Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews by Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), ix + 278 pp.
Article first published online: 5 DEC 2013
© 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Volume 30, Issue 1, pages 186–189, January 2014
How to Cite
Adams, N. (2014), Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews by Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), ix + 278 pp. Modern Theology, 30: 186–189. doi: 10.1111/moth.12093
- Issue published online: 5 DEC 2013
- Article first published online: 5 DEC 2013
Over the last twenty years, Peter Ochs has published work in three areas which explore relations between religious thought and philosophy: a postmodernism rooted in pragmatism, a philosophy that serves relations between members of different religious traditions, and investigations into the patterns of reasoning displayed in the foundational texts of religious traditions. In each of these areas of inquiry, Ochs has probed the ways in which religious traditions heal philosophy and philosophy heals religious traditions.
Another Reformation, with its titular focus on postliberal theology, appears at first sight a rather modest contribution to this compound project. Fewer and fewer Christian theologians identify themselves these days in an emphatic way as “postliberal”. The book's investigations into supersessionism might not appear urgent: surely these battles have long ago been fought and won? Even the book's main title might discourage some Catholic and Orthodox readers. “Oh no, not another reformation”!
This impression is wholly misleading. Ochs' latest book is in many ways the culmination of a life's work of detailed analysis, generous and tough conversation, and patient exposure of errant thinking in theology. It is explosive, radical and in places devastating in its critique of certain habits of theological thinking. It lays bare the disappointing failure of several generations to train theologians in philosophy (and especially in logic) and identifies with troubling precision the possible violence to which this failure may lead.
The study has a double focus. Thematically, it tests a thesis about the relations between postliberalism and supersessionism in Christian theology. Structurally, it engages a series of theologians with whom Ochs has had personal conversations over many years (George Lindbeck, Robert Jenson, Stanley Hauerwas, Daniel Hardy, David Ford and John Milbank), together with a less personal, more textual, engagement with John Howard Yoder. The thesis is simple in conception: the more postliberal a theologian's thinking, the less supersessionist it is. The more supersessionist a theologian's thinking, the less postliberal it is. This thesis is tested against the seven theologians named. The series of case studies displays Ochs' characteristic generosity towards his interlocutors, together with trenchant criticisms of Yoder and Milbank, both of whom are shown to rehearse supersessionist arguments (unintended in the case of Yoder, manifest in the case of Milbank) which are signs of their failure to embrace postliberal thinking.
Ochs' appreciations of his friends' work are carefully constructed and compelling. Each chapter focuses for the most part on a particular text. He engages Lindbeck's The Church in a Postliberal Age, Jenson's Systematic Theology, Hauerwas' “What Could it Mean for the Church to be Christ's Body? A Question without a Clear Answer” (from In Good Company), Yoder's The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (a set of essays edited by Ochs and Cartwright), Hardy's Finding the Church, Ford's Christian Wisdom and Milbank's “Pleonasm, Speech, and Writing” (from The Word Made Strange). Some of the more striking interventions are found in the chapter on Hauerwas, where Ochs attempts some home improvements, one might say, on his friend's theology by showing the advantages of adopting Peirce over both William James (pp. 97–9) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (pp. 99–100). Ochs identifies the philosophical shortcomings of James and Wittgenstein (or at least Wittgenstein as mediated to Hauerwas by Victor Preller) and speculates as to what a more Peircean Hauerwas might look like. It is interesting to imagine similar attempts that might have been made in the case of Jenson's struggles with and against Hegel, or with Lindbeck's engagement with high medieval philosophy: these do not form part of Ochs' discussion, however. Ochs' engagements with “British” theologians—in which Hardy (an American) and Ford (an Irishman) count unnervingly as honorary Brits—focus on what he sees as their distinctively pneumatological emphases, in contrast to the more Christological postliberalism of the Americans. Ochs sees these emphases as complementary rather than competitive: the christological and pneumatological approaches are described as “two wings” (p. 28) which need each other.
The critical discussions of Yoder and Milbank will rightly be the most discussed. Ochs' discussion of Yoder (pp. 146–63) develops out of a 2007 conference on The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (a collection of Yoder's essays edited by Ochs and Cartwright and published in 2003). Ochs discerns contrary tendencies in Yoder's thought. It is a mark of Ochs' work more generally that he attends as much to contrary tendencies in his interlocutors' work as to their apparent errors and contradictions. Yoder displays, first, a tendency towards postliberalism and this is accompanied by a tendency away from supersessionism. Yoder's postliberalism shows itself as a suspicion (and often rejection) of claims appealing to “reason” which often have strong institutional backing. These are countered by claims rooted in scripture which witness to Jesus Christ. The accompanying refusal of supersessionism is seen in Yoder's critique of the familiar narrative in which Jesus and Paul reject Judaism. This contains two principal arguments. First, the very idea of a homogeneous “Judaism” at the time of Jesus and Paul is mistaken: Judaism was a complex nexus of different beliefs and practices. Second, whether or not one portrays Judaism at that time as homogeneous or differentiated, Jesus and Paul did not reject it. Forms of supersessionism that draw rhetorical strength from the familiar but mistaken narrative are thus undermined by Yoder's account.
But Yoder has another side too. Yoder is strongly suspicious of political settlements in the early church where Roman imperial power first co-opts the church and then becomes the church's own model for political constitution and action. Yoder attempts to recover an alternative conception of church freed of imperial mastery and control. Ochs argues (with support from Michael Cartwright) that Yoder extends this anti-institutional polemic to early Judaism. For Yoder, just as the true church is to be discerned against the historical development of emphatically institutional settlements, so the “true” early Judaism is to be discerned in its diaspora life and its refusal of an institutional settlement focused on possession of a particular land.
The problem with this account, for Ochs, is that the anti-institutional thrust of Yoder's arguments tends to delegitimise the institutional settlements that the Jewish traditions came to develop, such as those of rabbinical Judaism. By championing an anti-institutional conception of Judaism, which parallels Yoder's anti-institutional vision of Christianity, Yoder undermines the Judaism that in fact developed in the Middle East and Europe. As this is the Judaism that most Jews now inhabit, this amounts to a rejection of contemporary Judaism. Yoder's anti-institutionalism thus contains an implicit anti-Judaism. It is clearly not postliberalism—because, for Ochs, it follows an errant logic which sets up a false dichotomy between institutional and anti-institutional forms of religious life. Nor is it “supersessionism”, as it does not offer a rationale for Judaism being replaced by Christianity. Instead it argues that emphatic institutional settlements in both Christianity and Judaism should be refused in favour of anti-institutional visions that persist in both traditions. Given Ochs' hypothesis that non-postliberalism tends to imply non-nonsuperssionism, some knotty questions arise. Does anti-institutionalism imply anti-Judaism? If so, is the form this takes in Yoder's work non-nonsupersessionist (to use Ochs' somewhat awkward term)? Ochs answers both questions in the affirmative, but this is because he appears to assume (without argument) that Yoder's delegitimisation of contemporary institutional Judaism is not non-supersessionist. It might be more persuasive to make two separate claims: first, that Yoder's anti-institutionalism is not postliberal; second, that Yoder's anti-institutionalism undermines contemporary institutional forms of Judaism.
The critique of Milbank (pp. 234–45) has as its focus questions of scale. For Ochs, Milbank makes claims that are in principle quite proper when cast as appeals within a community, but which become errant when cast as appeals to an indefinite (or even universal) readership. Ochs' argument proceeds by detailed philosophical commentary on Milbank's celebrated “Pleonasm” essay. Ochs applauds Milbank's subtle analysis of eighteenth-century debates about the nature of language, and explains why Milbank rejects Derrida's appropriation of these debates. Ochs' critique concerns the final claims of Milbank's essay which display what Ochs calls a “foundationalist” tendency. Milbank claims, according to Ochs, that Jewish attempts to interpret the Bible were futile and that only Christ can bring about a recovery of Adam's language, freed of sin and error. Ochs notes that Milbank does not quite say this in his own voice: the claims are advanced by rehearsing Hamann with approval. Ochs thus attributes these claims to “Milbank-Hamann”. The claims display an error of scale. A quite proper claim, “in Christ the recovery of Adam's language is accomplished”, addressed to the Christian community, is supplemented by a further (disputable) claim, “this is not accomplished in Judaism”, addressed to an unrestricted readership. This error of scale (the unrestricted readership) is compounded by a false dichotomy between “futile” Judaism and “perfect” Christ, and the unwarranted insistence that this perfection is available to human judgement as a criterion for ending human arguments. Milbank can be confident he is right, he thinks, because Christ's truth is available as an intuition.
There are some striking features of this analysis. First, Ochs attempts to offer an account of Milbank's argument that Milbank himself would willingly embrace. This is accompanied by the frank acknowledgement that Milbank would be untroubled by the charge of supersessionism, and would even embrace that too (p. 225). Second, the critique is oriented to five lines of Milbank's text that are somewhat rushed, and which his Christian readers might not dwell on. Here they are:
It must be added that Hamann considered all human grammar, even the Hebrew, to be irrevocably disfigured, and that this had necessitated what must for sinners appear to be the divine counter-deception, whereby God the Son, the utterly reliable Word, was himself substituted for the human signifying process, so providing a final, though still prophetic, language of humanity. (Word Made Strange, pp. 78–9)
Third, the critique is not addressed to Milbank (whom Ochs regards as unteachable) but to his younger readers who, Ochs fears, will emulate the master without considering alternative philosophical forms for theological speech. Fourth, it is the philosophical form that Ochs critiques, not the claims themselves. Ochs makes a surprising argument: “It need not be supersessionist to claim that Christ alone repairs contradictions in the Old Testament. Such a claim becomes supersessionist only when this recommendation is presented as self-legitimating and therefore as true for any reader whatsoever” (p. 245). It is Milbank's intuitionism and naïveté about questions of scale that are the problem, not his confidence in Christ.
Ochs is clearly anxious lest he be heard to be advancing a “liberal” (in his sense) argument, to the effect that Christian theologians should restrain their Christological affirmations in order to avoid being supersessionist. He takes great pains to rule this out. His advice to theologians amounts to this: “Be bold; affirm the truth that is given in Christ, eschew intuitionism; pay attention to questions of scale”. Ochs shows his opposition to liberal restraint by affirming the soteriological intent displayed in Milbank's text, but also elaborating an alternative (rabbinical) soteriological account (pp. 247–51), and insisting that affirmation of the one does not entail denial the other. Ochs cheerfully admits one can deny it; the denial just isn't entailed by the prior affirmation (p. 237). In modal terms (which Ochs does not here use) Milbank mistakes a sound argument for something's possibility for a demonstration of its actuality or necessity.
What would this mean for the younger theologians who are Ochs' pastoral concern? They should continue to make claims which might include formulae such as “only in Christ” or even “not in Judaism”. But as regards form, they would be accompanied by a recognition that while such claims make sense, are consonant with interpretations of scripture, cohere with other doctrinal claims and so forth, their sense is precisely dependent on the tradition of Christian thought, are in fact inextricable from prior interpretations of scripture, explicitly require the context of doctrinal affirmation in the Church, and so on. It would also be explicit that appeals to intuition are just as provisional as the claims they are meant to support: they add no force to the argument. There is no magic formula for transforming the possible into the actual. Even what is most dogmatically “certain” remains philosophically provisional. A reader who grasps this distinction has learned one of the lessons Ochs sets out to teach.
The deeper issue exposed in Ochs' study of Christian theology remains unresolved, however. If Ochs is persuasive that a distinction between dogmatic affirmation and philosophical reserve is important, and if he successfully shows that a failure to make such a distinction has practical effects in questions of supersessionism, then the curricula of systematic theologians are somewhat troubling. If the teaching of philosophy is largely confined in the theological curriculum to “philosophical theology” or “philosophy of religion” and is kept separate from the teaching of doctrine, how are theologians to display the subtlety their discipline demands? In the end it is not the work of Yoder and Milbank that Ochs calls into question. It is the teaching of theology itself, and the place of philosophy in it.