The Christian Option

Rod Dreher explains what the Benedict Option is not:

I have written here a thousand times that the Ben Op does not advocate an Amish total withdrawal from public life, but rather what I call a “strategic retreat”: for Christians to take a few steps back for the sake of deepening our own knowledge of and practice of the faith, precisely so we can live in this post-Christian society more resiliently. The Ben Op is about getting far, far more serious about formation, as well as deepening one’s involvement with local community.

He goes on to cite Alasdair MacIntyre, the philosopher who inspired this option:

My own critique of liberalism derives from a judgment that the best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved. Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception. On the dominant liberal view government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of the human good, yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life. . . .

The flourishing of the virtues requires and in turn sustains a certain kind of community, necessarily a small-scale community, within which the goods of various practices are ordered, so that, as far as possible, regard for each finds its due place with the lives of each individual, or each household, and in the life of the community at large. Because, implicitly or explicitly, it is always by reference to some conception of the overall and final human good that other goods are ordered, the life of every individual, household or community by its orderings gives expression, wittingly or unwittingly, to some conception of the human good. And it is when goods are ordered in terms of an adequate conception of human good that the virtues genuinely flourish. “Politics” is the Aristotelian name for the set of activities through which goods are ordered in the life of the community.

Where such communities exist — and they cannot help but exist—it may be possible for some to live lives they understand.

What is distinctly Christian about this? How can common virtues turn into “ultimate human good” without Christ paying the penalty for sin, without the prior work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating people dead in trespasses and sin? Is human good available to everyone simply by virtue of reason and contemplation? Then why call for Christians to live more resiliently and intentionally as Christians when the possibility of human flourishing is available to anyone who reads Aristotle?

If the fall happened and everyone descended from Adam “by ordinary generation” is turned in on themselves, hate God, and elevate the creature over the creator, then perhaps the Benedict Option should really be the Jesus Option. That likely sounds a tad fundy. But for the stark circumstances that follow human sin, band aids and habits won’t do.

The OPC is the Church John Calvin Founded

That assertion would prompt guffaws throughout the Presbyterian and Reformed world and yet Roman Catholic apologists continue to make such a claim with even higher stakes: “the Roman Catholic Church is the church Jesus founded.”

Who actually looks at history this way? To think that the OPC was a gleam in the eye of John Calvin is risible if only because Orthodox Presbyterianism comes so much later and after so many different historical developments than the Reformed churches of Geneva. Someone could spot similarities in worship, polity, and theology between Geneva and the OPC. But the OPC is only a development from something that started in 1522 in Zurich even before Calvin was a Protestant convert.

It’s like saying the United States of President Obama is the nation that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams founded. Neither the Left nor the Right in the United States thinks that way. As if a nation that now extends across the entire continent, has a population 100 times greater than 1789, and possesses the largest economy and military in the world is the United States Jefferson and Adams founded.

So how close does Roman Catholicism come to Jesus? For starters, Jesus never made it to Europe. The churches with which Jesus had the greatest familiarity and presence were those of Jerusalem. Which is why Tertullian did not ask, “what hath Rome to do with Athens” (and a good thing he didn’t since Thomists may have followed Aristotle more than Peter and Paul).

If the writings of the apostles are any indication, you know the ones we typically call “the word of God,” the early church had no episcopacy. The first body to make authoritative rulings for believers was the Council of — wait for it — Jerusalem and that body showed no deference to the pastors of Rome. The theology of Paul, a big block of NT teaching, went out of its way to stress faith over observance of the law, a major point that split western Christianity and isolated Rome from the apostles according to those most zealous to protect apostolic teaching (as opposed to papal prerogative). Meanwhile, the worship of the early church was simple and according to Paul the Lord’s Supper was a not a sacrifice but a fellowship meal (just like the Passover). And worship was not in Latin, a point sure to upset the Latin-Rite proponents.

So the early records of Christianity lean much more in the direction of the Eastern churches being the original Christians. In fact, were it not for the Eastern Church and their first Christian emperor, western Christians would not have Trinitarian orthodoxy.

It may be high time to remember that Boston Americans, not the New York Yankees, won the first World Series.

Why Credit Schaeffer but not Aristotle?

This is my problem with w-w proponents. When they explain the accomplishments of people with the wrong w-w they play the “common grace” card. Why, of course, folks without a proper w-w understand some truth because ultimately God set it up that way. Listen to a recent account of Aristotle’s abilities:

This does raise the obvious question, what about all those pagans who did get things right? Surely Aristotle, for example, was correct in much of what he said about God, virtue, etc., even if he wasn’t saved? The worldview proponent can happily concede this fact, but it doesn’t prove the existence of universally accessible axioms of reason. Any true beliefs the unbeliever does hold (and in principle there’s no limit to the number of true beliefs an unbeliever may hold) are attributable to common grace. That is, any truth, goodness, or beauty found among unbelievers is a gift from God, but these gifts are not given equally to all. Common grace does not entail common reason, nor can everyone be an Aristotle.

Granted, Aristotle entered the world with certain capacities for which he could not take credit. But can’t we attribute anything to his years of study, his clarity of prose, his competent arguments. Doesn’t he himself deserve praise for some of his accomplishments?

What’s odd about the above rendering of Aristotle and common grace is how much this same w-w apologist has no problem giving credit to Christian w-w proponents, instead of chalking up their insights to “special grace”:

The first Christian to use the term “worldview” was the Scottish theologian James Orr (1844-1913). Orr claimed that our view of Jesus affects our view of everything else in life—of God, of man, of sin and redemption, of the meaning of history, and of our destiny. While Orr gave Christians the building blocks for the idea of a Christian worldview, it was the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) who took the idea and ran with it. . . .

Credit for popularizing the idea of a Christian worldview among evangelicals in North America undoubtedly goes to Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), who founded the L’Abri community in Switzerland and wrote extensively on apologetics, art, and culture. Schaeffer had a profound impact upon the following generation of evangelicals, including Nancy Pearcey and Charles Colson (see How Now Shall We Live?) and James Sire (see The Universe Next Door). These evangelicals all affirmed the two key insights of Orr and Kuyper: 1) that the Christian faith forms a unified and coherent vision of all of life, and 2) that this vision stands in irreconcilable opposition to all competing non-Christian visions of life.

That’s a double standard.

I thought w-wers were opposed to dualism.

In point of fact, w-w theory has a serious flaw if it fails to recognize the goodness of creation and the accomplishments of creatures who use their gifts with remarkable ability even without the aid of the Holy Spirit’s redemptive work. That seems like all the more reason to give folks like Aristotle even more credit (humanly speaking) than Schaeffer.

Whose Virtue, Which Ethicist

Apparently, my reaction to Brad Gregory’s chapter on ethics went the way of Facebook updates. So let me return to the subject of Roman Catholicism and Aristotle.

Out of curiosity, I went over to Called to Communion to see what the folks there have to say about Aristotle. I ran across this from Mr. Cross himself:

That is why Aristotle is so important. Aristotle shows how from what we already know through our common human experience of the world, we can understand virtue and vice, and their epistemic grounding in philosophical truths about human nature and the human person. Our shared human nature provides the shared rational framework and criteria by which to adjudicate between various hypotheses, and so reason together. It is only by this mutual participation in rationality that Hitchens and Wilson can criticize each other’s positions, in something more than a solipsistic way. What both are missing, is Aristotle. And that is why watching them debate is like watching the skeptic Sextus Empiricus debate Nicolas of Autrecourt, whose fideism was condemned by the Catholic Church in the fourteenth century. So when I reflect on ten years of teaching Aristotle, in light of my position twenty years ago, I see the way in which Aristotle provides an important philosophical understanding of nature, the very nature that grace perfects and upon which grace builds.

This comes in the context of the debates between Christopher Hitchens and Doug Wilson, where Bryan Cross’ veneration of philosophical certainty leads him to conclude that “there is no common rational ground by which to adjudicate between the positions of Wilson and Hitchens. That is why Hitchens is exactly right when he says, “There is no bridge that can suffice.” (6:39) . . . . If one’s whole epistemic edifice is built upon a mere leap-in-the-dark assumption, as Wilson’s is, then since nothing can be any more certain than that upon which it rests, one still does not get any certainty.”

Well, where exactly is the common ground between Aristotle and Paul (or Jesus for that matter, or the Magnificat while I’m at it) when it comes to good works? Christians believe (or are supposed to) that sinners can’t be good apart from grace. But Aristotle is all about virtue apart from grace. How could he be otherwise, since he knew nothing about grace? This doesn’t mean we need to throw Athens overboard in good Tertullian fashion. We do happen, this side of glory, to live with a lot of people who do not have grace. So finding ways that they can be good apart from grace is useful at least for proximate ends of communities and neighborhoods. Still, at the end of the day what Aristotle and Thomas meant by virtue is a long way apart thanks to the advent of Christ.

And by the way, curious is the charge that Protestants are wrong to appeal to Paul apart from papal approval but Roman Catholic teachers of virtue may appeal to a pagan without the slightest criticism.

I also ran across a defense of transubstantiation at Called to Communion that made an interesting point about historical development. To the charge that Rome’s teaching on transubstantiation depends on Aristotelian metaphysics, the blogger appealed to Jaroslav Pelikan:

. . . the application of the term “substance” to the discussion of the Eucharistic presence antedates the rediscovery of Aristotle. In the ninth century, Ratramnus spoke of “substances visible but invisible,” and his opponent Radbertus declared that “out of the substance of bread and wine the same body and blood of Christ is mystically consecrated.” Even “transubstantiation” was used during the twelfth century in a nontechnical sense. Such evidence lends credence to the argument that the doctrine of transubstantiation, as codified by the decrees of the Fourth Lateran and Tridentine councils, did not canonize Aristotelian philosophy as indispensable to Christian doctrine.

So, Called to Communion recognizes that Aristotelian metaphysics may be a problem. But Aristotelian ethics are okay?

This was not the historical point, though. Since Roman Catholicism of the Protestant era was heavily dependent on Aristotelian ethics (see Gregory and Alasdair MacIntyre), and since the West did not really appropriate Aristotle until the medieval renaissance associated with Aquinas and the rise of universities, just how ancient is the ethical framework that rejected Luther and Calvin’s constructions? For all the talk about the ancient church and the early church fathers, do the Called to Communion folks believe that Ireneaus and Polycarp were thinking about the Christian life in Aristotelian categories?

I ask partly because I don’t know, partly because the way some put the past together looks remarkably arbitrary.

Blame It On the Reformation (Part 4): Jerusalem and Athens All Over Again

On the subject of morality (chapter four in The Unintended Reformation), Brad Gregory performs a sleight of hand that is well-nigh remarkable since Protestant-Roman Catholic differences on ethics may be the most important feature of the break among Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury. Gregory says:

This chapter argues that a transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium, in terms of theory, practice, laws, and institutions. (184)

He goes on:

The fundamental historical realities that drove the central change were the religious disagreements and related sociopolitical disruptions of the Reformation era, because in the late Middle Ages, Christianity — with all its problems — was Western Europe’s dominant, socially pervasive embodiment of a morality of the good. As we have seen, Protestant rejections of the authority of the Roman church produced an open-ended range of rival truth claims about what the Bible meant. Correlatively, they yielded rival claims about what the Christian good was and how it was to be lived in community. (185)

What Gregory fails to consider is that his baseline for Christian ethics was precisely what was at issue in the medieval church and that the virtues Rome advocated were distinct from biblical morality. He fails to consider this because the stable Christian ethics that the Reformers abandoned were actually a synthesis of pagan and biblical truths — in other words, an unstable compound for the so-called good life.

Gregory argues that Christian ethics before the Reformation were synonymous with Aristotelian virtue ethics. What occurred over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an abandonment of Aristotle:

. . . Aristotelian final causes were rejected and replaced by a conception of nature as a universal mechanism of efficient causes that encompassed human beings, and thus subsumed morality. Yet the elimination of any natural teleology from human life rendered not just problematic but incoherent the related notion of moral virtues as precisely those acquired human qualities and concrete practices whose rational exercise enables the disciplined reorientation of human passions and impulses, and thus the realization of the human good. If there are no final causes in nature, and human beings are no more than a part of nature like everything else, then there is not such thing as human nature conceived teleologically in Aristotelian terms. (181)

And perhaps if human nature conceived teleologically along Aristotelian lines leaves no room for discussing the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification. Sorry, but where exactly is the Christian conception of the good in this standard by which to evaluate early modern moral philosophy? Gregory doesn’t appear to suffer the anguish described by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans because the Notre Dame historian is seemingly more concerned with community (Europe) than with the individual (creature) who stands condemned by God’s law:

Based on logically antecedent truth claims about reality and history, late medieval Christian ideals were laden with other truth claims about how human beings should act so that they might pursue the common good in this life and be saved eternally by God in the next. In other words, Christianity on the eve of the Reformation entailed an eternally ramifying ethical discourse based on a metaphysics that was disclosed through a history and embedded within a politics. With its teleological ethics rooted in God’s self-revelation through his creation and his covenant with Israel, above all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, medieval Christianity involved reciprocally related moral rules, the practice of moral virtues, and a moral community — the church — all of which were supposed to foster the common good and the salvation of souls. (190)

All of this reflection on virtue may have been valuable for European society. And this is why two-kingdom folks don’t mind a dose of Aristotle when it comes to talk about a shared life together with other persons. But when it comes to the elephant in the Christian room — namely, “what must I do to be saved?” or “who can stand in that great day?” — Aristotelian or Thomistic accounts of human flourishing just won’t comfort sin-sick souls like Martin Luther who saw a difference between the proximate goods of social virtues and the absolute good of keeping God’s law perfectly, entirely, and perpetually.

Where's Waldo Wednesday: Precision Puh-leeze

So why is it that justification prioritists (JPs) regularly receive the charge of making justification the CAUSE of sanctification when in fact they don’t? But to the unionists’ ear, to assert the logical priority of justification to sanctification (and no cheating by sneaking in definitive sanctification) is to say that justification CAUSES sanctification (often, anyway). (In fact, the powers of unionists to read meanings into words and statements are well-nigh remarkable.)

But why is it that when unionists use the explicit language of “CAUSE,” they are merely asserting the TRUTH? Here I point to Rick Phillips’ recent post at Ref 21:

5. Justification does not cause Sanctification. Sanctification, like Justification, is caused by union with Christ through faith (Rom. 6:1-14). Just as Christ justifies, Christ also sanctifies his people (1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 3:12-17). For this reason, the idea that we need only preach justification in order to gain sanctification is contrary to the biblical pattern. Paul, for instance, does not preach justification so that sanctification will occur, but rather he preaches sanctification itself (Rom. 6:12-14; 12:1-2, etc.). Peter also declares “Be holy” (1 Pet. 1:15). This being the case, gospel preaching does not consist merely of preaching Christ for justification, but also consists of preaching Christ for sanctification.

Again, the quick identification of union with almost everything good is striking — Union and Christ become synonyms in this argument. But is that what people think when they hear the word union? They think Christ? Well, why is it that unionists don’t think Christ when they hear the word justification?

Notice too the lack of precision in this post regarding the kind of union Phillips is describing. Is it federal, decretal, or mystical? I assume it’s mystical, but given the lack of a technical lexicon regarding union, those who refer to it so often and so positively may actually help by greater precision?

And finally, what kind of CAUSE are we talking about here? Aristotle held to a variety of causes, Suarez to even more. So if we are going to use causal language, might not some of those scholastic distinctions made by Reformed Orthodoxy be helpful? Or is this another example of how biblical theology sometimes disregards the precision of systematic theology?