Review of D. Stephen Long, Augustinian and Ecclesial Ethics (On Loving Enemies)

This is my review of D. Stephen Long, Augustinian and Ecclesial Christian Ethics: On Loving Enemies (Lanham: Lexington Books / Fortress Academic 2018) to appear in the Englewood Review of Books.

Steve Long has a talent for seeing a way through tensions between competing movements in contemporary theology. In his 2014 book Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2014), Long addressed the debates over natural theology and the analogia entis that still divide Protestant theology in a Barthian key from Catholic theology sympathetic to von Balthasar. As Long showed in that book, while there are real differences, contemporary theology can benefit from insights from both of these great thinkers, even as Barth and von Balthasar benefitted in their own lifetimes from their personal friendship.

Now, in Augustinian and Ecclesial Christian Ethics, Long takes up a related set of differences in Christian ethics, between “neo-Anabaptists” and “neo-Augustinians.” The “neo-Anabaptists” – or, as Long comes to refer to them, the “ecclesial” ethicists, are represented by John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, James William McClendon, and others who have taken up their work. The “neo-Augustinians” are represented by Oliver O’Donovan, John Milbank, Eric Gregory, Charles Mathewes, Jennifer Herdt, and others who are more sympathetic to the “Augustinian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr. In many ways, the ecclesial ethicists represent the Barthian side of Saving Karl Barth, while the neo-Augustinians represent the von Balthasarian side (though O’Donovan is perhaps a Barthian Augustinian).

In his introduction, Long notes a common experience for many readers who have felt chilled both by right wing fundamentalism and left wing progressivism: ecclesial ethics “gave us a way to embrace Christian orthodoxy without coupling it to a bankrupt populist, evangelical Christianity.” Further, Long, suggests, people attracted to ecclesial ethics “saw it making common cause with what appeared to be a similar movement in the UK – radical orthodoxy.” Unfortunately, Long admits, “[w]e were, overall, wrong.”

I count myself as one of those disappointed hopefuls. I even did a Ph.D. in the home of radical orthodoxy (the University of Nottingham) based on those hopes. I still very much appreciate radical orthodoxy’s early promise and energy, just as I remain grateful for the influence of Stanley Hauerwas and other ecclesial ethicists, but I think Long is correct that the vision of a more unified trans-continental movement has dissipated.

The bulk of Long’s text traces the lineaments of both the ecclesial and neo-Augustinian approaches in particular through the criticisms each approach has brought against the other. Long’s discussion suggests that one of the key reasons we were wrong in hoping that ecclesial ethics and radical orthodoxy could draw together Anabaptist and Augustinian streams of the tradition is the need for more attention to differences in ecclesiology and eschatology. The most basic, historic differences between these approaches, of course, concern how the Church should relate to the temporal governing powers in this present age. Long offers some important and helpful suggestions for how both ecclesial ethicists and neo-Augustinians could temper their views and move just a bit closer to each other, even if they finally also hold some of their differences in creative tension.

Long summarizes these places of convergence and creative tension in three main theses in his conclusion: first, any common project must agree that neither America nor any other nation-state is a “salvific institution”; second, the church’s role in relation to the nation-state is as a “conversation partner,” not as an institution that seeks control over the levers of temporal government; and third, the conversation must entail deeper reflection on the meaning of human “freedom.” As Long asks, “[w]ho will sustain an ancient, positive view of liberty,” that is, freedom as a freedom from evil that facilitates a positive vision of authentic human flourishing, rather than freedom primarily as negative liberty, a freedom to live however one pleases free of external restraints, so long as that freedom does not unduly impinge on another individual’s basic negative liberties, regardless of any other broader conception of the good. I think this is one of the most important points Long makes. The argument between today’s “conservatives” and “progressives” usually assumes the same radically libertarian view of “freedom” as negative liberty, which is not the predominant view of “freedom” in the Biblical literature or the Christian tradition.

There is one area in which I’d like to see more discussion on this front, which reflects my own background and interests: the role of the rule of law and its effect of mitigating the inherent violence in the exercise of police powers. Any discussion of the rule of law raises the question of “natural law,” which is not really addressed in Long’s text. This is perhaps not surprising, since both the ecclesial and neo-Augustinian ethicists Long surveys are contemporary Protestant theologians – indeed, even the moniker “theological ethics,” rather than “moral theology,” reflects a Protestant bent. This is true even of the Anglo-Catholic neo-Augustinians, notably John Milbank, who claim to be extending Roman Catholic social teaching rather than doing “Protestant” theology.

Part of the problem with any discussion of “natural law” in relation to Long’s central theses is the influence today of the “new natural law” – a school of thought led by John Finnis that emphasizes the capacity of human reason, apart from any specifically religious claims, to discern objective principles of the good. The ecclesial ethicists generally echo Barth’s “nein” to this kind of natural theology, and the neo-Augustinians for the most part likewise reject the claim that a meaningful account of social order can derive from human reason without at least glaringly begging the question of God — or, in Milbank’s case, without starting with the question of God. But there are also Catholic neo-Augustinians, such as Jean Porter, writing on natural law from a more classically theological perspective in ways that could help further bridge the gaps Long identifies.

For any reader of this Review who is disturbed by our current political culture, Long’s Augustinian and Ecclesial Ethics is important reading. If you are not already deeply versed in the contemporary political theologians Long surveys it may be difficult reading at points, but keep at it, and take notes. Even as someone knee-deep in this world already, I have two pages of notes for further reading in the flyleaf of my copy of Long’s book. This is what thoughtful, engaged contemporary political theology looks like.

1 Peter 4:7-11 and the “End” of All Things

Continuing my reading of 1 Peter, I’ve come to the ominous sounding text of 1 Peter 4:7:  “The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.”  (NRSV).  (Πάντων δὲ τὸ τέλος ἤγγικεν. σωφρονήσατε οὖν καὶ νήψατε εἰς προσευχὰς).  Harink notes that “[w]e must clarify the meaning of telos (end, goal). . . .”  He suggests, first, that telos


is not in any signifcant sense simply the final point in the cosmic or historical temporal sequence.  It is not the end as midnight is the end of a twenty-four-hour day, nor is it near in the sense that midnight is near to 11:59 PM.  It is not the next or last thing, but the goal of all things, a goal that subsumes the temporal but cannot be summed up by it.

Harink, Commentary, p. 111.  This is the sense telos carries in much of Greek thought, and it also seems consistent with New Testament eschatological usage more broadly, so I’m surprised that David Bentley Hart’s translation also reads “Now the end of all things has drawn near.”  I’m curious why Hart used a phrase that has such a different resonance in popular culture.

Harink further argues that “the telos here is not immanent in or intrinsic to the being of all things, something given a priori and awaiting discovery and realization.  It is not a possession or potential.  It is other; it is fundamentally beyond; it is present in its coming.”  Harink Commentary, p. 111.  I don’t fully agree with Harink here.  As he does consistently throughout this Commentary, Harink radically separates nature and grace, immanence and transcendence, church and world, and so-on.  This is a mistake, because it devalues creation and fails to recognize that creation as given is already a gift of grace that anticipates its eschatological realization.

I agree with Harink that in creation as we now experience it, in the world as we now live in it, the original telos of creation is only restored by Christ.  In that sense, the telos of creation is not latent and waiting to be discovered, but requires the radical event of resurrection and new creation.  Yet even the radical event of resurrection and new creation is not entirely discontinuous with creation as given or with creation as we experience it.  Indeed, what is elided in resurrection and new creation — death, despair, evil — is not a part of creation, not a thing in itself, but is a deprivation of creation’s telos.  As St. Paul said, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”  (Romans 8:22).  The new creation being birthed cannot be utterly “other” and “beyond” if it derives from the labor pains of this present creation.

1 Peter: Translation: Spirit or Reason?

So here’s another DBH translation quirk / difference in my study of 1 Peter. 1 Peter 2:2: ὡς ἀρτιγέννητα βρέφη τὸ λογικὸν ἄδολον γάλα ἐπιποθήσατε, ἵνα ἐν αὐτῷ αὐξηθῆτε εἰς σωτηρίαν, (1 Pet. 2:2 GNT)

NIV: Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,

NRS: Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation–

DBH: Crave the unadulterated milk of reason like newborn babes, so that you may thereby grow into salvation,

The phrase I’m focused on is “pure spiritual milk” or “unadulterated milk of reason” — potentially a really interesting difference!

I think I like Hart’s rendering of λογικὸν ἄδολον γάλα better. λογικὸν in the classical sense means “reason” or “logic.” I note also that DBH translates λογικὴν similarly in Romans 12:1 in the phrase τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν as “your rational worship” instead of “your true and proper” (NIV) or “spiritual” (NRS) worship. “Rational” sounds odd in Romans 12:1, but Romans 12:2 refers to the renewal of the “mind” or (per DBH) “intellect” (νοὸς) so the context there does seem to refer to the “mind” and not the “spirit.”

I’m curious, though, why in 1 Peter 2:2 as well as in BDAG “spirit” or “spiritual” is seen as the better reading?

1 Peter: More on Translation

In my study of 1 Peter, using David Bentley Hart’s New Testament as one of my English versions, here’s another interesting translation issue.

1 Peter 1:13: Διὸ ἀναζωσάμενοι τὰς ὀσφύας τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν νήφοντες τελείως ἐλπίσατε ἐπὶ τὴν φερομένην ὑμῖν χάριν ἐν ἀποκαλύψει Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

NRS: Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.

NIV: Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.

David Bentley Hart:  So, girding up the loins of your mind, being sober, vest your hope completely in the grace being brought to you in the revelation of Jesus the Annointed,

I understand DBH’s decision to “literally” render the idiom ἀναζωσάμενοι τὰς ὀσφύας. I understand his decision to render Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ “Jesus the Annointed.”

DBH renders the phrase ἐπὶ τὴν φερομένην ὑμῖν χάριν ἐν ἀποκαλύψει Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ as something happening in the present: “the grace being brought to you in the revelation of Jesus Chirst.” Both the NRS and NIV render it as something in the future: “The grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed” (NRS) or “the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming” (NIV). The difference seems to turn on the function of the preposition ἐπὶ. The object of the preposition φερομένην is in the accusative. According to BDAG, ἐπὶ with the accusative can mean where (location), to or toward or on or upon (direction — either in progress or attained), over (marker of power or control over something), before (as in a legal proceeding, before the court), against (marker of hostile opposition), or when, in the time of, at, on (marker of temporal association) — or, “marker of feelings directed toward someone, in, on, for, toward, after words that express belief, trust hope” — and this last one is where BDAG lists 1 Peter 1:13.

So why would DBH choose a more “present” rendering of this prepositional phrase? The context seems to suggest a future hope, and that seems consistent with 1 Peter’s theology: these are the end times, Christ is returning very soon, so hang on and when Christ comes back he will make everything right.

1 Peter: Translating Chapter 1

This is part of my series on 1 Peter.  As noted in my introductory post, I’m interested in the epistle’s language.  After the introductory materials in Chapter 1:1-2, the writer offers an encouragement to remain steadfast that is often the subject of sermons.  (As they say, “that’ll preach!”)  Like most such exhortations in the New Testament, the encouragement is based in the eschatological hope that God will vindicate the community of God’s people.   Verse 9 tells the letter’s hearers that they should remain steadfast, “for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (NIV).   The multiple “you’s” here — you are receiving, your faith, the salvation of your souls — appear in the NIV, NASB, and NRSV.

Here is how David Bentley Hart translates verse 9:  “Obtaining the end of your faithfulness:  salvation of souls.”  Notice the shift in emphasis:  the Church’s “faithfulness” — not “your faith” — results in the “salvation of souls” — not “your souls.”

At first blush, I thought this might connect with a missional reading of this text.  In Hart’s more “literal” translation, the emphasis seems to shift from the souls of the particular person or community the writer is addressing to “souls” generally, that is, to the broader human community.  Perhaps there is a notion here that the Church’s prayers and practices spill over to benefit others who are not yet within the Church.  But this instinct shows how tricky it can be to base conclusions on differing translations.  It also shows that Hart’s effort to produce a “literal” translation can’t really result in a “literal” reading.  A “translation,” after all, can’t ever be “literal.”  (I’m not attacking Hart’s work here — I think it’s amazing — but just observing, as I’m sure Hart would agree, that translation always involves interpretation.)

The Greek text here is:

κομιζόμενοι here has the sense of coming into possession of something, often as a reward. [1] The noun τέλος (telos) refers to an end, conclusion, or goal.

πίστεως is the term translated “faith” in the NIV and NRSV and “faithfulness” by Hart.  I think Hart’s translation invokes the debate over the translation of πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ in the Pauline corpus (cf. Rom. 3:22, Gal. 2:16, Gal. 3:22, Phil. 3:9).[2]  My inclination is that “faithfulness” is the better translation, and Achtemeier’s commentary agrees.  Perhaps this is a place where the author of 1 Peter is using a Pauline concept, or, more directly, the notion of “faithfulness” seems closer to the early Jewish-Christian thought world generally.

The term “your” — ὑμῶν — appears only once in this clause.  Hart reads ὑμῶν to modify πίστεως but not σωτηρίαν ψυχῶν.  The word ψυχῶν (from psuché, “soul”) is in the genitive plural, while σωτηρίαν is singular, so that clause literally is “the salvation of souls.”

Hart’s translation therefore seems grammatically correct or at least more “literal” than the other English translations.  The problem is that it is equally grammatically correct in Greek to read ὑμῶν as relating both to πίστεως and to σωτηρίαν ψυχῶν.  In Greek, the tenses of words determine their relation to each other, not word order.  This can be counterintuitive for English speakers, because word order is very important in English.  Of course, Hart knows this, and I’m not suggesting there’s anything untoward in Hart’s translation.  But, as is so often the case, as a translator Hart is not just rendering the text “literally,” but is necessarily making choices between different plausible possibilities.  It’s wise, then, to read any translation with a modestly critical eye.[3]

In his commentary, Achtemeier translates verse 9 “because you are receiving the culmination of your faith that is your salvation.”  Hart’s translation gives some credence to how I’m reading the Greek, but the NSRV, NIV, and Achtemeier all read a “your” in connection with “salvation” or “souls.”  At the same time, Achtemeier’s translation seems to be relatively dynamic:  he does not even render the word ψυχῶν (“souls”) into English because, he suggests in a footnote, the term ψυχῶν refers to the whole person, not to a disembodied “soul.”

How would you choose between these possible alternatives?  I don’t think there’s any great doctrinal weight behind the question in this case, and as a theologian you should never build an entire case on one obscure verse in any event.  But the first step would be to look at the verse or pericope in question in the context of the particular text under study.  The authors of Biblical texts were not writing with “verses” in mind — verse divisions came much later.  1 Peter is a letter, a practical, pastoral exhortation to a particular community or group of communities.  How would one translation or another fit into the overall flow of the letter?  What concerns is the writer addressing, are there any concepts that seem to recur, is there similar language used in other places?  If this particular text is part of a corpus from one writer, how does the language relate to similar concepts and language in other texts by that writer?  These are some basic considerations that show there is always an “art” to translation.

So what do I think about this particular text?  I think the “standard” English translations probably are the better reading over Hart’s, but to some extent I’m going to punt.  The letter is addressed to a particular suffering community or group of communities, so undoubtedly the author wants to encourage these readers about their salvation from this struggle.  Much in 1 Peter is oppositional — a “Christ against culture” stance in relation to the power of Rome — and that is what makes its political theology interesting, as Harink’s commentary notes.  And yet, there is a “cosmic” eschatological framing in the letter.  The author tells the community that they “are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Pet. 1:5 NRS).  This  σωτηρίαν (1 Pet. 1:5 GNT) will be ἀποκαλυφθῆναι ἐν καιρῷ ἐσχάτῳ.  The apocalyptic — revealing — awaits the kairoi eschatoi — the eschatological time.  The eschatological time belongs to God and is known only to God.  What the Church knows is that it is protected as it is called to bear witness through patient service, and suffering, to what God has yet to reveal.



BDAG Note 3 on  κομίζω  reads as follows:

“to come into possession of someth. or experience someth., carry off, get (for oneself), receive freq. as recompense, mid. (Diod. S. 17, 69, 1; 20, 28, 3; Appian, Bell. Civ. 5, 60, §252 γράμματα) τὰ ὀψώνια pay, wages IPol 6:2. μισθόν (Polystrat. p. 22; Lucian, Phal. 2, 5; SIG 193, 9; 11; 1077, 4; 2 Macc 8:33; Ath., R. 18 p. 70, 30 κομίσασθαι τὰ ἐπίχειρα) 2 Cl 11:5; cp. B 4:12, where μισθόν is to be supplied (as En 100:7). μισθὸν ἀδικίας reward for wrongdoing 2 Pt 2:13 v.l. (ἀδικέω 2 end). Of special divine favor in recognition of piety (Diod. S. 3, 2, 4) τῆς δόξης στέφανον 1 Pt 5:4 (cp. Eur., Hipp. 432 codd. κ. δόξαν; 1 Macc 13:37). κ. τὰ διὰ τοῦ σώματος πρὸς ἃ ἔπραξεν receive a recompense for what (each one) has done during life in the body 2 Cor 5:10 (cp. the judgment scenes Pla., Phd. 113 and 114; s. also Diod. S. 8, 15); cp. Col 3:25. τοῦτο κομίσεται παρὰ κυρίου Eph 6:8 (PSI 438, 11 [III BC] κεκόμισμαι παρὰ Φανίου ἐπιστολήν). τὴν ἐπαγγελίαν the promise (i.e. what is promised) Hb 10:36; 11:13 v.l., 39. τὸ τέλος τῆς πίστεως σωτηρίαν ψυχῶν obtain as an outcome of faith the salvation of souls 1 Pt 1:9 (contrast 4:17).—DELG s.v. κομέω. M-M.”


For a summary of the debate, see Chris Kugler, ΠΙΣΤΙΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ: The Current State of Play and the Key Arguments, Currents in Biblical Research 14:2, 244-255 (2016).


I should note that the precise reasons why both readings are grammatically correct are beyond my very modest Greek skills. I did, however, consult other scholars, including my Greek professor from seminary, who confirmed that either reading could be correct.

1 Peter: The Eschatological Frame

I’m starting a new study on 1 Peter.  I’ll be using the Brazos Theological Commentary by Douglas Harink as a guide.  I’ll also consult the Hermmeneia commentary by Paul Achtemeier for scholarly / critical resources.  And, in addition to the NRSV and other typical English translations, I’ll be reading along in David Bentley Hart’s recent New Testament translation.  I’m also reading the Greek text, with plenty of help from Bibleworks (I claim no strength in the Greek).

I’m particularly interested in Harink’s theological reading of 1 Peter as an exercise in political theology.  As I began to dive into this text, I saw in a fresh way how its eschatological vision relates to the formation of a living ecclesial community.  That eschatological vision, however, might not look just as you might think.  In some respects, it seems like a very “Pauline” vision, with Hellenistic overtones.  In other respects, it seems typical of Second Temple Jewish eschatology.

These resonances perhaps should not be surprising given the epistle’s attribution of authorship to the Apostle Peter.  Throughout the New Testament, beginning in the book of Acts, we see tension between the “Petrine” and “Pauline” visions of emerging Christianity.  You could say that the “Petrine” vision is more rooted in the radical Jewish tradition, and indeed, as Achtemeier notes, scholars debate whether 1 Peter reflects familiarity with the Qumran tradition.  Of course, whether the Apostle Peter actually was involved in writing the epistle is hotly debated, and Achtemeier offers a good survey of the arguments.  My sense as a non-specialist in this area is that this admixture of Hellenestic and “Qumranic” eschatological elements suggests at least some connection with an authentically Petrine community, although the Apostle likely did not craft the letter’s text itself given its language and historical setting.  The role of Silvanus (Silas) here is very interesting (see 1 Peter 5:12).  Perhaps Silvanus was a kind of emissary between the Pauline and Petrine communities and wrote 1 Peter based on the Apostle’s general directions or the memory of such directions some time after the Apostle’s death.  Achtemeier also addresses this and seems to think it unlikely, but the idea resonates with me.  In any event, theologically this text is part of the Church’s canon and therefore we address it as an authentically Apostolic word of scripture, whatever the details of its actual authorship.



Ezekiel, Eschatology, and Fishing

Ezekiel 47 continues Ezekiel’s eschatological vision.  This vision features a renewed Temple, with impossible dimensions, suggesting that the Temple is a figure for God’s presence.  Ezekiel sees a river flowing from under the Temple and is led by his guide into the water.  The water gets progressively deeper until it became “deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed.”  (Ez. 47:5, NRSV).  Back on the riverbank, Ezekiel’s guide tells him that

This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.  But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.

(Ez. 47:8-12.)  This amazing vision of a river teeming with living creatures and fish, and trees laden with fruit and healing leaves, echoes the creation creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 and is picked up again in Revelation 21-22.  As a fisherman, I love this image of people spreading nets and enjoying abundance all along the banks of the river or sea.  Here, the locations Ezekiel mentions are along the Dead Sea, so the image seems to reflect a change in at least part of that hyper-salty basin so that fish and other wildlife can thrive.  Since the Temple Ezekiel describes seems metaphorical, we probably can assume this is also a metaphor for a broader renewal of creation.  But the eschatological picture is not ethereal or abstracted from created reality.  It is of regular people, doing regular things, in a real world.

IMG:  Wikimedia Commons, Peter Van der Sluijs

James Henley Thornwell on “The Rights and Duties of Masters”: Lessons from the Civil War Era

I’m very interested in the theological debate over slavery leading up to the Civil War.  I’ve read many of the sermons, books, and tracts written by pro-slavery preachers and theologians from that era.  I find them a fascinating, and chilling, reminder of how a theological system in one era can justify something that comes to be clearly seen as an evil in another era.  Here’s the text of a paper I recently wrote on a famous sermon by James Henley Thornwell (pictured at left), titled The Rights and Duties of Masters.


James Henley Thornwell, called by some of his contemporaries “Our Southern Giant” and “the Calhoun of the Church,” was a leading figure among Antebellum Southern Presbyterians.[1]  He served as Professor of Sacred Literature and the Evidences of Christianity at South Carolina College starting in 1840, and became a strong advocate of “Old School” Presbyterianism.[2]  He was a founder of the Southern Presbyterian Review, a prominent orthodox Presbyterian publication, and later became president of the South Carolina College, a highly prestigious position in South Carolina life at that time.[3]

Like other conservative Southern Presbyterians, Thornwell offered a vigorous theological defense of African Slavery.[4]  This defense is set out most directly in his sermon “The Rights and Duties of Masters.”[5]  Thornwell preached the Sermon on May 26, 1850 in Charleston, South Carolina, at the dedication of a church “erected for the religious instruction of the Negroes.”[6]  In many ways Thornwell’s arguments are typical of other pro-slavery preachers and theologians, but in some respects, particularly relating to his political theology, his arguments are more subtle than those of other apologists.  This paper argues that the subtleties of Thornwell’s arguments flow from his nuanced views about the relationship between faith and reason.  This study demonstrates how difficult it is to assess a pro-slavery theologian such as Thornwell from a modern perspective, and also how difficult it can be for a capable apologist such as Thornwell to notice his or her moral blind spots.

Thornwell’s Biblical But Not Biblicist Defense of Slavery

Pro-slavery apologists argued that both the Old Testament and New Testament sanctioned slavery and that the abolitionists therefore were distorting the plain sense of scripture.[7]  These arguments usually were offered in what today seem like naively Biblicist terms.  In his book A Defence of Virginia, for example, Southern theologian Robert Louis Dabney thundered that

Our best hope is in the fact that the cause of our defence is the cause of God’s Word, and of its supreme authority over the human conscience.  For, as we shall evince, that Word is on our side, and the teachings of Abolitionism are clearly of rationalistic origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the Sacred text.[8]

Dabney argued that the Old Testament explicitly recognized and sanctioned slavery (in the examples of the Curse on Canaan, Abraham, Hagar, the Mosaic Law, and the Decalogue), and that in the New Testament, slavery was never condemned by Christ and was approved by Paul.[9]  This was a typical laundry list of pro-slavery Bible passages.  In the literate, polemical context of the Bible wars over slavery, however, “[s]outhern preachers had to be careful with biblical citations” because “[a] mere grumble from a few congregants would send others scurrying to check their Bibles.”[10]  Thornwell knew this and tied his Biblical arguments to a broader political philosophy.

In the Sermon, Thornwell focused his Biblical arguments primarily on one passage, from Colossians 3:22 – 4:1.[11]  As Thornwell summarized this text, “[t]he Apostle briefly sums up all that is incumbent, at the present crisis, upon the slaveholders of the South, in the words of the text – Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven.”[12]

Thornwell believed this command was not merely arbitrary because, although all persons, white and African alike, were equally human, God had ordained people to different stations and responsibilities.  In response to the Abolitionist argument that the relationship of master and slave violates a fundamental human right of the slave, Thornwell argued that there is a distinction between basic human rights of all persons and the rights and duties of persons within specific relationships.[13]  Paul’s injunctions to masters and slaves, Thornwell claimed, embedded a moral principle of duty particular to the roles God had providentially assigned:  “[l]et masters and servants, each in their respective spheres, be impregnated with the principle of duty . . . .”[14]  Thornwell saw this kind of difference in right and duty based on contingent relationships throughout society, such as between parent and child or husband and wife.  The slave is just another “actor on the broad theatre of life” whose reward depends on playing his role appropriately.[15]

Thornwell conceded, however, that slavery was not an intrinsic good.  “Slavery,” Thornwell argued in the Sermon, “is a part of the curse which sin has introduced into the world, and stands in the same general relations to Christianity as poverty, sickness, disease or death.”[16]  Colossians 3:22 – 4:1 encoded a form of positive law relating to a set of relationships – master and slave – that was contingent on the present fallen state of the world and that would be erased in the eschaton.  Slavery, like other differences in social condition, was “founded in a curse, from which the Providence of God extracts a blessing.”[17]

Even more directly, Thornwell conceded that the initial enslavement of Africans, like the beginnings of any enslavement, was violent and morally wrong.  But, he insisted, “the relations to which that act gave rise, may, themselves, be consistent with the will of God and the foundation of new and important duties.”[18]  In fact, Thornwell claimed, in the present fallen state of the world, “an absolute equality would be an absolute stagnation of all enterprise and industry.”[19]

Thornwell equated the demand for “absolute equality” with “[t]he agitations which are convulsing the kingdoms Europe,” a reference to the Revolutions of 1848.[20]  For Thornwell, the parties in the conflict over slavery “are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders – they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins, on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other.”[21]  This appeal to established order was a “central theme” in Old School Presbyterianism, and Thornwell certainly echoed this theme.[22]

Thornwell’s focus on this principle of duty appealed to the Southern honor culture and removed his Biblical reference from the category of mere Biblical proof texting.  It tied together a kind of natural law argument with Calvinist theology in a systematic defense of slavery as at least a contingent feature of some social structures.  It also allowed Thornwell to sidestep some of the roiling “scientific” arguments over the origins of Africans and to claim that in the end his intent was to defend blacks as fully human along with whites.

Thornwell’s Response to Polygenism and the Curse of Canaan

Scholarly Old School Presbyterians such as Thornwell were deeply interested in the emerging natural sciences and believed proper scientific methods would verify their beliefs about social order.[23]   Thornwell departed from pro-slavery scientists and clergy who argued that black Africans were cursed or sub-human, either because of the “curse of Canaan” or through some theory of biological polygenesis.

There was an interesting tension in Thornwell’s day between apologetics for African slavery based on polygentic theories and “Biblical” defenses of African slavery based on the “curse of Canaan.”[24]  Polygenetic theories developed by figures such as Samuel George Morton in the “American School of Ethnology” drew on the emerging evolutionary science of the day to argue that the present races had different biological origins – not a monogentic origin in a literal “Adam and Eve” – and that these differences in origin accounted for presumed differences in mental and cultural capacity.[25]  Some Southerners were happy to use these theories in their defense of African slavery, but conservative theologians and churchmen thought these theories contradicted the Biblical account of humanity’s origin in a single couple.[26]  Many of these Southern religious conservatives argued that black Africans did descend from Adam and Eve, but that the Africans were a degenerate race because of the “Curse on Canaan” narrated in Genesis 9.

Genesis 9 describes events shortly after the great flood of Noah.  The hero of flood story, Noah, plants a vineyard, gets drunk on the resulting wine, and passes out naked outside his tent.[27]  Noah’s son Ham sees Noah’s nakedness and tells his brothers, Shem and Japeth – perhaps meaning to make a scene or mock his father.  Shem and Japeth cover Noah, taking care to cover their eyes in the process.  When Noah awakes, he curses Ham’s son, Canaan:

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”[28]

The honor culture reflected in this narrative resonated with antebellum Southern readers, who were quick to identify black Africans as Ham and Canaan’s descendants.[29]  Many Southerners adapted the New American School of Ethnology’s “scientific” views about racial differences to a genealogy that preserved Adamic monogenism with a divergence via the curse on Canaan.[30]  Some of the leading Southern theologians were reticent to make this connection, but still used this narrative as a key illustration.  Robert Louis Dabney, for example, agreed that “[i]t may be that we should find little difficulty in tracing the lineage of the present Africans to Ham,” but thought the actual scientific evidence lacking .[31]  For Dabney, the overall shape of the narrative was more important than the scientific details:  this was one example among many of the Bible’s moral sanction of slavery in general.

Thornwell was even more reluctant than Dabney to connect African slavery with any sort of genealogical or biological curse.  In his Sermon, Thornwell never mentioned the curse on Canaan and directly rejected polygenetic views.  Instead, Thornwell argued that “the Negro is of one blood with ourselves” and stated that “[w]e are not ashamed to call him our brother.”[32]  This reflects not only a tactical decision to “soften” Southern rhetoric, but also a commitment to integrate the Old Presbyterian theology with a form of contemporary science – that is, to reject the polygenist theories on Biblical and scientific grounds while upholding African slavery.

Thornwell stated in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Theology at South Carolina College, the “true method” of theology

is to accept the facts of revelation as we accept the facts of nature. We are by enlightened interpretation to ascertain the dicta; these are to be received without suspicion and without doubt. They are the principles of faith. Then from these principles proceed to the laws, the philosophy if you please, which underlies them, and in which they find their explanation and their unity. In this way we shall reach truth, and shall be partially able to harmonize it with all other truth.[33]

Here, Thornwell reflects a relatively strong, but not absolute, view of the “integration” of faith and reason, including of the findings of the natural sciences.  Like most of his Old Presbyterian contemporaries, Thornwell cautiously accepted the findings of the new Lyellian geology, which showed the Earth was far older than a simple reading of the Biblical records seemed to suggest.  In this sense, Thornwell’s views were consistent with his contemporary at Princeton Seminary, B.B. Warfield.[34]  Thornwell departed somewhat, however, from the synthesis of Baconian science and common sense realism characteristic of Warfield by prioritizing “faith” in his epistemology.[35]  Thornwell was careful to note that “[a]ll knowledge begins in faith; principles must be accepted, not proved, and it matters not whether you call them principles of faith or reason.”[36]

Thornwell applied his subtle understanding of faith and reason not only to the natural sciences, but also to the newly developing social sciences.[37]  The notion that society could be studied according to principles of reason rooted in faith, particularly a Calvinistic faith in the slow, inexorable, often hidden workings of providence, underpinned Thornwell’s belief that established social institutions such as slavery should not be upset by radical change.[38]  The same belief affected Thornwell’s treatment of the role of the law law in relation to slavery in the Sermon.  In his assessment of the law of slavery, the limits of Thornwell’s method are evident.  He could not countenance rapid legal change, and as a result – somewhat ironically in light of his views of scripture – he had to dance around the law’s plain meaning.

Thornwell, Slavery, and Law

For Thornwell the Bible did not sanction the ownership of one person by another person as “property.”  Rather, the Bible, and the natural law, gave the master a kind of contractual right “not to the man, but to his labor. . . .”[39]  This right came with corresponding duties, also reflected in Ephesians 4:5-9, upon the master to treat the slave properly.[40]  This relationship was not literally contractual, because it was grounded in Biblical and positive law, and the slave’s obedience, rendered in response to the moral obligation of the natural and Biblical law, could properly be considered “voluntary.”[41]  The motion of the slave’s “limbs or organs of the body” are voluntary in the literal sense, Thornwell argued, and the slave’s internal “moral character” determined whether his or her actions were “voluntary” in an ethical sense – an ethical obligation that rested entirely on the slave.[42]

Thornwell’s argument was ingenious, but it was belied by the actual law of slavery.  In the Sermon, he offered only a passing glance at “the technical language of the law, in relation to certain aspects in which slavery is contemplated” before claiming that “the ideas of personal rights and personal responsibility pervade the whole system.”[43]  The law in South Carolina and across the slave states, however, in fact held that “slaves are chattels personal,” that is, a form of personal property.[44]

The slave codes did provide some limitations on how slaves should be treated.  The slave codes also gave slaves some ability to form enforceable contracts and legitimated other aspects of commerce engaged in by slaves, but these provisions were designed to facilitate the use of slaves as business agents by the master, not to enable slaves to work for their own benefit.[45]  While the slave was in one sense a legal “person,” the ascription of personhood was not in recognition of any basic human rights, but only for the benefit of the master.  As one modern commentator has suggested, under South Carolina law and the Southern slave codes more broadly, “slavery marked an ownership so utter that the status of property was insufficient to describe it.”[46]  To the extent Thornwell actually was concerned about describing the social and legal structure of slavery in the Sermon, his description was wildly inaccurate.


How could a well-educated intellectual leader such as Thornwell have been so wrong about slavery?  Was he driven to self-delusion, or merely disingenuous, because of a cultural need to defend this Southern institution?[47]  In the intense hot-house of the slavery debate, some degree of delusion or dissembling cannot be discounted.  Thornwell, however, was a rigorous and meticulous person, who was well read in historical theology and classical literature and who did not shy away from controversy.  His arguments about the personhood of slaves, notwithstanding the “technical language of the law,” were rooted in deeper beliefs about the priority of the Bible, or more directly the priority of his theological system, in relation to what he considered the “scientific” understanding of society.  Careful study of Thornwell’s Sermon and its context might help us avoid overly simplistic, anachronistic judgments of Thornwell and his motives.  Perhaps also it can serve as a cautionary tale about how social, political, theological and Biblical views can converge into a system that justifies oppression.


[1] James O. Farmer, Jr., The Metaphysical Confederacy:  James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Macon:  Mercer Univ. Press 1986), 41.

[2] Ibid., 57-58.

[3] Ibid., 58.

[4] See generally Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press 2006).

[5] Thornwell, James Henley, The Rights and Duties of Masters:  A Sermon Preached at the Dedication of a Church Erected in Charleston, S.C. for the Benefit of the Coloured Population (Charleston:  Steam Power Press of Walker & James 1850) (hereinafter “Sermon”).

[6] Ibid., Introduction.

[7] Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Chapter 3.

[8] Robert L Dabney, A Defense of Virginia (and Through Her, of the South) in Recent and Pending Contests Against the Sectional Party (New York:  E.J. Hale & Son 1867), 21.  This book was was published two years after the conclusion of the Civil War.  Dabney had staunchly supported the Southern cause before and during the War, and hoped and believed that God would raise the South again in providential judgment against the North.  See ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid., 94-198.

[10] See Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class:  History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview (Cambridge:  CUP 2005), Kindle Loc. 14819.

[11] Sermon, 15.  In the modern NIV translation, Col. 3:22 and 4:1 read as follows:  “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. . . .  Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.”

[12] Sermon, 15.

[13] Sermon, 40.

[14] Ibid., 41.

[15] Ibid., 44.

[16] Sermon, 31.

[17] Ibid., 33.

[18] Sermon, 45.

[19] Ibid., 32.

[20] Ibid., 12.  For background on the revolutions in Europe during this period, see generally R.J.W. Evans and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, eds, The Revolutions in Europe 1848-1849:  From Reform to Reaction (Oxford:  OUP 2000).  For a discussion of how these revolutions affected the views of Southern slaveholders in the U.S., see Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, Chapter 2.

[21] Ibid., 14.

[22] See Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Inductive and Deductive Politics:  “Science and Society in Antebellum Persbyterian Thought,” The Journal of American History 64:3 (Dec. 1977), 704-722; Marilyn J. Westerkamp, ”James Henry Thornwell, Pro-Slavery Spokesman Within a Calvinist Faith,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 87:1 (Jan. 1986), 49-64.

[23] See Farmer, The Metaphysical Conspiracy, Chapter 3; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class, Chapter 18.

[24] See David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors:  Race, Religion & the Politics of Human Origins (Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press 2008), 182-190.

[25] Ibid., 173-180.

[26] Ibid., 180-182.

[27] Gen. 9:20.

[28] Gen. 9:22-25.

[29] See Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse:  The Biblical Justifications of American Slavery (Oxford:  OUP 2002), Chapter 4 (noting connection between Southern honor culture and the Genesis 9 narrative).

[30] Ibid.

[31] Dabney, A Defense of Virginia, 101-104.

[32] Sermon, 11.

[33] John B. Adger, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, Vol. 1, (Richmond:  Presbyterian Committee of Publication 1871), Appendix A, 582, ¶4.

[34] See Mark A. Noll & David A. Livingstone, eds., B.B. Warfield, Evolution, Science and Scripture, Selected Writings (Grand Rapids:  Baker 2000).

[35] Farmer, The Metaphysical Conspiracy, 141-151.

[36] Adger, Collected Writings, Vol. 1, Appendix A, 579, ¶3.

[37] See Bozeman, “Inductive and Deductive Politics:  Science and Society in Antebellum Presbyterian Thought,” 704-722; Bozeman, “Joseph LeConte:  Organic Science and a ‘Sociology for the South,’” The Journal of Southern History 39:4 (November 1973), 565-582.

[38] Bozeman, “Joseph LeConte:  Organic Science and a ‘Sociology for the South,’” 707.

[39] Sermon, 24.

[40] Ibid., 40-41.

[41] Ibid., 27.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] John Belton O’Neall, The Negro Law of South Carolina (Columbia:  John G. Bowman 1848), 5.

[45] See ibid.

[46] John Samuel, Harpham, “Two Concepts of a Slave in the South Carolina Law of Slavery,” Slavery & Abolition, May 25, 2017, available at

[47] Cf. Farmer, The Metaphysical Confederacy, 196 (noting that some modern historians “have seen the proslavery argument as a clear case of self-serving rhetoric”).

Book Review: Francis Beckwith, Taking Rites Seriously

This is a book review I wrote of Francis Beckwith’s book Taking Rites Seriously:  Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith, for the journal Science & Christian Belief.

This book is a curious amalgam of philosophical theology, liberal political theory, and American Constitutional Law.  It succeeds reasonably well on the first count and less well on the third.  The space in the middle – liberal political theory – is the bridge that would connect the two but that ultimately betrays the author’s philosophical and theological presuppositions.

In many ways the value of this book to any reader likely will depend on his or her view of the importance of America’s culture wars.  Beckwith, who teaches at Baylor University, is well known as a scholarly participant in those culture wars.  At one time the President of the Evangelical Theological Society, in 2007 he returned in much-discussed fashion to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth.  The dedication of this book to Robert P. George, a leading proponent of the new natural law theory, reflects Beckwith’s orbit within a constellation of Catholic and Evangelical intellectuals who seek to advance philosophical arguments for traditional values in the public square, including opposition to abortion, rejection of same sex marriage, and strong views of religious liberty.  The arguments offered in this book ably present the kinds of views advanced by this school of conservative social thought, although they have been presented at length elsewhere.  If there were nothing else to the book it would not seem of much unique interest to readers of this journal.

In his discussion of philosophical theology, however, Beckwith presents some material of interest to the theology-and-science conversation.  First, Beckwith addresses an approach to public discourse he labels “Secular Rationalism” (SR), exemplified in the thought of legal theorists such as Brian Leiter, evolutionary psychologists such as Steven Pinker, and various New Atheist public intellectuals.  As Beckwith defines it, SR is essentially a form of logical positivism, scientism, and/or narrow foundationalism.  Beckwith dismantles SR along the familiar lines that it is circular, self-defeating, and fundamentally undermined by its own need to presuppose some truths about reality without the kind of evidence it purports to require.  Some of the sources in Beckwith’s footnotes, such as Alvin Plantinga, David Bentley Hart, and N.T. Wright, have done the same work in far more winsome fashion; some of Beckwith’s sources, such as J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, are apologists of a certain narrow stripe whose work might be of more dubious value; and other important sources, including anyone from a critical realist perspective (say, John Polkinghorne or Alister McGrath), a process perspective (say, John Haught), or other strands of religious epistemology (say, Conor Cunningham’s take from Radical Orthodoxy) are absent entirely.  Nevertheless, Beckwith’s contribution to the literature showing the intellectual bankruptcy of “SR” is welcome, particularly in taking on the extension of “SR” to secularist fundamentalists in the legal academy such as Brian Leiter.

Of further direct interest to readers of this journal, Beckwith’s past defense of Intelligent Design (ID) theory and association with the Discovery Institute stand in stark contrast to his arguments against ID in this volume.  Beckwith now argues, from a Thomistic perspective, that ID undermines the orthodox Christian doctrine of creation because ID theory subverts creation’s causal integrity.  He shows that the Thomistic arguments for God’s existence do not imagine God as a huge, physical “finger” within creation, pushing things into motion and perhaps giving things a special poke here and there where “design” might be detected, but rather that God is the formal and final cause of the material and efficient causes within creation.  The overall beauty and order of creation in its material and efficient causes, viewed holistically, point towards formal and final causes outside of themselves.  If, as ID theory suggests, creation lacks an organic integrity, with “irreducibly complex” gaps that suggest a need for constant direct Divine intervention, this would undermine the classical Christian account of creation.  It is gratifying to see an erstwhile defender of ID theory recognize these problems.

Notwithstanding his theological and philosophical criticism of ID theory, Beckwith persists in arguing that the “ID case” in the United States, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, was wrongly decided.  He criticizes the federal trial judge in the case for adopting a legal test under which a “reasonable, objective observer” (ROO) must assess whether the challenged policy had an improper religious motivation under the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  There is something trenchant about Beckwith’s critique on this point, because, as he points out, notions of “reason” and “objectivity” require reference to metaphysical perfections that would seem ruled out of court by SR.  But this highlights the major structural problem with the book:  Beckwith wants to defend his socially conservative policies on the grounds of a kind of reason that would be accessible to anyone in society and amenable to adjudication within a Constitutional framework by the Supreme Court.  This simply does not work, because classical liberalism and the American Constitutional framework embed Enlightenment epistemology and values, not Christian epistemology and values.

A good example of this fundamental problem arises in Beckwith’s qualified approval of the result in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, upholding a business’ ability to exclude itself from a legal mandate to provide insurance coverage for certain contraceptives.  Like most “religious liberty” advocates, Beckwith skates over the question whether a corporation should have standing to assert “religious liberty” rights under the U.S. Constitution.  There is plenty of case law about Constitutional rights that are afforded (such as the right to freedom of speech) and not afforded (such as the right to vote) to corporations, so from the perspective of U.S. legal doctrine, the question of how the First Amendment’s religion clauses might apply to corporations is not by any means out of bounds.  From the perspective of philosophical theology, however, it is far from clear whether business corporations should have any personal “rights” at all, or what, if anything, a business corporation is — never mind whether Christian owners of a business corporation that employs non-Christians ought to have, or ought to exercise, a “right” to excuse themselves from a generally applicable social program if they otherwise choose to receive benefits the state provides to business corporations.  From a Christian theological and praxis perspective, the Hobby Lobby case is a mess.

Another example surfaces in Beckwith’s discussion of same sex marriage.  He offers the familiar refrain that the legalization of same sex marriage will invoke a parade of horribles for non-conforming religious institutions, which for the most part has not materialized, and he unconvincingly tries to distinguish the same sex marriage issue from the history of miscegenation laws and practices, which Bob Jones University fought in the Supreme Court only a generation ago.  He even suggests that same sex marriage was never really “banned” or “illegal,” unless sacramental Catholic marriage also was banned or illegal, because the state has never explicitly sanctioned all the religious elements of Catholic sacramental marriage.  It is difficult to tease out the overly-clever logic here, but it seems to be a variant on the argument that withholding a government benefit, such as a marital tax deduction, from one group (same sex couples) while providing it to another (opposite sex couples) is not a “prohibition.”  That may be true, but then one wonders what all the fuss has been about.  Let everyone have the public benefits, or take the public benefits away from everyone, and let private associations such as churches define the terms however they want.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.

The fuss, as Beckwith goes on to argue, is that “marriage” relates to deeper metaphysical concepts about the human person.  People care about the same sex marriage issue on both sides not because it is about an arcane tax benefit but because it has something to do with human dignity.  Either same sex marriage undermines human dignity because it denies something basic about human biology and difference, or disapproval of same sex marriage undermines human dignity because gay relationships are not intrinsically disordered, or at least the question is uncertain enough that dignity demands that each person have the liberty to decide the question without state coercion.  Beckwith and the new natural law thinkers with which he is associated think there are forms of rational argument apart from specifically religious claims that can establish their case decisively in the liberal institutions of modern legislatures and courts, if only the underbrush of scientism / SR can be cleared away.  Ultimately, however, clearing away that underbrush must involve a theological critique of modernity’s epistemological pretensions and metaphysical vacuity.  It seems that Beckwith and his compatriots do not wish to venture that critique, but believe instead that the modern liberal state can and should advance their goals.  The irony is that this move immediately surrenders the metaphysical and epistemological ground, ensuring not only that their culture war will be lost, but also that plenty of collateral damage will occur along the way.


Christians and Muhammad

Here is the text of a paper I had to write for a class I took this summer through Fuller Seminary on “understanding Islam.”  It was a really interesting class, and as you can see from this paper, there was lots of material to wrestle over.  The prompt for the paper was “Who is Muhammad according to Islamic sacred text and tradition, and what do I, a Christian, say about him?”  I don’t claim deep expertise here, and this is only my student paper, but I hope some readers might find it interesting

I.  Who is Muhammad According to Islamic Sacred Text and Tradition?

In Islamic text and tradition, Muhammad is the Prophet of God.  (Hillenbrand, p. 38; Esposito, p. 5; Forward, Chapter 2.)  As God’s Prophet, Muhammad received and conveyed the Divine revelation of the Qur’an.  (Esposito, p. 19.)  Muhammad’s teaching and life beyond the text of the Qur’an are also normative for Muslims.  The primary sources for Muhammad’s life and significance in Islamic piety are the Qur’an, the hadith (canonical sayings of Muhammad), and the sira (biographical materials about Muhammad).  (Hillenbrand, p. 38).  The hadith and sira together form the Sunna, the report of Muhammad’s “customary or normative behavior.”  (Ibid., p. 39.)  In both the Sunni and Shi’ite traditions, the hadith reports play a “legislative” function over many details of daily life.  (Ibid.)

The sira includes various miraculous signs that confirm Muhammad’s status as Prophet and place him a line of Prophets running from the Hebrew Scriptures to Jesus.  These include the foretelling of Muhammad’s coming by Jewish and Christian sources, the literal cleansing of his heart as a child by angels, and the recognition of his Prophetic status by Bahira the Christian monk.  (Hillenbrand, p. 43-44.)

A major challenge for any Christian assessment of Muhammad is the Islamic claim that Muhammad not only follows in line with the Hebrew prophets and Jesus but that by his reception and recitation of the Qur’an he acts as God’s messenger (rasul) to correct corruptions that had crept into the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  This includes the claim that Jesus cannot have been the divine Son of God.  Moreover, the Qur’an states that Muhammad is “the Seal of the Prophets,” which most Muslims believe means Muhammad is God’s final Prophet.  (Ali, Qu’ran, Sira 33:40; Forward, p. 32.)

In addition to his role as Prophet and lawgiver, many Muslims focus on Muhammad’s personal piety and mystical relationship with Allah.  Particularly in the Sufi tradition, Muhammad is an exemplar of the mystical path.  (Forward, pp. 42-49.; Hillenbrand, Chapter 8.) The figure of Muhammad also plays a vital role in popular religious life and piety.  Many Muslim boys are named after the Prophet, and the Prophet’s name and reputation are jealously guarded.  (Forward, pp. 49-53.)  Some forms of popular piety involve supposed relics of the Prophet, even though orthodox teaching frowns on such practices.  (Ibid.)  In addition, Muhammad was a political and military leader and serves for Muslims as an example of effective, pious leadership over the Islamic community or umma.  (Hillebrand, pp. 45-47.)

With all the status accorded to Muhammad by Muslims, he is not considered in any sense divine.  The central Islamic theme of God’s transcendence and unity (tawhid) precludes any notion that Muhammad could be in any sense a divine being.  (Hillenbrand, p. 90; Esposito, pp. 24-25.)  The first “pillar” (arkan) of Islam, the basic confession of faith (the shahada), asserts that “I testify that there is no god by God.  I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God (rasul Allah).”  (Hillenbrand, p. 89.)  The shahada makes clear both Muhammad’s unique role and his absolute distance from God’s own person.

II.  What do I, a Christian, Say About Muhammad?

Polemics between Christians and Muslims historically have focused substantially on the nature of God (the Trinity), the nature of Jesus (Christology), and the status and role of Muhammad. (Tieszen, p. 249.)  These are interrelated themes because the Qur’anic claims of God’s tawhid, in contrast to Christian claims about Jesus’ Divine Sonship, flow from Muhammad’s role as God’s authorized messenger.  The question of Muhammad is also vexing for Muslim-Christian relations because of the central importance within Islam – reflected in the shahada – of recognizing Muhammad as God’s messenger.  (Cragg, p. 1.)

Many early Christian responses to Muhammad emphasized his alleged sexual immorality and violence.  (Marshall, p. 162.)  Some early Christian sources attributed Muhammad’s ecstatic prophetic experiences to epilepsy.  (Ibid.)  Today some Christians adopt the same kind of approach, often with an emphasis on claims that Muhammad’s revelations were the result of demon possession.  (Ibid.)  This latter approach intensified starting with the first Iraq war and adopted an even more urgent tone after the September 11 attacks, as some influential popular Christian teachers equated the rise of Islam with dire apocalyptic scenarios focused on the nation of Israel. (Hagee.)  Pastor John Hagee’s book Jerusalem Countdown, for example, claims that Islamic leaders in Iran will launch a nuclear war against Israel, which will trigger the “Great Tribulation” at the end of history.  It includes a chapter on “Unveiling Islam.”  (Ibid.)  This book was a New York Times bestseller and sold over one million copies.[1]  It is only the tip of the iceberg in a vast network of evangelical and other Christian media enterprises that closely links an extreme form of dispensational chiliasm with the threat of Islam.

The narrative offered by Hagee and others of his ilk powerfully combines themes of American exceptionalism, nativism, and presumptive Biblical piety.  It is widely influential in popular American evangelical religion.  It undoubtedly has played a role in evangelical support for President Donald Trump, and might even directly influence U.S. policy.  (Mathias.)  It is also exegetically, theologically, and historically unhinged.

Nevertheless, both the historical and contemporary polemic does illustrate some of the difficulty for any Christian perspective on Muhammad.  The prompt for this paper asks “What do I, a Christian, Say About Muhammad” (emphasis added).  To identify first as “a Christian,” I must make certain claims about Christ that at points will conflict with orthodox Islamic claims about Muhammad.  The core of these differences are not only matters of detail, but also may comprise basic differences in theological outlook.

Some of these differences are explored helpfully in Kenneth Cragg’s groundbreaking book Muhammad and the Christian.  (Cragg.)  Cragg acknowledges that Christians should recognize the value of Muhammad’s call to abandon idolatry.  “The Christian has every reason, conceptual, compassionate and contemporary,” Cragg says, “to recognize how vital that call is in the common world, how kin to the Biblical claim, and how relevant to what he believes to be the goal of the Gospel.”  (Cragg, p. 150.)  And yet, Cragg notes, this recognition “in no way ends our quarrel:  it could mean we continue it as a quest.”  (Ibid.)  For Cragg, the heart of the difference inheres in what he calls the “Gospel’s patterns” of nonviolent redemption.  (Ibid.)  The Gospel, Cragg says, discloses that God relates to humans “not only in law and education, but in grace and suffering.”  (Ibid., p. 158.)  Cragg thinks the Islamic emphasis on God’s transcendence limits the Islamic imagination’s frame of reference to the domain of power more than the domain of grace.  This means Muhammad was a great teacher of law and morals, but not, from a Christian perspective, a messenger of the deeper truths of grace.

As David Marshall notes, although it seems that Cragg does affirm Muhammad as a prophet (at least with a small “p”), Cragg’s characterization is in fact ambiguous.  (Marshall, p. 167.)  Reading through all of Cragg’s Muhammad and the Christian, the sense conveyed is one of sympathetic engagement, a degree of perplexity, and some reservation, with a hope that Muslim interlocutors might come to see more of what Christians think about Christ.

Hans Küng’s work on Islam provides an interesting comparison to Cragg’s.  (Küng.)  Küng notes that, “[i]n the Qur’an Muhammad is presented as a prophet in the strict sense:  he is not just a nabi, not just a usual kind of prophet, but a rasul, a messenger of God who – like Moses, David (the Psalms) and Jesus – has brought his people a book.”  (Ibid., p. 94.)  And yet, Küng suggests, “[a]t the same time the Qur’an emphasis that Muhammad is no more than a prophet, no more than a human being.”  (Ibid.)  Küng suggests that this emphasis on Muhammad’s humanity, and correspondingly on the absolute ontological distance between God and the Prophet, can help Christians overcome the fear that Muhammad supplants Jesus, even while acknowledging the Islamic claim to Muhammad’s prophetic finality.

In many ways Küng here makes arguments that are similar to Cragg’s, but Küng departs from Cragg in his assessment of Muhammad’s role as a warrior.  Cragg sees the violent aspects of Muhammad’s life, compared to the life of Jesus, as a real difference between a faith rooted in law and a faith rooted in grace.  Küng, in contrast, portrays Muhammad as a defender of justice for his marginalized community, in line with the tradition of the Hebrew prophets.  (Küng, p. 98-100; 119-120.)  Küng thinks it is appropriate for Christians to inquire critically into Muhammad’s actions, but he notes that we must remember how we contextualize the actions of our prophets.  As Küng asks, “isn’t it perhaps simply a dogmatic prejudice for Christians to recognize Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the extremely violent Elijah as prophets, but not Muhammad?”  (Küng, p. 123.)

Küng then, like Cragg, suggests Christians should appreciate the Qur’an’s ethical imperatives and, beyond Cragg, clears away some underbrush concerning comparisons between Muhammad and prophets in the Jewish-Christian pantheon regarding violence.  But this does not yet reach the central issue of how Christians, committed to Christ the suffering servant, can appropriate Muhammad, which is really Cragg’s central reservation.  Here, Küng makes some moves that distance him further from Cragg.

Küng notes that, in the Qur’an, Jesus (“‘Isa”) is portrayed, like Muhammad, as an entirely human messenger of God.  (Küng, p. 489.)  But ‘Isa is not just any human:  he is also called “the Messiah” (al-masih), “word of God” (kalimah min Allah), “spirit of God” (ruh min Allah), and “servant of God” (‘abd Allah).  (Küng, p. 490; Ali, Qur’an, Sura 3:39, 45; 4:171; 19:16-37; 19:88-93; 43:57-65; 3:39.)  Yet, as Küng acknowledges, the Qur’an clearly warns against teaching that Jesus is God’s Son or that God is Triune.  (Küng, p. 491; cf. Ali, Qur’an, Sura 5:72.)  Küng tries to connect these exalted Qur’anic titles for Jesus, together with the Qur’anic rejection of Jesus’ divinity, with contemporary Biblical scholarship about the title “Son of God” in the Gospels.  (Küng, pp. 491-493.)

Küng here draws on a strand of historical-critical scholarship, rooted in von Harnack and others, that takes the later Christian creedal Christological formulations as unwelcomed “Hellenistic” or “Greek” glosses on the more reticent original Hebraic understanding of the Gospels.  He suggests that, “[a]s a pious Jew, Jesus himself preached strict monotheism.  He never called himself God. . . .”  (Ibid, p. 492.)  In the Gospels, Küng suggests, Jesus is portrayed as God’s messenger and God’s Messiah, but this is short of a clear claim to divinity.  This more limited Christology, according to Küng, was adopted by some kinds of “sectarian Jewish Christianity” that persisted from the Apostolic era through the age of creedal orthodoxy, which unnecessarily squelched the “sectarian Jewish Christian” stream of Christianity.  (Ibid., p. 496.)

Küng does not argue, like some modern neo-Gnostics, that the only authentic Jesus is one who is reduced to a non-divine soothsayer-prophet.  But he suggests that the high Christology of the creeds can exist in dialogue with the lower Christology of the Gospels and that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam can then engage in a “trialogue” about God, Jesus, and Muhammad.  (Ibid., pp. 501-502.)  If it is at least an option for Christian thought that Jesus’ role and mission might be much more ambiguous than the high Christology suggests, then perhaps there is more room for discussion about Jesus and Muhammad among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

There is much to commend in Küng’s approach, but much to criticize.  It can be helpful and important to clarify carefully what Christians mean or do not mean by ascribing divinity to Jesus.  Orthodox Chalcedonian Christology is nuanced and difficult, offering at best limited analogies drawn from Platonist thought forms (which, contrary to Harnack, are helpful if we recognize their limitations as analogies).  Even Christians who want to adhere to a high Christology have to admit that we really have very little idea what “fully God and fully man” means.  It is also helpful to engage the full range of Biblical scholarship on the historical setting and claims of the New Testament.  Any claim to find an exalted Chalcedonian Christology in Mark’s Gospel, for example, is likely not a fair, critical look at the text.  This kind of careful, nuanced scholarship, in conversation with careful, nuanced Jewish and Islamic scholarship on the foundational scriptures of those communities, encourages mutual understanding and perhaps even produces new insights about common themes.

On Biblical scholarship grounds alone, however, Küng’s argument is pinched at best.  Scholars such as Richard Hays, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, and others, situate Jesus squarely within Second-Temple Judaism without adopting the radical Harnackian thesis that the Gospels never in any way assert Jesus’ divinity.  (Bauckham; Hays; Wright.)  There is, of course, lively debate over the work of these scholars, but they cannot simply be ignored.  Further, Küng’s dismissal of creedal development, consistent with overly reductive forms of historical-critical scholarship, ignores the function of the Bible within the Christian community.  The Biblical text never properly stands alone as a merely historical witness to its own setting, but lives and breathes in the life of the Church as it experiences the presence of Christ and the Spirit.  (Gorman; Green.)  This is also true, of course, for the Hebrew Scriptures within the varieties of Judaism, and, albeit with a different tonality, for the Qur’an within the varieties of Islam.

Beyond the issue of Küng’s selective Biblical scholarship, it does not seem helpful to suggest a fundamental limitation on the central historic Christian confession that Jesus is Lord.  Reading Küng charitably, perhaps he suggests only admission of a variety of Christologies that in different ways elucidate the meaning of Jesus’ Lordship.  Even so, if we would not ask Muslims simply to abandon their central confession that Muhammad is Allah’s Prophet, we should not ask ourselves to limit our central confession that Jesus is Lord.

Other Christian thinkers, perhaps falling somewhere between Cragg and Küng in the spectrum of “mainstream” contemporary Christian-Muslim dialogue, suggest that Christianity and Islam could be understood as differing modes of God’s revelation.  (See Beaumont, pp. 157-160.)  In this view, Muhammad could be understood as authentically a “Prophet” by Christians, even if perhaps not with the same sense of finality required by Islamic orthodoxy.  One of the most interesting thinkers in this vein is David Kerr, who suggests that Muhammad could be conceptualized in a liberation theology framework as a prophet sent particularly to the Arab peoples. (Kerr.)  Kerr argues that notions of “prophecy” in Islam and Christianity can be understood as compatible when viewed through liberation theology.  (Kerr, p. 166.)  If the Hebrew prophets came to liberate the Jewish people, and Jesus continued that mission, extended by St. Paul to the Greek-Gentile world, Muhammad furthers the mission to the Arab peoples.

Since the prompt for this paper uses the personal pronoun “I,” I will break scholarly convention a bit and speak in the first person.  Kerr’s proposal is very attractive to me as a legal scholar who is interested in political theology.  It offers the benefit of moving the conversation back from the specifics of doctrine to the universal concerns of human beings regardless of creed.  This move is consistent with broader conversations about the rule of law and human rights that are so much the focus of “law and religion” scholarship.  However, ultimately Kerr’s proposal embodies an eschatological frame that is unsatisfactory to me as a Christian theologian.  I appreciate Christian liberation theology, but it can be criticized for rendering the Kingdom of God into an entirely immanent political key that elides anything distinctive about Christ and the future fulfillment of the Kingdom.  As John Milbank has noted, particularist conceptions of justice underlie any authentic call for liberation, and those concepts as we usually express them in the West have deep roots in the philosophical tradition running from Greek thought through Christianity.  Christianity’s particular frame of reference therefore is implicated by any meaningful discussion of “justice.”  (Milbank.)[2]  And, in the end, much of liberation theology is inconsistent with what I as a lawyer want to say about the rule of law, particularly to the extent the more radical versions of liberation theology are rooted in Marxism, anarchism or even violence.  (See, e.g, Cone.)[3]

In Kerr’s summary of other possible middle ground views, he refers to Orthodox theologian George Khodr, who discusses the presence of the Holy Spirit everywhere in the world.  (Kerr, p. 159.)  Khodr wrote some of the materials quoted by Kerr in the context of ecumenical dialogue with other Christian churches.  Consistent with his Eastern Orthodox perspective, Khodr emphasizes the Eastern view of the filioque and the process of the Spirit and the Son directly from the Father.  (Khodr, p. 305-307.)  For Khodr, this means the Spirit – and therefore the Father and the Son – are present even where the Church is not fully present.  This means that, not only in non-Orthodox Christian communions, but also in Judaism and Islam, the Father and Son also can be present, even if not fully recognized, through the Spirit.  Khodr argues that, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all people, so that “[t]he Spirit is present everywhere and fills everything by virtue of an economy distinct from that of the Son.”  (Ibid., p. 305.)  For Khodr, this means that the Spirit “appears through the scriptures of the non-Christian religions” and that Christians should approach an adherent of another religion “as someone who has something to teach us and something to manifest to us of God.”  (Ibid, p. 306.)

I appreciate Khodr’s approach, but I do not want to make the East-West distinction regarding on the filioque is as important as he suggests.  If the Church is sent within the economy of the missio Dei, and the Church is the body of Christ, and the Church prays for the salvation of the world, then in and through the presence of the Church’s prayers and emanating from the center of the Church’s Eucharistic practice, Christ is present to the whole world.  (See Guder; Newbigin; Milbank.) I do not think a robust Christian response to Muhammad can elide either an essentially “orthodox” Christology or a robust ecclesiology.  All of the nodes of Christian theological reasoning hang together and cannot be dramatically sundered without grave damage to the whole web.

At the conclusion of his essay The End of Dialogue, John Milbank suggests that Christian dialogue with other faiths should “pursue further the project of securing harmony through difference and a continuous historical conversation not bound by the modern constraints of dialogue around a neutral common topic.”  (Milbank, p. 300.)  Within this project, Milbank notes, “we should indeed expect to constantly receive Christ again, from the unique spiritual responses of other cultures.”  (Ibid.)  This seems to me a sound instinct.  It is in fact in returning to a deeply “orthodox” Christology and a truly robust ecclesiology that we can recover the universal vision of the Gospels, of St. Paul, and of the entire New Testament.

We can understand, then, that the truth of Islam does not arise in a vacuum.  The truth of Islam is truth about God’s tawhid, about creation, about the value of human life and endeavor, about justice and moral life, because God has sent that truth within the economy of the missio Dei.  I would offer a qualified agreement with Kerr that we Christians can affirm Muhammad as a “prophet” sent to the Arab peoples and others within a context that was not prepared to receive Christ in the direct, material presence of the Church.  I would go a bit further than I think Cragg does in suggesting more consonance between the redemptive themes in Islam – indeed even the elements of “grace” in Islam – with the Christian Gospel.  I can understand Muhammad at least as the Church Fathers understood Plato and other Greek thinkers, as the logos spermatikos, the seeds of the Word. (Justin Martyr, Ch. 10.)  But, at the same time, I would not go nearly as far as Küng.  The central Christian confession is that Jesus is Lord, and this does mean that at points, at least for the present, Muslims and Christians will need to disagree on at least some of the implications of the Islamic claim that Muhammad is “the Seal of the Prophets.”

Milbank also notes in The End of Dialogue that he does “not pretend that [his] proposal means anything other than continuing the work of conversion.”  (Milbank, p. 300.)  The title of that essay itself is a play on words:  not that dialogue should cease, but that the end, the goal, of dialogue ultimately is conversion.  If Milbank here means our own continual conversion, the continual conversion of the Church, as well as the continual conversion of people of other faiths, I agree wholeheartedly.  If Milbank’s notion of “conversion” runs only in one direction (I do not think it does, but the traffic for him might be thicker in one direction than another!), then I would strongly demur on that point.[4]  I hope we can yet look forward to a day, ultimately an eschatological day but perhaps an eschatological day that breaks into hidden spaces of the present, in which Muslims and Christians can understand each other better under the providential care of the one God – even as, or because, I continue to hope and believe that this will include Muslims better coming to know Jesus in ways that exceed the traditional Islamic understanding of the limits on Jesus’ divinity set by the revelation received by Muhammad and recorded in the Qur’an.


[1] See Christian Book Expo sales awards, 2008, available at

[2] I am aware here that I refer to “the West,” which raises numerous questions about dialogue between Christians and Muslims.  Space precludes me from dealing with the ways in which I would want to nuance and limit Milbank’s fixation on “the West.”  (Milbank deals with this distinction somewhat in the cited essay at pages 294-295.)  Nevertheless, Milbank is correct to point out that the values of liberation theology are drawn either from classical liberalism or Marxism (which contends with classical liberalism) and that, therefore, liberation theology exists as a phenomenon in relation to Western modernity, which only exists in historical relation to Christian and Greek thought.

[3] I do not want to suggest an easy dismissal of liberation theology or of Cone’s work.  For a review I wrote on A Black Theology of Liberation, see

[4] Again, space limits a full consideration of Milbank’s various, often inconsistent, and in recent years increasingly polemical writings on Islam.  I appreciate his general instinct that Christian theology and practice should proceed from unapologetically Christian grounds in our consideration of and relations with other faiths.  I disagree with some of what he thinks that means, particularly in relation to Islam.


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