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The Past for Honesty’s Sake: A Rejoinder to Peter Leithart

In a cheery response to my ponderous (and as-yet unfinished, I am sorry) review of his Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart counters my charge of an “addiction to novelty” with a declaration of his commitment to “the past for future’s sake.” It is hard to quibble with the substance of his response; indeed, my organization, the Davenant Trust (which Leithart is kind enough to plug in his post) could almost adopt as its motto “The past for the future’s sake”— maybe it should, come to think of it; Leithart always has had a better flair for marketing than I. Of course we should return to the treasures of the past, beginning with Scripture, “to find resources to edify the church of the present, which is, even while you’re reading this, rapidly becoming the church of the future.” Of course we should seek to “to reach back and rocket forward at the same time,” rather than treating the church’s past as a tunnel to crawl into where we can huddle for safety so as not to face the myriad new challenges that the present assails us with. It should go without saying that there is no disagreement here.

Leithart manages to imply that this is the point of disagreement by omitting the last clause of the sentence which he takes as the summary of my objection: “[novelty theology works by] somehow simultaneously putting us back in touch the original primitive Christianity even while rocketing us into the Christian future by refusing to take its start in the conventional categories that theological discourse has refined over the centuries.” Now admittedly this clause is one that might make my marketing consultant wince, and so perhaps Leithart thought he was doing me a favor by omitting it—“conventional categories” are pretty thoroughly out of style, and “refined over the centuries” sounds like a pretty tedious business. But my complaint is not an antiquarian one; rather, it is a very practical one: the past keeps us honest. Read More


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What Does it Mean to be Human? Leithart on the Nature of Natures (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. IV)

(See previous installments of this review here, here, and here).

In this installment, we turn to what is perhaps the most puzzling, but also perhaps one of the most consequential, features of Leithart’s book: his treatments of the notion of “nature.” It is, I must confess, far from clear just how much Leithart is trying to do with his reconceptualization of this basic metaphysical and theological category. On the one hand, we might be dealing with little more than rhetorical flourishes or shifts of emphasis away from a category that Leithart thinks has too often preoccupied the attention of Christian theologians. On the other hand, we might be dealing with a fundamental reconception of the status of the human person and its relations to God and to other persons along radically voluntarist lines, a reconception that cannot help but have far-reaching consequences for much of Christian theology and ethics, consequences which could not but be largely harmful in my view. I wish to tread carefully, for fear of either being an alarmist on the one hand or a naively charitable reader on the other.

Similarly to my approach in the previous post, I will first state in a nutshell what I take to be the salient features of Leithart’s exposition on this point, and then list my main points of concern/critique. I will then expound these points at considerably greater length (though thankfully shorter than my last post), with accompanying quotations from the text, before concluding by suggesting a better way forward. Read More


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Does Justification Sola Fide Need an Upgrade? (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. III)

In this third installment of my review, I want to turn to consider what is, perhaps more than anything else, at the heart of Leithart’s argument in this remarkable book: his notion of the “deliverdict.” In the last installment of this review (and see here for the opening summary), I argued that in places, Leithart’s commitment to offering an essentially new (or at least long-forgotten) way of talking about Christ’s saving work led him at times to claim to be saying something new when he wasn’t really, lapsing into imprecision at key points where the traditional formulations are really quite clear and perhaps not in great need of being improved upon. So it is also here in his discussion of the meaning of justification.

Now many Protestants, rightly or wrongly (and I am inclined to think rightly), can get awfully nervous when it comes to tinkering with the material principle of the Reformation, justification sola fide. Thus you would think that if what you had to say on the topic was in fact substantially in continuity with Reformational doctrine, that you would be at pains to emphasize that fact, and to present your position where possible in traditional terms. This is particularly the case in a day and age when many Protestants, unschooled in and insecure about the basic principles of their Protestant heritage, are tempted to jump ship to unreformed traditions in response to polemics which caricature key Protestant teachings (particularly justification by faith). So I find it surprising and concerning that Leithart at many points seems to do the opposite, seeking to unnecessarily accentuate differences between his own views and those of the Reformers, and to blur rather than clarify traditional Protestant doctrine.

Indeed, for those who want to cut to the chase (for this will, I am afraid, be a very long post, given the need for some quite long quotations to accurately state Leithart’s argument and illustrate its discontinuities with the tradition), I will state up front what I will argue in this post. Read More


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On Theological Novelty and Atonement Theory (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. II)

 

In this second installment of this review of Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World, we turn from mere synopsis to critique, or at least to pointed queries about some of Leithart’s more provocative claims. In this post I will be considering one of my general methodological concerns—the addiction to novelty—and then turning to consider Leithart’s revisions (or not?) to classic penal substitution theories of the atonement.

First, then, the question of novelty. Newness seems to be a big selling point of this book. Consider the breathless melodrama of James K.A. Smith’s back cover endorsement: “Leithart is like a lightning strike from a more ancient, more courageous Christian past, his flaming pen fueled by biblical acuity and scholarly rigor.” Back cover blurbs in this day and age have become something of a joke, but still Smith’s is a bit over-the-top. I single it out not primarily to pick on Smith (not primarily) but because the virtue of the book that Smith singles out—its claim to newness-through-oldness—is one that we would do well to interrogate. Smith contrasts theologians who “tepidly offer us a few ‘insights’ to edify our comfort with the status quo” with Leithart’s lightning-strike from the past. In other words, bad theology is theology that builds on what we already know, good theology is totally new and yet old, somehow simultaneously putting us back in touch the original primitive Christianity even while rocketing us into the Christian future by refusing to take its start in the conventional categories that theological discourse has refined over the centuries. But of course, nothing is so tired and familiar by now as this revolutionary turn to the “more ancient, more courageous Christian past.”

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Delivered from the Elements of the World: A Review (Pt. I: Summary)

Delivered from the Elements of the World is vintage Leithart: extraordinary in scope, dense, multilayered, intertextual biblical exegesis, and literary flair. Leithart’s aim with this book is about as bold as a work of theology can get: to answer afresh the basic question of the Christian faith, which St. Anselm framed as Cur Deus Homo?—Why the God-man? Or, as Leithart incisively frames it, “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?” (13) Framed this way, Leithart’s question, and his answer, are a rebuke in two directions: to the feeble, alialistic, soul-snatching picture of the gospel, in which the effect of Christ’s death can be readily explained as a spiritual transaction detached from history, and to the liberal humanistic gospel, in which Christ’s death and resurrection cannot be seen as essential and efficacious, since he comes merely as a teacher leading us to “establish institutions that promote peace and justice.” (13) Indeed, Leithart’s book is a broadside against the dichotomies that underwrite both these reductionisms, insisting that the spiritual is the sociological and vice versa, that the reframing of human history and renewing of human nature is part and parcel of the redemption purchased by Christ.

Unfortunately, this book is also vintage Leithart in somewhat less flattering senses: uneven historical-theological asides that sometimes seem more assertion than argument, elusive systematic-theological formulations that claim to be both novel and orthodox and yet which are often imprecise enough to make it unclear whether they are either, and eccentric and underdeveloped aspirations at sweeping philosophical revisionism. It is an unfortunate necessity of a book review that far more of my time will be spent on the latter, less flattering elements than on the former, more flattering ones—after all, when it comes to the book’s singular virtues, readers would do far better to partake of them straight from the source than via my secondhand renditions. And indeed I should state clearly up front that whatever criticisms might follow, this is very much a “Read this book” review. There have been plenty of books that I have reviewed so critically that my verdict was “Don’t waste your time,” but I have difficulty imagining the Leithart book on which I would ever reach that verdict. Read with a wary eye, to be sure, but as I think the summary that follows will show, this is a book fresh and bold enough that it deserves to be grappled with firsthand. Read More