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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Reformanda vs. renovanda

Here I go again after another of my long lapses. I'm not going to become king of the blogosphere at this rate, but that's OK.

An online acquaintance of mine, Tim Enloe, asked me a few weeks ago to expand a remark I once made to the effect that the Church is not "semper reformanda" (always to be reformed) but rather "semper renovanda" (always to be renewed).

Here's what I mean by this.

"Semper reformanda" asserts that one must, from time to time, question the doctrines and structures that have already been established. They must be compared with Scripture (and/or previous non-Scriptural Christian tradition) and revised or even discarded as needed. The underlying assumption is that the Church progresses into a fuller understanding and experience of the faith by a continual process of questioning and reformulation. There's an intrinsic paradox here--on the one hand Scripture is the standard of perfection by which all tradition must be judged, while on the other hand a fully adult form of Christianity beckons from the future. Emphasize the first half of this paradox, and you have fundamentalism; emphasize the second, and you have liberalism. Mainstream, historic Protestantism stands in a fruitful tension between the two. Often, the Reformation of the 16th century takes a secondary place next to Scripture as the archetypal act of reform--in old-fashioned Protestant circles any attempt to "reform the reform" in the light of pre-Reformation traditions is likely to be met with outraged protest. Sometimes a similar status is given to the patristic era, or parts thereof; and sometimes even aspects of medieval Christianity are seen as important steps in the development of a fully mature, and hence fully reformed, Christianity (Anselm's atonement theology, for instance).

So the position I'm describing does not exclude a respect for the past and for tradition. In this it contrasts with the "restorationist" position which believes it can sweep away the past entirely and reconstruct the New Testament Church. (I'm sure my good friend thoughtspot is going to protest that this is a caricature, and maybe it is. I'll let thoughtspot make the case!) There's a lot to be said for the "semper reformanda" slogan. Clearly any orthodox form of Christianity must maintain Scripture as the norma normans, the ultimate standard that regulates all doctrine and practice. (And yes, that means that the Council of Trent is only orthodox insofar as it can be interpreted so as to allow Scripture to remain the norma normans.) And just as clearly, the Church does stray from time to time--even if it doesn't declare false dogmas, at the very least it tends to overemphasize one thing or another, or deemphasize some vital point of Christian discipleship, and has to be brought back.

Here's the question, though: does this re-centering of the Church around the Gospel take place primarily through the restructuring of institutions and the reformulation of dogmas? And does it involve the rejection of the past, even in a partial sense?

The "semper renovanda" position I'm arguing would answer no to both these questions. Yes, restructuring of doctrines and institutions is needed from time to time. But historically, these restructurings generally create as many problems as they solve. Real progress takes place, I believe, when Christians learn to live more deeply into what they have been given. Any restructuring necessary proceeds from this inner renewal, and when reformation works the other way around it doesn't work very well. Do away with the papacy and you deliver yourself into the hands of the civil government. Free the laity from priests and you subject them to the far worse tyranny of scholars. Reject indulgences and you wind up with a forensic doctrine of justification that describes Christ's redeeming work in terms of the same kind of account-book juggling engaged in by the indulgence sellers.

Insofar as the Reformation was a truly positive force in Christian history, it was a movement of evangelical renewal focused on the message of forgiveness through faith in Christ. But as Catholics are discovering today (Fr. Cantalemessa's sermon before the Pope a few months ago is the most striking example) , this is not necessarily incompatible with Catholicism. The evangelical message per se did not need to split the Church. (Indeed, David Bagchi and others have pointed out that the earliest opponents of Luther did not single his doctrine of justification out as heretical. Only after Luther had been announcing for years that justification by faith destroyed the structures of the Papacy did the champions of the Papacy start to believe him.)

I don't fault Luther for linking the evangelical message to a reform program. Reform was indeed needed. Indeed, I don't have the heart to blame Luther and the other early Reformers. I understand why they saw the Papacy as a foul parasite on the Church's life. I understand why they saw the material piety of the later Middle Ages as rank superstition. I understand why they thought true renewal could only come through sweeping away scholasticism and pilgrimages and all the paraphernalia of late medieval Catholicism. But I think history has proven them wrong. Indeed, some aspects of Catholicism began to creep back as early as the 1530s. Scholastic philosophy was entrenched once again in Protestantism by the later 16th century. The "tyranny" ascribed by the Reformers to the Papacy was nothing compared to the tyranny exercised by civil authorities over the Church--often because the Protestants had handed over control to the "magistrate."

This is why "semper reformanda" is a trap when it becomes the central program of the Church. Sweep the dust away and it will start settling again immediately. Dusting is one of the duties of life (though I do it far too seldom). But if we spend all our time dusting the house we will never enjoy it. And our problems will only get worse if we decide the furniture is bad every time it gets covered with dust. We'll bankrupt ourselves and fill our lives with chaos trying to get new furniture all the time. The sensible approach is to dust as needed and accept the fact that cleanliness will never be perfect. We need to _live_ in the house rather than always trying to make it perfectly clean.