The Magisterial vs. Ministerial Role of Reason

Portrait of Martin Luther

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“But what about . . . the role of argument and evidence in knowing Christianity to be true?  I’ve already said that it is the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that gives us the fundamental knowledge of Christianity’s truth.  Therefore, the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role.  I think Martin Luther correctly distinguished between what he called the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason.

“The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence.  The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel.  In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate.  Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology.  Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding.  A person who knows that Christianity is true on the basis of the witness of the Spirit may also have a sound apologetic which reinforces or confirms for him the Spirit’s witness, but it does not serve as the basis of his belief.

“If the arguments of natural theology and Christian evidences are successful, then Christian belief is warranted by such arguments and evidences for the person who grasps them, even if that person would still be warranted in their absence.  Such a person is doubly warranted in his Christian belief, in the sense that he enjoys two sources of warrant.”

— William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Crossway, 2008), 47-48.

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Book Review — Life in the Spirit

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  • Paperback: 270 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2009)
  • Amazon
  • Christianbook.com
  • IVP Page, with Sample Chapters
  • Life in the Spirit, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis, is an excellent collection of essays on the Holy Spirit and Christian spirituality.

    Topics in Life in the Spirit are varied, and are grouped under the headings of “Theological Contours,” “Historical Approaches,” “Spiritual Practices,” and an epilogue.

    The “Theological Contours” section includes two essays on spiritual formation, and an essay entitled “Getting the Spirit Back in Spirituality.” This latter essay was written by Gordon Fee and it is, in my opinion, the best essay in the volume. Fee urges readers towards the realization that the Holy Spirit is fully active and alive in the church and to open ourselves up to the presence of God. Fee’s article was simply fantastic, and this entire section on Theological Contours is perhaps the highlight of the book.

    The “Historical Approaches” section features four essays that focus on Christian spirituality throughout history. I found each of these essays interesting, particularly Lawrence Cunningham’s “The Way and the Ways” which discusses Roman Catholic spirituality. His insights on different “Ways” within Christianity and spirituality were enlightening. His points could be equally used for other denominations, such as his advice to analyze Catholic spiritual practice by asking, “Do we follow Christ by this practice, or by reading that book, or by participating in the liturgy, or by seeing Christ in others? By the use of that criterion we can then judge whether this vast panoply of Catholic devotional, ascetic, spiritual, liturgical and diaconal practices . . . are worthy of attention” (96).  I urge readers to consider the various “schools” or “Ways” Cunningham discusses. My single complaint about this section is that it seemed a little unbalanced to have two out of four essays on Roman Catholic spiritual practice. Surely there are other spiritual traditions worth exploring within Christianity! Catholicism would obviously be one of the top choices, but to dedicate half the essays on the historical perspectives to it seems a little extreme.

    Part 3 focuses on “Spiritual Practices” and features five essays on the topic. These essays are wonderfully diverse. I was particularly excited to see that the essays weren’t all on topics that were to be expected, such as prayer (though the essay on prayer by James Wilhoit is great). Of particular interest to me was David Gushee’s essay on “Spiritual Formation and the Sanctity of Life” in which he urges Christians to “establish . . . the sanctity of human life as our utterly fixed, unshakable and immovable moral standard” (215).

    There are difficulties with reviewing a work of such a broad scope, as it seems unfair not to deal with each essay individually. I trust this doesn’t reflect on this fantastic work, but instead on my inadequate review. I highly recommend Life in the Spirit for both interested laypeople and scholars. The diverse array of topics alone makes it worth buying, but the incredible insights the authors offer make the book essential.

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. blogs on philosophy and theology at Always Have a Reason.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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    Book Review — The Great Theologians by Gerald R. McDermott

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  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (March 5, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Author Faculty Page
  • Q and A with the author
  • The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide by Gerald R. McDermott is an excellent resource for those who are interested in understanding how theological thinking has been influenced and molded by Christian tradition. In recent years, I have come to see how a theology student can benefit from studying historical theology. Of course, I don’t believe that historical thinking can play a magisterial role in place of Scripture. Yet, we can learn a great deal from those who went before us (including mistakes that they made), and better understand where we are today. Alister McGrath notes, “Part of our theological method must include an examination of the past to understand how we came to be where we are.” In other words, theology is not simply about giving priority to the Bible; it is also about valuing and interacting with the ideas scholars derive from their engagement with tradition. As Graham Cole summarizes, “Theological thinking is also historical thinking …. To ignore the past would be an immense folly.” Suffice it to say that McDermott’s book succeeds in answering these concerns.

    What distinguishes McDermott’s book from others and what I thought to be very beneficial is the format that he applies to each chapter. Each chapter starts with a biographical sketch of the theologian, telling a story about that theologian’s life, and then introduces main themes of that theologian’s thought. Then, McDermott zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that theologian and provides an analysis of it. I really appreciated this format. It helps me to see the bigger picture of how each theologian came to form his particular theological thinking, how he reacted to the theological trends of his day and how such events informed and influenced his view of Scripture, etc. As a result, it demonstrates the interesting journey of the theologian’s mind to his particular thinking.

    Another strength that comes from the format is that since the author keeps it uniform throughout the book, it was easier to compare one theologian to another. This is nicely done especially between Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the subjects of beauty, human experience (feeling) and reason in doing theology. To give another example, Friedrich Schleiermacher argues for the feeling of absolute dependence as the essence of religion (reacting to the Enlightenment), while Karl Barth turned attention to God’s self revelation in the Bible. Yet, Barth did not seem to exclude the significant aspect of human experience or feeling in doing theology, since his view of Scripture is that the Bible becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for its readers. Interestingly, Edwards saw both feeling (affections) and thinking (cognition) as important aspects of religion. In my opinion, Edwards has the most balanced view on this important subject.

    An additional strength of this book is that McDermott did not neglect to include the viewpoints of contemporary systematic/historical theologians such as Alister McGrath and Timothy George. For example, McDermott cites McGrath in the section on Luther’s theology of the cross. This is an excellent example of how past theology can continue to influence contemporary theologians and how the interaction of past and present can further unfold God’s message of the cross.

    I enjoyed this book very much. One thing that I wondered before reading it was how he chose these eleven theologians. What were the reasons behind his selection? McDermott says that it was purely his personal preference. Whatever the reasons, I found it a good selection and I believe McDermott succeeded in accomplishing his purpose for the book: “I wanted to be able to provide a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians—so that any thinking Christian could get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each. . . . An introduction that could inform and provide a gateway to deeper study if so desired”(11).

    — Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese.  Naomi is pursuing a PhD in systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.

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    Free J. I. Packer Book for Kindle and iPhone

    Total dependence on God. Jesus proclaimed victory over the powers of darkness. The Holy Spirit as advocate, counselor, guide, and helper—the one who glorifies Jesus. Communion of the saints.

    In Affirming the Apostles Creed, Packer explains the meaning and implications of each phrase of this great creed. Each concise chapter concludes with discussion questions and Bible passages for further study.

    Click here for your free Kindle edition available until October 31, 2009.

    You can also read the book on your iPhone, without a Kindle, by downloading the iPhone Kindle app from the iTunes store.

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    (Via Crossway Blog)

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    Three Views on the Atonement

    Michael Bird at Euangelion hosts three views on the question, “For whom did Christ die?” by

    Paul Helm (Calvinist View)
    Michael Jensen (Amyraldian View)
    Ben Witherington (Arminian View)

    Paul Helm goes first, followed by Jensen and Witherington, each writing about 300 words on their respective views.

    According to Paul Helm (Highland Theological College):

    ‘Definite atonement’ is an improvement on ‘Limited atonement’, but neither phrase clearly captures and expresses the idea, which is not exclusively to do with the atonement. The view is that the Triune God ensures the salvation of men and women, boys and girls. He does not merely make possible their salvation, leaving it to the sinner to make up his own mind. Rather, whom he intends to save, he saves, through the distinct but inseparable work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Augustine puts it in his letter to Simplicianus in AD 396, God’s grace is effectual, effective, actually ensuring that those ordained to eternal life believe, secured by the golden chain of Romans 8.

    What is at issue is an estimate of divine grace. The biblical basis for the view does not rest upon a single proof verse, or a few of these, (though verses such as John 6.37 and Acts 13.48 and of course Romans 8 28f should be borne in mind). Rather it is founded on the implications of Scripture’s overall witness to God’s powerful love, to the spiritual death of fallen mankind, and to the actual salvation of countless people.  (Continue)

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    Edwards on Knowing Doctrine to Be Divine

    Here’s an interesting quote from Jonathan Edwards in his sermon “A Divine and Supernatural Light” where he describes how believers possess certainty of the truth of biblical doctrine.

    A true sense of the divine excellency of the things of God’s Word doth more directly and immediately convince of the truth of them; and that because the excellency of these things is so superlative. There is a beauty in them that is so divine and godlike, that is greatly and evidently distinguishing of them from things merely human, or that men are the inventors and authors of; a glory that is so high and great, that when clearly seen, commands assent to their divinity, and reality. When there is an actual and lively discovery of this beauty and excellency, it won’t allow of any such thought as that it is an human work, or the fruit of men’s invention. This evidence, that they, that are spiritually enlightened, have of the truth of the things of religion, is a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence. They believe the doctrines of God’s Word to be divine, because they see divinity in them, i.e. they see a divine, and transcendent, and most evidently distinguishing  glory in them; such a glory as, if clearly seen, don’t leave room to doubt of their being of God, and not of men.

    Alvin Plantinga cites descriptions like these from Edwards (e.g., Warranted Christian Belief, 100-101) in support of his extended A/C (Aquinas/Calvin) model of warranted Christian belief, in which the believer acquires knowledge (both true and warranted belief) of “the great things of the gospel”– a phrase borrowed from Edwards — by the internal testimony or instigation of the Holy Spirit.

    The believers described above by Edwards could be understood to be those on Plantinga’s model who have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to believe in the divine origin and truth of core biblical teachings.  They possess “a kind of intuitive and immediate evidence” and “see divinity” in the “things of God’s Word.

    Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology makes a lot of sense to me, and he and Edwards seem to be in agreement on at least this point.

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    Jonathan Edwards on the Holy Spirit’s Work on the Soul’s Faculties

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    This quote I recently read caught my attention.  Edwards had some great insights into theological and philosophical anthropology.

    But in the renewing and sanctifying work of the Holy Ghost, those things are wrought in the soul that are above nature, and of which there is nothing of the like kind in the soul by nature; and they are caused to exist in the soul habitually, and according to such a stated constitution or law, that lays such a foundation for exercises in a continued course, as is called a principle of nature. Not only are remaining principles assisted to do their work more freely and fully, but those principles are restored that were utterly destroyed by the fall; and the mind thenceforward habitually exerts those acts that the dominion of sin had made it as wholly destitute of, as a dead body is of vital acts.

    From the sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light”

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