18 July 2018

Five Years Ago Today ...

... Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. I blogged about the case nearly interminable (go here for one of the last) and wrote an article about it, Who Bears the Burden? The Place of Municipal Residents in Chapter 9 (download here or here). 

All seems to be going reasonably well in Motown nowadays which is due in part to the successful adjustment of its debts in Chapter 9. A formal, legal mechanism by which debts can be adjusted (or reorganized, in the case of Chapter 11) is crucial for entities in a market economy. The whole of an enterprise is often worth more than its parts but the value of that whole cannot be realized without a means of forcing holdouts to participate and binding each for the sake of all.

11 July 2018

Contract Limits? Or, Why Everyone Should Read Adeline Allen's Paper: Part 2

Go here for Part 1 of my survey of Adeline Allen's argument against surrogacy contracts.

Taking human flourishing as the "can't help" of the purpose of human existence, Allen works backwards through the goods that contribute to that flourishing (tracing John Finnis those goods include: "life and health, marital-procreative union, friendship, knowledge, play, aesthetic appreciation, skillful performance, religion, and practical reasonableness").* Practical reasonableness is the last of these goods because it is the faculty by which humans figure out how best to pursue a good given the resources, opportunities, and constraints under which they operate at any given time. For even the most morally upright among us, there are many uncontested goods that we cannot seek at the same time. And for the rest of us--less than morally upright as we may be--practical reasonableness is equally crucial as we identify the good in a contest among possible states of affairs.

Moving from the individual to the state, practical reason also serves as the means by which law-makers choose the sorts of laws that will best enable citizens to flourish. Law is not so much designed to create flourishing citizens but as to provide the public framework in which they can work it out for themselves. In other words, the form of a lawmaker's practical reason is not the same as an individual's; it is one step removed.

Contract law is an example. Human finitude and productivity ground the social practice of contracting. (Download my short piece The Law of Contracts: A Place to Start here or here.) None of has everything we need and most of us can produce (or do) more of something than we can use (or enjoy). Ever-expanding circles of human exchange exist so we can share of our abundance with those in want and vice versa. Contract law thus comes to express one aspect of practical reason and another of justice. Contract formation rules express the practical reason of law-makers who provide a simplified means by which parties may enter into contracts. Contracts can be formed along many routes but it makes the life of exchange simpler if there are a few well-marked trails we can use without giving much thought to the details of forming a contract.

Justice provides law-makers with a second pole around which to array features of contract law. In its simplest mode, corrective justice provides law-makers with the baseline remedy by which to rectify breaches of contract. (I wrote about this at some length in Principled Pluralism and Contract Remedies (download here or here). Not surprisingly, practical reasonableness and justice come to bear in contract law at many other places along the way from contract formation to breach and repair. Yet neither the exercise of law-maker's practical reason in simplifying the rules of contract formation nor application of corrective justice to remedies for contract breaches addresses the scope of what parties may exchange by way of contract. It is at this point that Allen's paper adds to the discussion.

In Part 1, I concluded that Allen had demonstrated that the ills associated with surrogacy exceed the good it fosters. In other words, working from the self-evident goods of human nature, practical reason concludes that persons should not contract for another to bear and then surrender a child. This is a conclusion of ethics. (It may be useful to recall that I did not reproduce Allen's arguments; I only alluded to them. To be persuaded, as I believe you will, you must read her paper! (download here)) But what should be the conclusion of law? Should contract law prescind from providing a remedy for breach of a surrogacy contract?

Allen's paper navigates the gap from the illicit nature of surrogacy contracts to their illegality. Why, given the importance of freedom to human flourishing, should law-makers limit this particular freedom? 
Because humans, being rational (or having the capacity for reason) but imperfectly so, do not always enter into contracts consistent with the requirements of reason In other words, they enter into contracts with non-rational motivations (“factors that . . . fetter reason”) or with practical un-reasonableness, which is inhospitable to the common good and thus inconsistent with human flourishing.
True enough but does this argument prove too much? Given our imperfect reason, should law-makers police freedom of contractual choice much more aggressively than they do at present? In other words, what places the "surrogacy choice" outside the pale of the freedom to make less-than-good contract decisions? Given Allen's concession that the practical reason of law-makers is one step removed from the practical reasonableness of contract parties, simply because a choice is immoral is insufficient to establish that the law should prohibit it.

Here's where Kantian moralists of duty and Christians of a biblicist bent can get stuck. Sooner or later abstract duty or the Bible runs out. At some point neither provides an unambiguous answer to the question of whether a particular decision in the vast moral grey area of life is right or wrong.  Yet any serious natural law framework of ethics or jurisprudence recognizes that framing the typical legal rule is not between requiring a simple good and prohibiting a pure evil but instead are a
determinatio. [They] are not deductive and are thus more permissive than rationally compelling. They are still derived from natural law or the requirements of practical reason, but they require context-dependent judgment. These laws still justify boundaries. While these laws have a qualified nature, they are still appropriate and needed because of their “rational connection with some principle or precept of morality,” when considered in their context. In this way, these “[c]ontext-dependent norms guide deliberation toward more reasonable choices and actions and away from less reasonable choices.”
More than a mere "nudge" (here and here), a legal determinatio frames or guides the practical reason of a citizen in a more straightforward way. And, given the solid foundation for concluding that surrogacy contracts do more harm than good, Allen concludes that as a matter of justice they represent a contractual choice folks should not be free to make. (Or at least not free to seek legal recourse if breached.)

I'll leave it to folks to read Allen's paper for the details of her argument that prohibiting surrogacy contracts is an appropriate determinatio by law-makers. I could point out, however, that her legal conclusion about surrogacy contracts finds support in the common law tradition that has long singled out contracts that would impair family relations as violating public policy. See, e.g., Restatement (Second) Contracts §§ 189-191.

In summary, Allen's paper is an example of sort of humane and careful jurisprudence that I like to see. Taking first principles of human nature and law seriously, studying the results of empirical and scientific scholarship, and guided by an evident care for real human beings (surrogates and their children), I hope many will take the time to consider her paper with the care it deserves.



* Unlike some in the new natural law tradition, Allen does not shy away from grounding these self-evid
ent (i.e., undeniable by any rational person) human goods in the Christian account of creation in the image of God:
[Practical reasonableness] is uniquely human in that “the natural human capacities for reason and freedom are fundamental to the dignity of human beings.” This capacity for reason and freedom is “God-like (literally awesome).” The Book of Genesis puts it as man bearing the very image of God.

10 July 2018

Contract Limits? Or, Why Everyone Should Read Adeline Allen's Paper: Part 1

Given our culture's fixation on individual autonomy, what subjects, if any, should be outside the bounds of contractual freedom? Whether one is a free-market libertarian or a devotee of maximal sexual expression, contracts are central to your worldview. Contractual assent is the universal solvent in lieu of doing the hard work of figuring out the right and wrong of ethical questions.

Of course, one might begin from a different ethical framework, say, welfarism. As with autonomy, starting from the premise of increasing personal subjective welfare puts few limits on the subject-matter of a contract. There is little constraint on what parties may agree as long as at the time of contracting both believe they will be made better off. That one party may later conclude that what she got wasn't worth the price is merely regret which is endemic to the human condition and certainly no reason to unravel a contract.

But what if we start from another position, neither individual autonomy nor social welfare? What if, instead, we begin with a thicker notion of what it means to be human and from that starting point identify certain "goods" that are consistent with being human? A large measure of autonomy is certainly one aspect of being human. Freedom of choice, a function of the human capacity to identify the good and pursue it, is itself a good. And freedom of choice includes the freedom to be wrong; we can either misperceive the good or pursue a good in the wrong way. But freedom cannot be the only arbiter of the good because without a notion of the good to which choice aims, freedom loses its moral significance. In other words, freedom of choice is a secondary good, a distinctively human means to the end of identifying (and pursuing) a more primary good.*

What does the foregoing have to do with contract law and its limits? To help answer this question we can turn to Adeline Allen's recent article, Surrogacy and Limitations to Freedom of Contract: Toward Being More Fully Human, published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (download here).

Allen's conclusion is straightforward:
This Article will show that commercial surrogacy arrangements do not properly belong in the realm of freedom of contract, but rather in the limitation to freedom of contract. Human flourishing and the common good require both the affirmation and limitation of that freedom, given that parties to a contract are rational beings, but imperfectly so.
Her argument is long but accessible. Over the course of  the second two-thirds of her article, Allen affirms that having a child who carries one's genetic nature is indeed a good. Yet, severing that undeniable good of the woman whose genetic nature comprises half of the new life through surrogacy produces substantial and irremediable negative effects that, in Allen's judgment, outweigh the good of the begetting one who shares her mother's nature.

Allen describes the negative effects that outweigh the good in terms of those that affect the child and those that harm the surrogate mother. Much of this evidence was new to me and, with respect to the surrogate, it includes findings from the field of epigenetics on the permanent biological effects of gestation on the surrogate as well as longitudinal studies of the psychological effects of surrendering the child whom she bore. With respect to the child born from such an arrangement: "A child is fragmented and damaged by not being raised, known, and loved by his biological parents (that is, his genetic parents and his birth mother) in the practice of surrogacy." (With citations to studies demonstrating her conclusion.)

Allen does not limit her arguments against surrogacy to the results of empirical research. There is, after all, more to moral decision-making than listing material and efficient causes. Allen quotes secular legal scholar Margaret Radin (see my earlier posts here and here) who "speaks of 'a deep bond between a baby and the woman who carries it . . . created by shared life,' even apart from DNA or genetic connection." More bluntly,
Medical sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman states: If you are pregnant with a baby, you are the mother of the baby that you’re carrying. End of discussion. The nutrients, the blood supply, the sounds, the sweep of the body. That’s not somebody standing in for somebody else to that baby. That’s the only mother that baby has.
Only in the contemporary morally desiccated West could anyone be so credulous to believe that the woman who carries a child for nine months does not have a unique and unmarketable bond with her child.

I won't do any more to develop Allen's arguments because they must be studied with care to feel their full weight. But what of my initial premises, that freedom of choice is an aspect of the moral nature of human beings and that "freedom of choice includes the freedom to be wrong"? Should people be deprived of the right to enter into surrogacy contracts even if Allen is correct, that the ills proceeding from surrogacy outweigh its goods? To answer this question takes us to the first third of Allen's article where she does an excellent job of unpacking and framing the application of John Finnis's "new" natural law approach to public moral reasoning. I'll defer my discussion of this part of Allen's argument to Part 2.


* For a wonderful application of the notion of the good (and not the will or efficiency) as the ground of political association read Susannah Black's, New York, New Jerusalem (here).

26 June 2018

A Brief Recursion to Natural Law

You can go here to read the best succinct description of the nature and uses of natural law to date. While characterized as why Protestants need a theology of natural law, folks from any Christian tradition (and thoughtful non-Christians as well) would do themselves a favor by reading David Van Drunen's piece.

I previously blogged about natural law here and published a piece on the topic titled God's Bridle: John Calvin's Application of Natural Law (download here or here). In short, natural law answers at least two questions. First, why do human beings universally have a sense of moral obligation? And second, by what standard can God hold folks accountable who have never seen or heard tell of the Bible?

Van Drunen's essay does the best job of unpacking the answers to these questions (and a few more for good measure) I have ever seen so please take the time to acquaint yourself with it. 

21 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 4: The Catholicity of Weekly Communion

Drawing from the riches of the most recent Convivium Irenicum on the theme of "Reformed Catholicity" (for Part 1 go herefor the three-parter on Part 2 go here, here, and here, and for Part 3 try here), we come to the final piece by Gregory Soderberg: Weekly Communion: A Criterion of Catholicity? 

Like another of the papers, Soderberg's was a work in progress. In fact, it's part of the dissertation on which he's currently working. Soderberg's topic was appropriate in light the Convivium's second paper by Andre Gazal who, summarizing 16th century Bishop of Salisbury John Jewell, identified "four criteria for orthodoxy [catholicity]: Scripture, the first four ecumenical councils, the writings of the church fathers, and the example of the primitive (i.e., first 600 years) of the church."

Could Soderberg meet these four criteria with respect to weekly communion? Was it "catholic"? And, even if he did, what had the reformers in the Reformed tradition said about the frequency of the Eucharist? In other words, was it part of Reformed Catholicity? Like the dissertation of which it will be a part, Soderberg's paper was very closely reasoned and made use of a wide variety of historical resources. Notwithstanding its technical nature, there were a variety of insights that should prove interesting to non-specialists. But for those you'll need to buy the book.

For me, anyway, the answer to the first question was almost-but-not-quite. So far as we can tell, weekly communion was the general practice of the early Church. And it was noted by a number of the Church Fathers. It was not clear, however, that it finds unambiguous backing in the acts of the first four ecumenical councils. Some support, mind you, but not unambiguous.

As for the second question, the reformed Reformers did not so much focus on the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper but on increasing its frequency from the pre-Reformation practice of only annually, receiving both the elements by laity as well as clergy, and serious preparation for receiving the Eucharistic meal. Support for weekly communion can be found but it isn't like it was an across-the-board high priority.

But what about now.? Even if weekly communion is not part of the inheritance of Reformed Catholicism, is it nonetheless a goal toward which which churches should strive? To answer this question I will conclude with Soderberg's conclusion:
We can conclude that [the Reformational] writers of the past did not make frequent communion a "mark" of the church, or equate it with "catholicity." They did, however, point to the pattern of frequent communion in the apostolic and patristic eras a standard [goal?]. [They] also devoted many pages to warning people to prepare themselves thoroughly, and to approach the Lord's Supper with a serious and earnest sense of the magnitude of what they were doing. This aspect of preparation seems to be missing in current advocates of frequent communion.
That's it for this series from #ConviviumIrenicum2018. Until next year ... 

20 June 2018

An Update on "Awaiting the King"

Some time ago I posted a series of observations on the most recent book by James K.A. Smith, "Awaiting the King" (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). I concluded by expressing special appreciation for Smith's efforts to bring the work of English political theologian Oliver O'Donovan into the mainstream of American Evangelicalism.

For an insightful piece positioning Smith in relationship not only to O'Donovan but also Stanley Hauerwas and Rod Dreher, you can go here. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Baylor University Associate Professor of Religion Jonathan Tran explains how Smith builds on Hauerwas's focus on the Church as a living body of witnesses that can, if only indirectly, influence the world for the good. Tran goes on to observe that that Smith adds O'Donovan's conclusion that the world has already been sufficiently influenced by the Church to give Christians at least a toehold on which to engage directly on the political process. Finally, Tran contrasts Smith's plug for limited Christian activism with what he takes to be Dreher's call for Christian withdrawal from the world of political activity.

My brief summary of Tran's extended review of "Awaiting the King" does not do it justice. I can only recommend that you read it for yourself.

18 June 2018

"First Reformed"

For those growing up in the Reformed Protestant subculture in the Midwest, going to "First Reformed" at 9:45 AM would seem entirely appropriate. Well, maybe 9:30 would have been better but starting with the first question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism would have made up for a late start to the service. Of course, we went to see Paul Schrader's most recent film on a Saturday morning, not a service of divine worship.

In some respects "First Reformed" represents the opposite perspective on contemporary American Christianity to that of "I Can Only Imagine" (here). In a more fundamental sense, however, "First Reformed" represents the personal vision of its director, Paul Schrader. To be sure, Schrader has his primary character, the Dutch Reformed Reverend Toller played by Ethan Hawke, assert early on that he has not lost his faith. Yet, pastor Toller's life as depicted loses whatever vital connection it may have had to the truth of the comforting profession of the Catechism he had recited. As is the case with Schrader himself.

Set in 2017 in the burned-over district of New York, former Army chaplain Toller, whose wife had divorced him after the death of their only child in the war in Iraq, now serves as pastor of the eponymous church/gift shop/tourist stop. First Reformed subsists only at the largess of Abundant Life Church, a nearby mega-church lead by an African-American pastor effectively (under)played by Cedric the Entertainer. Coming up on the 250th anniversary of First Reformed's founding, Abundant Life is promoting a politically star-studded reconsecration service. BALQ industries which, according to whether one believes environmental activists or the company's PR flack, either is or is not one of the leading sources of environmental degradation in the US, is providing the money for the event.

I won't retell the story of the downward spiral of Toller's life as he ignores signs of cancer within and becomes increasingly fixated on the human environmental "cancer." I can say, however, that Schrader's conclusion for the film was a let down. For a film that had pretensions of deep thoughts about the environment, God's simultaneous absence and prospective judgment, and a pastor's increasing personal disintegration, the film ends with a long embrace between Toller and the pregnant widow of an activist who had committed suicide. Schrader seems to suggest that interpersonal love is humanity's best hope. Not God. Not even environmental activism. But love.

Love is surely a great power for good in the world but given what came before, Schrader seems to have run out of creative juice and ends what had been a serious film with 1940s schmaltz. Oh yeah, and after the 360-degree embrace, the film cuts to black and we wait five seconds before the credits roll.

I can't really recommend that folks see "First Reformed." The production values, particularly its cinematography, are very good and for significant stretches "First Reformed" invites us to consider hard questions. In other words, geeky Christians might find it a platform for discussion. Yet in the end, "First Reformed" simply doesn't deliver on its promise.

Calvin on the Nature and Extent of Public Authority

Consider the following selections from John Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion." While far less than a complete statement of Calvin's political theology (or its development over the past 450 years), they go some way toward framing its first steps

4.20.23 Obedience Due ...
From this, a second consequence is, that we must with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens, which relate to the common defence, or in executing any other orders. “Let every soul,” says Paul, “be subject unto the higher powers.” “Whosoever, therefore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Rom. 13:1, 2). Writing to Titus, he says, “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work” (Tit. 3:1). Peter also says, “Submit yourselves to every human creature” (or rather, as I understand it, “ordinance of man”), “for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Pet. 2:13). ... Let no man here deceive himself, since we cannot resist the magistrate without resisting God. For, although an unarmed magistrate may seem to be despised with impunity, yet God is armed, and will signally avenge this contempt. ...

4.20.24 ... Even to an Unjust Magistrate ...
But ... in almost all ages we see that some princes, careless about all their duties on which they ought to have been intent, live, without solicitude, in luxurious sloth; others, bent on their own interest, venally prostitute all rights, privileges, judgments, and enactments; others pillage poor people of their money, and afterwards squander it in insane largesses; others act as mere robbers, pillaging houses, violating matrons, and slaying the innocent; many cannot be persuaded to recognise such persons for princes, whose command, as far as lawful, they are bound to obey. For while in this unworthy conduct, and among atrocities so alien, not only from the duty of the magistrate, but also of the man, they behold no appearance of the image of God, which ought to be conspicuous in the magistrate, while they see not a vestige of that minister of God, who was appointed to be a praise to the good and a terror to the bad, they cannot recognise the ruler whose dignity and authority Scripture recommends to us. ...

4.20.25 ... Because He Represents the Judgment of God ... 
But if we have respect to the word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes... Those ...who domineer unjustly and tyrannically are raised up by him to punish the people for their iniquity. Still all alike possess that sacred majesty with which he has invested lawful power... We need not labour to prove that an impious king is a mark of the Lord’s anger, since I presume no one will deny it, and that this is not less true of a king than of a robber who plunders your goods, an adulterer who defiles your bed, and an assassin who aims at your life, since all such calamities are classed by Scripture among the curses of God. But let us insist at greater length in proving what does not so easily fall in with the views of men, that even an individual of the worst character, one most unworthy of all honour, if invested with public authority, receives that illustrious divine power which the Lord has by his word devolved on the ministers of his justice and judgment, and that, accordingly, in so far as public obedience is concerned, he is to be held in the same honour and reverence as the best of kings.

4.20.32 ... Yet There Are Limits
But in that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! ... If they command anything against Him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates—a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. ...The Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king. ...  So far is the praise of modesty from being due to that pretence by which flattering courtiers cloak themselves, and deceive the simple, when they deny the lawfulness of declining anything imposed by their kings ... I know the imminent peril to which subjects expose themselves by this firmness, kings being most indignant when they are contemned. ... But since Peter, one of heaven’s heralds, has published the edict, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), let us console ourselves with the thought, that we are rendering the obedience which the Lord requires, when we endure anything rather than turn aside from piety.

15 June 2018

The End of the Line for Trinity Western University's Law Program?

As I worried here and here, it turns out that Trinity Western University in Vancouver, British Columbia effectively will not be allowed to add a program in law to its curriculum. You can read the news account of the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada here. (Full text of the judgment here.) 

Along the way there had been a sighting of what turned out to be a false dawn (here) but by a 7-2 vote SCOC held that requiring students to agree not to engage in sexual conduct outside of marriage permitted provincial bar councils (the equivalent of state bar associations in the US) to deny admission of TWU law grads to practice law because, after all, such a pledge "would deter LGBT students from attending the proposed law school, and those who did attend would be at risk of significant harm." Of course, it's not like TWU would have been the only law game in town but no matter. Given that most bar councils do not have the backbone to resist the LGBTQ harridans, there seems little point for TWU to go forward.

And folks wonder why Donald Trump won down here.

(Yes, I know that there's little evidence that The Donald gives a personal rip about freedom of conscience or religious liberty. And yes, I know that there were lots of reasons other than anti-elitist bias not to vote for him (which, as a matter of fact, were sufficient for me) but I hope that virtue-signaling Evangelicals will wake up and smell the coffee and appreciate the genuine concerns of those who did.)

14 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 3: Natural Theology

(For Part 1 go here and for the three-parter on Part 2 go here, here, and here.)

Now that I've demonstrated the bona fides of Reformed Catholicism--that it's catholic--let's go on to look at a specific example, natural theology. Many for good reason might believe that Protestantism generally and the Reformed specifically reject natural theology tout court. Karl Barth and Cornelius Van Til didn't agree on much but they concurred that we can learn nothing true, or virtually nothing, anyway, about God from either the created order or human reason. But the many who think that Barth and Van Til are representative of their tradition would be wrong. Just how wrong could be seen in the papers of Steven Duby and David Haines.

It would be very hard to do justice to Duby's paper, Reformed Catholicity and the Analogy of Being, so I won't try. I can imagine that vast swathes of twentieth-century Reformed theologians would gag at anyone who argued that there was a place for the analogia entis in orthodox Reformed theological circles. But I would suspect that most of the naysayers would not know how theologians in the medieval and early-modern eras understood the concept of the analogy of being. They would likely think that the analogy of being meant that God "had" being and that we somehow shared in the substance of being. Analogy as substantial participation, if you will. But they likely would not have know the careful work of Thomas Aquinas who distinguished three modes predication generally, including the predication of being. Were I to go on I would merely cut and paste what Duby wrote so I'll let you buy the book when it's published later this year (or early next). Okay, one teaser:
In the commentary of the Sentences [of Peter Lombard], he [Thomas] writes that the unity of Creator and creature is "by a community not of univocation but of analogy." Analogical "community," though is twofold: either by posterior things participating in a prior thing or by one thing receiving its existence and ratio from another. God does not participate with creatures in something prior to both himself and creatures ... Later in this commentary, Thomas remarks that univocity assumes a "community according to the ratio of nature" with diversity according to (individual) existence, which community cannot apply in the case of God and creatures ... Accordingly, ... a predicate like being ... is predicated analogically of God and creatures [only] insofar as creatures imperfectly imitate God and are thus "like God" (even as God is, strictly speaking, not "like" creatures).
Those into theology proper will find this helpful and recognize that Protestant theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries would have agreed. Perhaps had Barth and Van Til better understood scholastic distinctions they wouldn't have steered the generations who followed in the wrong direction.

David Haines's paper, The Role of Natural Knowledge in Biblical Interpretation as Key to Solving the Protestant Problem, was, I think the longest of those presented. It was also a work-in-progress. But in a brief summary, what, according to Haines, is the problem and what's his solution?

First, what is "the Protestant problem" anyway? In brief, and citing Karl Rahner, it is that Protestantism "places priority on individual conscience in response to revelation (i.e., the Bible or the Bible plus the experience of salvation) as its defining characteristic. As such it must create the possibility of interpretive difference in doctrine, practice, and polity." In other words, a catholic Protestant is a happy accident.

Second, what's the solution to the every-Protestant-a-Pope problem? For that, Haines turns to natural theology to sort between those beliefs that are primary (and thus catholic) and those with respect to which interpretive pluralism remains an unhappy fact of life. I must admit that while I appreciated Haines's vigorous defense of natural theology, I didn't quite see how it solved the Protestant problem. Oh well, that gives all of us something to which we can look forward as we await publication of the book.

12 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 2: Defining Catholic (3)

(For Parts (1) and (2) of the "Defining Catholic" project go here and here. For Part 1 observations go here.)

This post represents the final one on identifying the "catholic" in Reformed catholicism. Michael Allen, on faculty at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, was the keynote speaker and presented his paper The Central Dogma: Order and Principles for Reformed Catholicity. Together with Scott Swain, Allen is the author of the recent book "Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval in Theology and Biblical Interpretation" (2015). Drawing on the thesis of his book and the theme of the Convivium, Allen argued for two principal points. First, pace Richard Muller (the preeminent scholar of early Protestant historical theology), the initial generations of theologians in the Reformed tradition actually had a "central dogma." And second, this central dogma was part and parcel with the historical catholic tradition.

Most folks might immediately assume that the "central dogma" of the early Reformed theologians was predestination. Muller has successfully debunked the canard that the doctrine of election was the starting point of Reformed theology from which all other doctrines were in some way deduced. The Reformed certainly believed in God's election of some to salvation but this teaching represented the conclusion of close exegesis of the biblical text and not as the a priori from which other doctrines were derived. In fact, Muller contends that exegesis and not doctrine is the "central art" of the Reformed.

Allen did not dispute the centrality of exegesis to the Reformed project but painstakingly demonstrated that there was nonetheless a central dogma. This dogma was the doctrine of God. This doctrine did not, however, function as an abstract, metaphysical starting point for a series of successive speculative conclusions. Instead, the Reformed doctrine of God first found its origin in biblical exegesis and then functioned as an organic root from which other dogmatic, exegetical projects drew sustenance. Drawing on Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, Allen concludes that "the simple fulness of the triune God is the root [not pre-supposition] of Reformed faith and practice." 

For his second contention, Allen showed how the Reformed doctrine of God did not represent an innovation. "While [the doctrine of God] may well be the root of uniquely Reformed claims, this doctrinal prism is generically catholic." Thomas Aquinas, anyone?

Allen went on to spend considerable time developing the exegetical work done by the reformers in the Reformed tradition in which they fleshed out the content of the doctrine of God. In this respect they built on the catholic root of the doctrine without losing sight of the value of the contributions made by those who had lived and worked in earlier generations. Allen ended his paper in the following words:
But this doctrine does advance the glory of Reformed theology and draws us from the outer courts into the Most Holy Place, for the most distinctive thing about Reformed theology is how its thoroughly catholic doctrine of God is applied [ever-more] consistently to the other topics of theology, just as the kingdoms of our thought become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ.
Amen.

07 June 2018

Convivium 2018 Part 2: Defining Catholic (2)

(For "Defining Catholic (1)" go here. For earlier Convivium 2018 posts go here ("It's Ecclesiology, Stupid") and here.)

Mark Olivero titled his paper The Catholicity of Reformed Confessions in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Olivero's thesis is simple: despite differences in national identity, language, culture, and ecclesial commitments in their various regions, the manifold Reformed confessions "display a vibrant catholicity." He considers confessional statements from Reformed churches across fourteen nations and at least five ecclesial traditions over the course of nearly two centuries. Despite this range of resources, Olivero identifies four aspects of common catholicity: a high regard for the early church councils, affirmance of the early creeds and the early church fathers, the principial authority of the Scriptures, and a love for the Church. I won't take the time to develop the support Olivero cites for each of the elements of early Reformed catholicity but suffice it to say that it is extensive.

One might concede that there are significant aspects of catholicity among the Reformed confessions but nonetheless assert that there many discordant, non-catholic elements as well. Anticipating this objection, Olivero observes that the "fact, across the 200 year span ... that there are so few oddities is further witness to their catholicity."

Olivero acknowledged that he could have pursued more aspects of catholicity in these documents (specifically the classical doctrines of God and the doctrine of grace) but what he did goes a substantial way toward establishing that the early confessions of the many Reformed churches were well within the historic catholic tradition.