Friday, December 24, 2010

And the Word became flesh and lived among us

That is the title of my latest column at The Catholic Thing. Here is how it begins:
During the Season of Advent, one often hears in Church circles and even in the popular media the plea, or something similar to it, “Let’s keep the Christ in Christmas.” But before we can take that plea seriously (as we ought to), we have to first understand what it means to keep Christ in Christianity.

In the first chapter of his Gospel, St. John eloquently provides an account of the divine paternity of Jesus of Nazareth, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14-NRSV). On the other hand, both the Gospels of St. Matthew (1:1-17) and St. Luke (3:23-38) offer accounts of Jesus’ human genealogies, revealing that He is, like each of us, connected to generations of predecessors, flesh and blood human beings, without whom he would lose his earthly identity. For in order for Jesus to be the Son of David, he has to be the Son of Mary. And in order to be the Second Adam, he has to share Adam’s nature, and hence, he is one of us, “yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15).

>>>continue reading

Monday, December 20, 2010

Conference on Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought (17-19 February 2011), at Westmont College

(HT: Micah Watson)

This looks like a terrific conference. You can read more about it here. The featured speakers are J. Budziszewski (University of Texas) and Robert P. George (Princeton University). Among the other speakers are J. Daryl Charles (Bryan College), Micah Watson (Union University), Paul DeHart (Texas State University), and Bryan McGraw (Wheaton College).

Friday, December 17, 2010

Schism for thee but not for me?

A former professor of mine, a well-known Lutheran theologian, told me in private conversation several weeks ago that he was upset that I had returned to the Catholic Church while in the middle of my service as president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), arguing that my public reversion could have harmed ETS irreparably. Because it was a matter of conscience that forced me into the confessional earlier than I had planned,[1] I was tempted to respond like the founder of his denomination did at the Diet of Worms, “There I stood, I could do no other.” The irony was indeed delicious, but I simply thanked him for his counsel and bid him peace. Apparently, unlike the Word of God, schism is not a two-edged sword.


[1]Seven months before my ETS term was to end, my nephew, Dean Beckwith, asked me to be his Confirmation sponsor, and this required that I be in full communion with the Catholic Church. If Dean had not made the request, I would have completed my term as ETS president and then entered the Catholic Church.  Because Dean’s decision to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation was influenced by a letter I wrote to him about what it means to follow Christ, I could not reject my nephew’s request.  I document this in greater detail in my Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 17-25

The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church

That is the title of the book I received in the mail today. What an amazing surprise! Signed by its editor/author, Jimmy Akin, I am looking forward to going through it over the Christmas break. Knowing Jimmy (who is a friend) and the scope and depth of his intellectual powers, I suspect that this will go to the top of my list of books on the Fathers. You can order it through Jimmy's website here.

It should come in handy while I am working on my 13,000-word contribution to the forthcoming book, Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism (Zondervan, forthcoming in 2011), edited by Robert L. Plummer (professor, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary).

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Philosophia Christi article of Feser's Aquinas book is now accessible online

As I mentioned in a prior post, I just published in the recent issue of Philosophia Christi a review essay of Edward Feser’s latest book, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.

Thanks to the Editor of Philosophia Christi who granted me permission, you can now access the article online here. For those who are interested in the entire issue of Philosophia Christi (12.2, Winter 2010), you can read a profile of it here.

As I noted in the prior post, a portion of my article deals with Feser’s take on St. Thomas and Intelligent Design (ID). As readers of Return to Rome know, I am critical of ID, having published several articles in the past couple of years in which I make this plain. (See here,here, and here, but especially read my four part series on the BioLogos blog in which I tell about my initial and developing misgivings about ID. Here is part 1part 2part 3, and part 4). In any event, you can read the whole article on Feser's book here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

My latest article: "Guidance for Doting and Peeping Thomists: A Review Essay of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide."

This just appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Philosophia Christi (429-439).  It is a review essay of Edward Feser's latest book, Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide. Although you cannot presently get the article online, you can see the issue's table of contents here. (Update: It is now accessible online here. Special thanks to the PC editor for granting me permission to post it on my website. For a profile of the entire issue of PC, go here). In the same issue is a review essay of  my book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007). It is written by Calvin College philosophy professor Kevin Corcoran, who I had the pleasure to meet three years ago at the 2007 meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.  He was a discussant in a session on Defending Life.  I have not yet read the review essay. But since he's a very bright philosopher, I should get a run for my money.

A portion of my review essay deals with Feser's take on St. Thomas and Intelligent Design (ID). As readers of Return to Rome know, I am critical of ID, having published several articles in the past couple of years in which I make this plain. (See here, here, and here, but especially read my four part series on the BioLogos blog in which I tell about my initial and developing misgivings about ID. Here is part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4). In any event, here is an excerpt of the Philosophia Christi review essay that may interest readers of Return to Rome (notes omitted):
Even though some attribute an ID-approach to Aquinas, Feser argues that the attribution is mistaken and reveals a misunderstanding of what Aquinas was trying accomplish in his Fifth Way. For Aquinas, the design or purpose of nature refers to the interrelationship of “all things” in the universe, including scientific laws and all inanimate and animate things and their powers, which have their own natures that direct them to certain ends. And they are all kept in existence by the God Who brought the universe into being ex nihilo. Thus, writes Feser, “Aquinas . . . takes the Fifth Way to entail the existence of nothing less than the God of classical theism, who sustains the order of the world here and now and at any moment at which it exists” (111) That is, “Aquinas’s argument is intended as a metaphysical demonstration” and not as a “quasi-scientific empirical hypothesis” that claims to offer a probable and provisionary answer, which is precisely what the ID advocates claim of their view (111). As Dembski writes, ID “depends on advances in probability theory, computer science, molecular biology, the philosophy of science and the concept of information—to name but a few.” Thus, without the assistance of these advances, belief in design in nature is imperiled. For this reason, according to Stephen Meyer, ID must exclusively bear the burden to ward off philosophical materialism. Or, as Dembski puts it: “Naturalism is the disease. Intelligent design is the cure.”

As Feser suggests, this posture does to Christian metaphysics what some prominent analytic philosophers are suggesting every branch of philosophy should have done to it: naturalize it. As Brian Leiter puts it, the first half of the twentieth century’s “linguistic turn . . . . has either been supplanted or supplemented by the naturalistic turn, in which traditional philosophical problems are thought be insoluble by the a priori, armchair methods of the philosopher, and to require, instead, embedding in (or replacement by) suitable empirical theories.” And this naturalistic turn requires a particular approach to metaphysics that is informed by an empiricist epistemology found in modern science. As Leiter writes: “Philosophical understanding, in short, must be the same as scientific understanding: it must employ the same methods of understanding that the sciences deploy with good effect elsewhere.” Although ID advocates reject methodological naturalism (MN) in science when it comes to excluding ID conclusions a priori, they in fact emulate the methodological posture of their opponents when it comes to embracing the “naturalistic turn.” That is, when it comes to doing philosophy, Dembski and Leiter are two peas in a pod. The only difference is that Dembski thinks he has evidence for design whereas Leiter disagrees. But they are both operating under the aegis of the “naturalistic turn.” This is why ID advocates claim they are no less “scientific” than their critics, except that each comes to different conclusions. As Dembski puts it: ID “takes a long-standing philosophical intuition and cashes it out as a scientific research program.”

ID advocates are, of course, foes of naturalism, and Feser is not suggesting otherwise. What he is suggesting, however, is that they want to use the naturalist’s own methodological assumptions against naturalism, but in doing so concede so much to naturalism that they end up with a radically distorted theology and a dubious metaphysics.

This is why Feser argues that ID’s scientific research program, like Paley’s natural theology or philosophy’s naturalistic turn, takes for granted “a mechanistic view of nature” that “denies that purpose or teleology is immanent or inherent in nature” (115) Aquinas, according to Feser, rejects this view because it seemed to him that “every agent has a final cause; that is to say, that everything that serves as an efficient cause `points to’ or is `directed at’ some specific effect or range of effects as its natural end” (114) This is why, for the Thomist, chance and law—the two explanations that Dembski must eliminate in order to detect design in natural objects —are not defeaters to teleology in nature. For chance and law—the natural processes themselves—reveal the final causality immanent and inherent in nature....

Thus, for the Thomist, Darwinian mechanisms and pathways, as well as scientific laws and other natural processes, no more count against the existence and necessity of God (or even final or formal causality) than does the account of my conception by the natural processes of human reproduction count against the claim that God is Creator of the universe. This is because the Fifth Way, like each of the other Five Ways, is not an argument from some inexplicable facts in the universe to the existence of God, as if the Divine were a hypothesis provisionally embraced until further evidence turns up.  Rather, according to Aquinas, the universe is a radically contingent being requiring a Necessary Being, God, for its genesis as well as its continued existence including the development and order (τέλοϛ) within it. But if one embraces the naturalistic turn, which assumes a methodological stance that excludes immanent final causality as empirically detectable because it eludes the strictures of modern science, then ID and naturalism seem like the only two philosophically attractive options. The Thomist, as Feser ably argues (36–51, 110–20), rejects this as a false choice.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Richard Posner does not know much about theology, especially the Catholic sort

Read Judge Posner's original piece here (and especially the replies in the combox). And then read John Breen's response at the Mirror of Justice.

I have, for years, been in awe of Judge Posner's imposing and impressive intellect. In fact, in my philosophy of law class I require my students to read several of his articles. But on the matter of Catholic moral theology, I will pass on the prince of law and economics and defer to the wisdom of the Prince of Priests.

Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue

You can find out more about the Center here. The following is its Mission Statement:
The Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue is an independent research center. Catholic and Evangelical scholars are increasingly discovering that we have much to learn from each other, not least in revitalizing our theologies and our study of Scripture.

Sharing a common bond in worship of Jesus Christ and dependence upon the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, Catholic and Evangelical theologians and historians can greatly enrich each others' ability to hear and proclaim the gospel in contemporary North American culture. The Center for Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue aims to sponsor conferences and research projects that nourish the ability of our communities to understand, appreciate, challenge, and benefit from each other. We hope thereby to enrich the faith and practice of contemporary Christians.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Church Fathers on Transubstantiation

Another terrific essay on one of my favorite websites, Called to Communion. Authored to Tim A. Troutman, it begins this way:
This article is intended to be a resource showing the support for the doctrine of Transubstantiation in the Church fathers, and not a robust defense of the doctrine as defined by the Council of Trent. The Church fathers did not believe in a mere spiritual presence of Christ alongside or in the elements (bread and wine). This can be shown by three different types of patristic statements. The first and most explicit type is a statement that directly affirms a change in the elements. The second type is a simple identification of the consecrated species with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Because unconsecrated bread is not called the Body, and consecratedis called the Body, this directly implies a belief that a supernatural change has taken place at the point of consecration. The third and final type is a statement which attributes or demands extraordinary reverence for the consecrated species itself, and not merely the solemnity of communion in this sacrament.

Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Was Aquinas a Proto-Protestant?

That is the title of my latest column at The Catholic Thing. It is a very brief summary of the paper I delivered in November at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society in Atlanta, "Doting Thomists: Evangelicals, Thomas Aquinas, and Justification."  Here's how The Catholic Thing column begins.
Catholics are often surprised to learn that there are Evangelical Protestants who claim to be Thomists.  When I was a Protestant, I was one of them. What
attracts these Evangelicals are Thomas’s views on faith and reason, his philosophy of the human person, command of Scripture, and intellectual rigor.  Some of them think that on justification, Thomas is closer to the Protestant Reformers than to the Catholic view (as taught in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church). The late Presbyterian theologian John Gerstner, for instance, claimed that with St. Augustine, St. Thomas “taught the biblical doctrine of justification so that if the Roman Church had followed Aquinas the Reformation would not have been absolutely necessary.” Others have made similar arguments, but they are spectacularly wrong. As usual, it all hinges on understanding faith and works.

For St. Thomas, justification refers not only to entrance into the family of God at Baptism – administered for the remission of sins – but to the infusion of sanctifying grace at Baptism and all the subsequent graces that work to transform the Christian from the inside out. Consider, for instance, Aquinas’s explanation of sanctifying grace as habitual grace: “a double effect of grace, even as of every other form; the first of which is `being,’ and the second, `operation.’” For example, “the work of heat is to make its subject hot, and to give heat outwardly. And thus habitual grace, inasmuch as it heals and justifies the soul, or makes it pleasing to God, is called operating grace; but inasmuch as it is the principle of meritorious works, which spring from the free-will, it is called cooperating grace.”

Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

More than meets the eye?: Dinesh D'Souza's presidential photo

(HT: Carl Trueman). According to Michael McClenahan, "The King’s College, an evangelical college in Manhattan, is officially distributing this photograph of the inauguration of their fifth President, Dinesh D’Souza." (Click presidential photo below for full size). If you look closely, the portrait on the wall behind President D'Souza is that of St. Thomas More. This is immensely interesting given the controversy over whether or not President D'Souza is or is not a Catholic. (See my comments on the matter here.).  There is no doubt that President D'Souza recognizes the historical, theological, and literary significance of More in shaping the trajectory of Protestantism and Catholicism in the United Kingdom. After all, President D'Souza is the editor of an outstanding volume, The Catholic Classics, published in 1986 by Our Sunday Visitor. (It includes introductory comments by two of the most important American Catholics of the 20th century, the late John J. Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York City, and  the late William F. Buckley, Jr., conservative public intellectual and founder of National Review magazine)




Sunday, December 5, 2010

My review of Abortion: Three Perspectives, by Tooley, Wolf-Devine, Devine, and Jaggar

I recently published this review in the journal Faith &  Philosophy 27.4 (2010): 478-482.  Here's how it begins:
It has been nearly four decades since the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is a right to abortion protected by the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the question ofabortion’s moral and legal permissibility, and all the attendant issues about the nature of law, human persons, and morality, continue to be seriously (and sometimes not so seriously) engaged in the public square. Given the metaphysical, ethical, and political issues on which abortion’s moral and legal status seems to hinge, philosophers have had a special interest in offering their own assessments of the subject.

In this book, three philosophical perspectives on abortion are offered for our consideration. The first, defended by Michael Tooley, is a liberal perspective on abortion. For Tooley, abortion is morally and legally permissible because the fetus, the unborn human being that dies as a consequence of an abortion, is not a person, and only persons can have a right to continued existence. Celia Wolf-Devine and Philip E. Devine are the authors of the second chapter, a communitarian prolife perspective. They offer arguments to support their belief that the unborn human being is a full-fledged member of the human community from the moment it comes into existence, and thus it is no different in its intrinsic dignity than you or me. For this reason, abortion, except for in the case of endangerment to the mother’s life, is unjustified homicide, and thus ought to be forbidden by our laws. Allison M. Jaggar asks us to consider a third perspective in a chapter entitled “Abortion Rights and Gender Justice: An Essay on Political Philosophy.” Jaggar maintains that the right to abortion is essential to women’s equality, because child bearing and child rearing are burdens peculiar to women, and because prolifers have not met their philosophical burden to demonstrate the unborn’s personhood. These three presentations are followed by three separate rebuttals. In each of these chapters each author rebuts the arguments of the initial chapters of the other two.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Catholics are Cannibals!

You just can't make this stuff up.  (HT: combox at Pilgrim's Daughter). Apparently, they're burning the cross at both ends this weekend on the blogosphere.




Friday, December 3, 2010

The brilliance of St. Augustine on grace and free will

St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430), the most influential theologian in the history of Western Christianity, is cited by both Catholics and Protestants in support of their respective views on the doctrine of justification. The following is an example of St. Augustine's brilliance. In these paragraphs, from his On Grace and Free Will (AD 426 or 427), he offers an interpretation of Scripture that, in my judgment, reconciles the apparently contrary passages on grace and reward:
Chapter 18.— Faith Without Good Works is Not Sufficient for Salvation.

Unintelligent persons, however, with regard to the apostle's statement: We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law, Romans 3:28 have thought him to mean that faith suffices to a man, even if he lead a bad life, and has no good works. Impossible is it that such a character should be deemed a vessel of election by the apostle, who, after declaring that in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, Galatians 5:6 adds at once, but faith which works by love. It is such faith which severs God's faithful from unclean demons—for even these believe and tremble, James 2:19 as the Apostle James says; but they do not do well. Therefore they possess not the faith by which the just man lives—the faith which works by love in such wise, that God recompenses it according to its works with eternal life. But inasmuch as we have even our good works from God, from whom likewise comes our faith and our love, therefore the selfsame great teacher of the Gentiles has designated eternal life itself as His gracious gift. Romans 6:23

Should Bob Dylan retire?, or Everybody must get old!

John Jurgeson at the Wall Street Journal says "yes." Here's an excerpt:
Most alarming to listeners devoted to his seminal recordings: the state of Mr. Dylan's voice, decades on from its first signs of deterioration. Dr. Lee Akst, director of the Johns Hopkins Voice Center, says it's impossible to diagnose Mr. Dylan without an examination, but that rock singers are especially prone to scarring or other damage to the vocal cords. Such trauma can be cumulative, he says, compounding the risks for the perennially touring singer. What's obvious: Though he never had a conventionally pretty voice—that was part of its power—lately he's been sounding like a scatting Cookie Monster. On stage, he strums an electric guitar and blows on a harmonica but spends more time at an upright organ, vamping.

Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Big man Keith Olbermann goes after Bristol Palin

Keith Olbermann, a truly loathsome piece of work.  Writes Bristol Palin on her Facebook page:



Mr. Olbermann--Sorry We Can't All Be As Perfect As You


by Bristol Palin on Thursday, December 2, 2010 at 2:11pm


Recently, a left wing commentator named Keith Olbermann attacked me for being a spokesperson for abstinence education and for being an Ambassador for the Candies Foundation, which promotes teen pregnancy awareness and prevention education. He went so far as to call me "the worst person" he knows, apparently, for my efforts to educate teenagers about the real world risks of premarital sex.


Accusing me of hypocrisy is by now, an old canard. What Mr. Olbermann lacks in originality he makes up for with insincere incredulity. Mr. Olbermann fails to understand that in order to have credibility as a spokesperson, it sometimes takes a person who has made mistakes. Parents warn their children about the mistakes they made so they are not repeated. Former gang members travel to schools to educate teenagers about the risks of gang life. Recovered addicts lecture to others about the risks of alcohol and drug abuse. And yes, a teen mother talks about the benefits of preventing teen pregnancy.


I have never claimed to be perfect. If that makes me the "worst person in the world" to Mr. Olbermann, then I must apologize for not being absolutely faultless like he undoubtedly must be.


To Mr. Olbermann let me say this: you can attack me all you want. But you will not stop me from getting my message out about teen pregnancy prevention. And one day, if you ever have a daughter, you may change your mind about me.


Bristol Palin