Monday, April 27, 2015

The one thing that scared me about the desert fathers

They offer many good insights on prayer and the soul, but if you take out "Jesus" you get pure and simple Buddhism.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tongues-Speak as Rebellion: Review of James Smith's Thinking in Tongues

Thesis: Pentecostal worldview offers a distinct way of being-in-the-world (Smith 25). Embodied practices carry within them a “tacit understanding” (27).

Is a Pentecostal Philosophy Possible?

Much of the chapter deals with the relationship between theology and philosophy. The difference is one of field, not “faith basis” (Smith 4). Smith gives us Five Aspects of a Pentecostal Philosophy:
1. radical openness to God, or God’s doing something fresh. 
2. An “enchanted” theology of creation and culture. Smith means that we see reality not as self-enclosed monads, but realizing that principalities and powers are often behind these. this entails spiritual warfare. I cringe at terms like “enchanted” because it’s more postmodern non-speak, but Smith (likely inadvertently) connected “enchanted” with demons, which is correct.
3. A nondualistic affirmation of embodiment and spirituality. Smith defines “dualism” as not denigrating materiality. Fewer and fewer Christians today do this, so I am not sure whom his target is. Even chain-of-being communions like Rome that officially denigrate embodiment say they really don’t mean it.
4. Affective, narrative epistemology. 
5. Eschatological orientation towards mission and justice.

God’s Surprise

Some hermeneutics: Smith rightly notes that “The Last Days” (per Acts 2) is connected with “today” ( 22; we accept this model in eschatology but abandon it in pneumatology). Smith wryly notes that Acts 2:13 is the first proto-Daniel Dennett hermeneutics: offering a naturalistic explanation for inexplicable phenomena (23). 

Following Martin Heidegger, Smith suggests two kinds of knowing: wissen and verstehen, justified, true belief and understanding. The latter is tacit and is at the edges of conscious action.

Per the dis-enchanted cosmos, Smith astutely points out that “There is a deep sense that multiple modes of oppression--from illness to poverty--are in some way the work of forces that are not just natural” (41). In other words, spiritual warfare assumes a specific, non-reductionist cosmology.

Promising Suggestions

“What characterizes narrative knowledge?” (65) 
a connection between narrative and emotions
Narratives work in an affective manner
The emotions worked are themselves already construals of the world
There is a “fit” between narrative and emotion
There is a good section on Pauline-pneumatological accounts of knowing (68ff). Anticipating Dooyeweerd, Paul critiques the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought (Rom. 1:21-31; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16) and that the Spirit grants access to the message as “true.” 

While I found his chapter on epistemology inadequate, he does say that we know from the “heart” as embodied, rational beings (58). This isn’t new to postmodernism, but is standard Patristic epistemology. 

A Pentecostal Ontology
This section could have been interesting. Smith wants to argue that pentecostalism sees an open ontology that allows the Spirit to move from within nature, rather than a miracle that is “tacked on” to nature from the outside. He makes this argument because he wants pentecostalism to line up with the insights from Radical Orthodoxy.

I have between 50-75 pentecostal relatives who “embody pentecostal spirituality.” I promise you that none of them think like this or are even capable of thinking like that. I do not disparge them, simply because I am not to sure Smith’s project at this point is really coherent. He wants to reject methodological naturalism (rightly) but argues for his own version of supernatural naturalism.

If Smith is successful, then he can show that pentecostalism lines up with quantum mechanics. Okay. Thus, nature is “en-Spirited” (103). While I have problems with his “suspended materiality” ontology, Smith makes some interesting points: miracles are not “add-ons.” They are not anti-nature, since “nature is not a discrete, autonomous entity” (104). 


We are considering “tongue-speech” as a liminal case in the philosophy of language (122). Exegetical discussions are important (and ultimately determinative), but we can’t enter them here. Smith wants to argue that tongues (T₁) resists our current categories of language and emerges as resistance to cultural norms. I think there is something to that.

T₁ as Phenomenology
There is a difference between signs as expression (Ausdruck) and those that do not mean anything (indications, Anzeigen). Ausdruck is important as it means something, whereas Anzeigen serves as a pointer (127, Smith is following E. Husserl). Husserl even notes that there can be signs that are not Ausdrucken nor Anzeigen. This turns on the question: can signs which do not express anything nor point to anything be modes of communication? 

As many critics of Husserl note, his account of speech links communication with intention, so he has to answer “no” to the above question. Or maybe so. What kind of speech can there be that is not bound up with inter-subjective indication? Husserl (and Augustine!) suggest the interior mental life. Thus, signs in this case would not point to what is absent. 

Tongues as Speech-Act Attack
Utterances (of any sort) are performative. While such utterance-acts do convey thoughts, sometimes their intent is far more. Let’s take tongues-speak as ecstatic, private language. What does the pray-er mean to do? We can easily point to an illocutionary act of praying in groans too deep for words. We can also see a perlocutionary act: God should act in response.

Tongues as Politics
Oh boy. Smith wants to say that tongues is a speech-act against the powers that be. I like that. I really do. I just fear that Smith is going to mislocate the powers. He begins by drawing upon neo-Marxist insights (147). However, without kowtowing fully to Marx, he does point out that Marx has yielded the historical stage to the Holy Ghost.

Tongues-speech begins as “the language of the dispossessed” (149). This, too, is a valid sociological insight. The chapter ends without Smith endorsing Marxism, which I expected him to do. While we are on a charismatic high, I will exercise my spiritual gift of Discerning the Spirits.” The reason that many 3rd World Pentecostals are “dispossessed” is because they are in countries whose leaders serve the demonic principality of Marxist-Socialism. Let’s attack that first before we get on the fashionable anti-capitalism bandwagon.

Possible Criticisms

*Smith, as is usual with most postmodernists, gets on the “narrative” bandwagon. There’s a place for that, but I think narrative is asked to carry more than it can bear. In any case, it is undeniable that Pentecostals are good storytellers. Smith wants to tie this in with epistemology, but he omits any discussion from Thomas Reid concerning testimony as basic belief, which would have strengthened his case.

Smith (rightly) applauds J. P. Moreland’s recent embrace of kingdom power, but accuses Moreland of still being a “rationalist” (6 n14, 13n26). Precisely how is Moreland wrong and what is the concrete alternative? Smith criticizes the rationalist project as “‘thinking’ on a narrow register of calculation and deduction” (54). Whom is he criticizing: Christians or non-Christians? It’s not clear, and in any case Moreland has come under fire for saying there are extra-biblical, non-empirical sources of knowledge and reality (angels, demons, etc). 

Smith then argues that all rationalities are em-bodied rationalities. That’s fine. I don’t think this threatens a Reidian/Warrant view of knowledge. Perhaps it does threaten K=JTB. I don’t know, since Smith doesn’t actually make the argument. Smith makes a good argument on the “heart’s role” in knowing, yet Moreland himself has a whole chapter on knowing and healing from the heart in The Lost Virtue of Happiness (Moreland 2006).

Smith elsewhere identifies aspects of rationality as the logics of “power, scarcity, and consumption,” (84) but I can’t think of a serious philosopher who actually espouses this. 

Elsewhere, Smith says Christian philosophy should be “Incarnational” and not simply theistic (11). What does that even mean? Does it simply mean “Begin with Jesus”? Does it mean undergirding ontology with the Incarnation, per Col. 1:17? That’s actually quite promising, but I don’t think Smith means that, either. So what does he mean?

Is Smith a coherentist? I think he is. He hints at good criticisms of secularism, but points out “that the practices and plausibility structures that sustain pentecostal (or Reformed or Catholic or Baptist or Moonie--JBA) have their own sort of ‘logic’,” a logic that allows Christians to play, too (35). But even if coherentism holds--and I grant that Smith’s account is likely true, it doesn’t prove coherentism is true. All coherentism can prove is doxastic relations among internal beliefs, but not whether these beliefs are true. Of course, Smith would probably say I am a rationalist.

In his desire to affirm materiality, Smith seems to say that any religious materiality is a good materiality. Smith approvingly notes of Felicite’s clinging to feasts and relics (36). It’s hard to see how any one “Materiality” could be bad on Smith’s account. But this bad account is juxtaposed with some good observations on the book of Acts (38) and tries to connect the two.

*Smith says that “postmodernism takes race, class, and gender seriously” because it takes the body seriously (60). This is 100% false. If facebook is a true incarnation (!) of postmodernity, may I ask how many “gender/sexual preference” options facebook has? I rest my case.

*Smith waxes eloquently on the Pentecostal “aesthetic” (80ff), which is basically a repeat of his other works, but one must ask, “How does faith come per Romans 10?”

*Smith doesn’t miss an opportunity to criticize “rationalism” for separating beliefs and faith/practice, yet Smith himself seems mighty critical of those who focus on “beliefs” in their philosophy of religion (111). Smith's attack seems ironically dualistic. Sure, most post-Descartes philosophy of religion is overly intellectual, but I do think the Reidian/Reformed Epistemology model, if wedded to Dabney’s Practical Philosophy, integrates belief and faith-practice.

It goes back to our doctrine of the soul. The soul includes both mind and will. You really can’t isolate them. Unmasking this was Dabney’s genius in Practical Philosophy (Sprinkle Publishing), pp. 3ff.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Developed and Undeveloped Federalism

Is the doctrine of the Covenant "a development?"  Reformed say that we hold to the the covenant as the locus where God and man meet in Jesus Christ.  Our critics charge that Federalism is a medieval innovation.  What are we to make of that claim?  Certainly, it was further developed in the middle ages, but when we read of God's covenantal promises to his people in Scripture, are we to reply,

"No, no, God.  The covenant wasn't developed until much, much later"?

Why do Latins get a free pass when the gloss Exodus 3:14 as essence and Orthodox get to see Palamism way earlier than palamism, but when the Reformed say "covenant" we get charged with reading federalism back into the Scriptures?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Jesus is my unity

I gladly reference my friend Steven's essay on this point.  The bond of unity in John 17 is a divine Person, not a supra-spiritual organization (of course, we all believe in church governments).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Protestant thoughts on EO spirituality

Not arguing for ultimate truth or falsity in this review.  I am helping an EO guy give the fairest contrast between EO and classic Protestantism. I truly wish him in the best.

In classic Western Christian theological thought, the nature of God is generally understood as absolute, transcendent and indivisible (that is, not divided into parts). This is the doctrine called “divine simplicity” or “divine unity”

Mostly yes.  However, ALL Christian traditions believe in divine simplicity.  Gregory Palamas is very firm on this point.  What the East rejects is the view of divine simplicity that identifies essence with attribute in a 1:1 correspondence.  Interestingly enough, 19th century American Reformed theologians rejected this view of divine simplicity. The author quotes William Craig as saying God has no real relations within himself.  This needs upacking.  The West (rightly or wrongly) says God has no ontological distinctions within himself (meaning an essential separation between attribute A and attribute B and essence C.   The West very firmly holds to logical and rational distinctions between the essence/attributes.

Following this theological premise, Western theologians in the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed traditions have concluded that since God is radically transcendent, God’s relations with humans – in order to protect God’s transcendence and indivisibility – can (then) only be experienced through created entities or means (through intermediaries like angels, an image, or a symbol, which signifies God but are not God). 

What about God's covenantal relations?  It's a thought.

According to the classic Western view, therefore, even “grace” itself – God’s action within the soul – is a “created” effect of God – (and) is not God working in the soul directly.

This is an excellent criticism of Roman Catholicism.  I'm not sure, however, why this sentence, assuming it is a fair representation of Protestantism, necessitates God's grace as created.   God's action within the soul, if that is indeed what grace is, is God himself, and so eternal.  Now the effect in the soul is created, but that's not a particularly controversial statement.

the Western Christian spiritual tradition affirms that there are (then) essentially only two ways to know God:

What Luther and the Reformed are saying is what Romans 10 is saying, "We don't ascend to God to know God.  God descends to us in his Word."  This is what Luther meant by denying the theology of glory.

The seat of the Image of God is not thought to be in the reasoning or intellective faculty of the human being, but rather in the “Nous”, sometimes translated incorrectly as “Mind”, but in the East understood as “heart.” This is not necessarily the physical “heart” but at the center of man’s being.

I like this statement.  If nous means heart, then this anthropology isn't that different from Reformed sources.  I understand that the EO will say that God's energies interact with the nous.  I know the Reformed do not take that view.  Fair enough.  I have reasons for not holding to the energies, but that's not the point of the post.

Carrying this line of thinking forward to its logical conclusion, the West has rejected as an authentic experience of God the Uncreated Light or Vision of God (theoria) of our hesychast, contemplative tradition in Eastern Christianity.

We reject hesychasm, but not the experiencing of the divine light.  Too many credible Western theologians and pastors have experienced the divine light for us to deny that it is real.  

I find that in Western Christianity because of the approaches we have been discussing, there tends to be a dichotomy between the realm of God and the realm of man. It tends to set-up, as Father Stephen Freeman puts it, a “two-storey universe”: God and the spiritual realm “up there, and us down here”.

It hinges upon how God promised to meet man.  We understand that God meets man covenantally through his Word.   We also see the covenant as the bridge between the two realms (though I fully agree with Allen's critique of Roman Catholicism).

Monday, April 20, 2015

Thornwell and the proverbial Nazis at the door

Taken from Whatsoever Things are True (yes, I realize he wrote before the Nazis)

What is truth in terms of practice--in terms of telling the truth?  Is it a sin to not tell the whole truth, say, to the proverbial Nazis at the door?  Thornwell (and Hodge) would say, “No.”  Thornwell makes the astute point that there is a difference between “deception” and “concealment.”  He writes, “There are things which men have a right to keep secret, and if a prurient curiosity prompts other officiously to pry into them, there is nothing criminal or dishonest in refusing to minister to such a spirit” (80).

But the moralist will respond, “You still have to tell the truth to the Nazis at the door.”  Perhaps, let’s flesh this out.  Let’s say the Nazis ask if there are Jews upstairs (which there are for this scenario)

(1) Is it a “good” to tell the truth and surrender the Jews?

Only the most officious moralist will say yes.  They will define the ethically right thing as “satisfying” one’s duty to truth. (How many are closet Kantians without realizing it?)

(1*) Is it a good to mislead the Nazis and save the Jews?

(1’) Is it a good to save the Jews?

Unless you think a young girl getting tortured by Eichmann is a result of doing “good,” you have to answer “yes” to (1’).

With knowledge of (1’) as affirmative, can we then affirm the entirety of (1*)?  I think we can but the officious moralist still has doubts.  Therefore, we take Thornwell’s statement:

(2) There are things which men have a right to keep secret...spirit.

(2) satisfies the conditions in (1*a), but will it satisfy the moralist?  Maybe not, but at this point the moralist must justify a new proposition:

(~2):  All men are obligated to exhaustive truth statements.

This is absurd and impossible to justify.  Therefore, (2) is warranted.  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Can a coherentism hold?

The Eastern Orthodox view of the Patrum Consensus, and of the evaluating of theological claims, presupposes some form of coherentism.  Briefly defined, coherentism is the belief the essence of truth (or better, a true particular) is whether belief x properly coheres within a system.  Bertrand Russell explains it “forms part of the completely rounded system of truth” (Russell 1964, 122).  As Alvin Plantinga notes, “It is a relation that holds just among beliefs” (Plantinga 1993, 179).  

We see something similar with Eastern Orthodoxy.  How can we evaluate a particular teaching of a church father?  Here is a clear example (and also a response to yours truly).  Summarizing Vincent of Lerins,

This approach examines a doctrine by asking three questions: (1) Was this doctrine held by early Christians? (the test of antiquity); (2) Was this doctrine widely held among early Christians? (the test of ubiquity); and (3) Was this doctrine affirmed by the church as a whole? (the test of catholicity).

Explained another way:

The solution to this problem is to read Scripture not individually, but corporately in solidarity with the Church.  The early Church viewed Scripture and Tradition (T¹) not in tension with each other but as congruent.

Practical Problem 1: So let’s flesh this out.  Father Z advances teaching x. How do we know x is right?  We judge it in light of the teaching of the church (x*).  How then do we know that x* is right?  

When you evaluate a later father in light of earlier teachings, this isn’t a problem.  When you evaluate fathers contemporaneous with one another, then it gets problematic.  Let’s assume Fathers Y and X minister around the same time and leave a corpus of work.  Further, let’s assume they write about an issue that had not yet been decisively solved.  

Back to (PP1).  Let’s say that x* is indeed the inherited tradition of the church.  It is Truth.  It is what has been always taught.  Said this way, it sounds like a standard to compare other teachings--and indeed it can (and sometimes should) be used that way.  Here’s the problem, though:  some of the terms that constitute x* were themselves not yet part of x*.  We will call these terms x*...m, n, p...z.  Examples would be later ecumenical councils, later fathers, different liturgies, etc.  Orthodox love to say that “their view of tradition isn’t static.”  Indeed, it is not.  The question is how to know whether x*...n is part of tradition.

I suggest that this problem is best seen in a logical fallacy.  In other words,

p ⊃ q

This is the fallacy of asserting the consequent

“If this, then that.”
Therefore, this.

If (T¹) is true, then x*...n
Therefore, an unbroken T¹.

If (T¹), then the Dormition of Mary.
The Dormition of Mary is celebrated as tradition.
Therefore, T¹.  

Stated less formally, the Orthodox must prove that the current instantiation of tradition, be it the Dormition of Mary or whatever, is already within p from the beginning.  This has not been done.  

Back to Coherentism

Does a doctrine like the Dormition of Mary cohere within Orthodox Tradition?  I actually think it does.  But that’s not good enough for truth.  All coherence can demonstrate is consistency.  To be good enough for warrant it must demonstrate a correspondence with an external standard.  Any such standard, either the Scriptures or the earliest (i.e., writings contemporary with the Apostles) Christian writings, must bear witness to it.

There is a possible rejoinder: one can demonstrate that x*...n is compatible with such a standard.  That is certainly possible, but it does not demonstrate the historical evidence of x*...n from the earliest days.  Therefore, the Evangelical is warranted in not practicing x*...n.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ecumenical Ascesis: Giving and Taking Away with the same hand

My recent studies in philosophy of mind and consciousness have brought me back to the desert fathers.  I think they have some profound insights on depression and wholeness.  Of course, their understanding of salvation and the work of Christ is an utter disaster.  

The more friendly-minded Eastern Orthodox will say that “The Spirit is working in other Christian traditions,” and that is nice of them to say so.  However, they will also say that true healing of the nous (it’s hard to find an evangelical equivalent of that phrase.  Picture a midway point between justification and sanctification and call it salvation) can only happen within the life of the Church.

But if the Spirit is working outside the boundaries of the church, can it not be that true healing is happening there?  If so, then what of the other claim that healing of the nous can only happen within the liturgical and ascetical life of the church?

Further, what of the Evangelicals who have engaged in healing ministries?  I don’t mean specifically bodily healing, though that’s included, but healing of the psyche.  John Wimber comes to mind.  Unless one wants to say “he does it by demons,” one is forced to conclude that the power of Christ--never separated from his body--is operative in Evangelicalism.   Therefore, Evangelicals are part of the Body of Christ.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Maximos and the Logoi

St Maximus said that the one LOGOS is the many LOGOI (I am summarizing key parts from his Ambiguum 7). Collectively, the Forms are LOGOI, which is LOGOS, which is the Second Person of the Trinity. The Logos is revealed and multiplied in the Forms (logoi) which are then recapitulated back into the Logos (Ephesians 1:10). The Logos is the interconnecting cause that holds the Forms together. The Logoi, therefore, pre-exist in God.

This is beautiful philosophy, but the only problem:  it's hard to say that the logoi as collective forms died on the cross for my sins.   But on the other hand, this handles Ephesians 1:10 and Col. 1:17 quite nicely.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Prima Facie responses to cessationism

These are not full orbed refutations.  They merely lay out a few difficult points:

  1. There is no text saying "the canon is complete; therefore, the word-signs have ceased."  It simply doesn't exist.

    1a.  There is no text mentioning a completed NT canon (for the record, I affirm a functionally finished canon).
  2. Word-signs happen today, whether one's theory allows for it.