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On the Lighter Side...

August 22, 2010
So, this blog shall not perish from the earth after all.  I have decided to use it, for the time being, for my more casual, random posts on strange topics that interest me, like hurricanes and box office statistics, while the main action of informal theologizing will happen over at the new Sword and Ploughshare.  Hopefully this sideshow, however, will not be entirely without interest.
So, here is the first lightened-up post here, on hurricanes, heat waves, and climate change (some form of this is likely to appear in the 4th issue of Fermentations.)  

For years, we have all heard the increasingly hysterical rhetoric about how a warming climate will lead to more hurricanes and more powerful ones.  Hyperactive seasons like 2005 and 2008, and superstorms like Hurricane Katrina have been chalked up without further ado to climate change, and used as poster children for the dangers of a warming world.  As usual, the rhetoric has outrun the science, since the studies on the subject have generally been fairly inconclusive and ambiguous, although there has been enough evidence to establish a tentative consensus for a correlation between a warming planet and increased hurricane activity.  Our ever-surprising planet, however, has stubbornly resisted this correlation through the blistering summer of 2010.  

Moving Announcement!

July 15, 2010
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the long-awaited day has come.  There have been many delays, and it's still not nearly where I want it to be, but it's ready for use--my new website!  Henceforth all this theological and political blogging, in a much more organized and useful form, will be happening over there.  Plus, all the archives from this blog are there now, so you've no need to loiter around here. Perhaps this blog shall live on as an outlet for more casual hobby-writing--hurricanes and poems and that sort of thing.  We shall see.
But for now, please join me over at The Sword and the Ploughshare.

July 14, 2010
More pressing matters have delayed me from saying more about the controversy conference, but I do want to return to it and say a bit about some of the other lectures while the memory is still fresh.  The afternoon of the first day of the conference was graced by the presence (via videoconference) of David Bentley Hart and Robert Jenson, both titans of the American theological landscape and both known as well for their colorful personalities, which came through even from 5,000 miles away.  
Hart’s lecture was entitled a “Penitential Approach to Controversy,” though that was not really its main focus.  The penitence referred to was his own, coming to us as he did with a  legendary reputation for bombastic theological rhetoric.  We can, he said, invoke the prophets as a model for dramatic controversial pronouncements, but we must acknowledge that most of us are not called to be prophets in this way, and that went for him as well.
Hart proposed in his lecture to offer us not so much an argument as an intuition of why it is that ferocious controversy has been such a perennial feature of the Christian Church’s life, despite the New Testament’s clear calls for peace and unity.  His suggestion was provocative and intriguing, disturbingly similar to liberal reconstructions of the early Church of the von Harnack variety, and yet refusing to grant their apostate conclusions.  

July 12, 2010
There is, I’m afraid, very little to say about this chapter.  Actually, I’m not afraid--that is rather a relief, given how much there has been to say about the previous seven chapters.  This chapter marks a dramatic shift from the chapters thus far, because heretofore, VanDrunen has been attempting to claim a certain tradition--to say, “Here’s what X said, and here’s why it’s part of the Reformed tradition, and (implicitly) that’s why I’m all for it.”  But now, all of a sudden, he isn’t.  Finally, our narrative has a solid villain.  Barth is the fellow who decisively rejected the Reformed consensus, as VanDrunen sees it, who rejected the notion of natural law, who substituted one kingdom of Christ for two kingdoms, and who insisted on a unified Christology, rather than one bifurcated into two mediatorships.  
Now, there is little to say here because I don’t really disagree with this picture; Barth did reject the Reformed consensus, or at least, how VanDrunen has portrayed that consensus, and I have already argued with where I think that portrayal is flawed, so there’s not much point in rehashing it here.  I simply think that those points at which Barth does disagree with this consensus are generally healthy correctives, whereas I’m sure VanDrunen thinks the opposite.  Moreover, in saying that Barth is the “villain” of VanDrunen’s narrative, I don’t mean to imply that VanDrunen is harsh or unfair to him; he is quite objective and even-handed, so there is not a great deal for me to say in terms of contesting his portrait of Barth.  This is especially so as I am, despite spasmodic attempts to reconcile this shortcoming, woefully inadequate in my knowledge of Barth.  So there were a few points at which VanDrunen’s summary didn’t entirely make sense to me, but that was probably my fault, not his.  

July 10, 2010
In Luther's later treatise, entitled “The Sermon on the Mount,” we see an unfortunate shift from the promising (if somewhat disorganized) start of “On Temporal Authority.”
Having started with the Beatitudes, he asks, 
“What does it mean, then, to be meek?  From the outset here you must realize that Christ is not speaking at all about the government and its work, whose property it is not to be meek, as we use the word in German, but to bear the sword (Rom. 13:4) for the punishment of those who do wrong (1 Pet. 2:14), and to wreak a vengeance and a wrath that are called the vengeance and wrath of God.  He is only talking about how individuals are to live in relation to others, apart from official position and authority.” 

July 8, 2010
John Webster kicked off the proceedings at the Controversy Conference with his lecture “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” and as one might’ve expected from a man like Webster, it was profound, sophisticated, systematic, and rooted thoroughly in the doctrine of God.  I might add that it was rooted in a thoroughly metaphysical doctrine of God, though I do not mean that pejoratively (a caveat one has to make in this anti-metaphysical age).  His argument was essentially methodological, and sought to make two main points. 

First, attempts to discuss the issue of controversy and conflict in the Church generally move immediately to the ethical, the imperative, without first establishing the theological, the indicative.  Exhortations to overcome conflict thus degenerate into empty moralizing.  Instead of this, we must, like St. Paul, first establish who God is and what He has done, and then we can construct ethical imperatives to act in accord with what is already the case by virtue of God’s character.  
Second, this theological account which we must first provide is one in which peace is ontologically prior to violence, where being is good and evil is a privation of being, not a counter-being, in other words, the venerable Augustinian account of evil, enriched by his discussion of peace from City of God 19.  Anything else ends in Manichaeanism, in which conflict is just as basic to the world as peace, intrinsic to the Church’s life and inescapable.

July 6, 2010
Now, let’s turn to look at Martin Luther’s expositions of the Sermon on the Mount.  We find the first of these in his treatise Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, and the second in, unsurprisingly, The Sermon on the Mount.  The first, while troubled by a number of inconsistencies (some simply the result of Luther’s characteristic lack of rhetorical caution), offers a much more satisfactory account than the second.  I shall resist the temptation to dwell on the inconsistencies and will stick to the core argument.
In this treatise, Luther beings by rejecting the “counsels of perfection” idea.  We must, he says, find a way to make these words “apply to everyone alike, be he perfect or imperfect.”  

July 5, 2010
(This post is not about VanDrunen--can you believe it?)
I just returned from an immensely fruitful weekend in Aberdeen, attending the conference “Theology, the Church, and Controversy,” hosted by the wonderfully hospitable Francesca Murphy and featuring such luminaries in theology and ethics as John Webster, Robert Jenson, David Bentley Hart, Brian Brock, and the inimitable Peter Leithart.  The conference featured an excellent lineup of papers exploring how the Church ought to engage in controversy from historical, ethical, and theological angles, and a fantastic roundtable discussion at the end that wrestled its way through the question of how we ought to engage the homosexuality controversy today.  (Not to mention, of course, the “Church Controversy Charades” that featured such once-in-a-lifetime experiences as watching John Webster attempt to visually act out the heresy of universalism, or Peter Leithart reenacting the castration of Abelard.)
A recurrent question that seemed to go back and forth during the conference in an irresolvable tug-of-war was: is controversy a blessing for the Church or an aberration that should be avoided wherever possible?  

June 30, 2010
In keeping with my new commitment to keep this review concise, I’m going to try and cover this chapter in just one installment (though it will be a very long one).  This shouldn’t be too difficult, moreover, as it is a shorter chapter, its argument is generally rather clear and straightforward, and where there are difficulties in the argument, they’re at points already discussed in this review.  Also, having officially and publicly lost patience with VanDrunen in the last chapter, I have regained my composure, and don’t expect there to be any more outbursts of that sort, although from here on out the focus of the reviews will be essentially critical, rather than expository.
VanDrunen’s basic point in this chapter is to argue, that even when it comes to Abraham Kuyper, the father of “Kuyperianism” and thus of modern “neo-Calvinism,” neo-Calvinists do not have a firm foundation for their views.  Kuyper, he wants to argue, remains by and large in the two kingdoms, natural law camp, despite--you guessed it--some lingering inconsistencies.  

Taking Off the Gloves

June 26, 2010
In chapter 6, this book turn a turn from the wearisome to the farcical, and I’m afraid I lost my patience.  I no longer have the patience to write 10,000 words slowly and politely deconstructing the argument of each chapter.  Chapter 6, although massive (65 pages) and full of details crying out for attention, does not merit such time.  So, I’m going to whip through it in one rather tempestuous segment.  I’m going to promise to keep this under 2,500 words, though methinks I can dispose of it even quicker than that.  

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