Thursday, October 20, 2022

Does Pro Pastor Answer Objections?

Jordan Steffaniak tweeted (link to thread) the following, which I've taken the liberty of reformatting for space here.  Go to the link for the original formatting: 

JS (October 18): PSA: If you’re curious about the value of medieval sources, the nature of sola scriptura, etc. Don’t waste your time reading this. They don’t interact with their opponents. They ask questions no one is asking. They refute views no one is espousing. YW.
JS (October 19): I've been informed that I'm a biased, bigoted, scholastic snob that lied in my statement that GBTS failed to w/ their opponents on medieval theology, sola scriptura etc. I'm more than willing to retract my claims if proven wrong. But I'm unable to see where my claim is false.
TF (October 19): Are you willing to be shown?
JS (October 19): Yep. But no one is willing to provide any evidence besides snarky replies, apparently. 🤷🏼‍♂️

Since Jordan says he is willing to be shown, here is the evidence that his claims are wrong.

First, how can it really be both ways?  Either they don't have opponents because they answer(?  -- I suppose "ask" was just a twitter-o) questions no one is asking and refute views no one is espousing, or they "don't interact with their opponents."   If they are really just off discussing questions no one cares about, so be it.  There are a vast array of journals I have never read, and will never read.  

Of course, no one has to warn me off.  No one has to tell me to actively ignore such uninteresting journals (to me).  Instead, I just naturally gravitate away from such topics.

On the other hand, Jordan seems to recognize that the issue presents itself as being related to the value of medieval sources.  Jeff Moore, the editor, characterizes the issue this way: "Our inaugural issue addresses a contemporary question that is raging, regrettably, among evangelicals: Is Thomas Aquinas a helpful guide for Protestants?"  We will come back in a moment to the question of whether this is a question people are asking.  Suffice to say that this question is provided right on the cover of the issue, surrounded by images of Calvin and other early Reformers.

It's unclear from Jordan's tweet whether he read beyond that title page.  Maybe he read the whole issue thoroughly, maybe not.  There is only so much one can discern from 140 characters or whatever the current limit is. 

Second, Jordan linked to a page that provides only the first volume, first issue of "Pro Pastor:  A Journal of Grace Bible Theological Seminary."  The print release date for this issue is October 31, 2022, which is still future as of the writing of this post.  To say, "they don't interact with their opponents," is a strange claim to put it mildly.  Shouldn't there minimally be an opportunity for opponents to the journal to arise?  How much opposition can a journal expect before its very first issue of its first volume?

Nevertheless, of course, the journal didn't spring up in a vacuum.  It's the publication of a seminary, and the publication of the individual authors.  I note that the fourth page of the digital edition has the caveat: "The views expressed in the following articles and reviews are not necessarily those of the faculty, the administration, or the trustees of Grace Bible Theological Seminary."  That said, though, perhaps Jordan means that the seminary, as such, doesn't interact with "their" opponents.  A better interpretation, though, is that Jordan meant to refer to the authors of the articles.

This issue has articles from: James R. White (two articles), Jeff Moore (an introduction and one article), Jeffrey D. Johnson (one article), and Owen Strachan (one article).  There is also an uncredited "Summary Chart," but presumably the chart's author is not on the hook.

Do the authors interact with their opponents?  James White has conducted numerous debates (over 150 at last count), many of which are online.  To suggest that White doesn't interact with his opponents must, at best, come with some heavy qualification.  I'm less familiar with Owen Strachan and Jeffrey Johnson.  I found what appears to be an interaction between Owen Strachan and Jermaine Marshall (link to video).  Jeffrey Johnson is an incredibly common name, but I believe I found an interaction between Jeffrey Johnson and Michael Horton (link to video).  I didn't find anything debate-related with Jeff Moore, so I don't know whether he does debates or not.  Perhaps he does not.

So, at least most of these authors may have some experience with actual debate, and James White, the biggest contributor to this issue, has an overwhelming abundance of experience with debate.  That said, none of James White's debates have been specifically on Thomas Aquinas.  James White has had an informal dialog with William Lane Craig on Calvinism vs. Molinism and a formal debate with Tim Stratton on "Is Molinism Biblical," which have some connection to Thomas, but no debates specifically on the topic of "Is Thomas Aquinas a helpful guide for Protestants?"

Nevertheless, White has responded to opponents on Thomas Aquinas on his program, The Dividing Line (here is an example), numerous times.   Again, I'm less familiar with the others, and I don't know whether they have similarly responded or not.

Giving Jordan the benefit of the doubt, though, perhaps Jordan just meant that this issue itself, in the issue, doesn't respond to opponents.

On page 1, Jeff Moore identifies John Gerstner's article, "Aquinas was a Protestant," and Matthew Barrett's article, "What is Eternal Generation? (and Interview)," and asks whether the claims of those articles are true.

White's first article, in fairness to Jordan, simply sets up a definition of Sola Scriptura.  White's second article then aims to answer the question of whether Thomas held to Sola Scriptura.  I suppose that for a lot of advocates of Thomism, this question is not one they are asking.  It is a question seemingly raised by Tabletalk Magazine, May 1994: Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot? (and similarly posed by Travis James Campbell in the Aquila Report).

However, again, the focus even of White's second article is on analyzing Thomas' writings, not responding to a particular competing interpretation of Thomas.

Like White's two articles, Moore's article is similarly mostly a positive presentation on whether pagan philosophy should be understood as being in collaboration or conflict with Christianity, with the underlying argument being that Thomas was wrong to try to supplement Aristotle, rather than discarding Aristotle in favor of Scripture.  While this is not a direct response to opponents, one can surely see the relevance to the question of the usefulness of Thomas to Protestants today.

Jeffrey Johnson's article, "Is Platonism a Part of the Great Tradition," is clearly a shot across the bow of Craig Carter, and Craig Carter is identified in the first footnote of the article.  It's hard not to see the article as a challenge to Craig Carter's concept of Christian Platonism.  For example, Carter writes:

Now, if Jordan were simply saying that Johnson did not quote Carter and interact with those quotations, ok.  But it is hard to see Johnson's conclusion as not being in conflict with Carter's position:

Owen Strachan tackled the topic of whether Thomas taught monergism, and concluded that Thomas did not.  While Strachan's article does not directly interact with John Gerstner's article arguing that Thomas taught Sola Fide, it is once again hard to see this as anything other than a correction to it.

I suppose that what Jordan may have meant to say, instead of what he actually said, was that this issue does not address questions of the doctrine of divine simplicity, eternal functional subordination, or theology proper.  The first two topics are not mentioned at all in the issue.

The phrase, "theology proper," appears twice each at pp. 34 and 40, all of which are in Owen Strachan's article.  For those interested, I provide the relevant paragraphs:

Broadly speaking, the “great tradition” movement downplays soteriological differences and focuses attention on supposed ecumenical agreement over the doctrine of God (theology proper). It finds this common ground in the Nicene tradition, as it is often called, which took shape in the four ecumenical creeds, continued to be developed in the medieval period, and came to full flower under Thomas Aquinas.
In the present hour, Aquinas is supposedly the theological hero who can rescue us from theological drift. The neo-Reformed project, it is alleged, platformed soteriology, but divested itself of sound classical theology proper. Now, by a return to a certain version of Reformed scholasticism, we can right the ship. If we will embrace Doctor Angelicus (Aquinas, per the Catholics); if we will learn extensively from Catholic theologians and philosophers; if we will root out the biblicists with their supposedly “solo scriptura” method; if we will exchange the Reformational paradigm carved loosely by diverse voices and works like old Princeton, Spurgeon, early Westminster, Lloyd-Jones, and the neo-Reformed movement for a “great tradition” paradigm knit together by an ecumenical band of thinkers, we will save the church from its fundamentalist capsizing.
Some tell us in our time that we can chart a middle way here. We can love Thomas but avoid his errors. We can avoid his doctrine of salvation, even while we embrace his doctrine of God. We may share many commitments with some who make these claims. We desire no doctrinal war with them, and we pray for peace in the body. But we cannot constrain ourselves from warning the church today: Thomas was not a proto-Reformer. Considered in widescope view, with his body of teaching taken into account, Thomas is not a sound guide. 
But perhaps, even after this treatment of Thomas, someone will say in response to me, “But Thomas has all this rich theology proper that you’re ignoring! He’s orthodox as I read him. How can you charge him with not knowing the true God, even if he does get some things wrong on soteriology?” My reply is simple. Just as Thomas might have seemingly orthodox theology proper, so too may a prosperity gospel preacher have a seemingly correct Trinitarianism. Let’s say that on paper, he holds to Nicene theology, and even honors the “great tradition.” But what if that preacher proclaims a false gospel, one in which sin has no place, and the gospel as he presents it is actually about God making all your biggest dreams come true? Clearly, even technical orthodoxy on the Trinity does not change the fact that such a preacher does not honor or know the true God.

So, perhaps Jordan's underlying disappointment was that Strachan and the rest don't debate Thomas' theology proper.  

If one wanted to debate the soundness of Thomas' theology proper, this issue would look like a gigantic ad hominem argument.  Such an analysis misses the point of the issue.  The point of the issue, aptly summarized by the title of the issue, was this: "Is Thomas Aquinas a helpful guide for Protestants?" The answer provided is that Thomas is not, because of positions the authors say he held, including on important issues like Sola Scriptura, the relevance of Aristotle, the relevance of Denys and other Platonists, and Monergism.  

I hate having to put a caveat on an article like this, but I don't trust *some* of the readers' ability to understand negative implications.  I'm not saying I fully agree with any of the authors about anything they wrote.  I don't agree with Craig Carter's label of the historical Francis Turretin as a Christian Platonist.