Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Creation, Covenant, and Participation

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BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
This is the second attempt by Reformed writers to interact with a movement that appears to have little to do with Reformed theology, is absent from current Reformed discussions, and whose high level of academic erudition will be lost on the average reader in the Reformed pew. Still, Radical Orthodoxy (RO) represents a left-wing, Anglo-Catholic response to modernity and secularism. RO is to be applauded for asking all the right questions, even when they give very bad answers to them.

James K. A. Smith begins the foray by summarizing RO’s thought and pointing out key differences between RO and the Reformed Tradition (RT). RO holds to a platonic ontology whereby men relate to God via participation. Michael Horton will later respond that “covenant” is a better category than “participation.” RO holds that Calvinism stems from modernity in that it appropriates a Scotist ontology that flattens reality (there might be more truth in this than we would comfortably admit—JA). This translates into a stale Eucharistic theology whereby Christ is absent. Laura Smit gives a good, rich response by means of articulating a truly Calvinian sacramentology. RO rightly wants to see theology take the place as champion among all disciplines. It sees a unified faith that speaks to all areas of life and rightly resists all unbiblical dualisms. Unfortunately, it ends up sounding like socialist rhetoric baptized in Christian categories. In summation: RO seeks to be a postmodern, Anglo-Catholic Augustinianism.

I will focus on a few essays from the book. John Milbank, while firmly disagreeing with Reformed theology, helpfully outlines RO’s vision: a vision of an alternative Protestantism. Milbank insists we need an alternative Protestantism because the 16thC Reformation, necessary as it was, was the birth-child of modernity and couldn’t escape modernity’s embryonic secular presuppositions. Fortunately, RO maintains a way for the church to truly be the Church, being obedient to Scripture, while avoiding the necessary secularism of modernity. I won’t waste too much time in responding to Milbank save to say that Milbank’s critique of capitalism (Milbank fails to distinguish between capitalism and corporationism) and defense of socialism, when not openly contradictory (e.g., Milbank wants a “decentralized socialism”) is necessarily operating on secular presuppositions. Interestingly, Milbank gives a good defense on why there still might be fairies in the world. I was convinced.

Michael Horton has the best essay in the book, “Covenant and Participation.” Horton appreciatively follows the RO critique of Enlightenment epistemology. He then uses Kant and the postmodernists to set the stage for a failure of all non-biblical epistemologies. Horton shows that God meets us as a stranger. He meets us in Word and in Sacrament (e.g., the Emmaus Road). Kant and the Postmodernists are absolutely correct in that we cannot reason our way to God (e.g., the death of all natural theologies), but they never considered that God would condescend to meet us by means of Revelation, Incarnation, and Sacrament. Horton’s essay was a true tour de force.

What Can We Learn from RO?
Many RTs will balk at RO’s Anglo-Catholicism. Some will cringe at the overt Platonism. Others will criticize the socialism. So what do ROs offer us? They force us to interact with the best of postmodern literature. When I had to defend capitalism and the free market against their socialism, I had to rethink my position and make sure my premises were biblical (they were!). ROs, while never entirely successful, seek to free the church from dualisms and anything that might downgrade creation. ROs have done us a helpful job showing how much we have been captured and infected by the reductionisms of the Enlightenment and modernity.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I need to modify my comments on Milbank's alleged socialism. The way he defines it, at least in Theology and Social Theory is more in terms of the medieval guild system. Not great, granted, but better than Che Guerrera. So he is not an Obama-like socialist of the American sort.
 

JohnOwen007

Puritan Board Sophomore
Dear Jacob,

Thanks so much for your review and interesting comments. I think Milbank's connection of the Reformation and Modernity is a long shot. The reformers were protected from modernity whilst they held to the sinfulness of the human heart. It was this that modernity shunned.

Moreover, as Heiko Oberman has shown, Scotus introduced a more personal understanding of reality (and construal of Exod. 3:14), that helped pave the way for Luther's discovery. It's this personal framework that is conspicuously absent from RO with their return to participation (and hence being).

God bless.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Dear Jacob,

Thanks so much for your review and interesting comments. I think Milbank's connection of the Reformation and Modernity is a long shot. The reformers were protected from modernity whilst they held to the sinfulness of the human heart. It was this that modernity shunned.

Moreover, as Heiko Oberman has shown, Scotus introduced a more personal understanding of reality (and construal of Exod. 3:14), that helped pave the way for Luther's discovery. It's this personal framework that is conspicuously absent from RO with their return to participation (and hence being).

God bless.

I think so. Milbank paints with huge brushes. I think he was saying, and I don't have the erudition to prove or refute it, that voluntarism underpinned Luther's theology. This was actually one of the more confusing chapters. I didn't read it carefull.

The reference to personal construals is quite interesting.
 
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