As Yogi Berra said, “this is déjà vu all over again.” Christendom is dead. The Church is reeling from grave scandal, and Christians are crying out to heaven for reform and purification. It is time… More
Did Vatican II pave the way for Pope Francis’ recent
change development of the catechism’s teaching on capital punishment? Korey Maas thinks so even if the laity (so far the bishops aren’t giving much guidance) are divide:
Largely unremarked in the debate over capital punishment, however, are its striking parallels with the half-century-long, still unsettled, and also increasingly contentious intra-Catholic dispute concerning religious liberty. This is all the more curious because Pope Francis’s own remarks—now echoed in the language authorized for the Catechism—appear quite intentionally to echo important aspects of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. According to that Declaration, for example, religious liberty is a right grounded in the “dignity of the human person.” As such, it is “inviolable.” This is precisely the language invoked by Pope Francis when he declared capital punishment impermissible because “it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
Moreover, just as Dignitatis Humanae asserts that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine,” while at the same time “developing” that doctrine, so too did Francis insist that his remarks in no way “signify a change of doctrine” or “any contradiction with past teaching”; they represent instead “the harmonious development of doctrine.” Both of these claims have proved controversial for the simple reason emphasized by Feser in the debate over capital punishment: “simply calling something a ‘development’ rather than a contradiction doesn’t make it so.” As he and Bessette argue, the Church’s earliest theologians acknowledged the legitimacy of capital punishment, in principle, and this conclusion was consistently affirmed by popes up through the twentieth century. The explicit rejection of that conclusion, they therefore reason, cannot logically be understood as a “development” of it.
But precisely the same logic applies, mutatis mutandis, to the apparent claims of Dignitatis Humanae, since it deems religious liberty an inviolable right while also claiming not to have changed “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” That traditional Catholic doctrine—as taught by the Church’s fathers, doctors, popes, and councils for more than a millennium—proclaimed it legitimate in both principle and practice to enforce that duty by means of coercion. Because Dignitatis Humanae appeared plainly to proscribe such coercion, however, it was not at all clear even to the bishops gathered at Vatican II how contradiction was actually being avoided. Indeed, just before the final vote on the Declaration, its official relator frankly admitted that “this matter will have to be fully clarified in future theological and historical studies.”
Once again the problem is that Roman pontiffs speak too much and all of Roman Catholicism’s history (and all those statements) make it hard to claim with a straight face that nothing has changed. History, in fact, is all about change (over time). So to present yourself as superior to Protestantism because you have 1500 years more history is also to open yourself up to the problem of trying to make coherent all of the church’s documents, laws, and doctrines. It is hard enough finding unity in the sixty-six books of the Bible. Now add to that endeavor 2000 years of papal pronouncements, council declarations, and revisions of canon law and you have work that could have made HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, break down in 1982.
Maas puts a fine point on the problem this way:
Quite obviously, given such disparate opinions, the controversy concerning the Church’s teaching on religious freedom is far from settled. But it differs from that concerning capital punishment because, as Feser himself notes, it is one that “most Catholics, including conservative Catholics, have avoided.” And he is surely correct in his understanding of the reason for this: “the older teaching is extremely unpopular in modern times, and thus whatever its current doctrinal status, most Catholics are happy to let it remain a dead letter and leave its precise relationship to Dignitatis Humanae unsettled.” And yet, he finally concludes, “a question unanswered and ignored is still a real question.”
Indeed, it is precisely the same question raised in the controversy over capital punishment: can a practice endorsed for more than a millennium by the Church’s fathers, doctors, popes, and councils now be condemned as an immoral and inadmissible violation of human dignity?
Protestants may have account for many denominations, but Rome has 2 millennia of cats to herd.
On this morning’s broadcast with Angelo and company, I heard Carson Wentz describe the bond he shares with Nick Foles by virtue of a common faith.
I’m sure many evangelicals were encouraged.
But I could not help but wonder what would happen when Carson learned that his Lutheran church (I’m speculating) would not welcome Nick to preach because the Eagle’s backup QB is evangelical, not Lutheran. What happens when ecclesiastical requirements get in the way of the bond that comes from being born-again? What even happens if being Presbyterian gets in the way of participating in The Gospel Coalition? The Allies claim “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.” How can that be? How can you be evangelical and in the Reformed tradition “deeply”?
This is a fundamental tension between Protestants who trace their roots back to the Reformation (Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran) and those who only go as far as the First Pretty Good Awakening. For confessional Protestants, fellowship has standards. But for evangelicals, the bar is low.
And that is why you need to give up a lot if you are a Presbyterian to become an evangelical. If beliefs and practices about theology, worship, and church government matter to being a Christian, then the Reformation gets in the way of being evangelical. But if being born-again is what matters, then you don’t really need the Reformation.
Machen knew the score on this one (came across this after hearing Angelo and Carson):
One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.
To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed. (What is Faith?, 156-57)
When scandal hits the Roman Catholic church, Roman Catholics would never countenance becoming Protestant.
In fact, when scandal happens, you rinse and repeat that Jesus promised the gates of hell would not prevail against the church:
He knew we’d sometimes have really bad shepherds. The Church has gone through a lot of bad patches in her almost 2,000-year history. She tells us, yes, these popes and those bishops and that crowd of priests, awful people. And those laymen, just as bad, and maybe worse. But those popes upheld the Church’s teaching and unified the Church, and those bishops and priests celebrated the sacraments that brings Jesus to his people.
The fundamental things, the necessary things, they always work no matter how bad Catholics get. Jesus lives with us in the Tabernacle and gives himself to us in the Mass.
Our Father didn’t promise all of these men would be saints, or even just run-of-the-mill good guys. He promised that the gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church, no matter what. He promised to be with us to the end of the age. He promised to write straight with crooked lines. For God so loved the world, and so deeply knew his people, that he gave us the Church.
And most relevant here, perhaps, he gave us the sacrament of confession. We can’t do much directly to change the culture of the Church in America. We can do something to change ourselves, with God’s help. And therefore, together and over time, change the Church.
Two curious pieces of this standard apologetic. Why do you think that priests and bishops who are awful shepherds will get the doctrine right, will do the right thing in the confessional, and they will actually understand the sacraments correctly? This is contrary to every single way that humans view flawed officials: they are awful, wicked, despicable. But we still trust them because Christ gave them to us.
That’s not exactly how it worked for the churches in the apostles’ day:
12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has ethe sharp two-edged sword.
13 “‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. 14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev 2)
Somehow we’re supposed to think the danger of apostasy doesn’t apply to Rome? Talk about exceptionalism.
The other curiosity in this defense of Rome is that it never seems to take into account what happened to Israel. God made all sorts of promises to Abraham, Moses, and David. But those promises did not mean the nation or the people would always be faithful or that they would escape God’s punishment. In fact, they were (Christians, Protestants and Roman Catholics believe) promises to the spiritual seed of Abraham and his descendants (see Galatians). But now all of a sudden institution in redemptive history, one institution trumps faithfulness.
Can it really be true that no Christianity exists outside Roman Catholicism? Vatican II even admitted that Protestants were brothers. So why is it so unthinkable, when the going gets tough for Roman Catholics, to think about following Christ in a Protestant communion?
And they say Roman Catholicism doesn’t change:
Traditionally, the Church’s teaching is encapsulated in something called the deposit of faith. The deposit of faith is the body of revealed truth in the Scriptures and tradition proposed by the Roman Catholic Church for the belief of the faithful. This “deposit” is protected and promulgated in three ways: Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Church’s Magisterium. Scripture and Tradition are the written and unwritten revelations of God, while the Church’s Magisterium forms a kind of living, interpretive arbiter of Divine Revelation.
The job of the Magisterium is to look at a given subject of faith or morals and tell the Christian faithful what the Church’s constant teaching has been. It is a living voice of Tradition in every subsequent generation. We are probably all familiar with the concept of the stool with three legs which represents how these three elements, Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium interact.
The role of the Magisterium is to tell the faithful of each generation what the unchanging truths of the Catholic Faith are. If there is confusion about a teaching, the Magisterium is supposed to diligently seek the solution in the sources of faith and propound it faithfully.
Contemporary Catholicism, however, seems to have adopted a new view of the Magisterium. Rather than authoritatively explaining the Church’s perennial tradition, the contemporary Magisterium has become the mechanism whereby a current pope’s priorities are transmuted into policy. A pontificate thus becomes more akin to an American presidential administration, where each successive president has certain policy objectives that are implemented through the machinery of the federal government. Instead of asking, “What does the Church teach?”, the question is increasingly becoming, “What is the policy of the current pontificate?”
Obviously every pope has had and always will have things that are of special importance to him; but what I think alarming is seeing the way the contemporary popes—beginning with Paul VI but really culminating in Francis—essentially endeavor to recreate the Magisterium with each successive pontificate to reflect their own personal pet-projects.
For example, look at the subject of Catholic social teaching since Vatican II. Paul VI gave us Populorum Progessio, the first post-conciliar Catholic social teaching encyclical. St. John Paul II gave us three, Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), and Centesimus Annus (1991). Then Benedict XVI wrote Caritas in Veritate (2009). Not even a decade has passed and the Franciscan pontificate has promulgated Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and Laudato Si (2015). One gets the idea that each new pope is expected to issue his own social teaching encyclical—not because the needs of the Church require such an encyclical, but because it is expected that a new pope will want to put his own “stamp” on the Church’s body of social doctrine. It seems as if the way modern encyclicals are used is that they become occasions for each pope to re-evaluate a subject in light of his own particular interests. When a new social encyclical is issued, pundits’ mouths water as they wonder “What is this pope’s take on Catholic social teaching?”, as if it is each pope’s job to “shape” what comes down to them by offering a new “take” each pontificate. (Related: “The Curiosity of the Modern Papal Encyclical”, USC, June, 2015).
Yes, the Magisterium is treated the way a president would treat the federal government: as an outlet for his “policy objectives.” We even have gotten to the point where Pope Francis’ new amendment to the Catechism cites as its source a letter of the very same Pope Francis. How humble! And the letter is supposed to have been elevated to Magisterial authority by its inclusion in the Catechism. This seems kind of backwards, as originally the CCC was promulgated as a compilation of teachings already considered authoritative. A teaching was considered authoritative, and therefore included in the CCC; now a teaching is included in CCC and therefore considered authoritative. It all feels so lop-sided.
When churches want to address policy, reach for your double-edged sword.
When the Second Vatican Council opened the Roman Catholic Church to the modern world, it may have bitten off more than it could chew. Not only would the late 1960s make the modern world look not so great (radical terrorists and sexual liberation) and so once again raise questions about the bishops’ discernment. But the modern world is one that is at odds with deferring to elites because of the latter’s authority, and with receiving the teaching of bishops simply by virtue of their office. When the church teaches something that collides with the views of a majority in the church or with the expertise of lay Roman Catholics, can church members and clergy simply expect conformity to church beliefs because the laity is supposed to pay, pray, and obey? In a pre-Vatican II world (more like a pre-1789) that might have been plausible. Rome’s episcopal and Vatican structures are more medieval than modern. But now that the church wants to come along side the modern world, that means accepting modern ideas like majority rule and authority based not on office but knowledge, learning, and study.
American Catholicism is certainly unique. A majority of American Catholics buck the global Catholic trend on capital punishment in their support the death penalty, according to the Washington Post. Yet it would be good for us to remember that we are but one, relatively small part of a global body of Catholics — about 6 percent.
We may be wealthier than Catholics in other parts of the world. We may even be better-educated than the average Catholic worldwide. But that doesn’t make us necessarily better Catholics, nor does it mean we have some outsized claim on commenting on church decisions. Indeed, a truer “conservative Catholicism” would be one that exemplifies humility and self-restraint, rather than self-importance and bluster.
Commentators in the coming weeks and months will continue to debate whether the pronouncement is a “legitimate development,” as one article termed it, or a “reversal,” as other commentators are labeling it. I’m uninterested in raising that debate here (although two of my favorite commentaries, demonstrating a more nuanced, reflective, and unemotive analyses of the decision, can be found here and here). Far more important, I offer, is the manner in which Catholics debate and analyze the Holy Father and the remainder of his pontificate.
One solution to the problem would be for popes and bishops to speak less and narrow their teaching to those matters related to the Creed. But since bishops continue to think they can teach about a whole range of issues and policies (thus substituting the temporality of the church for its spirituality), the church hierarchy will continue to run up against lay church members who may actually know more about banking or climate change or capital punishment than the pope.
And yet, the converts choose to double-down on papal audacity, when? When other church members have lost confidence in the bishops on matters of holiness and church discipline:
We are also angry. We are angry over the “credible and substantiated” report of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of a minor. We are angry over the numerous allegations of his abuse of seminarians and young priests. We are angry that “everybody knew” about these crimes, that so few people did anything about them, and that those who spoke out were ignored.
In addition, we have heard reports of networks of sexually active priests who promote each other and threaten those who do not join in their activities; of young priests and seminarians having their vocations endangered because they refused to have sex with their superiors or spoke out about sexual impropriety; and of drug-fueled orgies in Vatican apartments.
As Catholics, we believe that the Church’s teaching on human nature and sexuality is life-giving and leads to holiness. We believe that just as there is no room for adultery in marriages, so there is no room for adultery against the Bride of Christ. We need bishops to make clear that any act of sexual abuse or clerical unchastity degrades the priesthood and gravely harms the Church.
Wouldn’t Pope Francis be better off trying to remedy another sex scandal than to “develop” church teaching in a way that makes most nineteenth-century popes guilty of mortal sin (because they ran a state that executed criminals)?
Irish Presbyterians, a few Baptists, and an Anglican or two, endured me last week during a conference in Belfast, even though the setting and company energized me. I spoke about and led discussions of three of my books, which gave me a chance to revisit older writings. What follows is an excerpt from Recovering Mother Kirk that still seems pertinent:
Finally, however, the moment came. A man on the pastoral staff stood up and asked if Presbyterians are evangelical. He inquired not to put me on the spot, but because that was the question on most people’s minds. I could not duck it any longer even though I would have gladly tried to bluff my way through 1 Corinthians 14 for the rest of the hour.
Rather than answering the question, I did what most academics do in difficult situations — I tried to rephrase the question. So I responded that the better question to ask may be “are evangelicals Presbyterian?” At least this way of inquiring into the relationship between evangelicalism and Presbyterianism would not assume that evangelicalism is the norm for evaluating all forms of Protestantism, as if it is the purest or most biblical expression of Christianity. This question, I also explained, yielded a different answer from the one asking of Presbyterians whether they were evangelical. It might be obvious that certain Presbyterians are evangelical. But no one would expect evangelicals to be Presbyterian, for instance, to believe in limited atonement, baptize babies, or memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. And the reason for offering a different perspective on the relationship between evangelicalism and Presbyterianism was precisely the point of my talks. However it had happened, the common expectation in Presbyterian circles was for the heirs of John Knox and John Calvin to adopt the ways of evangelicalism so that Presbyterians would be indistinguishable from the likes of Billy Graham, Charles Colson or James Dobson. But ironically, Presbyterians would never think of expecting evangelical institutions such as Christianity Today or Promise Keepers to advocate Presbyterian beliefs and practices. This situation not only seemed unfair — sort of like expecting immigrants to the United States to give up their culture for the English language, fast food, and popular sovereignty — but, I argued, it was odd for Presbyterians, proud of their theological heritage, to settle for non-Presbyterians dictating what was most important about the Christian religion.
Since that weekend conference I have become convinced that in order to understand the relationship between the Christian faith and its practices the question, “are evangelicals Presbyterian?”, yields more insight than the query, “are Presbyterians evangelical?” Other questions would work just as well, for instance, “are evangelicals Lutheran?”or “are evangelicals Episcopalian?” And the reason is that evangelicalism presumes a simple set of theological boundaries, mostly preserving the deity and supernatural redemptive work of Christ in history and the human soul, coupled with a set of religious practices that are virtually independent of the church as a worshipping communion. To spot an evangelical one only need look for someone who carries a Bible (often in some sort of canvas or vinyl cover), leaves tracts, wears some expression of devotion such as a WWJD bracelet or t-shirt, witnesses to neighbors and strangers, refrains from cursing, and avoids such delights as tobacco and alcohol (though this is changing). In contrast, Presbyterians (along with other churchly forms of Protestants) possesses a lengthy creedal statement of Christianity, and this understanding of the faith is nurtured through a distinctive form of public worship, relies upon the ministry of clergy who preach and administer the sacraments, reinforced s through a system of church government, and expects Presbyterian families to engage in family worship and catechesis that buttress the ministry of the church. To be sure, this contrast may border on caricature. But it does point out the problems of asking whether Presbyterians are evangelical. If asking Presbyterians to be evangelical commits Presbyterian adherents to religious practices at odds with or different from the Reformed faith’s churchly piety, then being an evangelical may actually be a curse rather than a blessing. The reason is that Presbyterians intent on being evangelical may end up abandoning the very practices that have been crucial not simply to marking Reformed Christians but also that embody the convictions of Reformed theology.
Of course, devout Presbyterians who delight in thinking of themselves as evangelical have generally not thought through the relationship between theology and practice. All they usually mean by being evangelical is something as valuable as taking Christian commitment and the Bible seriously. The habit of asking Presbyterians to be evangelical is not designed to ignore such matters as Sabbath observance, public worship, or memorization of the catechism. And yet, the evangelical stress on conversion and believing in the Bible has obscured the range of practices that various Christian communions not only believe the Bible to require but also that fortify believers in their pilgrimage. It would be wrong to say that evangelicalism emphasizes faith while other forms of Protestantism stress practice, since evangelicalism has its own distinctive set of practices that flow quite naturally from its conversionist understanding of the Christianity. But it would not be unfair to say that the contrast between evangelicalism and, in this case, Presbyterianism is one between practices geared toward the freedom and creativity of the laity to express their devotion as they see fit and practices oriented toward the corporate church through its ministry of word, sacrament and discipline.
Although he is neither a Presbyterian nor an evangelical, the Duke Divinity School ethicist, Stanley Hauerwas, self-described as a high church Mennonite, has written insightfully about the relationship between faith and practice and the importance of embodying one’s religious convictions in visible and formal exercises. His basic point is that Protestantism, whether in evangelical or liberal versions, has become an abstraction, something that is disconnected from the communal life of the church, defined as a worshiping community. In other words, Hauerwas argues that doctrine, something dear to Reformed Christians, cannot be isolated from the practices of the church. He raises the stakes as well by asserting that the faith of Christians does not achieve genuine significance until it is embodied in the ways and patterns of participating in the life of the church. “What makes Christians Christian,” Hauerwas writes, “is our worship of God.” “Of course,” he adds, “the praise of God cannot be limited to ‘liturgy,’ but it is nonetheless the case that Christians learn how to be praiseworthy people through worship.” An evangelical rendering of Hauerwas’s point might involve the idea that the way Christians show their regeneration is by saving other souls. But this interpretation misses Hauerwas’s argument about the body of Christ as a worshiping community and the unique responsibilities given to those who minister word and sacrament. Identifying worship as the central and essential task of the church, Hauerwas observes, “counters some of the unclarity surrounding” ordination and embodies the presumption “that there is literally nothing more important for the Christian people to do than praise God.”
Reformed Christians may need to learn about the importance of the church and worship from a post-liberal Methodist ethicist because they have for so long thought of themselves as evangelical first and Presbyerian second. What is particularly clear is that Presbyterians who take their tradition seriously need to be reminded about the churchly and liturgical character of the practices that make good Presbyterians. Here it may be interesting to remember the answer to Question 85 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which reads: “What does God require of us to escape his wrath and curse?” Aside from showing Calvinism’s gruffer side with the language of God’s righteous retribution for sin, the answer is revealing for what it says about the relationship between faith and practice. The response states: “To escape the wrath and curse due to us for sin God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, and the diligent use of the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption.” Most evangelicals and conservative Presbyterians are on fairly familiar terms with the first two parts of that answer, namely, faith and repentance. Salvation requires trust in Christ for redemption and sorrow for sin, and without those two marks of regeneration churches have difficulty spotting a genuine profession of faith. But this answer’s addition of diligently attending the means of grace is a notion foreign to many Presbyterians under the evangelical influence. And so when the Shorter Catechism goes on to explain that the “outward and ordinary means” are word, sacrament and prayer, some proponents of the Reformed faith are caught off guard because they have so emphasized either conversion or doctrine that they have abstracted the Christian religion from the Christian practices the mark the body of Christ. Yet, if the Westminster Divines have anything to say about the Christian life, participating in the churchly practices of the word preached, the sacraments administered and corporate prayer is as necessary to a credible profession of faith as are trust in Christ and repentance from sin. (242-45)
Chris Gerhz preached a pretty (pretty pretty pretty) good sermon (though if he’s not ordained to preach I hope he only exhorted) on Christian freedom around the time of our Independence Day holiday. What was particularly good was his understanding of freedom as a spiritual reality:
Paul assumes that Christians will be persecuted by those in power… and yet remain free in Christ. Meanwhile, we Americans know how easy it is to live in political freedom… and yet be a slave to our worst impulses.
In his greeting, Paul wishes the Galatians the grace and peace of “the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (1:3-4). If God kept a record of our sins, the psalmist asks, “who could stand?” But with God “there is forgiveness” (Ps 130:3-4). In Christ we are free from sin, free from everything we think, say, do, and leave undone that keeps us enslaved to the powers of this world (Gal 4:3,8-9) and in rebellion against God.
That was a recurring theme for Paul, as he took Christianity farther and farther from the place where it was born. In Acts 13 he tells people in the city of Antioch — both “Israelites, and others who fear God” (v 16) — that through Jesus “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (vv 38-39).
Before Christ, all we had to modify our behavior was law — and the carrots and sticks that come with following and breaking laws. But Paul teaches that the law cannot stop us from wanting to sin. Only faith in Christ can make us righteous in God’s eyes (Gal 2:16) and start to change our hearts from the inside out.
But some Jewish Christians — the so-called Judaizers — want Gentile converts to join them in continuing to honor the old laws — including the ancient one requiring men to be circumcised. Apparently they’ve persuaded some Christians in Galatia, because Paul says right away that he’s “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). If righteousness actually came through the law, “then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). “For in Christ Jesus,” he concludes. “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6).
That’s not the end of the story; that’s just Paul’s argument to one church. We need to read the theology of Galatians 5 alongside the history of Acts 15. Paul returns to Jerusalem to make his case to the leaders of the church, including Peter, who agrees that the Judaizers are “putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (v 10).
The church decides: we are free, no longer staggering under the burden of laws that can never really release us from the slavery of sin, but accepted as God’s children, free heirs of his promises.
That’s fairly close to what the Confession of Faith says about Christian liberty:
The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law. But, under the new testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of. (20.1)
You might think that with that start, Gehrz is headed to an affirmation of the spirituality of the church. But you would be wrong:
But the kingdom he proclaimed isn’t just spiritual. We are free to proclaim a gospel that has consequences in this world. Freedom in Christ means that we are free to go forth in the name of the Messiah who was “anointed to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Freedom in Christ is freedom to give freedom! To free those kept in the spiritual bondage of sin and the physical bondage of human trafficking, to free those mired in poverty and hunger, to free those oppressed for no reason other than who they are, what they think, or what they look like.
Free from sin, we are free to do what Paul says is the only thing that actually counts: “faith working in love” (or making our faith active in love).
For Presbyterians, though, freedom from the guilt and penalty of sin means submission to the powers that God has ordained. The gospel doesn’t lead to social activism or wars of independence; it nurtures living quiet and peaceful lives:
And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the church. (20.4)
And that’s a reason why Presbyterians should be a tad reluctant to hitch Christian notions of freedom to Independence-Day ideas about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The undergraduate student of the present day is being told that he need not take notes on what he hears in class, that the exercise of the memory is a rather childish and mechanical thing, and that what he is really in college to do is to think for himself and to unify his world. He usually makes a poor business of unifying his world. And the reason is clear. He does not succeed in unifying his world for the simple reason that he has ho world to unify. He has not acquired a knowledge or a sufficient number of facts in order even to learn the method of putting facts together. He is being told to practice the business of mental digestion; but the trouble is that he has no food to digest. The modern student, contrary to what is often said, is really being starved for want of facts.
Certainly we are not discouraging originality. On the contrary we desire to encourage it in every possible way, and we believe that the encouragement of it will be of immense benefit to the spread of the Christian religion. The trouble with the university students of the present day, from the point of view of evangelical Christianity, is not that they are too original, but that they are not half original enough. They go on in the same routine way, following their leaders like a flock of sheep, repeating the same stock phrases with little knowledge of what they mean, swallowing whole whatever professors choose to give them and all the time imagining that they are bold, bad, independent, young men, merely because they abuse what everybody else is abusing, namely, the religion that is founded upon Christ. It is popular today to abuse that unpopular thing that is known as supernatural Christianity,
but original it certainly is not. A true originality might bring some resistance to the current of the age, some willingness to be unpopular, and some independent scrutiny, at least, if not acceptance, of the claims of Christ. If there is one thing more than another which we believers in historic Christianity ought to encourage in the youth of our day it is independence of mind. (What is Faith? 16-17)
The Netflix series on the Rajneeshee group that took over a small town in the high Oregon desert is fascinating on many levels. One of those is whether contemporary Oregonians would be as opposed today to a fringe religious group lead my a man of color as they were in the 1980s.
To Sojourners‘ credit, you can count on them to side with the underdog:
Encoded in the U.S. Bill of Rights is the belief that while governments must be secular, communities are free to practice any faith they wish to uphold. But in Antelope, freedom of religion came on a condition of familiarity — people only accepted what they knew, while everything and everyone else was seen as a threat.
And I wonder, would bigotry have ever played the lead if Osho’s teachings were Christian in nature? Would any of this have played out the way it did if Rajneeshees weren’t viewed as being “the other?”
Strangely the site of Rajneeshpuram is now a Christian Young Life camp where kids arrive each summer to learn about Jesus Christ.
“After the Rajneeshees left … a billionaire developer from Montana … bought the ranch and ended up gifting the thing to Young Life. They call them camps. It’s more like a resort to me … it’s kind of like a cult, too,” John Silvertooth, the then mayor of Antelope, says.
“They’re not perfect. But they’re much better neighbors than the Rajneeshees.”
But Ma Anand Sheela remains unapologetic to this day.
“I would like to say, ‘People of Oregon… think yourselves lucky that this opera came your way,’” she says.
Imagine saving some of that empathy for Liberty University and not viewing Jerry Falwell, Jr. as a threat.
As much as the world of Roman Catholicism remains mysterious, this excerpt from Commonweal seems like a case of changing the subject. At a time when many Roman Catholics are wailing and gnashing their teeth over the latest sex scandal (the case of Theodore McCarrick), the editors at Commonweal decide to keep the attention on President Trump:
The mesmerizing farce of the Trump administration —its scandals, lurid intrigues, and flagrant lies—can easily distract us from the many ways this president and his party are making life harder for vulnerable Americans. While we all attend to the latest antics of President Twitter, his appointees and congressional allies are quietly punching holes in the safety net that protects millions of people from destitution.
One way the GOP is trying to deprive the poor of public assistance is by imposing strict work requirements on the tenants of public housing and recipients of Medicaid. In January, Seema Verma, who runs the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, announced that the Trump administration would begin allowing states to require most non-disabled adults to work as a condition of Medicaid coverage. In late June, a few days before the first such work requirement was to take effect in Kentucky, a federal judge blocked it, ruling that the Trump administration had been “arbitrary and capricious” in approving Kentucky’s plan without making sure it was in keeping with Medicaid’s stated purpose of “furnish[ing] medical assistance” to the poor. “The record shows that 95,000 people would lose Medicaid coverage,” the judge wrote, “and yet the secretary [of Health and Human Services] paid no attention to that deprivation.” The judge was right, but he may yet be overruled by a Supreme Court too solicitous of states’ rights and too deferential to executive authority.
Now, it could be truly that the scandal of Trump is much more momentous than the allegations against a cardinal and former archbishop of The District. But if you believe in the world to come and that the church, unlike the United States, is the institution that is best equipped to get people into heaven (or purgatory for the righteousness-challenged), wouldn’t the story of one of the apostles’ successors be a bigger deal than a depraved POTUS’ welfare policy?
Again, I don’t know Commonweal as well as I might, though I have read and used many of its essays and columns about the Roman Catholic Church for my own writing and teaching. It is a readable magazine with thoughtful writers (I could do without E. J. Dionne) on a variety of subjects, from the arts to church life.
The other problem is one of jumping on the bandwagon. With all the kvetching about scandalous priests and lack of accountability for the bishops, do the editors at Commonweal have anything new to say?
At the same time, the allegations surrounding Theodore McGarrick and its implications for Rome’s oversight are so potentially toxic that one would think editors of a Roman Catholic publication would want to put some distance between themselves and their hierarchy.