As I mentioned yesterday, I recently read Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition. I noted then how I found several points from the book helpful and engaging, particularly as he questions some of the post-Enlightenment formulations on which modern research universities are based.

A few things seemed puzzling to me, however, in that he seems to play right into the Enlightenment inspired problems that he decries. For instance, by only preferencing a generic theism, I felt his call for a distinctively Catholic voice in the conversation was muted and even deficient. That is, if you almost never talk about specifically Christian doctrine, then how can you contribute a Christian voice to this open conversation? Let me offer a few examples:

  • Key Christian ideas are ignored or only barely mentioned. Based on my e-search through the book, the most distinctive claims of Christianity–Jesus’ death and/or resurrection–are never mentioned. The Trinity as essential to historic Christian faith and philosophy or the role of Jesus as fundamental for forming a Christian anthropology are briefly mentioned in passing, only a couple of times, throughout the whole historical section, which takes up over two-thirds of the book. Yet, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al. would have never conceived of metaphysics, epistemology, etc. without reference to the specifically Christian claims and debates related to the Trinity, incarnation and atonement. The generic recourse to “theism” without specific Christian content therefore appears to reflect a post-Enlightenment, least-common-denominator God.
  • MacIntyre regularly speaks of the “secular” world when speaking of patristic and medieval Catholic philosopher-theologians, and this appears to betray a post-Enlightenment dichotomy between sacred and secular. Of course, Augustine can speak of the City of God vs the City of Man, which might seem to allow this, but he and other pre-modern thinkers would have placed all this in an ordered cosmos rather than a flat secular universe (I’m thinking of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, one of my current favorite books). Thus, to separate philosophy into the secular and theology into the sacred would be to demonstrate a post-Enlightenment separation rather than a pre-modern ordered hierarchy of ontology, epistemology, etc.
  • Though he mentions three big issues, he only focus on the second. Thus, the human (rather than God) takes center stage in his discussion. He essentially leaves behind the problem of evil, which would provide a obvious lens on the specifically Christian perspective on this discussion, and he repeatedly returns to the question of human composition, of the relationship of body and soul. This not an unimportant question, but the Christological debates about Jesus’ humanity radically shaped these discussions in the history of Catholic thought. At the same time, the anthropological focus rather than a theological focus reflects a post-Enlightenment perspective rather than one shaped by the Catholic tradition.

Though he regularly notes how the tradition sees philosophy or reason as inadequate on its own, and therefore in need of revelation, his consistent lack of any engagement with what revelation actually has to say (or with how the tradition engages the content of revelation) appears to show that revelation has little or no place in the actual practice of philosophy. That might be true for contemporary post-Enlightenment “Christian” philosophy, but it surely isn’t for Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, et al. who spent as much and even more time writing commentary on scripture as doing philosophy. (This is the exact kind of separation that led Karl Barth to reject a natural theology.)

My critique of MacIntyre is not based on my desire to have one, right, Orthodox Christian voice that only coheres with certain interpretations of special revelation. But to ignore the most foundational tenets of Christianity, much less the specific contribution Catholic Christianity makes, leaves me wondering what contribution does Christianity actually make other than providing some key figures in the history of ideas. I contend that the best conversations arise out of robust discussions, where particularities don’t have to be erased. Thus, a distinctively Catholic Christian voice should have a seat at the table of ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, and it need not denude itself of anything distinctly Catholic or Christian. If our post-Modern context has shown us anything, it is that our particularities make us unique. So, while we can and should have robust conversations with a variety of partners, it need not be based on a bland, least-common-denominator basis, but one that is honest about the history and current position from which one comes. This includes highlighting points of commonality with others, but is therefore not limited to it.

One very enjoyable aspect of my work at HBU is a reading group that I participate in. It draws primarily from other faculty in other arts and humanities disciplines: history, government, classics, music, honors college, philosophy, etc. We read a variety of texts drawing from diverse genres and time periods–Gilead, Thomas Nagel, King Lear, etc. Tonight we discussed Alasdair MacIntyre’s God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition.

In this short and engaging book, he gives a history of the Catholic philosophical tradition and then proposes a way forward for situating Catholic philosophy in the context of modern universities. The survey of the philosophical quest is appropriately selective, as he explains several of the key figures in the history of western philosophy (including Muslim and Jewish ones) and their contributions. One key theme is the question of the relationship of theology to philosophy, or we might say special and general revelation. He also notes three key issues that will serve as a delimiting lens on the discussion: the problem of evil, the independence of finite beings, and how to speak meaningfully about God. It is the second question that gets most attention as he returns to the question of the relationship to soul and body and to the question of the temporal vs eternal existence of the world.

As a positive contribution, I thought the summary of philosophical history served as a nice refresher on the historical progression. Integral to his argument is that (mono)theistic faith traditions share central common foundations and questions. This, therefore, helps foster conversations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims since we have common concerns. He also rightly argued that religion does not need to be minimized in the questions and research of a modern university. Accordingly, he questions some of the post-Enlightenment formulations on which modern research universities are based.

I’ll comment on my critiques tomorrow.


Douglas Moo Douglas CampbellIf you live in Chicago-land, you may be interested in the debate, “Paul on Justification: Is the Lutheran Approach to Pauline Justification ‘Justified'”?, between Douglas Campbell and Douglas Moo. The free event is being organized by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding and will be held 7:00-8:30pm, Thursday, February 12th, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School’s ATO Chapel. Here is the official add:

Martin Luther and other reformers viewed Pauline justification as primarily, if not exclusively, a forensic matter between us and God. We are justified before God, through faith in Jesus Christ, according to his finished work on the cross. If one believes the gospel message, then one is justified before God. Reconciliation (with God and with other humans) is a necessary implication of justification but is not part of justification as such. New perspectives on Paul have challenged this account of justification (both historically and exegetically). Rather than being merely a forensic matter focused on human salvation and its relationship to divine satisfaction, this approach suggests that Pauline justification is essentially about human liberation and the reconciliation of people one with another. On this view, Pauline justification means that Christians are justified when they participate in a realized eschatology within Christ, through the Spirit, working out their salvation within the empirical context of a life ministry of reconciliation with other humans beings. Supplementary questions of the debate include “What is justification according to Paul?” “How does it fit into the rest of Paul’s theological understanding?” and “Is a ministry of reconciliation essential to or consequential of Pauline justification?”



I see that the REF 2014 results were released today, so I was very interested to see how the various departments around the UK performed for Theology and Religious Studies. (For those that are not aware, the UK rates the research output for each of the university departments to help determine funding.) For some reason they don’t provide a weighted ranking of the departments, so I’ve done a quick assessment based on the overall percentages given a 0-4 ranking based on the recognized excellence at a national vs international level (see description at the bottom). I was surprised by some of the overall rankings especially given the previous results (see below), but I’ll reserve commentary here and just provide the results. The GPA is the weighted average of the 0-4 ranking. You’ll see that Durham is the top ranked department, just as it was for the most recent previous exercise: the 2008 RAE.

2014 REF Overall Results for Theology and Religious Studies Departments

% of the submission meeting the standard for:
University GPA 4* 3* 2* 1* U/C FTE
Average (FTE Weighted) 2.91 28 40 27 5 0 12.5
University of Durham 3.34 50 35 14 1 0 24.8
University of Birmingham 3.26 51 28 17 4 0 9.0
Lancaster University 3.15 42 33 23 2 0 22.3
University College London 3.15 37 41 22 0 0 7.0
University of Leeds 3.15 33 49 18 0 0 10.8
University of Cambridge 3.12 34 46 19 0 1 24.4
University of Kent 3.11 38 37 23 2 0 7.9
University of Edinburgh 3.09 34 44 19 3 0 26.6
King’s College London 3.08 39 37 18 5 1 26.0
Cardiff University 3.06 33 43 21 3 0 8.6
School of Oriental and African Studies 3.04 29 49 20 1 1 14.3
University of Oxford 3.02 34 38 24 4 0 32.7
University of Exeter 3.01 21 62 14 3 0 11.2
University of Nottingham 3.01 30 44 23 3 0 15.7
University of Manchester 2.97 28 47 20 4 1 14.5
University of Sheffield 2.93 21 51 28 0 0 4.0
University of St Andrews 2.93 31 31 38 0 0 14.0
University of Aberdeen 2.88 29 39 24 7 1 19.0
University of Bristol 2.85 21 45 32 2 0 8.6
Heythrop College 2.82 22 40 36 2 0 15.8
Open University 2.71 18 35 47 0 0 6.0
University of Wales Trinity Saint David 2.64 14 48 26 12 0 8.2
University of Glasgow 2.56 11 44 35 10 0 10.9
Canterbury Christ Church University 2.52 6 47 40 7 0 9.0
Roehampton University 2.47 16 27 45 12 0 6.8
Liverpool Hope University 2.37 9 37 38 14 2 14.9
University of Chester 2.35 8 27 57 8 0 11.1
University of Winchester 2.33 6 36 43 15 0 8.4
University of Gloucestershire 2.21 3 30 52 15 0 5.3
St Mary’s University, Twickenham 2.2 9 26 41 24 0 4.8
York St John University 2.07 2 23 57 16 2 7.0
Leeds Trinity University 1.99 0 34 32 33 1 3.5
Newman University 1.79 0 26 28 45 1 2.0

For a quick comparison, here are the top 5 of the 2008 RAE Results:

% of the submission meeting the standard for:
University GPA 4* 3* 2* 1* U/C FTE
University of Durham 3.00 40 25 30 5 0 19
University of Aberdeen 2.95 15 65 20 0 0 18
University of Cambridge 2.90 35 25 35 5 0 32
University of Oxford 2.90 30 35 30 5 0 41
University College London 2.90 30 40 20 10 0 7.2

GPA – Weighted average of the % of the submission meeting the standard for:

  • 4* Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • 3* Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
  • 2* Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • 1* Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • Unclassified Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

FTE – Full Time Equivalent faculty members who rated

This is good: Hitler on Wright and Piper

HT: Joel Willits

But I also really like what my students have prepared:

One of the hottest theological topics is Calvinism and Arminianism. The debate divides churches, and denominations like the Southern Baptists have been at odds over it for some time. One thing that bothers me about this whole discussion is that it seems to operate from a mistaken understanding of divine and human agency.

In his excellent introduction to the volume Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment, John Barclay outlines three models of divine and human agency, two of which are relevant to this issue:

1) Competitive: In this model divine and human action negate each other. When God acts the human is passive; when the human acts God is passive. Barclay writes, ‘Divine sovereignty and human freedom are mutually exclusive; human freedom must be understood as freedom from God’ (p.6).

2) Non-contrastive transcendence: According to this model, divine sovereignty indicates that God works outside the realm of the human agent. Humans act out of their own freedom. The two agents do not negate each other since they operate on different levels. Barclay writes, ‘The two agencies stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God’ (p.7).

The debate about Calvinism and Arminianism operates in the first model. Both views treat the two agents as opposing agents. Calvinists stress divine agency, not only because humans are sinners, but because any action that is attributed to humans impinges on God’s sovereignty. Arminianists emphasise the human agent in order to uphold human freedom. In both views the actions of one agent impinge on the other. True human freedom is only established and maintained in the absence of divine action. Conversely, divine freedom and sovereignty is only established and maintained in the absence of human action.

I wonder, though, if this competitive understanding of divine and human agency is right. Paul’s view seems more in line with the ‘non-contrastive transcendence’ perspective when he writes of grace (1 Cor 15.10) or the Spirit (Rom 8.4-13) working in him and believers in general. Paul holds that human action is established and maintained precisely because God is at work in believers. It is not an either-or, but a both-and. In his book Faith and Perseverance Berkouwer writes,

Preserving ourselves is not an independent thing that is added paradoxically to the divine preservation. God’s preservation and our self-preservation do not stand in mere coordination, but in a marvellous way they are in correlation. One can formulate it best in this way: our preservation of ourselves is entirely oriented to God’s preservation of us. (p.104)

If we shifted the philosophical model behind the Calvinist-Arminian debate, I wonder if it could bring about different conclusions and clarify how the salvation process works and the place of the divine and human agents in it.

In my experience one basic problem with contemporary preaching is that most preachers are poor speakers. Not only do many of them not have a good command of their subject matter, but they give relatively little time to thinking about how to present the material. This could stem from several reasons, for example: a lack of confidence when speaking publicly; lack of time to prepare; or a rejection of the idea that a sermon should be well delivered. The first of these can be overcome with time. The second arises because of the general downplaying of the sermon in many of today’s churches. The role of the pastor-preacher has shifted away from the preaching of God’s Word to an administrator who manages church resources and staff. Ministers find all their time occupied by hospital visits or counselling sessions . Well these things are important (and I don’t want to downplay their signficance), the focus on them as the key components of a minister’s responsiblities reveals a shift away from preaching.

The third point stems from a misunderstanding and misuse of Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 2.1-5:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (ESV)

This text is taken to mean that Paul didn’t give attention to how he spoke and whether he attempted to speak persuasively or not. Such a reading misses the contextual issues at play in the Corinthian church and overlooks the way in which Paul composes his letters.

The outcome of such neglect of speaking well, though, is that many people find the sermon boring and powerless, which breds the sense that the sermon is irrelevant to our contemporary lives. The striking thing, though, is that the ‘monologue’ is still a key element of public speaking in other fields. Political speeches are still highly valued, while people will listen to lectures from famous academics on subjects about which they know very little. The reason people listen to these others is because they speak well.

I think that the sermon has a vital role in the future of the church and the development of disciples. One key to recovering the power of the spoken Word is for ministers to give attention to how they speak. There has been signficant discussion about this in recent years, and a good place to start is the recent blog post by Ian Paul ‘Rhetoric in Preaching’, which draws attention to the place of rhetoric in contemporary society and in current reflections on preaching. He concludes by drawing attention to the practical implications of preaching persuasively:

Given the sense of growing hostility to Christian faith, the importance of good, persuasive, engaging preaching is not just about satisfying religious consumers in the supermarket of faith. Increasingly, Christians in the West need to have good reasons for what they believe, and encouraging faith involves continually making a persuasive case for trusting in God.

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