible summary of recent scholarship on the Reformation. It does clear up some common misunderstandings, although that format is a bit misleading, since not all the chapters are primarily about misunderstandings (and in my opinion, there are some misunderstandings he doesn't clear up or even makes worse, such as the common caricature of Protestant scholasticism as a betrayal of the Reformation). But in its overall intention, it's a passionate plea for Christian unity and a renewed attention to the early Church--to honor and respect the insights of the Reformation without turning them into a divisive doctrinal norm. I agree entirely with Payton's overall agenda, even though I disagree with some aspects of his approach. Primarily, I think he should have been much harder on the first-generation Reformers themselves. By largely letting them off the hook and scapegoating the scholastics, he's still left too much ground for the Protestant triumphalism that he clearly wishes to dethrone.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Review of James Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong, part 1

James Payton's 2010 book Getting the Reformation Wrong has a provocative title (one I would love to have used myself). Much of the book, in fact, is simply a summary of modern scholarship on the Reformation, but as the title indicates, one major reason Payton wrote the book is to address what he regards as common misunderstandings about the Reformation. Payton's list isn't quite the same as mine, and there are places where I disagree with his take on the Reformation and think he actually perpetuates some misunderstandings. But the book remains one of the best "first books" about the Reformation to recommend to people.

Getting the Reformation Wrong is divided into twelve chapters, each addressing a topic that Payton believes is often misunderstood. I'll walk through the twelve chapters and give my reaction to each, and end with some overall responses to Payton's broad perspective on the Reformation.

The first chapter, "The Medieval Call for Reform," makes the excellent point that "reform" wasn't something invented by the sixteenth-century theologians whom Protestants usually call the "Reformers." Payton masterfully summarizes the crises of the late Middle Ages and the various movements (scholasticism, mysticism, conciliarism, "preachers of repentance") that offered solutions to the challenges of the times. His portrayal of the era as one of almost unremitting crisis is probably too one-sided and feeds simplistic stereotypes of the "high Middle Ages" vs. the 14th and 15th centuries as a time of decline and chaos. There is plenty of evidence that many Christians in the fifteenth century were engaging in their faith and in civil society in positive and productive ways, fueled by desire for the common good. Payton's choice to emphasize the negative fuels the traditional Protestant narrative (the late Middle Ages were terrible and the Reformation was the answer to glaring problems) instead of challenging it.  But it does seem that something changed in Western European culture after 1300, and the Black Death and related crises seem to have had something to do with it. There was, on the whole, a more intense focus on human sinfulness. Whether the Church was more corrupt, or whether people were more frustrated and despairing about it, I'm not sure. There was certainly a great emphasis on the need for public order and the dangers of rebellion and chaos. My more specific problem with the first chapter is one that pops up throughout the book--Payton's heavy bias against scholasticism. More on that later.

The second chapter, "The Renaissance: Friend or Foe?" challenges the way many Christians set the Renaissance over against the Reformation (Francis Schaeffer, as Payton notes, made this view very popular) as an essentially secular, proto-Enlightenment movement. Payton summarizes modern scholarship on the Renaissance very well and points out the important continuities between the Renaissance and the Reformation. I would have preferred a bit sharper challenge to the other common dichotomy--between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. But this is a fine chapter that introduces non-specialists to a solid, scholarly accurate view of a subject often reduced to a cliche.

In chapter three, "Carried Along by Misunderstandings," Payton finally comes to Luther himself. This chapter is a summary of scholarship on the early Luther, but the overall thesis, as the title indicates, is that Luther was popular largely because he was "misunderstood." That is to say, many people with quite different agendas latched on to Luther's provocative ideas and took them in directions that Luther didn't necessarily intend, not always grasping the core theological convictions that made Luther tick. This "misunderstanding thesis" is particularly popular among Lutherans, and in my dissertation I argued against it in the case of Martin Bucer. Payton (who also wrote his dissertation on Bucer) actually cites Bucer along with Melanchthon as an example of someone who did understand Luther. However, I think Payton may mean that Bucer eventually came to understand Luther (a claim with which many Lutherans would disagree).  Specifically, Bucer heard Luther speak at Heidelberg in 1518 and wrote excitedly to a friend about Luther as a more outspoken version of Erasmus. Bucer's summary of Luther's Heidelberg theses (actually far more important for Luther's developing theology than the more famous 95 Theses) misses out some key concepts, such as the "theology of the Cross." But it's not at all clear that Luther actually presented those parts of the theses at Heidelberg, and even if he did, the things Bucer heard were things that were actually there. Again, Payton doesn't use Bucer as his example of "misunderstanding," but the reverse. But my experience with Bucer leads me to be suspicious of the "misunderstanding thesis" in general. Luther was saying an awful lot of things. It's easy to read him in retrospect in light of more developed Protestant theology and accuse the people who heard him saying other sorts of things (humanist criticisms of scholasticism, German criticisms of Rome, populist criticisms of exploitative overlords whether secular or religious) of "misunderstanding." They may have understood some aspects of Luther (aspects from which Luther later distanced himself) better than we do. In short, while Payton is making an important point in this chapter about the breadth of Luther's appeal and the difficulty many people had in understanding some of his key insights, his way of framing it gives too much credence, I think, to the standard Protestant narrative of the Reformation as being "all about" these particular theological ideas (such as sola fide).

The fourth chapter, "Conflict among the Reformers," discusses the growing division between Luther and the urban Reformers of southern Germany and Switzerland. It's an excellent summary of a very complex subject, though I do have a couple of caveats. He's right of course to point out that Luther's emphasis on justification by faith made him willing to go more slowly in liturgical and other practical reforms, because he was afraid that reform could itself become a kind of works righteousness if it didn't flow from justification by faith. But it's an exaggeration to say that little changed in Lutheran worship compared to medieval Catholicism. That's a very Protestant way to look at it. A medieval Catholic would have found Lutheran worship in 1550 quite startling. His discussion of the urban context of the Reformation is good, but he makes it sound as if before the Reformation religious people were pretty uniformly negative about cities. That's not my impression at all. There was plenty of complaint about the materialism and pride and general depravity of cities, to be sure. But there was also plenty of language about the city as an image of the heavenly city, as a Christian community that could mirror and shape virtue. This was especially the case in the work of humanists such as Erasmus, with his famous claim that the city was "nothing other than a huge monastery." Payton makes the urban Reformation seem like more of a break with the past than it was. I tend to be persuaded by Berndt Moeller's claim that, in many ways, the urban Reformation wasa highly "medieval" phenomenon.

Chap. 5, "What the Reformers meant by Sola Fide," is an excellent analysis of the basic Protestant message regarding salvation. He makes them sound like they agreed a bit more than they did (but of course he's trying to convey, in contrast to the last chapter, what they did have in common). When I wrote the dissertation I was pretty skeptical about claims (mostly by Lutherans) that Zwingli and Bucer (and even Melanchthon) had a fundamentally different view of justification from Luther. But over time I've come to think that actually Zwingli and the early Bucer were approaching the question from a very different angle, and that they didn't mean quite the same thing by sola fide as Luther. A much bigger problem with this chapter, however, is Payton's account of how Protestants came to think that faith unaccompanied by good works could save. He puts the blame solely on 19th-century revivalism. I find this highly misleading, given how much of that revivalism was driven by Wesleyan theology with its emphasis on holiness. 19th-century revivalists were, by and large, keenly aware of the importance of good works. Of course revivalism wasn't monolithic, and clearly there were antinomian elements to the revival movement. (Antinomianism is the view that observance of the moral law is entirely irrelevant to salvation, in contrast to the classical Protestant view that good works are the inevitable result of true faith.) But there were antimonian elements in Luther and other sixteenth-century figures as well. It's the shadow side of sola fide, only excluded by constant theological effort. (That does not in itself mean that sola fide is wrong. All doctrines have these "shadow sides," which is why there is so much heresy.) Of course such a simplistic parody of sola fide could flourish, given the right conditions, in the populist environment of revivalistic Protestantism, cut loose from confessional discipline. But so could the vigorously perfectionist theology of the Wesleyans (my own tradition). Payton is here following the standard Reformed tactic of throwing revivalism under the bus as a scapegoat for the problems in Protestantism.

Chap. 6 tackles the other classic doctrine of the Reformation, "sola scriptura." Payton drives home the theme that the Protestant Reformers deeply respected the Church Fathers and the historic tradition of the Church, and read Scripture within that context. This, of course, is true. My late advisor, David Steinmetz, built his career around this particular aspect of the Reformation and has probably done more than anyone else to remind the world of just how traditional, in many respects, the Reformers were. However, I've come to realize that many people misread Steinmetz here. Often Protestants will use his work to argue that really Luther and the other mainstream Reformers weren't radical at all. In fact, Steinmetz suggested at one point that Luther, not the Anabaptists, should be called a representative of the "Radical Reformation," if we're thinking of soteriology. He used a careful comparison of Reformation Biblical interpretation with patristic and medieval precedents in order to isolate, more clearly and precisely than had been done before, just where they were and were not breaking with previous tradition. Luther often spoke quite disparagingly of the Church Fathers, particularly during the "wild growth" years of the 1520s. All the Reformers drew on the Fathers selectively (as, to be fair, we all tend to do), arguing to be sure that on the whole they supported them over the "Papists," but not taking very seriously the possibility that the Fathers might, on some issues, be interpreting Scripture better than they themselves did. The standard Protestant claim, "we respect the Fathers, but the authority of Scripture is greater," actually meant for the most part "we agree with the Fathers when they agree with our interpretation of Scripture, but when they don't we simply dismiss them." One of the best "smoking guns" showing this is the letter of Melanchthon to Bucer in 1531 rebuking him for holding to Augustine's view of justification rather than Luther's, and admitting that the Wittenberg Reformers appealed to Augustine's authority publicly even though they knew he didn't really agree with them. To be sure, this shows that Brenz, at least, was paying serious attention to Augustine. In general, the Wittenberg Reformers were, in my opinion, the least respectful of the Fathers, and the mediating south German figures like Brenz and Bucer were the most. Bucer's 1536 Romans commentary is a mammoth effort to reconcile the Fathers, the Wittenberg Reformers, and the Swiss Reformers, and it paved the way in many respects for the work of Calvin, although Calvin was less interested in harmonization and harmony. In short, Payton once again presents a one-sided picture that obscures how radical the Protestants were on the question of the role of tradition in interpreting Scripture. Payton also does not acknowledge the quite clear "back-tracking" that took place after the "wild growth" years of the early 1520s, and the way in which the Protestants were obviously embarrassed and surprised by the potential of more radical Reformers to use the "appeal to Scripture" against them.

(To be continued)

Letter of Melanchthon to Brenz, May 1531

I translated this letter some years ago for Dave Armstrong, who had cited parts of it from Hartmann Grisar. This led to a debate between me and Dave on whether Dave and Grisar were overstating its implications for Protestant appeals to patristic authority and the question of how respectful the Protestant Reformers were of the Church Fathers. Dave posted the letter on his site, together with responses by him to some of my criticisms of his original use of the quote. For years now I've been sending people to that site in order to read the letter, but readers have to scroll through a lot of other material in orer to get to it. Since I translated the letter and provided it to Dave in the first place, I've decided to post it on my own blog so I can send people straight to the letter itself. Here it is, with a few notes by me:

[Background and context: Melanchthon had written to Brenz on April 8, saying that he understood why Brenz, a newly married man, hadn’t written, but asking him to start corresponding again. He also sent some propositions about justification. Brenz must have commented on them in a letter not found in the collection of Melanchthon’s correspondence. In mid-May Melanchthon responded]:
I received your rather long letter, which I enjoyed very much. I beg you to write often and at length. Regarding faith, I have figured out what your problem is (1). You still hold on to that notion of Augustine’s, who gets to the point of denying that the righteousness of reason is reckoned for righteousness before God—and he thinks rightly. Next he imagines that we are counted righteous on account of that fulfillment of the Law which the Holy Spirit works in us. So you imagine that people are justified by faith, because we receive the Holy Spirit by faith, so that afterwards we can be righteous by the fulfillment of the law which the Holy Spirit works in us.
This notion places righteousness in our fulfillment, in our cleanness or perfection, even though this renewal must follow faith. But you should turn your eyes completely away from this renewal and from the law, and toward the promise and Christ, and you should think that we are righteous, that is, accepted before God, and find peace of conscience, on account of Christ, and not on account of that renewal. For this new quality itself does not suffice. Therefore we are righteous by faith alone, not because it is the root, as you write, but because it lays hold of Christ, on account of whom we are accepted, whatever this new life (2) may be like—indeed it follows necessarily, but it does not give the conscience peace.
Therefore love, which is the fulfillment of the law, does not justify, but faith alone, not because it is a certain perfection in us, but only because it lays hold of Christ. We are righteous, not on account of love, not on account of the fulfillment of the law, not on account of our new life, even though these things are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but on account of Christ; and we lay hold of this only through faith.
Augustine does not fully accord with (3) Paul’s pronouncement, even though he gets closer to it than the Scholastics. And I cite Augustine as fully agreeing with us (4) on account of the public conviction about him, even though he does not explain the righteousness of faith well enough. Believe me, dear Brenz, the controversy about the righteousness of faith is great and obscure. Nonetheless, you will understand it rightly if you totally take your eyes away from the law and Augustine’s notion about the fulfillment of the law, and fix your mind rather on the free promise, so that you think that we are righteous (that is, accepted) and find peace on account of the promise and on account of Christ. This pronouncement is true and makes Christ’s glory shine forth and wonderfully raises up [people’s] consciences. I have tried to explain it in the Apology, but it was not possible to speak in the same way there as I do now because of the calumnies of our opponents, even though I am saying the same thing essentially. (5) 
When would the conscience have peace and a sure hope if it had to think that we are only counted righteous when that new life has been made perfect within us? What is this other than to be justified on the basis of the law, not the free promise? In the disputation I said this: that to attribute justification to love is to attribute justification to our work. There I have in mind the work done by the Holy Spirit in us. For faith justifies, not because it is a new work of the Holy Spirit in us, but because it lays hold of Christ, on account of whom we are accepted, not on account of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us. 
If you will consider that the mind must be brought back from Augustine’s notion, you will easily understand the issue. Also, I hope to help you in some way by means of our apology, even if I speak cautiously of such things, which however cannot be understood except in the conflict of the conscience. The people indeed ought to hear the preaching of law and repentance; but meanwhile this true pronouncement of the Gospel must not be passed over. I ask you to write again, and let me know your judgment about this letter and the apology—whether this letter has satisfactorily answered your question. Farewell. 
Phil. Mel.
Luther’s P.S.
And I, dear Brenz, in order to get a better grip on this issue frequently imagine it this way: as if in my heart there is no quality that is called faith or charity, but instead of them I put Christ himself and say: this is my righteousness; He is the quality and my formal righteousness, as they call it. In this way I free myself from the perception (6) of the law and works, and even from the perception of this object, Christ (7), who is understood as a teacher or a giver; but I want Him to be my gift and teaching in Himself, so that I may have all things in Him. (8) So he says: I am the way, the truth and the life. He does not say: I give you the way, the truth and the life, as if He worked in me while being placed outside of me. He must be such things in me, remain in me, live in me, speak not through me but into me (9), 2 Cor. 5; so that we may be righteousness in Him, not in love or in gifts that follow. 
Footnotes
(1) Lit. “I hold/grasp what exercises you/should exercise you/might exercise you”.
(2) Lit. newness.
(3) Lit., does not satisfy.
(4) Melanchthon uses a Greek word which means “one who says the same”; “with us” is my addition since it’s understood in the original.
(5) Lit. in the thing/matter itself.
(6) Latin: ab intuitu.
(7) Or in another reading, this objective Christ.
(8) “Object” means “object of thought”—Luther’s point is that he doesn’t even think of Christ as a source of teaching or of gifts, such as the gift of charity.
(9) Luther uses the Greek here.