Thursday, January 03, 2008

Blogging in the name of the Lord: Paul Helm

This is the first in a new series of interviews with Christian bloggers. In the hot seat today we have...
GD: Hello Paul Helm, and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

PH: Thanks for inviting me to answer a few questions, Guy. I greatly enjoy Exiled Preacher, and your help with my own site has been invaluable. As you know!

I taught for many years at the University of Liverpool, then moved to King’s College, London in 1993, resigning in 2000, and I am now ‘freelance’. I am a compulsive writer, fairly bad-tempered, and privacy matters to me, which is why this answer is short!

GD: Your blog is called Helm's Deep. What kind of thing might readers find there?

PH: You called it that, remember? [Oh yes, you have me to blame for that. I couldn't resist punning your name with the scene of a great battle in Lord of the Rings (GD).] It’s chiefly a discussion of issues in which theology and philosophy intersect. Each month I try to post the draft of a paper that is ‘in press’, and an ‘Analysis’ in which I discuss an issue (in 2000 words or so) where philosophical ideas may illuminate or clarify theological positions. This month, for example, I have a concluding Analysis on making choices between alternatives when the evidence for each alternative balances, or is unknown, and the choice must be made. At the far end of ‘guidance’, you might say. Along with this there’s the concluding half of a longer paper on one of my favourite themes, God and time. Shortly I’ll have Analyses on the will of God, and papers on the problem of evil, Edwards on the Trinity, and J.I. Packer’s ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, to mark its 50th anniversary.

GD: Do you think that blogging has a useful part to play in the theological process?

PH: No more than the printing press does. In my case more people read the sort of thing I write than would otherwise be the case. But most religious blogs I come across are dire.

GD: Are you a theological philosopher or a philosophical theologian?

PH: The first, I suppose, since philosophy is what I am trained in.

GD: Tertullian said, of philosophy, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" How would you answer that question?

PH: I don’t think Tertullian was quite correct if his words are taken to advocate a principled avoidance of philosophical concepts and arguments. When in Athens Paul did as the Athenians did, and quoted Aratus and Epimenides with approval, and of course he has extended arguments, as in I Corinthians 15. This has to be weighed, however, against what he wrote to the I Corinthians 1 and 2 about the wisdom of this world.. Philosophy is necessary for at least two reasons: one is that the opponents of the faith often resort to philosophical concepts and arguments (sometimes without realizing it) and have to be answered in kind, and the other is the principle ‘the meaning of Scripture is scripture’.

GD: Who has had the biggest influence on your theological development?

PH: Theological development, did you say? I’m not sure there’s been much of that since I was about 18. Up till then, my father. There’s been a bit of theological intensification since.. But in my case How I Have Changed My Mind would be the title of a rather slim book. When I was about 18 ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God bowled me over.

GD: The validity of systematic theology is much under discussion at the moment. In his contribution to Always Reforming, Richard Gamble seemed to argue that systematics should transmute into biblical theology. In his The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer has proposed that theology should be reconfigured in terms of theo-dramatics. Do you believe that systematic theology as practiced by Hodge and Berkhof has a role in contemporary theological reflection?

PH: For some reason the phrase ‘systematic theology’ has prestige. So there are all sorts of crazy proposals for calling this and that ‘systematic theology’. (It’s rather like someone wanting to call some Heath-Robinson contraption a Rolls Royce). The content of systematic theology should correspond with the label on the jar; it should be systematic, that is, connected up, coherent, consistent, contemporary, and as clear as can be, and it should be about God and his ways.. In view of these requirements, the Hodge-Berkhof tradition of systematic theology is indispensable. What I have chiefly complained about in print (in my usual cantankerous way) is that Hodge and co. have been dismissed in a shamefully unscholarly manner by various evangelical theologians (not including Richard Gamble) who should have known better – he is allegedly ‘foundationalist’, an ‘Enlightenment’ thinker, ‘inductive’, ‘scientific’, as a result of which he and his kind have been rubbished.. These epithets have been hurled at the poor man from ignoramuses who do not seem ever to have bothered to open the first pages of volume I of his Systematic Theology to see how he actually operates. What kind of scholarship is that?

There may well be other types of theology besides ‘systematic theology’ but they should be clearly labeled too.

GD: In your book, John Calvin's Ideas, you argue that the Reformer was no stand alone figure, divorced from the currents of medieval scholasticism that preceded him and the Reformed scholasticism that followed him. I think that the point was well made. But in which ways does Calvin stand out from the scholastic crowd?

PH: In at least these ways: He was of an anti-speculative turn of mind, and hence generally (though not always) spurned ‘What if?’ questions that the scholastics tended to favour. And he was firm on faith as involving fiducia and as well as assensus, which as a result makes theology a much more practical business than the run of the mill medieval scholastics thought of it. Augustine was a great influence of course, but then he also influenced Thomas Aquinas. But what evangelical these days reads anything before Luther? Or C.H. Spurgeon?

GD: In your contribution to Engaging with Barth, you discuss the theologian's doctrine of election. As I understand it, Barth held that God constituted Jesus as the elect man for the sake of all humanity. Evangelicals will have problems with his construction because of its universalistic overtones. But it seems to me that Reformed theology has often downplayed the role of Christ in election, making the doctrine seem a little abstract and remote. Calvin, however taught that Christ is the "mirror of our election". Would you agree that we should return to a more Christ-centred doctrine of election?

PH: I think that we ought to have problems with Barth’s construction not only because of what you mention, but also because it diminishes and even eliminates divine freedom.

But yes, the Pauline idea of union with Christ is fundamental provided that it is carefully handled Believers are chosen in Christ, but not (as far as I can see) because of Christ. Calvin’s phrase about Christ as the mirror of election has more to do with assurance than with the character of election per se.

GD: Does God take risks?

PH: No. He knows the end from the beginning and works all things after the counsel of his own will. However, ‘risk’ can be used to name some of what we, as creatures, are not sure of, and it may be said that the Incarnate Logos took risks in this sense, but I don’t favour such talk. It does not seem to resonate with what we find in the Gospels. (See Light Upon the River, Hymn Texts by Christopher M. Idle (St Matthias Press, 1998), note to ‘And did you risk yourself, O Christ?’ (p.134))

GD: This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Jonathan Edwards. What, in your assessment are the some of the key strengths and weaknesses of the great man's theology?

PH: The strength is also the weakness: a confidence in human reason which is in some respects breathtaking (the relentlessness of his argumentation in Freedom of the Will), in other respects ridiculous (his view of the continuity of things and people through time, as expressed in his Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin). In many ways he is an archetypal 18thcentury figure. Interesting that the influence of the Enlightenment should reach so powerfully into the recesses of New England; there is irony here, an arch-conservative using the ‘latest thought’ (in Edwards’ case Newton and Locke), to assist ole’ time religion. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us.

While one cannot but recognise his greatness Edwards has always seemed to me to have been a tiresome person, aristocratic, tactless and remote, and something of a know-all (justifiably perhaps!), but not someone I’d like to have had as a pastor. Sorry, I’m straying from your question.

GD: Tell us the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months. It is a must read because?

PH: ‘Helpful’ is an unhelpful word for me. I’m often helped by ‘unhelpful’ books. However, among the helpful books I’m helped by are some of the writings of John Frame, a long-standing friend. I think his Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology, (P & R, 2006), is very good.

GD: I too enjoyed Frame's book (see review here). Care to share your top three songs/pieces of music?

PH: Not easy. I enjoy the standards of classical music, and also W. Coast Jazz - Mulligan, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Brookmeyer, etc. I’m also interested in jazz improvisations of classical themes and classically-influenced jazz from players such as Jacques Loussier, and more recently e.s.t.. In 2008 I’d like to explore the music of David Rhys-Williams a bit.

On another note I value Stuart Townend’s hymns, as many do, and also the ‘classical tradition’ of Watts, Charles Wesley, the Olney Hymns, Toplady etc.. But their use is rapidly vanishing; the days when people learned Christian doctrine by singing it are going, and we are being offered Telly-Tubby lyrics instead.

GD: Singing "eh-oh" a la the Telly-Tubbies doesn't quite seem appropriate for Christian worship. Watts, Wesley and Townend are much better. Now, what, in your view is the great challenge that faces evangelicalism today and how ought we to respond?

PH: To remain true to evangelicalism while nevertheless gaining the attention of people who are (apparently) a thousand miles away from it.

GD: Which theology blogs do you find helpful?

PH: I browse hardly at all. But as I said earlier, I am a fan of ‘Exiled Preacher’. That’s surely a positive note to end on!
GD: You are too kind. Thanks very much for stopping by for this conversation.
Who will be the next candidate for the hot seat? You'll have to wait and see.

1 comment:

Andrew and Carolyn said...

Thanks for this, Guy. As with the rest of this series (perhaps with the exception of that dull Roycroft bloke you interviewed last year!)this is stimulating and helpful .

I love the Telly-Tubbies reference!!