The Historical Road of Philosophy’s Suicide

Here’s a lengthy quotation from Josef’s Pieper’s essay “The Philosophical Act,” which is one of the two essays in his book Leisure, The Basis of Culture:

This assault upon philosophy’s theoretical character is the historical road of philosophy’s suicide. And that assault arises from the world’s being seen more and more as mere raw material for human activity. Once the world is no longer regarded as Creation, there cannot be ‘theoria’ in the full meaning of the word. The loss of ‘theoria’ means eo ipso the loss of the freedom of philosophy: philosophy then becomes a function within society, solely practical, and it must of course justify its existence and role among the functions of society; and finally, in spite of its name, it appears as a form of work or even of ‘labour.’ Whereas my thesis…is that the essence of ‘philosophizing’ is that it transcends the world of work. It is a thesis which comprehends the assertion of the theoretical character of philosophy and its freedom; it does not, of course, in any way deny or ignore the world of work (indeed it assumes its prior and necessary existence), but it does affirm that a real philosophy is grounded in belief, that man’s real wealth consists, not in satisfying his needs, not in becoming ‘the master and owner of nature,’ but in seeing what is and the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simply as being. The basis of this conception of philosophy is the conviction that the greatness of man consists in his being capax universi [capable of understanding the whole of reality]. (81-82)

The same is true, I think, of all the liberal arts. Any attempt to justify the artes liberales on the basis of a utilitarian end—an end not contained within themselves—goes against their nature, and is an attempt to place them within the “world of total work,” that is, to make them artes serviles. Interestingly, Pieper thinks that we only feel the need to give such a justification when we view the world as “mere raw material for human activity” rather than as creation (81). The “historical road of philosophy’s suicide” is a road paved by a change in our social imaginary, and it leads to sophistry.

Can These Bones Live?

I just finished reading Robert Jenson’s new book, A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live? (Oxford University Press, 2016). The book has its origins in a series of lectures that Jenson gave in the spring of 2008 to undergraduate students at Princeton University in a religious studies course.jenson

Jenson follows a standard sequence of topics in Christian theology: God, Trinity, creation, humanity, sin, salvation, and church. As Adam Eitel—the one who transcribed and edited Jenson’s lectures—writes in the introduction, “The course’s leitmotiv and organizing principle was somewhat less traditional. As the title suggests, the course framed the whole of Christian theology as a response to to the question posed to Ezekiel: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ (Ezekiel 37:3)” (2).

The metaphor refers to two matters: First, can “the story the God lives with his people…continue?…[Second,] is the Christian faith itself a pile of dead and dried up bones? Is Christian theology dead?” (2). Jenson doesn’t answer these questions directly until the last chapter, but, as to be expected, the answer is yes. He writes,

Christian theology and the practices of the church must relearn how to display the church’s or the faith’s own interior plausibility—not drawing on anything outside of itself—as was done in the centuries before Constantine…In my judgment, theology responds best [to the challenge of Modernity] by trusting in the gospel’s own interior rationality [as Karl Barth did]…One point guard in the endeavor might be Wolfhart Pannenberg, who has elaborated an entire system of metaphysics…on the principle that traditional metaphysics draws its vision of what is from what has been, whereas a distinctly Christian metaphysics must draw its vision from what will be. (113-115, italics original)

Jenson’s book in short (115 pages), making it a good introduction to his theology, but it’s not just bones; there’s meat. He presents other provocative ideas like the one above: three, triune dramatic personae in the Old Testament (49-50); personal identity before essential identity (67);  Edwardsian view of original sin vs. Augustinian view (76-77); and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s view of atonement (85-87). Most significantly, it’s an edifying read. Jenson reminds one of God’s promise to make bones live, which he has done and continues to do through the Word made flesh—Jesus Christ.

Holiness by John Webster, Pt. 1

In his book Holiness, John Webster offers a “trinitarian dogmatics of holiness” from a Reformed-Barthian perspective (1). His piece of Christian theology is dogmatic because it begins with the self-revelation of God in Christ as attested to in the Holy Scripture. It is trinitarian because the self-revealing Holy One exists as Father, Son, and Spirit in our midst, making holiness a relational concept. We encounter the triune God in his works or not at all (9). A trinitarian dogmatic account “does not think of divine holiness in abstraction from the sanctifying acts of God pro nobis, nor of human sanctity in isolation from election, salvation and the work of the sanctifying Spirit” (5).

Webster organizes his discussion of holiness into four parts: the holiness of theology, the holiness of God, the holiness of the Church, and the holiness of the Christian.

In this post, I want to consider his first part. Speaking of the holiness of theology, Webster urges readers to remember two requirements for thinking Christianly. First, “theological thinking about holiness is itself an exercise of holiness” (8). The task of theology can only be carried out properly within the process of sanctification. Our intellectual faculty of reason must be “put to death and made alive by the terrifying and merciful presence of the holy God” (9). Second, if we are to speak truly about God’s holiness we must follow the true God, who has revealed himself to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. The object of theology establishes the method of theology.

Keeping these requirements in mind, Webster begins to speak of God’s holiness by noting that it is a relational concept. The three primary themes of his book—God, Church, and Christian—cannot be is0lated from each other because “the holiness of God is a holiness which directs itself to God’s creatures as fellowship-creating holiness. God the thrice Holy One is the Holy One in our midst” (9). Webster attempt to offer a positive definition of holiness, as opposed to a negative one, e.g., holiness as being set apart from.

He begins to think on the holiness of theology by making a lengthy proposition:

A Christian theology of holiness is an exercise of holy reason; it has its context and its content in the revelatory presence of the Holy Trinity which is set forth in Holy Scripture; it is a venture undertaken in prayerful dependence upon the Holy Spirit; it is an exercise in the fellowship of the saints, serving the confession of the holy people of God; it is a work in which holiness is perfected in the fear of God; and its end is the sanctifying of God’s holy name. (9-10)

Good theology is always an exercise of holy reason because “good Christian theology can only happen if it is rooted in the reconciliation of reason by the sanctifying presence of God” (10). Naked reason—a neutral place from which to begin theological work—does not exist.

What struck me was the second part of Webster’s proposition: Using Barth’s formula, he claims that “revelation is reconciliation” (13). He quotes Barth, who says, “Reconciliation is not a truth which revelation makes known to us; reconciliation is the truth of God Himself who grants Himself freely to us in His revelation” (13). “[K]nowledge of God in his revelation,” writes Webster, “is no mere cognitive affair: it is to know God and therefore to love and fear the God who appoints us to fellowship with himself. Revelation is thus not simply the bridging of a noetic divide (though it includes that), but is reconciliation, salvation, and fellowship” (14, italics original). The takeaway is that “Christian theology is enclosed by, and does its work within, the sphere of the revelatory presence of the holy God” (14). Theology does not summon God; God summons theology, placing it under both judgment and sanctification. “As holy reason at work, Christian theology can never escape from the sober realization that we talk in the terrifying presence of the God from whom we cannot flee (Ps. 139.7)” (15). The revelatory presence of the holy God is the context of all theological reasoning.

His presence is also forms the content of our discourse. “Because it is bound to its object—to God as holy, self-revealing subject—theological reason does not produce its content from its own resources. Holy reason is not a poetic but a receptive enterprise” (16, italics original). Theology is not a nominal enterprise, an attempt to shape or figure “the divine reality by the names which it gives to that reality” (16). It is “nothing other than an attempt to repeat the name which God gives to himself as he manifests himself with sovereign mercy: ‘I am the Lord, your Holy One’ (Isa. 43.15)” (16-17).

Holy reason avoids nominalism by encountering the revelatory presence of God as he proclaims himself through Holy Scripture. Webster writes, “God’s communicative presence is encountered through Scripture as the Holy One speaks his Word, for Holy Scripture is that creaturely instrument inspired and appointed by God to serve God’s self-presentation” (17-18). The implication for theology, which complements biblical exegesis, is that it is subordinate to exegesis; “holy reason is exegetical reason” (18). A phenomenology of “the holy,” such as Tillich’s, will contribute little to constructive Christian dogmatics. The proper starting place of theology is the concrete realization of God in Jesus Christ. God expounds his being to us in his history of creation and reconciliation (19). The authoritative canon provides the norm for holy reason, as well as the limit. “Truthful though and speech follow the given order of reality” (19); Scripture forms reason’s act and, being sufficient, limits reason’s knowledge.

Having given an account of holy reason, Webster then depicts its operation. First, “the primary act of holy reason is prayer for the assistance of the Holy Spirit” (21, italics original). He quotes Barth at length:

The first and basic act of theological work is prayer…[T]heological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it; in its totality it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be performed only in the act of prayer.” (Barth, Evangelical Theology, p. 160)

Proper dogmatics are, to use Helmut Thielicke’s phrase, “prayed dogmatics.”

Next, “the setting of holy reason is the fellowship of the saints” (21, italics original). The true theologian stands within the holy catholic church, and his or her “particular ministry is to help in the edification of the Church, building up the Church’s common life and so serving the confession of the gospel. Theology does this, very simply, by giving an account of the substance of the gospel as that to which all speech, thought and action in the Church must conform” (26).

Like every other ministry, theology hears from and stands under the Word of God. It is carried out coram Deo and is perfected in the fear of God. The self-revealing God cannot be approached by a neutral observer and cannot be mastered as an object of study. As Webster writes, “God’s holiness means that theology stands under the prohibition: ‘Do not come near’ (Ex. 3.5)” (28). Yet theology also stands under the promise: “Who has made man’s mouth…Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Ex. 4.11-12 qtd. Webster 28). The task of theology is not to be silent before “the holy.” The task of theology is to speak in the fear of the Holy One after Deus dixit.

Last, the telos of holy reason is the “sanctifying of God’s holy name” (29). Following Jonathan Edwards, Webster writes, “The sanctifying or hallowing of the holy name of God is…the basic end of all the works of the fellowship of the saints” (29). Even as a frail, fallible, and human science, theology “can serve the Holy One and the congregation which gathers around him” (30). With fear and trembling, the theologian carries out his or her task with the hopeful resolve of the psalmist, who writes, “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever” (Ps. 145.21).

Canon Revisited: A Review

Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Crossway, 2013, 368pp. $21.72

Do Christians have intellectually sufficient grounds for claiming that they know which books belong in the New Testament? This is the question that Michael Kruger, professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte, NC), attempts to answer in Canon Revisited.

Kruger makes it clear from the beginning that he is not attempting to prove to skeptics that the Scriptures are inspired by God (if that is even possible to prove), but rather he is attempting to answer the de jure objection, the objection that the Christian belief in the canon is not intellectually justifiable (even if it happens to be true).

[I]t is the de jure objection that has created the deeper epistemological crisis for Christians today [as opposed to de facto objection, the objection that the Scriptures are not from God]. The culture of postmodernity in our Western world already gives us reason to doubt the basis for virtually every belief we hold—particularly religious ones. Any claim to actually know that one’s religious beliefs are true is regarded as a violation of the rules of intellectual integrity (295, author’s emphasis).

Kruger, after summarizing and critiquing several community-determined and historically-determined models of canonicity, presents the book’s main focus: a self-authenticating model of canonicity. For Kruger and all other Christians who hold to biblical inerrancy, knowledge of which books belong in the canon must be determined by the canon itself. The canon must be self-authenticating.

A self-authenticating model, which is self-supporting and self-correcting, is necessary, Kruger argues, because ultimate authority (the Bible) cannot be validated by any outside criteria e.g. church’s reception, apostolicity, etc. If it is, then it is not actually ultimate—whatever criteria validates it is. “[T]he canon guides, controls, and determines how it is authenticated” (289).

Kruger builds his model by showing how God has created the proper epistemic environment in which belief in the canon can be reliably formed. It includes three components:

  • Providential exposure – Christians can only know the books which God has providentially allowed to survive. This component answers the question of what we should think of potentially lost apostolic letters.
  • Attributes of canonicity – divine qualities (beauty, efficacy, and harmony), corporate reception, and apostolic origins
  • Internal testimony of the Holy Spirit – necessary to overcome the noetic effects of sin, the effects on our thinking, so that we can see the truth of these attributes and believe that these books are from God

After building the framework of the self-authenticating model, Kruger spends the rest of the book developing it and addressing potential “defeaters” of the model, which include no basis for orthodoxy, divergent and contradictory theologies of the books, pseudonymous authors, and disagreement and dissent in the canon recognition process.

In my opinion, Kruger sufficiently addresses all of these defeaters. He cites heavily from secular opponents (the bibliography is 50 pages long), and he is not acerbic in his replies to their views, which seems to be the common tone in academia today.

Canon Revisited is a refreshing, thorough read that provides a solid foundation for Christians’ belief in the canon amidst the howling, though empty, claims of much of modern biblical scholarship. Kruger attempts and, I believe, succeeds in “destroy[ing] arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and tak[ing] every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

While it was one of the more scholarly books that I have read, which made for slow reading at times, the copious footnotes helped me to understand the model presented and appreciate Kruger’s commitment to the inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of the Bible.

Canon Revisited is important because in it Kruger shows how the decisive issue in canonical studies in one’s ontology of canon. “[E]veryone brings a canonical theology to the table whether they recognize it or not” (294). Above all, it is important because it shows how Christians have intellectually sufficient grounds for claiming that they know which books belong in the New Testament.

Kruger’s self-authenticating model is not new, though.

Although this volume has attempted to offer a detailed answer to [Ernest] Best’s concern [“No one has come up with a satisfactory solution as to how we determine which books should be in the canon”], it has not done so by offering something new. Indeed, it has done so by turning to something very old. It turns out that the solution to the problem of canon has not been lacking—it has actually been there the whole time. Jesus himself declared it: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27 qtd. 295).

Kruger’s book reminds us that Scripture is sub specie aeternitatis (from the eternal perspective), and that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Summer Reading List for 2014

For many people, especially those in college, summer is a time marked by less busyness, more time with family and friends, and several opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. While such opportunities include internships, summer camps, and study abroad programs, they also include good books.

Here are some of the ones that I will be reading this summer:

1. Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Crossway).

Do Christians have reliable belief in the 27 books that make up the New Testament? That is to say, do we know that we have the right books? These are some of the questions that Kruger attempts to answer as he shows why neither a community-determined model nor a historically-determined model of canonicity will work for believers. With the integrity and authority of Scripture under fire today, affirmative answers to the questions are vitally important for believers.

2. Cornelius Plantinga, Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).

While Plantinga has preachers in mind, this book is not limited to preachers in its application. Plantinga writes about how reading leads one to delight, a greater appreciation of language, and cathartic experiences that result in greater sympathy for people and situations that one previously knew nothing about.

3. Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (Harper Perennial).

While I would not recommend Ferry’s book as a  “guide to living,” I would recommend it for its narrative of Western thought. Ferry takes readers through the thought of ancient Greece up to our present day. Tim Keller, referring to books on culture, said, “If you only read one, read this one.”

4. D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).

In this culture exegesis, Carson “traces the subtle but enormous shift in the way we have come to understand tolerance over recent years — from defending the rights of those who hold different beliefs to affirming all beliefs as equally valid and correct” (Amazon). This book is important for believers as we continue to uphold absolute truth that is rooted in God and revealed by Him in the Bible.

5. Leonard Sax, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men (Basic Books).

It is easy to see from statistics and personal anecdotes that we have many, as one pastor would say, “boys who can shave” in our society today. Leonard Sax, a family physician, author, and researcher, attempts to answer why we have so many young men who don’t have much passion for real-world activities, are falling behind in school, and are, quite simply, not growing up. While Sax’s proposals must be discerned through a Christian worldview, his book seems to be important to anyone concerned with our nation’s young men.

6. J.I. Packer, Knowing God (IVP Books).

Packer’s book has been a classic for over twenty years, and it “has been an important tool to help Christians around the world discover the wonder, the glory and the joy of knowing God” (Amazon). Packer’s hope is that Christians would learn more about God so that they might know God more fully. As John Piper said, “right thinking is for deep feeling,” and Packer’s book will help the believer with both.

7. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (IVP Books).

“The Bible is the written Word of God, and it is treasured by many. But it is also an ancient book about people and cultures very different than us. Thus, while we know we should read it, many of us have a hard time understanding the Bible” (Amazon). R.C. Sproul, a well-known pastor-theologian, helps readers understand why Christians should study the Bible, how they can interpret it correctly, and what practical methods and tools they can employ in this end of knowing God more through the Scriptures.

8. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books).

With hundreds of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and other digital confidantes, we should no longer have any feelings of loneliness, right? Wrong. Turkle explains how we have made technology the “architect of our intimacies,” and how it is greatly failing us. This book goes into much greater detail than the TED talk that Turkle also gave on the subject.

9. Ronald Muller, Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door (Xlibris).

Guilt, shame, and fear: These are the three bases that underly all worldviews.

Most Western theologians, though, only address how the Gospel takes away a person’s guilt, yet the Gospel also removes  shame and fear. Muller attempts to explain this truth, which, when understood, deepens a believer’s understanding and appreciation of the Gospel.

10. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (Harper Perennial Modern Classics).

This 20th century classic would be interesting to read alongside Turkle’s book, Alone Together. Huxley’s dystopian world is sure to challenge readers’ beliefs about the uses and ethics of technology.

11. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Dover Publications).

This short, 72-page read is considered by many to be Conrad’s finest story. In it, Conrad describes “the narrator’s journey up the Congo River and his meeting with, and fascination by, Mr. Kurtz, a mysterious personage who dominates the unruly inhabitants of the region” (Amazon).

12. Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (Penguin Books).

“Ever since it was first performed in 1949, Death of a Salesman has been recognized as a milestone of the American theater. In the person of Willy Loman, the aging, failing salesman who makes his living riding on a smile and a shoeshine, Arthur Miller redefined the tragic hero as a man whose dreams are at once insupportably vast and dangerously insubstantial. He has given us a figure whose name has become a symbol for a kind of majestic grandiosity—and a play that compresses epic extremes of humor and anguish, promise and loss, between the four walls of an American living room” (Amazon).