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Seerveld on Psalm 19

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The below should have gone online in January last year, but for some reason, it got stuck in my drafts. So I am publishing it now.

The Revised Common Lectionary Psalm Reading for this Sunday (January 27) is Psalm 19.

I am reminded of these thoughts by reformational scholar Cal Seerveld on this chapter of the Psalms:

While we as God’s people necessarily go first to the Bible (Ephesians 6:4) for the Lord’s disciplining and setting our consciousness straight: while we search the gospels, proverbs, Psalm 19, the prophets and epistles to be convicted in depth of the reality of creation, the historicity of sin, the lordship of Yahweh revealed in Jesus Christ and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit among his people until the Lord finally returns: that is, while we go first of all to Holy Scripture to get biblical eyesight, biblical insight, and to receive the fear of the Lord which is the headstart of wisdom, then we who become adopted children of God and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit must needs go search creation for drafting our fallible, christian solutions to the problems facing us in our sin-cursed world and society-which still belongs to the Lord and us!

That’s nothing new. But I’m saying with the authority of God’s written Word, Psalm 19, that no follower of Jesus Christ need be uneasy about whether study of biology, psychology or aesthetics is full-time kingdom service for the Lord.

We must not succumb to the temptation to use the Bible as an answer sheet to check out our biological taxonomy, as a chart of personality types, or like a Ouija board to determine “what now is art and music?” That would be a cheap misuse of the Bible and express an illegitimate, Immature desire for a ready-made, instant christian culture that shoves off on god what he entrusts us to do historically, generations mindful of the generations still to come. What we need is a richer grasp of creation in our christian philosophy and evangelical theology, and a new, urgent sense of doing scholarship as a community of saints, so that we can live with the spill-over of Christ’s promise in John 14-17 that the Holy Spirit will indeed lead us who are faithful to the end in the way of Truth (of. especially 16:12-15).

I’d like to add that Psalm 19 also speaks eloquently of the creational and creaturely ways in which all of creation has been constituted by God, for human flourishing. That is what we mean when we speak of creation – including our bodies, and the family as a natural community — as an ordered reality.  We deny that only at own peril.

Written by Romel

April 1, 2020 at 7:32 am

The Euthypro Dilemma

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Over at ThinkNet, a mailing list of people working in or are interested in reformational philosophy, there is a recent discussion yet again on the well-known problem in philosophy of the Euthypro Dilemma.

A member asked if anyone could explain it in 250 words or less. The philosopher Roy Clouser, one of reformational philosophy’s leading exponents in North America, replied with an alternative position (which rejects the Scholastic conclusion identified with Aquinas). Now I’ve read Clouser’s works before on Divine attributes (example, here) but I don’t recall him explaining his reformational alternative in relation to the famous Socratic dilemma in such clear terms (here reproduced with his permission):

The Xn doctrine of creation beautifully forks the false dilemma posed by Socrates. 


The dilemma is supposed to be that if something is good because God loves it, then it is arbitrary. That is, it is not itself good, but good only because of God’s approval. So for example, if good approved of murder it would be good. If that’s to be avoided, the only other position to take is that good things are intrinsically good and God loves them because they are good. But that makes good (and evil) exist independently of God.


The Xn doctrine of creation, as I understand it, forks this by insisting from the outset that God has created everything that exists other than himself, so it rejects the second tine of Socrates fork. But it does not follow that the command against murder is arbitrary and that it would be equally evil to eat peanuts if God commanded us not to eat peanuts. The reason is that God has created the standards of good and evil as real factors of the created world. So the commandments of God are not arbitrary but reflect the way creation really is. So the standard is neither uncreated nor arbitrary. The commandments are not only imperative, but revelatory of the way God made the world. 


The usual reply i get to this point goes: “So if God had made the world differently He could have made murder good? That still sounds pretty arbitrary!” There are 2 things wrong with that reply, as I see it.


1. The reply asks us to envision the world as it is now, with only that one change – which is impossible. I mean impossible for us to envision. As soon as someone says, “Suppose this law were different…” the consequences are unimaginable because any change in one law would require changes in others. For example, we cannot imagine a reversal of the law forbidding murder and still take the law of love to be the overriding ethical principle. But if it’s not love, what is it? What the reply tries to get away with is not having to say what other consequences its proposal would entail, and which are impossible to know.


2. Scripture tells us that God has, at times, given arbitrary rules to His people. There was no rule against eating peanuts but there was against eating shellfish or trimming your beard. Those were rules just because God said so, which is why they could later be done away with. They didn’t reflect the moral order of creation, but only served to make Israel different from other nations and to make Israelis see and feel that difference every day. 

The view of God’s nature held by the Cappadocian Fathers, Calvin, & Barth (among others) avoids the trap of thinking that any property of God must be uncreated because God is uncreated. Prov. 8 denies this for God’s wisdom, e.g., and there’s no good reason to think what it says doesn’t apply to His goodness as well. Goodness is a real attribute of God, but it is not uncreated. It depends on God sustaining it along with the rest of creation even though God has (from eternity) taken it into Himself – just as He later took into himself the whole created person of Jesus Christ. So even though it’s a property God has, it too is neither uncreated nor arbitrary that God has it.

To the question: “Do you mean God could have willed not to be good?” the answer is: What sense of “could” are you employing? Is it a moral term, a logical term, or what? There’s no good reply to that question because for “could” to have any meaning it must subject God to some aspectual sense of good requiring that sense to be uncreated

In a subsequent exchange, Clouser further explained:



The basic issue is not subjecting God to the laws of creation, including logical laws. Whenever someone asks “Couldn’t God have made things differently” they are asking a Q that can only be answered by subjecting God to what is Logically possible (or physically or morally possible, etc).
It is hard at times not to succumb to the temptation to see prior possibility as a condition for God’s doing something because it’s always a condition for us doing something. We have to remind ourselves that God is the Creator of all the senses of “possibility” as well as the creatures he makes subject to those laws. 


And, yes, murder is wrong because it violates the law of Love.


The usual objection to saying God created the laws of math and logic is the claim that if God created them then He could violate them. So can God really make 2 + 2 = 8? Can God make square circles? If so, can God bring it about that He is infinitely wise but also completely ignorant at the same time? (Plantinga has made this objection in his little book Does God Have A Nature?)


My reply is that saying God created a law doesn’t mean He can break it but that it doesn’t apply to Him at all. Supposing that it’s a necessary truth that nothing can be healthy that doesn’t have sufficient air, light, water and food, do the rocks in my garden violate that law? Surely not. Rather it’s the case that the law does ’t apply to them at all.
So God can’t break the law of non-contradiction because it doesn’t apply to Him and we can’t break it because it does apply to us.


This is why [Herman Dooyeweerd] said to me “Whatever can be proven would thereby not be God,” and it is why there is an unknowable side to God. God’s unknowable side is not unknowable because his perfections are infinite and overwhelm our capacity to grasp fully (the Thomist view), but because we can’t apply logical laws to Him at all.



For reformational philosophy, this understanding springs from the difference between a limiting idea and a conceptual knowledge of God’s self-existence. We can only know God through the former, and not through the latter. For Clouser’s explanation of this distinction, please zoom in to his Reply to Objection No. 3 (from page 24) in his essay on Pancreation Lost: the Fall of Theology.

Now of course today, there are those who dispute the view that the Cappadocian Fathers thought differently than their Western counterparts. But that would require another blogpost.

But check out also this essay by another reformational philosopher, Jeremy Ive, on the same question, from a covenantal theological approach (with insights from reformational philosophy).

Theology among the disciplines in a Republic under Scripture

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This is PART TWO of excepts from a commencement speech I gave at a seminary last March. For Part 1, on The Three Senses of Theology, click here.

Now, let me go back to the question posed by our discussion of Thomas Aquinas: is theology indeed the Queen of the Sciences? If not, should we make it such? In the Western tradition, theology was a crucial part of the university, beginning with the ancient universities in Paris, in Salamanca or in Oxford, which were also started as crucial pillars of religious communities of what was then a united Christendom.

Over time, theology lost its pride of place in the onslaught of secularization. That in part also explains  the anomaly one finds today in many faculties of theology in Europe and North America full of theologians who don’t believe what they write about God: theology has become unmoored from its church foundations, losing its intimate connections with the daily life of the church in prayer, word, Eucharist, baptism, celebration.

For example, in the last 10 years or so, a movement in theological faculties has arisen, called Radical Orthodoxy (which I mentioned earlier), championed by the theologian John Milbank. Milbank critiques traditional accounts of secularization that posits it as an independent development from the wrap of Christian culture of the Middle Ages. In fact, he argues that shifts in theological thought, beginning with Duns Scotus and William of Occam, led as well to disciplinary shifts, leading to the birth of secularized social sciences. So Milbank and his followers wanted to recover theology as primus inter pares among the disciplines.

Indeed, Milbank’s revisionist account proffers radical implications on how we look, among other things, at theology and societal institutions and communities. On the first point, Radical Orthodoxy seeks to re-install theology as the Queen of the Sciences.

Indeed, Milbank argues that theology, inasmuch as it concerns itself with esse as such, with the ground of all being, and all in relation to such ground and source, it cannot be anything but be pre-eminent over all other disciplines. In fact, he goes as far as saying that ceding ground to other disciplines is idolatry, considering that such disciplines, in the first place, were born as a result of theology’s descent into hell. He says theology must now reassert its voice in giving an account of every sphere of creation so that theology is not side-lined by other disciplines but that other disciplines orient themselves in relation to itself as the “Queen of the Sciences for all the inhabitants of the altera civitas.”

So Milbank rejects all disciplinary boundaries and summons theology as the Queen sovereign of all disciplines, in this wise:

Theology has no proper finite territory of its own, and yet is able to speak of God, its specific concern, by way of all other subjects and sciences. So when one is speaking of “theology and economics” one is just directly concerned with the possibility of their being a mediated word of God, as when one is speaking of “theology and Church history” or “theology and the gospels.

As it were, he would have us with a theological economics, a theological political science, or a theological sociology. As a practical and logical outworking of theology as the only truthful account of reality, Radical Orthodoxy rejects the societal differentiation occasioned by modernity, such differentiation, being, in Milbank’s book, the result of a theological heterodoxy (here, let us bear in mind Milbank’s thesis that shifts in theology also led to the birth of heretical social scientific disciplines).

Indeed, subsequent works both by Milbank and his many disciples surface the centrality of the church as a community, as the new polis. I agree with the broader turns – especially his attack on claims to neutrality and objectivity of secularized special scientific disciplines – taken by Milbank’s Radical Orthodox project but reject his other argument – clearly implied in the book – that we should all now return the place of the Queen of the Sciences to theology, as it was in the time of Thomas Aquinas.

My principal concern here is the second point. While Radical Orthodoxy may have somewhat gone out of fashion in the academe, it is still useful to use its propositions as counter-point to what I believe should be the proper place of theology in the third sense (that is, academic theology) among the disciplines. In fact, in the Reformed tradition, it is a commonplace to speak of God’s word addressing every sphere of creaturely life. As the great Dutch theologian, journalist and statesman Abraham Kuyper had said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of creation over which Christ does not cry, ‘Mine’!”

But as the political philosopher Jonathan Chaplin asks, who has authority to interpret the word of God for, say, society and politics? His response:

The first answer of the Reformed tradition is, rightly, the whole people of God, not primarily academic theologians. Yet among the people of God are of course, academic theologians, as well as Christian scholars in all other disciplines, all of whom are equally subject to biblical revelation. Where the Reformed tradition may differ with Radical Orthodoxy is in denying that this subordination is authoritatively mediated to disciplines like social theory by a royal discipline called theology.

Christian sociologists will need to draw on the expertise of theologians for their understanding of the Christian narrative in general and specific biblical themes such as creation, anthropology, sin, history, community, eschatology and so on. But a theologian will also need to draw on the work of Christian sociologists for their Christian understanding of social processes, structures, and norms.

Thus, Chaplin explains, “for the Reformed tradition, the sciences are a republic, not a monarchy” but a “republic under Scripture.”

Chaplin here follows Dooyeweerd’s view that theology is but one special theoretical discipline among many. He understands that for Dooyeweerd, each of these disciplines must be shaped and directed by a biblically formed Christian philosophy. In his summation and integrative essay to the volume in which Chaplin’s essay appears, Jim Olthuis, who edited it along with Smith, says:

Other problems emerge…when theology is enthroned as queen of the sciences. The impression is created that any and every kind of Christian attempt at theorizing is ipso facto theology. Indeed, Milbank claims that any and all efforts by Christians to provide countertheory belong to theology and are, in fact, ecclesiology. I cannot help but wonder about what appears to be a hegemonic move. Is theology the only science that can legitimately be called Christian? Is there no room, in addition to theology, or Christian theories of economics, political science, history, physics, biology, sociology, linguistics, aesthetics, psychology, and so on, each with its own field of study?…one is left wondering if there are any parameters distinguishing the various sciences from a Christian perspective. Would a Christian university simply have no hegemonic faculty, with all the other disciplines as branches or subsidiaries of theology?

Thus, what we must not do is to subsume all Christian knowledge under the term “theology.”

…….

The image found in this post is taken from here.

Written by Romel

May 31, 2018 at 2:05 am

The Three Senses of Theology

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PART ONE: Excerpts from a seminary commencement speech I gave in March this year:


In his short English-language introduction to his four-volume magnum opus, The New Critique of Theoretical Thought, the late Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweed writes that the Greek philosophers of old were the exact opposite in the extreme sense, disdaining doxa (popular opinion) while holding that true knowledge is philosophic in character. Thus, for them true theological knowledge cannot stoop to the level of faith, denying the possibility of divine revelation. So from the very beginning, there has always been a fraught relationship between theology and philosophy, as Dooyeweerd describes it in his book In The Twilight of Western Thought.

I think what Dooyeweerd, who has championed an integral, biblically directed philosophical prolegomena to all Christian theology, has written about the relationship between philosophy and theology is very relevant to our discussion today. All too often, our failure to understand the historical roots of that problematic relationship has led to much confusion, if not equivocation, in the way we understand “Christian knowledge.” It is important, first of all, what we mean when we speak of theology.

Church Fathers, especially Augustine, rejected the Greek proposition that philosophy, as an independent source of knowledge, can well hold on its own without theology, and in fact, can be an independent source of truth. For them, pagan-inspired philosophy, being full of errors and superstitions, cannot be trusted.

Philosophy can only be the servant of theology – with its own principle of knowledge, namely Scripture – and at the careful control and tending of the latter.

Augustine most of all held to this conviction. And yet, Dooyeweerd explains that it was still the influence of Greek philosophy in Christian theology that however led Augustine to think that theoretical Christian theology is true knowledge of God and true self-knowledge. So for Augustine, theology is true philosophy.

In Aquinas, by Dooyeweerd’s account, Christian philosophy ceased to be identified with theology, as Augustine wanted. Instead, philosophy as an autonomous science is assumed, including a philosophical or natural theology that refers to the natural light of reason alone.

Aristotlean metaphysics from which it is drawn, though now outside the control of Scripture, is accommodated into Christian theology. Thomism assumed that the natural truths of philosophy cannot contradict the supernatural truths of the Christian theology as expressed in doctrines, which are assumed to be supernatural, since they are drawn from divine revelation, and for that matter, are higher than the truths of philosophy.

Thus it is in Aquinas’ Thomism where we got the notion of theology as the Queen of the Sciences, of theology as elevated over all other forms of knowledge. It is also in Aquinas where Christian theology, in the sense of the academic and scientific practice, became identified with sacra doctrina (the doctrine of the Church) and sacra scriptura (the Holy Scriptures).

Three senses and True knowledge of God and of ourselves

How is this so? To understand why, we must acquaint ourselves with the three senses of theology that Dooyeweerd speaks of. The Christian philosopher speaks of the first sense of theology as true knowledge given in regeneration (the central religious orientation of the heart to the true God); Theology in the second sense is that of the church’s confession of faith as expressed in the creeds (a non-theoretical expression); Theology in the third sense is that of theology as an academic or scientific discipline (a field of theoretical study or a special science). So when we speak of the first sense of theology, we speak of the most basic root orientation and direction of all our temporal existence drawn from the word-revelation of the Holy Spirit, which ought to inform the two other senses of theology. Meanwhile, theology in the third academic and scientific sense then springs from a general theoretical view of reality as its presupposition (a philosophical root), whether implicit or expressed.

In Dooyeweerd’s view, academic Christian theology “refers to a theoretical explanation of the articles of faith in their scientific confrontation with the texts of Holy Writ and with heretical views.” In this sense,” he continues,” Christian theology is bound to theoretical human thought which cannot claim the infallibility of God’s Word.” When we say then that every Christian ought to be a “theologian”, it is fundamentally a reference to the first sense, to the fact that we are all religious beings, whose hearts are either oriented to the true God or to something in the created order that in our apostasy, we turn into a god.

We are homo adorans, beings created to worship, in the totality of who and what we are (as opposed to say, the Thomist-Aristotlean construction of the human that stresses on the intellect, hence, on rationality, as its defining characteristic). It is only this sense where we can say that every Christian is a theologian. Stated in another way, true knowledge of God and of ourselves is a true spiritual miracle, being no less than the very gift of God by faith, and not the work of scientific or systematic (i.e., “dogmatic”) theology (theology in the third sense). In true evangelical fashion, we say that we must be born again – like Nicodemus – to truly know God and who we are before him (John 3:1-21).

When the Dutch philosopher speaks of a “radical starting point” for Christian thought, Dooyeweerd really means that point of being “reborn” through the working of the Spirit as the foundation of theoretical thought. True Christian theology (the first sense of theology) is not/cannot be reached through the extensive, academic study of the things of God, or in Aquinas’s term, through the workings of natural reason – of autonomous theoretical thought, that is – or of sacra doctrina itself, apart from regeneration in the Holy Spirit. For human effort through a scientific or systematic investigation of the character of God (theology in the third sense) cannot unlock the mystery of the birth (creation), death (fall) and resurrection (redemption) of Jesus Christ. Only faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit will do for fallen humanity.

Because to do so, in Dooyewerd’s idea, is to make it an autonomous project, the way a certain Aristotelian Thomism would make of natural reason, in the absence of a Reformed doctrine of the total depravity of fallen humanity. The transcendental theoretical critique of theology is precisely this: without Spirit-imparted faith, correct doctrine is nothing but lifeless words.

A person may well have mastered Calvin’s systematic theology and yet remain ignorant of the saving faith the New Testament speaks of. For academic purposes, she may be well versed in the intricacies of the Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion and yet in her heart, remain in the dark about the personal and spiritual implications of the great Genevan theologue’s (or for that matter, of Martin Luther’s) insight that a person is justified by faith, and not by works. Only the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration can impart true knowledge of God in the heart of a person. But not everyone is a theologian in the third sense (a professional or academic theologian).

This then is the paradox of any academic theology (or any theology in the third sense), even one that is by nature orthodox: it may accurately describe all the truths that Scripture teaches and yet may at the same time serve as stumbling block to true knowledge of God and of ourselves. Theology in the second sense of its creedal form may draw from the third sense in a reciprocal relation. That is, academic theology, carried out by believing or confessing theologians, informs and shapes creedal Christianity (theology in the second sense) and deepens our religious commitments (theology in the first sense).

Thus, in our being theologians in the first sense, we draw from theology in the second and third senses in a constant interplay. We need theology in the third sense, yes, to deepen and enrich theology in the first and second senses. But without theology in the first sense, theology in the third sense is vain striving. To explain further, theology in the first sense, anchored on our being homo adorans, is the knowledge of God and of ourselves that happens when we hear and share from the Scriptures, opened in our hearts by the Spirit, and arising from our obedience to Christ in doing the truth. In other words, this is the deepened faith that grips our whole being when we follow Christ in all that we are.

This is why it can happen – as it has indeed happened – that, many a naïve reader of the Bible, by simply being an active part of the church of Jesus Christ, is able to acquire the correct and fruitful use of Scripture, experiencing its profound truths in their everyday life, even without the hermeneutical and theological sophistication of professionals in the field. In the language of the Book of Hebrews that was our Scripture text earlier, they “have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (v. 4-5) and have chosen to be faithful with their Lord and Savior rather than fall away.

This sort of drinking the deep truths of Scripture is not a theoretical endeavor after the manner of academic theologians; this is actually experiencing and living out the truths of Scripture in faith as Christians living together in a community of believers. This is embracing the “Deeper Life” – pursuing together the Lordship of Christ no matter what – in the highs and lows of life, through disappointments, pains, tears, illnesses, and defeats, towards the higher plane of Christian maturity that no amount of academic theorizing can ever accomplish. And yet, even all this, is still the working of God’s grace in the heart of Christians.

Contrast this to many theologians with PhDs from the world’s top universities who somehow manage to dish out absurdities, half-truths and distortions for most of their professional lives, ruining the lives of many in and out of church, and living lives that are unconnected to what they claim is the very subject of their life’s work, namely, God! Nevertheless, the distinction Dooyeweerd makes between and among these three senses of theology may also explain why someone whose heart is totally committed to God may still be working within a theological tradition rooted in unbiblical ultimate commitments.

In fact, Dooyeweerd warns us of the dangers of conflating the Scripture with dogmatic theology (as in the Thomistic sense of theology as sacra doctrina et sacra sciptura):

For dogmatic theology is a very dangerous science. Its elevation to a necessary mediator between God’s Word and the believer amounts to idolatry and testifies to a fundamental misconception concerning its real character and position. If our salvation be dependent on theological dogmatics and exegesis, we are lost. For both of them are a human work, liable to all kinds of error, disagreement in opinion, and heresy.

The philosopher-theologian James K.A. Smith, in his book engaging the Cambridge Radical Orthodox theologians, asks the following questions, drawing from this Dooyeweerdian insight on theology as an academic discipline:

Is Christian faith to be equated with Christian theology? Is Christian revelation to be equated with theology? Is Christian confession theological in a scientific sense? How are we to do justice to the ‘sense of the faithful’ if Christian faith is collapsed with Christian theology? Must every Christian be a scientist in this respect?

Smith’s questions posed in 2004 and Dooyeweerd’s before him, are ever relevant.

…..

 

The image used in this post was taken from here.

Written by Romel

May 28, 2018 at 11:44 pm

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