16 November 2009

Husk and Kernel: The Assembly at Westminster

I've been perusing Bob Letham's new book on the Westminster Assembly, reading portions here and there as items catch my eye. There's all kinds of helpful discussions in it, but I wanted to highlight a few criticisms he makes, mostly because I think they symbolize how helpful this book can be in demythologizing the Westminster Confession. Sometimes one gets the impression that certain confessionalists think the writing simply fell from the sky. This almost always leads to unfortunate hermeneutics.

Yet it is proper, Letham writes, "to attempt to interpret a text in its original context. A striking example of carelessness, of failure to do basic homework, that renders a contextual reading improbable is this extract from the introduction to a recent popular treatment…" (p. 48; Letham then goes on to quote a paragraph from John Gerstner's Guide followed up with a succinct correction). These kinds of correctives are scattered throughout the work. Consider the following about WCF 6 (on humanity and sin) as exegeted by A.A. Hodge in his well-known Handbook: "…neither the Confession nor the Catechisms speak of our first parents being placed on probation…nonetheless, [Hodge] goes to great lengths to expound the idea in his comments on this very point" (198–99). Letham does think, however, that the doctrine can be defended from the Assembly's documents; he's just pointing out sloppy exegesis—"Hodge ignores the text of the Confession at this point and instead expounds his own theology ["Princeton doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin on the ground of a federal relationship"] as if these words in this section did not exist" (p. 199).

Maybe most importantly, Letham notes on more than one occasion that "Reformed theology was a relatively broad stream, and differences among those swimming in it were recognized and accepted" (p. 84). Indeed, even on the subject of hypothetical universal atonement (!), its "supporters continued to play their part in the Assembly…and were not blackballed for their views. The Assembly was not a partisan body within the boundaries of its generic Calvinism, but allowed differing views to coexist" (182). It seems to me, in light of this, that the authors of the somewhat recent spate of blog posts about what it means to be "truly Reformed" should take note. That is, they should be mindful that subscription to the Confession as is currently understood in contemporary Presbyterianism is just that—contemporary. The Confession was not fashioned for a particular denomination within a societal context of church-state separation; rather, it was intended to unite the realm (England, Scotland and Ireland) and her church. As such, it's a lowest-common-denominator Reformed document with the specific purpose of uniting a bunch of different people, and thus various views on a host of subjects (e.g., covenant of works and hypothetical universal atonement) were tolerated. Now, it may be a non-sequitur to suggest that Reformed folk today ought to follow suit, but at least the burden of proof lies with the strict subscriptionist.

Still, poor assumptions persist. On the one hand, we've got those who continue to suffer under the impression that it's Calvin versus the Calvinists when it comes to the Confession. Letham picks on Torrance a little bit to this end (who regarded the development of covenant theology in the seventeenth century "as a distortion of the earlier, pristine theology of Calvin, Knox, and the Scots Confession"): "Furthermore, [Torrance] imposes on the the Assembly the idea of a controlling central dogma—the dual framework of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace—whereas the idea of central dogmas only emerged in the nineteenth century, among German scholars, and was far from the minds of the Westminster divines" (p. 85).

"On the other hand," Letham writes, "many right-wing Presbyterians today interpret the Westminster Confession in detachment from the history of the Reformed church and its classic confessions. The militant adherents of the hypothesis that the days of creation were of twenty-fours duration are a prime example [Letham footnotes his "In the Space of Six Days," WTJ 61 (1999): 149–74]. Neglect of this context is a barrier to understanding" (p. 85).
At any rate, with the forthcoming publication of the mulitvolume critical edition of the Assembly's minutes (of which Letham had in advance, in the form of Van Dixhoorn's seven-volume Cambridge thesis on this subject), I suppose other works about this will start popping up across the landscape (as perspectives on the Assembly will no doubt be reassessed). If The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context is any indication, this bodes well for those churches who consider themselves heirs of the Assembly and its Confession today.

09 November 2009

O day most calm, most bright

Heads up on my recent article over at Ref21, which discusses the seventeenth-century Welsh poet George Herbert's poem “Sunday,” with hopes of being led through a contemplation of the joys of worship toward doxology itself. The thing about Herbert is that he embodies the fact that one can be both evangelical and sacramental, biblical and liturgical, reformational and catholic. So, why is he all but unknown?

06 November 2009

Epistemological Modesty

In response to this great article on Keith Mathison’s Shape of Sola Scriptura over at Called to Communion, an interesting discussion has emerged revolving around the tu quoque—certain folks are arguing back that Catholics are in no way on better ground epistemologically. That is to say, the Catholic position and subsequent argument against the non-Catholic positions can be applied equally to the Catholic making the argument. Slightly related to this issue, in my opinion, is the question of epistemological certitude, which I perceive has deep roots within the Called to Communion crowd. After all, once having swum the Tiber (or any conversion, for that matter), who wouldn’t want to consider those newly held beliefs with 100 percent certainty?

In this modern age, we all face the so-called “heretical imperative.” As Peter Berger put it in his book with the same title (and I paraphrase): Plurality of alternatives is the core of the modern experience. If there are no options, then what is can be interpreted as what must be; in the modern condition, there’s less and less of what must be. Fate becomes choice. Destiny becomes decision. In short, we are all forced to choose.

And this is why, in nuce, the argument proffered in the review of Mathison’s book suffers from the tu quoque fallacy. But it suffers from something else too. A pinch of hubris, or, rather, an overextension of what can be known with certainty, for the sake of cognitive rest. It seems to me all too convenient for the Catholic to suggest that his own private judgment led him to accept the authority of the Magisterium, which authority then grants him the knowledge that “there are no options" (or, in the words of Bryan Cross [comment #46]: "he discovers a living divinely-appointed authority, and that discovery then shapes his theology"). But once that leap has been made “what is can be interpreted as what must be.”

This is tantamount to sticking one’s head in the sand, so far as I can tell.

Now, this line of reasoning might not be useful at all, but for the sake of argument, let’s say I become Catholic in the next five years or so. In no way could I in good faith speak of my journey to Rome in the same manner that those folks (or at least a few of them) over at Called to Communion do (for the very reasons proffered above). It presumes a kind of epistemic certainty that to my mind is impossible to achieve before the return of the King.
Berger sums up nicely what I'm getting at here:
As Christians we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in his glorious return. But that glory is not yet. The triumphant Christ is still coming; we are still in the aeon of the kenotic Jesus—the self-emptying Jesus, who humbles himself by taking human form. The church, while it announces the coming triumph (indeed, that is the core of its message), still bears the marks of Jesus’ kenosis.
Epistemological modesty, he suggests, is part and parcel of bearing the marks of Christ's kenosis. I'll conclude with a final thought from Berger in an interview published in The Christian Century (29 October 1997, pp. 972–78):
The basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with a pretense of certitude. There is a middle ground between fanaticism and relativism. I can convey values to my children without pretending a fanatical certitude about them. And you can build a community with people who are neither fanatics nor relativists.
My colleague Adam Seligman uses the term "epistemological modesty." Epistemological modesty means that you believe certain things, but you're modest about these claims. You can be a believer and yet say, I'm not really sure. I think that is a fundamental fault line.
So, here we are: a mellow synthesis of skepticism and faith. I realize the epistemic can of worms this may open for some—Catholics and non-Catholics alike. But this defines the religious affirmations of my journey for most of my life, and yet I believe—more strongly and exclusively Christain than Berger allows for himself. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night otherwise, flailing between the fact of modern pluralism, hyper-rationalistic solipsism and epistemological immodesty.

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