Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition

Sometimes, I wonder just what new books I should note here at BookNotes. Some of my readers, I think, are pretty postmodern and interested in emergent church stuff; others clearly less so. Some are political and social activists; some look to us for resources on the inner journey of contemplative spirituality. Some may want to know that I am listening to the new Denison Witmer CD, Are You A Dreamer. (Don Peris from Lancaster—you may recall the wonderful work he and his wife, Karen do–produced it. Sufjan Stevens plays on alot of it, along with some other cool neo-folksters.) Check out his artsty stuff at Dennison’s website, here.
So, what to feature? Something lots of people might enjoy, or, this time, maybe something that will stretch us a bit?
Forgive me if this shoots a bit afar from what many of you may find helpful. But I am so eager to be the first to tell sombody about this, that I have to cite it tonight. It is book which makes a connection between an obscure tradition and an even more obscure one. Nobody said this would be easy.
Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Creation, Covenant and Participation is a dense collection of wide-ranging essays edited by Calvin College postmodern prof–say it like RoboCop, PomoProf–James K. A. Smith, and his mentor, psychotherapist and Christian philospher, emeritus at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies, James Olthuis. It is published by Baker Academic, which should finally lay to rest any dumb stereotypes about evangelical publishing houses, Christian publishing from Grand Rapids or Calvinism’s conservativism; this once again illustrates the sea change (for better or worse, mostly better, I’d say) at places like Baker and Eerdmans, as they continue to be ecumenical and engaged with the most scholarly and cutting edge theological notions of the day. It makes some of the more typically liberal presses look silly and weak and the pop emergent kids look like they are playing games with candles and film clips. (To the emergent’s credit, they published an excellent, brief review of Smith’s first book on radical orthodox, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (Baker Academic; $21.99) with a view to how it might help these new churches at the always-interesting theooze.com. Read it here.)
Okay, I admit this is a pretty obscure and if what I just wrote doesn’t make much sense, don’t fret. But for those who do have stereotypes about evangelical publishers, you are not alone—a young student friend of mine two days ago, working on a major senior thesis at a fine liberal arts college, was told by his professor not to feature books put out on evangelical publishing houses, as if (a) all evangelical houses publish the same kinds of stuff and (b) that said evangelical publishing houses are shallow and right wing and (b) religious and academic freedom isn’t really valued in his department. But I digress.
“Radical Orthodoxy” is an important, if cryptic movement that is beyond me to explain easily. (Ha–I say easily implying that I could explain it if I had the leisure of long sentences and plenty of time. Don’t fall for it.) RO has something to do with how the liberal tradition within Christianity has petered out (they cite Nietzche a lot, but, you know, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, it seems to me) never really having the intellectual and theological substance to last. But, rather than counter the bankruptcy of theological (and classic) liberalism, et al, with conservative evangelicalism or old school orthodoxy, this largely Anglo-Catholic theological movement invites a reappropriation, a rather postmodern reappropriation of St. Augustine and –gasp!–St. Thomas Aquinas. They write deep, deep books about Christian practices, embedding deep gospel insights into ordinary lifestyles, thinking hard about how secularized modernity and its mono-culture effects living and thinking, and how church proclamation should lead to renewed engagement and uniquely Christian ways of living that leads to radical deconstruction of the idols of our time. Their book series include work on the nature of cities, linguistics, writing, gender stuff and other down-to-Earth research, done up in neo-Aristotlian ways*. (Please recall what I implied above; I really don’t quite know what I’m saying here as I try to give an impression of the novelty and creative fidelity of this important movement. For better guides, go to the links I gave above to James Smith’s homepage and the review in theooze.com or, for a more substantial reflection, read R. Reno’s piece in First Things.)
*Acutally, the RO movement seems, oddly, despite its good emphasis on embodiment, to draw much on Mr. Plato. Smith’s good chapter illustrates his (Reformed) allergy to Platonism, to kindly suggest a point of conversation with Calvinism and RO. That chapter looks very, very, important. I know some (if your reading, you know who you are!) may find it simplistic or irrelevant, but the unhelpful influences of Plato via Plotinas on Augustine and, similiarly, of Aristotle on Aquinas, remains a contested topic of great importance. I haven’t read Jamie’s chapter yet, but I am sure it will be illuminating and helpful.
So, this new book, Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition is a reply to radical orthodoxy by a friendly gang of Calvinists, mostly those who don’t use the phrase too much, at least not in the typical PCA-R.C. Sproul-Banner of Truth kind of way, as if the Reformed tradition is only about the so-called five points and the sovreignity of God. Some are using the phrase neo-Calvinism, implying mostly a connection to the tradition of thinking and social renewal that I write about here sometimes, inspired by the cultural, political and theological renewal that was lead by the likes of Abraham Kuyper in the late 1800’s in Holland. (For a bit on Kuyper, see here, here or here.) Some serious neo-Calvinist believers in the mid-20th century immigrated from the Netherlands and started all kinds of reformational, Kuyperian institutions, and the leaders, students and grand-children of these orthodox, culturally-engaged, Dutch neo-Calvinists now stand as those who want to relate the Reformed tradition thus construed with the issues and thinkers of the day. Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies continues to be a scholarly center for this kind of thinking, and they have influenced, in small ways, folks as unique as the evangelical campus ministry the Coalition for Christian Outreach, the alternative Christian Labor union, the CLAC, and the new generation of L’Abrai folks. (It could be said that Francis Schaeffer himself popularized Dutch neo-Calvinism which he picked up from his friend, art critic Hans Rookmaaker.)
So, take this Dutch neo-Calvinist movement, reformationally-busy doing post-foundationalist philosophy in light of a Reformed, Biblical worldview and see how it replies to the British, post-liberal, quirky, medieval, leftward leaning, postmodern (?) movement of radical orthodoxy and you’ve got the papers presented at this learned gathering, now published. It is an exciting collection that is rarified, to be sure. Read it now, though, and you will be well-equipped to process the stuff you will be hearing about RO over the upcoming years. Mark my blogged words.
Rave reviews on the back are from Nicholas Wolterstorff (surely a Kuyperian in the broad sense of being a son of the Christian, Dutch philosophical efforts and friendly with ICS) and Catherine Pickstock, a lecturer at Cambridge and one of the major spokespersons for radical orthodoxy, and John Franke of Biblical Theolgoical Seminary here in central Pennylsvania. Franke was a good buddy with the late, great Stan Grenz (oh, how I’m loving his recently re-issued Prayer: Cry of the Kingdom) who is considered by some to be the most important theologian representing the concerns of the emergent community. All three blurbs insist that this collection of serious pieces will help the broad body of Christ, whether one is radically orthodox, Calvinian or not. Nice.
Happily, in the hospitable tradition that the Institute for Christian Studies has become known for (they’ve hosted atheistic philosophers, even Derrida, over the years) this collection developing a Calvinist reply to RO, starts with two chapters by radical orthodoxy scholars, John Milbank and Graham Ward. Although some authors have some serious critique and concern, it seems to be that it is a favorable book, largely affirming the contributions and directions that RO may have, and refining their views within a neo-Calvinist framework. It is a model, so these reviewers say, of theological dialogue among differing tradtions at its best. Maybe that, too, is reason enough to celebrate, as differing movements hear and honor and rebuke one another in Christian charity. Now that is an example of reforming, radical, orthodoxy!
Many of the authors who weigh in are from Calvin College, whose Center for Christian Scholarship co-hosted the Working Group that eventually lead to the conference from which this book emerged. A few, though, are neither ICS/Toronto nor Calvin College/Grand Rapids Kuyperians; Michael Hortonof Westminister-West is here, as is Hans Boersma from Regent in British Columbia (a Richard Baxter scholar whose serious book on the atonement, by the way, Violence, Hospitality and the Cross, is must reading for recent debates about the nature of the work of the cross) and Justin Holcomb, a post-doc at UVA, and Nathan Kerr of Vanderbilt.
Baker is to be supported, Calvin College and ICS are to be commended, and, I guess, Hearts & Minds should be considered crazy for thinking I can explain this book with any clarity in a brief blog blurb. Trust me, though: if you follow any of this, this book is the definitive collection to read. Don’t think you have to wade through the Routledge series of RO books, either–this can serve as an important introduction and guide to the discussions. If you know anybody doing serious philosophical or theological work, this could be a much-appreciated gift. Or, perhaps better, start with James Smith’s first book on the subject, Introducing Radical Orthodoxywhich I mentioned above. Do a google search on radical orthodoxy and you will see it is a jolting and important movement. I hope you don’t find us too obscure promoting this kind of stuff. As I said, I think you will be hearing more about this…
ORDER BOTH–not on the comment section, but by email or phone, please–and get a 20% discount. Just let us know you heard about the dealio here. Thanks for your support of interesting books and indie stores.

Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Creation, Covenant and Participation James Smith & James Olthuis (editors) (Baker Academic) $24.99
Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology James Smith (Baker Academic) $21.99

3 thoughts on “Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition

  1. It might also be important to note that RO and the emergent movement are in someways polar opposites (Smith will soon release a book about that called: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church). Having taken classes with Smith, more Christians should be reading his books, good review.Byron, you should check out the conference he is planning in November with Berger, Ward, Walsh, Bouma-Prediger, Zuidervaart, etc. http://www.calvin.edu/scs/2005/conferences/lfp/index.htm

  2. greg: Very good comment; thanks. I wondered if you studied under him a bit…I hope others check out this comment and pursue the link. Looks excellent. Thanks for all you do…BKB

  3. that conference does look amazing unfortunately it is the same weekend as Messiah College’s conference on popular art and the church.Thanks for the review your probably not surprised I’m interested.

Comments are closed.