Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lincoln's Providential Role?


I thought that I was done with Lincoln until such time as I've seen the new film by Spielberg, but I read a review by Christopher Sullivan, "Abraham Lincoln's Faith, 'Battle With God,' Explored In New Book" (Huffington Post, December 12, 2012), which has some interesting details about a new book by Stephen Mansfield, the one depicted above:
Textbooks often freeze and simplify Lincoln's religion, making him merely a "skeptic, ever religiously uncertain," Mansfield writes in "Lincoln's Battle with God." "The truth is that Lincoln was, in fact, a religious pilgrim" . . . . As we follow Lincoln's journey through life, it's a revelation to read how candid and forthcoming he could be about his state of mind and soul . . . . In his 20s, freed from the strict Calvinistic beliefs of his father and other youthful religious influences -- including the wild enthusiasms of revival meetings -- Lincoln for a time vehemently and publicly rejected the religious givens of contemporary America . . . . Lincoln became known for his hard line. But when he went so far as to write a "little book on Infidelity," attacking the divinity of Christ and the inspiration of the Bible, and then announced that he hoped to publish it, . . . . [a friend] "snatched it from Lincoln's hand" and burned the manuscript.
Reportedly, the friend didn't want to see Lincoln ruin a promising career, and perhaps he was right to react so, for Lincoln surely could not have become president with such a book to his name, and his views changed, anyway, as he grew older:
Two ministers whose writing he admired and whom he sought out personally shaped his thinking, and he continued to read and study the Bible, a habit learned from his mother. Though he never joined any church, he attended Sunday services of his wife's Presbyterian congregation in Washington -- and even a Tuesday evening prayer meeting, listening from the pastor's office so as not to be distracted . . . . He came to see the unrelenting carnage of the Civil War as God's judgment and punishment for slavery, as he says in his second inaugural shortly before his assassination.
My guess -- though I have little reason to imagine that I'm right -- is that Lincoln could not bear the moral weight of the Civil War upon his shoulders alone and thus returned, in part, to the Calvinist faith of his father, seeking meaning for his role in one of history's great tragic episodes of flawed justice by attributing its dire purposes to Providence, and he himself merely participating in a role for which he'd been born and shaped but had not chosen.

I wonder if I'm right . . .

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Impaired Free Will

Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention should be focused on celebrating the first African-American president of its denomination -- one originally formed in support of slavery -- but it's being distracted by a debate over a so-called "semi-Pelagian" heresy in its midst. The Calvinists and Arminians are not at each other's throats on this one, but are together throttling the common Baptist-in-the-Pew understanding of free will and sinful nature. According to "A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation," which presents the average church-going Baptist's view:

We affirm that, because of the fall of Adam, every person inherits a nature and environment inclined toward sin and that every person who is capable of moral action will sin. Each person's sin alone brings the wrath of a holy God, broken fellowship with Him, ever-worsening selfishness and destructiveness, death, and condemnation to an eternity in hell.

We deny that Adam's sin resulted in the incapacitation of any person's free will or rendered any person guilty before he has personally sinned. While no sinner is remotely capable of achieving salvation through his own effort, we deny that any sinner is saved apart from a free response to the Holy Spirit's drawing through the Gospel.

This is the common understanding of lay Baptists, but how these two statements fit together is not entirely clear. Hence the joined forces of Calvinists and Arminians, though the latter are surely closer to this typical understanding of Baptists in the pews.

The interesting crux is this: Every person purportedly inherits a sinful nature and invariably commits sinful acts, yet the free will of each person is not in any way incapacitated by this sinful nature. How do these two positions fit together, exactly? If a fallen person's free will is not incapacitated, then why couldn't the person be saved through correct moral choices? In other words, why would one need a savior? This would be the so-called Pelagian heresy. Among the Southern Baptists, however, both Calvinists and Arminians point identify a slightly different heretical view:

[B]oth Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler and George W. Truett Theological Seminary professor Roger Olson, . . . [Calvinist and Arminian, respectively,] said that parts of the document sound like semi-Pelagianism, a traditionally heretical understanding of Christian salvation.

Semi-Pelagianism differs from Pelagianism in that while both affirm that the individual freely makes the first step toward God, semi-Pelagianism makes this a step toward acceptance of saving grace, whereas Pelagianism makes this the first of a series of steps by which one attains moral perfection and thereby saves oneself.

The Calvinists deny free will, which raises the question as to why an unfree person should be held morally culpable.

The Arminians affirm free will, but hold that it is impaired and requires assistance through prevenient grace, given to all, which enables the person to choose to accept saving grace, or so I've been led to understand by my shallow delving into this issue. This avoids the semi-Pelagian threat by affirming that God, not the human being, makes the first move in the initial step toward salvation by extending prevenient grace.

I'm not theologically sophisticated enough to know the finer points of these dogmas, but since my background is Southern Baptist, the issues intrigue me, so perhaps someone more knowledgeable than I could explicate these differences in finer-grained detail.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

"Total Depravity" and Romans 1:20

Adolfo García de la Sienra
(Image from Metanexus Institute)

I have had a LinkedIn site for about a year now because an old Baylor friend wanted to link to me, but I did little with it until recently, when I began filling in my page with a few details, including my publications.

I decided to fill it in with more details only after I received a link request from Adolfo García de la Sienra, professor of philosophy and economic theory at Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. I'm not sure why he wanted a link . . . though I might have had contact with him several years ago when I was doing some research concerning John Milton's views on divine grace and human free will, for his name is somehow familiar to me.

Anyway, I had a bit of time to spare when I received his link request, so I took a look at his paper on "Christian Faith as Trust" (Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Volume 2, Issue 1, 2010) and noticed that in one of his quotes from the Greek New Testament, he'd left off a verb. I therefore sent him a note on that and asked a few questions:
I read your article "Christian Faith as Trust" a few moments ago. Interesting, if a bit over my head. I happened to notice that your quote of Romans 1:19 on page 15B was missing the Greek verb "ἐφανέρωσεν" (showed [aorist]). This verb, by the way, is aorist.

The translation is not greatly affected, though I would use past (made it plain) rather than present perfect (has made it plain). Here are verses 19-20:
1:19 διότι τὸ γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς ὁ γὰρ θεὸς αὐτοῖς ἐφανέρωσεν

1:20 τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται ἥ τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἀναπολογήτους.
I have a question, however. The translation of "καθορᾶται" in verse 20 is given as "have been clearly seen" in your paper, but this is a present tense and should read "are clearly seen." Does this affect your argument, which seems to depend upon God's eternal power and divine nature to have been "originally visible, manifest and evident to all men" (emphasis mine)? The verb "καθορᾶται" would seem to imply that God's eternal power and divine nature are currently "visible, manifest and evident to all men."

I hope that this email is of some use.
I received an answer fairly quickly:
Your translation makes sense to me and I will certainly take it into account in my Spanish translation of the paper. The point is that God's eternal power and divine nature "are there" to be seen by men. The problem is that men can't see it due to a corruption of their spirit caused by sin. This is what Reformed theology calls "total depravity" (an inappropriate term for a clear concept). Spiritual regeneration removes this incapacity.
I understand his point. However, I don't see that this passage in Romans provides strong evidence for the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) view. Look again at Romans chapter 1, verse 20, quoting this time from the Morphological Greek New Testament (though it looks to be identical this time to the Textus Receptus):
τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται ἥ τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἀναπολογήτους.
I'll just borrow a translation from the New King James Version:
For since the creation of the world His invisible [attributes] are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.
As I noted above, the translation of "καθορᾶται" in verse 20 reads "are clearly seen." The Greek verb comes from καθοράω and means "to see thoroughly, perceive clearly, understand." The sense of this verb seems to run counter to the Reformed view of "total depravity" since it appears to insist that human beings can infer the invisible attributes of God from the visible creation, and this human capacity for natural theology is precisely what leaves human beings "without excuse."

Whether or not Paul is right about this human capacity, his argument seems to assume that humans have the ability even in their sinful state, and that doesn't appear to be consistent with Reformed views on "total depravity."

But I'm no expert, and Professor Adolfo García de la Sienra may very well have an answer.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Charles Portis: True Grit

Image from Amazon.com

I saw the first movie made from this Portis novel way back when it came out, or a little thereafter. It starred John Wayne and Glenn Campbell, who were well-known, and Kim Darby, who wasn't. The film was okay, but it was a John Wayne vehicle to an Oscar and was marred by Campbell's 'acting'. I think that I liked it because it was sort of about Arkansas, my home state. I was just a kid of 13 or 14, I reckon.

Well, I finally read the book over the weekend past because I was taking some time off and had the thing handy since I'd gotten it for my daughter as a Christmas gift. I bought it for her because it's sort of about Arkansas and because Charles Portis and LeRoy Tucker are friends, and I thought that I ought to get to know the friend of a friend.

Also, a new movie has been made based on the book, a Coen Brothers film, said to be far superior to the first one, so I thought that I'd prepare myself for seeing it.

Anyway, I liked the book. "A good story, well-told," as I wrote to Mr. Tucker upon finishing it. I wondered, though, why the book has stayed on my mind -- not that much time has passed since the weekend, of course. I think that it's stuck with me because it brings together several things that give the story tension. One thing is the distinctive narrative voice of the girl Mattie Ross, who sets out to avenge her father's death by hunting down and killing his murderer, Tom Chaney, in spite of being a good 'Christian'. Indeed, despite being even a very strict Calvinist with a deep attachment to the doctrine of predestination, she nevertheless hooks up with an obvious reprobate, the one-eyed U. S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, for him to help her do the dirty work. Another thing, naturally, is Rooster Cogburn himself, who might not be a saint, but who turns out to be a chivalrous knight on a horse -- in less-than-shining armor, but a knight nonetheless -- for even when he knows that Mattie is safe (or seems to be), he performs for her by 'jousting' against four dark knights:
Rooster said, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits. It was a sight to see. He held the revolvers wide on either side of the head of his plunging steed. The four bandits accepted the challenge and they likewise pulled their arms and charged their ponies ahead.

It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshall whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!

. . .

I believe the bandits began firing their weapons first, although the din and smoke was of such a sudden, general nature that I cannot be sure. I do know that the marshall rode for them in so determined and unwavering a course that the bandits broke their "line" ere he reached them and raced through them, his revolvers blazing, and he not aiming with the sights but only pointing the barrels and snapping his head from side to side to bring his good eye into play.

Harold Permalee was the first to go down. He flung his shotgun in the air and clutched at his neck and was thrown backward over the rump of his horse. The Original Greaser Bob rode wider than the others and he lay flat on his horse and escaped clear with his winnings. Farrell Permalee was hit and a moment later his horse went down with a broken leg and Farrell was dashed violently forward to his death.

We thought that Rooster had come through the ordeal with no injury, but in fact he had caught several shotgun pellets in his face and shoulders . . .
One dark knight remains to be dealt with, the bandit chief Ned Pepper, but that's part of the story.

Also, Mattie's own ordeal isn't quite over, for she must face down her father's killer one last time, but in firing at him with her father's heavy pistol, she's thrown backward from the recoil and falls deep into a sinkhole that threatens to swallow her ever more deeply as she finds herself loosely wedged into a narrow neck of the hole and hard by the bones of a dead man, whose ribcage is filled with a ball of serpents. Rooster descends to harrow this hellish scene, stomp the serpents that threaten, and save her from falling entirely into the pit of utter darkness below.

All this is told with a lighter touch than I've used here, but I wanted to make explicit what's going on at a deeper level.

I think that there are even echoes of Don Quixote in the protagonist Rooster Cogburn, partly from the picaresque aspect to his character, partly from the ridiculous figure that he cuts, and partly from his exaggerated sense of self, but we shouldn't be too surprised to find the Knight, the Christ, and the Man of La Mancha all put into one character, for the chivalrous cowboy is commonly portrayed as the last incarnation of the Medieval knight, of which Quixote was a Renaissance example, and the virtuous night was ever a Christ figure. It all fits, somehow, even if Rooster isn't exactly a cowboy.

No wonder Mattie Ross falls so deeply in love with Rooster, without ever quite realizing that she does.

And that makes her story a tragic one . . .

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

David Brooks: Ideal Leaders "full of passionate intensity"

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats is one of my favorite poets, and in my Berkeley years, way back in the 1980s, I read him religiously, which is perhaps how he wrote to be read, so I'm always gratified to catch some allusion to his poetry, especially one encountered in the writing of a columnist and public intellectual like David Brooks.

In his recent NYT column on Congressional gridlock, "Sin and Taxes" (November 22, 2010), Brooks notes that current-day American politicians are different from those of even as recent as the 1990s, and he reasons why:
For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn't because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can't quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don't think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).

This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people's happiness.

The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity. This leader pushes his troops in lock step before the voracious foe. Each party has its own version of whom the evil elites are, but both feel they've more to fear from their enemies than from their own sinfulness.

Compromise is thus impossible. Money matters should be negotiable, but how can one compromise with opponents who are the source of all corruption?
A bit of Calvinist-inspired Protestant self-doubt, it seems, is good for the state of the soul, but with politicians too sure of their own election, the consequence is an all-out, no-holds-barred culture war in which the self-righteousness scorn their opponents as totally depraved.

But enough moralizing. You surely caught the allusion to the poem "The Second Coming" in this line by Brooks: "The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity." Here's the entire poem by Yeats:
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I won't attempt any lengthy explication, or try to apply this 1919 post-Great War poem to our time. That would be tempting, but this isn't the place for it, though the line "the centre cannot hold" is surely apt, and perhaps also subtly intended by Brooks in referring to our current 'ideal' leaders, so "full of passionate intensity," the type whom Yeats identifies as "the worst," a characterization with which Brooks apparently agrees.

But rather than further pursue that line of thought on these leaders so full of sound and fury, I'll just enjoy the lines of the poem . . . pausing to appreciate the literary allusion.

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

John Milton's Sonnet Calling for God's Vengeance

Peter Waldo
Statue at the Luther Memorial
(Image from Wikipedia)

Peter Waldo (c. 1140 – c. 1218) was a 12th- to 13th-century Catholic who founded a spiritual movement that came to be called the Waldensians (French: Vaudois) and that was declared heretical for rejecting clerical authority. The movement became a sect and survived in Piedmont under protection of the Duke of Savoy and his descendants, though often persecuted. The sect gravitated toward Calvinism during the Protestant Reformation, and in 1655, the then Duke of Savoy demanded their return to Catholicism. Upon their refusal, he attacked them with a combined Catholic army of Irish, French, and Italians.

Times being what they were (much like today, actually, with our own religious fanaticisms), John Milton wrote a prayer to God imploring vengeance, but perhaps also seeking more mundane sources of revenge since he wrote the prayer as a sonnet for publication:
Sonnet 18
On the late Massacher in Piemont
Avenge O Lord thy slaughter'd Saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold,
Ev'n them who kept thy truth so pure of old
When all our Fathers worship't Stocks and Stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groanes
Who were thy Sheep and in their antient Fold
Slayn by the bloody Piemontese that roll'd
Mother with Infant down the Rocks. Their moans
The Vales redoubl'd to the Hills, and they
To Heav'n. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sow
O're all th' Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant: that from these may grow
A hunder'd-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian wo.

[Thomas H. Luxon, ed., The Milton Reading Room, April 17, 2008]
You can click on the underlined words to read Thomas Luxon's notes. I call attention to "Mother with Infant," for Luxon cites John Carey, and I have an edition of the work cited, John Milton: Complete Shorter Poems (London: Longman, 1971), which on page 410 tells us:
Cromwell's agent, Sir Samuel Morland, in his account of the massacre (History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont (1658) 333-384) records that the wife of Giovanni, son of Pol Parise, was hurled down a precipice with her baby in her arms -- the baby survived (363); that Jacopo Pecols's wife and son were thrown down the rocks at Taglioretto (368); and that a woman and her baby were hurled down a precipice in the mountains of Villaro (374).
At least three mother-and-child atrocities are thus recorded. Milton, however, uses the singular. I suppose that the plural would be less effective -- a single death being a tragedy, multiple deaths being a statistic -- but I also wonder if the expression "Mother with Infant" might be a subtle, ironic thrust at the Catholic soldiers who revered the Madonna and Child but killed the "Mother with Infant."

The longer expression "Mother with Infant down the Rocks" reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, but there's surely no association to that in Milton's mind.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Total Depravity?

(Image from Wikipedia)

I heard a sermon a couple of weeks ago on "total depravity," and the preacher was for it. Of course, he was also against it.

That nexus of views is unsurprising. Surprising was the fact that I heard the sermon from the lips of a former Methodist turned Southern Baptist. The former denomination stems from Arminius, who emphasizes a prevenient grace that restores free will in humanity, and the latter denomination speaks so little about total depravity that I've never otherwise heard a sermon on this topic in a Southern Baptist church.

To my further surprise, given his break from Calvinism, Arminius himself seems to have accepted the doctrine, for I've found him cited as accepting it in volume 1, page 252, of The Writings of James Arminius, translated by James Nichols and W.R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956). Not having seen the actual words of Arminius, I infer that he means that individuals are totally depraved outside of the effects of prevenient grace, but since everyone receives this sort of grace, which restores free will, then no one remains totally depraved.

John Calvin, on the other hand, argues that everyone remains totally depraved and that no individual can freely choose to accept salvation. Perhaps someone can set me straight on this point of Calvinist theology. Does "total depravity" refer only to the will?

I ask because the expression itself seems to imply far more -- a total depravity of every aspect of every human being. But that seems to me to be empirically falsifiable, so I must not understand the term, for people naturally seem often to respond positively to "the good" and negatively to "evil."

As an example of "total depravity," the preacher whom I referred to above told of an alcoholic who had forgotten his 9-year-old daughter in his truck outside a bar in extremely cold weather while he drank for hours inside, only to find her later so severely frostbitten that she lost fingers, toes, and ears. The man attempted to push this experience from his memory, but when later confronted with how he had destroyed his daughter's life, he broke down into tears of bitter regret.

But if this man were totally depraved, as I would most naturally understand the expression, then he would have been indifferent to what he had done . . . so my natural understanding must be wrong.

I'll need to look into this point more closely, but perhaps some generous reader could briefly clarify the point.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Gnostic Milton? John Rumrich on A.D. Nuttall's Alternative Trinity

A. D. Nuttall
The Alternative Trinity:
Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake
(Image from Amazon.com)

Yesterday, I promised to offer John Rumrich's words on 'Gnosticism' in Milton. Actually, as we'll see, Rumrich doesn't think that there is Gnosticism in Milton, as he tells us in his review of A. D. Nuttall's Alternative Trinity. He opens his review in Modern Philology (Volume 99, Number 2 (2001), page 306) with general praise for the "local insights," then summarizes Nuttall's argument:
Nuttall's . . . thesis [is] that gnosticism provided Marlowe, Milton, and Blake with a refuge from oppressive Christian orthodoxies. Perhaps no critic is so gifted as to make a coherent, consistent argument out of gnosticism, a notorious thicket of philosophical doctrine and theological attitude. To make matters worse, until 1945, much of what was known about gnostic thinking derived from hostile, fragmentary accounts written by orthodox Chrisian writers. Nuttall, however, isolates a relatively simple structure basic to the gnostic religious tangle -- that of the alternative Trinity, "in which the Father is a tyrant, not complemented but opposed by the Son" (p. 3). Informing this antagonistic family relation, moreover, is the gnostic insistence on the goodness of knowledge, an ethical-epistemological premise that makes a villain of the forbidding Father portrayed in Genesis. It is he who prohibits tasting of the tree of knowledge, while the unfairly maligned serpent recommends disobedience in a noble cause and may even be seen as an ally or alter-ego of the Son.
While this is an interesting take on Gnosticism, the identification of the "Father" with the ignorant 'god' derided in Gnostic myth might be problematic, depending upon what Nuttall means by this. I haven't read the book, but if he means that Gnosticism itself depicted the "Father" as "a tyrant," then he would seem to have misconstrued Gnosticism, for the ignorant 'god' of the Gnostic genealogies is no Father to the Son. Perhaps, however, Nuttall means that the Father as portrayed in Milton (as well as in Marlowe and Blake) is portrayed as the equivalent to Gnosticism's ignorant 'god'.

Rumrich does note that some individuals, including many 17th-century Protestants, have seen the arbitray God of Calvinism as a tyrant with some of the characteristics of the malicious 'god' of Gnosticism, a tenuous link but interesting to note since "Nuttall is surely right to observe that a quasi-Calvinist plotline seems to govern the miserable progress of Satan, whose destiny is to supply a vessel for the brimming wrath of God."

I've also noticed that Satan after his fall from heaven seems to characterize the "totally depraved" individual of Calvinist anthropology, for he is so utterly incapable of choosing to accept salvation -- based on God's fiat in Paradise Lost 5.600-615 that any angel who rebels will be forever damned -- that this fallen archangel seems to have inherited the preterite's role in Calvin's theological system.

But does that make Milton a gnostic? Rumrich wouldn't seem to think so, and also doesn't think that Milton makes Satan into the beneficial serpent of some gnostic systems:
Nuttall is surely right to observe that a quasi-Calvinist plotline seems to govern the miserable progress of Satan, whose destiny is to supply a vessel for the brimming wrath of God. Like Pharaoh, Satan is provoked and exasperated by God to pursue worse crimes and suffer worse torment. Nuttall also maintains against Dennis Danielson that Milton does indeed embrace a version of the heresy of the fortunate fall and that the epic poet's deity works with Satan to bring humanity into the heightened awareness of a postlapsarian moral framework -- much to be preferred to the instinctive morality of unblemished innocence, at least from the gnostic perspective. Hence, in Nuttall's view, the gnostic opposition of God and the Son is for Milton internalized within the paternal deity: "the tyrannical Jahweh generates, mysteriously, a second self, who wills all that the tyrant forbade. Here, if you like, is the alternative Trinity we have been seeking" (p. 166). Even if we do like, little in Nuttall's reading moves us to accept this conclusion. The narrative offers no hint of such an internal generation transforming the deity, and the effects of the fall as pictured in Milton's epic can hardly be described as intellectually or morally beneficial. The narrative displays Adam and Eve behaving quite stupidly and malignantly after they disobey, a pathetic display of degeneracy that Nuttall neglects to take into account but that contradicts the premises of his interpretation.
Despite this critique, Rumrich says that scholars who take the trouble to read Nuttall's book "will be rewarded along the way by a wonderfully informative and provocative series of insights into the theology, poetry, and culture of early Modern England," so -- as Satan says in Paradise Lost 1.106 -- "All is not lost."

That's enough for today, for I have to head to the Ewha campus and teach graduate students how to write good paragraphs.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Reynolds Price: Eve as 'Hero' of Paradise Lost?

Reynolds Price
Teacher of Milton
(Image from Duke Magazine)

Novelist, poet, and Miltonist Reynolds Price has written a short, personal piece of his experience of teaching Milton at Duke University since 1958, and in the penultimate paragraph, he makes an intriguing suggestion:
A majority of my students today lack certainty about the literal truth of the Genesis story of a fall or the scar of original sin, but I think I convince many of them of the gravity with which Milton advances the old story and his conviction of our ongoing guilt as the children of Adam and Eve. And in recent years, I've found my own answer to the long-unsolved question of the identity of Milton's hero in the poem -- is it Satan (as so many believe), Adam, or the Son of God Himself? Surely, though, we gradually learn that the hero of the poem is Eve, when she concludes that salvation for herself, and the husband whom she has cheated, lies in her falling suppliant and imploring Adam's forgiveness. Milton sees that the human race could literally not have continued without her generous gesture. (Reynolds Price, "Teaching Milton," Duke Magazine, Volume 94, No. 6, November-December 2008)
Perhaps we should take a look at the scene, which follows Milton's depiction of the lowest depths to which Adam and Eve have fallen in their postlapsarian corruption, a state in which they have spent fruitless hours in mutual accusation, neither one self-condemning, in a vain contest that appears to have no end (PL 9.1187-89) . . . but it does have an end, for at their lowest point, where Adam calls Eve a "Serpent" and thrusts her away, Eve acknowledges her own guilt:
Forsake me not thus, Adam, witness Heav'n
What love sincere, and reverence in my heart [ 915 ]
I beare thee, and unweeting have offended,
Unhappilie deceav'd; thy suppliant
I beg, and clasp thy knees; bereave me not,
Whereon I live, thy gentle looks, thy aid,
Thy counsel in this uttermost distress, [ 920 ]
My onely strength and stay: forlorn of thee,
Whither shall I betake me, where subsist?
While yet we live, scarse one short hour perhaps,
Between us two let there be peace, both joyning,
As joyn'd in injuries, one enmitie [ 925 ]
Against a Foe by doom express assign'd us,
That cruel Serpent: On me exercise not
Thy hatred for this miserie befall'n,
On me alreadie lost, mee then thy self
More miserable; both have sin'd, but thou [ 930 ]
Against God onely, I against God and thee,
And to the place of judgment will return,
There with my cries importune Heaven, that all
The sentence from thy head remov'd may light
On me, sole cause to thee of all this woe, [ 935 ]
Mee mee onely just object of his ire.

She ended weeping, and her lowlie plight,
Immovable till peace obtain'd from fault
Acknowledg'd and deplor'd, in Adam wraught
Commiseration; soon his heart relented [ 940 ]
Towards her, his life so late and sole delight,
Now at his feet submissive in distress,
Creature so faire his reconcilement seeking,
His counsel whom she had displeas'd, his aide;
As one disarm'd, his anger all he lost, [ 945 ]
And thus with peaceful words uprais'd her soon. (
PL 10.914-45)

(Thomas H. Luxon, ed.
The Milton Reading Room, March, 2008.)
Of this scene, Price observes, "The scene of Eve's begging and Adam's raising her to upright forgiveness is as moving as any in Shakespeare's tragedies." Perhaps it is, though the degree to which it moves a reader depends on subjective response, but Price's suggestion that Eve is the 'hero' has opened up a way of looking at the poem that I had never before noticed.

Let me briefly explain. By the time that Milton wrote Paradise Lost, he was no longer a Calvinist and is generally considered an Arminian -- the difference being that the former emphasized divine predestination but the latter human choice. Arminius had broken with Calvinism on this issue, and Milton's soteriology generally agrees with that of Arminius.

Yet, there is a subtle difference . . . I think. Arminius believes that God grants to human beings a grace prior to saving grace, and the earlier grace is called "prevenient grace." Without this prevenient grace, human beings would not be capable of seeking forgiveness, for they would be as "totally depraved" as Calvinist anthropology claims. Prevenient grace restores human free will and is -- in Arminian theology -- extended to all humans. Where Milton seems to differ even from Arminius is in the fact that Eve is capable of freely offering herself as the one alone on whom God's condemnation should fall, for her generous act takes place prior to God's gift of prevenient grace, which takes place only subsequent to this (PL 11.1-8).

This implies that even prior to the gift of prevenient grace, Adam and Eve were not "totally depraved" but retained some degree of freedom, perhaps by virtue of having been made in God's image . . . but I am simply speculating on this point.

Perhaps this is worth investigating.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

J.P. Moreland: Evangelicals' Over-Commitment to the Bible

J.P. Moreland:
Recovering the Christian Mind

In my post of two days ago, on "J.P. Moreland: 'Fighting "Bibliolatry" at the Evangelical Theological Society'", I reported on Ted Olsen's summary of Moreland's paper criticizing Evangelicals for limiting themselves to the Bible for knowledge of spiritual things.

About Olsen's report, I concluded that it was:
Interesting, at least for me. Too bad that Moreland's paper isn't (yet?) online.
An anonymous reader from La Miranda, California, left the following message:
J.P. Moreland's paper is actually now online along with some of his comments at [Kingdom Triangle Discussion Forum].

I'm curious to hear more people's reactions to it and discuss.
That led me to the nine-page paper itself, "How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done About It" (pdf), which individuals interested can now read on their own but about which I'll say a few (inadequate) things.

Moreland begins by emphasizing his own belief in biblical inerrancy, which he does not define in this article but which he has defined elsewhere ("The Rationality of Belief in Inerrancy," Trinity Journal NS 7, Spring 1986, 75-86), then proceeds to his critique of a type of 'bibliolatry' that he calls "Evangelical Over-commitment to the Bible":
The sense that I have in mind is the idea that the Bible is the sole source of knowledge of God, morality, and a host of related important items. Accordingly, the Bible is taken to be the sole authority for faith and practice. (page 1)
Moreland's basic point is that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura does not entail a rejection of extrabiblical sources of knowledge. By "sola" is not meant "only" in the sense that no other source is allowed but in the sense of "ultimate" in the sense that other sources cannot contradict scriptural authority though they can add to the Christian's knowledge of spiritual things about which the Bible does not speak comprehensively.

Moreland speculates that the Protestant reluctance to draw upon the "general revelation" available to "right reason" might stem either from "an aversion to anything that smacks of Catholicism ... [or from] a commitment to a certain view of human depravity" (page 2).

In short -- if I may interpret here -- Moreland is allowing that Evangelicals might be too averse to Catholic views on the prominent role for reason in understanding spiritual things or too radical in their hypercalvinist emphasis upon human depravity's impairment of reason (or, obviously, both). This has also been my impression in my time spent among Evangelicals, but Moreland goes on to argue that the Bible itself appeals to natural moral law and that the Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) tradition has also always appealed to natural moral law despite its commitment to a strong view of human depravity.

Moreland therefore turns to historical and sociological explanations for Evangelical 'bibliolatry' that have to do with the fragmentation of knowledge consonant with the emphasis upon research in universities rather than teaching, the shift at universities from teaching wisdom to training students in critical thinking, the rise of scientism as an unreflective philosophical commitment, and the general increase in secularism as a means of dealing in the world, among other things.

In response to these developments, Moreland thinks, Evangelicals have retreated from reason into a sort of fideism (unreasoning and even irrational belief) -- if I may again interpret and briefly state his point.

In concluding, Moreland calls for more Evangelicals to give more attention to "extra-biblical knowledge" and to develop "biblical, theological, and philosophical justifications for such knowledge along with guidance for its use" (page 8).

I realize that I haven't done Moreland's paper justice, but as I told the anonymous commentor, "the essay-grading that I'm currently doing" might get in the way of any in-depth blogging for several days.

Therefore, go and read for thyself.

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