Key Ideas from George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.

[ As I prepare for comps, I am generating a few pages of notes on various topics. Here is one set of notes covering George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. I have attempted to focus on many, but not all, key concepts in his work. I am posting them online because I have been helped by others works and would like to help others comments and  would like to help others in the same way.Kindly pardon truncated sections or the lack of citation here and there. These are merely personal notes shared to help others and nothing more. There are endnotes. If you come across quotations without an endnote, it likely came out of one of the references in the endnotes. If you find a mistake here and would like to correct something PLEASE do add a comment.  ]

George Lindbeck’s Background

  • Born 1923-2018 – son of Lutheran missionaries from America, working in China – the start of his ecumenical awareness is here. . 
  • Gustavus Adolphus college (rooted in Swedish heritage). Got his BA in 1940’s and then went to Yale in the 1946. Lindbeck did his PhD on Medieval studies (on Duns Scotus and the concept of being) and completed it in 1955. He remained at Yale until retirement in 1993. george_lindbeck
  • Shortly after being hired at Yale, he was elected to be a representative of the Lutheran World Federation as an observer at the 2nd Vatican council. He lived in Rome with his family the year of the council. This experience changed his life.  After his return to Yale he continued to work on ecumenics – particularly Lutheran/Catholic dialogue. 
  • His ecumenical influences: China, Vatican 2, and Lutheran-Catholic dialogue.
    • Bruce Marshall says that at Yale Lindbeck taught a class on  “Comparative Doctrine,” which focused on the historic doctrinal disagreements among Christians. The Second Vatican Council featured heavily in the course.”
    • R.R. Reno says that while he was in class with Lindbeck, the latter was not keen on pronouncing who was wrong or right when studying certain leaders in church history.  This seems to be reflected still in the Nature of Doctrine. 
  • After Vatican 2 Lindbeck was on the hunt for a theological approach more effective in ecumenical work. 
    • He witnessed a polarization between “right” and “left” in both Protestantism and Catholicism along with a decline of any mediating center rooted in “pre-modern communal traditions.”
    • C.C. Pecknold highlights what Lindbeck more cryptically notes in ND,

      “that “ecumenical Christians were beginning to claim doctrinal reconciliation without making any apparent doctrinal capitulations  – significant changes were being made but changes that vaguely claimed to be maintaining continuity with the unchanging truth of Christian faith. Ancient issues of permanence and change were raised by these ‘anomalies’ of apparent sudden doctrinal agreement after centuries of genuine, long-standing disagreements. At the theological level, difficult questions about what true reconciliation entails were being asked. Lindbeck’s book was, in part, trying to answer these very particular problems or ‘anomalies’ of the ecumenical movement.” [1] 
  • Lindbeck sought a way for both sides to achieve unity without losing what made them unique. A famous line from ND reflecting this goal is “Unity without doctrinal capitulation.” His solution was to reach for a theory (what we now called the Cultural Linguistic theory) used in the social sciences, that he could apply to doctrine. He looked at religion non-theologically and suggests that our theory of religion and doctrine can’t be ecumenically useful if it is implausible in more general non-ecumenical settings.  
  • Work with the Cultural-Linguistic theory of religion/doctrine eventually blossomed into the e The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (1984). The book was intended as a prolegomena to a larger work (the latter work was never written)

Two Major Approaches/Poles  to Religion/Doctrine:  In terms of book organization, Lindbeck suggests the chapters in ND don’t need to be in the particular order they are in. More important than chapter order, however, is the three-fold  typology he offers for theories of doctrine. Lindbeck suggests that prior to his own day doctrine had been looked at in two major ways (i.e. cognitive-propositionalist & experiential-expressivist) with a few heroic but unconvincing third method that attempted to blend both (e.g. Bernard Longergan). Lidnbeck describes these options and then follows with his own (#3 below) middle way: 

  1. Cognitive Propositionalist theory of religion – (objective pole)  approaches to theology involves propositions that correspond to reality. “emphasizes the cognitive aspects of religion and stresses the ways in church doctrines function as informative propositions or truth claims about objective realities” These are evaluated cognitively. (16) Truth, falsity, assent, etc.. eg. Aquinas 
  2. Experiential Expressive theory of religion (subjective pole)  theology/ religion is an outward manifestation of inner spiritual experiences. This is liberalism – “universal feeling about the ultimate.” Expressivism “interprets doctrines as noninformative and nondiscursive symbols of inner feelings, attitudes, or existential orientations” (16). Here the inner takes priority.  E.g. Schleiermacher2 (Fits more with our individualistic culture keen to respect diversity, self realization, self expression)

    2.5 Blended approach. A few heroic efforts were made to blend the above two. Lindbeck finds these unconvincing. 

  3. Cultural Linguistic Approach. This is Lindberg’s major alternative  to approaches 1 and 2 above. Religions/doctrine can be looked at as neither truth claims (way 1) or so many expressions of subjective experience (way 2) but as rules for how to speak and act in a religious community. This method steps outside of any ontological description and instead gives a functional description.  Lindbeck is primarily concerned with how religion functions in communities – and is less interested in whether it captures what is real.  (More on this later)

    Keeping his three-fold taxonomy in view is essential to not getting lost while reading The Nature of Doctrine. 

Terminology: Post-Liberal Theology (postliberal is somewhat of a catchall term for Lindbeck’s project/method of applying the cultural-linguistic approach to Religion and Doctrine. Again it is Lindbeck’s proposal to push beyond the deadlock of the previous two methods. Lindbeck notes that postliberal could equally be referred to as postmodern, post-revisionist, or post-neo-orthodox.3 It is postmodern in that it harmonizes with other movements in the late 20th century that eschewed metanarratives / foundationalism and instead opened up a space for the equal value of multiple perspectives. Postliberalism is sometimes called narrative theology or The Yale School. Hunsinger (in his Cambridge Companion chapter to Postmodern Theology)  implies that its really not clear who fits into the “Yale School” category other than Frei and Lindbeck. Other books note a Chicago vs Yale debate that waged over postliberalism in the late 1980s. Less disputed is the fit between Frei’s work on Biblical narrative and Lindbeck’s postliberalism. 

The term “postliberalism,” according to George Hunsinger, first showed up in Hans Frei’s (1956) dissertation as a way to describe Barth’s shift from liberal to post liberal. Postliberal means (after liberal) in the sense of (a) modernism followed by Enlightenments attacks leading to (b) liberalism which gave way in the 20th century to (c)  post-liberalism which supplanted Liberalism. Lindbeck is not the first to seek  a middle way between liberalism and conservativism. Consider the following:

    1. Mid 19th century “Mediating theology” (tied confessional, pietistic and liberal elements)
    2. Barths’ neo-orthodoxy sought to avoid biblical literalism and liberalism of Schleiermacher and Von Harnack who were guilty of “the plain destruction of Protestant theology and the Protestant church.” 
      1. Emil Brunner’s “theology of crisis” similarly held that liberalism/conservativism had betrayed certain key Reformation principles (e.g. God’s sovereignty and the freedom of the Word.)
      2. Reinhold Niebur argued that fundamentalism made Christian myths into literal realities but liberalism failed to take Christian myths seriously. Both were hopeless. 

George Hunsinger says that Lindbeck’s Cultural linguistic theory is really three theories:  a theory of religion, a theory of doctrine, and a theory of truth. The theory of religion is “cultural” the theory of doctrine is “regulative,” and the theory of truth is “pragmatist.” [4 ] I will insert between the 2nd and 3rd…  a statement about the relationship between experience and language because it helps to understand what he means by “categorical” view of truth. So we will have four key concepts rather than Hunsinger’s three. 

[1] Cultural-Linguistic Theory of Religion – Religions are  “comprehensive interpretive schemes,  (Geertz’s term) usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world” (ND, 32). So how is this like a language? Becoming religious is like learning a language. Linbeck suggests that  when one acquires a culture or language they interiorize “outlooks that others have created” and they master “skills that others have honed.” In terms of Narrative theology, religious groups speak and live a “narrative” over time. 

Lindbeck drew on a variety of sources from the social sciences and philosophy as he constructed his cultural linguistic thinking. These included:  

  • (a) Clifford Geertz’s anthropology work and application of this idea to religion. It had deeper roots in Marx, Weber and Durkeim. Says Grant Miller Francisco (1999) [5]
  • (b)  The later Wittgenstein’s – especially his concept of language games helped to formulate the rule theory of doctrine:  
    • In Philosophical Investigations – Wittgenstein introduces the idea of “language games.” The meaning of language depends on the rule/game being played. Words don’t have substantive meaning in themselves. They derive meaning from the game/context. So for Wittgenstein, a goal of communication analysis is to look at the game being played. [6]
    • Similarly for Lindbeck the linguistic “rules” of the game would be carried over into the way doctrine and religion were conceptualized. In a cultural linguistic framework,  doctrines function “not as (a) expressive symbols or (b) truth claims, but as communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action” (Nature of Doctrine, 18) 
    • We all have contexts (in a postmodern reality) that we speak from – so – a metanarrative is hard to swallow. 

[2] Rule Theory of Doctrine – If becoming religious is like learning a language, then doctrine can be likened to the rules of grammar for that language. You can’t do whatever you want with the words of a language.  Languages need rules to work properly. Likewise religions need rules (i.e. doctrines) to work.  Doctrines are the communally authoritative rules that govern thoughts, actions, emotions. (ND 18) They are second order, not first order. Remember that for Wittgenstein, the meaning of words in language do not latch directly onto reality in a first order way. One must first determine what language games (this is not a pejorative term) a person is involved in before they can know what words mean. Similarly doctrines do not latch directly onto reality in a first order way. Actually Lindbeck is not denying that they can; but his theory is heavily occupied with role that doctrine plays in a second order way.

Therefore, doctrines, like confessing the Nicene creed, do not serve to make “first order truth claims” (ND 19). “Doctrines regulate truth claims by excluding some [claims] and permitting others but the logic of their communally authoritative use . . . prevents them from specifying positively what is to be affirmed.” (ND 19) The key is that whatever we say or doctrinally, we need to make sure we don’t contradict how Nicea says we have to speak about God.

  • Doctrines are not first-order statements about, for example, God, or Christ, or the Church; rather, they are second-order statements which provide the rules for speaking about God, Christ, Church, etc. As such, they make intrasystematic, not ontological, truth-claims (80). Just as the grammatical rules of a language only make claims about how the language in fact works and not about extra-linguistic reality, so doctrines have to do with the correct usage of theological statements without making ontological claims.” Fransisco (see article below) 
  • Grammar doesn’t tell you what “I love God means” it just tells you you can’t say “I God love”. 

[3] The Inner vs Outer Relationship Between Language and Experiences. Does experience come before language or do we have to have language first to genuinely have experience. Lindbeck is keen to defeat the Experiential-Expressivist view of the relationship between language and experience. The latter group held experience to be primary, and subsequently expressed in a variety of religious experiences. Lindbeck gets at this issue by talking about “inner” and “outer” or “interior” and “exterior.”  

  • Interior – Exterior Reversal 
      • Experiential/Expressivism sees religion as an external/outer  expression/ordering of  a shared internal human experience. The experience is pre-linguistic and internal. It is externally expressed by language. 
      • Cultural-Linguistic approach to religion sees inner experience as deriving from outer/exterior religious systems. We can not genuinely have an experience that we do not have words to express. To be religious is to “interiorize a set of skills [developed by the community through] practice and training.” (ND, 35)
  • The key idea here is that it is our acquired language/religion that shapes the experiences we have of reality and not vice versa. 
  • Jay Wesley Richards puts it this way:

    “A recurring sub-theme is a polemic against experiential-expressivism’s priority of experience over language (a priority he often attributes to modern ism generally). He notes that much recent scholarship has revealed the importance of the acquisition of language for the very possibility of experience: ‘[I]t is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it.’ He presupposes the work of scholars like Geertz and Noam Chomsky for support for this claim. Although he admits a dialectical relation of language and experience, he is usually insistent about the priority of the former for the latter: ‘Thus language, it seems, shapes domains of human existence and action that are preexperiential.” [7]
  • Liberalism says: Religions are just different words/language, different expressions for our common spiritual experience of the divine. Religion is a purely personal “sentiment.” 
    • Post-Liberalism says: No,  religions are cultural-linguistic frameworks. They provide the conceptual categories and words that make experiences, in the way we experience them, possible. It is not necessarily possible for people in different religions to have the same experiences. It is not necessarily possible for people who share different mother tongues to have exactly the same experiences.  This means liberalism’s universal inner experience of the divine is no longer possible (ND 40) 
    • p 340 “To become Christian involves learning the story of Israel and Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.” 
  • This brings us to Postliberalism’s relationship to Postfoundationalism – C.C. Pecknold calls it a postfoundational approach, by suggesting that cognitive propositional and experiential-expressive are two different forms of foundationalism. [8] Expressions find their truth by being grounded foundationally in reality or a real universal religious experience.  

[4] Lindbeck’s Pragmatic Theory of Truth – pragmatism tends to assess concepts in terms of their effects or consequences in life. [9]

  • Hunsinger and C.C. Pecknold say that Lindbeck’s view of truth was a pragmatic view of truth while, in contrast, Hans Frei “quietly aligned himself” with  moderate propositionalism.” 10  Lindbeck calls his view of religion a “non-theogical” theory which avoids adjudicating between which religion is more more – but at the same time feels required to make sense of these sorts of claims religions make to “unsurpasibility.” (ND, 46). Lindbeck must obviously deal with truth if he is to succeed in ecumenical work.  Most interreligious dialogue is often dialogue over competing truth claims and thus Lindbeck needed a way around this problem. He opens chapter three of ND by suggesting we might evaluate the “truth” of religions in three ways. Depending on which sense of “true” you go with… will affect what it means for a religion’s claim to be “unsurpassable.” The three options are:

    • Cognitively/Propositionally
    • Symbolic Efficacy 
    • Categorical Adequacy  
  • [1] Cognitive/Propositional Truth – this is the correspondence view of truth;  what is true is what corresponds to reality through first-order propositions. (ND 63, 69) This is the Orthodox approach to truth. Religion is here  evaluated in terms of how isomorphic it is to reality (or not). (ND 47) Here then, a religion’s claim to be “unsurpassable” religion would be that it most accurately corresponds to reality. The idea is “propositional inerrancy.” (ND 49) Christianity often claims this position.
  • [2] Symbolic Efficacy. This is the view used by experiential-expressive models of religion. Here truth is more a matter of degree. How well does this this or that religion effectively express/symbolize/capture that one universal inner experience of the divine that is the source of all religion when compared to other religions? Unsurpassibility on this view of truth is harder to express. It’s like asking which painting is unsurpassably beautiful. Something more beautiful could come along. Technically the unsurpassable religion in this sense would be that religion which offered the greatest experience of the divine by the time history ended so that no other faith could come along and offer more symbolically efficacious experience of the divine.  
  • [3] Categorical Adequacy – this is the view Lindbeck prefers. It is much harder to capture because we are dealing with adequacy. It helps to start by realizing that views (1) and (2) above can be used to compare religions. We could attempt to say which religion is more effective at symbolizing the inner experience of the real (see view 2). Likewise someone could try to say which faith claims more adequately correspond to reality (1). This is not possible with a categorical adequacy view of truth.  This is probably why Hunsinger suggests this is like comparing two bananas to an apple. [11 ] Here religions are all in different working with completely different categories as they try to capture what they take to be ultimate. Different religions are like different languages. Certain concepts and categories are completely out of place in a different religion. They are incommensurable and can’t be compared.   Religions live out narratives/stories.   They are different ways of describing what those groups take to be most real.

    It is almost as if Lindbeck is saying that a religion is true to the extent that its community lives out what they claim to be ultimate and real. He suggests that a religion “as actually lived… may be pictured as one giant proposition.” that is true if people embody the objectives (a vague word to be sure) of their religion in live them out in a way that expresses what that religion holds to be true. The best map or most true map is the map that best helps you get where you are going – regardless of how accurate it is.  

    Pecknold says “Truth for Lindbeck cannot adequately be expressed in either propositional or experiential terms. Lindbeck supposes that truth is best thought of analogically, as an organically ‘lived’ reality. Truth is used in three senses (see below) [12]  The Result of Lindbecks Theory of Truth – Regarding truth: The “cultural-linguistic” model constituted a genuine third way because it claimed that coherentist and correspondence theories of truth need not oppose each other, since a coherentist thesis could eventually be said to correspond to reality as a kind of lived proposition.” [13]

Lindbeck doesn’t want to rule out the possibility of propositional truth but he finds a way to make it secondary and dependent upon the other two concepts of truth.  

  • Ontological Truth-  correspondence theory of truth – truth that corresponds to reality through first-order propositions. (ND 63, 69)  Often used by the cognitivist view of religion.
  • Intrasystematic Truth- coherence view of truth – coherence among the parts of the system. “[I]ntrasystematic truth or falsity is fundamental in the sense that it is a necessary though not sufficient condition for … ontological correspondence. A statement … cannot be ontologically true unless it is intrasystematically true, but intrasystematic truth is quite possible without ontological truth. (ND, 64)
  • Categorical Truth – the adequacy of an ordered set of categories to construe reality and order life. This is like “grammar” or “language game” in Wittgensteinian terms. Bruce Marshal writes that  “Categorical, and intrasystematic truth together are the necessary and sufficient conditions of ontological truth.” (Marshall, 1989, 366)

Regarding Truth, Lindbeck Isn’t Opting for Relativism

V. M. Karkkainen (from personal doctoral seminar notes) states. “Let me say something about correspondence… in response to an earlier comment where one of you suggested that ‘If there is no correspondence can I just pick any view I want.” Let me try to defend Lindbeck a bit. He is against hyper individualism of our culture that makes even truth, let alone lifestyle, a matter of your own choice. He instead says it is the community [that plays a key role in the question of truth] .

Second he’s against allowing experience to dominate religious dialogue because this makes the whole idea of religion some sort of non-discursive, non-thematic thing like Schleiermacher’s feeling of ultimate dependence. He says this is bad for ecumenical dialogue. It is empty.  It merely just accommodates modernity. Lindbeck is looking for a way to ground the NATURE of the doctrine, like the title says, but also the USE of doctrine. He wants to anchor it in the life and practice of the community which necessarily links doctrine with tradition. His proposal is more nuanced than you might first think. One of the liabilities of the book is that it says very little about tradition. You wouldn’t have any religion or practicing community unless there is a tradition. He talks instead of narrative and the story. He speaks of religion as a communal practice of that story.”

Doctrine and Religious Texts: Intertextual vs Extratextual. 

  • Doctrines are rules about communal religious life, but they are ultimately sourced in texts like the Bible. What is the relationship between doctrine and text and text then? Does the Biblical text absorb the world OR is the text absorbed by the world? Lindbeck wants the former to occur. Although confusing at first, these two phrases are rather simple: 
  • World Absorbs Text: Here we understand what the Bible, or Koran, “means” by adjusting that meaning to beliefs in the modern day world (i.e. the world absorbs the text). Creation science does this with Genesis. Genesis must mean what we understand modern science to be telling us. This sounds like Bultmann’s call to demythologize scripture. You can see how doctrinal meaning would radically change as the world changes or inner experience changes. 
  • Text Absorbs the World. Here we step inside the world of the scripture and take it on its own terms. We let it establish its own facts, values, events, etc… and then having inhabited that mindset, we see our world and think about our world with these lenses on. Augustine struggled mightily to do this. Lindbeck suggests this requires a sensitivity to a sort of literal reading of the text (sensus literalis) What is the plain sense of the text taken on its own terms. Pecknold helpfully writes “This is the view scripture as a nonfictional novel, as realistic narrative (‘history-like’). [16]  
    • This latter text-absorbs-world approach gives doctrine needed stability: “It is the intertextual norm of this realistic narrative which counts as faithfulness in matters of doctrinal (or metaphysics, etc) dispute. (Pecknold, 31) 
  • Extra-Textual-Meaning: Both Cognitive-Propositional and Experiential-expressivist models of religion locate the meaning of the text externally in the world (outside the text or semiotic system) in personal religious experience or accurate correspondence to the real world. We would not, for example, attempt to force upon a novel contemporary cultural or scientific ideas… if they were foreign to the world presented in the novel. 
  • Intratextual-Meaning. Intratextual theology redescribes reality within the scriptural framework rather than translating Scripture into extrascriptural categories. It is the text, so to speak, which absorbs the world, rather than the world the text (ND 118) This idea probably comes from Hans Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974). Frei had argued that Liberal handling of the Bible had, in all its form/source/text criticism lost sight of (i.e. eclipsed) the basic contained story of the Biblical narrative. 
    • Mark Mann writes “Primacy is given to the scriptural “narrative” (Hans Frei): the Bible is unified by a complex but coherent narrative which centers on the personal agent Jesus, the Bible should not be read by attempting to impose a foreign or independent interpretive framework upon it (remythologizing?); it should be read self-referentially in order to construct a comprehensive vision of life and reality” [17]
    • David Tracy “The hands may be the hands of Wittgenstein and Geertz but the voice is the voice of Karl Barth.” (Tracy, 465)

Lindbeck on Doctrines. In Lindbecks work, “doctrine” and “theology” are not synonymous terms as is normally the case. Furthermore, not all doctrines are treated the same. Communities may have beliefs that seem to fit the profile of doctrines but aren’t actually written anywhere.  Lindbeck recognizes two types of doctrine via a Official/Operational Distinction

  • Official Doctrines: doctrines that are proclaimed to be valid. These may or may not play an actual role in who fits and does not fit within the community.
  • Operational Doctrines: beliefs/doctrines that play a role in deciding who is in/out of the community.  
      • For example a church group may not claim to hold officially to the Niceanum. They may claim to have no creed but the Bible. However, they would reject from the community anyone who doesn’t hold to the deity of Christ (i.e. true God from true God, begotten not made). The doctrine is still operational even though not official. 
  • How do doctrines stay the same while changing over time? There is a fixed-yet-flexible nature of doctrine. As long as the regulative principles at the heart of a doctrine stay the same, the words and concepts that express those regulative principles could theoretically change without loss of the doctrine. Lindbeck suggests that the Nicene creed could, at some subsequent point in history, have been re-written with completely different wording, provided that those words adhered to three regulative principles that Lindbeck (following Lonergan) sees coming out of Nicea: (a) ‘monotheistic principle” (there is only one God) (b) “principle of historical specificity (Jesus was a  real historical person) (c ) principle of “chirstological maximalism” (that ascribes every conceivable importance to Jesus without breaking the first two rules).14 Pecknold writes “these logical rules are what are permanent, not their terminology or concepts in which they are formulated at any given point in history.” He goes on to quote Lindbeck as saying, “the terminology and concepts… may be absent, but if the same rules that guided the formation of the original paradigms are operative in the construction of the new formulations, they express one and the same doctrine … .There may, on this reading a complete faithfulness to classical Trinitarianism and Christology even when the imagery and language of Nicea and Chalcedon have disappeared from the theology and ordinary worship, preaching, and devotion. [15]

    Furthermore, the conditions in which a doctrine is held, may change. If our belief on human constitution changes (e.g. body-soul dualism vs monism) then the doctrine of the immortality of the soul 

      • Unconditionally Necessary Doctrines – “the law of love”, love one another.  It always applies, Christianity is not what it is without it. 
      • Conditionally Essential Doctrines – doctrines that are essential at some times but not others (e.g. pacifism). 

The Lasting Impact of Lindbeck. (more needed)

    • Bruce Marshall was his most famous student.
    • While certain works have been written that make use of postliberalism, C.C. Pecknold says, early on in his monograph, that if there ever was a postliberal school of theology it is gone now. This strikes me as a rather strong claim. Similarly George Hunsinger says “Lindbeck’s ‘rule theory’ of doctrine has not had many takers, nor is it likely to do so.”[18] It seems that writers like Hunsinger and Pcknold have taken and modified Postliberal theology to what they see as more accurate formats. 




  1. C. C. Pecknold, Transforming Postliberal Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 17. 
  2. “thinkers of this tradition all locate ultimately significant contact with whatever is finally important to religion in the prereflective experiential depths of the self and regard the public or outer features of religion as expressive and evocative objectifications (i.e. nondiscursive symbols) of internal experience” (ND 21).
  3. See: George Lindbeck, 1984, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion & Theology in a Postliberal Age, Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 113, fn. 1).
  4. George Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” in Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, edited by Kevin Vanhoozer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 44. 
  6. See
  7. Richards, Jay Wesley. “Truth and Meaning in George Lindbeck’s “The Nature of Doctrine”.” Religious Studies 33, no. 1 (1997): 33-53.
  8. C.C. Peckhold, Transforming Postliberal Theology, (New York: T&T Clark. 2005), 3-4.
  9. C. C. Peckhold, Transforming Postliberal Theology, 25. 
  10. George Hunsinger, “Postliberal theology” in Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. By Kevin Vanhoozer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 43. 
  11. Hunsginger, “Postliberal Theology”, in The Cambridge, Companion to Theology, edited by Kevin Vanhoozer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 45.
  12. This is according to Joas Adiprasetya, 2005 at
  13. Ibid.
  14. C. C. Pecknold, Transforming Postliberal Theology, 29.
  15. Pecknold, Transforming Postliberal Theology, 29. 
  16. Pecknold, Transforming Postliberal Theology, 31. 
  17. See the same link 
  18. George Hunsinger, “Postliberal Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 50. 

Theology is as simple as the oceans.

Recently I post, on social media, what I thought was a clever quip by Karl Barth.

“There is a story of the astronomer who, after Karl Barth’s sermon, said: ‘I’m an astronomer, you know, and as far as I am concerned, the whole of Christianity can be summed up by saying: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”’ Barth’s retort: ‘I am just a humble theologian, and as far as I am concerned the whole of astronomy can be summed up by saying “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.”

From Adam Johnson’s Atonement a Guide for the Perplexed, p 13. Johnson is citing John D. Godsey, “Reminiscences of Karl Barth”, The Princeton Seminary Bulletin (2002), 321.

I attempted to do more than paste the quote without context and so I preceded it with the comment: “Some might wonder why theology can’t be simple and straightforward.” I believe that this was Johnson’s context for including the quote.
A few readers assumed that I was genuinely asking why theology wasn’t more simple. Others took issue with my suggestion that theology was not simple. One person assured me that theology was simple and that we didn’t need books – merely the help of the Holy Spirit. Another suggested that theologians make things complicated – all we need is childlike faith.  Truth be told there were only two or three people making these sorts of comments but I suspect they represent a larger group within the church. History and personal experience have revealed that their tribe is not small. It’s all really very simple – we would be better off with the “theologians.” In response to this I want to offer the following analogy.  

Thinking theologically is like exploring the oceans.

Is theology simple? Theology is simple in the sense that the ocean has shallow shores that a child can wade out into. The ocean is “simple” in that sense. Walk out a little ways and you are in over your head. The fact that a child can wade in the shallows of the Pacific does not mean that we do not need massive ocean liners to cross, or specialized subs to explore its depths. A child can discover that the ocean is composed of water; salty water. There are waves, there are fish. The ocean is blue. It is deep. What more need we say? In a similar way, a child can conclude that God is there, and there is one God, and God is love, God is righteous, etc.. We can read these things straightforwardly from scripture. What more need we say? 
There are simple aspects to thinking about God, but even the simplest of things lead quickly to the depths. The shallows of the ocean shore—physically and conceptually— drop off quickly in many places. It is not a long stretch from observing the waves (a simple thing) to asking “Why are there waves? What is a wave? Why is the ocean blue? What does it mean to see something as blue? Why is the ocean salty? How does the ocean affect life on the planet?” In a similar way one might ask – what does it mean to say that God is love? Dare I mention the Holocaust? What do we mean when we say God exists? What does it mean to exist? What does it mean to say that God underwent incarnation? How is God omnipresent without a body – what is there of God to be located anywhere? Does the incarnation affect omnipresence? 
We might think the ocean is a straightforward thing; after all it is only water and fish. Boats float, maps direct us… if the weather is good we can make it across; why make it difficult?

We stand on the shoulders of maritime giants when it comes to our knowledge of the sea. So it is with theology. What seems “simple and obvious” today – was not always so simple and obvious. We know what we know about ocean navigation and shipbuilding because tens of thousands of men and women have taken their lives into their hands to navigate it, chart it, sound its depths, catch its fish and brave its waves. Thousands of seagoing vessels have been tested upon the sea and thousands lost. Long before this began, whole civilizations feared the sea. They were ignorant of how to navigate its deeps, and so sailors hugged the shores. Things were not always so obvious. It is a privilege to be able to pick up a book and browse the diagrams, charts, explanations, and images of the sea. What seems as simple as flipping through a book was gained at great effort and cost.  

Likewise there are things that seem straightforward theologically – because – for nearly every Christian, someone taught them how to understand the Scriptures and how to think about God. For many this occured from the earliest days of their youth.  A basic theology is as familiar to them as their own cultural worldview.  They, and we,  were taught how to put the sections of the Bible together into a coherent whole. Over the years we forget our teachers and wrongly assume that, “these things are just obvious.” This is not so. Thousands have gone before us, and by God’s help, have put pieces together for us.   They  have translated the scriptures diligently for us into our own language. With every word we read… merely reading before doing theology… we are being helped along by a translator who went before us. Some teacher taught our forebearers, and they taught our parents, and others in turn taught us.

Theological truth seems straightforward because we have reaped the accumulated efforts of generations of teachers – the same sorts of teachers who we take to be complicating things today. 
The Holy Spirit is certainly our guide, our helper, beckoning us to the shore to launch our craft. Somehow the Spirit points some and not others to certain insights. The Spirit did not see fit, however, to allow the church to conclude everything in a single generation. Therefore I assume that likewise, on our little lonesome—with the help of the Spirit—we would not reach the theological understandings that we possess … were we to go it on our own, without those meddlesome theologians. Similarly,  we could not scarcely reinvent  all of the maritime discoveries in a single lifetime. 
Even with all that we know about the ocean, there is much that we still do not know. There are depths of the ocean that can crush our subs. There are waves that can sink our ships. Anyone can easily get lost at sea.  Yes, there are shallows. Yes, we can make our way along by hugging the shore, but the shallows connect to the deeps. In unguarded moments of confidence or neglect… a skiff can be swept out into the depths and lost.  
Here, the analogy breaks down. The ocean is finite; God is not. We would do better to switch to talk of exploring space for an analogy that gives us the sense of exploring the infinite. Even with all that we know about the Lord God… theology is not simple. God is the God of infinities. We are dealing with the God who utters the universe into existence. In our theology we speak and think about a God who holds all of the subatomic particles of the billions of clusters of stars and galaxies together. We speak of a being who knows the location of every grain of sand, on every planet, in every solar system, in every galaxy  littered across the mind bending expanses of the cosmos. And that God could move all of those grains as easily as you blink your eyes. This is the God with whom we have to do. We do well to remember the end of Job’s story. 
Job 38:2 Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

The evidence is mounting that working on a PhD leads to mental health problems: here is some of that evidence.

Its seems that every week I come across an article about how unhealthy pursuing a PhD can be. I’m not talking about how “sitting is the new smoking” – that would be a problem for academics as well. Instead, I’m referring to the mounting evidence that PhD work leads to mental health problems for startling numbers of students – much higher than other segments of society.   After seeing enough of these articles I thought it was time to assemble a few of these resources into one spot for others to access.   Let me put this in arresting terms for those who may not make it past the first paragraph. Based on the statistics below, it seems that in your institution something like 1 in 4, if not 1 in 3 students is struggling with a mental health issue or is on the verge of something like it. You should also assume that they are hiding it.

Too much too soon? Let’s start again on a positive note. Our society is as sensitive as ever to mental health issues and so it seems that some are taking action on this problem already. This is good news. Earlier this year, 2019, Nature magazine included an announcement that the first international conference on mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate researchers was taking place in Brighton, UK. See “Being a PhD student shouldn’t be bad for your health.”  It may take years however for concern and action to translate into institutional change. Institutions embody cultures – and cultures by nature resist change. Still, it is good to see people take action.  Now that we’ve gotten the good news out of the way, what exactly is the problem with PhD students world over such that an international conference is called for? It seems that the culture, demands, outlook, nature, prospects, administration—insert other nouns here—surrounding PhD work is breaking an alarming number of students.  Maybe these students are just not cut out for this sort of work? Maybe they are weak? I think there is more to the story than an oversimplified generalization.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s start with a story. After all, facts teach, but stories “reach.”  Most of the articles below tackle this crisis in terms of factoids. However, Bob Henderson has written a moving autobiographical account of his unsuccessful attempts at becoming a theoretical physicist. Every student has a story – but Bob has managed to translate his experience into a narrative that others can feel and follow. This piece is begging to be put into an anthology. Read it and multiply Bob (as a representative) by tens of thousands for each of the students statistically represented in the articles below.  If you don’t have time to read anything else in this list make time for Bob’s story:  “What does any of this have to do with physics?” Students working outside of theoretical physics will find plenty in common with his experiences. I certainly did.

For the Twitter crowd, the  eleven words of this blog title do the job:  “I don’t think there is anything darker than doing a PhD.” The web is full of individual stories of the darkness, like this one here.

A 2016 article from the Economist covers some of the drop-out stats on PhD programs, explains how the interests of students and institutions are misaligned, repeats the the well known paucity of jobs, and suggests that the earning potential for many PhD’s is barely better than that of students who grab a quick MA degree. See, “Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time.” While this article has nothing to say directly about mental health, it sketches some of the landscape that PhD students become aware of during their work; a landscape that contributes to their struggles.

More to the point, this article in the Atlantic in 2016 paints a picture of the dire job prospects for PhD’s. See : “The ever tightening job market for PhD’s.” Here are four charts from the Atlantic article that capture some of the discouraging landscape that students look out at… even as they put all of their eggs into a single basked labeled “PhD.” 

Screen Shot 2019-08-05 at 11.17.34 AMScreen Shot 2019-08-05 at 11.17.41 AMScreen Shot 2019-08-05 at 11.17.23 AMScreen Shot 2019-08-05 at 11.17.48 AM

In addition to the dire reports from the external world surrounding graduate students, there is the internal phenomenon of “imposter syndrome.” First identified in the 1970’s, it plagues academics, be they beginners or veterans. Five professors share their fears here.  It affects those in privileged social positions, and effects even more so those from minority groups.  In my own life it feels like deep guilt for receiving funding for a PhD program that someone else “deserves more and would do more more with were they given what I was given.”

The causes of mental illness seem to be varied. For example, those working in the humanities face loneliness and isolation whereas those working in the hard sciences face other challenges. See here: “Studying for a humanities degree can make you feel cut off from humanity.”  There is the additional problem in many research institutions where graduate students and postdocs seem to be a source of cheap labor for institutions. See: “Are PhD’s just cheap labor for universities?” If the causes of mental health are varied then the solutions will need to be varied.

Aetiologies aside, we are talking about PhD students here. This calls for research.  Here are five sources.

Research  from Belgium: Woven throughout most of the recent postings is a regular citation of one particular study coming out of Belgium. All the blog posts cite it. Researchers in Belgium found that one in two PhD students experienced some sort of psychological distress and one in three was at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. This research may become “that” piece of research that started the avalanche of work in a particular field by activating widespread latent suspicion. See: “Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students.” 

Research from the U.S. A 2015 study from Berkeley – the Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report. The report states the alarming finding that, “About 47% of PhD students and 37% of Master’s and Professional students score as depressed. Students in the Arts & Humanities fare poorly on several indicators and 64% score as depressed.” The reports also offers predictors of wellbeing – such as the amount of sleep students were getting, how included they felt in the department, their living conditions and how they perceived their future career prospects.

Research from NatureBiotechnology. This Inside Higher Ed article from 2018 summarizes a study in NatureBiotechnology. It echos the finding of other research that there is a correlation between mental health problems and students struggling with a work-home-life balance. The research also suggests that dangers for mental health problems affect students working in fields beyond the hard sciences: “The survey’s 2,279 respondents were mostly Ph.D. candidates (90 percent), representing 26 countries and 234 institutions. Some 56 percent study humanities or social sciences, while 38 percent study the biological and physical sciences. Two percent are engineering students and 4 percent are enrolled in other fields.” This research cites, among other things, relationships between students and their supervisors as a key to the problem. (Here is a graphic taken from the Inside Higher Ed article, which in turn appears to be taken from the original study). Note the clarifications below the charts: 

Research from Harvard: here is a 2018 study of economics PhD students from Harvard. Here is the abstract: “We study the mental health of graduate students at Economics PhD programs in the U.S. Using clinically validated surveys, we find that 18% of graduate students experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression and anxiety – more than three times the population average – and 11% report suicidal ideation in a two-week period. The average PhD student reports greater feelings of loneliness than does the average retired American. Only 26% of Economics students report feeling that their work is useful always or most of the time, compared with 70% of Economics faculty and 63% of the working age population. Depression and symptoms of anxiety increase with time in the program: 25% of students in years 5+ of their programs experience moderate or severe symptoms of depression or anxiety compared with 14.5% of rst-year students. Many students with signicant symptoms of mental distress are not in treatment. We provide recommendations for students and faculty on ways to improve student work conditions, productivity, and mental health.” 

Here is Scientific American discussing the above research and other findings: “The Emotional Toll of Graduate School.” Every article, blog post, and comment adds to the picture.

Research out of Germany. This recent blog posting that reviews some of the above research also includes similar research of PhD students in Germany. The end of the article suggests changes that should/could occur at the administrative level to begin allaying some of these problems. See: “Addressing the mental health crisis among doctoral researchers.”

This 2017 posting from the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences , likewise cites the Belgium study (and others). The posting cites an interesting line from the Belgium study – The greatest predictor for experiencing mental health challenges was having difficulty taking care of family needs due to conflicting work commitments. It also notes some of the things that supervisors might look out for and frames this as an ethical issue for institutions. Citing a spike in Twitter conversation on the issue, this article includes a comment from one conversation partner – “[I]t is a public secret that fear of stigma, retaliation or the expected negative impact on one’s future career often inhibits people suffering from mental health issues to make it public,” they write. This lack of visibility is problematic because feeling isolated can cause students’ mental health to deteriorate even further. It also means that there is less pressure on institutions and people in power to tackle the issue.” The speaker, wisely calls for action rather than demonization of academia. See “PhD students face significant mental health challenges.

The lists of links above should be enough to paint an initial picture of what is afoot. The articles and blog posts are legion. I tend to believe that realty is more complex than we take it to be and thus so  are solutions that will alleviate the problem. Note that I said the problems are complex not merely complicated – we are dealing with systems, cultures, and communities of agents here – not just layers in a network stack or parts of a battleship. Following the breadcrumbs will, I suspect, lead to social and institutional vices we don’t want to change—as students or institutions. That prospect calls for a separate blog post – a post I may not be qualified to write. Any sociologists in the house?

Dire predictions aside, let me leave off where I began. If you know PhD students, you know people struggling with mental health and hiding it. If you know  someone interested in going in getting a PhD (i.e. translate that as “interested in teaching at the college level”) there is a high probability that you know someone who will struggle with mental health in their future. One immediate thing that can be done is to scan some of the above articles for simpler concrete changes that can be made in the shortrun before systemic issues such —like economics and academic culture—can be addressed in the long run.



The Ultimate Guide to Starting Latin.

This page has all my thoughts on language (mostly Latin) learning and links to what I used to prepare for my Latin exams as a PhD student in theology. Because of the kind of person I am, I probably explored resources more than the average person. Thats just me; you don’t need to do that to pass Latin. Anyhow, I’ll tell you my story along the way and end with some comments on discouragement. The resources here cover both Classical and Ecclesiastical Latin, vocab, and other goodies, tricks, tips.


The Great Debate: Learning by the Natural vs Grammatical Method.

This will be an eye opener once you compare both styles of textbooks. For over a century there seems to have been an informal debate among Latin teachers (Greek too?) on the best way to teach latin. Your options are the Grammatical Method vs the Natural Method. 
  • Grammatical Method. This is what most students in seminaries and colleges get when the take a class in Greek, Hebrew, Latin. Each week you focus on a new section of grammar. Often there are practice sentences each week focusing on the grammar at hand. Vocabulary is learned along the way. At some point in the course the instructor will start giving out reading passages… if there is time. Perhaps reading and exegesis is left for a subsequent course.  For example,  “This week we learn nominatives, next week genitives,” so on and so forth.
    • PROS: The reason this is so popular is because many introductory grammars are written this way, and it is easy to assign various chapters into the allotted 10 or 15 weeks of the course. It is EASY to be organized about the language from a teacher’s perspective… easy to know what you are doing at each step… what concepts the student should have a handle on by what point…. what is easier to tackle first…. etc… Furthermore, because many students don’t know grammar, this allows the teacher to teach analogous English grammar concepts so that the student “gets grammar” and can then understand the grammatical discussions that need to be had about the target language (i.e Greek, Hebrew, Latin ).
    • CONS:  The long standing complaint here was that children don’t learn language this way so something must be wrong (see below however). It is also—to use a technical phrase—freaking boring.  The amount of work a student must put in learning odd grammatical terms, memorizing lists, and struggling does not repay the student in terms of the entire reason they took the language class – to read classical or ancient literature! This can produce extreme discouragement for learners at the first couple of stages in a course.  Others have protested that after two or three courses under the grammatical method, many students still can’t read passages in the target language. Finally…. when approached this way many students will never get experience doing what they must do in the exam setting — “putting it all together.”
  • Natural Method. The natural method encourages the student to begin reading & speaking from day one.  It has been suggested by some teachers that the student must begin reading the target language as soon as possible… so as to catch the nature of the language. Somehow the brain pieces together things as one goes along. Vocabulary and grammatical concepts are discussed along the way as they are encountered in the passages.  Lets address the cons first:
    • CONS: First, it should be mentioned that even though children don’t learn language by the “grammatical” method, they also don’t start reading at first. They learn to completely speak their language with a deep proficiency even by kindergarten years and only then do they begin figuring out how to match written language to their natural spoken language. The student of a dead language is trying to do both at once, so it’s not quite “natural.” Another challenge here is that literature does not come watered down for beginning students. Someone very experienced has to carefully water down passages or author passages appropriate for the student at each level. Few authors have the confidence to write or re-write Latin, Greek. Even the simplest passages in the target language will have things that can confuse beginners. It is also difficult to organize a course, and homework surrounding prose. How will the student learn grammar in her own language and the target language? Again, given that many students will be using classical languages for exegesis or careful passage analysis, grammar is important. One needs to have more than a mere gist of what is going on  in a passage.
    • PROS: as already mentioned, the student gets to what they took the class intending to do – read Latin, read, greek, etc..  They get to start week one… reading Latin stories. Boom! By the end of the course the student has spent hours and hours reading … not merely translating practice sentences. The student is more likely to pick up the “flow” of the language or the varieties of different genre’s in a language in a way that practice sentences won’t reveal. Bottom line, if you want to learn how to ride a bike you need to get on the bike and pedal, fall, pedal, etc…
  • Fortunately there are now resources available for both methods and a student can supplement. In all likelihood, students trying to cram Latin, Greek, or German for graduate work are going to get a course of the “grammatical” sort and will have to supplement with natural method sources on their own – if their teacher doesn’t do it for them.


And Now.. a Story About Brain Strain & Vocabulary

I met two students at a theological conference. I really did. One said to me that he took his Latin proficiency exam three times while his buddy passed it on the first time. What was the difference? The student suggested that his buddy had focused on learning piles of vocabulary while he had focused on mastering infections (i.e. the way the word endings change for parts of speech). There may be something to this, but it is not as simple as that. From my own experience here is what happens. When you are attempting to read a sentence, if you don’t know what words mean, you must go look them up – mid sentence. There you are trying to hold in your mind the meanings of various words. Now you are trying to get into inflection, and spelling and … and.. and… mayday mayday. One’s operational/active memory can only hold so much at one moment (i.e. recall how you can’t keep more than 7-9 numbers in your active memory at one time) – the same applies to vocabulary meanings held in memory during sentence translation. If you’ve already learned the words, your mind can reallocate that active memory to grammatical translation, overall meaning, etc.. Heck, you may be able to guess the meaning of the sentence if you know enough of the vocab words .. wink wink….

No really, context is huge for comprehension. If you can pick up on the context of a passage because you recognize the words, you’ve grasped an essential part for deciphering the meaning.

Bottom line: POUND OUT TONS OF VOCAB. If you learn enough vocabulary it frees up your mind to focus on grammatical parts.

Enter the Vocab Frequency List.

How should one learn vocabulary?  You’ve only got so much time in your course. Any good grammar book will focus on teaching you the words that occur more frequently in a target language. People began creating these frequency lists in the early 1900’s (earlier?) and they can be found around (some are below). Personally, it seemed that after learning the vocabulary for Moreland and Fleischer, I had covered most of the vocabulary that was in a Latin vocab frequency book I purchased. So a good grammar should do both.

  • Diedrich-Lodge latin frequency vocab list. At the turn of the century it was calculated that this list of words showed up frequently in classical and medieval texts. Learning these words would allow one to recognize 85% of the words in most classical and medieval texts.

Vocabulary Advice

Learning vocabulary can be made easier, but not easy. It is important to know how your brain works. (1) MENOMNICS: Say it with me Neurons that Fire Together Wire Together. If you can learn a vocabulary word along with something else, you will remember – sometimes after the first time. When a student in Greek said she remembered the interrogative ποῦ (where, whither, to where) by thinking of “poo” (i.e. poop that you want know WHERE it is so you don’t step in it) it immediately stuck in my head. It took zero effort to remember it.  (2) VOCAB APPS: QUIZLET is a flashcard app that is free. What makes it better than other apps —> You can find other students vocab lists that go with various textbooks. Seriously, go look for your textbooks vocab lists.. teachers and students have made these lists many times over (you aren’t the only one using your book). This can save you HOURS of time rather than writing out your own cards (yes some people think it helps to learn the word to write it out; I don’t disagree… but is writing it once, versus looking at it a few more times going to make that much difference?). More importantly, the hurried student can download a list and get memorizing immediately. You can be walking out of class memorizing the vocab for this week before you reach the cafe. … rather than putting off vocab till mid week because you don’t have time to pick out or write out cards.  WARNING: at least make sure the list has all the words you need for that lesson, and they are spelled right. 19 times out of 20 they are… but sometimes they are not. Some peoples’ vocab cards are carefully done with all the inflection marks and so on.  CEREGO is an app with a little extra.. a little extra that may get built into other apps by the time you read this. This app allows you to put away cards and words you already know (it does it for you) and more efficiently focus on words you aren’t getting. Thats gold. This speeds up your memorization process. Cerego maps out your progress, and uses algorithms to warn you, based on how long ago you used the app, when you are likely forgetting words versus when you probably have then down cold. The ideal app would have both features.

A picture of the language shelves of my library. 


A Word (only a short one) about Pronunciation

Many students ideally wish to learn things the right way. They might hesitate at first because they wish to make sure they pronounce Greek or Latin the right way. The rigours of making it through your other graduate work will probably disabuse you of this fetish before long. Easy fix. You’ll pick up pronunciation listening to your teacher and watching videos online. For the average student there are only a few pronunciation differences between Koine or Erasmian pronunciation in Greek or between Classical and Ecclesiastical pronunciation in Latin. Most grammars and instructors will point these out day one. This will fix itself after a few weeks and you won’t think about it after long.

If you are going to work in the Vatican where pronunciation matters, you won’t be reading this blog anyhow.  Here is a picture of an ATM machine from the vatican that used latin.

For most people who intend to work with the language might consider this question. When are you going to be reading Latin or Greek aloud for others? Rarely I assume.  If you can read and comprehend Greek, or Latin, most instructors are going to give you a high five and be glad the legacy lives on. Yes there are the purists who are really in to pronunciation and vocal inflection. Bless. The person on the street is going to stand in awe however you pronounce it. For most students – I say get the basics, and get going… this will sort itself out as you go along.

Ecclesiastical vs Classical Latin

The resources below are for both Classical Latin and Ecclesiastical latin. Latin can be found in use from the classical period, through the Medieval/Ecclesiastical period and down into the Modern Enlightenment era. Sure; styles vary. and individual writers make Latin harder/easier.  For example,  Younger theologians who have done work that required them to translate ecclesiastical Latin have remarked to me that the Vulgate is easy to read; Aquinas is easy to read; Augustine is more difficult due to the quality of his Latin and the Dun’s Scotus is very difficult to read due to his poor quality of his Latin.

However, more than one instructor says that when beginning … getting started is more important than fretting over deciding about classical vs ecclesiastical book. If you are taking a class your prof will pick the book so you won’t have this choice. If you are studying on your own I would say go with Lingua Latina for the natural method (see below) and Wheelock for the grammatical (because there are so many youtube videos to help the self learner … despite people’s complaints about wheelock).

The point however, is that there is enough overlap between both forms of latin for the beginner.. just get started.  Differences/nuances will naturally come out later as one gets into more advanced language.  It is in the style and vocabulary that ecclesiastical Latin will differ from Classical (and of course from classical Latin poetry).

Tools To Learn Latin With.. and Some of My Own Story

I have listed below tools that I personally used. They also happen to be tools that I believe are pretty widely used. I think the natural method books are way more interesting, but likelihood is that you will be assigned a grammar style book as your primary learning tool.

GRAMMATICAL STYLE BOOKS (natural method books are further on down)

  • Moreland and Fleischer – this was the book I used for my first class. I bought a used copy but I think its back in print. What you need to know about this book is that it was created for learning Latin quickly (not necessarily easily) especially for grad students. The authors intensive Latin to grad students and authored the book around this context.  It isn’t designed for high school kids learning latin.  Think of April Wilson’s book German Quickly.
    • Answer key to Moreland and Fleischer’s Latin Grammar. If you look hard enough you can find a second answer key as well.
    • I tore out the back. M & F have a grammar guide in the back. I tore it out and carried it around like a sort of grammar quick reference.
  • Wheelock’s Latin 7th ed – After I took part of one summer course I forgot much latin and took a second course later. I took a live video course with the Erasmus Academy (see below). We went through Wheelock even though MOST of us were seminary or theology PhD students. Wheelock is THE most widely used Latin grammar. I can’t imagine how much cash the family has made off this book. As of this blog there are 7 editions. I took a class using this book but my prof suggested going with edition 6 because you could get it for so cheap and its not like they haven’t created a quality book by the SIXTH edition!  
    • Answer Key – because Wheelock is so popular, you can find answers from teachers, and answer keys around. If you work with an older edition this is more likely.
    • NOTE: because the book is so widely used, you can also find the most resources that go along with Wheelock. Whole video courses online teachers have made for high school students who they are teaching from Wheelock.
    • Dale Grote’s – A Comprehensive Guide to Wheelock’s Latin. You can buy this book for $20. If you look hard you can find Grote’s old pre published copy in text online .. like here.  This is sort of like having complete notes of all the things a teacher says that aren’t in the grammar book. Grote explains all the basics of grammar for English students who may not know otherwise. If you are doing Latin on your own; I’d get this. I have it as a google book.
  • John Collins Ecclesiastical Latin  – so here you have latin grammar focused on ecclesiastic texts. This doesn’t mean that if you are learning latin for theology that Wheelock’s won’t work for you as a beginner. It will, however, have Christian theological vocab and passages Wheelock won’t even though there will be much gramatical overlap


  • Lingua Latina – allow me to introduce you to an amazing set of books. Click the link and then click the Google Books preview on this page. This is a full blown latin course at several levels that has the student reading latin from day one. Only Latin. This is probably the highest quality natural learning set of books out there. It has a polished feel to it. I think a Latin student should grab at least the first book and read through as much of it as they can if they are taking a class with a grammatical style grammar.
  • Latin by the Natural Method – many people have good things to say about Fr. Most’s books. I used chunks out of vol 1 and 2. I can’t attest to what these books are like once one has gotten beyond the first year, but many people have only good things to say about this book set. Several of the readings in this set are ecclesiastical in nature unlike the other two natural latin books above and below.
    • (FREE) All three original PDF versions of Most’s three volumes are available online at a French latin teaching website with many others resources. SEE HERE
  • Reading Latin – Peter Jone’s Reading Latin was republished in 2016. It has the same sort of feel as Latin by the Natural Method… so it gets the student reading latin from day one with a running story they can follow much like Lingua Latin. Again I worked through only the first few chapters, but liked it very much. Using all of the resources above gave me a rich set of easy beginning latin to read. 
  • 38 Latin Stories – this book supplements Wheelock but it has readings in latin the first of which are very simple. It’s only a little book.

Why I Disagree with My First Language Prof.

The first classical language I took was Greek. My prof suggested to NOT use multiple textbooks but to stick with just one. I disagree:

  • If you are really struggling to learn the language on your own, my may desperately need practice sentences for certain grammatical concepts and the answers to those sentences to see if you are getting things right. This is especially for the grad student who may feel very much on their own. This is a reason that having 2 or 3 grammars and the answer keys helps. You just can’t wait till the next course to find out that you were wrong four days ago. Graduate life is too fast paced, especially if like me your course is only 10 weeks long.
  • Second, some authors explain concepts better than others. Someone may have a chart or a diddy, or a song or an explanation that just helps the concept to CLICK.
  • Warning… you can waste time looking for other books. I still think having multiple books helps.

I Wish the Latin Vulgate Bible Was Organized by Grammatical Concept.

Here you go … thanks Dr. Laura Gibbs.

Online Courses – Check This!!

I took my first latin course in a classroom. I finished most of it but withdrew 80% of the way through. I then took a second course using Wheelock through the Erasmus Academy. I find both courses equally helpful. I did not feel one or the other was better.

  • Erasmus Academy – As a student at Fuller Seminary, not every language was offered every summer. I met the founder of Erasmus (Peter D. at an ETS conference as we were eyeing the same book). He invited me to check them out. The course I took was taught by Ben. DeSmidt, who was a real classics prof with years of experience. We met live by Skype each week and worked through Wheelock 6th ed. Ben provided video recordings of his lectures after we were done. I felt as if the weekly work was more helpful, and the exam was a bit easier. The cost of the courses were less than I would pay to take the same course at Fuller, so it was a real deal.  I would absolutely recommend Erasmus for the graduate student looking for a language course. NOTE: I do believe learning in a LIVE synchronous class or a live face to face class is the BEST way to go… unless you’ve already learned several languages. You’ll have questions every day that you need to ask – and if you try to learn on your own you won’t be able to. 
  • New Saint Andrews Latin Course Online – I’ve seen a few students talk about this resource. It is not free but it is an entire Latin course with high quality vocabulary cards and instructional videos. I tried it when it was brand new. I found it enjoyable, fresh, nicely done… but for some reason it didn’t lock me in more than working through a textbook.
  • Latin Per Deum (see below) has a video course now I believe.

Latin Instructional Video’s – Keith!

  • Dr. Keith Massey’s Lessons.  Keith Massey explains Latin in a way that is somehow calming. He has 45 or so videos of core Latin Grammatical concepts. Dr. Massey takes it nice and slow in his explanations. I often would watch throughout the day or just listen to him in my car driving.
  • Latin Per Deum – Dr. David Noe gives you hundreds of videos 4min or less where he exegetes a passage of Latin. Goldmine. The only problem here is that not everything will be aimed at absolute beginners. Just keep coming back.
  • has high quality, clear, and succinct grammatical videos.
  • For Wheelock- if you simply google, you’ll find various latin teachers entire video courses out there.

Handouts for Individual Grammatical Concepts

Classical Texts Online

  • The Latin Library – online texts of the books of 54 classical authors.
  • Downloadable Loebs You can download the entire Loeb Classics library in PDF format! (Scanned by Google)
  • Perseus Digital Library at Tufts… welcome to the world of professional classics. You took your first course on how to swim. This is the Pacific ocean.
  • – The Aquinas Institute has been working on new translations of Aquinas’s works. They have put online a side by side Latin/English parallel of their translation. They’ve done most of the Summa, Contra Gentiles, and other works

Dictionaries & Lexicons

In my fist Latin class Andrew Selby advised us to purchase the Oxford Latin Desk Dictionary as a first time dictionary. I also found that the Collins Latin Concise dictionary (2nd ed) was nice and small with ample extra resources for a good all in one book. Both are quite affordable on Amazon and the size of a regular paperback rather than a large dictionary. The Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin by Leo Stelten was also recommended for those doing theological work and find the above to dictionaries insufficient in their definitions.

  • This site has several links to dictionaries including Perseus.
  •   This is an excellent dictionary. Not only will it find Latin forms, it will give you a link that allows you to see the full paradigms and declensions for the word you’ve searched.
  • Whitaker’s Words is a magical little tool that teachers warn one not to use until they’ve gone through their course and learned the forms on their own. This is also found online here.

Free Older Latin Grammars & Textbooks

So … as a post-Enlightenment human, you think everything new is great. However, homo sapiens have been speaking latin for over 2000 years. They’v had latin down for centuries. Today all educated people learn to use computers – at one time they all learned Latin. So you’ll find piles of public domain books with all.the.same.Latin in it. For what its worth, during my first class, I was required to get Allen and Greenough’s Latin. I used it some… some… it felt really thorough. The formatting is the most off putting thing  about older texts.

Moving Beyond Grammar to Reading.

In my own life it has taken at least two quarters/semesters to get enough language under my belt to pass an exam at the graduate level. There are “graded” (i.e gets harder and harder) reading books for any language out there.

  • Reading Latin – by Keith Sidwell has many texts and explanations of the contexts and uses of those text from a Medieval world context.
  • The Vulgate – for Christian readers this is an obvious place to turn. You’ll have a crutch if you know the Bible verses in English because you’ll know what is going on in a passage before you start.
  • 38 Latin Stories – this really belongs earlier. You can start reading this during year one.

Advice on Discouragement

Learning languages can be the worst.  This is from a guy who somehow can look back now having taken Koine Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Modern German, Latin, and Logic (instead of French). So get this. I took Greek for two semesters at Dallas Seminary. I forgot everything. When I did an MA in philosophy I retook the first two semesters of Greek and then another two. When my wife went to law school I took a semester of Hebrew. I forgot everything except for the first verse of Genesis I’d memorized. When I was accepted into the PhD program at Fuller it was probationary to my taking and passing Hebrew 1 and 2 the first two semesters. Which I did. I took German one summer and didn’t pass the German exam (that is while I was taking Logic instead of French). I later took German again and passed my exam… while I was taking an graduate logic course instead of French. I took most of a Latin course using Moreland and Fleischer before dropping it. Later I took a second course, did all of Wheelock online with Ben Desmidt. I passed Latin.

Find Motivation. I found motivation in the fact that if I learned latin I would have 2000 years of western literature open to me. Learning Latin was like coming home. All kinds of odd terms and scholarly phrasing lost their mystical nature as I learned their mother tongue. German was exciting because it was a real world language and it was  a spoken/living language. Greek/Hebrew of course allow you to read the Bible or again delve into the classical world. I also found motivation in having paid money for a course. For me…that was a motivation to learn Greek during my philosophy MA when it was not required.

Study With Others. Find someone who seems to know their stuff. Study with them. Verbalizing will help you remember content. Teaching others will help you learn content.

Everyone else is stressed and is hiding it. If you are a graduate student trying to pass language exams, remember that you are surrounded by people with the same fears and anxieties. Many of them don’t show it on their faces, and you probably don’t show it on yours, even though you may be bleeding with anxiety on the inside.

Suddenly one day you will have passed. I remember thinking that high school graduation would never come. Then one day high school was over. I remember the years of college; suddenly it was over. Would I get a masters? Then I had two, and then three. Most of my years doing PhD work have been emotionally agonizing – and struggling through language was part of that pain. I remember thinking that I would break down and cry right in the middle of campus… if I passed my latin exam. I did.not.believe.I.could.ever.pass it. I just knew it was going to take two or three attempts. Somehow I passed on the first try.  Suddenly I was standing there reading an email saying “You’ve passed”  rejoin the human race and get on with your life.

(Perhaps I should point out for some readers, that at Fuller—and many other schools—one has to pass a reading exam. This is a bit different than a professor who has been teaching you all quarter, knows what the class can handle and gives a test aligned to what has been taught. This was someone else handing me something to read and then grading it. My having passed the final exam of a Latin or German class did not count. [I won’t comment on it here, but from my experience in the instructional design world, there is merit to having separate/ external evaluation.]

Some of you have it harder. I recall meeting some students in the DeSmidt class who said they only had to pass the class and they got credit. No additional exam was given by their own institution. Must be nice. Other schools wanted only two languages. Must be nice. Ours wanted three. Several friends took language exams in languages that they spoke natively. Must be nice. I only spoke English. Then again I had things going for me that others did not. My point is you are surrounded by people struggling with the same things. You can do this. If you don’t pass. Do it again. Many of the most successful people around you are not people who sailed forward (I do know a few sail forward people)… but are people that just kept moving forward despite troubles.

Is your Easter pagan? Cheapened? Or beyond comprehension?

(“Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection”, by Eugene Bernand 1898)

It is not uncommon to hear people say – to Jesus followers – that Easter is Pagan.   Such talk is – vague. We would do well to ask people if they are referring to the origins of the word “Easter”, the commercialized eggs and rabbits, or the Christian remembrance of Christ’s resurrection. Christians, the world over, celebrate the resurrection of Jesus throughout the year, but especially on Easter, known more widely as Pascha. This practice goes back to the earliest days of the church… and its celebration at this time of year was connected with the timing of Passover, not Spring fertility festivals.

It is helpful here to look up the “Quartodeciman” controversy. This Scrabble dominating word comes from the Latin word for fourteen in Leviticus 23:5 (Lev 23:5 mense primo quartadecima die mensis ad vesperum phase Domini est) – On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover.  Early Christians like Polycarp reported that John had taught them to practice the annual remembrance of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection on 14 Nissan, the Jewish calendar day associated with Passover in Leviticus. Other Christians, from Rome, eventually insisted that Christians should celebrate the resurrection on the closest Sunday after this day. Nisan 14 did not always fall on a Sunday. Polycarp traveled to Rome in the 160’s and discussed this with a bishop there named Anicetus. They agreed to disagree on this occasion. Later, in good Christian fashion, subsequent believers over it.  Christians in the East who maintained their celebration on the 14th of Nisan were called something like fourteener’s or quartodecmians.
The point here is that Christians have always celebrated the Resurrection annually – around Mar/April – based on Passover timing. This was in complete independence of any German or Anglo-Saxon spring rituals. As the gospel spread and Christianity moved into various cultures, this dating no doubt intersected other festivals that were in fact, Pagan. The story there is less clear. Venerable Bede has a famous comment in the 8th century about the name Easter as a name/time having Pagan origins in the name of the month we call April. In a recent Christianity Today article Anthony McRoy gives the famous quote from Bede and puts a question mark over the accuracy of this story. See
It is helpful to distinguish between the practice of celebrating the resurrection of the Savior and the “word” used to label this date (i.e. Eastern, Resurrection Sunday, Pascha). Furthermore, there is always the obvious point that the name of the Easter celebration in non-Germanic languages is not Easter, but rather a cognate of the word Pascha… which relates to Aramaic/Hebrew words for Passover like pesach.
As to Eastern bunnies and painted eggs… well…. you can figure that one out.
The threat to followers of Jesus in this country is not that they might participate in a pagan ritual this Spring. That is a simplistic understanding of intentionality. It seems no more possible to do that than that you might honor the Norse gods by naming the days of the week after them (Thursday, Friday). No, the danger is more subtle. If a mother hands a child a chocolate bunny and some eggs to hide, the danger isn’t that somewhere inside the child’s heart is planted a desire to pay a little homage to the gods of fertility.
No, the danger is that the reality of what we confess happened in history – is cheapened by commercialization – candy, gifts, games, meals, new clothes. Funzies. The God beyond deep space, the maker of galaxies, took up a body to die for humans, for sin, for righteousness. This is mind bending. Yet it is, if not guarded, cheapened by our eagerness for Hershey chocolates and Bob’s Buffet.
In the cross and resurrection, we are reminded that the God who knows the locations of all the electrons in the cosmos – took flesh upon himself, that he might take your sin in his own body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). This is profoundly personal; again it borders on unbelievable. God is like this?  It doesn’t seem right, but then again, God is not like us. His hunger for righteousness goes far deeper than ours. His pleasure in revelation. In touching hearts.  In the end, the cross and resurrection are not about us; not initially. It certainly is not about chocolate eggs and pastel colors. The cross and resurrection are first about God’s goodness. Because God is good, infinitely good, he comes to earth, takes our sin, dies our death for us.  But this is God in flesh. Death cannot hold the prince of life. He comes back from among the dead. In grace he takes believers with him; through grave, resurrection, and ascension to his throne. In his eyes we are already seated there (Ephesians 2:6). The age to come has broken in upon us, and in Christ, we have a foretaste of what is coming. [1]
At your home this year, what is Easter about? Probably not pagan gods. Hopefully not candy and bunnies. Something beyond comprehension has happened. The God of Passover (i.e. pascha) has done something greater still. He has come. He has died. He has risen. He has taken believers with him!
[1] Biblical eschatology portrays the ultimate future of Christ and the believer on a renewed earth, not a disembodied heaven. However we also have language about being seated in the heavenlies in Christ.

Science, Philosophy and Religion?

Last week I wrote a short piece the for the Fuller Analytic Theology blog. These are my thoughts on a recent talk that Dr. Hud Hudson gave during our weekly fuller Analytic Theology presentation. Hudson’s paper was titled “A Metaphysical Bridge.” It dealt with the interface that analytic philosophy can provide for dialogue between science and religion.

“Hud Hudson, professor of philosophy at Western Washington University, delivered the second of Fuller’s 2018 Analytic Theology lectures. Besides having a cool name, and a voice that our team deemed radio-ready, Hudson’s paper evinces a truly collegial spirit.  In his three-part paper, “A Metaphysical Bridge,” he suggests that analytic philosophy can play the role of a bridge (i.e., interface) between science and religion in dialogue…”

Read the rest here..

(Image Credits: )

Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?


The Sacrifice of Isaac (1966), by Marc Chagall

There are likely several reasons, but let me share a Facebook post I wrote up today that may give us one reason that the testing of Abraham’s faith was important, if not necessary.  (Facebook post begins below)…

Among other things, the testing of Abrahams faith gives others epistemic access to something they could not get otherwise. This may have been the only way to give other humans epistemic access to something about Abraham that until that point, only God knew. This was something nobody else would see unless an extreme event took place thereby making the story possible to tell… and tell appropriately… in the New Testament chapter on faith (i.e. Hebrews 11).

The extreme nature of Abraham’s faith was a thing that was true even if God had not asked Abraham to offer Isaac. It seems, as with the story of Job, that God would not have risked in this way, had he not possessed profound faith in Abraham. Never the less had the event not taken place it may not have been possible for anyone else to experience the mind-bending depth of Abraham’s faith… or to understand the reason he is called the father of the faithful. It may not have been possible for us to access the story, which proves what kind of faith is possibe – for some of us.

Why does access to this kind of knowledge about Abraham matter? Because millions too will be put to the test, not by God but by humanity, satan, our own selves… It comes to all of us at some time, the question, “When may I stop believing in God? When may I throw in the towel?” What Hebrew speakers refer to as the Akedah – the “binding” of Isaac – gives … some… help to those in the crucible.

Hebrews 11:17-19 strikes me as additionally helpful on this story. One thing that the Hebrews retelling to the Akedah does for the reader is that it exposes (beyond the story itself) something else that it may not have been possible to see by any other means. Here I refer to the way Abraham thought through the fallout of this event. Hebrews 11 gives us a detail we don’t find elsewhere (more on that detail below).

We could propose all sorts of alternative scenarios that might expose to the onlooker how deeply Abraham believed God (e.g. what if God asked Abraham to get up at 3am every morning and sacrifice 10 lambs and pray… wouldn’t that show the depth of his faith? Perhaps, but not like the Akedah does.  Had God not publically stress tested the faith of Abraham (like an engineer testing the strength of the wings up an airplane by bending the wings in an extreme fashion) I’m not sure we would have gotten the full effect.   Had God, for example, told us merely a counterfactual, a hypothetic, it would not have ministered to us in the same way. Nor would it have revealed to us what was deep within Abraham. Had God said, “Abraham’s faith was so deep that had I .. ever asked him to sacrifice his son… he would have.” … No…. this does not have the depth that a real event does. The gut-wrenching request takes us to the heart of the matter.  “Abraham, go… offer up your son on a mountain I will show you.” Silence.

That’s the basic point if you want to stop reading. Again, epistemic access to something about Abraham’s quality of faith (… being gestured at in the very chapter that unpacks the nature and results of faith – Heb 11)… something we wouldn’t have access to (a) without a particular detail in verses 11:17-19 and (b) without Abraham actually going through the event.  Let me unpack point (a) just a bit more.

It is important to remember the huge covenantal theme hangs over the life of Abraham like a banner. God made this man huge promises, from which several of the other major Biblical Covenants (i.e. the Davidic, and New Covenants, on which Christian salvation/gospel is based. These all flow out of the Abrahamic Covenant.  It is rather easy to show how the cross-work of Christ is a fulfillment of the “bless the world” component of the Abrahamic covenant. Much hangs on this man and his son. Now that covenant is in jeopardy if Isaac dies.

Abraham’s faith is so extreme – that even in the face of this – he doesn’t doubt that God will keep his promise through Isaac. Even if Isaac dies. Paul would later write that Isaac was a “child of promise”, a miracle baby. God now asks Abraham to cut the thread upon which all the covenant promises hung…. to give back the covenant child.

Note that Hebrews 11:18 stops and makes it obvious that the Covenant promises hung on this youth Isaac. Verse 18 states, “Of whom it was said In Isaac your seed will be called.” No Isaac, no promises. No seed. No Christ? Anyhow, Hebrews 11:17-19 also shows us the content of what Abraham was thinking through, in addition to his deep pain over Isaac. “What of God’s promises? How will this work if my son dies? It must work. God will keep his promises. How? How?” 

The thought process that then goes through Abraham’s mind – and gets exposed only in Hebrews 11:17-19 is telling —-> Abraham so believes that God will keep his promises, that he figures God will raise Isaac…. perhaps having no theological precedent of resurrection.

Conclusion.  So when people get rightly.. hung up on whether this was ok for God to ask of Abraham, we might want to rephrase the question. Was it ok for God to take a person (whom he no doubt had profound confidence in) … to take him through a situation that would expose for all the world what this man’s faith looked like… IF… this was the only way we could genuinely see the nature of this guys faith. Yea leaving Ur of the Chaldees shows us his faith. Yea letting nephew Lot pick the well-watered plains of Jordan shows us his faith… But this… the Akedah… really shows us. Without the event, we’d never know it. The author of Hebrews wouldn’t have anything to point back to of this profound depth.

Mainstream America: a new brand of legalistic fault finding.

If you grew up going to church in America, certainly among evangelicals,  I can say the word “legalist” and you get what I’m talking about. If you didn’t then this post may help. Consider it an attempt to gesture at examples from church contexts to help you get the idea of what “legalism” is like. Once we establish this concept the post moves on to  suggest that a new legalism has shown up in ~ secular society of all places! We can call this secular-legalism. Think of political correctness when you read this term. Think about how many disclaimers people have to make these days before they can say anything. There is a fear of offending everyone, and of getting sued by anyone. The point of this post, in a nutshell, is a bit of an irony. People once chided the church as begin full of legalists, and by extension, hypocrites. Today a secular version of legalism has shown up  in the public square. This is ripe for analysis.

What I say below is not analysis. I am indulging in a bit of late night rambling to illustrate religious legalism for those who didn’t grow up in “church” and thus don’t get the “irony” of it showing up in a secular context – en masse. 

Religious Legalists. A legalist was or is a person who feels the need to check up on and point out places in other’s lives where they were failing to live up to appropriate “Christian standards”. “Isn’t that car a bit too fancy, it must have cost a fortune.”  “Isn’t that dress too short?” “You let your kids watch what?” “If she were serious about being a disciple of Jesus then she would be here with us this morning.” You get the drift?

Trying to explain legalism or legalistic people (in the church) is messy because legalism is both a feature of healthy human nature and a feature of broken human nature. As a result, it has a thousand faces. There are the obviously harmful sides of legalism such as what happens when people break the strict laws in some Islamic nations and a community member points the offender out. However, in this post, I am recalling the more subtle harm done by the legalism in some churches.  This is more of a nitpicking and fault finding atmosphere created by one or more people. And honestly, I am really just trotting out the “common cultural version of it” – and not at all a deep analysis of what the real nature of legalism might be.

Note well: Legalism changes people. It causes people to start living in ways so as to avoid being pointed out by the legalist. We may share certain kinds of ideas less for fear of criticism. We may become more likely to blend in. Don’t say or do anything to stick out.

For many, legalism has was classically portrayed by the Pharisee’s in the Gospels. They accused Jesus of breaking the religious law by healing a man on the Sabbath. In telling the paralyzed man to take up his mat and walk home, Jesus had supposedly given the paralyzed man leeway to “do work” on the Sabbath, thereby violating the law of Moses. The lesson was that the Pharisees’ perfectionistic zeal for their own system of religious rules blinded them to the miracles Jesus did; miracles which revealed his Messianic identity.

During the last 50 years, many people have complained that the Christian church was legalistic or hypocritical. Even if there was just one or two perpetrators in a local congregation, it was easy to blame “the church.” It became an easy excuse for people who wanted to quit attending church to point out that the church was full of hypocrites or unloving legalists. The underlying complaint was that this sort of fault finding and nitpicking contradicted Jesus’ imperatives to “love one another” or “not judge lest ye be judged”.  In response, thousands of Christian churches addressed this issue over the last 30 years and preached about the grace and loving patience of God. Churches by the thousands became more patient and accepting over the last generation. The culture in many churches has genuinely changed (in my opinion). Today many churches struggle with going to the other extreme, thanks to a, “Come as you are, anything goes” mindset.

So here is the irony…

Mainstream America, secular America if I can use that term, has developed its own version of legalism. Suddenly we find ourselves in a society of legalists of a non-religious flavor. Our nation is drowning in politically correct fault finding, criticism of things as simplistic as handshakes and minor clothing details of our leaders.  Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have fueled this secular-legalism by giving everyone a platform to comment. We have gone from believing that everyone has equal worth, to believing that everyone’s ideas (i.e. my ideas) are as good as anyone else’s. The nation’s news agencies are a big player here, by giving repeated airtime to groups from every corner calling out public figures for less than picture perfect performances. The nation’s fiberoptic networks are full of millions of critics, insulters, and backseat-drivers, trolls, shamers, grumblers. Whether the subject be a president, a local police chief, a university director, a school teacher, a parent, a pastor – everyone has a criticism to offer about their performance. Whereas the church was once blamed in past generations for legalism, now that legalistic fault finding is in full force outside the church. Whatever you are doing right now – there is a good chance you are wrong. 

You may or may not agree that the virtue of showing others grace was alive in the American public sector. It doesn’t matter, that virtue has died in the last five years.

Grace is dead in the public sector.  “Did she show enough remorse?” “Did they give a statement soon enough?” “Was the wording perfect?” “Are they protecting the victims enough?” “Why aren’t they releasing information quickly enough?” “Who shouldn’t be playing golf when?” “Why weren’t their disaster protocols perfect?” “Who offended who with what garment?”

This is an interesting twist. The first comment people will make is that it is nothing new. Something is new. Perhaps what is new is that we’ve all been legalists all along, but technology has given us the power to expose that fact.

Ready for one last twist? The church as a mandate to put an end to its legalism, but mainstream America does not. The church’s mandate comes from her savior – Jesus.  She knows that she has learned grace through the kindness of God, a God who in the person of Jesus Christ, came and associated with all the failures of his society. A God who heals and forgives our failures. Christians have a reason to be gracious – their God is gracious, patient and forgiving. Secular society has no such mandate and no such reason. What then will stem the growing tide of secular legalism?


Advice I’ve Gleaned From a Year With a PhD Writing Feedback Group.

For the last year, I have been participating in a group of 6 or 7 people (three postdocs, my supervisor, and a fellow Ph.D. student) reading and giving feedback on each other’s papers. We typically read book chapters prior to submission to publication, and journal articles prior to submission to publishers. From time to time a professor at another institution will send along a chapter for feedback and we all get in on it. This experience has brought a range of lessons and emotions.  Surprise, surprise, much of what I take myself to have learned is fairly traditional sounding advice for writing, but here are some suggestions on (a) the helpful kinds of feedback I see being given and (b) not helpful things people do in feedback groups.

  1. Helpful Types of Feedback I Have Observed.

As I observe the postdocs and others giving feedback, here are the comments and questions that I find are the most helpful. Perhaps someone else will be able to make use of these.

  • Framing. “Framing” is a great word I was introduced to. This has to do with how you “set up” your paper for the reader. Sure there is your core argument such as “Penal Substitution is the theory that Christians should take as the foundation of their understanding of the atonement” (or pick your own title) … but you can frame that conclusion (and its supporting arguments) in various ways. I have seen writers suggest that a paper can be “saved” by reframing it so that even though the paper is largely written, its  thesis and argument can be framed differently in a way that makes the argument/thesis jump out as contributing legitimately to a certain conversation, whereas before that might not have been clear. Here are some example framing comments :
    • My paper is directly responding to person X’s view.
    • My paper is adding to this conversation of writers from event X.
    • My paper is meant to introduce problems with other views that I don’t think others are giving enough attention to.
  • Scope. Are you doing too much in this paper. One way I hear this asked indirectly is by the suggestion that, “Perhaps you have two papers here!”   Perhaps the writer could spin a second paper off of the first, and at the same time reduce the first paper to something more focused, more effective in its argument and more appealing to read.
  • Focus. What are you arguing? Is your thesis clear?  When I started writing philosophy papers I was taught to minimize the introduction and get right to the thesis. I have to admit that in a recent paper I wrote, I completely forgot that piece of advice! Becuase one of the readers was less familiar with the theologian I was writing about, the lack of a clear thesis made the paper pretty unpleasant for him to read. It was embarrassing. Some writers need to go back and re-write their introduction at the end of the paper to make sure that what they’ve written matches what the first paragraph (and thesis statement) states they are doing.
  • Unanswered objections. When you have a room full of philosophers, sometimes the objections just start coming as a part of the conversation. Nevertheless, there is a role to be played by readers pointing out objections you’ve failed to address. If one is submitting a paper for publication it the more objections one can help relieve the reader of, the better.  Sometimes a writer will attempt to evade the objection by changing the core of their paper. That takes hard work. Sometimes they can just tighten up the wording here or there. Sometimes they may add a comment that adjusts their framing/focus in a way that makes the objection no longer relevant. Sometimes they soften their claims from something like, “This is the best way to deal with this issue” to “this is one reasonable way deal with this issue that brings many merits with it.”  Sometimes writers bite the bullet and say, “See Xs work on this objection. I am willing to take their position on this issue, I’m not dealing with that in my paper.” As noted below, very often writers have already done much of their writing and may not have time or energy to make substantial changes to a work, so they have to find less dramatic solutions to the above problems.
  • Arguments that could be added or tightened. Like the above, there are comments that help the writer tighten their argument or suggest that they add to the paper in order to strengthen it.
  • Organization. At times readers are distracted by where a section of the paper is sitting relative to the rest of the paper. Often comments will be overhead suggesting that the author move “this section” to the beginning or further back. Perhaps a paragraph should be relegated to a footnote because the reader gets lost and it disrupts throughflow.
  • Title suggestions. This is more for fun – but comments get made here. I think I’ve heard one or two people joke about click-bate, by referring to a title that was so catchy it just makes people want to read the article. There is more to a good title than you might think. I certainly haven’t made a good habit out of trying to draw my readers in through my titles. Dr. John Thompson (not a member of our reading group) advocated using a two part title because this was your momentary chance to grab the readers attention as they scan journal article titles to decide what to read.
  • Minor grammatical points. In our reading groups, we don’t spend time talking about grammar unless it deals with clarity. Grammatic errors, citation changes are made in a document and emailed or handed to the author at the end of the reading session.
  • Suggesting other resources and references for the author to cite, add, review before publishing. I wrote a paper on Calvin and had a question from another professor about Calvin’s role in the Geneva consistory. As an expression of his desire to help my paper, my supervisor pulled a book off his shelf and suggested I look at a particular chapter to see if there was any guidance on the particular question.
  • Suggesting what journal a person might try submitting an article to. This can be such a big help for those who are still new to the submission and publishing process. However, ignorance on the part of the writer may signal a need to spend more time becoming familiar with the journals in their field.

2. Treating others as you’d want to be treated. Or.. unhelpful things to avoid in a feedback session.

It was only through experiencing my own feelings during feedback that I began to queue into thoughts about how I approached others papers. Having someone fire questions at you is a part of the academic process, but it can be uncomfortable. There are two sides to this issue. Some say that is part of life in the guild (they are certainly right) but I personally think there is a practical duty you owe others if you are participating in a feedback group; a duty to not assume anything that comes out of your mouth is useful; a duty to carefully pick comments that are constructive.   In a feedback group, participants are there for input, advice, and help before they send their writing out into the wild.  This should provide boundaries that guide the questions we ask the writer. Here are a few things that I notice occurring (rarely but they seem easy enough to spot when they do occur) that I appreciate less during a paper feedback sessions.

  • Don’t make them defend something they aren’t trying to defend. If a person has written a paper about topic A, but not about topic B (even though B is related in some way), it does not help the writer for you to unload all your passionate arguments about B. If for example, someone is writing a paper on Barth’s methodology and she introduces his doctrine of election as an example of his methodology, it does the author little good  for you to press her for a defense of Barth’s doctrine of election as if this was the point of her paper. If her paper had been on “Why Barth’s Doctrine of Election is Surely Right” then that would be a perfect question, but it wasn’t her thesis, so what are you trying to accomplish? If you want to talk about B, at least preface it with the comment, “This doesn’t seem to be exactly on your topic so perhaps we can talk about it later, but I was curious to get your thoughts on topic B (e.g. Barth’s doctrine of election)…”
  • A feedback session is not your chance to make sure you unload every question and objection you can think of. Before I say this I can already imagine the response – that – outsiders will not be merciful to our writing, so it is better that we suffer at the hands of friends. That is probaby true. Perhaps I should delete this point. Still, I think there is a practicality line that we cross where some criticisms seem genuinely constructive and others just eat up conversation time because it is unclear exactly how important that question is. What do you think? Is it better to just point out what you took to be obviously good and not-good or is it better to look hard to find something wrong with a paper.
  • It certainly is not a time to humiliate and tear down that person in an effort to make oneself feel intellectually superior. This is something I’m sure goes on in other groups but fortunately not ours  – I hope. As a follower of Jesus, I don’t have any qualms about stating that feedback should be done as an expression of service to others and not of service to one’s own emotional needs to feel intellectually superior. Please don’t reach for the sophomoric response and claim that by tearing someone down we are loving them. A question, that seems useful to me is “How can I treat this person like I would want to be treated and help them improve their paper?”
  • Does it really help the author to talk about the paper they should have written? It depends here on how you say this. On one hand, this is a piece of advice that is hard for the author to make use of at the moment. They spent all their time writing this paper. They need help on this paper. Ideally, we can help them with their current project. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to  suggest, “Here is an idea for a future paper.”
  • Being overly harsh on a paper because you don’t prefer the content. Liberation theology is not my area of focus, but that is a completely separate discussion from whether Jones has written a quality paper on Liberation theology. State the fact of the matter, “Look, I’m not a big fan of X, but from my limited perspective this seems good here, and that seems unclear there… etc..”
  • Failing to point out the positives strikes me as inaccurate feedback unless there are no positives anywhere.  I think we can give positive feedback without suggesting a work is publication ready. The act of seeking feedback also involves seeking outsider input on what one has done well. I don’t see the harm in being realistically positive, especially if one is going to follow with some criticism. If a writer has done something well, then tell them – “I really like this section”, “That comment seems spot on”, “nice choice of words.”  Etc.. Saying nothing positive and listing out 4 complaints can paint an inaccurate picture and thus constitute inaccurate feedback (unless there are in fact no positives)   Again the goal isn’t to create a soft unrealistic experience for poor writers, but positive feedback is an essential part of life, growth, performance improvement, etc.. If a writer has done a good job and you only have two minor points, say that, “I think this is a great paper and I only have two points.” If you are nervous about premature accolades then say that, “I am hesitant to compliment the paper too quickly…  It seems to me that it is good except for two issues, but perhaps others in our group are more equipped to make an overall evaluation. “


I suspect that I have learned more than I at first thought, merely by participating in my first year with this feedback group. If only my writing would automatically rise to the quality of feedback I’ve overhead! Personally, I hope to take peoples work, emotion, and goals into consideration without doing them the disservice soft-pedaling my advice (not that I’m the place to give much advice yet to PhD’s well beyond my current level of education!