Cross-listed: Was John Calvin a Liberal?     0

Over at the Political Theology blog, I posted the first of a two part series: Was John Calvin a Liberal?

In recent years, a number of theologians and legal historians have argued that the early modern Reformed tradition was a significant source for the development of various liberal doctrines. Scholars such as Nicholas Wolterstorff, David Little, and John Witte have traced modern doctrines of individual rights and the separation of church and state back to various Calvinist thinkers. Witte has been the most prolific, writing dozens of articles and several books on the topic over the past couple decades. In his most recent book, The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism, Witte argues – even more directly than before – that many of our most deeply-held liberal ideas owe as much to John Calvin (1509-1564) and his theological descendants as to later Enlightenment theorists. This may seem a strange notion to anyone familiar with the common charges against Calvin, the stern Genevan reformer who allegedly presided over his own theocratic city-state. Yet Witte argues that our perceptions of the early Calvinist tradition need to be revised. In fact, while he acknowledges the “grimmer side” of the story – that is, the cases where Calvin and his followers failed to protect the rights and religious liberties of others – Witte believes that in many cases, the political thought of this tradition was “more progressive” than its contemporaries. Further, he contends that the modern separation of church and state (and the distinction between public and private morality that undergirds it) can be traced back to Calvin himself….

Bookmarks ed. 10     0

  • NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel has been writing some fascinating reviews on moral philosophy and psychology recently. The latest in the Nagel Offensive: The Taste for Being Moral — reviewing Jonathan Haidt’s reductionist psychology (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion) and Michael Rosen’s moral deontology (Dignity: Its History and Meaning).
  • In The National Review, G.W. Bowersock writes on How Christianity Spread: the 1% and the 99% in Ancient Rome, a wonderful review of Peter Brown’s magisterial new book, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD.

    Through the Eye of a Needle is a tremendous achievement, even for a scholar who has already achieved so much. Its range is as vast as its originality, and readers will find everywhere the kinds of memorable aperçus and turns of phrase for which its author is deservedly famous. What is unusual about this work is its structure. The argument emerges in short segments, sound bites for readers, which are then compounded into large chapters. This means that nowhere does a long and elaborate treatment of a complex theme impede the movement of the overall exposition. The various parts are held together by a thread that the author himself provides through numerous programmatic statements of what he is trying to do as he goes along. These statements, usually cast in the first-person plural, serve as welcome guideposts. They are reminders that Peter Brown is one of the greatest teachers of our time. His unique and irresistible ability to guide auditors and readers, to tease, enchant, and instruct them, is fully on display here. There can be no doubt that we are in the presence of a historian and teacher of genius.

  • A retrospective interview with Frederick Buechner, perhaps the second greatest east coast Protestant novelist of the 20th century: Pay Attention to Your Life.
  • Wesley Hill reviews Ben Myers’ new book on Rowan Williams, Christ the Stranger.

    … it’s worth noting that Williams remains frustratingly inaccessible to many readers, almost infamously so. At the last meeting of my Williams reading group, one of the members, a priest—himself an agile thinker and able theologian—confessed in dismay, “I’m afraid I had trouble grasping this essay!” According to a recent introduction to Williams’ theology, Christ the Stranger by Benjamin Myers, that difficulty is intentional. For Williams, speaking of and to God involves pain, confusion, darkness. “God,” Williams once wrote, “is what we have not yet understood, the sign of a strange and unpredictable future.” No wonder, then, that writing that presumes to gesture towards this God would be correspondingly strange, demanding, and elusive.

  • Over at The Immanent Frame, Michael Warner reviews John Modern and his new book on varieties of antebellum American secularism :

    …Few books illustrate this tension between analytic distance and normative involvement more than John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. It is an imaginative and intelligent engagement with the critical literature I have been referring to, including the very different intellectual programs of Talal Asad and Charles Taylor. Modern’s book is also argumentatively elusive, presenting itself as a series of studies rather than consecutive exposition. The case studies are not what one might predict, given the title: evangelical understandings of mass media; the development of the category of “spirituality” in the matrix of phrenologists and spiritualists; prison reform at Sing Sing; and fantasies about machines—with fragmentary comments on Moby-Dick throughout.

A trans-Atlantic recommendation     0

For anyone interested in masters programs in theological ethics, take note of the new MTh offered at the University of Aberdeen. The institution has been adding quality faculty over the past several years — most recently, Bernd Wannenwetsch and my friend Michael Mawson. The systematics area was already one of the strongest around, and the recent hires should make Aberdeen one of the premiere places to study Bonhoeffer and Barth, as well as practical and theological ethics in general.

From the department’s formal announcement:

We are pleased to announce a new one-year Master’s in Theological Ethics degree at the University of Aberdeen.  Aberdeen’s department of Divinity is currently one of the top-ranked theology program in the UK, and recent appointments in the areas of Systematic Theology and Theological Ethics have further strengthened the department. The Theological Ethics area emphasizes fundamental texts and thinkers in the Christian tradition for engaging contemporary issues and debates.  For more information:

If you have questions or are interested in applying to the MTh degree feel free to contact Professor Bernd Wannenwetsch, Dr Brian Brock or Dr MichaelMawson.  We will also be happy to meet with prospective students at the American Academy of Religion meeting (in Chicago in November 2012) or the Society of Christian Ethics meeting (in Chicago in January 2013).

In addition, we would be happy to discuss funding options for both prospective Master’s and doctoral students.  Among other things, there will be doctoral funding in the two following two interdisciplinary collaborations: ‘Normativity – Nature, Narrative and Nihilism’ and ‘Transitional Justice, Peace and Reconciliation.’  We would be interested in supporting Welcome Trust applications for students hoping to work in the area of bioethics. Finally, we are willing to support external funding applications for especially strong proposals.  For additional information on funding:

Bookmarks ed. 9     0

  • Video: From Princeton Seminary’s conference on Scottish Common Sense and American Natural Law: Jennifer Herdt’s plenary address asks some probing questions about the Reformed natural law tradition: “Calvin’s Legacy for Contemporary Reformed Natural Law.” (See also John Bowlin’s response questions toward the end.)
  • Audio: Jeff Stout goes full-out sermonic while calling out the Kuyperian Left in “Christianity and Class Struggle.”

    …They recognize that domination rarely crumbles unless an organized opposition calls it to account. They fight when necessary and reconcile later. They are aiming for a beloved community, but are not shy about using power, relational power they call it, to get there. Other congregations would rather be nice, first and last. Talk of power makes them nervous.  They want reconciliation on the cheap. Hold the agon. Hold the accountability. Their pastors preach benevolence. Their ministries enact it without ever mussing their hair. Conservatives, liberals, and radicals alike pour sugar water over the rotting carcass of laissez faire. Some libertarians wear wingtips, others wear sandals. Niceness is love that has forgotten captivity in Egypt, and torture on an empire’s cross. The money-changers in the temple are unperturbed. [Transcribed from the audio.]

  • Steven Wedgeworth offers a friendly critique of Peter Leithart’s latest, Between Babel and Beast (hint: Radical Orthodoxy is a wedge issue). See also Brad Littlejohn’s brief rejoinder.
  • Over at TLS, Diarmaid Macculloch reviews a new book by R.I. Moore that unravels many of the assumptions that surround our view of medieval heresy, and the relation between faith and power:

    When such dualists arrived from the East (so the story ran), their evangelization for the cause of purity produced the Cathars. The Catholic Church then put up a fight against Cathar condemnations of the physical, not merely in a selfish desire to preserve the power of the Catholic clerical hierarchy, with its all too physical lands and wealth, but from a more admirable concern to defend basic Christian beliefs: the fleshliness of Jesus Christ, born of a woman, and the divine presence within the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the central act of worship for all Christians. It all seemed to make sense. Modern Christians repelled by Montségur and the inquisitions could at least understand that there was a serious matter of principle at issue, while romantic non-believers could relish the idea of a secret religion suppressed by nasty Catholic inquisitors (Freemasons have often got very excited by that thought). The Knights Templar, so cruelly suppressed in the fourteenth century, gained a free ride on the back of this conspiracy theory, and so our tourist in the Midi could add Dan Brown’s Technicolor oeuvre to his pile of guidebooks.