Flotsam and jetsam (11/30)

  • James McGrath had the students in his Revelation class evaluate a website and post their comments. He set up a blog for that purpose and is inviting everyone to check it out. I’ve only glanced at it so far, but it looks interesting.
  • Dane Ortlund offers a thought from Richard Baukham on why the Gospel writers thought history was so important.

Does the millennium matter?

Whenever I teach one of our theology survey courses, I begin the semester with a promise. If I can’t provide a compelling reason that some theological issue makes a significant difference for life, ministry, or theology, we won’t spend time on it. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth talking about, only that it must not fall in that top tier of issues that we need to stay focused on in a relatively brief survey course.

Right now, we’re working through eschatology. And, on tap for tomorrow afternoon – the millennium. At the end of our last class, I asked the students to wrestle with whether they thought that issues relative to the tribulation really mattered all that much. So, we’ll start with that tomorrow. But, by the end of class we’ll be discussing views of the millennium, and I’ll be asking the same question again.

So, what do you think? Do views of the millennium really make a significant difference for life, ministry, and/or theology? Or, are the different millennial views really just ways of keeping under-employed theologians busy so they’re not out causing problems? (Nothing is worse than a bored theologian.) Where do you put the millennium on your list of theological issues? Is it something that you’re willing to debate over, or do you see it as a non-issue that is only worth speculating about when it’s late and your internet connection is down?

My other daughter is a heretic

A while back I commented on the fact that my oldest daughter is a compatibilist. And, today I find out that my 4-year old daughter is a heretic. It’s been a fun month.

It all started the day after Thanksgiving. In our house, once Thanksgiving is officially over, my wife can break out the Christmas decorations and we can start playing Christmas music. (Attempting to do either of these before Thanksgiving is a heinous crime against humanity not to be tolerated by any God-fearing individual.) So, earlier today I heard my youngest walking around and singing Joy to the World quietly to herself. But, something didn’t sound quite right. So, I asked her to sing her song for me. And, here’s what she belts out:

Joy to the world
The Lord is me

Clearly nothing wrong with her self-esteem. Her theology needs work, but her self-esteem is just fine.

Review: Defending Constantine by Peter Leithart

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP, 2010).

★★★★☆

Peter Leithart can usually be relied upon to produce books that are well-written, clearly articulated, and provocative. And, this one is no exception. In Defending Constantine Leithart argues that Constantine has been misconstrued, misunderstood, and abused for far too long. Instead of being the political manipulator who co-opted the Church, infecting her with visions of political power and influence, and distracting her from her true, Gospel-focused mission in the world, we should see Constantine as a sincere believer seeking to support the Church and its mission, while at the same time trying to figure out for the first time what it means to be a Christian emperor. He certainly experienced difficulties along the way, but a sympathetic and historically-grounded look at his life offers a far more positive picture than is usually given.

Summary

In the opening chapters (1-3), Leithart lays out the historical background necessary for understanding Constantine. He explains the challenges that the Roman empire faced in the third century Diocletian‘s attempted political, theological, and economic reforms. And, he also summarizes Constantine’s early life and the details surrounding Constantine’s rise to power.

Leithart discusses Constantine’s conversion and his political theology (chapters 4-6). Unsurprisingly, Leithart spends considerable time on Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge and the details of his conversion, arguing that both were real and sincere (i.e. they were not just part of some political ploy). And, in what I found to be on of the more interesting portion of the book, associates Constantine’s political theology with Lactantius – an early theologian who provided theological arguments for religious freedom. So, Leithart summarizes Constantine’s position as one of general religious freedom, but in which he provides clear support for the Christian Church. Thus, Leithart argues that Constantine allows significant religious freedom to Roman pagans, but provided clear support for the Christian Church and its theology through his re-construction of public space and his legislative/administrative initiatives.

In the third main section of the book (chapters 7-8), Leithart addresses the nature of the Church/state relationship. Leithart first argues that Constantine was not ignorant of theological matters. Instead, he was well-educated in general and reasonably well-versed theologically. But, looking at both the Donatist controversy and the Council of Nicea, Leithart contends that although Constantine exercised significant influence on the Church, he did not dominate or determine Church policy or theology. Leithart rightly points out that many of Constantine’s critics seem to expect him to operate as a 20th century Western intellectual. But, “The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century?” (152). And, Leithart argues that everyone in the fourth century believed in the intimate interrelation of church and state:

That the emperor had oversight (‘episcopacy’) of religious life was as natural to fourth-century Romans as the First Amendment separation of church and state is to modern Americans. (182)

So, it’s not legitimate to criticize Constantine for being involved in theological concerns, that was inevitable. What needs to be considered is the precise manner in which he involved himself. And, Leithart argues that although Constantine certainly exercised his force of personality and political skill, he did not force his will on the Church. Instead, as he summarizes later in the book:

Constantine had considerable influence on the church but did not dominate it, dictate the election of bishops or make final decisions about doctrine. Councils met without his approval, and bishops were elected locally. He did not have ‘absolute authority’ over the church, and there is no evidence that he wanted to get it. (305)

I found the fourth main section (chapters 9-11) to be the least compelling. Here Leithart deals with the “baptism” or Christianization of the Roman empire through Constantine’s legislation, exercise of justice, and imperial leadership.

In the final main section (chapters 12-14), Leithart focuses directly on the anti-Constantinianism of John Howard Yoder, who has been the target of criticism throughout. Against Yoder, Leithart argues: (1) the Constantinian church never collapsed church and state or subsumed the church’s identity/mission under that of the state; (2) there was no shift from anti- to pro-imperialism; and (3) there was no shift from pacifism to militarism. Here I think Leithart convincingly demonstrates that the early church was neither purely pacifistic (e.g., it did not reject military service or coercive violence) nor purely anti-imperial (e.g. they expressed strong appreciation for the “goods” of the Roman empire). And, as Leithart argues, even the anti-imperialism that was there needs to be understood as criticism of a pagan empire, opinions that may have been phrased very differently if a Christian ruler were in view. In addition, he argues that Yoder’s argument exhibits significant historiographical weaknesses: outdated data, failure to recognize the historical biases of his sources, failure to understand Constantine in his own context, and a tendency to force the data into the metanarrative that he’s constructed.

Strengths

There’s a lot to appreciate about Leithart’s book. He certainly should be commended for the historical sensitivity that his displays for this time period. Leithart is keen to make sure that we see all of the key players as real individuals, steeped in their cultural and historical contexts, and consequently limited by those contexts.

I really enjoyed Leithart’s discussion of the political theology of the church before Constantine. I don’t think that his arguments will convince anyone pre-disposed toward understanding the early church to be pacifist and anti-imperialist. Nonetheless, this part of the book was interesting and Leithart presents a number of arguments that are worth considering.

Leithart, of course, does a great job providing a sympathetic reading of Constantine. While it’s certainly possible that he has been overly sympathetic at times, this book personifies the idea that we should really try to get inside another person’s skin before we criticize them. And, I particularly like the emphasis placed on understanding Constantine’s theology – something noticeably lacking in many other works.

Finally, I liked that he treated the early church leaders as people who could hold their own in political and theological contexts, not as pushovers easily manipulated by a new ruler.

Weaknesses

First, although the book is well written overall, certain sections did get a bit tedious at times. The discussion of Yoder was fascinating, but it seemed to go on a bit too long and could have been condensed considerably. At times if felt like the title of the book really could have been Attacking Yoder, rather than Defending Constantine. I realize that Leithart felt that the former was necessary for the latter, but it still got tedious. And, this was true with a few other sections as well (e.g. discussing Constantine’s legislative practices).

Second, as much as I appreciated his sympathetic treatment of Constantine, it did seem that he swung the pendulum a bit too hard in the other direction. Like any other human, Constantine had short-comings. And, I would have liked to see those addressed a little more clearly as part of a fair and historically balanced account. Leithart did mention several of Constantine’s weaknesses, but they tended to get swallowed up in the defense.

And third, the same can be said for the consequences of Constantine’s actions. Although Leithart did a great job explaining those actions in context, helping us understand the meaning and purpose of those actions, I would have liked to see a little more on the (mostly unintended) consequences that did impact the church negatively in some ways. Again, since Leithart’s purpose was to defend Constantine, it’s no surprise that these elements are downplayed. But, we need to recognize both the positive and the negative if we’re going to assess what happened.

Conclusion

Overall, Defending Constantine is an outstanding book that is well worth reading. Even if you disagree with Leithart’s conclusions, he will offer a new perspective on the early church and what exactly happened when Constantine became a Christian. I think anyone reading this book will walk away with at least a more nuanced understanding of the man and his era.

And, this book also serves as an extended critique of Yoder’s “fall” narrative, which has been so influential in recent years. Indeed, I think Leithart is successful in demonstrating that Yoder is more concerned with critiquing an abstract idea (“Constantinianism”) rather that the historical individual, and that Yoder does not succeed in demonstrating that the latter is responsible for the former. At best, he argues that there was a brief “Constantinian moment” as the church figured out how to interact with a Christian ruler.

To get a more balanced perspective, though, the book should probably be paired with one offering a different take on Constantine’s life and significance – e.g., Paul Stephenson’s Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christus Victor (Overlook, 2010).

A prayer for the first Sunday of Advent….Bernard of Clairvaux

Let Your goodness Lord appear to us, that we
made in your image, conform ourselves to it.
In our own strength
we cannot imitate Your majesty, power, and wonder
nor is it fitting for us to try.
But Your mercy reaches from the heavens
through the clouds to the earth below.
You have come to us as a small child,
but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts,
the gift of eternal love
Caress us with Your tiny hands,
embrace us with Your tiny arms
and pierce our hearts with Your soft, sweet cries.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

Is Objectivity lost, or just playing hide-and-go-seek? Smith, Derrida, Carson, and maybe even Sailhamer

[This is a guest post by Tim Hankins and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

In the second chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-modernism, Smith argues that Derrida‘s assertion “there is nothing outside the text” is not the villain that the caricaturization by some in the Church have made it out to be. He does so by examining “whether Derrida’s claim that everything is interpretation is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.” Indeed he posits that Derrida’s assertion is appropriate and useful. His argument can be framed in the contrast between his fictional renditions of the events of the cross as seen by two fictitious natives of Jerusalem. The first is from the perspective of a Jew who saw Jesus as a pathetic Nazarene whose followers were deluded, the second from the perspective of a Roman centurion who proclaimed that truly this man is the son of God. He argues that both saw the same events and yet each had differing interpretations of those events. From this model, Smith argues that the Gospels themselves are interpretations and that is a good thing.  Conversely, Smith disagrees with Carson’s argument in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, that if the Gospels are only an interpretation then we can’t know if they are true. Smith pronounces that Carson’s argument “simply conflates truth with objectivity”. He posits that truth does not require objectivity.

I will readily admit that I have not read a translation of Derrida’s On Grammatology in English much less in Derrida’s French, so I have to assume that Smith accurately represents Derrida. Having said that, Smith presents Derrida as arguing against the trend to get at the events behind the text, that the reader’s access to those events is through the text itself, so that “there is nothing outside the text” (p.38). At this point it seems that Derrida is in cahoots with Sailhamer, so that Sailhamer’s Text or Event argument in Introduction to Old Testament Theology is simply a biblical application of Derrida’s principle. Yes the events themselves happened, but scripture is the divine interpretation, the “God’s Associated Press” news articles on (then) current events. This idea does have much to commend it. First and foremost, as Derrida and his sidekick Sailhamer profess, attempts to reconstruct the events from the accounts given in the text miss the point, it is the text that informs us, the text that is inspired, the text that we learn from, not the events. We cannot access the events themselves. We have no window, no fourth dimensional rewind to use to go back and watch the events of which the Bible speaks for ourselves. What is more, even if we did, we might have a very different take than what is written in scripture!  So we necessarily are to rely on the text because it is God’s interpretation on those events, and thus by definition TRUE. Apologetically then this view might provide Christians a way to refute differing claims, other interpretations of the events depicted in scripture; that just because someone else interprets the events differently does not invalidate the divine scriptural interpretation or make it any less TRUE.

I am quite comfortable with Smith’s argument thus far, at least assuming I am correctly understanding and representing him here. But within the larger discussion of subjectivity and objectivity, Smith is identifying the events as the objective, and interpretation of those events as subjective interpretation. Yet it is at this point in his argument that I find Smith’s argument to become a bit . . . squirrely. Up to this point he has pretty solidly used the events as the object, text as subjective interpretation, but without warning he shifts the object to the text (scripture) and the subject to the readers of scripture (p.51 Texts in Community). He suddenly starts “applying” his principle in interpretation of scripture, a distinctly different subject than scripture as the interpretation of events. Yet he does not even camp out here, but the shifts once again (p. 54 Seeing the World through the Word) so that the object is the world and we are the subjects interpreting the things we see, which he argues should be through the interpretive lens of scripture. While objectivity is not necessarily Smith’s main point, he makes enough of an issue about it that I am surprised that he abandons it without much ado.

While I agree that scripture is a TRUE “subjective” interpretation of “objective” events, when we shift things to look at scripture as the object, would scripture not then be “objectively TRUE”? It would seem that Carson’s argument is not necessarily antithetical to Derrida’s (as presented by Smith). They simply have differing objects. Carson (again as presented by Smith) seems to be arguing that when it comes to scriptural interpretation, reading and understanding the Bible, that the authority lies in the object, the Bible. which is TRUE. This means that scripture can be both the subjective divine interpretation of events, without threatening its truth as the object of Christian study. Thus the Bible remains objectively TRUE and subjective interpretation simultaneously.

Saturday morning fun

Cthulu elf

Rather than attempt anything remotely serious this morning, here are some links that I thought were fun. Enjoy.

 

    Early adopters through time

    Collegehumor.com has a very funny and interesting video on “early adopters through time.” The video actually works on two levels. On the one hand, it makes fun of people who refuse to buy new technologies because they’re just going to come out with something new later. (I fall into this trap regularly.) But, you can also watch it as a critique of consumerism (hence why I’m posting this on Black Friday), with the constant appeal to buy the latest and greatest new toy.

    I couldn’t embed it, so you’ll have to head over there to watch. Here are some of my favorite lines:

    Early adopters in the stone ages: “What – this? Oh, it’s my bone. It makes hunting for food way easier. You should get one.”

    The never-ending quest: “All I’m saying is that if you buy this thing, it will be the last thing you need to buy. Ever.”

    And, a nod to Planet of the Apes: “Trust me, if I’m going to get a servant gorilla, it’s just going to gather dust.”

    Consumerism is the reason for the season

    Since it’s Black Friday today (one of the busiest shopping days of the year in America), I thought it would be good to remember  the real reason for this holiday season – rampant consumerism.

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    What else could possibly explain the long lines of people, sometimes camping out for hours at a time, waiting for stores to open so they can continue the unnecessary accumulation of “stuff”?

    Flotsam and jetsam (11/26)

    In my judgment, however, the claim that Wright has changed his view on justification is misguided and results from the misreading of Wright that has been rampant in the Reformed world for quite some time.

    • John Byron offers a good thought on celebrity-ism and the academy.

    What are we doing? Our scholarship has become, in some ways, a celebrity sport. We stand in awe of speakers who are introduced as the author of twenty books, over one hundred articles and three video series. Bart Ehrman and NT Wright appear on the Colbert report, and while I admit I found their performance entertaining, I wonder why it is that these people are held up as the representatives of scholarship in our field?

    it is worth wondering if Christians (or anyone for that matter) might be attracted to artwork that portrays a world “without the Fall,” a sweet, shiny, untroubled and Disneyesque existence.