Would readers exist for Herman Bavinck’s writing, increasingly available thanks to the good work of translators, without the ground already fertilized by evangelicals trying to overcome “the scandal of the evangelical mind” through w-w? James Eglington’s biography prompted a think:
The much more common Dutch theological heavyweights were Abraham Kuyper (positive estimate), Klaus Schilder (negative), and G. K. Berkhower (mixed but mainly positive). Then came the names, much more widely known, of Dutch-American scholars at Westminster and Calvin seminaries, such as Cornelius Van Til and Louis Berkhof (respectively), and before them, the one blazing the trail between Dutch and American theological circles, Geerhardus Vos, the biblical theologian at Princeton Seminary from the 1890s to the 1930s.
Many of these names, however, will be unfamiliar to pastors and church members without some link to the Christian Reformed Church or the United Reformed Churches. This is only to say that the main thread of Anglo-American theology largely runs through New England and Presbyterian sources, beginning with the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards, through to Old Princeton (from Charles Hodge to J. Gresham Machen), and down to professors who taught at Westminster, Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. To that lineage, adding another Dutch theologian is a stretch.
But this does not mean Bavinck’s time in any way has passed. As Eglinton explains in answer to his own question, Bavinck, who was “brilliant theologian” and “household name” in the Netherlands, taught at Kampen Theological School and the Free University in Amsterdam, wrote a four-volume dogmatic theology in addition to books on child education, psychology, women’s rights, and a host of ethical topics.
Bavinck was also known in the United States. He gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1908 ten years after Abraham Kuyper had given them, and on his visit to the States president Theodore Roosevelt, a Dutch-American of some remove from colonial migration, welcomed the Free University theologian to the White House.
That may sound like old news and readers may be wondering what Bavinck has done for American readers lately. The answer here is a lot of thanks to the efforts of the Bavinck Institute which over the past decade sponsored the translation of Bavinck’s corpus in English, such as God and Creation (2004); Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (2008); Reformed Dogmatics, 4 volumes (2004-2008); Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (2008); The Christian Family (2012).
Eglinton himself, a lecturer in theology at the University of Edinburgh, has overseen dissertations by several graduate students on aspects of Bavinck’s thought. In some ways, the answer to Eglinton’s question – why a Bavinck biography – owes as much to the recent output of Bavinck’s writings as to the circumstances that made Bavinck one of the Netherland’s greatest theologians of the first half of the twentieth century.
Another reason for appreciating Bavinck and Eglinton’s biography is the importance of neo-Calvinism among American evangelicals for at least the last fifty years. For doctrinal and devotional inspiration evangelicals have drawn heavily from usual suspects like the Banner of Truth, seminaries like Westminster, Gordon-Conwell, and TEDS, and popularizers like R. C. Sproul and John Piper.
At the same time, evangelicals have also undertaken what may be called worldview analysis. That inelegant phrase stands for trying to understand all of creation, not just redemption, from a perspective informed by biblical teaching and theological fundamentals. This way of thinking has inspired Protestants to venture into fields in the humanities and sciences in the name of Christ. Sometimes they even repeat Kuyper’s famous phrase, that Christ claims “every-square inch” as his own. Francis Schaeffer may have first made this outlook popular, with help later from Chuck Colson. But even more important were scholars at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary who set the bar high for professors at many evangelical colleges and attempted to pursue scholarship from a Christian outlook.
Bavinck fits in this line of endeavor since he himself wrote on political and cultural topics from a Reformed perspective. But what is often missing from the American Protestant appropriation of neo-Calvinism is the serious theological underpinning on which it rested. Bavinck is as good an example of serious theological investigation in the neo-Calvinist tradition as anyone can find. Eglinton’s biography in turn may be news to many readers that the neo-Calvinists were no slouches when it came to doctrine, worship, and the church.
If Miranda updated the Founders (Happy July 4th, by the way) in the vernacular of hip-hop (or is it rap?), Mencken was two steps ahead when he put the Declaration of Independence into the language of the common American circa 1920. So he began:
WHEN THINGS get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody.
All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else. That any government that don’t give a man them rights ain’t worth a damn; also, people ought to choose the kind of government they want themselves, and nobody else ought to have no say in the matter. That whenever any government don’t do this, then the people have got a right to give it the bum’s rush and put in one that will take care of their interests. Of course, that don’t mean having a revolution every day like them South American yellow-bellies, or every time some jobholder goes to work and does something he ain’t got no business to do. It is better to stand a little graft, etc., than to have revolutions all the time, like them coons, and any man that wasn’t a anarchist or one of them I.W.W.’s would say the same. But when things get so bad that a man ain’t hardly got no rights at all no more, but you might almost call him a slave, then everybody ought to get together and throw the grafters out, and put in new ones who won’t carry on so high and steal so much, and then watch them. This is the proposition the people of these Colonies is up against, and they have got tired of it, and won’t stand it no more.
It goes on, and on, probably too on. Mencken made his point with those first two graphs.
But those who admire his cleverness, usually miss Mencken’s point for putting the vaunted Declaration in the idiom of Woodrow Wilson’s America. The reason was to defend civil liberties at a time when war policies had not been particularly sensitive to constitutional provisions. He was not mocking the Founders. He was deriding his fellow American who had lost sight of limited government and civil liberties. You’d almost think he was writing about America during a pandemic (I mean war on virus):
When, during the Wilson-Palmer saturnalia of oppressions, specialists in liberty began protesting that the Declaration plainly gave the people the right to alter the goverment under which they lived and even to abolish it altogether, they encountered the utmost incredulity. On more than one occasion, in fact, such an exegete was tarred and feathered by the shocked members of the American Legion, even after the Declaration had been read to them.
What ailed them was that they could not understand its 18th-century English. I make the suggestion that its circulation among such patriotic men, translated into the language they use every day, would serve to prevent, or, at all events, to diminish that sort of terrorism.
The second issue of the resurrected NTJ is out and available below. Lots of Presbyterianism and especially the PCA in this issue. Not to be missed are the parallels between objections to masks and jaywalking laws.
The “journal” has not suffered another stroke but is simply delayed. The essay below appeared in the Winter 2012 issue and is a possible foretaste of what readers may enjoy in the next number. Consider this post the Old Life Theological Society variation on Advent.
More Scruton, Less Trueman
One of the advantages of reviewing a book several years after its publication is that the evaluation yields early returns on the test of time that book reviews written at the time of a title’s releases don’t. Which is to say, a new title demands attention simply because an author, editor, and publisher pooled resources to bring out a set of reflections that have not been seen before. After a couple of years when the newness wears off, perspective emerges on whether the author’s arguments were worthy of culling those resources. Obviously, since the marketing and publicity of books is tied to the review process, writing a book review three years after a book’s publication will not become a trend.
Still, Carl Trueman’s Republocrat may fail time’s test since it comes from an author who has increasingly collected thoughts originally produced on-line in books. In some ways, blogging and book writing is similar. Both use words, paragraphs, arguments, and depend on a measure of coherence. At the same time, blogs are to books what the sit-com “Friends” is to Shakespeare’s As You Like It. A blog post is like a letter to the editor of a magazine or newspaper. It is here today and though not necessarily gone tomorrow thanks to the comments that posts provoke, it does not achieve the coherence that comes with a series of reflections that an author determines to take the form of a book. Simply stringing together posts and slapping them together in a book would be even less satisfying than a collection of George F. Will columns since the former likely have many arguments that are closer to notes for a book than an example that an author might use for a portion of a chapter. In other words, blogging is ephemeral; book writing is substantial. Readers may go to an old blog post to understand an opinion, but they go to books generally expecting to find arguments that endure beyond the window of a month or two.
The genre and style of blogs are arguably worthwhile considerations for understanding Trueman’s book on evangelicals and American politics since it has the feel of his previous compilations of on-line essays (The Wages of Spin and Minority Report). The style is generally breezy. The tone is often cutting and sarcastic – the word bloggers use is snark. And the arguments feel more off the cuff than systematic. It is in other words, like his other short books, Republocrat is a collection of personal reflections about the way that evangelical Protestants politicize the Christian faith and baptize partisan politics. This may explain why a book that both criticizes evangelical Protestantism and resembles the two-kingdom theology – themes close to the heart of the Old Life Theological Society – does not please as much as it should have. To his credit, Trueman brings an Englishman’s perspective to American-style religion and politics and the chance to see ourselves as outsiders observe us is almost always valuable. Even so, if the book fails to engage even those who are sympathetic, the reason may be that Trueman has fallen prey to writing books based on on-line reflections. The usually personal and occasional arguments of a blog do not translate well into the less subjective and more measured medium of pages between book covers.
Obviously, this is a long-winded way of pointing out the personal nature of Republocrat. Despite his disavowal at the beginning – “Despite the title of this book [Confessions of a Liberal Conservative], I do not plan to spend much time talking about myself” – the book turns into a fairly long series of rants about the heavy-handedness of Fox News, the silliness of the Republican Party, and the scandalous political theology of the Religious Right. These are all subjects worthy of a blog post given its op-ed character and immediacy. But readers of books want sustained arguments. For that reason, Trueman struggles mightily to organize his observations into a coherent whole. The best he can do is by bringing similar topics within chapter designations. This is not to say that Trueman’s punchy and witty reflections on American politics lack merit. If Protestants in the United States had to consider more than we do how Christians from other parts of the world see us, and particularly whether the worries we have really stand up as matters about which Christians worldwide might agree in the name of Christ, American Protestant appeals to faith or doctrine in the public square might be much more circumspect.
Still, Republocrat is not without substance. For starters, Trueman is, as the title suggests, critical of both the Left and the Right. For instance, in the chapter on the Left, Trueman observes astutely how the New Left, particularly in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, shifted the notion of oppression from economic realities to psychological neediness. In the process, an older quest for greater equality among the classes morphed into the politics of identity and the demand for affirmation of race, gender, and sexual orientation. What is odd about Trueman’s discussion of the Left is how much it revolves around European (even British) categories of liberalism and conservatism without explaining what the Right and Left in Europe have to do with Democrats and Republicans in the United States.
Trueman also lands punches when he mocks the partisan nature of television cable news and wonders why evangelical Protestants are so loyal to Fox News and so suspicious of MSNBC when both networks manipulate politics to drive up ratings and generate advertizing revenue. Though again, part of what accounts for Trueman’s critical eye is the back story of his own experience as a British citizen and upbringing in England where Rupert Murdoch (the owner of Fox) has turned sensationalist journalism and raunchy programming into a highly lucrative formula. But Trueman’s point implicitly is that detecting Murdoch’s scheme should not take a European sensibility. American Protestants, especially Calvinists, should be able by virtue of what they know about human nature to see that the Fox media empire does not measure up well on the scale of family values and traditionalism.
A further useful point concerns the uncritical embrace of free market capitalism by American Protestants, a hug that for Trueman yields a piety that is not exactly characterized by the otherworldliness of the New Testament and that all too easily becomes a prosperity gospel, as in, wealth must be a sign of God’s blessing or favor. He argues effectively that capitalism creates wealth well but it is not a firm foundation for Christian morality or nurture. Capitalism, Trueman writes:
. . . can focus minds on economic prosperity in a way that is not biblical. Nobody wants to be poor — I certainly do not. There is no virtue in poverty considered in itself. But we need to be careful about simplistically identifying either wealth with divine blessing, or the impact of the gospel with economic prosperity. Neither is biblical. The story of Job makes it clear that there is no mechanistic connection between being right with God and enjoying earthly, material bounty. The life of Paul speaks to precisely the same thing. To read of his sufferings in the book of Acts, or his own description of his ministry, especially in 2 Corinthians, is to enter a world where it is not wealth and ease but rather hardship and poverty that flow from his fidelity to the cross.
Trueman also makes the point effectively that for all of political conservatives’ talk about ties between capitalism and personal virtues (such as responsibility, industry, thrift), market economies are also premised on the necessity of consumption. And reliance upon the desires of consumers communicates an ethic very different from, if not hostile to, the Christian religion:
. . . consumerism is good to the extent that it drives our economies and helps in the creation of wealth; but it is always going to tend toward the message that the meaning of life is found in the accumulation of property — a vain exercise, as the Preacher makes clear in Ecclesiastes 2. This is simply another form of idolatry — an ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power.
Yet, for all of these insights into the mind of the Religious Right, Trueman has little to say about an alternative outlook. The best he can do is to observe that Christians should not be so gullible. Trueman’s conclusion is littered with the words, “thoughtful,” “critical,” and “realistic.” He adds to these words the language of imperatives, as in Christians should be wise. This point is not wrong. It is actually correct. But it seems obvious, one that social conservatives would hardly dispute. Still, instead of offering an alternative political outlook, Trueman simply bases his shoulds on the notion that Christians have an obligation to model good citizenship. His biblical rationale for this is the idea that believers must maintain good reputations with outsiders:
. . . a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome clichés, character assassinations, and Manichaean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process.
Had Trueman written less about the conceits of the Religious Right and more about the authors from whom he has learned about politics (or added a section of political reflection), he might have produced a more substantial book. In the introduction, Trueman mentions William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Edward Said, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Terry Eagleton, Nat Hentoff, P. J. O’Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, John Lukacs, Charles Moore, and Roger Scruton as writers from whom he has learned how to think about the world of politics and economics. Exposing these authors and their political perspectives to an audience addicted to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would have been a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, Trueman missed his chance.
As it stands, that audience will likely dismiss Trueman as little more than a British contrarian, not someone to be taken seriously. In fact, the book’s foreword gives a good indication that this will be the response of American evangelicals addicted to Fox News and Glenn Beck. Written by Peter A. Lillback, to whom Trueman dedicates the book, the foreword attempts to be “suitably contemptuous” for a book with an “oxymoronic” title. First, Lillback notes with good natured glee the self-contradictory qualities of the author:
Here is a man who has memorized the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, but prefers to sing only the Psalms on the Lord’s Day. Here’s a dean who only under coercion reluctantly walks the 26.2 steps to the president’s office from the dean’s office for fear of being asked to do some extra work, but regularly delights in running 26.2 miles, even if it means there will be icicles hanging from his running shorts and oozing wounds from his ice-nicked ankles. Here is a scholar who relishes the writings of Karl Marx, but who is inherently, instinctively, and immutably committed to the Reformation spirit of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Here is a man who refuses to go to counseling to address these oxymoronic traits, but who nevertheless is soon psychoanalyzed by all who associate with him.
When Lillback turns to the substance of Trueman’s book, he concedes that the British historical theologian’s “unmasking of the well-camouflaged foolishness on all points of the political spectrum elicit chortles and deserve admiration.” But that does not mean that Trueman succeeds. According to Lillback, Trueman’s opponents may fall “to his wit, words, and wallop,” but just because “Bill O’Reilly is illogical at times and Glenn Beck’s histrionics are more stage than sage, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to avoid the socialization of medicine and the limitation of the Second Amendment rights.” So Lillback indicates that he will wait for another occasion to “tear apart the straw men” lurking in Trueman’s arguments and for the moment will pick up on a problem that stands out, namely, Trueman’s own admission that he uses “outrageous overstatement to make a point.”
In other words, evangelicals committed to the Republican Party and prone to be persuaded by Sean Hannity will likely react the way that Lillback does – dismissal. Perhaps if Trueman had avoided the popular writing he traffics in on-line and instead applied the considerable intellectual skills he reserves for theology and church history to the subject of politics in the United States, he might have engaged in a significant teaching moment. As it is, Republocrat will inflame more than it instructs, thus leaving the Reformed wing of the Religious Right confirmed in their prejudice that Europeans don’t get us because they are simply jealous of “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.”
If you’re ever tempted to think that Rome’s church government is ancient, consider how much it has always been a work in process (with notable interventions from Trent and Vatican II):
On the Sunday of the Word of God this year, Pope Francis solemnly instituted lectors and catechists. They were drawn from nations around the world. The pope gave to each of the lectors a book of the Scriptures, and to the catechists a cross. There were prayers, and he enjoined these servants of the word to bring the Gospel to the world through their ministry. None of this was truly extraordinary, however. What made the event historic was that, for the first time, the rite included women.
It was a long time coming. In 1965, a subcommittee of the Consilium (the body of scholars and churchmen who crafted many of the liturgical reforms after the Second Vatican Council) gathered to study what was then called “minor orders,” including what we now call instituted lectors and acolytes. In Christian antiquity various people held these offices, but gradually they were restricted to seminarians on their way to being ordained to the priesthood. Over time, the priesthood assumed all the roles formerly held by a variety of ministers. The committee acknowledged the possibility of turning the page on this clericalization of ministry, but they did not discuss including women out of deference to those bishops who believed that the minor orders were part of the sacrament of Holy Orders, rendering women ineligible.
Nevertheless, a door was opened by the Consilium’s final report in 1967, which affirmed that the Church has considerable flexibility in reforming the offices below the level of deacon. The minor orders, although rooted in antiquity, can be reconfigured, they argued—some abolished, others added or adapted—to respond to the needs of the Church. The question of who receives them, and whether they are permanent or temporary, was not settled.
By the time of the council, everyone recognized that the Church’s practice of minor orders had become incoherent. The history was venerable, but modern-day seminarians were deriving little benefit from being ordained into these roles. It was more or less a formality they went through, with the rites serving as stepping stones in a cursus honorum that led to priestly ordination—their real goal. They moved through the minor orders quickly, sometimes celebrating two at a time. Some found it embarrassing to receive deputation, in solemn ceremonies, for tasks other people carried out. The role of doorkeeper was, for example, already filled by sacristans and ushers. Altar boys performed the role of acolyte. The priest read the readings at Mass. To be an actual exorcist was an advanced and specialized role quite separate from the “order of exorcist” conferred on them, which really meant nothing. One of the principles of the reform was “truthfulness.” By this canon, the minor orders were failing badly.
Pope St. Paul VI was interested in keeping the minor orders as a part of seminary formation. His focus was on renewing them and establishing a more coherent plan. Pastoral bishops saw this in a wider frame of reference, however, and had more ambitious goals. They wanted to simplify the preparation for priesthood and render it more realistic, but they also kept an eye on the horizon of lay ministry, which was a growing phenomenon. There was considerable interest, especially in mission dioceses, in strengthening lay ministries and finding ways to bless them. There were requests not only to institute women as lectors and acolytes, but also to consider instituting ministries of catechesis and various forms of pastoral service, which were already being filled successfully by women. There was also the question of allowing lay people to preach and conduct worship services in the absence of a priest. Some kind of blessing for music ministers, such as cantors, psalmists, and organists, was on the wish list too.
The topic of minor orders continued to be discussed among the various dicasteries of the Curia during the period immediately following the council, prompted at times by interventions from local churches and from the pope, but the conversation dragged on without resolution, at least in part because there were so many different discussions going on at the same time. It wasn’t even clear where this topic belonged in the flow chart of the reform: Holy Orders? Baptism? Blessings? Clergy formation? Liturgy? Evangelization and mission? All of the above?
In 1972, Pope Paul VI issued his motu proprio, Ministeria quaedam, which put an end to the discussion. He suppressed the orders of doorkeeper, exorcist, and subdeacon. He changed the terminology of “minor orders” to “ministries” and defined the ministry of lector and acolyte as lay ministries. Following an obscure precedent set by the Council of Trent, he added that “ministries can be entrusted to the lay Christian faithful; accordingly, they do not have to be reserved to candidates for the sacrament of Orders” (MQ III). Nevertheless, he reserved the instituted lay ministries of lector and acolyte to males “according to the venerable tradition of the Church” (MQ VII). . . .
Here is January 2022 (woops). And here is how the NTJ will operate in a post-USPS environment (from the current issue with a little help from Scribd):
The new iteration of the NTJ comes with fewer strings and but a couple wrinkles. The journal will be available as a PDF attachment at Oldlife.org and Nicotinetheologicaljournal.org. It will be free initially and then move to a subscription basis through the latter of the two websites (for now that’s the plan but technology being what it is and editors being the age they are, who knows?). The reason for subscriptions is mainly to cover expenses of websites and the small print runs of the journal we will produce for the sake of publicity. This means that readers who want a print copy will need to produce their own.
What is wrong with this understanding of all-of-life Christianity if anything? What does it leave out? Where do you draw the line at some forms of lumping and the need for certain kinds of splitting?
. . . emphasize the wholeness and the unity of life, and protest by implication against “Sunday Christians” and “pulpit ministers.” Christianity being involved in the whole of life, it was important to break down artificial sacred and secular distinctions. From there it was a natural step to break down a distinction between secular and sacred teaching, and even between secular and sacred writings. A series of lectures on modern poets supported the conclusion that God, revealing himself in many ways, might Queen’s speak through the modern poet as well as through the Bible and that too sharp University a distinction between sacred writings and others might be harmful. There was a tendency also to break down the sharp distinction between the “Christian” and the “non-Christian” and therefore to challenge the traditional concepts of “conversion” and “the new birth.” There was an inclination to shift from the assumption of man’s inherent wickedness to the assumption of the Enlightenment that most men wish to be good and that the task of the church was to get them more and more involved in doing good. There was a shift away from the assumption that the kingdom of heaven must come through spiritual change in the individual, to the suggestion that the millenium could be approached, at least, by voluntary social work and also by legislation promoted by men of goodwill. This concept appeared very early in the proceedings of the conference, and was developed throughout the years when eminent Canadians. . . came to lecture on “The New Nation,” the nation in which intellectual enlightenment would be matched by social righteousness.
Where do you draw the line?
- The Unity of the Christian life
- Sacred-Secular distinction
- Bible and non-canonical books
- Believer-non-believer distinction
- Human nature (inherent goodness vs. the fall)
- The advance of the kingdom through spiritual ministry and social activity
- Social (or national) righteousness
You may not draw it between the US and Canada.
If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark he would be for the whole Camorra of uplifters, forward-lookers and professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign alliances, and denounced their evils in harsh, specific terms. He had a liking for all forthright and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, schoolmasters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He drank whisky whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the republic from them. He advocated no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and doubted that such a panacea existed. He took no interest in the private morals of his neighbors. (H. L. Mencken, Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918)
Here’s help from H. L. Mencken:
Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that never, under any circumstances, lose money in the United States first, detective stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly debauched by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious faith surely an important matter in any competent biography is yet but half solved. Here, for example, is the Rev. William E. Barton, grappling with it for more than four hundred large pages in “The Soul of Abraham Lincoln.” It is a lengthy inquiry the rev. pastor, in truth, shows a good deal of the habitual garrulity of his order but it is never tedious. On the contrary, it is curious and amusing, and I have read it with steady interest, including even the appendices. Unluckily, the author, like his predecessors, fails to finish the business before him. Was Lincoln a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Christ? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Christ were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other close friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but Dr. Barton argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were alive to-day, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs.
As for me, I still wonder. (“Five Men at Random: Abraham Lincoln”)
The Congregationalist pastor, William E. Barton was, by the way, the father of Bruce Barton, the same writer who turned Jesus into a model business executive in The Man Nobody Knows
(By the way, some of Roman Catholicism’s antiquity is not ancient.)
“How the Irish Changed Penance,” by John Rodden, Commonweal Magazine, January 26, 2022
Most Catholics are probably unaware that what we today call the sacrament of Reconciliation existed in a completely different form during the early Christian era. Even those who are aware of this fact may not know that it was a group of Irish monks who were largely responsible for transforming this sacrament into the version with which we’re familiar. It is all too easy to imagine that the seven sacraments have existed in something like their present form from the moment they were instituted. In truth, all of them have changed in important ways over the course of the Church’s history, and none has changed more than the sacrament of penance.
For the Church’s first seven centuries, penance could be received no more than once in a lifetime. That policy dated back to the time of St. Peter. The New Testament tells us that Jesus gave the power of forgiveness to his disciples, but it says almost nothing about how they were to exercise it. In the early Church, the prevailing belief was that baptism was the celebration of the forgiveness of sin, and that the baptized, having turned away from sin, would not need to be forgiven again. As St. Paul wrote, “How can we who died to sin yet live in it? You must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6).
Nevertheless, the Church Fathers soon realized that they needed a way to deal with post-baptismal sin because many baptized Christians were slipping back into their old way of life. A formal system of public penance was devised to handle such setbacks. Typically, after penitents confessed to the local bishop, they were assigned an onerous penance that lasted several years. During this time they wore sackcloth and garments that scratched or tore the skin, as a modest reminder of Christ’s scourging. They were also required to leave Mass immediately after the homily and forbidden to receive the Eucharist. At least part of their penance consisted of long hours of prayer and fasting. Not until they had completed this long and arduous penitential period were they “reconciled” with the Church and welcomed back into full communion. For the Church’s first seven centuries, penance could be received no more than once in a lifetime.
But reconciled penitents were expected to continue some penitential practices, such as abstinence from sexual intercourse, for the rest of their lives. Those who had been thus reconciled could not be admitted to the clergy or to most public offices. They remained permanently in a somewhat inferior position within the Church, partly for social reasons and partly as an explicit reminder of their lapse. Moreover, such a reconciliation was permitted no more than once in a lifetime, and it was required only for what were regarded as mortal sins, such as murder, adultery, and apostasy. Those guilty of what we now call venial sins were not expected to undergo any formal process; instead, they found forgiveness for their sins by participating in the Eucharist, almsgiving, and seeking forgiveness from those whom they had offended.
Christians who lapsed again into grave sin after they had been formally reconciled found themselves without recourse. “Now,” your local bishop or priest informed you, “you are left to the mercy of God.” The early Church feared that allowing sinners to be sacramentally reconciled more than once would encourage sin. But the rigors of penance and the practice of allowing Christians to receive the sacrament of penance only once had an unforeseen and highly problematic effect. Many people postponed their baptism for decades, because baptism offered forgiveness for a whole lifetime’s worth of sins without the rigors of penance. Plus, those who waited until old age to be baptized were unlikely to lapse thereafter into serious sin more than once. Emperor Constantine, who had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, remained a catechumen until his own deathbed baptism in 337.
By the seventh century, it had become obvious to many that the Church’s rules for penance were not working as they were intended to, but there were still no plans in Rome to reform them. It was precisely at this time that Irish monks began to travel to the European continent to proselytize the heathen Franco-German tribes. At least a century earlier, these monks had developed a different practice of penance within their own communities, adapting a little-known tradition traceable to the first monastic communities in the Egyptian desert. St. John Cassian, who had lived with these desert monks, took their practices with him when he founded a monastery in France. His writings were later taken to Ireland and it is there that they found fertile soil. Traditional public penances of the kind practiced in the early Church were not an option for the desert monks: there were no Christian communities, let alone dioceses, in the Egyptian desert. Like the monks in Ireland after them, they were struggling to overcome venial “faults” in their quest for saintliness, not seeking reconciliation after committing grave offenses such as murder, adultery, and apostasy. The Irish monks refined the work of Cassian, developing a system of confession in which the private recitation of sins was followed by the private performance of penance. Crucially, they not only adopted this practice themselves, but introduced it to the faithful outside the monastery, making it applicable to all sins and available to all sinners.
Then, without formal ecclesiastical approval, the missionary monks shared these more relaxed and flexible practices with the new converts in Europe. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes it: “During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest.” This was a radical change in the history of the sacraments. Gradually, confession went from being public to private, and from a once-in-a-lifetime rite to an as-often-as-needed practice. The “order of penitents,” segregated from the rest of the community, disappeared.
The great virtue of the Irish monastic approach was how it aided the monk’s quest for holiness. Regular confession became the supreme weapon of Celtic spirituality in the ceaseless spiritual combat against sin. Irish monks would regularly confess their faults to the presiding abbot of the monastery. As Joseph Stoutzenberger notes in Celebrating the Sacraments, gradually the practice came to include confessing faults to a highly trusted brother monk, who became known as the anamchara (animae carus), or “soul friend.” The abbot or fraternal anamchara would pray with the penitent and prescribe actions to help him overcome his failing. Certain monks renowned for their spiritual advice became popular confessors. Eventually, people outside the monasteries began coming to those monks to confess their sins. Because the whole Irish Church was organized around the monasteries, Irish bishops were sympathetic to the monks’ approach to penance and did not regard it as lax or permissive. They recognized its practical and spiritual advantages and allowed it to continue.
But bishops elsewhere did not look so favorably on this alternative approach. Scholars such as Kate Dooley believe that the condemnation of private confession in Canon 12 at the Third Council of Toledo in 589 referred to the Irish monastic practice. That council reaffirmed the traditional rite, whereby reconciliation could be granted only once in a lifetime.Over time, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe.
Undeterred, the Irish monks maintained their alternative practice and disseminated it in their missions abroad. Until the twelfth century, both the traditional rite of public penance and the Irish practice of private confession co-existed uneasily. Over time, however, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe. Where the older form was still favored, the faithful often treated penance exactly as previous generations had treated baptism: excommunicated members of the community chose to wait until they were on their deathbeds to be reconciled to the Church because the dying sinner could receive the sacrament without performing grueling public penances.