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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.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Isaiah, chaos, and idolatry (with a concluding peroration about Muslims)

I've been reading through the Bible in Hebrew for many years now, and I'm just over half way through. In the Jewish ordering of the canon, that means that I'm getting toward the end of Isaiah. I've made my way through the marvelous chapters 40-55 and am now up to chap. 60.

One of the things I enjoy about reading Hebrew is the rich word play that the authors engage in, particularly in poetic texts such as Isaiah (though there's lots of it in the prose narratives as well). It may be that sometimes I'm reading too much into the text because of my limited knowledge of Hebrew and because of the limited text samples that we have. (I.e., some things may seem more significant than they are because I don't know enough--and possibly no one today does--about how the words were normally used, so that what seems like a theologically loaded word play is just a normal usage.) But with that caveat, I want to point out some things that have jumped out at me, and my friends who are Biblical scholars can tell me when I'm either wrong or obvious or both!

In this post, I want to focus on the word "tohu," or "chaos." This is one of the two words used in Genesis 1 to describe the chaotic state of the world before God orders it: "tohu vabhohu," or "formless and empty." Isaiah 45:18-19 clearly echos the Genesis creation account:
For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, "Seek me in chaos." I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right.
 The word "chaos" here is "tohu," the chaos to which God brought order in Genesis 1. But there's more: this chaos is connected with idolatry. The chapter as a whole is declaring that YHWH has appointed Cyrus to bring Israel out of exile, and by doing this is proving that He is in fact the one true God, the Creator, and that the gods of Babylon are false idols. Key to all of "Second Isaiah" (40-55) is the distinction between the Creator and creation and the folly of worshiping creatures as if they were the Creator. The passage made infamous by Paul's use of it in Romans 9 and the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition's use of Romans: "Woe to you who strive with your maker, earthen vessels with the potter. . . ." (45:9) seems to be addressed to the idols and their worshipers. (Does that perhaps mean that when Paul uses it in Romans 9, he's trying to suggest that Israel's pride in its election by God has become a form of idolatry?)

In the previous chapter (44), we have an extended passage ridiculing the fact that the same piece of wood can be used for food, for cooking fuel, and as the raw material to make a "god." The passage is sandwiched between promises of mercy and restoration for Israel. The point is not just "how stupid those Babylonian pagans are" but "who made whom?" Because God is the Creator, God's promises of restoration (new creation) can be trusted. Because the Babylonian gods are made by humans, they can never be anything more than projections of Babylonian power. Furthermore, God is contrasted not only with idols but with the humans who make them. Human beings can do many ingenious things, but we cannot create--we can only refashion what God has already created. Yes, I know that this is a later distinction. I know that the Old Testament never explicitly teaches "creation ex nihilo," and I know that Genesis 1 can be read as implying a doctrine of creation out of pre-existing chaos (tohu again). But as with so many other Christian concepts, I see the classic Christian doctrine of creation implicitly here.

To worship idols is to embrace "un-creation," to slide back into chaos. The creation story in Genesis is not just an origin story for the universe, not just a serene narrative of cosmic order. It's a polemical text criticizing Babylonian creation myths in which the Babylonian god orders the universe by defeating chaos monsters representing enemies of the empire. Genesis and Isaiah together make the point that Babylonian imperialism and idolatry are themselves the source of chaos. But God doesn't need to fight the chaos (yes, there are other passages that suggest otherwise, and yes, Greg Boyd gives those passages more prominence--I've written about that elsewhere). God has only to speak. The same word that brought creation into being will bring Israel back from exile. And, of course, it is that same Word that the Gospel of John confesses to have become incarnate in Jesus.

This section of Isaiah underlines, for me, the reason why it's important to maintain that Muslims and Christians do worship the same God (as a follow-up to this post). Muslims absolutely confess the same things about God that are affirmed here: that God creates and is not created, that God is the sovereign source of everything, that God stands in contrast to all the false idols we create for ourselves. It is of this one true God that Christians affirm, and Muslims deny, the deeper truths of Trinity and Incarnation.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Progressive revelation in the OT: A response to Jonathan Huddleston

Jonathan Huddleston, an old and dear friend of mine who is an OT scholar, has challenged the picture of OT revelation that I gave (somewhat tangentially) in my last post. Here are his comments as posted on Facebook (reproduced with his permission), followed by my response:
In what was almost a tangent from his main point, Edwin took some time to portray a thumbnail sketch of the OT revelation that simply doesn't agree with what I learned during my OT PhD program at Duke. But it does agree with what I continually read from people a lot smarter than me, who didn't happen to choose OT studies. And I want to ask my friends: why do they believe this picture, and what would it take to stop believing it? (I ought, at some point, to write a blogpost about what I think I learned during my OT PhD program, and why it is different. But, among other reasons not to do so yet, I still am not sure that I am quite understanding this pervasive alternative, and so I'm not quite sure how to articulate why my own studies led me a different direction.) 
Here is the the thumbnail picture, as Edwin summarized it: "In other words, God clearly revealed Himself to the ancient Israelites in terms that made sense to them in their culture, and only gradually revealed to them the fuller truth that we believe we now know." In the context of this sentence from Edwin's blogpost, I notice (predictably) that images of God which Israel shares with its neighbors get the word "pagan" (rather than, say, "human"), and that these images are considered more progressed if they are only meant "metaphorically" (Edwin usually doesn't go down the metaphor-versus-literal wild-goose-chase).
Now, Edwin and I agree that the Incarnation/ Atonement constitute the great final act of God's revelatory interaction with creation, making Jesus the Final Word and the best way to know God. But this doesn't really get us to a gradual unfolding of "fuller truth," one that involves pulling away from (rather than embracing more closely) those diverse cultural lenses that all humans use in seeing God.
Edwin and I agree that every human experience with God, in various interactions with Israel and with us, gives us ever-richer cumulative understandings of God. But this doesn't quite imply that there is a discernible forward progress, within the OT itself, that only toward the end becomes "full" enough to match the NT witness.
This is not a critique of Edwin. It is a question: why are so many people, who are so very wise and informed about Scripture and canon and Israel and theology, continually relying on a thumbnail picture of what the OT is and how it came to be that doesn't sit very comfortably with the hundreds of articles and books I read while getting a Ph.D. on OT (emphasizing theological and canonical perspectives) from Duke University? Am I missing something?
The obvious first answer is that this is the picture that much older OT scholarship gives. Or am I wrong? Isn't this, for instance, the picture one would get from someone like William Albright, or from OT theologians like Von Rad? It's more or less the picture I get from someone like Peter Enns today. Or am I radically misreading these authors? Doesn't in fact the traditional formulation of the JEDP pattern imply something like this, with "J" being earlier and more anthropomorphic, and "P" being last and most transcendent/abstract in its picture of God? I'm quite aware that this approach has fallen from favor, but you seem to be saying that you never encountered it at all.

My impression has been that this "progressive revelation" paradigm was the norm until relatively recently, but has been dethroned by
a) the swing back toward more radical skepticism about the historicity of the OT ("back" that is from the more optimistic views of people like Albright), so that it is no longer accepted by many OT scholars that the Hebrew Scriptures reflect many layers of composition giving us genuine insights into the historical and religious development of Israel, since the majority of it is seen as a post-exilic fabrication; and
b) the rise of Childs' canonical criticism, which rightly criticizes the atomizing effect of "traditional" historical criticism and argues for taking the Hebrew canon as a whole and studying it in its final redaction as the version that really matters.

It seems to me that the second of these moves functions as a defensive reaction to the first. That is to say, it doesn't really matter if the Exodus happened or not, or if the books of Samuel and Kings give us anything like an accurate portrait of Israelite history. Since only the "canon" really matters, all we have to do to use the OT as Scripture is to figure out what God was revealing to the post-exilic community. Thus, ironically you can get a theologically quite conservative view of the OT, in which the OT as a whole is taken to teach certain things by divine revelation, out of a very skeptical approach to the historicity of the OT.

And I admit that I'm unpersuaded by this kind of approach. I also admit that I don't know nearly as much about it as you do, and that if the consensus is as total as you say then I really need to rethink. But it seems to me that this involves giving up any sense of the OT as a living, growing thing in favor of a highly static view of it as a postexilic product largely cut off from prior history. And I admit that I have a strong emotional revulsion toward such a view of the OT, and that it would actually weaken, at least to some degree, my faith that the OT really is divinely revealed. One of the reasons I find the OT so compelling (in comparison, say, to the Qur'an) is precisely that it seems to me to have these layers upon layers within it, reflecting a long tortuous history in which God was revealing Himself.

And that brings me to the nub of the question of why I look at the OT this way. This was the picture of the OT for which I abandoned a more fundamentalist approach. I think I got it most succinctly from C. S. Lewis, which I freely admit isn't the best source on this subject, since he probably knew considerably less about OT scholarship than even I do! But it's the picture that seemed latent in most of the 20th-century authors I encountered who seemed to take Scripture seriously as divine revelation without being fundamentalists. Again, maybe it's all bosh, but that would require some very major rethinking of how I think about a lot of things.

A further reason why I find this approach congenial is that it's congruent with the classic Christian "shadow-promise" paradigm. And that's also, I suspect, one reason why it's fallen out of favor among Christian OT scholars, particularly given the anti-Semitic cultural context in which the "progressive revelation" paradigm was formulated in 19th century Germany.

I understand how annoying it can be when people outside your specialization insist on clinging to a scholarly paradigm that you think has been thoroughly debunked within your discipline. I get frustrated when theologically/historically educated people who aren't Reformation specialists reproduce a "Whig narrative" of the Reformation. (Indeed, one thing that might persuade me to abandon the progressive revelation narrative is that in its modern historical-critical form it looks as if it might have been produced by the same cultural prejudices as the Whig narrative--a Whig narrative for the OT, as it were.) But in that case, while most of the scholarship I was most directly influenced by in grad school went against the stream of the "Whig narrative," and while it's definitely fallen out of favor, I certainly read plenty of material in which it was implicit, and there are scholars who continue to champion modified versions of it. Either the eclipse of the "progressive revelation" narrative is more total than that of the Whig narrative, or you read quite selectively in grad school, or you're exaggerating a bit, or I have badly misread the bits of (mostly older) OT scholarship I've read or absorbed second-hand.

The second-hand absorption is, of course, one reason why older paradigms live on outside a specialization long after they've fallen out of favor within it.

A couple of specific points I wanted to address:

1. I used the word "pagan" not as a slur, but to refer to the religious ideas of ancient people who were not Hebrews. I'm also probably very influenced by Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances (both directly and through Lewis). Barfield identifies paganism with what he calls "original participation," and sees the OT as a kind of divinely mediated "withdrawal" or "concentration" of participation in preparation for the Incarnation. But while Barfield used this idea for his own purposes, the basic notion would surely have been taken for granted by most people in the 50s when he was writing. At any rate, I have trouble seeing the problem in using the term. You suggest "human," but modern people are human too. Stoics were human too (and pagan too--so really the more precise term would be "Ancient Near Eastern pagans"). I'm assuming something like the picture of Ancient Near Eastern paganism found in Thorkild Jacobsen's Treasures of Darkness, and Jonathan can tell me if this is substantially erroneous. So, for instance, when I find Jacobsen saying that people in ancient Mesopotamia as early as the second millennium had a concept of a "personal god" who took care of them, then that seems to me to make a lot of sense of how Abraham would have viewed his relationship with God (and yes, I know it's now wildly unfashionable to suggest that Genesis might preserve any genuine memories at all of anything from the second millennium). 2. I do try not to use the language of "metaphorical" and "literal" thoughtlessly--I especially dislike the word "literal." But at a somewhat later date, both Greek pagans and early Christians did debate whether this kind of language should be taken to refer to a human/animal-shaped body or not. Kalman Bland--the only person I actually studied anything Hebraic with at Duke in a formal way--thought that a post-Biblical text like the Shi'ur Qomah was "literal" in its measurement of God's body parts. So I suppose that would work against the idea that the "later" sections of the OT (if there are such things) have a less "literal" understanding. But again, it seems to me that the texts traditionally identified as "J" do have a more anthropomorphic language than the texts traditionally identified, say, as "P." Genesis 2 describes God in much more concrete, anthropomorphic language than Genesis 1. And Genesis 1, like "Second Isaiah," seems to be written in order to put as much distance as possible between Israel's conception of God and the Babylonian view of their gods.

The reason I introduced this material at all was that many people use the "pagan" sources of the Islamic idea of God to prove that Muslims don't worship the true God. Whereas, in fact, it seems to me that Islam marked a much sharper and more sudden break (sharper because it was drawing on existing Jewish and Christian tradition, of course) with its pagan context than the OT revelation did. And again, that's all to the advantage of the OT, not Islam, in my book.

Because here's the thing: I probably wouldn't be a monotheist at all if I weren't a Christian. I see the value of what Barfield would call the "withdrawal from participation" primarily as a preparation for the Incarnation. The grandeur of Second Isaiah would still tug at my heart if I weren't a Christian, but so do the pagan myths. I don't find the Islamic picture of God (outside of Sufism) to be appealing or convincing at all. (Although, to be sure, the concept of God in Islam is quite anthropomoorphic, while highly transcendent--at least in the more fundamentalist versions of Islam today, and probably in the earlier strands of the tradition as well.) So I find the picture of God in Genesis 1 "truer" than that in Genesis 2 only in the sense that it clears away more thoroughly possible misinterpretations of God's nature, in preparation for the revelation of God as one who really does walk among us and breathe on us in a concrete, "literal" way. That doesn't mean that I find Genesis 2 less valuable. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God. But I am not convinced either historically or theologically that we should abandon a narrative that makes sense of the flow of Scripture throughout centuries of Israel's history for one that treats the entire Old Testament as essentially a postexilic creation. That may well be my ignorance. But in answer to your question about what it would take to convince me otherwise: it would first take more actual evidence and less argumentum ad auctoritatem than I've seen so far. And secondly it would take a narrative that has the same explanatory power as the one it replaces, including the same ability to make sense of the relationship between Scriptural revelation and paganism.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Why the Incarnation requires us to believe that Muslims worship the true God

So the Internet has been buzzing these past few weeks--my corner of it at least--with discussion of Larycia Hawkins, the Wheaton College political science professor who has been "placed on administrative leave" for reasons Wheaton has not clearly explained but which have something to do with her claim that Muslims and Christians "worship the same God."

Practically everyone who blogs about Christian stuff has now weighed in on this in one way or the other. The negative position is primarily maintained by evangelical Protestants, although many Orthodox also take a dim view of the idea that Muslims worship the true God. Catholics are generally committed to the affirmative position, since Lumen Gentium (a document of the Second Vatican Council) says that Muslims "along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind." This has always seemed to be a fairly self-evident truth to me, so it's taken me some effort to understand just why so many evangelicals are upset by the idea, and indeed often consider it to be obvious heresy. Clearly the reason has something to do with the evangelical focus on personal salvation, as well as the Christocentric understanding of God that evangelicals share with other orthodox Christians. To many evangelicals, worshiping the true God implies that one is in a saving relationship with God, and to say that people can have such a relationship with God while rejecting the divinity and atoning death of Christ is to undercut the central truths of the Christian faith. In the stark terms of 1 John 2:23, "no one who denies the Son has the Father." To many evangelicals, it seems obvious that this excludes any possibility of non-Christians worshiping the true God. Those of us who maintain such a possibility are often accused of functionally denying the Trinity, the Incarnation, and in general God's revelation of himself in Christ.

I believe that, in fact, it's the other way round. The Christian revelation only makes sense if we believe that the God revealed in Jesus was the same God known covenantally to Jews and in a more abstract and philosophical way to many pagans as well. And I believe that this is by far the best way to interpret the witness of Scripture. (I try to avoid language like "Scripture clearly teaches" because it is thrown around so often, and if intelligent and pious Christians fail to see what seems obvious to me, it's probably not as obvious as I think.)

The easiest step in the argument to establish is that the God revealed in Jesus is the same God known in the Old Testament. To deny this, of course, would be the ancient heresy of Marcionism. No one wants to do this. But consider what this means. The Old Testament does not describe God as Trinitarian, even in the highly implicit way the NT does. Yes, there is language about God's Word and Spirit, but little indication that they are persons distinct from God. Indeed, it's not clear that all the OT authors were, in the later sense, monotheistic at all. They may not have thought of God as being utterly different in nature from the "gods" so much as being Israel's God, peculiarly powerful and gracious, to whom Israel was bound in covenant. Granted, this isn't clear, and by the time we get to something like Isaiah 40-55 it's pretty clear that God is radically different in nature from the gods. But parts of the OT could easily be read as describing an anthropomorphic being with some kind of fiery body who literally sits on a throne in the sky, gets angry, etc. Even if we believe that the canonical authors and readers would have taken all this kind of language metaphorically, it's clearly language that they shared with their pagan contemporaries. In other words, God clearly revealed Himself to the ancient Israelites in terms that made sense to them in their culture, and only gradually revealed to them the fuller truth that we believe we now know. Yet throughout this process, we believe it was the same God who was acting to save Israel and to bring Israel to know Him.

Of course, many will argue that Muslims are in a different situation, because Islam originated after the time of Christ and explicitly rejected the Christian concept of God. And certainly if someone were to reconstruct (as a few neopagans have done) a supposedly "original" worship of a god called "YHWH" who had a wife called Ashtoreth, etc., that wouldn't be worship of the true God (and, of course, that kind of YHWH-worship was condemned in the Old Testament itself). But that isn't what Muslims are doing. They are doing the exact opposite.

The trajectory of the Old Testament is toward distinguishing God more and more from the pagan gods, and exalting God's transcendence and oneness. This process was necessary in order for the Incarnation to be intelligible. Without the revelation of the One God, the Incarnation would just look like another story about a god impregnating a woman (even if it didn't involve literal intercourse). To say that Jesus is the Son of God is not the same thing as saying that Alexander the Great was the son of Zeus, because the true God is radically different from Zeus. It's not just that Zeus was the "wrong god," but that Zeus, understood as an anthropomorphic being who ruled over other gods essentially like him and was the son of older gods whom he dethroned, was not God at all.

Muslims cling passionately to the revelation of the oneness of God to which God brought the Jews slowly, over a period of centuries. And this affirmation of God's transcendence isn't something that conflicts with the Incarnation (though Muslims mistakenly think it does). It's the precondition for the Christian claim that this one transcendent God has become incarnate. If we Christians claim that Muslims worship a false god because they affirm God's oneness and transcendence, we are not upholding our faith in Christ as the full and final revelation of God. We are tearing down the basis for that faith. The word "God" in the sentence "Jesus is the Son of God" means, substantially, what Muslims say it means, or Christian faith is in vain.

To be sure, Muslims think that Christians fatally compromise God's oneness and transcendence by saying that Jesus is the Son of God. It is not at all clear to me that Muslims understand what we mean by this. We have enough trouble understanding it. When I read or hear Muslim criticisms of the Christian position, most of them seem to presuppose that Christians hold something like the view of God that Mormons actually hold: that is to say, that there is one God called "God the Father" (whom they recognize as the same God they worship as "Allah") and that the Son and the Spirit are distinct beings whom we "associate" with God. And Muslims rightly reject that. I'm not suggesting, of course, that Muslims and Christians really believe the same things about God.  I'm suggesting that the orthodox Christian paradigm is so weird and alien to Muslims that they have trouble even knowing just what they reject when they reject it. But it's so weird because we claim that we are worshiping the one, transcendent God whom they worship as well.

The essential paradox of the Christian faith is that the one, transcendent God, who is (to use an Islamic phrase) "exalted and glorified" far beyond all creatures, became incarnate in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. The scandal and wonder and glory of the Incarnation all depend precisely on our ascribing to God exactly those qualities that Muslims think make the Incarnation impossible.

This isn't, as some have claimed, simply a "pedantic" linguistic argument. It has real consequences for how we proclaim the Gospel. It's striking that Nabeel Qureshi, a convert from Islam to Christianity who wrote a recent article for Ravi Zacharias Ministries arguing that Muslims and Christians don't worship the same God, admits that he converted to Christianity under the impression that Christianity does proclaim the same God worshiped in Islam. (I'm not claiming, of course, that this proves anything by itself. There are very likely other converts who did become Christians in the belief that they were thereby turning from a false god to the true God. But Qureshi's story certainly refutes the assumption held by many conservative evangelicals that the "same God" belief is incompatible with evangelism.)

If we proclaim the Gospel in the belief that Muslims do not worship the true God, we will say (if we are honest) something like: "you falsely believe that you worship the compassionate Creator of the world. You should switch to believing in our God, because our God really is the compassionate Creator."

But if we proclaim the Gospel in the belief that Muslims do worship the true God, we will say instead, "You rightly believe that God is compassionate, but God is far more compassionate than you realize. You rightly proclaim that God is the almighty Creator, but God has done a yet greater work than creation itself--He has become part of His own creation. You rightly proclaim that God is exalted and glorified--God is so exalted and so glorified that our standards of glory are trivial to Him. God's glory is found in humility, God's power in weakness. You believe all the right things about God. But you do not yet believe them deeply enough."

I'm not making any claims (Qureshi's account aside) about which of these methods will convert more Muslims. I don't think that's the right question to ask about evangelism anyway. I'm arguing that this second approach is a far deeper and more powerful proclamation of the Gospel. Qureshi claims that Christians fall into the "error" of thinking Muslims worship the true God because we accept uncritically Islamic claims. But he's wrong. We say that Muslims worship the true God because of the inner logic of our own faith. The same God known to the Jews, the same God spoken of even by pagan philosophers, as Paul testifies in Acts 17,, is the God who is revealed fully in the person of Jesus. That is the Gospel. That is the message of Christmas.

A very merry Christmas season and a happy New Year to all!








Thursday, December 17, 2015

In memoriam magistri Latomi dilecti

I first met David Steinmetz in April 1995, more than twenty years ago. I was not quite 21; he was nearly 59. (It is sobering to realize that I am now, at 41, closer to the age he was then than to the age I was then.) Craig Farmer, who taught church history at my alma mater, Milligan College, had strongly encouraged me to attend grad school at Duke to study with Steinmetz. I had read several of his books at that point, and had been struck by the clarity and pungency of his writing. I knew there were a lot of good scholars out there, but I already realized that few of them could write like Steinmetz. It was obvious from his writing that he was not simply a great scholar but a well-rounded human being, and furthermore a deeply committed Christian. The sentence that probably had made most impression on me was from a wonderful little essay on theological education in his collection Memory and Mission: "Until you have been slain by the left hand of God's wrath and made alive by the right hand of God's mercy, you may be a dabbler, but you are not a theologian."

I came to graduate school with the typical sorts of misgivings that students from very conservative, particularly Pietist families often have. I had been homeschooled and had attended a local Christian college, even though my family found the professors at times to be a bit on the liberal side. We were not typical fundamentalists by any means--as Wesleyan Holiness folks, and furthermore as maverick Holiness people who had rejected some aspects of conventional "conservative Holiness" teaching--we were far more mystical and quirky than most conservative Christians. But we were very conservative Christians, to be sure, and furthermore because we were mystical and pietistic, we were deeply suspicious of an overly academic or systematic approach to Christian faith, even if it was conservative. My grandmother regularly spoke disparagingly of systematic theologians, and she approved of my going to grad school mostly because I would be studying church history, which she thought was a safer discipline than either theology or Biblical studies. Steinmetz' essay in Memory and Mission addressed these concerns almost as if he were speaking directly to me. (As I would learn, he came from a very evangelical UMC congregation in Ohio and was a Wheaton alumnus, so he had no doubt dealt with these things himself.) His essay assured me, before I ever met him, that learning to be a Christian scholar didn't have to mean letting go of an experiential relationship with God--that indeed scholarship should deepen such a relationship, and that the doubts and questions raised by scholarship might be part of the "temptations" that Luther said accompanied any serious attempt to follow God.

David and I did not hit it off immediately. He was gracious but reserved in manner--I was extremely nervous, and I'm sure I came across as cocky, because that's how I usually come across when I'm nervous. As I began my first year at Duke, I quickly found myself overwhelmed by living on my own for the first time. I had spent much of my life in the woods of East Tennessee, twelve miles from the nearest town of any size. Durham was a metropolis by my standards, and the libraries at Duke were paradises in which I could and did get lost for hours . I had no master's degree when I came to Duke, just a liberal arts BA. I had no background in theology or modern Biblical studies. I was interested in everything, and at the same time terrified that everything I encountered might change me in some sinister way. The liberty of living on my own and being able to spend my time as I wished (which mostly meant to read whatever I wanted) was intoxicating. I discovered sci-fi and spent hours and hours reading it instead of the work I was supposed to be doing. I also discovered the Internet (bear in mind, this was 1995) and developed a habit of arguing religion on the Internet that sucked up hours of my time, and continues to do so today. In short, I was the typical nerdy young person with far more curiosity than discipline, free for the first time from the limitations of an extremely strict upbringing but still carrying around the psychological effects of that upbringing. But I was going through all of this while a Ph.D. student at one of the finest universities in the world, rather than as an undergraduate or even seminary student.

I don't think David knew what to do with me. Most of his students had come to him out of seminary, and some (like Richard Muller) had by his account already figured out what they wanted to do with their careers and already possessed a great deal of learning in the field they wanted to study. (He gave me the impression, in fact, that Muller had come to Duke already knowing more about Reformed theology than David did--but then, David illustrated Chesterton's dictum about the difference between exaggerated praise and flattery. He could be ruthlessly honest about your faults while praising your virtues to other people in terms that utterly astounded you when you heard about them. Already in my first year he was telling people that my Latin was better than his own, when in fact it was merely very good for someone who had only had a couple of semesters of formal instruction in the language. No one I've known has ever used exaggeration more skilfully or proficiently than David, to make a valid point rather than to distort the truth.) Here I was, this loud, insecure, impossibly boyish 21-year-old (people meeting me for the first time usually thought I was about 15 at most), wandering around in polyester pants chattering endlessly about my thoughts and feelings, and really with no clue of what I wanted to do at Duke except the idea of studying the connection between the Reformation and the Middle Ages, mostly in order to sort out whether I could myself remain a Protestant or not. He tried to give me guidance, but he did so in an extremely courteous, restrained way that I found at times to be rather aloof and sardonic, but which I now realize was an expression of respect.

The most striking feature of how David treated all his students, in fact, was respect, and that included respect for their time and for their dignity as fellow scholars, from the first moment they met him until the time they got to shake his hand and call him "David" at their dissertation defense. The Ph.D. process has a lot in common with a medieval apprenticeship, and in many cases that includes some serious potential for abuse. I've often heard stories of grad students doing hours and hours of unremunerated work for their advisors, or doing the lion's share of work on a project and being rewarded with a bare mention in acknowledgments. David went to great lengths to avoid any kind of exploitation of his students. He made sure I was remunerated for work I did for him whenever possible, and if he asked me to do some small errand without remuneration he would apologize and say (truthfully) that he didn't ask such things often. At one point we were going to produce a primary-source reader together. He not only got funding to pay me for my time working on the project but also offered me full credit as a co-author, which would have given me name recognition in classrooms across the English-speaking world before I had even defended my Ph.D.: "But," he added rather hesitantly, as if he didn't like to mention it, "since I am the senior scholar my name will be listed first." (Unfortunately, David eventually decided to abandon the idea.)

Now, looking back, I realize that I was frustrated with him because I found the relative freedom of graduate school terrifying and wanted someone to give me a detailed program of action and coerce me to follow through on it. Other advisors I've heard of would have done something much more like that. (David's own advisor, Heiko Oberman, was one of them, by all accounts, and David's style seems to have been a deliberate corrective to Oberman's very controlling approach to his students.) At times, ungratefully, I thought that an advisor like that would have been better for me. But I am now extremely grateful for the fact that David was the first authority figure in my life to treat me like an adult. In fact, he treated me like an adult even when I didn't act like one.

He bore with me when I was 45 minutes late for a seminar (though he later claimed that that was one of my more punctual days--it wasn't only one's virtues that he tended to exaggerate), when I forgot that I was supposed to give a class presentation, when I remarked one evening during my dissertation phase (at a very nice dinner to which he was treating all his students at a Greek restaurant, which was a pretty regular sort of thing for him to do) in great excitement that I had actually managed to do some work that day. . . . He bore with me even when I took a sudden leave of absence and ran off to Romania for six months after my second year at Duke, because the pressure from my family and my own doubts and questions and uncertainties had just gotten too much. When I say "bore with me" I don't mean that he never expressed annoyance or spoke with less than perfect gentleness--in fact, sarcasm was his most common mode of expression, and he didn't spare his students. He could be quite ruthless with my papers (as any good professor is), pointing out when I was "skimming over the surface of the evidence" and "leaving hostages to fortune" by unsubstantiated remarks. He remarked frequently that I had "no unexpressed thoughts" and that I contradicted everything he said. (This was not a claim that could be refuted directly, of course, without confirming it.) At one point, quite late in my time at Duke, he wrote me a rather harsh letter in which he pointed out "in the nicest possible way" that "I can rip your guts out if I want to." (I had asked him once too often to recommend me for funding to continue working on a dissertation that showed no signs of progress whatsoever, and as he put it he was not going to lie for me and say I was making progress when I wasn't. Well, when he put it that way. . . . ) But this, like most of the things he said, was a well-crafted piece of rhetoric, designed in this case to shock me into moving forward with my dissertation. By this point I had been at Duke for something like six years with no end in sight, and I think he realized that his usual methods weren't working, so he tried shock therapy. In the end, David never gave up on me. And looking back, that's quite startling given some of the stunts I pulled (and the progress on my dissertation that I didn't make). He was not always reassuring, but he was always there--unflappable, ironic, and bemused.

Our relationship changed for the better as I finally moved toward completion of the dissertation. The moment when I came to his house to discuss the first dissertation chapter I had given him and he actually approved of it was one of the most exhilarating of my life. An entire chapter with not one place where I had "skimmed over the surface of the evidence" or "left hostages to fortune"! A year or so later, when I had completed all but the last chapter, if I recall correctly, he said in a rather stately manner, "It has been my custom to allow my students to call me David when they defend their dissertations. But I recognize that times are changing, and you can call me David now, if you want to." I replied that if it was all the same to him, I'd just as soon wait--it would give me an incentive to finish the darned thing. Which it did. And on the day of my defense, when he shook me by the hand and said, "Congratulations, Dr. Tait," I hesitated for about half a second, as if I were committing an impiety, before I dared to say, "Thank you, David."

I never lost my awe of him. I was always a bit too slow to contact him, and I regret that bitterly now. On the day after Thanksgiving, David's friend and colleague (and another of my former professors) Grant Wacker called me with the news that David had died the night before. The last time we talked had been an argument over Brad Gregory's book The Unintended Reformation, which David (like most Reformation scholars) hated, and which I like very much, though with some significant qualifications. (Contradicting everything, still.)

At the funeral in Chapel Hill, we had "A Mighty Fortress" (of course), "How Firm a Foundation," and an obscure but wonderful Luther hymn, "Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice," with lines like "Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay, Death brooded darkly o'er me". . . . not typical fare at a United Methodist funeral for a distinguished academic, but very typical of David. David had already told us how to think about his death years ago, as it turned out, in a sermon quoted by Timothy George in his recent CT obituary
Someday a funeral procession will go to a cemetery and after a brief ceremony, everyone will go home except me. At that moment, the vain and threadbare claim of the idols to be the final arbiters of human destiny will be shown up as the poor and empty thing it is. Only God can be God; only God has the power and the will to be God. Whatever claims to be God but is not God will abandon us one final time at the grave’s edge. On that day, the only question that will matter is whether underneath us are the everlasting arms of the living and true God.
This reminiscence has been far more about me than about David, which I suppose is appropriate. Many people have written about him in the past two weeks, and perhaps there isn't much left to say about him except to tell how he affected me personally. He haunts me and will always haunt me--a grey-haired, majestic figure in a wheelchair sitting in a corner of my mind smiling at my latest folly. I'm sitting here at the computer trying to sum up his wit and wisdom memorably, and I can't. I'll leave that to others. But in the end what stays with me most is the rock-solid, ironic, unsentimental piety reflected in the quote above. Or, in the words of Herbert Butterfield which David quoted in an email he sent me at the end of my first semester at Duke: "Hold on to Christ, and for the rest be uncomitted."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Remarkable Career of a Young Academic (to the tune of "The Vicar of Bray")

When I got out of graduate school,
I applied to a Christian college,
Where I found it was the golden rule
To integrate faith and knowledge.
Worldviews that did with this conflict,
I poked 'em full of holes, sir;
And my concern was very strict
To save my students' souls, sir.

Refrain: And to this rule I shall agree
Until I am a wraith, sir;
That whoever shall give a job to me,
I'll sign their statement of faith, sir.

When tenure time was coming round,
My prospects seemed uncertain.
So I took myself to Baptist ground
And turned my Wesleyan shirt in.
Now I professed with shining face
Security eternal,
And those who added works to grace
I damned to fires infernal.

Refrain

But  when I got a research grant
To study natural law, sir,
The merits of the Catholic stand
Immediately I saw, sir.
The Eucharist I now embraced,
Sola fide was deception;
And I proclaimed with steadfast faith
Th'Immaculate Conception.

Refrain

But when my monograph came out,
And Harvard came a-wooing,
Church dogma I began to doubt,
'Twas all Pope Benedict's doing.
So I made myself a shining name
In the field of gender studies,
And wrote some essays to great acclaim
About transsexual bodies.

Refrain

Now I was tenured, safe and sound,
After much toil and grieving;
I thought it was high time I found
What truly I believed in.
My great surprise I still recall
When I looked into my soul, sir,
To find there was nothing there at all,
Not even a God-shaped hole, sir.

Refrain