Review: From Chaos to Cosmos (2018)

9781433554971I really don’t know what to make of this work. Sidney Greidanus published From Chaos to Cosmos: Creation to New Creation through Crossway this year. The work really is more of a compendium of references than a “book” per se, inasmuch as Greidanus points to thematic evidence without much in terms of consolidation or argumentative momentum over the course of the book. From Chaos to Cosmos does not, then, make an argument so much as gesture to one which has already been made, or assumed.

That is not to say, however, that the book is without merit. Although the project does appear to have been poorly executed, the sheer quantity of recognizably purposeful uses of chaos-cosmos elements from the beginning of Scripture to the end is something to behold. When laid out in this format, it’s quite compelling. Chaos-cosmos is, I would argue, a subservient theme to “kingdom/anti-kingdom,” but it is nonetheless an important theme to note.

It’s just that the constructive element one would expect from this kind of book is wholly lacking. It was disappointing in that respect. Nevertheless, Greidanus’s book is certainly worth thumbing through to get a sense of this theme’s prominence throughout the scriptural narrative.


Review: Acting for Others (2017)

9781506409009Fortress Press’s Emerging Scholars series continues to be a valuable repository of original and illuminating scholarship from newly minted doctors in Christian theology. Michaela Kušnieriková’s Acting for Others: Trinitarian Communion and Christological Agency is no different. I don’t know where else you should expect to find Hannah Arendt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dumitru Staniloae put into such an invigorating conversation with one another.

Kušnieriková uses Arendt’s distinguishing between public and private spaces to set the stage for the discourse that follows. How does Bonhoeffer’s conception of the patriarchal-family dynamic of the church map onto Arendt’s political economy? How does Staniloae’s perichoretic Trinity correlate to Bonhoeffer’s patriarchy and Arendt’s conceptualization? How do each of these figures issue corrections to the rest, or how are they mutually complementary?

These are the sorts of questions that would be of particular interest to specialists in Arendt or Bonhoeffer or Staniloae, and especially to that distinguished subset of scholars specializing in the three of them together–but the innovative and constructive ways in which Kušnieriková has interacted with the three provides ample reason for even the curious to work through the book. The ethical strands teased out of this conversation are quite interesting (especially Bonhoeffer’s, because bae). For that reason alone, this book is certainly worth the read-through.

Statements and Social Power

MacArthur and Friends published a so-called “Statement on Social Justice” recently. It’s the second major statement made within conservative evangelical circles in the last year or so; the first, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s “Nashville Statement.” Both statements sought to clarify certain evangelical theo-political positions, and both were lauded by those for whom they were written. The Nashville Statement has over twenty thousand signatories — the Statement on Social Justice, over nine thousand — to date. These public declarations have clearly struck a chord.

They are not without their faults, however. Matthew Lee Anderson excoriated the Nashville Statement and then, remembering Zombieland’s second rule, had the wherewithal to double tap. While I don’t agree with everything that Anderson writes (a tall order, considering his prolificacy), Anderson has demonstrated an obvious, sustained, and rigorous pattern of thought on the particular ethical concerns currently impinging the church’s freedom to worship and be in the public square. His thoughtfulness is not mirrored in these statements, which is part of the issue he takes with the Nashville Statement in particular. Rather than resorting to a kind of knee-jerk reaction, Anderson’s measured reflection on contemporary trends is praiseworthy, and it serves the church’s advancement in coming years in a way that the defensive postures of the Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice do not.

That said, disregard the failure to conceptualize adequately theo-ethical concerns. Set aside the problems that Anderson outlines. Although I find his argument eminently compelling, I want to draw your attention to a more formal, or political, issue.

The church is a variegated body. I’m torn over whether distinctions are inherently vicious. (The argument that they are inherently virtuous is obviously wrong, as far as I’m concerned.) Nevertheless, the fact that the political body is split into various bodies is indisputable. We see a variety of denominations, and these each exist within or as distinct institutions. Most of these political bodies also exist within the spiritual body, although the precise nature of the relationship between the political bodies and spiritual body of Christ is a bit complicated. (For some, the political body of Christ is coextensive with the spiritual; for others, they are mutually exclusive; both positions are asinine.)

In any event, whether splits in Christ’s body are good or bad, they do exist, and at least part of what is entailed by their existence is a dispersion of the responsibilities of church discipline. That is to say, however local churches are structured, and to whomever they bind themselves (denominationally, associationally, etc.-ly speaking), the responsibility to discipline does not rest in the fragmented body of Christ as such but to this or that fragment, or to this or that collection of fragments. I gesture at some issues associated with discipline in this piece on satellite campuses, but I dwell on it in this piece on heresy. (If you have a few moments, read that article, and then continue in this one.)

The Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice depart from traditional models of ecclesial discipline, which both statements are designed to enable the church to enact. The perlocutionary aim of these statements is obvious enough:  clarify and provide social capital to particular theo-political perspectives so that the evangelical church has purchase to enforce these perspectives–that is, to enact discipline along these lines.

However, these movements are an attempt to circumvent the established mode of church discipline. These statements are not issued ex cathedra; of course, there is no formal institution that would allow for such a statement–because there is no attendant disciplinary structure to enforce adherence. And yet, framers of these statements certainly intend that their published words be heeded by the evangelical church. If that is the case, and if evangelicals lack the basic polity for such statements to be enforced de jure, what is the mechanism by which such statements are adopted by evangelicals at large?

Coercive power, effected through the use of social/political capital. The individuals responsible for the Nashville Statement (Moore, Mohler, etc.) and the Statement on Social Justice (MacArthur, White, etc.) are well-known figures in evangelical circles. They individually have significant cache, and grouped together these evangelical leaders exert an especially outsized influence on evangelicalism. Such influence isn’t necessarily improper. But when it is utilized in this context, as a means of working around established institutions and ecclesial polities, it violates the autonomy of local bodies and their institutional relations. While evangelical leaders are not appointed through an official channel, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that there are de facto figureheads within evangelicalism. John MacArthur’s nickname “The Evangelical Pope” is elucidative. Issuing these declarations “[without] any pretense of ecclesiastical authority” is a bold denial of the reality of the situation. Church leaders who do not sign statements are called into question, whether or not they have good reason not to sign. The shepherds are called into question by the sheep for their refusal to submit themselves to an exertion of social power, which has no formal authority over them. In terms of form, exercising power in this manner is totally backwards. (Unless we’re in the midst of a new reformation? We’re not, but it could be argued that would be a sufficient cause to subvert ecclesial institutions. I did so in an earlier paper.)

There are ways to issue these statements without violating the formal structures of the church, but it’s a much more difficult task within the evangelical movement because it is not a formal church polity. First, those who wish to issue statements could refuse to purportedly speak on behalf of or to evangelicals as such. Second, those who issue statements could incorporate key denominational and congregational leaders, but specifically those who exercise political authority–not seminary presidents, best-selling authors, and commission leaders. Evangelical statements should either be curtailed to specific denominations or associations, or they should be developed with input from institutional leaders. Failing to do either results in a statement from nowhere exerting authority everywhere.

Satellite’s Gone

Let’s talk about satellite campuses for a moment. Within evangelicalism, the satellite campus model is a way of structuring a local church’s membership across several campuses, typically locally. It’s similar to the episcopal model of church polity. For episcopal church governance, a certain area is governed by a bishop, and individual church bodies (specifically, the clergy) within that area answer to the bishop. By way of example, episcopal churches include the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches; the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches; and the Methodists. Quite a rich tradition.

Churches with satellite campuses have a few obvious similarities to the episcopal model, but they also depart radically. In terms of their shared features, episcopal churches and satellite churches both function essentially under the authority of one figure: the local bishop or the lead pastor(-ate) of the “main campus.” (In my experience, the most typical church to embrace the satellite campus model is the non-denominational, “baptist-lite”[1] church, in which the authority of the congregation or the elder board are either entirely or substantially subsumed into the single person of the “lead pastor” [or, perhaps, “pastoral team”], who functions as a bishop. This has its own, serious problems.) The other “campus pastors” within the satellite model function more or less as “parish priests,” and they are tasked with administrating campus events, such as Sunday worship, Wednesday church, etc. The campus pastor/parish priest is accountable to the lead pastor/bishop.

Satellite campuses, nevertheless, diverge from the episcopal tradition, and in my estimation these divergences are quite damning to the satellite campus model, particularly in its worse manifestations.

The most significant departure has two facets, but it can be summarized as a loss of congregational autonomy. These two facets are integrally linked though distinguishable. First, the lead pastor exercises a higher degree of functional ruling on day-to-day affairs than a bishop ordinarily (and in terms of best practice) would. This is the case simply by virtue of the organizational distinction (or lack thereof) between a main campus and its satellite.

Second, the satellite campus does not exist as an independent body. “Independence” ought not be understood in either a strict or an absolute sense. Rather, think of it in terms of freedom of direction. The worse examples of the satellite model display congregational dependence most clearly. Satellite models frequently have campus pastors, who “serve at the pleasure of the lead pastor,” to mangle the phrase. Campus pastors are, therefore, often bound to the “vision” set by their lead pastor or pastoral team. At its most grotesque, campus pastors lack the freedom to genuinely preach to their congregation, relying instead on a simulcast (or even recording) of the main campus’s/lead pastor’s sermon. Ironically, commodifying the preached word in this manner devalues it.

Satellite campuses at first glance share a great deal in common with church plants. Nevertheless, whereas church plants are (hopefully) begun with the goal of eventually functioning as an independent, autonomous church body (howsoever defined per political [i.e., “of polity”] model), the satellite campus is by its nature not privy to that end. The satellite campus more often than not exists as a brand extension into a new locale. The main body is furcated into a number of different bodies, each of which the church hopes will grow, but none of which are expected to become independent.

Members of satellite campuses are shortchanged by the model. Insofar as these campuses function true to form, members are left with either a campus pastor handcuffed to the main campus or a simulcasted presentation of a sermon. By a minimalist definition of “church,” in which a church is constituted by the administration of (1) word and (2) sacrament, the satellite campus model denies its members a fully-flourishing “church.” Again, this denial can most clearly be seen in its worse instantiations. A simulcasted sermon is not a sermon. (Axiomatic, I know, but I will stand by this. Perhaps fleshing out to come.) And, less worse though still condemnable, a campus pastor who does not have the freedom to preach that which this church body needs–rather than that which that church body needs–cannot totally “preach the word.” He’s hamstrung.

I don’t want to suggest that there’s nothing positive to the model. Yet, the satellite campus model fundamentally misconceives the church. Again, there are better and worse examples–healthier and unhealthier. Nevertheless, satellite campuses are healthier when they are treated more as semi-autonomous-lurching-toward-autonomy than as functionally dependent, derivative bodies.

[1] I have my friend Daniel Drylie to thank for that phrase.

The Realsymbol and the Very Presence: Reviewing Being Salvation (2017)

9781506423326_0Karl Rahner is inscrutable. Like all the midcentury Germans, reading him is equivalent to walking through muddy pit. As fast as you’d like to go, you can go no faster than the prose will allow, and Rahner’s infamous multi-clause paragraphic sentences force you to take your time. This would be fine and dandy on its own. Unfortunately, Rahner makes extensive use of terminology born in the continental philosophy of Heidegger and Friends, which forces even the most voracious readers of philosophy and theology to take their time reading him.

All of which makes Brandon Peterson’s Being Salvation: Atonement and Soteriology in the Theology of Karl Rahner such a delight. Peterson writes with such clarity and depth of insight that you may even begin to doubt your facility with the English language. How could you miss these features? Or, how is Peterson able to so simply spell them out? The infamously opaque Rahner is opened up, and prominent contours of his project are distilled.

One often neglected aspect of Rahner’s work that Peterson draws out is Rahner’s absolute reliance on the Jesuit tradition. Frequently misrepresented as a baptizer of philosophical discourse, Rahner was in truth deeply committed to Ignatian spirituality, and Peterson demonstrates the centrality of this spirituality quite adequately–not merely as a stand-alone trivium but as an explanatory characteristic of Rahner’s work in toto.

Being Salvation is concerned chiefly with Rahner’s take on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. To get there, Peterson establishes the fundamental importance of Ignatian spirituality and disentangles Rahner’s notion of “Realsymbole” (symbolic realities) from our vernacular use of “symbol” as well as the more theologically-oriented notion of “Vertretungssymbole” (symbolic representations). Whereas the one is an intrinsic, self-expressive mediation of one’s “very presence,” the other is extrinsic and arbitrary. In understanding the Logos as the Realsymbol of the Father, Rahner understands Jesus not merely as a happenstance revelation of the Father but the “very presence” of god among people; there could be no other mediation, in other words.

One interesting extension of this argument, which Rahner makes, is that inasmuch as the Father’s Realsymbol is the Logos, the Logos’s Realsymbol is the Church, and the Church’s Realsymbole are the sacraments–baptism, communion, marriage, etc. These each mediate the “very presence” of their realsymbolisch counterpart. Of course, such line of argumentation may very well be the reason this work is warranted, as Protestants tend to accuse Rahner of understanding the Logos as a “mere symbol” of god rather than a “symbolic reality,” the distinction between which is blurred in part thanks to Protestant conceptions of the symbolic nature of the communion elements.

Nevertheless, that Jesus mediates the very presence of god on earth is central to Rahner’s soteriological account. Rahner rejects substitutionary models of atonement/salvation in favor of representative models, which he developed from his work in the patristics. Borrowing extensively from Irenaeus (specifically, his account of recapitulation), Rahner works from three basic principles to articulate his representative soteriology:

  1. Christ represents his people to god. Corollary:  we reciprocate through participation in Christ. The account Rahner gives seems to suggest that all people are god’s people; such would be an interesting concept.
  2. Christ represents god to the world. He does this through two mechanisms:
    • Eternal mediation–in Rahner’s words, “The ‘heaven’ to which the saved attain is not a pre-existing place or even state, but a reality which comes into being with Christ’s own resurrection, for he is himself salvation’s content, god made present to creation.” The Logos is and has always been the Realsymbol of the Father, and as such is “god made present to creation.”
    • Basileia–Jesus Christ is the manifestation, instantiation, ground, potentiality, and actuality of god’s kingdom on earth. There is no other realm for it; it exists purely in and through the Messiah.
  3. Salvation exists constitutively (rather than merely normatively) in the person of Jesus. Without Jesus, there can be no salvation. Jesus as the mediation of the “very presence” of god serves as the only possible means through which god’s presence could be manifest in the world, which is to say salvation.

Rahner’s corpus is certainly not an easy one to tackle. Peterson’s Being Salvation, however, provides a helpful scaffolding for students. Peterson dismisses Balthasar’s critiques of Rahner and, over the course of the book, illuminates some of the more difficult aspects of Rahner’s thought. I look forward to jumping back into Rahner’s work with Being Salvation under my belt.

I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Body Parts (2017)

9781506418568Michelle Voss Roberts published Body Parts: a Theological Anthropology through Fortress Press in 2017. In sum, the work is an attempt at integrating anthropological insights from non-dual Shaivism, a variant of Hinduism, into the broader Christian anthropological schema (23). That is to say, Roberts wants to incorporate the illuminative aspects of non-dual Shaivism to correct or strengthen the traditional imago dei model in Christian theology. The inherited model for most Christians (via Aquinas, et al) is an association of the imago with that which separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom–viz., rationality.[1] Human rationality, in other words, is the foundation upon which the imago dei is erected. Roberts disagrees, instead pointing toward a model in which the imago consists in the web of attributes belonging to humanity–but not to humanity in particular. (14)

Dysfunctional views of the imago motivate Roberts’s project. She outlines three key models and their limitations: (1) substance anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of a capacity; (2) functional anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of what we do; and (3) relational anthropology, in which value comes by virtue of our interdependence.

I am sympathetic to Roberts’s concerns. The disabled are excluded from traditional accounts of the imago, simply because their grasp on the sine qua non of “human” flourishing is so slight. I’m reminded of the problem in ethics, popularized by Peter Singer, of what to do with the perpetually comatose patient. What account of the human protects this sort of person (or persons like her), who lack a working, rational brain or who cannot perform a task or who do not relate to those around her? How do you affirm the inherent worth of individuals irrespective of their usefulness? Roberts’s chapter on “The Limited Body” touches on these issues well, though imperfectly. (The reinterpretation of original sin — the conditions within which we “overreach” our limits or fail to grasp our own finitude — is interesting, though certainly unorthodox.)

Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of the work concerns the incorporation of non-dual Shaivism into the Christian schema. In that respect, despite my fundamental agreement with Roberts on the inadequacy of the traditional model of the imago, I did not find her imaginative reworking compelling. There seem to be more fruitful avenues of exploration than Abhinavagupta’s “body parts”–the philosophical discourse on “dignity,” for one. Roberts should be lauded for the attempt. Putting these two widely divergent traditions in conversation was certainly an enticing read, but the result was not as illuminative as I had hoped. However, Roberts’s concern to include the disabled and the excluded in her account of the imago should characterize any future models of the doctrine.

[1] To be sure, grounding a human’s value in something can be an arduous task. Remy Debes, my former professor, outlines some of the philosophical problematics of “dignity” (a related, though distinguished, concept to the imago) in his 2009 article “Dignity’s Gauntlet,” which you can read here. I remember asking Dr. D about this article in his office as I was just beginning my philosophical training. He was (and still is) very generous with his time for his students and former students, and he has had a profound influence on my understanding of the art of teaching. “You are all philosophers,” indeed.

I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.

The Attender is Always Right, and Other Myths: Reviewing the Come Back Effect (2018)

9781493414109Young and Malm (“YM”) in The Come Back Effect seek to make a church’s visitors feel welcomed, loved, and at ease. They offer suggestions that can promote the hospitable atmosphere the church ought to inculcate in her weekly gatherings.

YM’s distinction between “service” and “hospitality” is duly noted. We can be like Martha, so wrapped up in serving our guest that we neglect to be with them (20). Second, their point that you need to budget for hospitality if you claim to be hospitable is fair enough (45). Finally, focusing on “values” for your team rather than on policies allows greater freedom to achieve your desired ends, especially hospitality (146).

Nevertheless, the book suffers from fundamental misconceptions of the church and her purpose. As helpful as their practical tips and tricks can be, they are rooted in a perspective that misunderstands and prostitutes the church. The Come Back Effect is a case study in the interrelationship between bad theory and bad practice.

I have no desire to rehash arguments made by the discernment trolls from underneath their bridges, but they rightly point out serious flaws in the “seeker-sensitive” ecclesiological model, of which Andy Stanley is a chief example. YM’s relationship to Stanley litters the pages of this book, and his influence is clear. Such deference is made to the “seeker,” the guest, and the customer that one quickly forgets for whom the church was instituted. (Yes, your Sunday School answer is appropriate here:  the church is for Jesus.)

Sunday worship ought to discomfit an unbeliever. Such unease comes not from being unwelcome[1] but from the stark discrepancy between members of god’s kingdom and members of the anti-kingdom. The hospitality in this book goes beyond being hospitable to selling the experience of the church, which turns worship into a commodity and the elements into grotesqueries to be hidden away. The supernatural strangeness of the Christian body is swept under the rug, hidden behind baskets of breath mints and clever branding. A church more concerned with appealing to visitors than extolling Jesus Christ will not remain a church for long. It may retain its facilities and its membership, but the sine qua non of the church–the unadulterated worship of Jesus–will be understated again and again, for the sake of relevance. At what point does a church decide it will pander no further? The Come Back Effect is so steeped in marketing and the hospitality industry’s understanding of hospitality-as-sales that the consideration is not even raised; in this respect, its frequent callouts to business-owners is unsurprising.

The Come Back Effect could use a robustly theological account of the church. Its helpfulness is undone by this lack.

[1] Although, now that I write this, perhaps it is; perhaps the unbeliever ought to feel unwelcome in a house of worship, when they do not worship its god. We ought not be surly to strangers, but there’s no reason to suppose that gathering for Sunday worship is geared toward those who do not worship.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255