New Monasticism

I published an essay on new monastics this month in the journal American Theological Inquiry, “New Monastic Social Imagination: Theological Retrieval for Ecclesial Renewal.” The basic idea was to explore new monastic retrieval through the lens of social hermeneutics. Charles Taylor and Etienne Wenger were my principle conversation partners on the social hermeneutics side, and among new monastics I focused primarily on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Here is an excerpt (read the entire essay here).ATI

In order for new monastic retrieval to succeed on its own terms—to recover the monastic impulse from past monastic movements—new monastic imagination must be distinctly theological. That is, some imagination, Christian or otherwise, will invest the practices of new monastics with meaning(s); the issue is whether that imagination will be theological. This is not to say anything of the actual efficacy of such practices, in other words whether or not they achieve the “ends” or telos they are believed to serve (e.g. spiritual transformation, ecological stewardship, community formation, etc.). Rather, the issue at stake is the cultivation and maintenance of a theological imagination sufficient for the task of investing their practices with meanings broadly consistent with the Christian tradition and more narrowly with the monastic-like movements in which they see the monastic impulse and seek to retrieve it (p. 54)

Recasting Nicea

I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.

Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.'” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.

Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. Continue reading

Be your own Pope: On the Tyranny of Individualism

D.H. Williams sounds a stunning warning against Free Church Protestantism and its dismissal of the church’s creedal heritage, and with it the elevation of the individual to “Pope-like” status.

“[F]or all its theological and historical importance, the Protestant Reformation should not be the sole means of identity for any Christian. It was (is) not the primary basis on which the Christian faith was founded—something the Reformers themselves knew quite well. Here I am referring to how one ‘reads’ the history of Christianity. … [T]he Protestant mind has been shaped in specific ways to think about itself as the Christian faith, not as a reform movement of Catholicism, but as a restoration of the apostolic church and therefore a dismissal of everything that followed the New Testament church and was prior to the ‘Reformation.’ In the name of rejecting ecclesiological authority as ‘hierarchy’ or ‘tradition’ as theological manipulation and bondage, we have instead created a hermeneutic of suspicion and have invested every biblically informed conscience (instead of a pope) to speak ex cathedra. It is a Pyrrhic victory for Free church Protestantism when the net effect of its teaching results in the replacing of the tyranny of the magisterium with the tyranny of individualism [Retrieving the Tradition, Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 201]

I have seen the harmful effects of this tendency on more than one occasion.  I think of many Free Church believers I have known who operate under the unconscious pressure of picking up their Bible and reading it as if no one has ever read it before. With this comes the concomitant weight of sifting and weighing matters on which the Church has spoken in her creedal heritage, an interpretive weight one should never bear alone.

Perhaps, to take D.H. Williams’ point (among many other contemporary and not-so-contemporary Protestant voices), the Church’s shared creedal heritage is indispensable for the Church’s reading of her Scriptures today, even in the Free Church tradition of Protestantism. Without accepting a hierarchical ecclesiology, perhaps the Protestant Free Church tradition would be greatly served by a modest return to a self-consciously “ruled reading” of the Bible in which a community’s reading of the Scriptures is carried out together with its creedal heritage: allowing the rule of faith generally found in the Nicene Creed to consciously guide and train a community’s reading, reminding it of the heart of the Gospel, and serving its faithful proclamation.

(Postscript: This is a conversation also being had among Anglicans. See, Ephraim Radner and George Sumner, The Rule of Faith: Scripture Canon and Creed in a Critical Age (Morehouse, 1998)).

Give me soundbites, not discourse!

I am attending a conference in Wheaton, Evangelicals and the Early Church, and Christopher Hall gave an especially insightful paper this morning (the best of the day). Hall explored causes behind, or reasons for, what he termed “evangelical inattentiveness” to early Christian voices.

According to Hall, and I thought this was brilliant, evangelicals have low attention spans; they want immediate answers that don’t require patient reading of difficult texts. As he put it, “Give me soundbites, not discourse!” Hall contends, however, that ancient texts require a patient mind and heart. They demand “theological empathy”, not rejecting out of hand difficult or foreign ideas.

Required of us is not the impatience that characterizes much of contemporary evangelical thought but “slow-paced” reading with the dispositions, community, and “habit patterns” of our forebears.  Evangelicals, if they are going to retrieve the sources of the early church, must also retrieve the habit patterns of the patristic writers such as patience, repetition, wisdom, and discernment.

Do you resonate with Hall’s point concerning evangelical impatience?

Rowan Williams on seeing the church’s future in the church’s past

I am working on a book that explores historical “retrieval” as a mode of theological reasoning, and I find Rowan  Williams characteristically on the mark in his brief (but excellent) little book Why Study the Past: The Quest for the Historical Church (2005). I especially like the way he turns loose his doctrine of the church as the Body of Christ on the act of appropriating from the tradition.

I would be interested to hear: do you find overtly theological/dogmatic reasoning such as this driving the engines of contemporary historical recoveries (how about The New Calvinism movement in the US or Paleo-orthodoxy)?

Rowan Williams 1To engage with the church’s past is to see something of the church’s future. If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth. If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun. And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours. That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible (p. 94) …

The dangers of looking to the past for a solution of present difficulties are obvious enough; but there is another way of approaching this which is less fraught with risk. Continue reading

Evangelicals and the Formation of Christian Doctrine

A guest post by David Buschart

Evangelicals are, almost by definition, deeply concerned with matters of theology and doctrine.

Formation of Christian Doctrine

And, in recent years, there has been a flourishing of interest among North American evangelicals in matters of history. (The multiple manifestations of the latter include the rise of a cadre of outstanding evangelical historians [e.g., George Marsden, Mark Noll], increasing numbers of evangelicals undertaking doctoral studies in history, and the turn to historical resources that has accompanied evangelical interest in “spiritual formation.”) However, evangelicals have continued to virtually ignore the intersection of these two (i.e., theology and history)-theology and doctrine as historical phenomena.

There is a cluster of questions and topics which surround this intersection, most notably the nature and function of tradition and traditions, and the topic addressed in the book reviewed here, the development of doctrine. To my knowledge, the only two book-length treatments of this topic by evangelicals in recent decades are Peter Toon, The Development of Doctrine in the Church (Eerdmans, 1979) and Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Blackwell, 1990). Given the interest among evangelicals in both theology and history, it is surprising that this intersection has not been more thoroughly examined. And, given the nature and relevance of the questions entailed, the development of doctrine is a topic which warrants thoughtful engagement.

Perhaps Malcolm Yarnell’s book, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007), will serve as a prompt to this engagement. Continue reading