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Sunday, November 13, 2005

In defence of Rowan Williams

++Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, occupies one of the least enviable seats in Christendom at this moment. Arguably even the Pope might not want to trade places with him. When ++Williams was chosen as archbishop, the evangelicals in the C of E wore black armbands in protest. Just a few weeks ago, a poster on another blog denied that ++Williams was a Christian because of his speculation regarding the possible legitimacy of same sex relationships.

But the left is no kinder. Most recently, Williams' wise and eloquent responses to a question and answer session in Cairo (to which I linked in the title of this blog post) have incurred the wrath of a blogger named Anglican Scotist. Scotist is one of the more thought-provoking Anglican bloggers (at least in my limited acquaintance), and he is an eloquent and provocative defender of the recent policies of ECUSA. Scotist has repeatedly attacked conservative Episcopalians as right-wingers who have embraced an essentially fundamentalist hermeneutic. He has no use for any appeal to a "plain sense" of Scripture, and he argues that conservative Episcopalians are in fact "liberal individualists." In this latest post, however, Scotist has revealed his own deep commitment to liberal individualism, and even what could be called liberal fundamentalism (not as much of an oxymoron as it might appear).

Williams' central point (in the remarks to which Scotist takes exception) is that his private views as a theologian are not determinative of the Church's position. "The Church," Williams reminds us, "is not Williams' personal political party, or any particular person's." To this Scotist responds that the Church is the party of a particular person, Jesus Christ. Williams' deference to the Church is, Scotist argues, a deference to some other Church than the Church headed by Christ. The Church headed by Christ follows the mind of Christ, and this mind is not subject to the fickle whims of a "super-majority" (Scotist's term for what Williams calls a "consensus").

The problem with this, of course, is that such a Church is reduced in effect to the private judgment of individual Christians. If the individual Christian may know the mind of Christ directly and with certainty, then what becomes of the "epistemic humility" Scotist recently vaunted as a linch-pin of ECUSA's position (see Scotist's blog for Nov. 6)? If the individual Christian does not have certainty, but must act according to her best discernment of the mind of Christ (even if this contradicts the Church's consensus), then this amounts to liberal individualism of the most radical kind. I'm genuinely surprised by this argument coming from Scotist. Given Scotist's track record for brilliant and thought-provoking insights (with most of which I disagree!), he probably has a formidable rebuttal to this objection. But his recent posts seem (from my perspective) to contradict each other in the most direct manner possible.

If one claims to be a Catholic (as I believe Scotist does), and if one claims not to be a liberal individualist, then one surely must allow the community some role in one's decision-making. Yet this is exactly what Williams does, and exactly what Scotist's attack on Williams explicitly excludes. Williams says (rightly) that neither the Church of England, nor the Anglican Communion, nor the Christian Church as a whole today, nor the historic tradition of the Church supports the validity of same-sex (erotic) relationships. Scotist denounces Williams' deference to this combination of authorities as unfaithfulness to Christ. I challenge Scotist to tell me how one arrives at the mind of Christ without any reference to the consensus of the Christian community.

My understanding of Anglicanism--the understanding that drew me to Anglicanism and has kept me precariously Anglicanism in spite of my many misgivings--is that Anglicanism affirms catholicity as the consensus of the entire People of God, ordered visibly according to the historic polity of the Church (i.e., the threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons) but not vesting authority in any particular institution or organ within the Church. Bishops do not have the authority to invent their own faith. Their responsibility is rather to lead God's people in discerning the mind of Christ on the basis of Scripture, interpreting Scripture through the lens of the Church's traditions but always remaining open to the possibility that Scripture may correct tradition.

This, it seems to me, is exactly the understanding of the Church that lies behind Williams' remarks at Cairo. Scotist speculates that Williams' "church" is led by "bishops" rather than by Christ. This is a particularly risible criticism, because Scotist's real beef with Williams is that Williams refuses to act as if he is the head of the Church. We long for bishops who will act with modesty and humility, and when we get one we revile him! Williams knows that neither he nor any other bishop, nor any caucus of bishops, is the head of the Church. As Scotist affirms, Jesus Christ is the only head of the Church. But Christ speaks to and through the actual, visible, organized, sinful, fallible community of Christians existing throughout space and time. To hear Christ means to hear the Church--not because the Church is infallible and not because it does not need to be challenged by prophetic voices, but because in the end prophetic voices are validated by the wisdom of the entire People of God. As a theologian, Williams has challenged Christians to think more carefully about many issues, including same-sex relationships. But as a bishop, he no longer has the freedom to voice his own views but rather those of the entire body of Anglican believers (with respectful attention to the broader community of believers throughout time and space) engaged in the common task of discerning the mind of Christ.

Scotist's attack on Williams is the cheapest form of fundamentalist polemic. Scotist assumes (like a good fundamentalist) that the mind of Christ can only be known by an individual, and he dismisses the consensus of Christ's Body over against the pristine intuitions of the lonely believer. This is the only way I see to read Scotist's argument. Without such an appeal to radical individualism, he has no case. (I'm sure Scotist will accuse me of caricaturing his position, and indeed I'm being deliberately provocative in reponse to his equally provocative attack on the Archbishop. I hope to draw from him one of his usual eloquent and thought-provoking arguments, and I await such an argument eagerly.)

I don't deny that it is possible for a moral issue to appear to the conscience with such clarity that one can no longer defer even to the consensus of the Church. (I'm dubious that this has been the case as often in the history of the Church as many would claim. The abolition of slavery, for instance, did not contradict anything in the Church's historic teaching as far as I can see, although that teaching had not gone nearly far enough in condemning slavery.) Whether a bishop in such circumstances should press his/her understanding of the issue or should rather step down and resume a purely prophetic role is something I'm in no position to decide. But clearly Williams does not see the legitimacy of sexual relationships between members of the same sex as a matter of such complete moral clarity.

This brings us to Scotist's specific criticism of Williams' remarks about same-sex relationships. Williams distinguishes implicitly between respect for gay people (which is a self-evident moral duty of the first importance) and approval of sexual relationships between members of the same sex (which he regards as something not yet supported by the consensus of the Church). Scotist denies that such a separation is possible:
What kind of viscious abstraction conceives a human person apart from the love of that person, that designs to separate person and character? Can this be done with the divine persons without violence? How can we abstract the homosexual from the love in which that homosexual lives his or her life? Yet this is what Williams would have us do in consigning their love to mere sin while prescinding from demeaning them--the person left over after the sinful love is removed is somehow pristine and whole.
Scotist's position is incomprehensible unless he rejects entirely the Augustinian tradition that fallen human beings are characterized by distorted loves of various kinds. We are called to love and respect all human beings, gay or straight, without necessarily approving of all the forms in which they express love. Most of all, we are called to do this to ourselves. The crying shame and scandal of "conservative," heterosexual Christians today is our lack of self-examination concerning the many ways in which our own loves are disordered and distorted. And yes, of course traditional Christian teaching places a far larger burden on gays (i.e., persons who for whatever reason experience exclusively same-sex attraction) than on most others, at least with regard to sexual desire. This is something that we must not treat glibly, but must reconsider constantly and prayerfully. It is possible (in my view) that the traditional teaching is wrong in this respect. Certainly many aspects of Christian sexual teaching throughout the centuries have been mistaken (though again, I would say that the extent of this is often exaggerated; indeed, the Augustinian teaching of the taint placed by original sin on all sexual desire may have something to say to "conservative" Christians today who blithely assume that heterosexual desire between a husband and wife is entirely innocent). But the case must be made theologically. Unfortunately it cannot simply be reduced to the self-evident moral necessity of treating all persons with respect. This begs the question of whether same-sex desire is morally neutral (and hence ontologically good) or itself a distortion of sexual love as God intended it. Scotist's blanket claim that one cannot distinguish between a person and the way the person loves is simply indefensible. We do this all the time. Furthermore, Scotist also fails (or rather refuses) to distinguish between love and the sexual expression of love. Only the sexual expression is controversial. Love between men or between women is certainly not sinful in itself, and arguably one of the problems in this entire controversy is that same-sex friendship is no longer considered (by many) a form of love.

The obvious question to ask is whether I, as a heterosexual, would be willing to make these distinctions with regard to my own sexuality. Obviously, I don't think that this is in fact necessary. I think that my sexual desires are disordered in many ways, but I don't think that the fact that they are primarily ordered toward the opposite sex is one of those ways. So an affirmative answer that is purely hypothetical will not carry much conviction in the face of the actual experience of gay people. But for what it's worth, I can certainly give an affirmative answer to that question. When I read early Christian texts that condemn all sexual activity as in some way sinful, or even the relatively pro-marriage Augustine who regards all sexual desire as sinful, I disagree with these texts, but I do not think that they demean me as a person. I could imagine growing up under the influence of such texts and believing my sexuality to be fundamentally sinful. (Indeed, while I was always taught in principle that sex was a good creation of God, the practical teachings I received about sexuality growing up tended to convey the opposite impression--so to some extent this is not an imaginary exercise for me!) I would agree that such an experience is/would be damaging in many ways. But I certainly do not think that those who inculcate such a view fail to respect human beings as persons. Rather, they fail to understand the implications of human personhood correctly. (I would say the same of those who reject women's ordination but are not explicitly and directly misogynistic.) Again, it may be that Christians have traditionally failed to understand correctly the implications of human personhood for same-sex relationships. The speculations of theologians and the lived experience of gay people may yet teach us better. But if that is so, we must be taught how to integrate this new insight into what we already know in Christ about human personhood. We must be taught how the legitimacy of same-sex relationships flows from the essential givens of orthodox Christianity rather than conflicting with them.

In my view, this is what has happened/is happening with regards to women's ordination (though I must confess that there too there is hardly an "overwhelming consensus" among Christians today that the new understanding is correct). And of course there are many other issues on which the Church's position has developed or even changed significantly. In this process, the Church needs prophets who are willing to be condemned as heretics in order to lead us to a fuller understanding of the truth. But we also need bishops--that is to say, we need shepherds who keep us from following every tempting bypath suggested by the cultural norms of our particular place and time. Bishops are not, either individually or collectively, the head(s) of the Church. They do not need to lead every new trend. They do not need to be the guides into a bold new future. They exist as visible, personal links among local churches united by Christ but separated in space and time. Their task is to keep us faithful to the faith once delivered to the saints. Williams understands this; Scotist does not (or rather refuses to understand it).

I believe that it is something close to a miracle that a figure of Williams' wisdom and (as far as I can tell) holiness sits in the seat of Augustine of Canterbury during the present crisis. Williams has made and will make many mistakes. But his fundamental humility with regards to his own office is not one of them. On the contrary, it is what we desperately need (and so often sadly lack) in a bishop of the Catholic Church. Williams is condemned as a timeserving "politician" precisely because he refuses to be one. He offends everyone because he refuses to serve any party but Christ's. And thus, it is fitting (in an ironic sort of way) that Scotist should accuse him of failing to serve the Church whose head is Christ. If the Church as a whole does, some day, come to a new understanding of the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, the principled moderation of Williams will be one of the major factors in that change. He points the way toward a liberalism that does not simply put the stamp on the spirit of the age, and an orthodoxy that does not accept blindly the cultural assumptions of other ages. Somewhere in this radical balance, I believe, lies the true mind of Christ, and we the people of God must seek it together.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Priesthood of all believers

One of the central slogans that's come to be identified with the Reformation is the "priesthood of all believers." For a long time I found this phrase very off-putting, because I associated it with the radical denial of any hierarchy or sacramentality in the Church. In my experience, Protestants used the slogan to turn the Church into a religious counterpart to modern liberal democracy. And I was (and am) convinced that that's simply a sell-out to modern culture.

Furthermore, as I became more acquainted with modern Catholic theology, I realized that Catholics do not deny the priesthood of all believers. They see the relationship between the universal and ministerial priesthoods as a both/and rather than an either/or. This has been more clearly affirmed by Vatican II and post-Vatican-II theology, and while Catholics are still debating the exact direction this reaffirmation nees to take, it's clear that some form of the priesthood of all believers is orthodox Catholic teaching.

The two contemporary issues that have forced me to give traditional Protestant arguments more of a hearing are the sex abuse scandal and women's ordination. Women's ordination deserves a post of its own, and I'll address it later. For now I'll just leave you with this teaser: I think that the priesthood of all believers is the central issue in the women's ordination debate (as it takes shape in Catholic and high-church circles).

I don't want to get involved in the horribly complex and sensitive arguments surrounding the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Of course other churches have scandals of their own, and indeed all large care-giving institutions have some pretty horrible instances of abuse, and have a tendency to try to protect the good name of the institution even at the expense of those they are allegedly trying to serve.

But at the risk of being accused of anti-Catholic bias, I can't help but think that a culture of clericalism played a large role in giving the Catholic scandal its shape and scope. I see no way around the conclusion that most bishops saw priests as belonging to the "family" in a way that the victimized young people did not. The long history of church-state battles over jurisdiction in cases of clerical wrong-doing, going back to the Gregorian Reforms of the 11th century at least, shaped the episcopal response in ways that have proved disastrous for all concerned.

The Gregorian Reforms have a lot to be said in their defense. The early medieval Church was tied up in the structures of civil society in ways that severely hindered its ability to proclaim the Word of God and speak authoritatively to social evils. But the measures taken by the reformers widened the gap between clergy and laity and created a set of parallel ecclesiastical power structures that became prey to the same corruptions and temptations as the secular hierarchy (and some of their own).

The Protestant Reformation undid much of the work of the Gregorian Reforms and placed the Church squarely under the authority of the state--at least in Anglicanism and Lutheranism. In some ways this resulted in the worst of all possible situations, with the Established Church benefiting from the coercive force of the state but not having the power to act independently. The "priesthood of all believers" too often translated into the domination of the Church by those who ruled the world of the laity.

Nonetheless, the positive message of the Reformation in this regard was that all baptized Christians are fully members of the Church, and whatever relationship to civil society is possessed by baptized laity is also the lot of the clergy. I think the Anabaptists had some important insights into what that relationship should be, and that the rest of us should pay attention to what they have to say. But the principle as I've stated it is common to Anabaptists and "magisterial" Protestants. Too often we have not lived by this principle. You hear even Protestants talk about being "just laity." And at the same time, I agree that the priesthood of all believers is often translated into a religious equivalent of secular democracy.

The priesthood of all believers does not necessarily mean that the Church should model its polity on secular democracies--though some degree of democracy is desirable, I think, and I certainly cannot see that a top-down structure is uniquely holy either. Nor does it mean that all baptized Christians should be able to perform all sacramental functions (though I think it does mean that in cases of emergency any baptized Christian can do anything any other baptized Christian can do). Ordination is a sacred rite within the Church (I have no problems calling it a sacrament) which sets aside certain men (and, in the traditions in which I participate, women) to carry out certain special functions of the Body. I bow when the priest passes me in procession, because the priest is the bearer of a particular sacred function of the whole Body.

The priesthood of all believers, as I understand it, means this: that ordained clergy are particular organs within the Body, but are not in any sense more fully members of the Body than laity. I recognize that Catholics would be unlikely to disagree with this, but the structure and daily operation of the Catholic hierarchy gives the lie to such a claim, except in the most spiritualized way. The abuse scandals were simply the most glaring example of a clericalism that pervades the Catholic Church.

While the current Pope is in my opinion a very holy man and is unquestionably a brilliant theologian (perhaps the finest theologian now living), he has a rather spiritualized conception of the Church which paradoxically leaves the over-centralized bureaucracy of the Catholic Church in a position above criticism. Unquestionably he is right that a merely structural reform is useless. But I am driven to the conclusion that many of the traditional Protestant criticisms of Catholic clericalism are borne out by the facts. This is not simply an external, political critique. The Protestant claim is that a vital spiritual principle is compromised when the Church proceeds as if only the clergy count. Insofar as Catholic structures have been built on this attitude--and I think it's clear that they have--they must be reformed, precisely as a part of the genuine spiritual renewal for which the Pope calls so eloquently. To oppose structural reform to inner renewal as if they had nothing to do with each other is to fall into a spiritualism incompatible with orthodox Christianity.

All organs of the Body of Christ are mutually accountable to each other. This does not have to be embodied in institutions analogous to those of modern liberal democracy, but it does need to have some institutional embodiment, or it will become a piece of pious rhetoric.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Insight for the day from Wendell Berry

"There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places."

Thanks to la nouvelle theologie for the quote (the whole poem is over there).

Sunday, October 09, 2005

For Dave Armstrong: on development and ecclesiology

Dave,

Here at last is my piece defending the development of Protestant ecclesiology, which I've been promising you for several years now. I've been sitting on it for nearly two years now--finishing it turned out to be easier and quicker than I'd anticipated. Perhaps I really will get a lot of things done now the dissertation ordeal is drawing to a close . . . .

This may not be exactly the kind of dialogue you want to have. That's OK. Writing this has helped me clarify my own views on many points. Here it is:

Newman’s Essay on Development has given Catholic apologists perhaps their favorite argument. Traditionally, the primary strategy of Protestant polemicists was to fend off the claim of “innovation” and revolt by pointing out the clear differences between Catholic teaching of their day and the teachings of the Fathers. The same tactic is employed by some conservative Protestants today—witness William Webster’s The Church of Rome at the Bar of History. Such Protestant polemicists are generally unwilling to question their own views in the light of the Fathers, but employ the argument of historical change negatively, to show that everyone believes differently from the Fathers and therefore that the argument from tradition has no weight against Protestantism.

Against this attack, the doctrine of development is the most effective response. Catholics usually have little difficulty showing that modern Catholic doctrine has important points of continuity with that of the early Church, and that patristic teaching contains many ideas that foreshadow later developments and can plausibly be argued to contain the principles of those later teachings. So for instance Irenaeus’s claim that Mary is the new Eve points toward the Immaculate Conception and other Martian doctrines, and Ignatius’s simple affirmation that Christians eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood points toward transubstantiation. Furthermore, Catholics can show that Trinitarian Protestants also hold doctrines that have developed historically, and that the negative argument as employed by Webster and his predecessors can equally be used against orthodox Protestantism (and indeed antitrinitarians do use such arguments). So when used purely defensively, the argument from development is effective. If the claim is being made that the Immaculate Conception cannot be true because it is not taught in the early Church, then it is legitimate to point out that the kernel of the idea is found from very early on, and to appeal to a theory of development to account for the later doctrine. If Protestants claim that the Catholic claim of infallibility and authority is made void by the changes in its doctrine, then again, development is a valid and relevant concept to invoke.

But this is only part of the Protestant argument, and not the strongest or most important part. The main use of the “innovation” argument for Protestants is to level the playing field. It is a response to Catholic claims of Protestant innovation. And all too often Catholic apologists appear to be using a double standard—holding Protestants to a close, literal reading of patristic texts to support their position, while invoking “development” when similar arguments are turned against them. Because conservative Protestants have a tendency to think in fairly literal terms and to have a proof-texting approach to Scripture, this is both maddening and effective in an argument with them. Also, the more radical forms of Protestantism clearly are unjustifiable on the basis of Scripture. And finally, development can easily work in tandem with a claim to authority. The argument can be made that we should trust the historic, institutional Church to interpret Scripture rightly, and that the doctrine of development refutes claims that the Church has manifestly failed to do so. I myself would entirely agree with this argument. (Exactly where and how authority is to be located within the historic Church is another issue, about which my opinions waver and which I’d like to try to keep out of this discussion.)

I believe, however, that development is of limited usefulness as an argument against Protestantism, if abstracted from an appeal to authority. On a number of points, a good argument can be made for moderate, traditional Protestant teachings as developments of early Christian doctrine—the same kind of argument on which Catholics rely to justify their own developments. I am not arguing that Protestant doctrines are as clearly or explicitly found in the Fathers as their Catholic counterparts. In some cases that may be true, but that’s not what my argument rests on. Nor am I arguing here that the Protestant teachings are true. I am simply arguing that an appeal to antiquity, bolstered by a theory of development, does not conclusively refute all versions of Protestant teaching on several key points: ecclesiology, the authority of Scripture vs. tradition, and sacramental theology. I argue that no concept of development can be found that justifies Catholic developments without also justifying Protestant developments, unless one simply appeals to the decision-making power of the Church.

For now, I’m going to make this argument with respect to ecclesiology, particularly the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus and the various definitions of the limits of the Church on which that doctrine depends for its practical meaning. The Protestant ecclesiology I’m going to defend is one held by many orthodox, ecumenical members of mainline Protestant denominations today. Many of my colleagues and professors at Duke Divinity School, for instance, would hold some form of this view. The more traditionally-minded and intellectually sophisticated evangelicals (many of whom are in fact members of mainline denominations) would also hold something similar.

In this view, there is a visible universal Church made up of all local churches that hold to the Christian faith as divinely revealed. This faith is understood to consist in certain essential teachings, best summarized in the Creeds; in acceptance of Scripture as the divinely inspired source of Christian truth and life; the practice of the two sacraments of the Gospel, baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and the moral teachings of Scripture as summarized in the Ten Commandments. I’m aware that Catholics have many questions about how this list of essentials is arrived at, but I’m not concerned to defend this particular list here. I’m giving it only to provide some indication of what the Protestants I’m speaking of would think are the doctrinal limits of the visible Church. Any religious body that denies the divine inspiration of Scripture (as opposed to a particular theory thereof such as inerrancy), or doesn’t practice the two evangelical sacraments (again, as opposed to holding faulty theories about it); or denies a central creedal doctrine such as the Trinity, is not part of the Church and is not, theologically speaking, Christian. (I myself have found this hard to apply in certain places, such as Quakers or Oneness Pentecostals; but again some of my friends at Duke would be quite willing to apply it strictly and say that such people are not Christians.) People outside the Church may be saved, by being judged according to their light, or by baptism of desire, or by some way known only to God alone. But normatively speaking there is no salvation outside the Church.

Division within the Church is seen as tragic but inevitable as long as we live in a fallen world. The full visible unity of the Church will probably only occur at the coming of Christ, just as its members will only be completely holy then. We can however work toward that goal and get much closer to it than we are now. Division among Christians who hold to the essentials of the Faith, however, is seen as division within and not away from the Church, although the parties responsible for such division (in most historic splits this is held to be both parties, at least to some degree) are guilty of a serious sin against charity.

I argue that this way of understanding the Church, whether or not it is true, is defensible as a development from patristic ecclesiology in the same way as (even if not to the same degree as) the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Both ecclesiologies have major points of continuity with the teaching of the Fathers; both attempt to apply patristic principles to a very different set of circumstances; and both find themselves obliged to depart from some things accepted as true during the classic period of patristic theological activity.

I should probably summarize what I think Vatican II’s ecclesiology is, since we may differ on this point. As I understand it, Vatican II taught that the Catholic Church of the Creeds subsists uniquely in those churches in communion with the Pope, and that full participation in the Church is possible only for members of that visible body. Other Christians are still members of the Church, but in a more or less imperfect way. They are united to the Church by baptism, by much orthodox doctrine, by the Holy Scriptures (even if in truncated or interpolated form), and most of all by the grace of the Holy Spirit present among all who truly believe in Christ and endeavor to live a Christian life as best they know. The extent to which non-“Catholics” are united to the Church varies greatly, ranging from the separated Eastern Churches, who are “almost there,” over to non-sacramental or non-trinitarian forms of Protestantism.

The common roots of these two ecclesiologies lie (after the NT) in the second and third centuries of Christianity--the period in which certain people who believed in Christ were coming to see themselves as members of the “Catholic” Church, in opposition to other groups claiming to be Christian. These other groups fell initially into two main categories—on the one hand, those who denied basic elements of the deposit of faith (Marcionites, Valentinians, Sabellians, and later Arians), and on the other, those who separated from the “Catholic Church” on the grounds that it was insufficiently rigorous in its treatment of sinners or otherwise corrupt (Montanists, Novatianists, and eventually Donatists). As Newman has shown (this has been supported by later scholarship with very different ideological biases), early Christianity did not present the unified front of later legend, but was a bewildering chaos of sects not entirely unlike the Christian world today. Then, as now, one particular body of Christians claimed to be the true Church over against all the others (unlike the current situation, it appears that in the early Church all the other groups also made exclusive claims). The picture was not always clear-cut, of course. Some heretics remained within the body of the Church and their status was the subject of some debate (I’m thinking particularly of the Pelagians, a little later than the period I’m discussing). In other cases, such as St. Hippolytus, someone could form his own schismatic group, denounce the reigning Pope as a heretic, and nonetheless go down in history as a saint and martyr (it does appear that Hippolytus and the Pope were reconciled while in exile together). But by about the third century the teaching of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” was clearly formulated by Cyprian. Here, if anywhere, one can find a solid Catholic affirmation of the unity of the visible Church and the complete illegitimacy of all schismatic bodies.

The problem, of course, is that Cyprian’s position was no sooner formulated than it was rejected by Rome. Rome insisted that Cyprian was wrong to deny the validity of heretical or schismatic baptism. By saying this, the Pope was taking the first step toward the ecclesiology formulated at Vatican II, which allows for varying degrees of membership in the one true Church. (Diane Kamer informs me that Fr. Stanley Jaki has made this argument.) But the Roman position appears, on the face of it, to be nonsense. If baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the Church, then how can a body separate from the Church possess valid baptism? Since the early Church did not want to affirm any kind of “branch theory”—or even the position of Vatican II—this presented a serious difficulty in Catholic ecclesiology for centuries.

Augustine’s treatise on baptism against the Donatists is one of the most thorough attempts to deal with this difficulty. Augustine formulates an ingenious theory whereby baptism administered by Donatists initiates the convert into the true Church, only to be immediately nullified by the fact that the convert has (in that same act) joined a schismatic sect. The grace of baptism thus remains latent until the Donatist reconciles with the Catholic Church. This theory allows Augustine to separate the grace of baptism from the act of baptism itself, keeping the former the exclusive property of the Catholic Church.

Augustine’s position is, as far as I can tell, the standard position of Western Christendom until the Reformation. It allowed little if any hope for the salvation of schismatics and heretics, while nonetheless preserving the objectivity of the sacraments. During the Middle Ages, the major challenge to this ecclesiology was the reality of the East-West split. The fact that East and West were two separate churches seems to have dawned only gradually on both sides. But by the 13th century there are plenty of treatises “against the Greeks,” which seem to hold (from the little I know of them) that the “Greeks” are schismatics in the full Augustinian sense. (I’m open to correction on this point.) Whether this was the official teaching of the Church I’m not sure. Some learned Catholic writers such as Louis Bouyer maintain that the two Churches were not necessarily seen as fully separate until the 19th century—and he maintains that they are in fact one Church. There does appear to be a good deal of ambiguity about the Catholic position toward the Orthodox—and I’d argue that this was precisely because the Augustinian model didn’t fit the reality of the East-West split, and that something like the “Protestant ecclesiology” I’m defending was needed. (Bouyer’s position is in effect the “Protestant ecclesiology” except that it applies only to Catholics and Orthodox, not to Protestants.)

Eugenius V at the Council of Florence sums up the medieval Catholic tradition in a particularly uncompromising way. Florence’s Decree on the Jacobites (actually referring to the Copts) is worth studying because the situation of the “Jacobites” is in many respects similar to that of contemporary Protestants. That is to say, in the Copts the Catholic Church confronted a church that had been in schism for centuries—a church whose members in the 15th century bore no direct responsibility for the schism of their ancestors. Yet Florence declares unequivocally that all members of such a church are damned if they do not unite with Rome before they die. (The one thing that gives me some pause here is that Eugenius speaks warmly of the zeal and piety of the Coptic Patriarch, and of the other eastern Patriarchs, and refers to Mother Church rejoicing that her “sons” were united. But I don’t think this implies that the Easterners in any way belonged to the Church, or were destined for salvation, before the reunion. Rather, they showed their genuine piety by the fact that they worked for reunion.)

Anti-Protestant polemic during and after the Reformation is forthrightly Augustinian—or even Cyprianic. Protestants are seen as in no way part of the Church, having completely separated themselves from it. Given the fact that many Protestants rejected the Catholic doctrine of baptism, Catholics in fact regarded Protestant baptism as dubious at best until the 20th century. By the 19th century, the Catholic Church was willing to grant that those Protestants who were “invincibly ignorant” could be saved, but I’m not aware of any expression of this view on the Catholic side during the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, in the late 17th century one work of Protestant apologetics (a fictional dialogue between a “Papist” and a Protestant) presents the “Papist” as arguing that Catholicism is the safer choice because Catholics regard Protestants as necessarily damned, while Protestants do not reciprocate. The Protestant has to argue that while theoretically members of the Catholic Church can be saved, in fact the errors of Rome make this practically impossible. (I regret that I don’t have the reference to this—I came across it at Duke and did not write down the specific information. I believe it was by Richard Baxter but I could be mistaken on this point.) I think this is a reliable source (or would be if I could find the reference again) because the Protestant writer seems to regard the somewhat more inclusive Protestant view as a liability, and the alleged Catholic claim to be a dangerous argument the Papist would be likely to use. Thus, it’s unlikely that this is a misrepresentation of the contemporaneous Catholic position. But I’m sure there is better evidence one way or another. I’m just citing something that I happen to remember (without of course any illusion that this would pass muster in an academic context).

Meanwhile, Protestants themselves initially tended to adopt a more or less Augustinian ecclesiology themselves. As late as the end of the 17th century, even a relatively irenic Lutheran like Philipp Jakob Spener could refer to Lutheranism as “the true Church out of which there is no salvation.” However, the divisions and confusions of Protestantism made this sort of position untenable for most Protestants fairly early. Contrary to what is commonly believed, the Protestants did not substitute an “invisible Church” for traditional claims concerning the visible Church. If we take Calvin as representative (he isn’t, exactly, but he is extremely influential) of classical Protestant thought on this point, we find that he affirms the visible Church to be our mother out of whom there is no salvation. Calvin, however, doesn’t identify the universal visible Church with an institution but with the sum of local churches where the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered. This gave Protestants a good deal of flexibility—when it suited them, they could open the arms of brotherhood to Christians with whom they differed, while at other times taking a narrower view.

Modern ecumenism, then, was born from the practical realities of Christian division. The ecclesiology of Vatican II is a thoughtful and reasonable response to the reality of Christian piety among Protestants and to the development of Protestant ecumenism. But it is not, on the face of it, obviously continuous with patristic or medieval ecclesiology (with regard to EENS at least) in a way that Protestant ecclesiology (as I’ve defined it) is not. On the contrary, as my Duke colleague Roger Owens once pointed out to me, Protestants can maintain EENS more straightforwardly than Catholics.

Neither orthodox Catholics nor (most) Protestants maintain the strict Cyprianic view. Nor does Vatican II lend itself to Augustine’s view as originally expounded, although it builds on that position. We agree against Cyprian that validly baptized people exist in more than one Christian communion. And we agree against Augustine that such people may (while still being separated) receive grace from their baptisms and lead lives of Christian holiness. This is a major break from pre-Reformation ecclesiology.

Yes, ecumenical Protestants go further than Catholics inasmuch as we deny that the Church subsists fully and uniquely in any one communion. But we are more traditional than Catholics inasmuch as we hold that the Word and the Sacraments have no saving efficacy outside the bounds of the visible Church. You modify the traditional view by allowing that communities separated from the Church can receive grace from Word and Sacraments; we modify it by defining the visible Church as existing wherever the Word and Sacraments are present. Granted, Vatican II tries to avoid a break with the tradition by saying that separated communities have some degree of union with the Church. And some doctrine of degrees of communion is necessary for both ecclesiologies. Again, I’m not trying to compare which ecclesiology is more traditional as a whole. Rather, I’m saying that if we contradict the Tradition, then so do you. The only way (to borrow a metaphor from The Pilgrim’s Regress) that you can cross the drawbridge while keeping us from crossing it is to invoke authority to define just how much change constitutes a genuine break with Tradition.

I apologize for the length of this argumentmost of which dates from nearly two years ago. If I were starting from scratch now I’d keep it briefer. But here it is. Reply to it when and how you wish.

The dissertation is in the hands of the committee

My defense will take place on Oct. 17. Assuming all goes well, a major phase of my life will be over, and a great burden will be off my shoulders.

Now, presumeably, I can do all the things I've been putting off till the dissertation was done. I can write novels and poetry and blog every day and argue with Dave Armstrong and keep in touch with all my friends. . . .

Of course, I also have to find a full-time job!

But right now, while still very nervous about the defense, I do feel a great relief. I celebrated today by going to see the movie Serenity (I haven't darkened the doors of a movie theater for a while). I strongly recommend it. As with many movies (especially science fiction), the ending is not quite up to the promise of what has come before. (The same was true, for instance, of Minority Report.) But I still think it's one of the best science fiction movies I've ever seen. Like all the sf I really like, it's deeply theological. I suspect that Joss Whedon (the director) thinks he's made a movie that criticizes the religious right. But in fact he's made a great anti-Pelagian movie. The film is a robust condemnation of what the Catholic Catechism rather inaccurately calls millenialism--the belief that human effort can bring in the Kingdom. As the main villain (definitely one of the great movie villains of all time) puts it: "I believe in a better world; a world without sin."

Christians, of course, believe in a world without sin. (And thus I suspect that Whedon thinks he's attacking Christianity, or at least some forms of Christianity.) But we do not believe that social engineering will bring about such a world. And the history of Christian attempts to create a righteous society (along with the far more horrifying such attempts made by secularists, not to speak of Islamic examples) bear out the premise of Serenity that the result of any such endeavor is death and monstrous evil.

In its own way, Serenity can take its place alongside the Passion of the Christ as a way to introduce people to Christian ideas. Gibson's much-criticized Pilate could be an agent of Whedon's Alliance. (Or more accurately, the Alliance is the 26th-century equivalent of the Roman Empire.) When you are trying to create a peaceful world through force, you have no room for truth. You crucify it. When people see the brutality of the Passion and complain that Gibson doesn't show the reason for it, one answer might be, "Go watch Serenity." It's as good a way as any I know to start a discussion about the pervasive nature of sin and the inadequacy (far worse than inadequacy, in fact) of any political or social cure for human evil.

And it's just plain fun, for all its darkness. I laughed out loud repeatedly while watching it.

Note that this is not to say that the film doesn't contain some objectionable elements. There are always better ways to spend one's time. . . . But if you watch movies in general, then don't pass this one up.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Authority and truth--reply to Binx

I've been carrying on a conversation in the comments section with a poster named Binx, who posed some excellent questions relating to my last post. So I decided to move t into a new blog post (in part because it's late Sunday night and I haven't made a new post this weekend). As I have time--probably next weekend--I hope to move on to the priesthood of all believers, and from there to women's ordination--so stay tuned!

Binx initially raised three objections to my post (you can read his full arguments in the comments section of my previous entry):

1. James contradicts what I am saying. I responded that I don't think James and Paul are speaking of the same kind of "faith," and my evidence for this is that James identifies the dead faith that cannot save as the faith of demons, which cannot be a gift of God and which even Aquinas distinguishes from the "lifeless faith" of sinful Christians.

2 (this was the third point he made, but I'm leaving the most important issue for last). The practical flaws in Catholicism result not from Catholic doctrine but from a failure to proclaim said doctrine. They are therefore simply the results of sin and do not constitute a reason to continue in separation from the Church. I responded that when any Christian body consistently shows certain weaknesses, these weaknesses derive from some flaw in its teaching. This applies to Protestants as well. It's not that we are better than Catholics or that we are unwilling to be in union with Catholicism, but rather that (in view of the flaws of Catholicism) we cannot make the act of unconditional submission that Catholicism requires.

3. Most significantly, Binx raised the issue of authority. I'll put his argument in his own words:
the objective aspect of faith, the 'what is held to be true', is just as integral a part of faith as the act of 'holding as true'. And this is where dogma and authority are indespensible and yet absent from evangelical Protestantism. It is why 'faith' in the Jehovah's Witness sense or the Mormon sense is not faith in Christ at all. It is why Arianism is not Christian. And gnosticism, Donatism, Albegensianism, etc. Faith has an objective element that the Authority of the Church protects and that is necessary to salvation. . . . The Dogma and Authority of the Church are not the heart of Faith but they are the divinely instituted means of protecting the very fullness of the Faith.
To this I responded that the objective aspect of faith is indeed integral, but this faith is primarily faith in Christ rather than faith in whatever-the-Church-proposes-as-true. What distinguishes Arianism from authentic Christianity is its failure to proclaim the true Christ, not its failure to conform with the pronouncements of the Magisterium.

In his most recent post, Binx began by responding to this argument. I will quote snippets of his post here, but you can of course read his arguments in their entirety (which they well deserve) in the comments section of the previous blog entry.

Binx wrote:

Actually I think I would formulate the relationship between the Church (and her God given Authority to bear witness to the Truth) and Christ as integral and inseperable.


Sure. But as a matter of fact there are many Christians out there who believe in Christ but don't accept this "integral" connection. Vatican II describes us as imperfectly connected with the Church, but still in some sense members of the Body. I can live with that. But that of course means that the full authority of the Magisterium is not the same thing as union with Christ (though it may be necessary for perfect union with Christ). Some "hierarchy of truths" is necessary. Some things are believed for the sake of other things. And it seems important to me that Jesus Christ crucified should be the one for whose sake we believe in the Church, not vice versa. Of course the Church is necessary as a _witness_ to Christ. (This I think is what Augustine meant in his famous statement about not believing the Gospel if not convinced by the Catholic Church.) But a witness is decidedly secondary to the truth to which he witnesses.


So it seems to me it can't boil 'down to...our faith is in Christ, not in a doctrine or a church', because implicit in faith in Christ is faith in Christ's message necessarily mediated thru the Church. Yes?


Yes. I was not trying to create an either/or, but rather a hierarchy of importance. My problem with much Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant (I'm not necessarily holding up the Orthodox as models here, just leaving them out because I'm less sure about them), is that we have exalted the methodology of belief above the content of belief itself (or rather Himself). William Abraham has some good things to say about this in his book Canon and Criterion, though I don't agree with all his arguments.

But I would immediately feel compelled to qualify the statement by an equally important addendum so that it only makes sense to read it as "...not fully divine and thus not the true Christ as understood and proclaimed the Church, whom the Lord gave his Authority to bear witness regarding Himself" ('He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.')


But during the Arian controversy it wasn't clear what the Church proclaimed. The Church was divided. Even Rome wavered at one point, though it never sided with the Arians. Athanasius and others defended what they believed to be true based on Scripture and the writings of earlier Christians and the analogy of the Faith. They believed what they believed passionately because they were convinced it was true, not because it came stamped by proper authority.

Otherwise who can tell us who the 'true Christ' is? That is precisely what the Arians claimed to be doing, defining the true Christ. Who has the Authority to say?


Well, that's radically different from how Athanasius approached it. And I think it's a dangerous, even deadly attitude to take (however tempting in confusing times like ours). The answer to the question is that the Church has the authority, and the Church is made up of all believers. The Church has proper authority structures, but that doesn't (or shouldn't) shortcut the messy process of actually thrashing out the issues based on what we (not just I, but not just the Pope and bishops either) believe to be true.

Clearly we need authority if this process is not to be totally open-ended and hence incapable of resolution. But that's not the same thing as saying (as you appear to be saying) that we can't even talk about why the Arians are wrong until we have heard from some Qualified Authority that they are wrong. This is the attitude that has torn the Western Church apart (not, as many Catholics will tell you, the rejection of this attitude--of course this is a matter of perspective). Medieval Catholicism took in the poison of Roman law and fell prey to its legalistic, authority-driven approach to the world. (I'm often tempted to agree with the late medieval apocalypticists and the Protestant Reformers who thought that at this point Antichrist in some way entered into the Church.) This has nearly destroyed Christianity by distracting us from the older, more orthodox, ontological approach. (In other words, is truth primarily a matter of obeying the rules laid down by competent authorities, or of participating in Ultimate Reality? Of course it doesn't have to be an either/or, but one or the other tends to be in the driver's seat, and I think it matters a lot which.)

I think this all flows from the doctrine of the Incarnation and the Church's foundation on Christ and his nature as determined by the Incarnation. The human and divine nature of Christ are inseperable, even tho they can be considered in their seperate aspects. Yes?


But Jesus' humanity was sinless. The Church is not (although she can be defined as such if you play elaborate word games that identify the mystical reality of the Church with the earthly institution enough to sanctify the latter but whisk the mystical reality back up to heaven as soon as the threat of earthly pollution becomes imminent). The Church errs--at least the institutional leaders of the Church err. The Church as an earthly institution errs. (Not perhaps in dogmatic definitions, but in the many other decisions it makes every day.) In this world the Church cannot simply be identified with Christ. This is to confound the "already" with the "not yet," and it is the fundamental error of Catholicism. When all is said and done, this is the reason I'm not a Catholic. (Although when a more extreme version of this was expounded by Touchstone's S. M. Hutchens, I responded critically in my blog post "The Ecclesiology of Limbo." Read that post, if you like, for a balance to what I'm saying now.)


(Luther and Calvin both wounded forever the Protestant movement with their inbalance regarding the Transcendence of God).


Calvin yes, with his conception of idolatry. I'm much less sure about Luther. It's hard to find someone who proclaimed the Incarnation with all its consequences as boldly as Luther. I think it's a mistake to assume that because Luther wasn't sure the Church was most fully incarnate in ecclesiastical hierarchies that he therefore had a spiritualized view of the Church. The case can be made that he did--but it's not an obvious one. (And Calvin arguably spiritualized the Church even less than Luther, although he had a more spiritualized view of the Sacraments than Luther.)

She has the promise that the Gates of hell will not prevail against her.


And she defines this to mean that certain ecclesiastical officials can't err on matters of doctrine in very narrow circumstances. In my more Protestant moods, I'm tempted to say, Who cares? (I know that's a silly and insufficient response. But it's an appropriate response to the careless way some Catholics throw the "gates of hell" passage around as if it were sufficient to wipe out all the very obvious failures of the institutional Church throughout history.)

If the Catholic Church (or the Church whose true identity is that of the original church, as Newman would say I think) has not 'preserved the fullness of the Faith', then the Scripture is not true that proclaims she is the 'pillar and ground of truth', and indeed the 'gates of hell have prevailed against her'.


Why? Why is a failure to achieve perfection part-way through one's earthly pilgrimage a total defeat by the gates of hell? What if the fullness of the truth is not something that can be preserved but something that must be achieved, and will only be achieved in Glory? Perhaps a better term for the deposit of faith the Church preserves would be the integrity of the truth. I'm not disputing the importance of preserving the deposit--I'm questioning that (by Newman's own standards, recognizing the reality of development as he did) the "fullness of the truth" is the right term for what the Church preserves.

"the members of the Church, due to the effects of original sin and actual sin, are always in need of reform. The Church’s teaching, however, is from God. Not one iota is to be changed or considered in need of reform." [Alice von Hildebrand, as quoted by Binx]


And this is the disjunction that I'm not sure I can accept. Indeed, in a way this very disjunction is anti-incarnational. I agree that the Church is more than the sum of its members. I'm not sure you can use "the Church" in a proposition whose content is diametrically opposed to any true statement whose subject is "the Church's members." In other words, I don't think you can say, "The Church is sinless; the Church's members are sinful," unless of course you are very explicitly talking about the eschatological reality of the Church, toward which we are presently in pilgrimage.

I recognize that you quote Dr. von Hildebrand as saying not "the Church" but "the Church's doctrine." This is a more defensible position, but as I said it seems somewhat gnostic to me. And of course there's a huge difference between defined doctrine and normal, everyday teaching. I'm quite willing to keep open the possibility that the Catholic Church's defined dogmas may in fact all be true (due to divine protection). I hope this is the case, because I deeply long for the unity of the Church and I doubt that the See of Rome will ever back down from this particular claim. But clearly the actual, day-to-day teaching of the Catholic Church is deeply flawed in all sorts of ways. That I'm sticking to, and I think most Catholics would agree with me, however reluctant they might be to put it quite this way.

I am not sure what you mean by 'unconditional submission', could you explain.


I mean that I would have to accept without qualification not only that all the currently defined teachings of the Catholic Church are true, but that the Holy Spirit is so guiding the Church that any future definitions would also be true. I would have to accept that to separate from the "Roman" Catholic Church is (if done with full and sufficient knowledge) to separate from Christ, so that if in the future I came into conflict with the Church, I would never be in the right to push that conflict to the point of separation.

Also, whatever this means, the Church, I think, teaches that one should always follow the dictates of one's conscience. That surely has to be balanced with what unconditional submission means (I will try and find that in the CCC if you like).


I've read quite a bit on this, and I think (though I could be wrong) that I understand it. Catholics are required to follow their consciences, but they are also required to be willing to form their consciences according to the Church's teaching. And they are required to submit even when they cannot agree, unless some practical action were required that went against the conscience. In other words, I assume that if I lived in the 13th century and knew that reporting on my Albigensian or Waldensian neighbor would lead to said neighbor being burned at the stake, I would be justified in the eyes of the modern Catholic Church in defying the decree of Lateran IV authorizing the bishop to order me to report on said neighbor; whether that would help me much back in the 13th century I'm not sure.) I'm not arguing that this kind of submission is unworthy or conflicts with intellectual honesty. I respect those who make it, because they believe it is the right thing to do. My problem is that, as an outsider to Catholicism, I don't see evidence that the Catholic Church (as an institution) is trustworthy enough for me to make that kind of submission. (The policies of the high medieval Church toward heretics are one good reason for this--I'm pretty sure the Church won't do such a thing again, but it did do it once, and I can't be sure that it isn't doing or won't do something equally stupid and wicked.)

I thought Bouyer in Spirit and Forms does a marvelous job in pointing out that the insights that Luther came to were always the heart of Catholic Doctrine and that it was the decadence of the time and of a corrupting Nominalist Theology on which he was standing that caused him to fail to perceive it. If you get the chance I would love to hear your perspective on his argument.


It's been a while since I read that book--I was at least somewhat persuaded at the time, although as someone who's studied nominalism to some extent as a grad student I'm wary of blaming everything on nominalism. (Martin Bucer, the subject of my dissertation, was trained as a Thomist; and to take one of Bouyer's examples, Bucer had no problems understanding that the same action could be wholly of God and yet fully human; but Bucer still embraced Protestantism.)

On the whole, though, I've tended to embrace Bouyer's approach. That's precisely what I was trying to address in my post. I have identified an issue where I think Luther had a definite insight that did contradict Aquinas at least (the more I look at Aquinas on this, the less certain I am that his position represented the previous consensus--and that's true on a bunch of other issues as well).

How does Luther's rejection of the unformed/formed faith distinction either constitute an affirmation of Catholic orthodoxy or an unfortunate misunderstanding due to "decadent nominalism"? It seems to me that there is something more than that going on here, and that's exactly why I focused on this issue.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Justification by faith: the real issue?

It's common for Protestants to claim that justification by faith is the single major issue separating Protestants from Catholics. Coming from a Wesleyan background, this has never loomed as large for me. Sure, I was taught that Catholics thought they were "saved by works," but when I came to understand what the Catholic Church actually taught (as opposed to what many Catholics may believe or have believed), I couldn't see that it was such a big deal. I had always been taught that justification involved actually being changed and not simply imputation (my tradition used "justification" pretty much synonymously with "regeneration"--at least that's the impression I got growing up). I was dubious about the whole notion of imputation, and even if it was true I couldn't see how something that abstruse could be the point on which the Church stood or fell. The living presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart--that was what I had always been taught was the main thing, and nothing I have learned in adulthood has persuaded me differently.

However, as I've been involved (on both sides!) in Protestant-Catholic discussions over the years, it's become clear to me that there is some significant difference regarding justification, not only between Lutherans or Calvinists and Baptists and Catholics, but between _all_ evangelically minded Protestants and Catholics. Unquestionably Protestants and Catholics alike experience God's grace. But evangelical Protestants have a particular way of speaking about grace that enables them to testify to it in a way rare among Catholics. And for all the faults of evangelicalism, this way of speaking about grace and salvation clearly speaks to many ordinary people in a way that Catholicism doesn't. Whatever explanations and excuses and qualifications we may make, the fact remains that thousands, maybe millions of people have failed to hear the message of grace in Catholicism and have heard it in evangelicalism. Believing as I do that to break communion with Rome is always tragic (whether or not it can be justified), I think it's important to understand why this happens rather than explaining it away. Poor catechesis may explain a lot. But then one has to ask why Catholicism so routinely fails in this particular department? The people who don't seem to have understood free grace are far more numerous than the people who didn't understand transubstantiation or the Church's moral teachings (numerous as those are these days).

For a while now I've been mulling on a possible answer. It isn't something that I hear stressed a lot in discussions of justification, at least not in quite these terms. I think the key difference between all evangelical Protestant theologies (I'm using "evangelical Protestant" with deliberate looseness--feel free to pin me down!) and Catholicism is the Catholic belief in sola fide. Not, of course, that faith can save on its own, but that it can exist on its own. Protestants generally deny this. At least, orthodox Protestants (another loose term) deny that the "faith" that can exist without charity is the same thing as the faith that saves. We furthermore deny that this loveless faith, this faith of demons, is a supernatural gift. Rather, we see it as just another opinion about religious matters, no more a gift of God than any true opinion is. A true opinion about God has more importance and dignity than a true opinion about onion soup, but they are both human opinions. The faith that God gives, the faith that is supernatural, is faith that transforms the soul and causes us to bring forth good works through love.

It is, of course, common to say that Catholics and Protestants define faith differently, and that this leads to a lot of misunderstanding. Or more polemical Protestants may say that "Rome" has no conception of what faith really is, and this is the root of its horrible errors (this is basically what Luther himself said). I'm saying more than the first statement and less than the second. Certainly this disagreement is a matter of definitions. Christians experience the grace of God no matter how they define it, and a matter on which so many wise and holy people are found on both sides cannot be one of the essentials of the Faith. And yet it may be important.

Catholics, it seems to me, think of saving faith as a composite act: first you believe (which is a gift of God) that God is God and that the things proposed by the Church for belief are true. But this faith remains dead unless it has added to it (which again is only possible by God's gracious gift) the infused habitus of charity, which lives only as long as you persevere in cooperating with the grace of God working in you. Thus, when Catholics are exhorted to believe, they are exhorted to accept truths intellectually (though, as St. Thomas said, this requires an act of the will which gives the certainty of knowledge propositions that on a natural level have only the nature of opinions). They are then exhorted to do certain things in order to make and keep that faith "living."

This division is one of the things to which Luther objected most profoundly. And I think he was right (though not in the vitriol with which he condemned the Catholic position). The real issue is not so much imputation vs. infusion, or exactly in what sense human beings can be considered to cooperate with God's grace (on both of which points I am in more sympathy with the Catholic view than with Luther). To me, the profound insight of the Reformation (with regard to soteriology) was that living faith is a single and simple act. (Simple in the technical philosophical sense: uncompounded, non-composite, irreducible.) It is not "belief in everything God has revealed" plus charity. Or more precisely, this way of defining it may be correct in a sense, but it is pastorally and psychologically false, because it divides what must (in our experience if not in our theology) remain utterly indivisible.

I don't buy the idea (even though Aquinas taught it) that there are certain doctrines you can only believe by a special gift of God. Human beings can believe just about any theoretical proposition, if circumstances favor credulity. But to place one's whole trust in Christ's grace and love (to quote the 1979 Episcopalian baptismal liturgy); to accept the searing, transforming, renewing power of grace; to throw oneself on God's mercy as a forgiven sinner and at the same time rejoice in the dignity of being a son or daughter of the King of Heaven; this is only possible by a grace that perfects our nature.

That means that evangelicals can proclaim the grace of God with a clarity and simplicity that traditional Catholic doctrine makes impossible. (Or at least normally so: I take Pontificator's point that many Catholic saints, such as St. Therese of Lisieux, have expressed this simplicity of faith. But post-Tridentine doctrine does not make this easy.) It isn't that Catholics don't experience the same thing Protestants do. Indeed, Catholics have spiritual resources at their disposal of a richness and depth that far surpass those normally available to Protestants. But these resources are of use only if you have gotten the basic message. And the indisputable fact is that very many Catholics simply don't. The simplest and most reasonable explanation is that something in Catholic doctrine obscures the message of grace. It doesn't deny it, but it makes it harder for many Catholics to grasp. When faith and charity are separated out and you are told that faith can exist without charity, but charity must be added to faith, it is harder to experience just what the phrase "believe on Jesus Christ and you will be saved" means. Furthermore, it is easier to be at least somewhat complacent about a faith that does _not_ work by charity. After all, you have _part_ of the formula. You just need to work on the charity part--and that is only a good confession away. Hence the indisputable reality of widespread antinomianism among Catholics, which goes straight against the stereotype of anxious Catholics trying to work out their own salvation. Perhaps antinominanism is too strong. I don't mean that Catholics think (as the more heretical Baptists do think) that you can be saved while clinging wilfully to serious sin. But it seems hard to question the fact that traditional Catholic societies contain large numbers of people who see themselves as devout Catholics while also admitting that they are probably not in a state of grace much of the time. On a cultural level there are certain advantages to this (it allows for a heavy permeation of the culture with Christianity even if most people are not willing to try seriously to live a holy life). And it's certainly better than a genuine antinomianism that doesn't recognize the seriousness of sin. But it's hardly surprising that to people used to that kind of culture, the message of evangelical Protestantism often seems like a light in the darkness, because (if it is not the genuinely heretical version taught by some Baptists and quasi-Baptists) it teaches the necessity of a habitually holy life. By denying any spiritual value to faith that does not work by love, it forces people to make a stark choice: either they are not really Christians at all, or their lives must habitually show the fruit of living faith. (This should, of course, be a matter for self-examination, and even then one should be reticent to make final judgments. Catholicism is absolutely right that we have no business trying to figure out someone else's state of soul, and some forms of evangelicalism have gone horribly wrong here.)

This, I think, is at the core of all the fights over justification. Is faith essentially assent to what God has revealed, to which charity must be added? Or is it a single, living, simple act, consisting of a total reliance on the grace and love of God in Christ, overflowing into the love of God and neighbor? I believe that Scripture, as a whole, teaches the latter, and that the recovery of this understanding was one of the few genuinely positive aspects of the Reformation.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Pope Benedict and ecumenism

For non-Catholics, perhaps the most interesting part of World Youth Day was Pope Benedict's address to an ecumenical meeting on Friday, in which he laid out more fully than anywhere else so far his plans for furthering Christian unity. It's not that much of a plan, really. Indeed, if I read him correctly, he doesn't put a lot of stock in schemes and programs and agendas. He affirms that we mustn't pursue ecumenism at the expense of truth, which is to be expected (and quite right, of course). And he reaffirms that the unity of the Church subsists in communion with Rome, "without the possibility of ever being lost." Again, however dubious we non-Catholics may find this, it was only to be expected.

Then comes the interesting part:

We cannot “bring about” unity by our powers alone. We can only obtain unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, spiritual ecumenism – prayer, conversion and the sanctification of life – constitute the heart of the ecumenical movement (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 8; Ut Unum Sint, 15ff., 21, etc.). It could be said that the best form of ecumenism consists in living in accordance with the Gospel. I see good reason for optimism in the fact that today a kind of “network” of spiritual links is developing between Catholics and Christians from the different Churches and ecclesial Communities: each individual commits himself to prayer, to the examination of his own life, to the purification of memory, to the openness of charity.
Of course a number of issues remain for those of us who belong to separated "ecclesial communities." What about the means of grace of which we are deprived? What about the struggle of living in ecclesial communities whose orthodoxy we cannot trust (even on those matters believed in common by the Reformers and the sixteenth-century Papacy)? In a sense, Benedict's recommendations sound alarmingly "pietistic." Is it really just a matter of individual piety?

That of course is not what he's saying. The individual piety for which he calls must be placed at the service of (and be nourished by) both the "ecclesial communities" to which we belong and the universal Church toward which we yearn (whether or not that Church already subsists in any existing body). What I think he is saying is what a number of my Catholic friends (including at least two priests) have been saying to me in different ways for years. The search for unity can easily become a matter of programs and theories. At the heart of our quest for unity is a quest for union with the living Christ. And for most of us, as lay Christians with little or no power to bring about grand schemes of union, it is only as our own spiritual life deepens that we can contribute to the unity of the Church.

And, as I suggested in last week's post, there are means of grace that are at our disposal as Protestants that might not be available (or not as readily available) in communion with Rome. "Spiritual ecumenism" surely involves using those means of grace to the utmost and making them available to Christians of other traditions. If, as Pope Benedict affirms, each tradition has gifts to offer, then perhaps the best thing we Catholic-minded Protestants can do is to develop those gifts within our own traditions and offer them to the universal Church.

Of course I have no way of knowing what the Pope would say to someone like me, who has come within a hairsbreadth of conversion to Catholicism and still struggles with the possibility that this is what God is calling me to do. Perhaps he would say that for someone who has felt that tug, "spiritual ecumenism" needs to include a trip through RCIA. But I think I can claim some support from the Pope's words for the views I expressed in my previous post. The conversion for which the Pope calls is clearly not, at least not primarily, a conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. It is, as any evangelical would insist, a conversion to Christ. And the Pope is quite stunningly sanguine that this will bring about unity among Christians. He is furthermore encouraging the development of the gifts peculiar to our respective traditions. And as I argued in "The Case for Protestantism," this may not practically be possible in the context of an individual "conversion to Catholicism."

Pontificator has written a very kind and thought-provoking response to my previous post. He recognizes that indeed conversion to Catholicism involves a "radical humility," but he considers this to be necessary given the fundamental flaws in the "DNA" of Protestantism. My argument, though, was precisely that all Christian bodies have Catholicity in their DNA. By virtue of baptism, by virtue of our submission to Holy Scripture, by virtue of our claim to be members of Christ's Body, we (that is, all Christian churches) have a Catholic DNA that supersedes all the sins and heresies of which we are guilty. Our identity as members of the Body is more fundamental than our identity as divided Christians. That is the affirmation that makes ecumenism possible.

Pontificator raises two other issues that deserve separate treatment. One of them is the objective validity of Protestant sacraments. I've held forth on this in the comments section of Pontifications, but I should probably write about it here as well. The other is justification by faith. I don't have any disagreement with what Pontificator writes, and I think that my brief comments may have misled him as to exactly what I was criticizing. I will lay out my views in more detail in a subsequent post.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The case for Protestantism

First of all, I'm sorry I've been away from the blog for so long. I worked for two weeks at a summer program at Duke University, the "Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation." I strongly recommend this program, by the way, to any of you who know (or are) intelligent, serious Christian young people who will be either rising juniors or rising seniors (in high school) next summer. I've also been trying to finish up the dissertation (at last!) and have agreed with my advisor on a target date for the defense (as soon after Oct. 15 as we can get the committee together). So it's been quite a full summer.

In my last post, I outlined the case for the "breakdown of Protestantism." In this one, I'd like to sketch a case _for_ Protestantism--specifically, for why those of us who are currently Protestants are justified in remaining so. I am not trying to persuade Catholics or Orthodox to become Protestants (God forbid!). I am not even trying to persuade Protestants not to become Catholic or Orthodox. I am trying to outline a rationale by which those of us who are not convinced that we should leave Protestantism can nonetheless be faithful to our vision of the unity of the Church, and can hold ourselves accountable to the Universal Church throughout space and time.

I've said in previous blogs that I think the norm for all of us should be faithfulness to the tradition in which we were raised. This is the normal way in which human beings reach truth--not because every tradition is equally true, but because as a rule we are only able to challenge our traditions if we submit ourselves to their discipline.

All religions contain what Justin Martyr called the "seminal Word" (logos spermatikos). As a Christian, I believe that submission to the discipline of the Logos in non-Christian religions naturally and ultimately leads people to Christ (this is not a judgment on the fate of those who do not get there in this life). Christians are able to respect those who, like the Tartar king in Chaucer's Squire's Tale, "keep the law to which they are sworn," while believing that faithfulness to the seeds of truth in that "law" ultimately tends to lead such people beyond it.

So obviously when Muslims come to the point where they recognize Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, they are no longer Muslims. When Hindus come to accept the uniqueness of Jesus as the Incarnation of God, they are no longer Hindus. When Buddhists accept that personal union with God in Christ is the ultimate goal of human beings (rather than a penultimate end for those not yet ready for nirvana), they are no longer Buddhists. These other religions are, in fact, other religions. Whatever points of contact they have with Christianity, they propose other ends for human existence than those proposed by Christianity. Conversion is therefore (we Christians must affirm) the ultimate goal which we desire for members of other religions, however much we may respect their faithfulness to the "law to which they are sworn."

The various traditions of Trinitarian Christianity are, however, _not_ different religions. Whatever their differences, they all propose that the ultimate end of human beings is union with the Triune God through the revelation of that God in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. The particular things they claim for themselves, and the particular doctrines they espouse, are (by their own hearty confession) subordinate to that ultimate goal. Furthermore, whatever the peculiarities of their reading of history, they all claim that Jesus Christ has been confessed for the past two thousand years, and that Christians today are part of that continuing story and claim unity with all who have truly called on Christ throughout space and time.

That means that (to take a tradition with which I strongly disagree) a Baptist who becomes convinced that baptism confers grace and that paedobaptism (however undesirable) is valid is not in the same position as the Muslim or Hindu who comes to believe in Christianity. While this person's belief is in contrast with the historic beliefs of his tradition, that tradition holds as one of its central principles that no human tradition has ultimate authority. Therefore, in a sense the Baptist is becoming more fully a Baptist by rejecting the errors of his tradition.

But enough of hypothetical cases. I am myself a scion of the holiness movement. My great-great-uncle and my great-grandfather left the Methodist Episcopal Church because they believed that it was apostate and that all true Christians should "come out" from existing denominations to form a holy community faithful to Christ. My grandparents, in turn, left the church in which they had grown up in order to minister to Christians who were outside that community. I grew up in what amounted to a house church, steeped in Scripture and in a piety focused on personal dedication to Christ. I was told over and over that we should be simply "Christians" rather than giving our loyalty to any human tradition. I was taught that we should seek for an experience of the Holy Spirit that led to our total consecration to God and hence to freedom from sin.

I now believe that much that I was taught was wrong. Our belief in the "invisible Church" led us to downplay the importance of actual, organized Christian communities. More seriously, our commitment to entire sanctification and "keeping ourselves unspotted from the world" led us to look down on the flawed and worldly Christians who make up practically every actual Christian community. Our belief that the Church had historically compromised with the world led us to despise much of the tradition of Christianity (especially since Constantine), hence insulating ourselves from the challenges posed by that tradition.

I have had to reject much of what I was taught. And yet I have only been able to do this because I was trying to be faithful to the things that I was taught were absolutely central. I was taught that above everything else I should follow Jesus Christ. I find that this leads me to treat with respect every manifestation of the Christian tradition in history, however compromised with the world it might be. I was taught that the pursuit of holiness is the only thing that really matters; I have found that the sacramental and liturgical traditions of Christianity kindle in me the desire for holiness. I was taught that the Church should be countercultural and challenge the world; I find that the Roman Communion often does so more effectively than Protestantism.

None of this is, on the face of it, incompatible with conversion to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Such converts (especially to Catholicism) often claim that they have simply come into the fullness of what they were always taught. But from my perspective this is true only in a highly theoretical sense. Allegedly all the good things of Protestantism are implicitly possible in Catholicism (leaving Orthodoxy aside for the moment). But that is not the practical reality I find. I find that the traditions of Wesleyan Protestantism foster holiness and Christian faithfulness in ways that the structures and traditions of the Roman Communion do not (the reverse is also true). The priesthood of all believers (with a consequent tendency toward democracy in church polity), the evangelical conception of saving faith as an inseparable unit (as opposed to the Catholic compound of faith and charity), the vernacular hymn-singing tradition, and the stress on the study of Scripture as a central means of grace are all valuable aspects of Protestantism to me. Perhaps everything true in them can be reconciled with Catholicism (this is more obviously true of the latter two items than the former two). But for a convert to do so implies that one is converting to a tradition in order to change it.

Conversion, by its very name, implies a radical change of heart. It implies that one's priorities have been radically reoriented, however much continuity one may experience. It requires a radical humility toward the tradition one is accepting. That is not to say that the convert has nothing to offer from her former tradition--but all such offerings must be made humbly and tentatively, subject to the new rules by which one is playing. This requires an act of ultimate trust in the integrity of the tradition to which one is converting.

It is this act of trust which I have so far found impossible in the case of Catholicism. Because it is precisely the central elements of my Wesleyan tradition that have led me toward Catholicism, I am only capable of considering conversion to Catholicism _if_ those elements can be preserved within Catholicism. I would therefore be coming in with a set of mental qualifications. I can accept the hierarchical priesthood _if_ it does not violate the underlying primacy of the universal baptismal priesthood. If I found that in practice the ministerial priesthood did not serve the universal priesthood, I would be compelled to question it. I can accept the equality of Scripture and Tradition _if_ it does not make me regard Scripture with less reverence or see it as a less central means of grace than I have heretofore done. I can possibly accept the doctrine of unformed faith if it still allows me to place my trust in Jesus Christ with the same confidence and simplicity that my evangelical tradition has taught me to do.

On the face of it, judging from the behavior of the average Catholic and the life of the average Catholic congregation, it looks as if all these things would be very difficult. Not impossible, but working uphill at every step, against the inertia of centuries and against many of the cultural and devotional patterns that have become ingrained in Catholicism. I see many converts who are doing just that. I wish them well, but I'm not sure it's an enterprise I should embark on.

In conversion stories (or stories about switching traditions, which in many cases should not be called conversion) one often finds a pattern like this: the convert tried for some time to practise his newly discovered truths within the confines of his own tradition, only to decide that this somehow violated the integrity of that tradition. But one has to question this. If the practices or beliefs in question were matters of personal taste (even if they were genuinely superior in ways that are theologically and devotionally significant), then the "conversion" or shifting of allegiance was (however understandable) frivolous and ultimately indefensible. I may prefer Gregorian chant to praise choruses, but does that justify my abandoning one group of Christians for another?

But if the newly discovered beliefs or practices _are_ necessary to a fuller incorporation in the mystery of Christ, then surely talk of respect for one's old tradition is rather disingenuous. As I said earlier, all Christian traditions claim before all else to be faithful to Christ and the Word of God. If this faithfulness involves abandonment of praise choruses for Gregorian chant, or institution of weekly communion, or adoption of prayer for the dead, then so be it. Methodists (to take the tradition I will probably embrace if I remain Protestant) claim that being Christian is more important than being Methodist. Why not take them at their word? That is to show true respect for a tradition--to challenge it to be more fully what it claims to be, rather than stuffing its good points into a metaphysical suitcase and packing oneself off to an allegedly fuller tradition (which one nonetheless finds the need to improve in myriad ways).

In this post and the previous one I've tried to outline the two sides of the dilemma that confronts me. I have no doubt that Protestantism cannot function as an autonomous expression of Christianity. What I do not know is whether it has so completely broken down that I am obligated to abandon it, or whether (as I've been suggesting) faithfulness to my own heritage and to the Universal Church requires me to remain within my tradition (a tricky point for me owing to my nondenominational upbringing) and try to coax it toward greater faithfulness (even as I submit to its disciplines and hear the voice of the Universal Church through it, however distorted by local traditions and the poisonous heritage of schism).

By posting this I am of course asking for arguments on both sides, and yet I'm tired of the whole struggle, which has gone on for ten years now. I'm less and less confident in the possibility of big answers. I think grace comes to us through the cracks in our paradigms rather than through the harmony of a grand, consistent system. A hymn here and a prayer there, the taste of God's blood in the winecup and the handclasp of an old WWII veteran whose hair has fallen out from chemo--these mean more and more to me, and confident answers mean less and less. All I ask is enough certainty to enable me to live with faithfulness and joy, enough confidence to keep me from continually second-guessing my motives (and I will tend to do this do this no matter which path I take--I can make an excellent case that either remaining Protestant or becoming Catholic is fundamentally selfish and cowardly).

I welcome your arguments and comments, but I crave your prayers.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The "breakdown of Protestantism"

"John Student" asked in a comment to my last post why I thought Protestantism had broken down. Well, that is precisely the question for me. Has it? To defend the affirmative response to this question, I could refer John to Pontificator's eloquent posts over the past year or two, but then I don't agree with everything Pontificator has said by any means (he's coming from an Anglo-Catholic point of view in which Protestantism is not really a live option). So here goes:

Protestantism as a coherent form of Christianity is untenable for me because of the vital importance of the unity of the Church in both Scripture and Christian Tradition. I believe with all my heart that salvation means incorporation into Christ's Body. To be saved is to be brought into a living relationship with God through Christ, and this means that each individual believer forms an organic part of the mystical reality called the Body of Christ. So far, I think few if any Christians would disagree.

But here's the catch--this Mystical Body cannot _simply_ be thought of as an "invisible" reality. To do so is to deny both the full meaning of the Incarnation and our own nature as embodied creatures. It is not enough to say "as a Christian I have spiritual unity with all other Christians." This unity must have _some_ practical consequences for how I live my life and how I worship on Sunday morning.

It follows that any particular Christian body is a true church only insofar as it connects me with the universal Body of Christ. It must therefore either claim to be the universal Church or have a plausible account explaining how it is related to the universal Church as a part to the whole. And it must have some way of being accountable to the universal Church. For an intrinsic part of the visibility, the concrete reality, of the Church is that we can be held accountable to each other. This is one of the reasons why "spiritual unity" is so radically insufficient. (Another is that it allows us to continue to despise one another and see ourselves as superior--but that's actually just another facet of the lack of accountability.)

For many Protestants, the claim to be the universal Church (made by any particular Christian body) is an intrinsically absurd one. Of course such a claim must be nuanced, along the lines of Vatican II's clarification that non-Catholics participate to a great measure in the reality of the Church. And historically confessional Protestant churches (Lutheran and Reformed) have made such claims. Confessional Lutherans traditionally saw themselves as the one true visible expression of Christ's Church on earth. Similarly, many Reformed will say that the true Church in its fullness is the Church that holds Reformed doctrine. This approach is different from the Catholic one insofar as it makes doctrine primary--the true Church is just the Church that holds true doctrine (and administers the sacraments truly). But like the Vatican-II approach, this Protestant ecclesiology allows imperfect churches to have a measure of reality without participating in the fullness of the Church in the same way that doctrinally correct churches do.

I do not find the claims of confessional Protestantism in this regard persuasive. I do not believe that either Reformed or Lutheran theology, in their coherent, developed, confessional forms, represent the fullness (or even the fullness as it has been understood up to now) of God's revelation in Christ. Catholicism and Orthodoxy are, from my point of view, possible candidates. Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism are not. (Lutheranism is basically orthodox but wacky and idiosyncratic; Calvinism is more balanced but is seriously heterodox at several points.) None of the other forms of Protestantism can make a better claim in this regard--most, as far as I see it, don't even try.

The only tenable form of Protestantism for me, then, will be a form that can give an account of itself as a _part_ of the universal Church. But this means that the part must understand itself in relation to the whole, and it must have a way of being accountable to that whole. This is where Protestantism completely collapses, as I see it. The two forms of Protestantism with which I currently have some connection--Anglicanism and Methodism--speak of being part of the one holy Catholic Church of the Creeds, but do not in practice seem to have any way of living out this claim. This has become most glaringly obvious in the Episcopal Church since General Convention 2003, but the current crisis is just a symptom of a much deper problem.

This is what I mean by the "breakdown" of Protestantism. At the Reformation Protestants believed (with some reason) that they were accomplishing a much-needed reform of the Church that would lead to the collapse of the Papal "Antichrist" and the restoration of true Christianity in its purity. This clearly is not what happened and not what is going to happen. Again, in the 18th and early 19th centuries evangelical, revivalistic Protestants believed that through revivals and missions true Christianity was going to spread around the world, once again bringing about the collapse of false religion and ushering in the reign of Christ on earth. This too has not happened. Then, in the 20th century mainline Protestants (I'm thinking of solid, orthodox theologians like Lesslie Newbigin) believed that through ecumenism and mutual understanding Christians could get beyond their historic differences and discover the historic core that underlay their particular expressions, recognizing in each other the gifts missing in their own traditions. This too seems a failure now.

Of course Christ can bring success out of failure--it's his job description. But I see no reason to believe that any of these projects are rooted in any promise of Christ. I can see why Protestants during the heyday of each of the movements I mentioned (the Reformation, revivalism, ecumenism) saw a rationale and a purpose for Protestantism. But I can't. The earlier forms of Protestantism that saw Catholicism as an enemy were (I believe) clearly wrong, and the more ecumenical approach is incompatible with the dogmatic claims of Catholicism, and seems in practice to be fatal to orthodoxy even within a Protestant framework.

I could make a case on the other side. But this is the pro-breakdown case as I see it. I'm happy to elaborate on it further as needed.