Friday, June 11, 2021

Deus Vult


A month after his dedication of the major ecclesia, and Urban was presiding over his second council of the year: an even larger assembly of reform-minded bishops and abbots than Piacenza had seen.

-          Millennium, Tom Holland

This would be Pope Urban II, otherwise known as Odo of Châtillon.  The year was 1095; the location of the assembly was the ancient town of Clermont in Auvergne. 

And then there was the assembly that preceded this – Piacenza, just south of Milan and from which he traveled onward to France.  At Piacenza he would meet with diplomats from Constantinople, with a message from the Basileus, Alexius Comnenus.   

Finding the Turks engaged in infighting, Alexius thought the opportunity had come to capitalize on their squabbling.  He must go on the offensive; a second Manzikert would be the end of the Church in the East. 

And so it was, looking around for reinforcements that might offer him a reasonable prospect of success, while also remaining safely expendable, that Alexius’s gaze had turned towards the West.

Let’s you and him fight!  While this wasn’t the message brought to Urban, it certainly was on the mind of the Eastern emperor.  Which brings us to Clermont; on 27 November, Urban would address the crowd of a few hundred in an open field with a message that would soon ring through Western Christendom:

“If any man sets out from pure devotion, not for reputation or monetary gain, to liberate the Church of God at Jerusalem, his journey shall be reckoned in place of all penance.”

Jerusalem: a city with no strategic or military significance; to take on such a journey would require five times the annual income of the average lord.  All to fight an enemy that had already brought Constantinople to the brink. 

Little did Urban expect that his call would be heeded not merely by fighters on horseback; the crowds would shout “Deus vult”: God wills it.  For any who cared to be spotless before God, this was an unparalleled opportunity. 

A whole new road to the City of God has suddenly opened up before the Christian people.  The heroic labour of buttressing the world against Antichrist, and of preparing for that dreadful hour of judgement.

Thousands upon thousand would set of for Jerusalem – most horseless with no ability to fight (for an overview of the make-up of this bunch, covering both glory and warts, see here).  Alexius, to his consternation, found the whole of the West on the march – toward him, toward Constantinople.  He would attempt to bribe and browbeat the leaders of this fantastic advance to obedience – not that he would lead them in battle, as he knew the risks and reality of the situation. 

By June 1097, Nicaea was brought to capitulate by this Western force, and the banner of the Second Rome once again flew over the birthplace of the creed.  A month later, the crusaders would break a formidable Turkish army in open battle.  By the following spring, Alexius felt safe enough to follow:

…taking full advantage of his enemies’ reverses, Alexius dispatched his brother-in-law to mop up in the crusaders’ wake.

In the summer, Alexius would finally lead an army himself, recovering perhaps half the territories lost after Manzikert.  Yet, even now and after hearing news of the grim reality facing the crusaders, Alexius would not risk his position:

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Meaning and Culture


I made the following comment at a recent Paul VanderKlay video.  As it gained some traction there, I thought to post it here as well.  It is as the original, except where I have added some comments in brackets:

To speak in broad generalizations always fails – to say “Trump supporters…” or “Christians…” or “Sorkin…”  But I will speak in generalizations…

Peterson spoke for those who finally realized (despite warnings by those like Chesterton 100 years ago, Burke well before this) that the Enlightenment project would inevitably lead to a place where man would find no meaning, because man had no purpose other than “I, I, I” and “me, me, me.”

[As one reality of the Enlightenment placed individualism as the highest value, and the individual as his own sovereign.]

“You can be anything you want to be,” sounds great in the first steps, but without a grounding in understanding man’s purpose (dare I say it, the foundation for natural law), this soon turns into telling elementary aged boys that they can be girls, and vice versa.  An inevitable outcome when a society believes that man is not made with a purpose or end.

[And it is precisely for this reason that the “political” Peterson, where he speaks against compelled speech on all issues, but specifically transgender issues, and the “meaning crisis” Peterson are inseparable.  One is inherently connected to the other.]

Peterson skyrocketed because of this – funny, given he is such a student of [and defender of] the Enlightenment.  This is why Trump was elected four years ago, and remains popular today. This is not to suggest that Trump understood anything as deep about the cultural void he was filling.  But he knew enough to read people and act on what he saw.

Who is the enemy of mankind – those who say man has no purpose, or those who say that man does have a purpose?  Of course, what Peterson struggles with: not just any purpose, but one inherent in us given that we are made in God’s image.  It is only this grounding that can protect a society from falling into the decadent abyss.

[And, of course, this last paragraph opens up the entire conversation of natural law based on Aristotelian-Thomistic universalist ethics vs. natural law based on Occam’s nominalism.]

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Signs, Symbols, History, Science


“Is the body of Christ really and truly in this sacrament or only in a figurative way or as in a sign?”

Thomas Aquinas, first article, question 75, Summa Theologica

Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity, Brett Salkeld

Salkeld will rephrase Thomas’s statement, in order to clarify: “Is the Eucharist only a sign, or is it also something more?”

If it isn’t clear by that open, this post will focus on a very “inside Christian baseball” topic.  My intent is not to draw us into a theological debate, but to understand something of one of the key theological divides between Protestants, represented by Luther and Calvin, and Catholic thought, represented by Thomas, on the question of the Eucharist.  Within the context of this blog, it matters theologically only because it matters historically.

Thomas, of course, will deny that Christ is present only symbolically; he also denies that Christ is present physically – meaning not in the same way that Christ was present physically in Mary’s womb, etc.  There is no chemical change in the bread, nothing like this. 

Of course, Salkeld develops the Thomistic / Catholic case much further, but I will next move on to Luther and then Calvin.  Again, not in tremendous detail – as so much of this language and theology is beyond my grasp – but offering instead some conclusions from Salkeld and others.

Luther is not dogmatic on the point, writing in The Babylonian Captivity, regarding the issue: is Christ’s real flesh and blood present in no other way, or only as accidents:

“I permit every man to hold either of these opinions as he chooses. that no one may fear being called a heretic if he believes that real bread and real wine are present on the alter, and that every one may feel at liberty to ponder, hold and believe either one view or the other without endangering his salvation.”

I have thought about this often, on many topics of controversy among and between Christians: does the disagreement rise to one that risks the question of salvation?  Often, I think not.

Eight years later, Luther would write:

“I have taught in the past and still teach that this controversy is unnecessary and that it is of no consequence whether the bread remains or not… It is enough for me that Christ’s blood is present; let it be with the wine as God wills.”

And I often think about this: is it so important to divide on things not clearly described, one way or the other, in Scripture? 

Luther continues with even stronger words, and keeping in mind that here he is writing against those who say it is only bread and only wine (the “fanatics,” as he puts it):

“Sooner than have wine with the fanatics, I would agree with the pope that there is only blood.”

So, while the pope (or at least Thomas) didn’t say that there was only blood (in the sense of that which courses through our veins), Luther found this position more agreeable than the one claiming that it was only wine.

Salkeld concludes, based on forty-five pages of heavily footnoted examination on Luther’s views, as follows:

…Luther’s denial of transubstantiation was not a denial of what Thomas had argued.

As I recall, Salkeld earlier demonstrated that Luther was arguing against what later Catholics would present, which was different than what Thomas presented.

Furthermore, his affirmation of the persistence of the substances of bread and wine was using the term “substance” in a different way than it had been used by Thomas.

Thomas was using Aristotelian language and structure.  Luther was not.  Keep in mind that Aristotle was rejected in many ways (or every way) by Luther (coming back to my ongoing examination of the issues that many Protestants apparently have with teleologically-based natural law).

Finally, Luther’s concerns that transubstantiation led to unnecessary philosophical problems were predicated on this, nominalist, view of transubstantiation. 

In other words, Luther’s affirmation of the persistence of the bread and wine should not be read as a rejection of Thomas.  Suggesting, perhaps, that had Luther been more familiar with and accepting of Aristotle’s metaphysics, much of this controversy might not have come. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Eastern Fringes


To the east, there lay another Christian empire – and in 1073, even as Gregory was being enthroned as the Bishop of Rome, he feared that a literally fiendish danger was menacing the Second Rome.

-          Millennium, Tom Holland

As regular readers will note, the two books I am currently covering are somewhat overlapping at this moment.  Where I last left The Age of Paradise, by John Strickland was the mid-eleventh century, but just before the Great Schism.  At this point in Holland’s book, we are a couple of decades after this event.

So, by this point in Holland’s book, Pope Gregory VII (also known as Hildebrand) was presiding over the Western portion of a Church divided.  He could also observe the threat to the Church in the East, on the fringes of Christendom – the eastern edges of Anatolia and stretching into Armenia.

Pope Gregory would write: “for everything has been laid waste, almost to the very walls of Constantinople.”

News so shocking as to seem unbelievable – and yet every traveler returning from overseas had confirmed it. 

Holland does not offer any such accounts from travelers, but I find this account of a battle from 1064, a few years previous and further east – the Christian Armenian city of Ani, under siege for 25 days by a large Seljuk Turk army under Alp Arslan who eventually captured the city and slaughtered its population:

An account of the sack and massacres in Ani is given by the Turkish historian Sibt ibn al-Jawzi, who quotes an eyewitness saying:

… children were ravished from the embraces of their mothers and mercilessly hurled against rocks, while the mothers drenched them with tears and blood... The city became filled from one end to the other with bodies of the slain…

The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive...The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them.

And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000 souls. I was determined to enter city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible.

Returning to Holland, he notes that this invasion began even decades before, again in Armenia and again by Turks:

In the winter of 1016, dragons had swooped in over Armenia, on the easternmost limit of the empire, ‘vomiting fire upon Christ’s faithful,’ and volumes of the Holy Scriptures had begun to tremble.

These early encounters apparently didn’t concern the Byzantines much – they had dealt with attempted invasion before.  Surprising, at least to me, given how much of Eastern Christendom had already been lost to Muslim in the preceding centuries.  Perhaps as long as the capital was safe, the elite cared little about the hinterlands.  Sounds familiar.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Worth a Listen


While you are out in the yard today, or walking the dog, or fixing the car, or whatever….

Jordan Peterson had a conversation with Rex Murphy. From the introduction:

Rex is a Canadian commentator and author who deals primarily with Canadian political and social matters. He is best known for working on and for CBC Here and Now, CBC Radio 1’s Cross Country Checkup, writing for The Globe and Mail and writing for The National Post. He is a well-recognised and loved figure.

I found this the most valuable conversation Peterson has had since his return, other than (or second to) his conversation with Jonathan Pageau.  It is worth noting how similar – even identical – the cultural and political splits are in Canada as they are in the United States; maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise.  Maybe it’s the case in the Anglo world, to include Australia, New Zealand, and Britain; maybe it’s the case in all of the remnants of Western Christendom.

Murphy’s is a remarkable story, going from very hardscrabble Newfoundland to a very prominent national voice in Canada.  Perhaps this helps give him the perspectives that he has (as may also be true for Peterson, given his upbringing and where he was raised in small-town Alberta). 

The conversation is two-hours long, and I won’t do my usual capture of various statements, etc.  In the video notes, a time-stamped index is offered if you want to find sections of more interest, although I recommend the entire conversation.

I offer some examples from the comments to the video:

Rex: “Trudeau is not as large as the nation that he thinks he’s governing.”! ~ Another dead-on zinger!

“We are allowing charlatans to wreck the intellectual standards of the Western world”

You're the man Rex. CBC has been completely corrupted without your presence.

"The university is the continuation of a conversation across centuries..." JP just throws off these profound phrases without effort. Brilliant interview. I don't know anything about Rex, but will definitely look into his work.

"The spine requires calcium and there's no milk in the CBC."  No one but Rex Murphy, can bring a point across with such poetic majesty. Love him!

"Dropping their low IQ bombs from a great height." Rex Murphy

That should be sufficient to give you the tone and tenor.

Friday, June 4, 2021

A Protestant Look at Aquinas


Ryan Reeves offers a two-part look at Thomas Aquinas (part one; part two).  Some background, for context:

Ryan Reeves is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Dean of the Jacksonville campus.

Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) is an evangelical seminary with its main campus in Hamilton, Massachusetts and three other campuses in Boston, Massachusetts; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Jacksonville, Florida.

Consider this post a further pursuit in my attempt to understand the relationship of Protestants to natural law.  Following are my notes and thoughts from the videos.


There was really no more important philosopher or theologian in the Western Middle Ages than Thomas Aquinas.  Among Protestants, it is fairly well-known that Luther pretty much rejected Aquinas and thought rather low of his theology.  But Reeves says that this is a pretty overplayed point.

It might be overplayed, but it sure is played – to the point where Protestants fight the use of the phrase “natural law” while many are all-the-while in search of it.

Luther had some negative things to say about Aquinas, but he had negative things to say about much of medieval scholasticism – more specifically, on the philosophy of Aristotle.  In any case, within two generations of Luther and Calvin, you find a return to Aristotelian thinking in the rise of what is called Protestant Scholasticism – a return to dialectic and Aristotle after the Reformation.

It was a return to wrestling with questions of faith and reason.  The issue isn’t Aquinas himself, or Aristotle, or scholasticism, but how we appropriate these into our overall theological vocabulary.

Yes, there is a Wikipedia page on Protestant Scholasticism, and it links to a page on Lutheran scholasticism and Reformed scholasticism.  A sampling:

Protestant scholasticism or Protestant orthodoxy was academic theology practiced by Protestant theologians using the scholastic method during the era of Calvinist and Lutheran orthodoxy from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Lutheran scholasticism was a theological method that gradually developed during the era of Lutheran Orthodoxy. Theologians used the neo-Aristotelian form of presentation, already popular in academia, in their writings and lectures. They defined the Lutheran faith and defended it against the polemics of opposing parties.

Reformed scholasticism or Reformed orthodoxy was academic theology practiced by Reformed theologians using the scholastic method during the period of Protestant orthodoxy in the 16th to 18th centuries. While the Reformed often used "scholastic" as a term of derision for their Roman Catholic opponents and the content of their theology, most Reformed theologians during this period can properly be called scholastics with respect to the method of theology, though they also used other methods.

It seems some things are inescapable.  Whatever the Protestant view of Catholicism, it need not make everything that had roots in Catholic thought an error.  If this is the standard, we can throw out all of the Western tradition of the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity.

Returning to Reeves: he presents a chart of a selection of works completed by Thomas, to include: Summa theologica (3500 pages), Summa contra gentiles (400 pages), 85 sermons, 11 expositions of Aristotle, and several other books, letters, etc.  This all by the age of 49.  To this day, his work is being explored.

Which, perhaps, says something about how well Luther might have understood (or not) Thomas in his time, and how reasonable his reactions against Thomas and the Scholastics might, or might not, have been.  Nothing I have read regarding Luther would indicate he was a master of Thomistic thought.  Certainly, Luther had more than a full-time calling in the path for which he is well-known.

Reeves then focusses on the question of faith and reason, noting that it is Aquinas, more than any other, who focusses on and synthesizes these two superficially contradictory subjects.  It is a task that has been necessary since the Enlightenment, but generally ignored.  It has come to the fore in full force today due to a few hundred years of ignoring this necessity.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Stop Talking, Stop Thinking


A couple of days ago, I posted the following comment at Paul VanderKlay’s site:

PVK: “You know things are getting tyrannical when there’s a law against patience.  DON’T THINK, JUST OBEY!  Oh, OK, I see some tyranny coming down the road here.”

Paul, if that’s the criteria (and I think it is appropriate), we are already there.

To think, we must talk.  If we cannot talk, we cannot think.  There are many things worth discussing that have been made illegal to discuss.  And this is just in the legal / state realm; with the relationship of big business and big tech with the state, there may not be prison involved, but one can be equally shut out of society for saying the wrong thing.

Hence, we cannot think because we cannot talk.  All that is left is to obey.

Then today I came across this essay by Stella Morabito, entitled How Ending Freedom Of Expression Gives Up Your Right To A Private Life.  Morabito offers much more depth to the brief comment I offered, and it is worth touching on.  For example:

We rarely discuss the deeper purpose of the First Amendment, which is to preserve our right to build families, our right to make friends without state interference, and even the right to think our own thoughts.

To think, we must talk.

In short, the First Amendment serves as a shield against social isolation. You are being socially isolated whenever the mass state or Big Tech regulates your speech so that you can’t express an opinion without fear of losing your livelihood.

If we cannot talk, we cannot think.

Thus, cut off from open conversation, your ability even to think — to generate new ideas, consider new ideas from others, improve those ideas by communicating — evaporates.

We cannot think because we cannot talk.

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that all totalitarian systems depend upon cultivating social isolation in people. Isolation renders people powerless. So it’s no wonder that freedom of expression is always first on the chopping block during and after authoritarian takeovers.

As VanderKlay said: “You know things are getting tyrannical when there’s a law against patience.  DON’T THINK, JUST OBEY!  Oh, OK, I see some tyranny coming down the road here.”


From G.K. Chesterton (and taken from Morabito’s essay): “There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”