Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Towards a New Lutheran Graduate School

It has been far too long since I have posted. What is the reason for this delay? It is, of course, that the Institute of Lutheran Theology has taken up far too much of my time. But what is this Institute of Lutheran Theology and why would I let it take up so much time?

I have been graced to be able to lead this new Lutheran theological educational project, a project that attempts to analyze the current intellectual and cultural waters, to chart a theological course through them, and to train the next generation of Lutheran pastors and church leaders in these navigational techniques. We are uncompromisingly committed to thinking through the philosophical presuppositions that have determined, (and will continue to determine) the theological moves that are available in our context. We believe that the intellectual and cultural situation is sufficiently complicated today as to demand a rather deep pastoral preparation - - if pastors are today to function as theologians, as those who have been called to preach the kerygma of the life, death and resurrection of the Christ to a world which has forgotten why it is that such a Christ is necessary.

In his Kingdom of God in America, the American theologian, Richard Niebuhr wrote:

"A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."

His words remain profoundly a propos today. A necessary condition for the possibility of divine wrath is otherness, it is the possibility of confrontation from that which is other than what one is. When God remains a noble sentiment for us, He/She/It still is our sentiment. A God without distance cannot be a God who drives one to the Cross. The Institute of Lutheran Theology knows well that it must recover and teach the alterity of the divine.

Such alterity is, of course, connected to the ontology of sin. If sin is not to degenerate into a moral notion, then it must continue to connect conceptually to the distance between God and human beings. Divine judgment of human being is a judgment of this distance, of the infinite qualitative fissure that has opened between the infinite and the finite. The necessary condition of human sin and divine judgment is thus the wrath of God; it is, finally, the ontological rift that opens between divinity and mortality. It is the Cross that finally reconciles the two irreconcilable orders. The truth of this Cross must, moreover, be communicable and relatable to other truths, otherwise the truth of the Cross becomes the experience of the Cross, and theology gets locked up again within the province of the subject.

The Institute of Lutheran Theology presupposes that God has wrath, that human beings have sin, that God's kingdom includes judgment, and that Christ is not Christ without a Cross. Moreover, it proclaims that the divine is real, that are assertions about the divine make truth-claims, that the divine is not causally disconnected from His creation, that the divine is at work not only at the level of the subject and in idea, but also within the objectivity of the world itself! Finally, it claims that the Scriptural witness has something very clear to say about the sojourn of the Divine within time.

Please visit us at www.instituteoflutherantheology.org. We want students willing to think with us what an engaged Lutheran theology must look like in the early 21st century!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why the ILT Theological Commitments are Important for the Parish

This address was given at the ILT Theological Conference at Mt. Carmel on June 7 - 10.


I want to say something today about the theological direction of the Institute of Lutheran Theology, and how that direction relates to preaching and teaching in the parish. This is a very important issue for those, like me, who still believe that seminary and graduate theological education should be effective in making students better teachers and preachers. Accordingly, I will begin by describing briefly what has now become the five theological emphases of the Institute. I will then relate these principles to what I take to be the “hermeneutical horizon” of those we shall likely encounter within the pews of North American churches in this early part of the twenty-first century. I use the term “hermeneutical horizon” to describe the set of interpretive presuppositions and principles of these early twenty-first century Americans and Canadians who are listening to sermons, participating in liturgies, and attending theological educational opportunities in their congregations.

The Five Theological Tenants of ILT

A few years ago I put together a list of what I believed were fundamental theological assertions or claims for the future of a robust Lutheran theology. The list included a number of assertions about the nature of church, the relation of the infinite and the finite, and the sufficiency of the agency of the Holy Spirit in the process of salvation. Since that time, however, it has become increasingly apparent to me that the first three claims that are not strictly speaking theological are nonetheless the most important of the claims for our time. The first speaks of the reality of God, the second about how we might objectively talk about God, and the third pertains to the nature of God’s relation to the universe. Since those first days of what was called then “the fundamentals,” I have had discussions with numerous people - - including the very able staff of the Institute of Lutheran Theology - - and I have accordingly refined the list to five. I offer the following as critical assertions for a robust Lutheran theology:

•Theological Realism. This is the assertion that God does exist and has a particular, determinate nature apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. While it may be surprising to some that a theologian would have to specify a commitment to theological realism rather than merely presuppose it, the truth is that theological realism is by no means any longer assumed within mainline Protestant theology. The explanation for this takes a bit of time to develop, and its full development is unfortunately beyond what I can do here today. However, I should say that I did do a Ph.D. in Contemporary Theology and Theological Thinking at the University of Iowa in the 1980s, and I found very few theological realists in those days either in the theological books I read and reflected upon, or the students, faculty, and professional theologians with whom I had the opportunity to work and speak.

•Semantic Realism. This asserts that our language about God has truth-conditions, that is, that there are features about the world, or more generally about what ultimately is, that make our language about God true or false. While it may be again surprising that theologians would not simply presuppose semantic realism, there are a host of very technical reasons - - some of which are scarcely understood by the theologians themselves - - why semantic realism is not widely subscribed to within leadership circles of faith communities within mainline Protestant denominationalism. Semantic realism claims the possibility of evidence transcending truth conditions, that is, it claims that language about God and God’s being is either true or false regardless of whether or not divine being is perceptually and publicly manifestable to us. This is widely assumed to be a very controversial philosophical claim. There are several alternatives to semantic realism, some of which claim that our talk of God is entirely in error, meaningless, or ultimately about features of ourselves or the world, features of which many users of the language are not aware. It is my contention that most theological education in the last fifty years has either explicitly or implicitly rejected the very possibility of semantic realism.

•Theophysical causation. This asserts that God can actually do things in the world. Beginning with the assumption that “to be real is to have causal powers” theophysical causation states that God’s actions must be understood causally, and that God’s agency is involved in causal relations. For instance, to say ‘God creates the universe’ is to assert a causal relation between God and the universe; it is to say, minimally, that the universe would not have come about as it did were it not for the activity of God. Moreover, to claim that “God redeems His creation” or that “God sustains His creation” is to say that creation would not have been redeemed without God’s action, nor would it have been sustained. Talking about theophyiscal causation, however, involves us in a very tricky matter: We have to be able to assert some kind of relationship between the infinite and the finite, between eternity and termporality, between the nonphysical and physical. Clarifying the nature of such a relationship is enormously difficult and fraught with numerous philosophical problems. For instance, how can something nonphysical be said to cause a change in the physical when the causal chains of the physical do not terminate in the nonphysical?

•A Lutheran Theology of Nature. This asserts that Lutheran theology, if it is to be sufficiently robust to survive within future generations, must reclaim a strong connection to daily life and living. The days of philosophical idealism are over. While previous generations of Lutherans may have rested content in the assumption that their theology and physics did not mix - - and were confident that such a non-mixing was good for theology - - I believe that this is no longer the case. We live in a time dominated primarily by physicalist assumptions. We believe, after all, that all things are made of atoms, and that such atoms are themselves very complex wholes whose parts are leptons and hadrons, etc. While we admit that the quantum world is quirky, we are not ready to admit that it is spiritual, that it is finally somehow mind. In such a world as ours, separating the actions of God from nature leaves people confused. How can one talk about the mighty acts of God without talking about the mighty acts of God in nature? The problem, of course, is that we Lutherans, along with many within mainline Protestantism, have been quite successful in talking about God without talking about nature. The notion of God, we have intoned, is after all finally something that connects to the realm of human value, not the world of physical and metaphysical fact. It is my contention that our slavish commitment to the fact/value distinction has marginalized theology and its language; it has made such language basically language about the self and what it values, rather than language about the world and what ultimately obtains.

•The Clarity of Scripture. This asserts that Lutheran theology must again return to a robust understanding of sola scriptura. Luther and the reformers presupposed that the Bible had a clarity making possible the apprehension of its content without the need of sophisticated and profoundly scholarly methods of ascertaining it. After all, Luther criticized the tradition’s four-fold method of Biblical interpretation, whereby all of Scripture was thought to carry a literal/historical sense, a hidden allegorical sense, a morally-relevant tropological sense, and finally an eschatological anagogical sense. Luther and kin realized that having such a method virtually guarantees that the Bible can mean anything that the interpreter wants it to mean, that is, that the sense of Scripture is merely a projection of the human interpreter upon the text. Such a view of things, of course, undercuts the very authority of Scripture. Accordingly, it is not Scripture that has the authority, but the various human readings of Scripture that has it. Luther and the Reformers also spoke of the internal clarity of Scripture, the clarity that Scripture had for the hearts of men and women in bondage to sin and not able to free themselves. The external clarity of Scripture grounds and internal apprehension by the faithful, an activity that presupposes the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Why Not the Classic Lutheran Tenants?

These fundamental assertions have been sometimes attacked because they do not seemingly talk about what is essential for Lutheran theology, that is, the centrality of Christ, the distinction between law and gospel, the theology of the cross, the simul iustus et peccator, the finite bearing the infinite, etc. But this is an unfortunate misunderstanding of these assertions. I have stated clearly and repeatedly from the beginning that our theology presupposes and affirms these traditional Lutheran motifs, as well as traditional Christian motifs generally. The reason that this set of assertions is highlighted is precisely because the fissure in the modern theological context is not primarily on the question of the putative centrality of Christ in salvation, but rather pertains to the reality of Christ Himself. Granted that Christ is central in salvation, the critical question is whether it is our idea of Christ, or the culturally-transmitted symbol of, or language about, the Christ that is central, or Christ Himself. Is Christ a real being that can sustain causal relationships with other beings in the universe, or is it merely a question of our ideas about Christ that are causally efficacious - - if ideas can be efficacious at all?

Lamentably, in this lecture today, we can only deal with the first three issues. I want to claim that the notions of theological realism, semantic realism, and theophysical causation are central and crucial to life in the parish. I want further to suggest that committed lay people have, in general, always had the good common sense to affirm these notions. The problem has been, I believe, in the educational system that produces pastors and teachers in the mainline Protestant denominations: These people have not been trained in ways that are sympathetic to these three affirmations. Instead much theological training has assumed theological irrealism, semantic expressivism, and the causal impotence of the divine. There is, accordingly, a theological disconnect between those who teach and preach in mainline Protestant denominations and the committed lay people within them.

But another disconnect arises as well. While committed lay people often simply regard theological realism, semantic realism, and theophysical causation as entailments of the Christian tradition generally, the dominant “cultural default” position within North America is not a position that supposes any of these to be true - - or, at least, does not suppose them to be true in any profound sense. The situation within mainline Protestantism whereby pastors and teachers not espousing theological and semantic realism are supposed to evangelize a group of people themselves not holding such realisms is not a happy one for the perpetuation of the Protestant tradition. While there does not exist a profound presuppositional disconnect between the horizon of leadership and the group to be evangelized on issues of theological and semantic realism, the tacit agreement of horizons between the two groups unfortunately offers no real reason for those to be evangelized to become committed lay people living out their faith within Protestant denominations throughout North America.

Why Theological Realism is Important in the Parish

The classical model of God in the western tradition presupposes certain Greek notions about perfection. In Greek thought influenced by Plato - - Whitehead has said that “all of philosophy is a footnote on Plato” - - God is figured as timelessly eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, simple, and impassible. God is, as Anselm was to say centuries later, “that which none greater can be thought.” God is accordingly regarded to be a necessary being, a being that does not merely happen to exist, but one who could not have not existed. Such a being is thought to exist apart from human being; indeed God has never not existed. This means, of course, that God existed for eternity before His creation of the world. The Triune God exists for eternity within the immanent Trinity prior to God’s expression into that which was other than He. What is important to see is that on the classical model the order of being (ontology) is unaffected by the order of knowing (epistemology). According to the classical view, God’s determinate being is what it is apart from our ability to perceive, conceive and understand it. God exists determinately before all worlds. The traditional view of God thus presupposes that ontology is logically prior to epistemology.

The Kantian revolution of the late 18th century radically transformed thinking about God. Because the notion of God has no “empirical intuitions” falling under it, Kant regarded it not to be the kind of being that could either be a substance nor could be known to be causally related to anything else that is a substance. Kant thereby relegated God to the status as merely an ideal of pure reason. Accordingly, God has in principle no causal efficacy, nor can He be said to exist apart from human awareness.

After Kant, theologians had to work out various “post-Kantian options for doing theology.” Instead of God-language being about some reality existing over and apart from human being, such language must ultimately be cognized as relatable to the self and its experience. With Kant, epistemology takes primacy over ontology. Accordingly, Schleiermacher identifies God not as a being existing external to human being, but rather “the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.” Within the nineteenth century, we see various attempts to think God anew. For Schleiermacher, God is somehow reducible to, or identifiable with, the human feeling of absolute dependence. For Kant himself, and certainly his disciple Fichte, God becomes reducible to, or identifiable with, the human moral drive generally. For Hegel, God is somehow reducible to, or identifiable with, human reflection upon reflection, that is, with human thinking generally. Accordingly, as human beings progressively understand the historical identity of being and their thinking of being, they grasp that their thinking of being is itself the thinking of God as God comes to know Himself historically and temporally.

Later post-Kantian options turned more existential in their orientations. Barth and Tillich could both hold basic Kantian presuppositions, yet talk a great deal about God not being a mere idea. The trick here was to regard God relationally as the other of a human encounter, an encounter with a phenomenon that is not of their own conjuring or projection. Yet Barth’s commitment to the eschatological breaking into history of a reality that could not be part of history made it the case that God’s “mighty acts in history” could not be “mighty acts within nature.” Moreover, Tillich’s radical separation between God as the ground and depth of being and the human structure of being made it the case that, for Tillich, God’s existence could not mean that God was simply a member of the domain of existing things, that is, that an “ontological inventory” would include within it that being we call “God.”

Interestingly enough, people in the pews - - and I would say even mainline Protestant pews - - have never really made the Kantian turn fully. They seem yet to believe that to be real is to have causal powers. I would argue that in the present context, with so many options for belief, most people find that there are really no compelling reasons to attend church simply to remember or venerate an idea, ideal, or any other abstract object - - no matter how lofty that idea or object might be. One can, after all, venerate an idea or attune oneself to an abstract object without being in church. For the great numbers of people presupposing that the notion of God somehow clarifies the highest and noblest sentiments of human being, attending church services often grants no profound utility. Reading and discussing one’s noble sentiments is probably more useful than going to a church service where one’s sentiments are only obliquely referenced.

I think that the “cultural default” position on God in modern North American culture is probably not far from what Christian Smith has recently called “Moral Therapeutic deism”. In his recent Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Life of American Teenagers, he offers the following summary of this view:

• A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.

It is important to analyze this a bit, for on first blush it would appear that this cultural default view suggests theological realism after all. As Smith and company point out, the teenagers they have interviewed do mostly hold that a God does exist outside human awareness. Indeed, they espouse a rather vaguely platonic belief that they have a soul and it goes somewhere good when they die. After this, however, things get complex in a hurry. God is not thought to be causally active in the world, and theological language is not thought to be capable of sustaining truth-conditions. The idea is that people use the language that they have inherited, and somehow this language helps in being both moral, and in achieving some peace and happiness in one’s life.

In analyzing this view, it is important to note that those holding it have not, in general, thought deeply enough about it to assure any kind of theological coherency. While the first tenet of “moral therapeutic deism” suggests theological realism, I am not sure most holding this view would want to assert that some determinate divine being exists apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language. To claim that ‘God exists and watches over the world’ is consistent with the great religious traditions of the world, is clearly to deny the Triunity of God. A general God cannot both exist and watch over the world and a specific Triune God also so exist. Moreover, it cannot be the case that both ‘God is not particularly involved with one’s life’ (as moral therapeutic deism asserts) and that God is triunely active in quickening the hearts of dead sinners. The two cannot exist simultaneously.

Even if one could somehow assert that moral therapeutic deism does presuppose theological realism, it is simply not the case that such a realism would be a Christian realism. The critical claim for Christians is that Christ has been resurrected, and that somehow that resurrected Christ now exists independently of human awareness, perception, conception and language.

It seems to me all important that the Christian theological realist assert the reality of Christ apart from human being. In the absence of such a realism, language of Christ merely becomes symbolic language of empowerment, language that helps the person achieve greater moral direction and existential peace. But, of course, this moral therapeutic deistic trajectory is completely consistent with the Kantian turn in theology: The idea of God functions importantly to ameliorate human life. God is somehow identified with human moral striving and human existential health. God’s being is not a being that is prior to human being, but God’s being is only assertible on the grounds of human being. For moral therapeutic deism, epistemology is prior to ontology.

It is obvious that Christian discipleship is very difficult on such a view. While God is thought to exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, the Triune God is not. This means, of course, that Christ is not important in and of Himself as He whom one must follow. While talk of Christ is fine within a tradition of reflection on the problem of human being, fear of committing to Christian exclusivism makes even putatively committed Christians not want to be realists with respect to the second person of the Trinity. Of course, Christ has always been a stumbling block.

Why Semantic Realism is Important

Traditional theological language was truth-conditional, and robustly so. While the tradition always understood that one could perhaps not know what it is that one was talking about when talking theologically, the specificity of the talk was deemed nonetheless crucial in order to refer properly to the divine. Specific Trinitarian formulas were necessary to state the truth about the Trinity. It was not merely a game of having to say the same things as the rest of the tribe, it was rather the assertion that these things were true, and because they were true the whole tribe should say them. Traditional theological language held to the possibility of evidence transcendent truth-conditions. Language about God and God’s relationship to human beings is true or false because of the nature of God and His relationship to human beings. Such language while said by human beings, is not thought to be true because of human beings and the way in which such language is said.

There has been, however, quite a revolution in our thinking about theological language. This is an area where there is perhaps the most profound disconnect between the presuppositions of mainline Protestant pastors and teachers, and the presuppositions of committed lay people. It is an area where there is perhaps the deepest sharing of presuppositions between the “cultural default” view and the horizons of pastors and teachers.

Revisionist views of theological language assume that semantic realism can either not be defended in theology, or if defended, that the assertions of theology must be reduced to the assertions of some other area of discourse entirely. Opponents of theological semantic realism have various options. One can be a semantic realist and claim that no states of affairs exist which make true the sentences of theology. Such opponents say that semantic realism is committed to error theory, to a view of things that simply does not obtain.

Other detractors of semantic realism include semantic expressivism, the view that all language about the divine really is a projection or an expression of the self. This view is quite widely accepted, I believe, and often accompanies the moral therapeutic deism previously mentioned. That God wants humans to be happy and peaceful is perhaps best understood as an expression of the self upon the world. If God is not causally engaged in the world, what is the best analysis of the assertion that “God wants humans to be happy?” I would argue that it is best seen as a mere projection upon the cosmos of our own desire to be happy.

Other options for opponents of theological semantic realism include reductionisms of various stripes. Maybe talk about God really just is talk about the self, as Feuerbach claimed. Maybe all such talk is either semantically or theoretically reducible to psychology, economics, or sociology. It should be obvious that the rejection of semantic realism is consistent with, and probably entailed by, a rejection of Christian exclusivism.

If language about the divine is not really about the divine over and apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, then such language is really culture-bound and its “truth” must be asserted in ways that are quite different from the the truth-conditions of the tradition. For instance, one might assert that the various religious languages of the differing traditions are true in that they express or empower human beings in various ways. Statements about Christ thus are true because of the effect of the symbol, language, or concept of Christ within human experience generally.

It should be obvious that pastors and teachers presupposing this view of things do not really have a reason to evangelize the masses who are already accepting the “cultural default” view. What is it about the particularity of Christian claims that makes it the case that one would want others to adopt them? The tradition said that such claims were true, but in the absence of clear truth conditions, this assertion devolves merely to an assertion that such language is effective in the moral and existential lives of human beings.
Why Theophysical Causation is Important

The tradition assumed that God really does create, redeem and sustain the world. While there was much reflection on the relationship between the being of God and the being of contingent being, there was never a denial of God’s actions as somehow causing the distribution of natural events. The whole premise of the supernatural/natural distinction is that God can and does work in the world, whether through divine primary causality coursing through all things, or via special interventionist causal action.

However, since the time of Kant, the effort has been to think of God primarily in noncausal terms. God is not the kind of being that can be appealed to as the terminus of any causal chain. God’s being is not like contingent being, so whatever contingent causality is, it is not divine causality. As I pointed out previously, in periods deeply in debt to idealism, this is not as profoundly problematic as it is in our time, a time governed by physicalistic assumptions, a time where people widely regard it to be the case that “to be real is to have causal powers.” In our time, when people do decreasingly come to worship out of cultural inertia, there has to be some compelling reason to do so. If pastors and teachers suppose that God is not real in the sense of being causally efficacious in one’s life, then they can finally only offer God as a great idea, as the embodiment of justice, goodness, power, etc. But it is difficult to see why one would go to church to encounter such a God unless the pastor or teacher can say things that ultimately make the church-goer happy or more at peace. But this puts the pastor or teacher in the same business as the counselor or the writer of self-help books.
On the issue of divine causality, there exists again the profound disconnect between the loyal lay people who regularly pray to God and expect God to do things in the world and the pastors and teachers who know that God is not the kind of thing that can be in principle a being that can do things in the world. Here the pastors and teachers have to teach and preach in such ways that do not cause the really committed to leave the faith community. Yet, in their preaching and teaching, they are to preach and teach to an audience that does not believe that God is causally efficacious but somehow still desperately wishes it were so.

The question of the causal efficacy of the divine is, in my opinion, the fundamental fissure between Christian Protestant expressions. While we can argue the fine points of theology among Reformed, Lutheran, Tudor, and Anabaptist traditions, the question of whether or not God is the kind of being that can in principle change the distribution of worldly events and properties is far more fundamental. It is, after all, quite difficult to frame a non-causal account of divine redemption. If Christ does not exist over and apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, and if divine things are in principle not able to be causally linked to worldly things, then in what sense can Christ “save” us? That we have been able to proceed for so many years within mainline Protestantism as if this were not a deep and significant question merely shows the theological bankruptcy of our time.

Conclusion & Summary

There was once an emperor who was convinced that he had clothes though no one else saw them. All except the most unsophisticated were able to affirm that the naked emperor had clothes, but not so the children.

When I was a child I marveled at the world and asked questions about how there might be a God that somehow hooked up to it. After six years of Ph.D. work in theology, I was ready to put away childish things and do real theology. But I know now that some questions from children our childish and some quite profound. I think that the question of whether or not the emperor has clothes is the profound question of a child. Jesus told us to be as little children. So that is why I am here today. I believe that the emperor is naked; I cannot find a stitch of clothing on him. I can’t see a way ahead theologically without first coming to terms with the nakedness of the emperor.

The Institute of Lutheran theology thinks the emperor is naked as well. It steadfastly and boldly asserts that God is real, that our language about God is true, and that God really does create and redeem His world. The Institute believes that these commitments are of fundamental importance in the parish. The pastor and teacher must, after all, have a good reason to evangelize. If her God is real, her God causally active, and her language about God true, she has every reason to evangelize. If this is not the case, then things are much more complicated. In fact, if not, one would expect to see a rather confusing situation in parishes across North America; one would, in fact, expect to see the situation we are in fact witnessing today.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On Looking Above and Below - - Clarifications on Reform

Martin Luther always said that if the church is to be reformed, human beings cannot do it, for only God can reform his church. In order to think about this clearly, one must understand what 'church' means and what 'reform' means. One must also get clear on the impossibility that Luther finds that human beings have with respect to 'reforming the church'. I wish to explore these matters a bit below, seeking at all times to think through these themes from a perspective that is ruthlessly Lutheran.

'Church' means primarily, for Lutherans, the 'association of those with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart' (Apology, Article IV). As such this church is that to which the four Nicene predicates apply. 'One' is predicable of it because it is a set of those having the same attributes. 'Holy' is predicable of the church because those in which faith and the Holy Spirit reside may be called holy. 'Catholic' can be predicated of the church because it is everywhere, that is, there is no place where those with faith and the Holy Spirit are not. Finally, 'apostolic' can be predicated of the church because those with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart are those who have a successio fidei reaching back to apostolic times. This is the way that these predicates were standardly applied during Lutheran Orthodoxy.

The first thing to realize about construing 'church' in this way is that it seems not in need of being re-formed at all. The hidden church, what Melanchthon calls "the true church" is not the kind of thing that can be reformed, because if faith is not present in a person putatively in the church, the person is not actually in the church. The church has definite boundaries; it is a binary or digital phenomenon. There are no grades of this church; it simply is - - or is not.

So when Luther said that God is in the process of reforming his church, it may seem that he is not primarily interested in the hidden church, but rather the hidden church as it is revealed around Word and Sacrament. This church, of which the hidden church is a subset, is visible, and because of the presence of the hidden church within can be called by synechdoche 'church' as well. This visible church, which is not the true church, can be either purely formed or better formed. A felicitous forming would be one in which the gospel would regularly be preached in its purity and the sacrament rightly administered. An infelicitous ordering would be one in which it was difficult for the gospel to be proclaimed in its purity and the sacrament rightly administered. So the question is this: can this church only be reformed through divine causal power? Luther seems to say "yes".

But before we decide this easily in the affirmative, it is important to distinguish what powers human beings really have. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther decries any who, like Erasmus, would claim that human beings have a free will. But what is this claim to mean? What is meant by 'free will' and how does the presence or lack of free will relate to the issue of the reform of the church?

Luther does understand freedom of the will not primarily along the lines of being able to do other than what one did do, but more along the line of being able to do what one wants or rationally decides to do. Luther claims in the Bondage of the Will that one has no free will with respect to actualizing the desire or decision to be closer to God, to move toward God. While human beings are free with respect to "those things below them," they are not free with respect to those above them. A person can plant corn if they desire or rationally decide to do so. A person can build a house using asphalt or steel shingles. These things a person can do. What a person cannot do is move closer toward, or gain the favor or gifts of God; one cannot change the situation with respect to God by one's own efforts. The will is bound never so to properly relate to God. A human being cannot be his/her own reason or strenght believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him.

So how do these ruminations relate to the issue of the visible church? Luther says only God can reform it, not human beings. So what is the visible church, a thing above or a thing below human reason. Do human beings have power to affect the contour of the visible church?

The short answer to this must be that the visible church, in so far as it is an earthly institution, is truly a thing below human reason. As a thing below human reason, human beings can affect its structure such that felicitous attributes that get the gospel properly preached are either augmented or diminished. To reform the church in this way is something that human beings have the causal power to accomplish. One can either augment or diminish the tendency of the earthly insitution to proclaim purely the gospel and administer rightly the sacrament. Accordingly, human causal powers can affect the state of the visible church. Why is this? The answer is simple: The visible church, considered as an association of people gathered around Word and sacrament, is simply a temporal organization that either is properly ordered or imporoperly ordered to get the josb done: preach the gospel in its purity and administer the sacrament with propriety. So considered, human beings can affect the visible church.

However, human beings can make no headway in changing the breath of the hidden church. With respect to the divine, human beings are powerless. Human beings, no matter how properly they order the visible church for gospel purity, cannot increase nor decrease membership in set of all of those with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart. Only God can do this; only God can form again the hidden church he once brought into being. Just as human beings can do nothing to increase their own salvation, so can they do nothing to augment the boundaries of God's Church. Only God can do that.

So what have we learned? When Luther said that only God can reform his Church, he meant that only God can form again the boundaries of that hidden Church. The class of all those with faith and the Holy Spirit in the heart is homogenous. There exist no density points, no "closer thans" or "further froms" within the true church. Only God sets the boundaries of that church. But of the empirical church within which both the hidden church and "tares" reside, that church is a human, temporal organization and as such can be affected by the causal powers of human agents. Man and woman have freedom of the will with respect to the empirical church considered as a historical reality. They do not have freedom of the will with respect to the extension of the hidden church. The hidden church is a thing above human beings; the visibile church in which it resides is clearly a thing below human beings. Confusion abounds when these things are not clearly thought.

So against our first judgments we must hold that the church Luther is thinking only God can reform is the hidden church., and the church we see around us is fully susceptible for reform by exertion of human causal power and agency.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Science, Natural Theology and the Internal Clarity of Scripture I


On the surface, it seems that science and the internal clarity of Scripture have not much to do with each other. How does science, that activity whereby humans build theories to explain and predict natural and social phenomena, connect to the theological notion that Scripture is clear in and of itself? How does science link to Scriptural perspicuity, to the notion that while we may not deeply understand Scripture, it nonetheless retains an objectively understandable meaning? To connect the previously unconnectable is always dangerous, for there are reasons why they have not previously been linked.

Yet in the spirit of exploration, I wish today briefly to think their linking; I wish to suggest that they can be connected, and that linking them entails a rather robust Trinitarian perspective. Before setting about exploring the being of their linking, however, we must understand what it is that we are trying to connect. This demands we say something both about the nature of science and Scriptural perspicuity. We shall deal with the latter first, consider the former second, and conclude by connecting the former to the latter.


The locus classicus for thinking Scriptural perspicuity is Martin Luther’s 1526 Bondage of the Will. Here Luther counters Erasmus by arguing both that Scripture has a discernible clarity that human beings don’t immediately grasp, and that it has both internal and external clarity. Luther acknowledges that many things in Scripture seem obscure:(1)

"I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar; but these texts in no way hinder a knowledge of all the subject matter of Scripture."

Accordingly, while we may be ignorant of the vocabulary and grammar of Scripture, knowledge of Scripture’s subject matter is possible, e.g, knowledge of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the work of Christ. “The subject matter of the Scriptures, therefore, is all quite accessible, even though some texts are still obscure owing to our ignorance of their terms.”(2) Luther goes further, claiming of those who do not grasp Scripture’s clarity that a “veil lies over their minds.” The problem is the stubbornness of the interpreter:

"With similar temerity a man might veil his own eyes or go out of the light into the darkness and hide himself, and then blame the sun and the day for being obscure. Let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God."(3)

The clarity of Scripture does not entail we know the nature of divine things and how it is that they are the way they are; it only entails that we know divine things are in a particular way: “Scripture simply confesses the trinity of God and the humanity of Christ and the unforgivable sin, and there is nothing here of obscurity or ambiguity. But how these things can be, Scripture does not say (as you imagine), nor is it necessary to know.”(4)

Luther has made a couple of important distinctions in these passages. Firstly, he apparently wants to distinguish the sentences of theological language from the propositions expressed by those sentences. While the words and grammar of the language can be obscure, what is stated by it is clear - - if one approaches the text with sincerity.

For Luther, inheriting the semantic theory of the late middle ages, words and sentences signify, that is, they cause the mind to think about certain things. Luther is merely claiming that there is no ambiguity in what the sentences of Scripture cause the mind to think about.

Secondly, Luther appears to distinguish the clarity of the propositions from the putative states of affairs to which these propositions refer. While one might know what is asserted by the proposition, one cannot know exactly how it is that what is asserted obtains or can obtain. In the semantic theory of the day, Luther is claiming that while the supposition of Scriptural language makes true that language, it is not easy to grasp how what is supposited can obtain. For instance, while the statement ‘God is Triune’ has a clearly signified sense and a definite reference making it true - - ‘God is Triune’ is true if and only that which is signified by ‘God’ is a member of the class of all things signified by ‘Triune’ - - it is not routinely possible to picture or grasp the natures of these objects signified by ‘God’ and ‘Triune’.

Finally, Luther distinguishes external obscurity and clarity from internal obscurity and clarity. The first pertains to the external ministry of the Word; the second concerns the understanding of the heart. Concerning the latter Luther writes:

"If you speak of the internal clarity, no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it. They neither believe in God, nor that they themselves are creatures of God, nor anything else . . ."(5)

The “internal clarity” of Scripture is concerned with the salvific significance of those things signified and it is given only via the Holy Spirit. Luther distinguishes this internal understanding from the external clarity:

"For the Spirit is required for the understanding of Scripture, both as a whole and in any part of it. If, on the other hand, you speak of the external clarity, nothing at all is left obscure or ambiguous, but everything there is in the Scriptures has been brought out by the Word into the most definite light, and published to all the world."(6)

A century later and in words deeply reminiscent of Luther, the great Lutheran dogmatician Johann Gerhard writes:

"If you speak of the internal clearness, no man understands a single iota of the scriptures by the natural powers of his own mind, unless he have the Spirit of God; all have obscure hearts. The Holy Spirit is required for the understanding of the whole of Scripture and all of its parts."(7)

Externally Scripture is clear, though human beings often (maybe mostly) find it obscure; inwardly it is obscure unless the Holy Spirit “lifts the veil” and facilitates its apprehension. The external Word is thus a necessary condition for the text’s external clarity, while the presence of the Holy Spirit is the necessary condition for its internal clarity.

At play in this tradition of reflection Scriptural clarity is the notion of the “hermeneutical circle” where the parts interpret the whole and the whole interprets the parts. The 17th century dogmatician Quenstedt writes:

"The more obscure passages, which need explanation, can and should be explained by other passages that are more clear, and thus the scripture itself furnishes an interpretation of the more obscure expression when a comparison of these is made with those that are more clear; so the Scripture is explained by Scripture."(8)

But, this hermeneutical circle again presupposes the agency of the Holy Spirit:

"From no other source than the sacred scriptures themselves can a certain and infallible interpretation of scripture be known. For scripture itself, or rather the Holy Spirit speaking in scriptures or through it, is the legitimate and independent interpreter of itself."(9)

The internal clarity of Scripture is thus supposed to steer between the Scylla of the external authority of a teaching magisterium and the Charybdis of internal private “enthusiasm.” By asserting it, Luther and the Reformers put an end to the fanciful interpretations of both the tradition’s fourfold method of scriptural interpretation and the privately “enthused” interpreter. The problem is that both alternatives could always claim to discern a deeper “spiritual truth” behind the shallow vulgar letter of the biblical text, a “truth” that Luther and his colleagues recognized is likely merely the result of the wishful projection of sinful man and woman.

In conclusion, we must point out that the internal clarity of Scripture is profoundly tied to the notion of objectivity: Indeed, the necessary condition of Scriptural clarity is semantic objectivity. While we can perhaps model the sentences of Scripture, we cannot grasp how these models correspond to the actual divine world. For this the Holy Spirit is needed, for it is His presence that makes possible understanding what is clearly asserted in the text. The Word of the text, externally clear and objective, becomes internally clear as well when the Holy Spirit grants internal appropriation of that external Word. In other words, the model of the sentences of Scripture is now grasped as characteristic of how the divine is, especially how the divine is with respect to us.


(1) Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther's Works, Vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1972 (Luther's Works 33), S. 33:25. Compare the following from Quenstedt: “But the articles of faith and the moral precepts are taught in scripture in their proper places, not in obscure and ambiguous words, but in such as are fitted to them, and free from all ambiguity, so that every diligent reader of scripture who reads it devoutly and piously, can understand them” [Quenstedt (1617-88), Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 81].

(2) LW 33:26

(3) LW 33:27

(4) LW 33:28

(5) LW 33:28

LW 33:28

(7) Quoted in Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 83-4.

(8) Ibid., 86.

(9) Ibid.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Some Questions about Divine Agency

As a college student thirty years ago I read John Wisdom's "Gods" and was struck by the the Parable of the Invisible Gardener. Twenty-five years ago as a Ph.D. student, I read Flew, Hare, and Mitchell on the conditions for the meaningfulness of theological language. Flew had used the example of Wisdom's Invisible Gardener to show how theological claims "die the death of a thousand qualifications." Any claim that is consistent with any way that the world might have gone is a claim without semantic content. What claim is made, after all, when one says that "an invisible gardener comes and tends this mountain meadow" and that "this gardener is invisible and wholly incapable of detection"? What claim is made when one says 'God loves the young girl" and yet the young girl is suffering from throat cancer and is in severe pain? What strange ways religious people use words! How can one apply 'love' meaningfully after one admits that divine love is wholly unlike human love?

Twenty-five years ago, I was convinced by Flew. In fact, I was still convinced by Flew five years ago. However, I am no longer convinced by Flew. He supposed that any claim consistent with any way the world might have gone is no claim at all. I no longer agree. In fact, if one thinks deeply enough about this, one would expect a claim about God to be consistent with any way the world might be. Why? Well, if God is not a contingent being like other contingent beings, then the relational and non-relational properties of God would not be assigned by the way properties are distributed in the actual world. The properties of a necessary being would be based upon the way properties distribute in all possible worlds.

We can, of course, distinguish many senses of necessity. Of interest here is not logical or conceptual necessity, but metaphysical necessity. Whereas logical and conceptual necessity governs how states of affairs must be in all possible worlds and is thus a priori, metaphysical necessity speaks about what states of affairs must obtain on the basis of finding some other state of affairs obtains. For instance, "I think, therefore I am" is not true in all possible worlds, because one can imagine thinking without there being one that things. (Sartre presumably accomplished this.) However, given the fact that one is thinking, one is clearly being. That is, given the a posteriori fact of one thinking, one cannot not be present to think. Similarly, given the contingent fact that gold has an atomic number of 79, gold cannot not have such an atomic number. When one finds that about a thing that cannot otherwise be if the thing is to be the thing, one has found what is metaphysically necessary about the thing.

The point is that if God should exist, God could not not have the divine nature that makes God, God. Just as gold could have not existed, but did with an atomic number of 79, so could God have not existed, but does with a divine nature of love. Just as it is metaphysically necessary for gold to have an atomic number of 79, it is metaphysically necessary for God to love His creation. Finally, just as gold having the atomic number of 79 is consistent with any way worlds with gold present might have been, so too God loving his creation is consistent with any way those worlds with God present might have been. If God necessarily loves, this loving should be expected to be consistent with any way that the world might have been. Far from dying the death of a thousand qualifications, claiming that God love's His creation is to say something like humans loving after all. The modal status of love should not confuse us into thinking that God does not love, rather it should instruct us as to look not at the "moves in the game" but rather " at the rules of the game." Divine love is to human love as the rules of the game are to moves in the game. Just as the rules of the game are consistent with any moves within the game, so too is divine love consistent with any spatio-temporal acts of loving. Finally, just as the rules of the game show the spectrum of possible moves in the game, so does divine loving show the range of possible occasions of concrete, earthly loving.

Perhaps we have been thinking about divine agency wrongly. Perhaps we should not expect to find such agency as moves within the game, but as rules promulgated for the game. If so, such agency might show the spectrum of possible occasions of concrete human agents doing certain things. Perhaps we have been bewitched into thinking divine agency a contingent matter, rather than a matter of metaphysical necessity. In all worlds in which God is, God cannot not be at work. His being at work creates the very possiblity for human agency.

It is the mark of a necessity that the necessary thing be in all possible worlds. If divine agency is metaphysically necessary, it is in all those worlds in which there is God, worlds distinguished by the distribution of their worldly, contingent events. Perhaps if we could detect divine love like we discern human love, we would not have divine love at all. Making a macro-move in a game does not change the way that the game is played. Maybe Flew has been wrong all of these years; perhaps a claim that is consistent with any way the world might have been is not a pseudo-claim, but a more profound kind of claim. Perhaps we are not expecting such a claim, because we can undersand no longer what it would be for God to be.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

On the Fundamentals - - Response to Menacher

On the Logia website (www.logia.org), Mark Menacher has taken aim at the "fundamentals" I offered up a couple of years ago. A couple of clarifications and some response is in order, I think.

These "fundamentals" were published on the WordAlone website over two years ago. My interests then and now are not the reform of the ELCA, whatever 'reform' might mean in this context. I was struggling in early 2007 to clarify some of the presuppositions of the "working theology" of the WordAlone Network. I wrote these both as descriptive of those presuppositions, but also as prescriptive. In reading Mark's response to them, it is obvious that he questions whether WordAone is worthy even to exist. I will not deal here with that issue, but rather with some of the specific claims he makes about these assertions in themselves, that is, in abstraction from the WordAlone context.

All need to realize that this attempt at fundamentals presupposed that we begin Lutheran theology solidly in the Second Article; we presuppose that Jesus is the Truth and Life. To claim as I did that theological language has truth-conditions is not to claim that Jesus is not the Truth. By talking about theological language having truth conditions, I am saying that Mark's own critique of my work can be either true or false. Unfortunately, much theological discourse seems to have abandoned this basic presupposition. I affirm it.

I am rather puzzled by the other points that Mark makes. To say that God is "causally related to the universe" is not to say that is all we say about God. It is to say that we presuppose that relatedness when making statements about God's acts in the orders of creation and redemption. I find no points of disagreement in his critique of theses (3) and (4). In thesis (5), I was thinking about the Apology, and subsequent reflection on these matters within Lutheran Orthodoxy generally. I find no substantive difference in what Mark says in theses (6) or (7) either. One might not like the term 'orientation', but one needs to look beyond the use of the term, and try to understand what the author might mean by it. I clearly mean that men and women are at enmity with God whether, as Luther says, "they eat, sleep or drink." In (7) I accede that the Holy Spirit works freely and verbally. These are properties of the Holy Spirit's working, presumably. I was talking about a relational fact about human beings, however. The question is whether or not human work contributes in any way to the freeing of human beings from sin, death, and the power of the devil. I am merely affirming what has been the dominant tradition within Lutheranism on this matter.

Fundamental semantic presuppositions have been at work within vast portions of the Lutheran theological landscape that are quite alien (and antithetical) to the semantic horizon upon which the Reformation originated. This is why we have thousands of preachers who can talk confidently about what God has done, but no longer believe that "having done" connotes a causal relationship: X causes Y if and only if were X not to have happened, then Y would not have happened. Failure to attend to what is basic here has raised up a generation of Lutheran preachers and teachers who can talk confidently of God's "mighty acts in history" and yet not mean that God affects nature. That is to say, 'God divided the waters' no longer is parsed to mean that there is a divine being, there are waters, and that the waters would not have been divided were God not to have acted.

I thank Mark for his comments, and I say to him that it seems we really are in agreement on most of these issues.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Prolegomena to a Robust Lutheran Theology - - Internal Clarity of Scripture II

The question of the internal clarity of Scripture links to the question of a theology of nature. Just as the Book of Nature can be read with a providential divine being at its center really existing apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language, and causing the distribution of a least some natural properties, so too can the Book of Scripture be read with a salvific divine being at its center, externally acting to save human beings from sin, death, and the power of the devil. While the providential divine being has causal power within the order of creation, the salvific divine being is the Word which presents Himself in words, carrying the Spirit which knows the Word in these words.

Christian faith confesses the ontological reality of God's presence in nature, though God is unclear to the human gaze. Human beings see through a glass darkly when they dare at all to recognize the Being of the creator God in the divers, sundry, and disconnected events of history. Similarly, this faith confesses the ontological presence of God's Word in the divers, sundry, and apparently disconnectable events of the Biblical texts.

To say that God appears not to be at work in nature, is an honest statement of the natural man and woman., She cannot find God unambiguously present in nature, though faith catches glimpses here and there, and from time to time. Similarly, to say that the Bible does not in its entirety seem to be bespeaking, and speaking about the Christ is an honest confession of natural man and woman. She cannot find Christ unambigously present in the texts, through faith catches glimpses of that presence here and there, and from time to time.

The presence of the God in nature, like the presence of Christ in Scripture, is an ontological assertion. God is present in nature even if man and woman can not know him; Christ is present in Scripture even if man and woman do not recognize it. Human beings are epistemically limited with respect to their apprehension of the divine in nature; human beings are similarly limited with respect to their apprehension of God's Word (Christ) in Scripture. God's mighty acts in history, and Christ's presence at the center of Scripture are externally obscure for sinful man and woman. To say, then, that Scripture is internally clear is to say that it has this property in se, not in relationship to human apprehension of it. Similarly, to say that God's mightly acts in history are perspicuous is to say that these mighty acts clearly happened and continue to happen, even iv there are nu humans capable of recognizing this to be true.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Prologemonena to a Robust Lutheran Theology - - Internal Clarity of Scripture I

It may come as a surprise that the notion of the internal clarity of scripture arises only at the end of a treatment claiming to be a Prologomena to a Robust Lutheran Theology. Should it not be placed at the beginning? Should we not start with a statement of the general reliability of Scripture in terms of a special revelation, and then proceed to a consideration of the divine and its relationship to us? Should be not begin in time-honored fashion with what we can know, and then move forward to being, to what there is?

However, leaving consideration of the internal clarity of scripture to the end was done purposefully, because we are interested primarily in understanding this doctrine ontologically and not epistemically; we are interested in the being of the doctrine of the internal clarity of scripture, and not primarily in an epistemological method by which we are putatively given reliable means on the basis of which we can be confident in the truth of Scripture.

My interest with retrieving the notion of the internal clarity of Scripture is three-fold: 1) The doctrine is crucial for Lutheran theology because it protects against willful and capricious interpretations of Scripture, 2) It is a doctrine that all Lutherans should be able in principle to affirm, 3) It is a notion that, properly understood, creates parallels between understanding God's action and presence with respect to both the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. I wish to treat this last point briefly.

Just as it may be externally obscure to us that God is at work in the universe, and yet Lutherans may affirm that God is at work in nature, so may it be externally obscure to us that God is at work creating and sustaing his Word within cannonical Scripture, and yet God is clearly Triunely present in His Holy Scriptures. The Triune God is present in His world even though humans often do not see it. One might say even that there is an internal clarity to God's work in nature. God is ontologically present at the center of Nature although humans often have trouble discerning it to be so. Correspondingly, Christ is present at the center of Scripture although humans have trouble oftentimes seeing this to be true.

What is important here is to understand God in His Trinitarian nature. Just as it is true that God creates and sustains the universe, incarnates Himself in the world, and bears testimony to that incarnation and the identity of God as Creator Father, Incarnate Word, and Loving Spirit, so too is it true that God the Son is present as Word in and through the Biblical text attesting to the Father, and attested to by the Spirit. Just as the Trinitarian God stands over and against Himself in Word and Spirit in nature, so too does the same Trinitarian God stand over and against Himself in witness to the Word in and through the text.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Prologomena to a Robust Lutheran Theology - - A Lutheran Theology of Nature

Does God exist apart from human awareness, perception, conception and language? Is God causally efficacious in the universe? Is it possible to be justified in believing that God is at work in nature?

In order to make progress on these questions, we must distinguish between a natural theology and a theology of nature. A Lutheran natural theology claims that natural events and states somehow strongly justify belief in God. A Lutheran theology of nature, on the other hand, asserts that natural events and states merely weakly justify belief in God. It is important, obviously, to distinguish weak and strong justification.

Proposition P is strongly justified for S just in case it would be irrational for S not to believe P. On the other hand, proposition P is weakly justified for S just in cane it would not be irrational for S to believe P. A Lutheran theology of nature must claim that assertions of God's relationship to the universe are weakly justified, in other words, that it is not irrational for S to believe that God is at work in the universe. In the flight to avoid a natural theology, Lutheran theology has omitted that which is essential to it: A Lutheran theology of nature. While a Lutheran theology of nature is not interested in proving the existence of God (strong justification), it is vitally concerned to show the compatibility of God's existence with nature (weak justification).

In carrying out a Lutheran theology of nature, semantic realism is presupposed, a realism that allows for the "evidence-transcending truth-conditions" of theological language. Presumably, 'God is real' is not a publicly verifiable statement. Therefore, many philosophers have said that the statement is not just false, but meaningless. Without getting into technical detail here, however, we must assert that ontological statements of this type can be meaningfully asserted even if they are not confirmable or infirmable in experience. (I leave aside for now all of the issues that surround this last phrase.)

What is important is that we not understand 'God exists' merely as 1) a report or expression of one's subjective psychological or existential states, 2) as an undecipherable metaphor for the mystery of life itself or a quality of life itself, 3) or finally, as a linguistic custom one uses in belonging to a tribe of language-users who use such locutions at particular communal/tribal times or places.

To do a Lutheran theology of nature presupposes a beginning in revelation, a beginning that takes seriously the scriptural witness to a real God that causally affects the world by 1) creating and sustaining it, 2) electing and protecting God's chosen people, 3) and sustaining all of His people through God's real historical incursion in the resurrection and subsequent witness to that resurrection. It must take seriously the salient fact that Scripture thoroughly rejects a causally inert, causally impotent deity. Simply put, it must seriously engage the question that if Scripture is to be regarded as a trustworthy witness, then there must be warrant for the claim that God is real, that God has causal powers, and that God is more than mere idea.

The cosmological, ontological and teleological arguments for the existence of God are not successful in demonstrating the existence of the divine. However, if they are properly understood, they are effective in showing that it is not irrational to believe that God exists. In other words, while they cannot show that it is irrational not to believe God exists, they can show that it is not irrational to believe that God exists. Clearly, the Book of Nature can be interpreted either as having a globally-designing deity or as not having one. At issue here is the retrieval of the doctrine of divine providence. A Lutheran theology of nature can claim that a providential God is weakly justified on the basis of Scripture and experience.

Applying Bayes Theorem to the universe and the question of intelligent design cannot make God's existence probable, but clearly such application can show that God's existence is more probable than it might have been if the universe did not have the characteristics it seems to have. Even though the existence of God may not be in itself likely, on the supposition of God's existence, one would very much expect more a universe like ours rather than on the supposition of God's nonexistence.

A Lutheran theology of nature makes explicit reference to God as acting in and through nature. Obviously, the discussion between science and theology is important in developing a Lutheran theology of nature. Because a theology of nature is important for the future of Lutheran confessional theology, the discussion between science and theology is important for the future of Lutheran theology. Accordingly, Lutheran theology must reject the causal closure of the physical and assert the real existence of God. It must claim that there are natural events that are not finally wholly caused by congeries of other natural events. Finally, it must examine the nature of that which could serve as a causal joint connecting the divine to the universe.

To claim that God is real is to admit one fundamental dualism: the dualism between the divine and the natural universe. Thus, there is a realm of natural entities, properties, relations, events and states of affairs that does not include the divine. There is also a realm of divine entities, properties, relations, events and states of affairs the does not include the natural order. Lutheran theological realism simply cannot hide from this dualism.

In order to have a coherent view, Lutheran theology must seek to relate talk of God to the discourses of the sciences. Not to do this is finally to assign theology to the realm of value; it is to make theology subjective and ultimately irrational.

The cash value of this view for piety is apparent. After all, people in the pews have for generations prayed to God, assuming that God is different than the self and that God can act in the world. Theological realism best undergirds this practice. Such people have thought that God is active in the world, that God creates, redeems, and sustains the world, and that God answers prayer. Again, theological realism best undergrids this practice. Clearly, a Lutheran theology of nature must presuppose theological realism.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Prolegomena to a Robust Lutheran Theology - - Theophysical Causation

Kant argued that only those objects formed in a synthesis of sense perception can be objects that are in principle causally related to other objects. Only "substances" so formed can be causally-connected. Accordingly, if there are no substances, there can be no causality. An important result of Kant's work is the separation of the notion of 'cause' from that of 'reason'. One substance can cause the modification of another, but one substance cannot serve as a rational ground for the other. Conversely, one idea can serve as a rational ground for the other without the first causing the second.

Kant thus concluded that since there are no sense particulars falling under the concept of God, the divine cannot be a substance causally connected to another substance. Instead God is placed within the Ideas of Pure Reason. Human beings have, according to Kant, a natural metaphysical drive that can only find its resting place in the idea of the Unconditioned, the idea which contains "a therefore for every wherefore" (A585/B613). The demands of systemtatic unity and completeness find completeness in the Ideal of God: "A concept of an individual object which is completely determined through the mere idea" (A574/B602). As an Ideal of Reason, this being is not real: "This unconditioned is not, indeed, given as being in itself real, nor as having a reality that follows from its mere concept; it is, however, what alone can complete the series of conditions when we proceed to trace these conditions to their grounds. This is the course which our human reason, by its very nature, leads all of us" (A584/B612).

By expressly denying any causal relation to God - - and by making God a denizen of of the ideal realm - - Kant denies theophysical causation. Accordingly, predicating terms like 'create', 'redeem', and 'sustain' of 'God' must proceed in a different fashion than it had the antecedent tradition. After Kant, the theological tradition had to find ways to interpret their theological language in ways that did not suppose that God was a substance sustaining causal relations with His universe.

The effects upon religious practice were enormous. If God is causally-isolated from the universe, then God cannot answer prayer. Moreover, God cannot work miracles in the traditional sense of bringing about a state of affairs which would not customarily had come about. God really cannot do anything; He is an ideal to be contemplated. Accordingly, prayer becomes - - if people reflect profoundly enough upon the practice - - a self-centering activity, more like meditation.

Clearly, theology in a Lutheran key is possible on the supposition of denying theophysical causation. One can still preach law and gospel, and refer to the grace of Christ and the freedom Christ grants. However, one must subtly change the rules. It is not that God demands and through Christ's promise saves, it is rather that the idea or phenomenon of God is correlated with the fundamental phenomenon of demand, and the notion of Christ creates in the one experiencing it a sense of bonds being broken and the freedom of the future donated. This move is now in question, I believe, because in a pluralistic culture, why is it that one should insist upon the specificity of the notion or phenomenon of the Christ? And if there is no specificity, then Jesus cannot be the exclusive "Way and the Truth and the Life," a pretty basic assumption within traditional Lutheran theology.