Tag Archives: Paul Holmer

Some Varieties of Failures of Agency

A. Paul Holmer on Weakness of Will (or lack of desire)

… when I can no longer decide between opposing options, or when I completely lack wants and wishes, then much of daily life loses its challenge, and I begin to think there is little sense left. The philosopher Aristotle noted long ago that many persons suffer from a weakness of the will.

But a tragedy is in the making when a person does not learn what every person finally must learn: that is, some powerful and persistent wants. For unlike the animals whose wants are given with their very birth and nature, persons have to spend time learning what their proper wants are. And if one does not want what is essential and needful – for example, to be morally sound, to be intelligent and informed rather than stupid, or even to be healthy rather than sick – then a good part of being a person is missing. [29]

If a person is always restless and anxious, there can be no resoluteness of will. With little or no will, there is nothing clear or definitive about such a person. Sometimes it is hard to know whether the lack of volition comes first and the restless anxiety follows, or the reverse. However, we need not decide such questions in order to say that surely the two go together. A sign of being weak-willed is to shift from one thing to another. Having a will for this, then for that, in endless succession, is really to have no conclusiveness and no character at all. Such a mode of life spells chaos after a while. Soon one does not know what will satisfy, and a lifetime can be spent in meaningless pursuits. … Something like this happens to us when we spend ourselves in preoccupation with pleasure. [86-87]

from Making Christian Sense (The Westminster Press, 1984).

B. Oliver O’Donovan on Indecision

The peculiar moral weakness we call “indecision” is not a weakness of love; it cannot be countered by a relentless ratcheting up of the affections. It is a weakness in discerning and hearing a call to act, a weakness in observing a practical possibility given in the shape of the moment, and that is a weakness of hope, for hope discerns in the light of God’s promise what is given to us to do. Where love attends to the “today” that has come to be out of the past, the “today” of the world around us, hope attends to the “today” that has not yet come to be, but opens out in front of us, the “today” of opportunity. Hope presides over the venture of action and focuses deliberation on its possibility.

from “Sanctification and Ethics,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, edited by Kelly Kapic, (IVP Academic, 2014), 159.

C. Daniel A. Westberg on Inaction

1. Distraction from purpose

[There are] cases where there is a lack of harmony between the judgments of our practical reasoning and the actual things that we do. … [For instance,] we may simply not “feel like” doing something. The laundry is postponed in favor of reading a magazine; we omit the exercise that we had decided to do; we eat more at dinner than we had originally planned; we curtail or omit our prayer time. We do not get around to writing the letter that we had planned, and we find that we had spent unplanned time on video games, or internet surfing or a number of other things not wrong in themselves but that in reference to our plans and prior decisions amount to a deflection from our aims. This is part of the human condition, of course, and part of the material for our reflection that “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” [145]

2.  Imprudence

If you do not carry out in action your brilliant insights and decisions, you lack the virtue of prudence. … Your good intentions, your “to-do lists” and plans for the future, are all very good (and may exhibit a certain insight, practicality and wisdom), but if they are not translated into actions, there is no true virtue of practical wisdom in action/actuality. [162]

3. Lack of initiative

Aristotle included in his understanding of courage the kind of person with noble ambition, capable of major achievements worthy of respect and honor. … [In Thomas’ treatment] this is the virtue of our great heroes and saints, those like Francis Xavier and Ignatius, John Wesley and the missionaries Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson, those who achieved something on a grand scale and inspired many others. … The characteristic of this virtue that makes it part of fortitude is that it has to do with achieving something good and of value on a large scale, and therefore involves challenge and difficulty. It is the ability to pursue a vision successfully in spite of hardship and discouragement that gives Thomistic magnificence, better understood as enterprise or initiative, its place and character as a virtue. [205-6]

from Renewing Moral Theology (IVP Academic, 2015).

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.


This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.

Richard Rollefson on Paul Holmer on Knowing God

Although God is not an object, it does not follow that the language of faith is not a referring one. Again, because words do not refer by themselves, individuals have to learn to use the language of faith referringly. But the referring use of this expression means the qualification of our own character in such a way that we have a place for God in it; this is the inwardness that Kierkegaard speaks of, and, therefore, to know God, as Holmer puts it, “requires that we become Godly.” In this sense, the logically and Christianly proper referring use of the concept Godwhat it means to know God—is that we refer our lives to God. As Holmer writes: “This is what we mean by getting to know God—namely, that those who know him are those who worship him in spirit and truth.”

from Thinking with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Theology of Paul L. Holmer (Pickwick, 2014): 111-112.

Paul Holmer on theology and happiness

Theology celebrates that range of issues that are often thought to be very deep. But when you get on the happiness issue, it turns out that the problems of life and the problems of theology start to get the same shape and form. And these problems are solved only when they disappear—and answers are arrived at only when there are no longer questions—when, as it were, our lives are the accounts that have settled them. That is why so many theological problems do not long stay on paper—they call for a religious life, a working strategy, a new way of seeing things and taking them one by one.

from “About Happiness and the Concept, ‘Happiness’,” in Thinking the Faith with Passion, (Wipf&Stock, 2012)

[emphasis added]