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The End, For My Part
No.144: January 27, 2023
Welcome to The Square Inch, a Friday newsletter on Christianity, culture, and all of the many-varied “square inches” of God’s domain. This publication is free for now, but please consider clicking on the button at the bottom to become a paid subscriber to enjoy this along with Monday’s “Off The Shelf” feature about books and Wednesday’s “The Quarter Inch,” a quick(er) commentary on current events.
He begins with what he calls my “central charge” against him: his lack of exegesis or biblical theology and cherry-picking the Reformed tradition. What he meant by his disavowal of exegesis in the book, he explains, is only that “moving from scriptural interpretation to theological articulation” is a complex enterprise and that he isn’t trained in it or as gifted at it as (his example) Francis Turretin.
The prerequisites for quoting and interacting with the text of Scripture do not include having the giftedness of Francis Turretin, thankfully. It would rather seem incumbent upon anyone seeking to develop a Christian theory of anything at all to pay some attention to holy writ. Wolfe seems to disagree (again, there is not a single reference to the Bible in his 4,500 word response—this is a habit), and as far as I can tell his reason is precisely the one I noted in my review: in his view, a theory of Christian nations must have its “foundation, origin, and source” in “natural principles,” not revealed ones (18). Babel, Pentecost, Jew/Gentile reconciliation, Galatians 3, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” and any number of other passages are, in his view, irrelevant to forming a Christian view of peoples and nations. I think he is conceding this, but it is difficult to tell since he doesn’t directly address it.
More importantly, his lack of exegesis or biblical theology is not even close to my “central charge” against his book. This is indicated rather clearly by the sub-heading under which that portion of my critique appears: “Preliminary Matters.” As for what is central, Wolfe maintains that one may (apart from any special revelation or divine illumination) by way of a “phenomenological method” identify one’s natural intuitions, use those intuitions to “imagine what an unfallen world would be like,” and then to trust that those intuitions are how it was originally meant to be. This requires a breathtakingly mild assessment of sin’s effects on the human person, and I called it a “horizontal” version of Feuerbach’s maxim that theology is really just anthropology. But instead of projecting our highest ideals into the heavens, Wolfe projects them back into the Garden of Eden. Anything and everything could be justified by way of this subjective and naturalistic method—indeed, I offered a bracing historical example from the not-too-distant past of how this once worked in practice with respect to identifying people groups. It wasn’t an example anyone should like to follow.
That was the heart of my critique of Wolfe’s book, my “central charge,” if one wants to put it that way. He never mentions it.
Instead he writes a lengthy disavowal of Rome’s doctrine of the donum superadditum. It is very welcome to hear that he acknowledges that the vertical or higher or special gifts are natural to the being of man as such (and not because they form Bellarmine’s “golden bridle”) and that the loss of this “original righteousness” resulted not in “pure nature,” but in the corruption of our natural faculties—an “active and efficacious inclination toward evil.” And he is right: I overlooked that he did write that last phrase, cribbed from Turretin, on page 84. And Wolfe is also exactly right in his response that the “absence or removal [of original righteousness] places man not in a state of ‘pure nature’ but in a state of unrighteousness, which is precisely what is at issue.” That is, indeed, the issue. What I fail to see is how this helps him.
Wolfe expresses puzzlement that I would take issue with his claim that “man still has his original instincts and still knows the principles of right action, which incline him to what is good.” (22) He insists that this is “standard classical Protestantism.”
I appreciate his repeated stated desire to rely as much as possible on mostly consensus Reformed opinion. But surely the place to look for consensus Reformed opinion is to the places where they wrote down their consensus opinions—their confessions and catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism says that due to the Fall, “I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbor” (LD 2:Q&A 5). The Westminster Confession says that humanity at the Fall “became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions” (6:2, 4). That is a lot of “whollys” and “utterlys,” “opposites,” “alls,” and negations by way of “in” and “dis.” One could consult almost any Reformed divine on the effects of sin on the human faculties and find similar and—if you can imagine—sometimes more extreme assessments.
Of course the Reformed had to go on to explain the continuation of the imago Dei and man’s relative abilities for virtue, an inescapable and perennial theological tension. They often did so using the concepts of “wider” and “narrower” senses of the image arguably because “natural” and “supernatural” or “lower” and “higher” were liable to the very misunderstanding Wolfe himself has generated. He offers a few quotes from Calvin, Turretin, and Heidegger, all doing their best to find suitable language to describe this phenomenon, mostly by using words like “weak” and “partial.” In other words, they are at pains to minimize these apparent virtues; whatever true apprehension or virtue exhibited by the natural man is in spite of his corrupted condition.
In quite a wide contrast, Wolfe wants to build an entire political philosophy on the foundation of these “weak” and “partial” apprehensions of the truth. Not in spite of, but in light of the natural man’s capabilities, natural reason and instinct and intuition is sufficient for the task. Even more than that, he wants to proceed by a phenomenological method that interrogates, exposes, and then ratifies the natural inclinations and intuitions of the heart—those same inclinations and intuitions he now says are “corrupted.” This is a strange kind of corruption.
It seems to me that Wolfe must square this circle: why, if our faculties are “corrupted,” may their apprehension and reflection on nature nevertheless be trusted as the “foundation, origin, and source” for our thinking about ourselves, people, place, community, and nations? There is no attempt to explain this, either in the book or his response. This has the appearance of mere lip-service to the first of the “Five Points.”
In a Facebook post, Jerry Bowyer summarized this problem and offered the solution with admirable brevity:
The people who have been (rightly) slamming the post-modern shlock ethic of ‘follow your heart’ and ‘facts don't care about your feelings,’ now are leaping to defend ‘follow your natural inclinations.’ Amazing. But not really so amazing. The heart wants what the heart wants.
But up until about a month ago, conservative Christians knew that the heart was desperately wicked and that self-deception is deep in the human heart and that the Bible was the only reliable guide to living. Do we think that only emotions are fallen and not reason?
Sure, you can say that the current Christian Nationalists admit that we should only follow the good natural inclinations, but so what? Hippies say that we should only follow the good parts of our heart. It's useless to tell people to do what they want, but only the good parts of what they want. The whole ball game is knowing which desires/inclinations/intuitions should be followed and which should be suppressed. And the thing which was given to us to know that is the law of God. I mean the written version. That's why it's written down, because we need something specific, clear, detailed.
That would be the written-down version that Wolfe almost never mentions, and in fact maintains must not serve as a foundation for political theory.
Moreover, this all serves as another reminder and illustration of the limitations and/or pitfalls of theological “retrieval.” The trend over the past generation has been to confuse historical theology with systematic theology, and Wolfe’s work is a model example. It is a fine thing to know a theological tradition; one may find all kinds of helpful conceptual and intellectual resources, precision of language, biblical arguments, and so forth. It is helpful—no, imperative—to know what past generations believed. But no amount of piling up quotations about what they believed answers the fundamental question: is what they believed true? For that, one must do actual theology by going back to the true foundation and source for Christian theology and life: the Holy Scriptures.
One final thing. I was not inclined to check all of the quotations Wolfe enlisted in support of his views because they were unobjectionable, but this one from Calvin caught my attention:
While men dispute with each other as to particular enactments, their ideas of equity agree in substance. This, no doubt, proves the weakness of the human mind, which, even when it seems on the right path, halts and hesitate [sic]. Still, however, it is true that some principles of civil order is impressed on all. And this is ample proof that, in regard to the constitution of the present life, no man is devoid of the light of reason….Nothing, indeed, is more common, than for man to be sufficiently instructed in a right course of conduct by natural law.
I was struck by the dissonance between what comes before that ellipses and what comes after. One moment Calvin is talking about the weakness of the human mind, which “halts and hesitates,” or, as Battles translates it, “limps and staggers.” The next moment Calvin is lauding the sufficiency of natural law.
It turns out that there are nine pages hidden behind Wolfe’s ellipses. An odd decision, I must say, for someone defending himself against cherry-picking sources. And, sure enough, he has threaded together two different discourses. The second passage is commentary on Romans 2:14-15, and do you know what Calvin says the natural law is “sufficient” for?
The purpose of natural law, therefore, is to render man inexcusable. This would not be a bad definition: natural law is that apprehension of the conscience which distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprives men of the excuse of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their own testimony. (Institutes, 2: 2.22)
Not exactly “sufficient to serve as a foundation, origin, and source for political theory,” is it? If this is representative of the quality of Wolfe’s work with historical sources (and someone else will have to check), things are worse than I thought.
In sum, Wolfe completely ignores my actual critique, boldly affirms a theological principle that cuts decisively against his own project, makes no attempt to resolve the seeming contradiction, and at least once engages in a misleading display of selective editing.
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