Fundamentalism

“The word is prejudicial, ambiguous, explosive and in every way unhelpful to discussion. It does not clarify; it merely confuses. It is only in use today because critics of Evangelicalism have dragged it up. For the rest of our argument we shall abandon it, and speak of Evangelicalism simply. We would plead that in future others will do the same.” (40)

So hoped J. I. Packer in Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958). And yet, it would appear that Packer’s hopes have yet to be fulfilled. All too often the words ‘Fundamentalist’ and ‘Fundamentalism’ continue to be bandied about in Christian and theological discourse without any kind of care or precision. The word is, in a word, clumsy. And in an age of growing biblical and theological illiteracy we would be better off without using such ambiguous terms. The gospel needs to be clarified not obscured and we should reflect this in our theological discourse.

Alvin Plantinga highlights problems with the word ‘Fundamentalism’ in his book Warranted Christian Belief and deserves to be quoted at length.

“But isn’t all this just endorsing a wholly outmoded and discredited fundamentalism, that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived? I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind [Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology]. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse and disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because of its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.”

I think Plantinga has captured the meaning of the term as its often used rather well.  And it serves to emphasize what J. I. Packer said over half a century ago. The word is imprecise. To some extent we are all fundamentalists in that we hold to what we believe to be fundamental. So either as a term of derision, or as a term that seeks to capture the nature of certain beliefs, the word seems entirely unhelpful.

(Below: Alvin Plantinga)

Alvin Plantinga

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Initial thoughts on ‘Christ the Key’

I’ve recently finished reading Kathryn Tanner’s book Christ the Key. Tanner puts forward an original systematic theology of participation rooted, as the title suggests, in Christology, most notably the doctrine of the Incarnation.  At numerous points I found myself nodding and “hmming” in agreement, but then at other times I found myself singing Tim Vine’s song ‘Alarm Bells’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcFd5j1cios).

I think Tanner’s emphasis on union with God through union with Christ is, to some extent, correct. To fully enjoy everything that God has created us for we not only need transformation but union with God. But the alarm bells went off when it became clear that Tanner took this intuition in a rather unusual direction.

For example, in her chapter on ‘Death and Sacrifice’ she writes,

“Rejection and death stand in the way of the mission and must be overcome in a resurrected life that moves through and beyond death.” (251)

and,

“It is true that obedience unto death is a proof of supreme dedication, but death, in and of itself, is an impediment to the mission and not in any positive way its positive culmination.” (251)

Tanner’s aim is to place the mission of Jesus in less of a cross-centered framework and within a system defined and developed incarnationally. The motivation for this re-framing of Jesus’ mission becomes readily apparent in the following quote.

“Incarnation becomes the primary mechanism of atonement. Such a mechanism replaces altogether vicarious satisfaction and penal substitution, with their obvious problems from both feminist and non-feminist points of view; and provides a different underpinning than usual for the Christus Victor and happy exchange models.” (252)

While it might be true that Tanner’s system offers a quick fix for the problems facing substitutionary models of atonement, I doubt that her emphasis on the incarnation as the mechanism of atonement is an entirely accurate representation of the biblical data. The NT consistently affirms that the cross was the goal of Jesus’ mission. While the incarnation is an essential part of that saving event, it is on the cross that Jesus definitively resolves the sin problem (cf. 1 Jn. 4:10; Heb. 10:14, Rom. 3, 4, 5 and 8; Col. 2:15, etc.). The new covenant is in his blood (Mt 26:28). Jesus continuously refers to his ‘hour’, that hour referring to his passion and death (Mt 26:45). It is for good reason that the Gospels have been labelled “Passion Narratives with extended introductions” (McCall, Forsaken, 94, quoting Martin Kahler). It seems pretty clear then, that the mission of Jesus is particularly focused on the cross.

How is it then, that Tanner has strayed so far from what appears to be an NT given, i.e. that the Logos became incarnate so as to save us by his death and resurrection? It seems to me like Tanner’s view of atonement is the result of the way in which she characterizes the problem of the human condition. As with all doctors, the medicine is offered in response to a particular diagnosis of a problem. It seems to me that the reason Tanner seems to go so far wrong in her understanding of atonement and Jesus’ mission is the result of a misdiagnosis.

Rather than locating the primary problem of the human condition in human sinfulness, she instead views the problem as inherent in the creator/creature distinction. The problem with human beings isn’t primarily sinfulness, but, as with all creatures, the problem is their inability to properly image God, their creator. In which case, the solution to the problem must be understood in terms of God’s giving creatures his own life. God needs to unify himself with creation in such a way as to enable perfect human imaging.

Tanner writes, “Nature, rather than sin, is the primary reference point for understanding grace and in that respect, it is true, the position is not especially Protestant. Human beings need grace to become images of God, not because they are sunk in sin but because they cannot be images of any strong sort simply in virtue of what they are.” (58-59)

And this, it seems to me, is a perfect summary of the misdiagnosis. While Tanner offers a system of incredible depth, breadth and complexity it misses the mark because of this initial understanding of the human problem. While there isn’t time to unpack this problem here, I think it clear that this doesn’t entirely reflect the problem as outlined in Genesis and elsewhere, i.e. that separation from God isn’t rooted in the nature of what it means to be a creature, but is a result of human sinfulness. Further, it seems to me that the system is overly indebted to a Platonist metaphysics as well as implying that God’s creation has an inherent flaw. This only scratches the surface of Tanner’s theological contribution in Christ the Key but I think it should be apparent that there are some interesting problems here.

Christ the Key

A Review of ‘Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians’ by Oliver Crisp

There is a YouTube channel popular among board gamers called Shut Up and Sit Down. Invariably, in each review, they will produce what they have aptly called Reference Pear. The Reference Pear is, well, a pear, used for reference. It helps the viewer view things in perspective, it gives the viewer an idea of the size and shape of game components, as well as a better understanding of Reference Pear itself (and it’s never ending quest to take over the world).

Oliver Crisp opts for a similar approach to his discussion of the theology of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is brought into dialogue with a number of theological reference pears. Among them are notable figures from the broad swathe of Christian tradition including: Anselm of Canterbury, Jacob Arminius, John Girardeau (who I’ve only just heard of), and Joseph Bellamy, amongst others mentioned in passing. It is because of this emphasis on dialogue and comparison that I’ve found this volume one of the better introductions to Edwards’s thought. Crisp gives us a well-rounded evaluation of Edwards’ theology by contextualizing his thought in relation to theologians past and present. By doing this, Crisp not only helps us to understand Edwards better, he also helps us to better understand his interlocutors. One of the most interesting chapters in this regard is the one on creation comparing the thought of Arminius and Edwards. In contrast to the popular claims of Reformed theologians, Arminius turns out to be the more orthodox of the two. Additionally, Crisp’s chapter on Edwards’s defence of the traditional Reformed understanding of original sin is equally enlightening. This chapter demonstrates Edwards’s philosophical theology at its best. By making some interesting metaphysical tweaks to his doctrine of humanity and creation Edwards manages to retain a highly contested doctrine. Other interesting chapters include a comparison between Edwardsian determinism and the libertarian Calvinism of John Girardeau. There is an additional chapter explicating Edwards’s development of a philosophical category of excellence. The category of excellence that Edwards develops is conceived as a kind of relational property. God, being perfectly excellent, must therefore be essentially relational. In this way Edwards provides a metaphysically imaginative argument for the doctrine of the Trinity.

The more eccentric features of Edwardsian theology, having been treated in the main section of the book, are brought out and summarized in the last chapter. Here Crisp notes some of the major difficulties relating to Edwards’s combination of Absolute Simplicity, an Occasionalist doctrine of creation and panentheistic idealism. In this chapter, On the Orthodoxy of Jonathan Edwards, Crisp doesn’t opt to bring Edwards into dialogue with anyone in particular and this feels jarring after the predominantly dialogical format of the previous chapters, but the chapter does helpfully sum up Edwards theology. Further, the other chapters that don’t treat Edwards dialogically, (namely the one on Edwards’s preaching) while initially feeling out of place, serve to contextualize, humanize and summarize Edwards thought in a helpful way.

Jonathan Edwards

Overall then, I think this book is a great help for understanding Edwardsian theology. At the same time it also serves as an excellent model for dialogical and constructive systematic theology. The great strength of this book, as has already been said, is its dialogical approach. At the same time it recommends Edwards’s theology in a way that is helpful for contemporary systematics. Wholly apart from Edwards’s interesting theological system (despite its flaws), Edwards demonstrates the great constructive power (as well as some of the pitfalls) of bringing the tools of philosophical analysis into dialogue with a theology committed to reformed orthodoxy. Unlike his contemporary, John Locke, Edwards is able to bring to traditional Reformed Orthodoxy considerable theological depth and clarity by developing that orthodoxy in tandem with Enlightenment philosophy. The value of such depth and clarity is made clear when one places that project within Edwards’s preaching in the midst of New England revival. Doctrine is affective. One of the best evangelistic tools is a clear proclamation of the truth.

 

You can find Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jonathan-Edwards-Theologians-Oliver-2015-12-17/dp/B01A0BR5VA