A Remark on Creedally-Defined Orthodoxy

The question of the definition of orthodoxy has been a live one, since James K.A. Smith posted on the subject in relation to debates surrounding sexuality. The following is a remark on the question of ‘orthodoxy’ as defined creedally.

For Smith’s argument, which presents the boundaries of orthodoxy in a fairly minimalistic manner, to work, he needs to make some crucial and fatally misguided assumptions about the way that the creed works (he also needs to overlook the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, whose decree condemns the practice of sexual immorality). While Smith can speak of the creed as the ‘grammar of “right belief”‘, for the purposes of his argument, the creed seems to function as a stand-alone document presenting us with a minimal list of what needs to be affirmed to mark one out as nominally ‘orthodox’.

This is where Smith goes wrong. The proper place of the creed could helpfully be compared to that of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments don’t stand alone, but are a condensation of a broader body of scriptural material, a condensation that orients the student of the Torah to the proper use and understanding of the body of law. Likewise, the two great summary commandments—or the principles of justice, mercy, and faith—serve the same unifying and coordinating purpose. These condense statements give one a proper purchase upon the wider body of the Law’s teaching. They enable Jesus, for instance, to expose the unlawfulness of the Pharisees’ legalism in Matthew 23.

However, this relationship works the other way too: the Ten Commandments are expounded in the wider body of the Law, most notably in the book of Deuteronomy, which fleshes out what obedience to their commandments means in practice. This expounding of the Law gives clearer content to terms that might otherwise be unclear in their meaning.

One cannot truly affirm the Law without affirming it in relation to this illuminating exposition. In providing them with both the condensation and the exposition of the Law, God enables his people to attain to a sort of ‘literacy’ in the Law that they couldn’t achieve otherwise. The presence of both condensation and exposition of the Law alongside each other makes possible an understanding of its ‘moral grammar’. Without this literacy, the Law could be distorted in many ways, twisted into legalism or moralism, or frustrated in a license advanced through hermeneutical gerrymandering. The Ten Commandments expose the inner grammar of a body of laws whose content is fleshed out elsewhere.

Likewise, the creed doesn’t stand alone, nor do its statements interpret themselves. Terms such as ‘judgment’, ‘Scripture’, ‘holy’, and ‘sins’ aren’t empty terms, permitting us to fill them however we might please. Rather, their content is extensively unpacked in the Scriptures themselves, apart from which the creed cannot have its proper sense. The creed is never intended to function as a de-focusing of unwelcome scriptural teachings so that error can take refuge in vague terminology, nor is it a lowest common denominator.

When Smith complains about the danger of reducing Christianity to a morality, he is identifying a real problem. However, in denying the place of the creed in teaching us Christian morality, he is failing to practice his orthodoxy as he ought. The creed isn’t a self-contained document presenting the sum total of ‘orthodox’ Christian ethics. Rather, the creed gives us the grammar by which to articulate Christian ethics aright.

The creed guards against the moralism that Smith is rightly concerned about. It does so by framing the Christian life by the fundamental truths of the faith. The newness of life to which the Christian is called is defined by true confession and worship of the Triune God, over against all idolatry. It is made possible by the salvation from our sins that is achieved by Christ, a salvation according to the reliable testimony of the Scriptures. It occurs against the horizon of the future advent of Christ to judge all flesh. It is formed within the holiness of the one catholic and apostolic Church that is established and given its life by the work of the Spirit. It is grounded in the free remission of our sins that is declared in baptism. It is lived in the certain hope and anticipation of a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It upholds the truth of God’s intimate claim upon each of our bodies, manifested in the assurance of future resurrection.

The creed is the touchstone of Christian ethics, the document disclosing its true grammar.

And it is precisely in the character of the creed as a document revealing and confessing the grammar of the scriptural content of Christian faith that it reveals the fundamental unorthodoxy that lurks at the heart of the new sexual morality and of those who affirm or practice it, while ostensibly professing the faith. This unorthodoxy is not merely a matter of denying the content of the creedal terms that the creed’s grammar operates upon, but in its failure to honour the grammar itself.

Posted in Church History, Controversies, Ethics, Scripture, Sex and Sexuality, The Church, Theological | 22 Comments

The Politics of Solomon’s Dream

I’ve just guest posted a political reflection on 1 Kings 3:5-12 and the story of Solomon’s dream over on Political Theology Today.

While the Law enables the priest to perform his duties faithfully, it is Wisdom that equips the king to acquit the responsibilities of his office justly. Wisdom is consistent with the Law, yet advances beyond the Law in foregrounding the prudence and discretion of wise persons, whose intimate acquaintance with the deep structure of the Law equips them to apply fitting principles of justice appropriately to new situations. While the Law emphasizes receptive obedience and observant adherence to clear commands, Wisdom emphasizes the perceptive discernment, prudence, and insight required to act righteously and effectively when matters aren’t clear.

In 1 Kings 3, the Wisdom tradition is closely tethered to the story of King Solomon, who, in addition to being presented as the most prominent author of its associated literature, exemplifies its virtues in his person and reign. This prominence of the theme of wisdom in our passage brings it into a broader intra-canonical conversation on the subject, not least in relation to the book of Proverbs.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in 1 Kings, Bible, Guest Post, OT, OT Theology, Politics, Proverbs, Society, Theological, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

People of the Promise—A New Book From the Davenant Institute

The Davenant Institute (the name has just been changed from the Davenant Trust) has a forthcoming book on the subject of Protestant ecclesiology, to which I have contributed an article on the ecclesiology of Pentecost. There are several other superb essays within it that are really worth a read.

The doctrine of the church is often perceived as the weakest link in Protestant theology. These essays argue, on the contrary, that the Reformers’ radical re-thinking of the definition of the church is one of the Reformation’s greatest treasures. Not only is “mere Protestant” ecclesiology firmly in concert with the multifaceted biblical witness, but it is also manifestly in accord with natural reason and the lived experience of Christians throughout the ages. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this volume seeks to honor the Protestant heritage by remembering, reclaiming, and critically reflecting upon the relationship between the gospel promise and the community which it calls into being.

You can pre-order a copy here.

Posted in Church History, The Church, Theological | 4 Comments

The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: 11. Concluding Reflections (Part 2)

1. The Debate So Far
2. Survey of Some Relevant Material
3. Subordination
4. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 1)
5. The Need for Trinitarian Clarity (Part 2)
6. The Tension Between Bible and Doctrine
7. Reconciling Scripture and Dogma
8. κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians 11:3
9. Indivisible Divine Authority in Mutually Defining Relations
10. Concluding Reflections (Part 1)

The concluding post in my long-running series on the debate surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son has just been posted.

The emergence of the ESS position in its current form is in large part an attempt to provide a ‘deep structure’ for a complementarian position. It seeks to demonstrate that the biblical teaching concerning the complementarity of the sexes is not arbitrary, but is grounded in something beyond itself.

Unfortunately, this quest for a deep structure is, I suspect, often the flip-side of an ideologization of complementarity. What was once an organic part of Christian social teaching, practice, and imagination, recognized as naturally grounded and inseparably bound up with the broader fabric of Christian and human existence–a creational and empirical reality–has been reframed as a theory, ideology, or social programme. In the process it has been uprooted from the broader creational and scriptural context to which it belongs.

Having abandoned or lost much of its proper grounding–not least as people have sought to restrict its import as much as possible to the pulpit and the marriage bed–this more abstract ideology has needed to discover a new theological rationale for itself. In a context where it is under threat, it must defend itself against the charge that it is contrary to the general tenor of Christian teaching and imposes arbitrary expectations. ESS looks like a promising solution to this problem, yet ends up causing more difficulties and provoking more contention than it resolves. In the past, teaching about the complementarity of the sexes wasn’t an ‘ism’ or ideology. Even when ESS was referenced in connection with it, considerably less weight was placed upon the analogy, and certainly not the sort of weight that would press theologians more in the direction of univocity.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Bible, Controversies, Creation, Doctrine of God, Guest Post, NT, NT Theology, The Triune God, Theological | 2 Comments

The Politics of Man’s Exaltation

I’ve just guest-posted over on Political Theology Today.

This psalm presents us with an embryonic account of human rule in the creation. Although the dominion of humanity is central to the psalm, it is situated within and established upon the sovereignty of YHWH. Human dominion is one of the Creator’s own mighty works, a means by which he establishes his intended order in his creation. As such, human rule is neither to be despotic nor a law unto itself, but a graciously given status and appointed means of fulfilling YHWH’s own good purpose for his manifold creatures.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Creation, Guest Post, OT, Politics, Psalms, Theological | 2 Comments

Review of Ashley McGuire’s ‘Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female’

My review of Ashley McGuire’s recent book, Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female, has just been published over on The Gospel Coalition website.

McGuire explores numerous fronts of the current assault on the reality of sexual difference: children’s toys and education, cultural discourse around the terms “sex” and “gender,” colleges and their sexual culture, the military, emergency services, the entertainment industry, legal developments, social norms, and the gender identity movement. Each front is presented through a litany of journalistic anecdotes and symptomatic causes célèbres. Together they reveal a society fraught with conflict over one of the most basic human realities—the difference between men and women.

Read the whole thing here.

Some of you might be wondering about the fact that my recent TGC article on artificial wombs has the same title as the book I’ve just reviewed. This was my fault for pitching an idea for that post in the thread devoted to the review of McGuire’s book, the addition of a different TGC editor later in that email thread to deal with the artificial wombs post, and my failure to catch the use of the book’s title in the draft that I was sent of the article (yes, I know!). By the time I caught the error, it was too late to change it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Revolutionary Work of Motherhood

Motherhood and the work of homemaking are accorded considerable sentimental value within Western culture. Every year on Mother’s Day—the second Sunday in May in the US or the fourth Sunday of Lent in the UK—the praises of mothers and their untiring and selfless work for their families are expressed in a myriad of greetings cards, sermons, and articles. In one of the most commercially profitable holidays of the year after Christmas, we acknowledge the emotional significance that our mothers have in our lives with flowers, boxes of chocolates, and syrupy sentiments purchased from Hallmark.

Yet this celebration is not without its measure of uneasiness and guilt. The saccharine sentiments of Mother’s Day may all too often function in part to palliate the dimly perceived injustice of a multitude of thankless impositions and burdens placed upon mothers over the rest of the year. As an inconsiderate husband may praise his ‘long-suffering’ wife, elevating her virtues as a face-saving mask for his own vices, our extravagant cultural celebration of the ‘self-sacrificial’ work of mothers may all too easily cover up the lack of honour in which we hold motherhood more generally. The gushing words and commercial expenditure notwithstanding, there is good reason to doubt whether the ‘sacrifices’ we claim to celebrate on Mother’s Day are truly held in esteem within our society.

Some attempt to highlight the injustice of the way that mothers are treated in our society by talking about such phenomena as the ‘second shift’ or women’s ‘unpaid labour’, casting the work of a mother as if it were a job, speculating how much it would cost to hire an employee to assume all of a mother’s commitments, or otherwise presenting the work of motherhood within the paradigm offered by wage labour. Within such an approach, preparing the family meal, reading the children their bedtime story, and vacuuming the dining room are all to be understood as if analogous with labouring for an employer. Yet there is a presumed deficiency of these acts relative to wage labour, because they are ‘unpaid’. More generally, the earnings gap between the sexes that largely arises from motherhood is lamented as a sign of ‘gender inequality’.

Yet within such a framework of understanding, many of the ‘sacrifices’ of motherhood appear more like costs unjustly imposed, costs that enable their husbands and children to achieve their full potential in the market, but which hold mothers back from achieving their own. This framework, even while it alerts us to the marginalization and devaluation of the labour of mothers in our society, fails to question the fundamental values that give rise to this problem. Presenting mother’s work as if a deficient form of wage labour, a burden unjustly and unequally shouldered by women that prevents them from achieving their value as full economic agents, devalues mother’s work, even as it sensitizes us to our society’s mistreatment of women’s labour. The monetary values of the market remain the dominating and unquestioned frame of reference and mothers are either unjustly oppressed parties or beloved self-sacrificial victims, who give up their own dreams the better to enable the rest of us to achieve our own.

For those operating within such a framework, it will always be difficult to entertain the possibility that the ‘sacrifices’ of motherhood may not merely be costs imposed by injustice or necessity or burdens willingly assumed on account of sentimental bonds. The possibility that such sacrifices might offer a passage by which a woman can establish and enter into a realm of human meaning deeper than that afforded by her individuality isn’t conceived.

It is not entirely surprising that a society such as our own should fail to perceive the true value of motherhood, for the value of motherhood so radically contrasts with the values that shape a society ordered around the neoliberal state and market. Our society is built upon abstraction and alienation, upon the escape from the bonds of the particular or the unique into the realm of autonomous will. Value is measured by the abstraction of currency, by reduction to pure exchange value. More generally, abstraction in conceptuality, technique, politics, production, social organization, and community are how we gain power. The more that we reduce the particularity of the world and humanity to fungible and malleable raw material, subject to the operations of abstract techniques, the more control and ‘freedom’ we possess. This dynamic is seen in everything from technocratic government, to the form of online social media, to the movements in fabrication towards mass production and digital replication, to the operations of algorithms on financial markets.

The mother’s labour is inalienable and cannot truly be abstracted, which renders it incomprehensible to a society ordered around alienation and abstraction. Motherhood involves a sort of labour and yields a sort of possession that is simply incommensurable with those forms of labour and possession that our society focuses upon. The ‘labour’ of the mother occurs within her own body and does not lend itself to being sold on the market. Although you can sell your house, you cannot sell your home on the market.

The logic of abstraction and alienation departicularizes us and cuts loose the bonds that bind us to each other, our labour, and our world. However, the work of the mother is invested not merely in the performance of generic service functions for prospective or current economic agents (which she could in theory pay another to perform for her), but in the creation of the world of the home, a world that is unexchangeable, a world that is uniquely hers, a realm of life of which she herself—in her embodied particularity—is the heart and the source.

While our society seeks power through abstraction and alienation, the power of the mother is in her uniting and integrating. A factory may produce delicious pre-packaged gourmet meals for microwave reheating, yet could never unite a family in the same way as a mother’s gift of home cooking, for instance. The significance of the mother’s labour cannot be reduced to its material outcomes or products, as through her labour the mother is giving her very self.

The labour of the mother in making her home is a labour of love, a type of labour driven by, bound to, and creative of something particular and unique, apart from and distinct from all other things in the world. You can’t mass produce or replicate homes. The mother is the spring of life at the heart of the home. Her very body is the site of union and our very first home. The life that she produces through her maternal labour and love is the life by which her entire household grows. It is also a life that spreads out beyond her household into her wider community and society bringing communion and fruitfulness, as she expresses her distinctively womanly power to make the world into a home.

The woman’s labour, as I have suggested, is a sacrifice and the meaning of the woman’s sacrifice will not be achieved apart from the labours of men and the commitment of society more generally to honour those sacrifices and secure their meaning. In his deeply perceptive discussion of the theme of sacrifice, Moshe Halbertal discusses the open-endedness of the past:

[W]hatever we accomplish in the past is at the mercy of future action. Future events, in other words, will define retroactively the meaning of what it is that we have done… The importance of the institution of the promise becomes clear when set against this condition of the fragility of the past. Think for a moment about a deathbed promise in which a dying author who has completed a magnum opus asks a friend to pledge that he will make an effort to publish it. The retroactive meaning of the author’s past is effectively at stake. He is essentially entrusting his friend with the meaning of the years that are gone.

In failing to perceive the true promise of the sacrifices of motherhood, society has failed truly to honour those sacrifices, or to order itself in a manner that commits itself to defending and securing their meaning.

Society has tended to view the sacrifices of motherhood as sacrifices from which women ought to be unburdened. The weakening of the family over the past centuries has in large measure arisen from the steady outsourcing of traditional family functions to external agencies, leading to its de-condensation:

Marriage traditionally functioned as a socially integrating institution and has been regarded as sacred or holy by many societies as a result, right down to the present. Although the form it took could vary considerably from society to society, it generally served to unite or strengthen the bond between a range of different persons and practices. It bound the generations together. It bound different families together. It related the sexes together. It strengthened communities and cultures as marriages became the bearers of religious and social meaning. It connected sex with procreation. It connected private life with communal life.

The power of marriage and family as an institution arose in large measure from the vast array of functions that were condensed within it: provision, security, welfare, healthcare, education, investment, employment, public representation, community, religious practice, etc., etc. However, over the last few centuries marriage has been radically de-condensed, many of its former functions outsourced to other institutions or drastically reduced through new technologies. Whereas marriage was once a deeply meaningful necessity for people’s physical and social survival, now it is steadily reduced to a realm of sentimental community. Without the force of necessity holding people together, the deeper integrating goods that marriage once represented are harder to perceive and its meaning is drastically diminished. Marriage becomes much weaker as an institution.

Although many of these developments are very positive on balance, relieving women of some of the most onerous work of the household, no other agency or technology can ultimately substitute for the communion-establishing gift of self that the mother could achieve through her labour in her home. By their very character, techniques arising from abstraction and alienation cannot achieve the true integration of personal union and communion.

The mother herself represents a reality that resists the logic of abstraction and alienation. Abstraction and alienation approach reality as generic raw and exchangeable stuff to be broken down by and subjected to abstract technique. The mother, by contrast, represents the original material, yet personal, bond in which we all find our beginnings. It is not accidental that the words ‘matter’ and ‘material’ both derive from the word for mother, and it is significant that they present the reality of the world, not in terms of atomized stuff, but in terms of a primordial relationship and bond. The concept of the Earth as our Mother is also a biblical one: Adam is formed of the adamah. The woman is also particularly paralleled and associated with the earth in Genesis and elsewhere: she is the one from whom life comes and to whom it is bound (see also the parallels between the judgment on the woman and the place of the earth in the judgment on the man in Genesis 3).

Scripture presents the relationship between humanity and the earth as analogous in key respects to the relationship between man and woman. When we get one wrong, we will tend to get the other one wrong too. Without a recovery of the dignity of the mother at the heart of human society, our dysfunctional relationship with the world—our alienation from the world and reduction of the world to raw material for technique and power—will not truly be addressed. Conversely, a recovery of an ecological awareness offers peculiar possibilities for a renewed appreciation of the life-giving and communion-forming power of women.

As I noted earlier, modern society has not truly valued women’s sacrifices, nor committed itself to securing their meaning. A home or a wider realm of shared life in the world is a fragile thing and easily destroyed in a society that wishes to dissolve all bonds and free itself from all particularities in order to maximize power. The market’s drive to maximize production, for instance, has produced the conditions of ‘liquid modernity’ in which old bonds and stable structures are broken down and constant flux is all that remains. Michel Houellebecq comments upon the character of life in such a world:

Children existed [in the past] to inherit a man’s trade, his moral code, and his property. This was taken for granted among the aristocracy, but merchants, craftsmen, and peasants also bought into the idea, so it became the norm at every level of society. That’s all gone now: I work for someone else, I rent my apartment from someone else, there’s nothing for my son to inherit. I have no craft to teach him; I haven’t a clue what he might do when he’s older. By the time he grows up, the rules I lived by will have no value – he will live in another universe. If a man accepts the fact that everything must change, then he accepts that life is reduced to nothing more than the sum of his own experience; the past and future generations mean nothing to him. That’s how we live now. For a man to bring a child into the world now is meaningless.

The individualism of modern society is unsurprising because the horizons of meaning established by women’s labour of home-making and communion-forming are closed by the relentless forces of abstraction and alienation, which increase our autonomous power by weakening the power of all of our bonds. Every generation is a revolutionary break from its predecessor and a decadent parent of its successor. As peoplehood collapses into atomized, anonymous, and fluid society, we know that we will leave the patrimony of our communities and countries to those who will be strangers to us.

In such a society, it takes a peculiar courage and faith for a woman to recognize the daunting powers of liquid modernity arrayed against all of the bonds that she will form and prayerfully to cast the bread of her labours upon those waters nonetheless. The revolutionary character of the sacrifices of committed motherhood should not be underestimated. It is through women’s courageous determination to make such sacrifices and men’s unwavering protection and service of them that the human future is formed.

Yet the guilt that laces our culture’s sentimental celebration of motherhood is amply justified. In idealizing abstraction and alienation, and the maximization of autonomous power we created a world that is fundamentally hostile to the labour of women. As we have sacrificed or weakened our bonds to the particularities of the world—to families and homes, to neighbourhoods and communities, to congregations and churches, to specific ways of life and labour, to our towns, regions, and countries, and to our natural environments—to increase our power and autonomy, the homeliness and hospitality of the world has guttered. To the extent that homes and communities remain, they have retreated into small reservations of sentimental domesticity where we consume things together. Despite the material wealth displayed within them, they are starved of much of the life that once animated them.

If our power is to mean anything, it must be exercised in service of life and community, placing the mother once more at the heart of the world. If we truly honour the mother’s sacrifice, we will commit our own labour and order our society to securing its meaning.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological | 20 Comments