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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How *Not* to Do Historical Theology

I have been known to be in various times and places a fan of John Williamson Nevin, but re-reading his articles on “Cyprian” last night, I was a bit shocked and disappointed at his duplicity.  He sketches in the starkest terms the contrast between “Cyprianic Christianity” (which he takes to be normative for the early church as a whole” and Protestantism, always in terms flattering to the former and disparaging to the latter, and then constantly pulls back and says, “Hey, I’m not passing any judgments, man!  Just settin’ some historical facts on the table for your consideration.”  This shiftiness reaches proportions that can only be described as despicable at the conclusion of the fourth and final article, at which point, having ostentatiously declared the fundamental incompatibility of Protestantism with the early church, he says,

“If it be asked now, what precise construction we propose to apply to the subject, we have only to say that we have none to offer whatever.  That has been no part of our plan.  If we even had a theory in our thoughts that might be perfectly satisfactory to our own mind, we would not choose to bring it forward in the present connect; lest it might seem that the subject was identified in some way, with any such scheme of explanation.  What we have wished, is to present the subject in its own separate and naked form, not entangled with any theory; that it may speak for itself; that it may provoke thought; that it may lead to some earnest and honest contemplation of the truth for its own sake.  The importance of the subject, the nature of the facts in question, is not changed by any theory that may be brought forward for their right adjustment with the cause of Protestantism.  This or that solution may be found unsatisfactory; but still the facts remain just what they were before.  There they are, challenging our most solemn regard; and it is much if we can only be brought to see that they are there, and to look them steadily in the face.  We have had no theory to assert or uphold.  We offer no speculation.  Our concern has been simply to give a true picture of facts.  The difficulty of the whole subject is of course clearly before our mind.  We feel it deeply, and not without anxiety and alarm.  But we are not bound to solve it, and have no more interest in doing so than others.  We have not made the difficulty in any way.  We are not responsible for it, and we have no mind or care at present to charge ourselves with the burden of its explanation.  There it stands before the whole world.  It is of age too, we may say, full formed and full grown; let it speak then for itself.”

Reminiscent of “contraceptive historiography” at its worst, one has to say.

The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a guy who, after years of devoted membership (and various forms of leadership) in Reformed churches, had decided to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not so much because of any deep-seated disillusionment with Reformed theology, or an intellectual decision that Orthodox doctrine on disputed points was more compelling, nor because of the frequently-cited “aesthetic appeal” of its liturgy, icons, etc.; to be sure, that was a factor, but could hardly be the decisive one for someone deeply-rooted in the Reformed faith.  Rather, it was because “he needed someone to submit to”; he was tired of the burden of always making up his own mind about everything, of the Protestant “heretical imperative” (to use Peter Berger’s term) that drove everyone to define themselves over against everyone else, and to elevate private judgment above all else.  Time to put an end to such individualistic arrogance, he reasoned, and submit my judgment to something higher, older, and more authoritative—rather than “let go and let God…” it was a matter of “let go and let the bishop…”  At least, such was the story. Read More

Are You Alone Wise? Reading Notes on Susan Schreiner

There are two kinds of historians in the world—or let us rather say, two ideal types, since most historians blend some of each.  There is the historian as avid collector, enthusiastically rummaging around in the attic of the history of ideas, carting down boxes full of interesting primary source material (as well as a few boxes of secondary source material), dumping them out on the living room floor, sorting them into little piles, and then setting out some of the choicest items on display tables for other historians to come ooh and ahh at.  Then there is the historian as story-teller or debater, mining through the data, finding nuggets that will prove a point or fill a blank in a narrative, carefully organizing them, and then telling you his story, or making his argument, pulling them out and holding them up for demonstration at the appropriate point in his story or argument.  Susan Schreiner’s acclaimed new book Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era is clearly an example of the first type.  

In it she offers five hundred pages worth of heavily-laden display tables full of primary source material, with relatively little attempt at synthesis or commentary.  The sheer number of footnotes (averaging over 200 per chapter) and volume of quotation (easily over half the total word count) are testament to this, and it can get a bit tiresome.  Since her strategy in each chapter is usually to pick three or four figures that illustrate the particular phenomenon under discussion, and then to camp out in a couple of their primary texts, she sometimes seems to fall into the trap of simply patiently regurgitating the argument of those texts, including bits that really don’t seem particularly relevant to the question at hand.  Or, if they are relevant, the relevance is not always shown.  

But the lack of a firm interpretive hand is most keenly felt not within the argument of each chapter, as in the interstices between them.  What we clearly have before us in the six main chapters of this book (the first being largely introductory) are six distinct display tables, addressing, respectively: (1) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (2) Epistemological/interpretative certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (3) Epistemological/interpretative certainty among Counter-Reformation Catholics, (4) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (5) The struggle to discern divine from demonic certainty, (6) Late 16th-century comings-to-terms with the problem of uncertainty.   Quite clearly, these could all be strung together into a very fascinating narrative.  But they remain each rather separate; six separate inquiries fused together into one book.  In particular, there is no attempt to put into conversation with one another the Protestant and Catholic treatments of epistemological/interpretive certainty; we meet the arguments of counter-Reformation writers, but never hear how various Protestant writers might have attempted to meet these objections.  Nor is there much attempt to analyze or evaluate the differences between Protestant and Catholic searches for existential/experiential certainty.  We wait eagerly for a conclusion in which the preceding threads will be synthesized or evaluated, but when it comes, it is only 3 pages long.  Alas.  


Rather than attempting to summarize her elaborate investigations, then, I’ll just offer, in a musing rather than conclusive way, a couple of the sort of reflections I’d have loved to see her offer.   

First, long-time readers may recall my post here, a year and a half or so back, “Why I Won’t Convert,” summarizing why I remained, and intended to remain, quite Protestant, and found the seductions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy decidedly un-seductive.  A big part of my argument there was to oppose as an idolatrous illusion the quest for complete epistemological certainty.  For many today, the appeal of Catholicism or Orthodoxy is that they offer, it seems, an objective, verifiable, unchanging, and clear testimony as to what the truth is; they provide, in short, a sure defensive bulwark and a sharp offensive weapon against the tide of liberalism and postmodernism which seeks to throw everything into doubt.  Protestantism, on the other hand, looks hopelessly stuck in the subjectivism of individual interpretation, incapable of providing a clear or unified answer to the skeptical attacks of postmodernity.  To all this, I said, 

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them.”

In short, then, I argued that the quest for certainty is a misguided one, and one that Protestants should not attempt.  Ironically, according to Schreiner, the very opposite seems to have been the perception in the Reformation.  It was the Catholics who denied that the troubled soul could ever find certainty in this life, could know that it would inherit the kingdom, whereas Luther proclaimed, as the glory of the Gospel, that faith meant knowing, with absolute certainty, that one had God’s favor and would attain eternal salvation.  Assurance of salvation, then, was not merely ancillary to faith, but was for the early Reformers part and parcel of justifying faith, since faith that doubted, that wondered whether it was worthy, was a faith still preoccupied with itself and its own works, rather than anchored on Christ.  Of course, later on, Protestants realized that this route led to something of a dead-end; the insistence that true faith have absolute assurance proved to be an extra burden, rather than a salve, to Christian consciences, who, as soon as they found themselves doubting, could conclude that this was proof they were not saved at all.  Unfortunately, Schreiner does not tell this tale of how Protestants came to reconsider the doctrine of assurance, and to find ways of describing justifying faith without laying such a burden on subjective certainty.

In any case, though, this is clearly a somewhat different matter from what I was referring to above.  This “existential” certainty, a certainty of salvation, seems in principle distinct from the “epistemological” certainty, a certain knowledge of true doctrine.  Indeed, it would seem, perhaps, that the former certainty ought to discourage us from seeking too much the latter.  After all, if “faith” is understood not primarily in cognitive terms, but as a clinging to Christ, who alone is sure, then why should we seek or expect to be able to anchor our certainty anywhere else—on precise doctrinal formulations, particularly on secondary matters?  However, as a matter of fact, as Schreiner shows, for the early Reformers, certainty of one’s own salvation went hand-in-hand with certainty that one possessed absolute doctrinal truth, gained directly from Scripture.  It was on this score that Catholic apologists sought to beat Protestants at their own game.  Although they were uninterested in attempting to provide the conscience with certainty of salvation, the Catholic writers did claim to be able to provide certainty of doctrinal truth, of which the collective testimony and authority of the Church was a much surer guide than the individual conscience.  It is this section of Schreiner’s book that sounds most familiar to our ears, for the arguments of Catholic apologists today on this score have changed little from those five hundred years ago.  In the meantime, however, the counter-apologetic strategy of Protestants has changed considerably, from insisting that Scripture alone could supply the desired certainty, to admitting that no human interpreter, whether the individual reader of Scripture or the magisterium, could provide the certainty we crave; accordingly, we must beware either claiming it for ourselves, or seeking it idolatrously in human authorities.

The question I have, then, is how Protestants have been able to so considerably revise their stance, and attenuate their quest for certainty, while remaining true to their original teachings, teachings which according to Schreiner rested so much weight on the need for, and possibility of, certainty.  Have they been able to?  As a good Protestant, I certainly hope (and think) the answer is yes, but it does need further thought and attention.


As a good starting point, I suggest (surprise surprise) that we might look at the thought of Richard Hooker.  In fact, it is remarkable to me that Schreiner does not do so.  He is clearly thoroughly absorbed in the issues surrounding the quest for certainty, addressing a number of the themes that Schreiner describes in her book.  In particular, he would have fit very nicely in the final chapter (alongside his contemporary Shakespeare) since, more than any of the figures identified in that chapter, he not only diagnoses the failures of the quest for certainty, but seeks to provide a way forward, one based not on a complete capitulation to uncertainty, but by a turn to probability.  

This, in fact, is a central pillar of his response to the Puritans, or the “precisianists,” as I have called them in a recent post.  These, unable to deal with the uncertainty that the vague and variable category of “adiaphora” left them with, insisted that Scripture must provide strict and precise legal guidance for the moral and political questions with which the Christian was daily faced.  Because certainty was so highly prized, Cartwright could declare, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as possible within the discretion of the judge.”  

I hope to explore in depth in future (perhaps in a formal article) how Hooker constructs his argument in the Lawes as a response to this false idea of certainty, and indeed as a response to the whole problem of the sixteenth-century quest for certainty that Schreiner traces, but for now, as a teaser, I shall just offer an extended quotation from Hooker where he squarely addresses the issue:

“The truth is, that the mind of man desireth evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield. The greatest assurance generally with all men is that which we have by plain aspect and intuitive beholding. Where we cannot attain unto this, there what appeareth to be true by strong and invincible demonstration, such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereunto the mind doth necessarily assent, neither is it in the choice thereof to do otherwise. And in case these both do fail, then which way greatest probability leadeth, thither the mind doth evermore incline. Scripture with Christian men being received as the Word of God; that for which we have probable, yea, that which we have necessary reason for, yea, that which we see with our eyes, is not thought so sure as that which the Scripture of God teacheth; because we hold that his speech revealeth there what himself seeth, and therefore the strongest proof of all, and the most necessarily assented unto by us (which do thus receive the Scripture) is the Scripture. Now it is not required or can be exacted at our hands, that we should yield unto any thing other assent, than such as doth answer the evidence which is to be had of that we assent unto. For which cause even in matters divine, concerning some things we may lawfully doubt and suspend our judgment, inclining neither to one side nor other; as namely touching the time of the fall both of man and angels: of some things we may very well retain an opinion that they are probable and not unlikely to be true, as when we hold that men have their souls rather by creation than propagation, or that the Mother of our Lord lived always in the state of virginity as well after his birth as before (for of these two the one, her virginity before, is a thing which of necessity we must believe; the other, her continuance in the same state always, hath more likelihood of truth than the contrary); finally in all things then are our consciences best resolved, and in most agreeable sort unto God and nature settled, when they are so far persuaded as those grounds of persuasion which are to be had will bear.

Which thing I do so much the rather set down, for that I see how a number of souls are for want of right information in this point oftentimes grievously vexed. When bare and unbuilded conclusions are put into their minds, they finding not themselves to have thereof any great certainty, imagine that this proceedeth only from lack of faith, and that the Spirit of God doth not work in them as it doth in true believers; by this means their hearts are much troubled, they fall into anguish and perplexity: whereas the truth is, that how bold and confident soever we may be in words, when it cometh to the point of trial, such as the evidence is which the truth hath either in itself or through proof, such is the heart’s assent thereunto; neither can it be stronger, being grounded as it should be.

I grant that proof derived from the authority of man’s judgment is not able to work that assurance which doth grow by a stronger proof; and therefore although ten thousand general councils would set down one and the same definitive sentence concerning any point of religion whatsoever, yet one demonstrative reason alleged, or one manifest testimony cited from the mouth of God himself to the contrary, could not choose but overweigh them all; inasmuch as for them to have been deceived it is not impossible; it is, that demonstrative reason or testimony divine should deceive. Howbeit in defect of proof infallible, because the mind doth rather follow probable persuasions than approve the things that have in them no likelihood of truth at all; surely if a question concerning matter of doctrine were proposed, and on the one side no kind of proof appearing, there should on the other be alleged and shewed that so a number of the learnedest divines in the world have ever thought; although it did not appear what reason or what Scripture led them to be of that judgment, yet to their very bare judgment somewhat a reasonable man would attribute, notwithstanding the common imbecilities which are incident into our nature.” (LEP Bk. II, ch. 7)

Love and Law: A Protestant Conundrum

One way of characterizing an ongoing tension in early Protestant political theology, I will suggest, is as a tug-of-war between articulations of civil obedience in the key of Romans 13:1 and of Romans 13:8.  Both can claim Luther as an heir; both are attempts to square the crucial doctrine of Christian liberty with an ongoing duty to obey the legitimate authority of the magistrate.  On the one hand, liberty could be absolutely closeted away in the spiritual kingdom, and an uncompromising demand for obedience proclaimed in the civil kingdom.  Certainly many have seen this as the legacy of Luther’s political theology—Quentin Skinner in particular.  This strand of Protestant political thought rests exegetically on a peremptory invocation of Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  To the question, “How can we be conscience-bound to obey civil law if by Christian liberty, we are bound only to God” this line of argument answered simple, “To obey the magistrate is to obey God.  Therefore you are conscience-bound.”

 On the other hand, another line of reflection could take its cue from Luther’s fascinating “free lord of all/dutiful servant of all” dialectic, in which the Christian’s outward subjection in this life was compatible with his inner freedom because the Christian was one who, by love, subjected himself to authority for the sake of others.  As Luther puts it beautifully in The Freedom of a Christian:

“A man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but he lives also for all men on earth; ratherhe lives only for others and not for himself. To this end he brings his body into subjection that he may the more sincerely and freely serve others. . . . Man, however, needs none of these things for his righteousness and salvation.  Therefore he should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbour. . . . This is a truly Christian life.  Here faith is truly active through love, that it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.”  

This kind of political theology could be said to rest (although as a matter of fact, it very rarely did exegetically) on Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”

Moreover, one might characterize Romans 13:5 as the real crux in this tug-of-war: “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”  It was possible to take “wrath” to mean “human wrath and punishment” and “conscience” correspondingly to mean “fear of divine wrath and punishment,” since, after all, to disobey the political authorities is simply to disobey God in them.  This emphasis of course tends to have the effect of squelching the law-of-love approach, of rendering Christian liberty altogether irrelevant to the discussion.  But on the other hand, it was possible to take this “but also” as really a “but instead” and to take conscience as meaning “for the sake of love”; since “perfect love casts out fear,” the Christian’s political obedience is to be one motivated by love—love of neighbour preeminently—not fear (you will recall this as a common theme of some of my own reflections on Romans 13).  Martin Bucer was perhaps picking up on something like this in his exegesis of Romans 13:5: “But because it is necessary for us to be subjected to them from the soul and voluntarily, not coercively, it is then expressed: ‘Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not on account of wrath only, but also on account of conscience.'”


It is fascinating to observe this tug-of-war in two of the greatest early Protestant systematicians, Melanchthon and Calvin.  

We find the latter emphasis in Melanchthon’s 1521 Loci (“if they command anything that is for the public good, we must obey them in accordance with Rom. 13:5: ‘Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.’  For love constrains us to fulfill all civil obligations.”), but it is gone by the 1555 edition, where the passage is now glossed as reminding us that human laws “can bind us to eternal punishment.”  In the 1541 Epitome Moralis Philosophiae, this darker tone heavily predominates, with Melanchthon taking the first motive of 13:5 to refer to human wrath and the second motive, “conscience,” to refer to divine wrath: “And if we obey not, he saith that he will revenge it . . . with eternal torments after this life, except we do repent.”  Nonetheless, in his treatment of ecclesiastical laws, Melanchthon still emphasizes that our obedience is dictated by the law of love, our recognition that laws of order are necessary for the peace and edification of the church, and that to violate them will likely cause offense and discord.

Calvin’s emphasis is much clearer, carefully developing throughout IV.10 an account of obedience to church laws that it is dependent on the law of charity, rather than making such laws binding in themselves.  Moreover, unlike Melanchthon, he recognizes the need to apply the same standard to civil laws, which he discusses in explicit engagement with Romans 13:5, concluding, “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience.  For all obligation to observe laws looks to the general purpose, but does not consist in the things enjoined.”  The suggestion here is that insomuch as laws serve the common good, to obey them is to love the neighbor, and to disobey them, indeed, even to disobey otherwise unhelpful laws, will cause offence and disorder and hurt the common good; hence, the law of love calls us to free submission to the laws.  Nonetheless, even Calvin proves uneasy about the implications of this, implying as it does that, if a subject judges that a law can be disobeyed without hurt to the neighbor, he is free to disobey.  Accordingly, the explicit discussion of civil authority in IV.20 of the Institutes is developed largely within the key of 13:1, not 13:8. 


And what about for the greatest 16th-century systematician of them all—Hooker?  Ah, now that is an interesting question . . . and for the answer, you’ll have to wait for the thesis. 😉