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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


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.