Monday, 6/23/14

    1. Nominalism in the Culture Wars
    2. Meliorism as Heresy
    3. Our Libertarian Dogma
    4. Dura-Europos
    5. A Conservative Heresy


I had a bunch of disjointed but loosely connected items as this potpourri came together, but then I got lucky and re-encountered the unifying theme of many of them:

In my Colson Center article I suggested that in Reformed circles the notion of God’s will flowing out of, and conforming to, a teleology intrinsic to the world’s design, is often treated as an imposition to God’s total freedom or as undermining the importance of special revelation. Moral order is thus seen to be imposed on creation externally without having an organic relationship to how creation is by virtue of its design. Resistance to what Oliver O’Donovan has termed “the linking of moral obligation to the natural generic-teleological order” leaves order eclipsed by law, so that the moral order we are bound to affirm is seen as arising externally through the imposition of “the Christian perspective” onto the otherwise formless raw material of the universe….
Once the world is bereft of intrinsic ordering, the category of divine will becomes a mechanism for reinvesting the world with moral order. Under such a scheme, the will of God comes to have an extrinsic relationship to the world, which is rendered passive, neutral and dead (read: mechanical) in itself. It is through pious choices that meaning is brought to bear on the raw material of the world. But this means that order is ultimately derived voluntaristically rather than being inherent to creation by virtue of its original design.
In the mid to late twentieth-century there was a significant rejection of a spiritually neutral conception of creation through the recapitulation of a Kuyperian understanding of “worldview.” Yet without a fully sacramental understanding of integration, this emphasis on worldview often amounts to little more than the imposition of “the Christian perspective” on what is still conceived as the neutral and formless raw material of the world. Under such a scheme, in order for a topic of study or an area of life to fall under “the Christian perspective”, we must place something alien onto it rather than uncover the divine order already present.”

Robin Phillips on Facebook (but linking to a web article, The Abstraction of God and the Culture Wars); emphasis added. Phillips has left the Reformed world for Orthodoxy, but is much more articulate and philosophical than I. The linked article is part 7 of his series on nominalism versus realism.

The dramatic switch of Frank Schaeffer from right-wing culture warrior to progressive culture warrior (or at least progressive-friendly sniper at his former allies) may be an artifact of deep Calvinist nominalism, dragged into an shallow (dare I say “nominal”?) Orthodoxy.

Maybe his former co-belligerents, his relationship to whom he monetizes through kiss-and-tell books, are themselves nominalists who really are trying, theocratically or theonomically, to impose their “Christian worldview” on “otherwise formless raw material.” That would be consistent with my past acquaintance with local theonomists, when I would be very frustrated at their “Bible-thumping” arguments on matters of public policy – arguments that struck me as worse that useless at persuading the target audience. That’s too bad for them philosophically, but it’s not Schaeffer’s or my place to judge them for their state of mind.

The question Schaeffer elides is whether the policies the Calvinist religious right advances against the left, however clumsily they advance them, do or do not conform to the way things really are. In many cases, I think they do (whence my frustration when they were my embarrassing allies); in others, no. I’m sorry when they’ve reached the right conclusions for the wrong reasons, and it’s that wrong reasoning that leads them to wrong conclusions so often.

(I wonder whether my instinctive realism and resort to natural law arguments made it inevitable that I would one day cease being Protestant?)

It’s not just Schaeffer, of course. I don’t think a philosophically realist PC(USA) ever would have overlooked the telos of gendered marriage, which they prepare now to relegate to a mere dusty “tradition.”


Maybe I’ve got my knickers excessively knotted over the inefficacy – nay, counter-productiveness – of nominalist arguments in favor of policies I, too, favor. That’s one possible take home message of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s latest (as of this writing) blog post, We Will Not Make the World a Better Place:

The Modern Project believes in progress. It believes and is utterly committed to the idea that things move forward and improve … We assume that we know more and understand more than those who came before us. We are the goal of everything that has come before.

… Modern political discussions are almost entirely about competing plans for a better world. No one suggests that a better world is a false idea.

A better world is not only a false idea – it is rooted in heresy.

You will search in vain for the notion of making a better world prior to the 16th century. Though there are visions of the “New Jerusalem” within the New Testament, it is a “heavenly city” and not a model for an earthly goal. The Kingdom of God is not “of this world,” nor is it something that people work for or “build up.”

Wow! Meliorism “rooted in heresy”! Surely he exaggerates:

Stanley Hauerwas has famously noted that whenever Christians agree to take charge of the outcome of history, they have agreed to do violence. He therefore labels violence as “idolatry,” an attempt not to obey God’s commandments, but to assume the place of God.

Perhaps the most tragic instance of this hubris was the Treaty of Versailles and its accompanying effects. Following the tragedy of the Great War (World War I), the Allied Powers  established themselves as the arbiters of the shape of the world to come. They drew boundaries, created countries, and designed our modern world. The result has been the bloodiest century of war in history. Everything from World War II to the continuing bloodshed in the Near East, indeed almost every civil war the world has seen since, has come as a result of the plans and decisions of that fateful “peace.”

Its most immediate effect was the disastrous handling of the Balkans, the establishment of modern Turkey with the deportation of half its population (the Christian half) and the Armenian genocide. Across the globe the colonial powers reinvented the world without regard for geography, race, or religion. It was a modern world. If history can be a judge, then we must declare modernity to be a failure.

Yeah. Modernity’s a failure. That resonates, doesn’t it? Yet:

I recently did a search across the web for the phrase “building the Kingdom of God,” and was dismayed at how common it was. Even within Evangelical sites of good repute, the notion received large play. One site argued that our present efforts for the good would somehow be received and incorporated into the Kingdom, and would thus be eternal. It’s an interesting claim, but without neither any warrant in Scripture nor a basis within the Christian tradition. It is simple heresy. We do not build the Kingdom. We do not add to it, nor can we diminish it. It is the work of God.

How ironic that Evangelicals, who famously see salvation as something pronounced from outside by God (i.e., having nothing to do with actual transformation of the saved person) scorn Christians who try to better themselves spiritually (“works righteousness”, though the self is perhaps the only thing one can change), while shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic and calling it an “improvement.”


Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus.

(Rod Dreher, quoting Mark Lilla in the New Republic; hyperlink added) That libertarianism speaks as if its positions are absolutes – based on the way things really are –  but it’s hard to greet with a straight face the claim that the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, and tolerance are reality rather than the desired outcomes of a polity.


Dear Iconoclast Protestant: Have your heard about the Synagogue at Dura-Europos? It’s not a very comfortable fit for your reading of “no graven images.”

Speaking of which, Gabe Martini is continuing his exploration: Jurassic Park & the Protestant Quest for the Early Church: Part 2.


Not only have my ecclesiology and my whole Christian tradition changed over time, but so has my view of many figures from the Left during my life. Patriotism and insight are not limited to self-identified conservatives.

I now, for instance, have a generally favorable view of Gore Vidal, and would concur in this summary assessment:

[A]lthough he often forgot the boundary between wit and vituperation, and spent much of his adult life living on the Italian coast, he was, in his own way, a sincere and ardent patriot, attempting to defend the old republic from being devoured by the national security empire.

(David Kopel) This does not diminish my admiration of William F. Buckley, who detested Vidal and vice-versa, though Buckley’s craven treatment of Joseph Sobran does diminish my regard for him, as does, retroactively, the current relatively sorry condition of his baby, National Review (which may not be quite as bad these days as I tend to think).

My view of Vidal, though, is not so favorable that I’d take time to watch the video on demand of his hagiography.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.