Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Covenant Between the Father and the Son?

More on Hodge and Federal theology.

Hodge relies on one of the odder aspect of Federal theology.  That is, the theory of the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son.  According to this theory, the work of atonement and therefore the covenant of grace given to the Church, is possible because of a legal agreement between the Father and the Son that if the Son becomes incarnate and atones for sin that the Father will reward him and give redemption to the Church.  This theory goes back to Johannes Cocceius, the 17th century German theologian who founded of Federal theology.  

There is a interesting difference between Cocceius and Hodge's treatment of the subject though.  For Cocceius, the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son is the first stage of the abrogation of the covenant of works.  Redemption means for Cocceius a total elimination of the covenant of works, similar to Luther's idea of the law becoming a lex vacua in heaven.  By contrast, Hodge views it as a legal basis of the covenant of the gospel.  In other words, the gospel can't be legitimate unless it possesses a legal foundation as a pre-existent agreement who's terms of fulfilled.

Two comments should be made about this.  First, Karl Barth critiques this position in Church Dogmatics 4.1 (in this case he is engaging Cocceius) by noting that it is absurd to think of God making an agreement with God.  The Father and the Son are separate persons, but not separate entities.  They subsist in the being of the one God.  God doesn't need to make an agreement with himself to get things done; he just does them.  I think this is right on.

Secondly, from a Lutheran perspective I think this shows how deep Hodge's legalism is.  Instead of thinking of the gospel as something that breaks in from outside of existence under the law, Hodge can't fathom God simply acting out of unilateral grace.  God is, as we saw in the last post, tied within the straightjacket of the law.  Hence, he can't given be gracious unless a legal agreement prompts him to do so.   

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hodge on the Mystery of Original Sin.

More on Hodge.

Hodge's treatment of the doctrine of original sin is particularly interesting.  It comes out of a debate among American Presbyterians in the 19th century.  Some people followed Jonathan Edward's theory of identity (which will the subject of a future post) and the other held to the traditional view of the Westminster Confession, which was strongly influenced by what is referred to as "Federal Theology."

Federal theology is covenant theology.  It derives its name from one of the Latin words for covenant (foedus, also pactum).  Basically covenant theology works with the Nominalist ontology and therefore assumes that there are no real universals.  This creates problems when it comes to the doctrine of original sin, since according to the traditional version of this doctrine the real universal of human nature was damaged and therefore human beings "in Adam" suffer its curse.  There is therefore a organic ontological connection between Adam and us.  If everyone is, on the other hand, absolutely individual, then mechanism to spread original sin is lost and you've got to come up with something else.  

Covenantal theory makes up the difference.  The solution is to invent a convoluted theory of different covenants as an organizing theory of salvation history.  Regarding original sin, the chief one that defines the divine-human relationship "in Adam" is the covenant of works.  God made an agreement with Adam that if he performed the law, then he would live forever.  Since Adam didn't do this, then everyone is lost.  For this reason, Adam is described by the Federal theologians as being humanity's "Federal representative."  Since he was appointed in this role, it makes sense that the atomistic individuals of the human race should have his sin imputed to them.  The bottom line is that within this scheme the imputation of Adam's sin is very important because without a universal of human nature to connect people to Adam the reason for the spread of original sin is pretty much inexplicable.

Therefore Hodge is extremely insistent on the idea of the imputation of Adam's sin to his descendants.  In contrast to this, the Lutheran scholastics were generally uninterested in the question of whether the passage of original sin actually involved the imputation of Adam's sin or merely the spread of damaged and sinful human nature.  Sin is a reality, we have it from conception- good enough, right?  

I nonetheless think something else is stake here for Hodge which strikes at the whole way that the Reformed think about theology.  One argument that Hodge is at pains to make throughout the section is that Adam's sin being imputed to us is fair.  He cites the fact that God states again and again that children will suffer for the sins of their parents.  He forgets the statement in Ezekiel saying that will no longer happen.  He also tends to forget that if you look at the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, although God does promise to punish for the sins of ancestors, when it comes to the human administration of justice people as a rule do not suffer for the civil crimes of their ancestors or relatives.  

Nevertheless, the point is for the Reformed God is fundamentally defined by the law and therefore all of God's actions must be shown to accord with the law.  There is grace, but grace always exists for the sake of the law.  

Luther had different ideas.  In The Bondage of the Will, he acknowledge the mysterious nature of original sin.  Human beings are in a sense fated to sin by the sin of Adam.  This is inexplicable, since the law (at least when it comes to inter-human relationships) mandates that people suffer only for their own misdeeds.  Being subject to original sin, humans are subject to divine wrath.  From perspective of our limited minds this makes no sense and doesn't really seem very fair.  

What this all suggests is that God is capable of acting in ways that seem to us to be irrational and which are in fact beyond the law.  The law cannot account for the mystery of original sin or the depth of divine wrath.  This is a fact that should make us despair in our reason and our legal schemes for trying to control God with our works.  The law is God's will for us, but he himself is not bound to act in accordance with the law.  If he was, he would not be able to send a savior to enter into the law on our behalf.  We would need to merit it on our side first before he acted, but that is not what happened.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I'll be on Issues, Etc. Today.

I'll be on Issues, etc. this afternoon talking about Buddhism.  Check it out!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Could We Revive the Synodical Conference?

After the Emmaus conference and President Harrison's recent moves to get closer to the other confessional Lutheran church bodies in the US, I've been wondering if it would be possible to revive the synodical conference.   About a month ago, my wife and I had lunch with a group of ELS, WELS, and LCMS pastors and it was a great experience.  We had much in common.  Moreover, the reason why the synodical conference went down (LCMS liberalism) has been largely dealt with after 1974 (although I would not deny that there are still problems!).

Anyways, here's the problem.  The WELS and the ELS have false doctrines of Church and ministry.  They are nonetheless correct about most everything else.  So, is this a deal breaker? 

To think about this problem, let's clarify how our Lutheran tradition works.  Historically within Lutheranism, fellowship has been predicated on the basis of levels of doctrinal agreement.  This was all worked out by Nicholas Huinnius in the early 17th century.  According to Huinnius, there are two kinds of doctrine.  Fundamental doctrine and non-fundamental doctrines.  So, for example, states Huinnius, the doctrine of the Trinity is a fundamental dogma of the Church since it has always defined the Church.  Moreover, it would be impossible for the Church to fulfill its mission without reference to the Trinity, since the gospel is about the advent of the Triune God in salvation.  On the other hand, the Church has not always had the dogma of the Anti-Christ and if someone doesn't believe that there will be an Anti-Christ (for whatever reason) they'll still go to heaven.

Fundamental dogmas are divided up into two categories: primary fundamental dogmas and secondary fundamental dogmas.  Huinnius names the Trinity, Incarnation, atonement, creation, sin, and justification by faith as fundamental dogmas.  In other words, if you don't buy into these you're not a Christian.  Later Lutheran theologians (notably Quenstedt and Hollaz) shorten the list to everything above except justification by faith.  Justification by faith is not a fundamental dogma because a person can intellectually not believe in it, but in practice have justifying faith.  I see this in most Catholics I know, who have the very minimum of creedal orthodoxy and in practice do trust in Jesus as their savior.  This of course would not be possible if they did not hold to the minimum belief in the Trinity and Incarnation- but it is possible without an intellectual commitment to the specific doctrine of justification by faith.  

Sharing fundamental dogmas is enough to be considered Christian, but not enough to have fellowship.  There must be a total agreement on secondary fundamental dogmas.  Huinnius includes among these belief in the sole authority of Scripture and a proper understanding of the sacraments.  He does not mention Church and ministry.  Later Lutherans would of course include belief in the article of justification.  These dogmas are necessary for fellowship (pulpit and altar) because they define the Church's praxis in its proclamation of the gospel.  Though a person could intellectually not believe in justification by faith and still have justifying faith, it is hard to see how the true visible Church could maintain a pastor who rejected the dogma from his pulpit.  Moreover, it is hard to see how the Church could allow people to receive the Lord's Supper or a pastor to preside at the Lord's Supper if they did not believe in the real presence or that the mass was a sacrifice.  It would contradict the fundamental praxis of the Church which is the proclamation of the gospel. 

Nevertheless, in Huinnius' context we can see his point: Lutherans can acknowledge that Catholics and Reformed folks are still Christians.  Nevertheless, they are not worthy of fellowship because fellowship is predicated on the basis of total agreement on fundamental dogmas (primary and secondary).

How does this relate to our context and the possible revival of the synodical conference?  Well, here's my question to you (and I don't know the answer and I'm trying to figure it out myself): Can Church and ministry properly be understood as a primary or secondary fundamental dogma?  If they are not, then I can see a way forward to revive the synodical conference and if not then its impossible.  I guess, I would say at this point- how does holding a wrong understanding of the office of ministry or certain aspects of the dogma of the Church impede the proclamation of the gospel?  I could see how it might, but I'd like to see people's reasoning.

Give me your reasoning.  I'd be very interested in hearing it!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Charles Hodge's Theological Realism.

My wife and I allow ourselves to budget one book a month each.  This month I choose to purchase the Charles Hodge systematic theology from CBD (this was a good deal, three volumes for 20 bucks).  This is part of my continuing campaign to educate myself about Reformed theology.

So far I'm almost to the end of the first volume.  Some interesting stuff.  First, the style of the work is revealing in regard to the 19th century educational system.  Latin quotation are not translated and German ones are.  What this shows is that people in 19th century New England parochial schools studied Latin but not German.  Hodge was an exception.  He studied German and actually went to Germany where he encounter Schleiermacher, whom he attacks almost as frequently as Pieper attacks von Hofmann and Thomasius.  Another interesting thing is that although he is writing theology on the model of Reformed scholasticism, there are terms and concepts from that theology he does not seem to really understand.  For example, he complete misinterprets the distinction between God's absolute and ordered power as the distinction between supernatural and natural causation.  

What is probably most interesting about Hodge's theology is its reliance on the common-sense realism of Thomas Reid and the Scottish Enlightenment.  Reid was a detractor from both Kant and Hume.  He agreed that reality as we experience was of course not indubitable.  Nevertheless, no one actually lives their life on the basis of the radical doubt proposed by either thinker.  People pretty much get along by assuming that we live in a real world, where our thoughts correspond to reality, and where our morality has a transcendental basis in God.  Nuff said.  Reid's point was not that people can't doubt reality.  Rather, his point was that it was simply unnecessary to do so, and in point of fact quite counterproductive.

Hodge and many of the theologians of "Old Princeton" took over this attitude and attempted to use it to counteract the emerging tradition of theological Liberalism coming out of Germany and Transcendentalism growing up in the US.  This is where his famous passage at the beginning of volume 1 comes in, where he describes the theological task as being like the science of biology or chemistry.  The biologist studies various species  through empirical means and then systematically arranges the data.  So too the theologian reads Scripture and objective describes the "facts" of Biblical revelation and builds a systematic theology. 
Now, when I was in seminary this was held up to me as a kind of naive realist folly.  Moreover, it was said that Hodge shared the modernist idolatry of the rational and autonomous subject with his contemporaries.  Although much of this is a valid critique, I also think that if we read what Hodge is saying in context it can also be helpful.  When read in context, what Hodge is actually attacking is the tendency of modern theology to start from a prior claims or in German Idealism "intuitions" about reality.  The Bible (the concrete and actual history of revelation), Hodge argues, is then employed to the extent that it conforms to this a prior principles.  In favor of this critique, I think that particularly in certain decisions of the mainline Protestant denominations of late we can see what he's talking about.  

Instead, Hodge wants us to accept that God's revelation makes realistic truth claims.  Furthermore, it is capable of being understood by the human mind.  This does not mean that humans do not need the illumination of the Spirit, insofar as our cognitive capacities have been damaged by sin.  The point remains though that the Bible does give us real truth claims.  In Lutheran circles, the philosopher Dennis Bielfedt has recently made a similar point.  In particular he has criticized the current ELCA for viewing truth as merely functional or descriptive of human religious experience (Lindbeck's "expressive" concept of doctrine).  In light of these concerns, I think that we can all learn something from this.