Tuesday, March 23, 2010
As I write the final couple of chapters of my doctoral thesis on Augustine's preaching, a figure from church history causes me occasional moments of anxiety:
Michael Baius (1513-1589) was a from a poor background and worked hard to acquire books and an education. He was deeply enthusiastic for scriptural knowledge. He completely rejected the scholastic methodology and theology which was the norm in his day. He set about trying to return Christianity to its Biblical form - the person whom he found the greatest aid in his task was Augustine.
Baius read Augustine's works repeatedly and in depth. His knowledge of the texts was unrivaled. Augustine's corpus remains one of the largest of the ancient world. Baius appeared to have mastered it. His career included the post of professor and then chancellor of Leuven University.
So, you may ask, why is the figure of Baius a cause of concern? The reason is this - when all is said and done, he was wrong.
Baius knew the writings of Augustine better than anybody else, doubtless better than me. However, he presented a theological interpretation of Augustine which painted him in a light which can only be caricatured as Pelagian. Baius' writings earned him two papal condemnations - discretely written without actually using his name, so as to not give ammunition to Protestant reformers.
In the hands of Baius, Augustine emerges as a theologian of law, effort, ability and merit. How can a man who knew Augustine so well, so radically misinterpret him? The doctor of grace mutates into a doctor of law.
And if Baius could get it so wrong.... what hope do I have?
This is the question that exercised Henri de Lubac, in his masterful analysis of Baius' Pelagian reading of Augustine. De Lubac asks, 'How can the disciple so misinterpret his master?'
The answer de Lubac offers has been a major encouragement in the methodology I have adopted for my dissertation. De Lubac reflected:
'The truth is that to understand an author it is not enough merely to read him.' De Lubac, Augustinianism and Modern Theology, p.11.
I am sure I have made errors of judgment in my interpretation of Augustine. My methodology has been to present the sermons and preaching of Augustine in a manner that enables readers to do more than merely read them. The hope is that one can see a bit beyond the recorded words; to catch a sense of what it felt like to listen to Augustine preach to a packed church, to listen in on his tutoring of African preachers, to feel his agonised modifications of secular rhetorical principles. Beyond 'mere reading' lies the goal of humble listening, conversation, and perhaps - progress in understanding.
To do more than 'merely read' - a worthy aspiration for all theologians.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
A genre of writing I particularly enjoy is the 'history of thought' work. Many Christian and non-Christian scholars have attempted the daunting task of tracing the flow and development of philosophical and cultural thinking. Christians ought to familiarise themselves with these sorts of books - it is very helpful to understand why our culture is as it is, for evangelism, preaching and general sanity!
There are many benefits in reading multiple attempts to scale the mountain of intellectual history - no one effort can capture everything, and authors inevitably have differing views about how best to explain and organise their material.
Reading books such as this motivates you to go and read the classics of intellectual thought, and gives a bit of a suggestion about how to approach them.
When I read one of these works, I am interested to note whether or how an author deals with the role of Christianity; what organising principle is used to interpret the history, and whether a particular turning point in history is highlighted.
Here are my favourite intellectual history books, all of which I have enjoyed over the past few years. I will offer brief comments on each - bear in mind I hold none to be authoritative! They are in no particular order (like my library book shelves):
1. Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason: Best one to start with. Extraordinarily short - you can read it in about an hour and a half. Deeply Christian - the shock and pain of realising where modern thought leaves people - in despair and meaninglessness - is a splendid incentive to thoughtful evangelism. Highly recommended, but remember after reading this, that there are plenty of complementary and alternative accounts to consider...
2. Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics: This is an early work of MacIntyre; clearly based on lectures he gave. It forms the genesis of his later masterpiece 'After Virtue' - given the choice I would recommend reading the 'Short History of Ethics' first. It is indeed short, and is to be commended for having a whole chapter on Christianity.
Macintyre does not hold back in this book, don't mistake this for a dull academic work. He savages thinkers such as Hobbes, and makes several hilarious comments about the English (!):
Aristotle's great-souled man 'indulges in conspicuous consumption. He walks slowly, has a deep voice and deliberate mode of utterance. He thinks nothing great. He gives offence only intentionally. He is very nearly an English gentleman. This is an appalling picture of the crown of the virtuous life...' (p.79)
MacIntyre admits in the final paragraph of his chapter on Christianity that he does not really understand Christianity - accurate and honest. He makes several sharp observations, but is held back in his attempt to explain Christianity, by fitting it into general categories of philosophy such as command theory and theism. He does not even mention the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Still - credit is deserved for giving Christianity a key role in his narrative. I think that it demands to be present in all stages of the narrative, not just one point.
3. Richard Tarnas, Passion of the Western Mind: Very readable. Brilliant explanation of Plato and Aristotle. This book is a terrific but twisted work. On the one hand it appears to be a clear, if slightly secular, take on the narrative. Early in the narrative there is a section on Christianity which has an odd emphasis on the Virgin Mary. Tarnas gives her a lot of airtime. This made me pause - then I forgot about it as the books tears off into the Enlightenment and so forth.
Then - the shocking surprise that makes sane readers fall off their chair. Tarnas concludes his work arguing that the natural and right direction for western society to take, is an embracing of feminine Gaia goddess mysticism! Tarnas lays his cards on the table, and it transpires that after a sober analysis of Western Philosophy and culture, he desires to leap off into the irrational world of modern Gnosticism! I have never been more surprised by the conclusion to an academic book. No idea what he was smoking... highly recommended. (The book that is.)
4. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self. Like MacIntyre, Taylor wrote an intellectual history as an early part of his scholarly career. Much of his later work builds on it.
I like Sources of the Self, as it uses Augustine as a framework for the entire narrative of western thought. He argues that secularity is essentially a bastard child of Augustine's inward turn. Augustine urged people to turn inward in order to reflect on the God who is above. Secularity basically removed God, and looked inward - at the self alone.
Taylor is incredibly careful and shrewd in his analysis. His recent magnum opus, A Secular Age, is the single best explanation of why secular people find it difficult to believe in God. He is much more open in that work about his own Christian commitments (To Augustinian Roman Catholicism). He does a terrific job of commending Christian love to a secular culture - his thesis could be strengthened by also commending Christian grace.
5. AC Grayling, What is Good?: The Search for the Best Way to Live. Grayling is rabidly secular in his writing. He views history as series of Enlightenments, and seems unaware of the devastating critiques of rationality launched by the Continental Philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault. His belief in humanity's innate ability, progress and evolution is touchingly naive and so painfully modernist. This is the sort of book Richard Dawkins would describe as 'insightful scholarship.'
Well worth reading to get a clear grasp of the secular version of history - this is the narrative people imbibe from the media and national curriculum. Those who hold to it inevitably view Christians as dullards or dangerous.
6. Revolutions in Worldview, Edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker. Most of the authors are associated with Westminster Seminary, USA. It is the clearest textbook type work in my list - excellent for teaching. The central thesis of the work is that Christian thought is continually corrupted by being mixed with secular assumptions. This is one of the only books which attempts to treat Christian thought at each stage of history.
Carl Trueman's chapter stands out as being particularly sensitive to the historical context of the period he treats. I also learned a lot from the later chapter which highlighted the significance of Dewey.
7. Radical Orthodoxy, Edited by John Millbank. This is not an easy read. It is highly revisionist, and as such won't benefit readers much who are not already familiar with the traditional narrative of western thought.
Hanby's chapter on Augustine is excellent, and the book as a whole does a good job of making one reconsider the positive contribution Aquinas could have. Not convinced by the central thesis, but enjoyably avant-garde! The authors clearly believe that the theologians of the past matter for today - refreshing.
8. Christianity & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas & Movements, Colin Brown. This contribution from IVP is actually a three volume work. Very solid, but I felt that there was a bit of a lack of a central interpretive motif or thesis. Lots of thinkers summarised well - I prefer the bite of a shorter work which tries to organise material in more than a merely chronological narrative. Safe and reliable.
9. Paul Johnston, 'Modern Times' & 'Intellectuals.' British historian Paul Johnston can be considered to make a contribution in the form of these two works. The former is a history of the modern world which maintains a strong focus on individual thinkers. He opens with an enthralling study of Einstein's Theory of Relativity and how it relates to popular forms of postmodernity.
Modern Times is long; interest is held by Johnston's beautiful attention to detail in character studies. Should be read alongside 'Intellectuals' - a justly celebrated cynical demolition job on the validity of secular thinkers' claims to shape modern society.
10. John Burrow, A History of Histories. Terrific idea - a book that chronicles the histories that have been written through time. The author clearly thinks that Gibbon got history right - he frequently uses Gibbon to critique other approaches to history and Christianity. I like reading Gibbon as much as the next man (!), but can't stand the smug dismissal of faith which his fans imbibe from his historical method.
11. Michel Foucault, History of Madness. It starts with a study on leprosy, and develops into a history of how we have treated the insane, through time. The records of 19th century madhouses are used to explicate the attitudes of society to the mad. Foucault claims that he sees no development in Western thought - it is all random vignettes. While he says this, his work does give a philosophical outline of development. Still, he is a helpful challenge to overly rigid structures of interpretation.
It is deeply disturbing to have Foucault slowly bring you face to face with the possibility that secular society is itself insane, and we all too often collaborate with it, rather than let grace redeem it. A stunning piece of philosophical history, that deconstructs the arrogance of secular modernity. Obviously Foucault replaced the problems of modernity with a different set of problems - but the apologetic power of his critique of modernity is immense.
If you are going to read it, go for the recently published version which includes the sections left out of the older editions. (Follow link above) If you can't face the length of this work, try his three volume 'History of Sexuality' instead - makes many of the same points more briefly, and engages with Christianity more.
As you reflect on the history of thought - remember the reality that historians so rarely face. Jesus Christ said 'I am the first and the last.' (Rev. 1:17)
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Last week was Nottingham University CU's Mission week.
We had a terrific time - I learned a lot about the challenges and opportunities of presenting the claims of Christianity to a diverse student body. Every day there was the opportunity to engage with secularists, Muslims and enquirers from all kinds of backgrounds.
My message was that Christ is the great saviour; my method was to let Christ be the great persuader.
In the apologetics lunchbars that resulted in attempts to intrigue and attract people with Christ. In the expositions, the hope was that people would hear Christ for themselves and respond to him.
All the expositions are now online. The one which seemed to cause the biggest stir was the one on John 6 - 'Why you can't come to Jesus.' This presents an uncompromising portrait of Jesus preaching predestination to unbelievers - something we tend to not do!
The first apologetics lunchbar was titled 'Is God on Cameron's side?' The chance to discuss politics appeared to go down well with Muslims and others, who were intrigued to question a believer about how Christ would affect political views.
The talks are online at this link. Enjoy :)
Monday, March 08, 2010
One does not hear the book Obadiah preached that often....
This sermon treats the central issue of Pride: the accusation God lays at the door of Edom. The sermon serves as an example of how the more one studies the historical circumstances of the text, the more clearly the central issue applies itself.
Follow this link for Obadiah sermon