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Billings to Write James K.A. Smith, Calvin College I want to begin by echoing Todd’s gratitude. I, too, am grateful for the donors willing to support this important chair. I’m grateful to President Brown and the faculty at Western Seminary for both seeing the need for such work and for unleashing Todd’s theological creativity and faithful mind in this way. I’m sure our neighbors at Herman Miller and Steelcase would appreciate such a fantastic ergonomical design for a “chair”—it fits Todd perfectly. The Gordon Girod Research Professorship is not just for you here at Western Seminary. It’s not just for the Reformed Church in America. It’s not even just for the Reformed tradition more broadly. This professorship, rooted in the Reformed tradition, stands to make a contribution to the church catholic. I see Todd as the vanguard of a new boldness and energy in the Reformed tradition, one that embraces our catholicity while remaining convinced that the Reformed tradition has an apostolate to the wider body of Christ. So, ironically, to sit Todd down in this chair is actually to send his writing and teaching and service to the wider church and world. Todd has embodied this irenic Reformed catholicity ever since I’ve known him. Indeed, Todd is, for me, one of the primary reasons to be hopeful about the future of Reformed theology. In my estimation, he is almost without peer in his generation, boldly and creatively articulating a theological vision that is evangelical and catholic, Reformed and ecumenical, dogmatic and practical. May his tribe increase. Now rumor has it that this chair is not only comfortable, it’s almost a bit cushy, with time to write and devote himself to research. So in the spirit of the Protestant work ethic and good Calvinist guilt, I thought I would celebrate Todd’s installation in the Girod chair by giving him a long list of work to do. So here, in no particular order, are the five books I want Todd Billings to write. The titles, some of which might sound vaguely familiar, could no doubt use a little work. 1. Bad Protestantism: How We Became a Nation of Nondenominational Libertarians. Fortunately, based on Todd’s talk tonight, it sounds like he’s already working on this one! The title, of course, alludes to Ross Douthat’s important book, Bad Religion in which Douthat diagnoses the assimilation of American Christianity to just the sort of do-it-yourself, freelance spirituality Todd described as antithetical to the God-centric piety of the Heidelberg Catechism. Douthat locates this shift in the 1960s and 70s, a time that eroded the institutions of Christianity in the United States. We are now reaping the results of that in all sorts of ways, and MTD is just one of those expressions. But I’ve always thought that, while Douthat rightly diagnoses the disease, his etiology doesn’t go back far enough. If the 1960s unleashed personal autonomy, independence, and (socalled) “liberation” in new, powerful, corrosive ways, is that a corruption of American religion and social life—or the final flowering of seeds planted long before 1968? Is such idolization of
2 autonomy a late modern change in American life, or is it the culmination of slow creep that is as old as the Revolution?1 Tonight I think Todd has already noted that there is something in the very DNA of the American experiment, enshrined already in the Declaration of the Independence, that encodes an understanding of freedom that is fundamentally antithetical to the understanding of freedom in the Catholic Reformed tradition. This “American” view of freedom is fundamentally libertarian in the sense that one is considered free just to the extent that one is not constrained. It is what we sometimes describe as a negative view of freedom—freedom as the mere absence of constraint— and it is the water in which we all swim. (This has nothing to do with political parties: Republicans tends to be libertarian on economic matters; Democrats are libertarians when it comes to social matters. Both parties prioritize choice, just about different things.) And because this is the water in which we swim, the church in the United States has absorbed—and been absorbed into—these same ideals, even “conservative” churches. Because we’re all libertarians, we’re all functional Congregationalists. Todd has already broached this analysis tonight. I think one of the counter-cultural gifts that the Catholic-Reformed tradition brings to the contemporary church, and wider cultural, is the good news that our freedom is found in being united with (and subject to) Christ, that we are released to be who we were made to be precisely by being conformed to the image of Christ. I recognize that this is very much a minority report in our culture. It sounds like the very opposite of “liberation” in a culture that thinks freedom is license. But I also think we are beginning to see intimations that a generation may be arising—a generation who have lived the effects, for example, of their parents’ unfettered freedom to end their marriages and try two or three more2— that generation is beginning to wonder whether such license and so-called liberty is really the same as freedom and flourishing.3 I think this is powerfully expressed in a recent anthem by the Fleet Foxes, called “Helplessness Blues,” that opens this way: I was raised up believing I was somehow unique— Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, Unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be A functioning cog in some great machinery Serving something beyond me. A culture that can sing such songs seems to me one primed to hear anew the good news in Q&A 1: “That I am not my own, but belong…” 2. The Very Much Intended Reformation. The past few years have been hard on the Protestant Reformation. First Charles Taylor laid the blame for our “secular age” pretty squarely on the backs of the Protestant Reformers. On Taylor’s account, we now live in the contested, pluralist, cross-pressured space of a secular age because late medieval movements of Reform—most notably the Protestant Reformation—put a new emphasis on “this world” while at the same time
“The personal is political” might be a late 60s slogan, but it grew from seeds planted in the US Declaration of Independence. 2 See Andrew Root, The Children of Divorce. 3 Consider, for example, just what Matthew Weiner is doing in his portrayal of the 1960s in Mad Men.
3 de-sacralizing creation, effectively flattening it and evacuating transcendence from the cosmos, leaving us with mere “nature.” The story is long and complicated (and contestable), but the upshot is the persistent suggestion that Protestantism opened a Pandora’s box that eventually leads us to our naturalistic, secularized present. That picture was then expanded by the Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory in his much-discussed book, The Unintended Reformation. Echoing Taylor’s thesis, Gregory documents what we might call the Frankensteinish effects of the Protestant Reformation—those monstrous consequences that were the unintended byproducts of good intentions.4 And then you get Protestants like Hans Boersma piling on! With friends like that… Todd has the historical acumen, analytic acuity, and unapologetic Protestant sensibility we need for someone to articulate a reply. I would think a reply requires granting that there’s some truth here—that the Reformation has some explaining to do. But I would also think that Todd’s emphasis on the Catholicity of the Reformers, including a healthy sacramentality, should give him a platform to both deconstruct this criticism while also re-articulating the need for Reform. Perhaps I could put it even more bluntly: I would love to see Todd write a book that counters to the new trend in theology in which reluctant Protestants pine for Rome as a supposed default (call it “Tiber-chic!”). I hear in Todd’s program not just a return to catholicity but precisely a Reformed catholicity—which affirms the Reformation and Catholicity, a vision that is both ecumenical and unapologetically Protestant. Todd’s Catholic-Reformed vision might be a reminder that catholicity is not owned by Rome (or Canterbury or Constantinople either). 3. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down Revisited: A Primer on Reformed-Catholic Evangelism. What I so appreciate about Todd’s theological agenda is that it stands to impact the church as much as the academy. And I’m already grateful that Todd has been willing to write for non-academic audiences, translating his project for pastors and laypeople. I think, for example, of his gently critical Christianity Today article on the problem with talking about “incarnational ministry.” I see a related agenda for Todd at the intersection of his sacramental theology and a theology of mission. This would be an agenda that could embody the exciting partnership between Western Seminary and the Newbigin House of Studies. In particular, echoing Marva Dawn’s classic, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, I would love to see him further work out and translate the missional implications of a rich, Reformed liturgical vision as evangelism. As he noted tonight, City Church in San Francisco is a wonderful example of this conviction: that the very “strangeness” of historic Christian worship is the most powerful testimony to transcendence in our “secular age.” And we could add a long list of church plants and renewed congregations, especially in the great cities of North America, which are finding that the proclamation of the Gospel is most hospitable when the Word is proclaimed alongside the Table; when the Spirit’s grace is channeled through historic practices and disciplines; when Christian worship is not just the dissemination of information (“a message”) but is a full-bodied capturing of the imagination. The postmodern future of the church—including the Reformed church—is not staked on figuring out “the next best thing;” the best resources for postmodern evangelism and mission are found in the ancient practices of Christian worship and the disciplines of the catechumenate. Contrary to our chronological snobbery that worships the idol of novelty, we
You’ll recall that Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” is actually the product of a well-intentioned research program aimed at health and healing. Cp. Doc Ock’s monstrosity in Spiderman 2.
4 could hope to just catch up to the fourth century. Ancient Christians lived in the same sort of “cross-pressured” space we inhabit in 21st-century America and we have a lot to learn from them. That stance of openness to ancient Christian wisdom was the spirit of Christian renaissance we saw in John Calvin. Now, the other two books I want to see from Todd will be a little bit more of a stretch. But I’m quite serious: these are themes that I have already wished Todd was thinking about, because I think he has laid important groundwork for thinking through them. So consider these as invitations to extend and build upon work you’ve already done. 4. Calvin’s “Urban” Theology: A Twenty-First Century Postcard from Geneva. There is a feature of Reformed theology that has, to date, been underrepresented in Todd’s work: what we might call “public theology” or a theology of culture. I find this interesting, given both Todd’s historical interest in John Calvin and his constructive work in confessional theology. You might say that Todd’s work so far has focused on St. Peter’s cathedral; I would love to see him look beyond the walls of that sanctuary and note John Calvin’s interest in the rest of Geneva. This need not entail abandoning his robust interest in ecclesiology (Matthew Myers Boulton has recently pointed out the essential links between Calvin’s vision for the renewal of the church and the reformation of the city of Geneva.) To take a page from Abraham Kuyper’s hymnbook, in addition to reflection on the church as institute, I’d love to see Todd reflect on the church as organism. What are the implications of union with Christ for thinking about the state, the city, and civil society? How do the dynamics of creational (and new creational) participation shape Christian reflection on the political? I’m all for renewal of the church; but what are the implications of that for the renewal of our neighborhoods and nation-states? I’m happy to offer Todd a few pages in Comment magazine if he wants to start thinking through these questions. 5. The Word of God for the People of God—Even the Ones Who Are Scientists. The intersection of faith and science is one of the more “cross-pressured” spaces in our secular age. We are beginning to own up to these tensions, and are looking for constructive ways to overcome the alleged “war” between the two. However, I’m not at all convinced that the major players in theology & science have adequately or properly grasped just what is at stake for the church to work through this. In particular, I think we still have not adequately addressed fundamental issues of biblical hermeneutics. And this is where I have often found myself wishing that Todd would extend and apply his brilliant work in The Word of God for the People of God to contemporary discussions of theology, science, and human origins. I think Reformed biblical hermeneutics brings something important to this conversation. On the one hand, our confessions include the important metaphor of the “two books” of nature and Scripture. On the other hand, our confessions and theologians also articulate the important relationship between these two books, giving priority to the Word of God. In addition, with the Catholic tradition, Reformed biblical interpretation has always been fundamentally canonical. That is, the Catholic-Reformed tradition has received the diversity of Scripture as one book, constituted by an over-arching narrative of God’s covenant relationship to his people. The Scriptures are received as a whole, and only a holistic approach can interpret them well. In doing so, the Reformed tradition has always received the Bible as the church’s book—both in the sense that the canon itself is a product of the church’s discernment and
5 deliberation, led by the Spirit, but also in the sense that the Bible is “at home” as a book for the faithful—a book that is best read by the community of faith receiving it as God’s authoritative word. It is for this reason that Reformed biblical interpretation has always also been unabashedly theological. To receive the collection of writings that constitute the Bible as Scripture is to already have made a faith-commitment; it is to already, in faith, approach the canon of Scripture as revelation, functioning authoritatively for the community of faith. Reformed biblical interpretation does not merely receive the Bible as a historical collection of human responses to the divine, or as an array of artifacts from religious history; the Bible is constituted as Scripture by the Christian community. This canonical, theological interpretation of Scripture has important implications for how we read the Scriptures with respect to human origins. First, the canonical approach means that Reformed biblical interpretation never treats passages or even books of the Bible as discrete, independent “units” of revelation. A Reformed understanding of creation, human origins, the Fall, and original sin is not predicated on discrete passages such as Genesis 1 or Romans 5 on their own, or even a larger “unit” like Genesis 1-3; nor is the meaning of Genesis reducible to Israel’s original reception of the text. The theological fruit distilled in confessional standards is always the product of a canonical reading of Scripture that situates discrete passages within the wider context of the canon. So narrow fixations on discrete passages or books or historical recipients are not consistent with this Reformed biblical hermeneutic. As a canonical/theological approach, Reformed biblical interpretation does not operate with any illusions of a “neutral” or “objective” reading of the Scriptures. Reformed biblical interpretation is instead unapologetically biased insofar as it begins from the assumption that the Scriptures are the revelation of a personal God. On this account, interpreting Scripture well is not a matter of jettisoning our biases but of adopting the right biases. This not a naïve, sectarian retreat to a prejudice that refuses to be “critical.” To the contrary, the theological interpretation of Scripture would question the very possibility of a “neutral” or “objective” reading of Scripture. So it is not a matter of choosing between “biased” readings of Scripture and enlightened “critical” readings of Scripture: It is a matter of discerning which biases best reflect the hermeneutic stance of a community of disciples who receive the Scriptures as the Word of God. The theological interpretation of Scripture is not a stance that has failed to achieve Enlightenment “objectivity;” rather, it is a hermeneutical stance the refuses the myth of such objectivity. Rooted in a creational affirmation of culture, history, and embodiment, it is attentive to the dynamics of history and the evidences of the historical sciences—but without acceding to the naturalistic assumptions of those historical sciences (as practiced). As Todd suggests, the theological interpretation of Scripture does not reject or ignore critical methods; it recontextualizes them.5 Such approaches also work with a misplaced confidence in being able to get “behind” the text—as if the biblical narration of events is “biased” whereas the historical disclosure of events is a pristine conduit for “how it went.”6 A theological interpretation of Scripture, Todd argues,
See Billings, The Word of God for the People of God, p. 60: “When historical events such as the Exodus or the life of Jesus are narrated, our modernist tendency is to test the truth of these accounts by looking behind the text. But when we do, we end up with an account of the Exodus or Jesus’ life that is narrated by our own historical reconstruction. At the point we risk exchanging the narrative of Scripture for our own historical narrative 6 [Ricoeur]
6 contextualizes historical evidence, not in a way that is insulating or naïve, but one that owns up to the priority of special revelation: This is not to assume that the biblical texts occupy an autonomous, textual reality that is divorced from history. Rather, it is to claim that it is impossible to access the reality mediated by the text apart from the text itself. The biblical text is not primarily a historical source for accessing a reality behind the text; rather, it is the Spirit’s instrument for narrating the revelatory history, a history that is not simply a secular history but one in which God is active in the world.”7 In the Reformed tradition, special revelation contextualizes natural revelation; our reading of the book of Scripture positions our reading of the book of nature. And our reading of the book of Scripture is self-consciously canonical, theological, and ecclesial. These key commitments of the Reformed tradition will have important implications for how we engage issues of human origins. I’d love to see Todd work some of that out with his colleagues here at Western Seminary. Well, Todd, that should keep you busy for a while. You didn’t want to get bored, did you? Let me close by wishing you every blessing on your endeavors. We are grateful to God for your many gifts; we are grateful to Rachel and your children for “loaning” you to the wider body of Christ; and I am grateful for your friendship and inspiration, and will excitedly look forward to what the Spirit is going to do through you.
Billings, p. 60.