The theology of the world operative within Christian humanism has been not just a theology of material creation or nature. It has also been a theology of the human, social world in which we live, and which Christian humanism navigated through the culture-creating development of such areas of our life together as ethics, law, and both political and economic theory and practice.
Scholastic humanism and the social world
For example, in parallel to the scholastic humanists’ pursuit of natural philosophy (as science was then called), and at first surpassing it in its power to bring order and peace to the world, was the study and systematization of law. Of course in that Christendom age, that law was religious, or “canon” law. This connection had deep historical roots – when in the 4th century the Benedictine monk Gratian had combined “the theoretical principles and legal procedures of the existing Roman law code with the content of ecclesial canon law,” he was providing “the first basic, universal textbook in response to the growing need for the legal administration of emerging Christendom” – and not surprisingly, it was the papal courts that became the ultimate recourse for most matters, fatefully cementing the church’s political as well as spiritual power.
The scholars whose trust in human reason underwrote their approach to these social dimensions of flourishing (and science too could certainly be included as having a strong social dimension) grounded this trust not only in the doctrine of creation, but also – not surprisingly – in “the concept of the incarnation as God’s reconciliation with creation and his most intimate fellowship with humanity.” The resulting “medieval synthesis” “wove nature, humanity, reason and religion into a meaningful tapestry of ennobling purpose that was central to medieval theology from the twelfth century onward.”
In sum, the three powerful legs of this great platform of scholastic humanism were “[the assurance of] God’s love, the intelligibility of creation and the trustworthiness of human reason.” And on this platform, medieval Christians built the foundational institutions of Western societies—the hospital, the university, a nascent scientific establishment, a growing artistic establishment, the superstructure of European law, and more.
Engraved from the original oil painting in the University Library of Geneva, this is considered Calvin’s best likeness. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Friend Ken Stewart has a new book out, and Scot McKnight is blogging through it in his inimitable style. Well worth reading. A few samples from today’s “episode”:
We are in Ken Stewart’s debt for his enough-is-enough book, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. Non-Calvinists are not always informed about Calvinism, and are sometimes fond of pointed jabs that do not describe Calvinists accurately, and so a book like this that shows both deep commitment to Calvinism and friendly fire is one we all need. He is also concerned as well with those Calvinists who think they’ve got it figured out but don’t. What Stewart’s book will do is humble Calvinists into thinking their family is more diverse than is often supposed.
Please, talk among yourselves as we at Bethel University engage in a little love-fest.
My colleague in the College of Arts and Sciences, historian Chris Gehrz, always provides lively insights on his Pietist Schoolman blog. Today, triggered by my post here on the divine value of secular vocation, Chris said some nice things about me on that blog. Then he mused a bit on Pietist (lack of?) contribution to thought about vocation, and some of his favorite sources on the same topic, which happen to be Reformed.
I’m skipping the encomiums (but thanks, Chris!) and moving to the latter part of his post:
Where I talk with students about vocation, I have to admit that I’m drawing chiefly on the Reformed tradition: from the section of John Calvin’s Institutes (on being faithful to one’s divine calling) that is my favorite thing to teach to the first-year students in our Christianity and Western Culture course to theFrederick Buechner sermon on calling that I discuss with our department’s seniors at the end of their capstone seminar. It’s no surprise that, when I started talking about vocation in my initial tenure interview, our then-provost (now-president) chuckled, “For a Pietist, you sure sound like a Calvinist.” Continue reading →
Despite my attempts to clarify (what I understand of) Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in my lectures, I always get papers and exam essays from students at my Baptist seminary showing that they are impervious to correction of Protestant stereotypes.
In a paper on the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), a student wrote, “Being founded on a works-based righteousness . . .”
You haven’t demonstrated this. It is the typical Protestant stereotype. RC theology is officially Augustinian (grace-based), with the allowance that humans participate with God’s grace in that dimension of salvation that we call sanctification. Protestants agree with this point (except for some Lutherans). What we disagree on is the inclusion of sanctification in our understanding of salvation. In other words, RC theology is certainly not “works-based.” In practice, it sometimes leans that way, granted. But we need to be careful that we are dealing with a real (and I agree, flawed) theological stance, not a straw man. Continue reading →
Heart religion is also rooted deeply in almost every stream of historical Christianity
Now by starting from today in this brief talk, and then moving quickly back to the 17th and 18th centuries, I don’t want to overlook another important fact: critics of heart religion are, let’s say, “historically outnumbered” in the church. In other words, heart religion is rooted deeply in historical Christianity. Let’s consider for a moment the early church:
Wilken: history of Christian thought cannot be told without the history of Christian love.
We often teach the early history of our faith as if nothing but the intellectual development of doctrine mattered. It’s nothing but a litany of heresies, apologists, and church councils. And while these things are important, they are in some respects only the surface of the story. People don’t get upset about heresies and arguments unless these are about something that matters to their lives. And so I was delighted a few years ago to read the wonderful book by the University of Virginia’s Robert Louis Wilken called The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. This is the history of Christian thought done right—done with a full awareness of the heart of the matter, if you’ll excuse the expression. So, here’s Wilken, introducing his book by talking about what the early Christians were doing when they had all of those theological debates I mentioned: Continue reading →
So now in conclusion: Some of you may be inclined to say: “All I need is my Bible, and I know everything about God and Jesus and salvation that I need to know.” I hope you’ll see the moral of this story about the Council of Nicea. The doctrine of the Trinity—that is, the doctrine that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all uncreated, all co-eternal, all equal in divinity—is, in one sense, all over the Bible. But in another, very literal sense, the Trinity is never mentioned even once in the Bible. Nor is the exact nature and relationship of the “two natures of Christ”—his divine nature and his human nature. Those were clarified at later councils. Nor will you find in the Bible every detail of the right way to run a church—including church government, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and so much more. (That’s why there are so many denominations!) Nor, of course, does the Bible contain instructions about what job each of youshould take, or who youshould marry.
You can and should ask the Bible each of those kinds of questions. But it’s not a great idea to just ask the Bible. Continue reading →
Roger’s proposal emerges from his understanding that there are “saints” in the history of Christianity–he singles out Augustine and Calvin, among others–who did terrible, hate-filled things. Do those people (or anyone else with such extreme “baggage”) get to leap straight from their deathbeds to the presence of the Holy God? Here are a few brief excerpts from Roger’s reflection: Continue reading →
This reader’s comment on another post reminded me of something I once wrote, which sparked response both positive and extremely negative. Some people just can’t handle the truth 🙂 :
“The Bible Alone”? Not for John Calvin! When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers. Chris Armstrong
All of this activity hearkens back to the Reformation tradition of Sola Scriptura—the belief that the Bible should be the ultimate authority for the church, trumping all human traditions. For many conservatives, this authority is not only unquestioned within the church, but extended beyond the church to society at large. The dream of some evangelicals is a country—perhaps some day even a world—where every moral and political question is submitted to the Bible, which will provide answers both obvious and immediately applicable.
Worth asking, however, is whether we really understand what Sola Scriptura means within the church itself. Continue reading →
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