Can You Imagine a Commentary on Peter's Epistles Written this Way?

I am suspicious of folks who draw up lists of things I need to know. Joe Carter does it for Protestants. Now in reporting on the new encyclical, Jimmy Aikin does it for Roman Catholics.

Aside from this annoyance, the striking aspect of Aikin’s post is the notion that an officer, the pope, who is supposed to resolve the confusions of the faithful (and even put an end to private opinions), actually increases speculation and the public expression of private opinion:

4. Does Lumen Fidei acknowledge Pope Benedict’s role in its composition?
Yes. In it, Pope Francis writes:

These considerations on faith — in continuity with all that the Church’s magisterium has pronounced on this theological virtue — are meant to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope. He himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own. [LF 7].

5. Does Lumen Fidei sound like Pope Benedict?
Much of it does. It includes many of the characteristic touches and themes of his writings.

For example, it contains many references to history, including early Christian history, Jewish history, and pagan history. It contains references to the thought of historical figures, including the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. It also refers to the thought of recent intellectual figures, including the Catholic thinker Romano Guardini, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the agnostic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

6. Do particular passages sound like Pope Francis?
This is harder to judge. He is mostly known for his speaking style, and his own voice for a document of this nature may take time to emerge. One touch that is distinctly Pope Francis, though, is the way he signs the encyclical. Normally popes give their name in Latin, followed by “PP” (a Latin abbreviation for “pope”) and followed by their number. Pope Benedict, for example, signed Spe Salvi by writing “Benedictus PP XVI.” Pope Francis, being the first pope to use this name, does not have a number, so you wouldn’t expect that in his signature. He does, however, seem to prefer not to use the title “pope,” preferring “bishop of Rome,” instead. Thus he leaves out the “PP” in his signature and simply signs the encyclical Franciscus.”

Aikens also tries to read the tea leaves of Vatican politics:

14. Does this encyclical tell us much about how Pope Francis will govern the Church?
Not as much as you might think. Unlike Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, it does not appear to lay out a blueprint for his entire pontificate. This is largely due to the fact that he inherited an almost complete first draft of the encyclical from Pope Benedict. Thus Pope Francis’s second encyclical may actually shed more light on the agenda for his own pontificate. It does, however, contain some intriguing clues, including the emphasis on the role of faith in society, the allusion to marriage as the union of man and woman, and his own personal style, as illustrated by his signature.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a free country and Christian communions since the formation of free countries have had all sorts of trouble reigning in the flock, imposing uniformity, and achieving coherence. Roman Catholics in the U.S. have to try to make sense of their relationship with the Vatican just as Orthodox Presbyterians need to reckon with doings in the PCA and the Free Church Continuing.

But when Jason and the Callers are lauding the papacy as the balm to heal all Protestant wounds, they need to think how this sounds to anyone who is actually following what happens in the Roman Catholic press. (BTW, I wonder if Bryan has been avoiding Oldlife because I gave Jason top billing.)

Postscript: a way to out Jimmy-Aikin Jimmy Aikin is to speculate on Peter’s motives in writing of Paul’s letters that “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” Was this payback for Paul’s rebuke of Peter? Was it an expression of jealousy for Luke following Paul rather than Peter? Was it a form of writer’s envy? Who asks these questions?

15 thoughts on “Can You Imagine a Commentary on Peter's Epistles Written this Way?

  1. “14. Does this encyclical tell us much about how Pope Francis will govern the Church?
    Not as much as you might think. Unlike Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, it does not appear to lay out a blueprint for his entire pontificate. This is largely due to the fact that he inherited an almost complete first draft of the encyclical from Pope Benedict. Thus Pope Francis’s second encyclical may actually shed more light on the agenda for his own pontificate. It does, however, contain some intriguing clues, ”

    This looks a lot like recent speculation on the long-term meaning of the SCOTUS decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. Low on perspicuity.


  2. No, I didn’t say mikel”manna” on purpose, although it’s odd that it’s never occured to me before.


  3. MManna, a great moniker if you take your brand of earnest, contemporary Xian blues music on the coffeehouse circuit.


  4. This will never amount to anything exegetically satisfying. The Charism apparently is one of following broadly defined moral conservative impulses of the Western world. The political undercurrent is always more interesting than the theological import. It was rumored these two were not the best of friends back when Ratzinger lobbied and won the nomination. Though never on the level of Kung and Ratzinger, this ‘thaw’ will be interesting to watch. I anticipate that Francis will end up being the halfway measure between the conservatives and the liberals. It is interesting to note how fast he is moving, this is lightning kind of speed for the vatican; the bank, the curia, the papal office. The conservatives may be wishing for his demise sooner than later.



    Behind the Decline

    The magazine that fueled liberal Protestantism’s brief ascendancy in American culture

    The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline

    By Elesha J. Coffman
    Oxford, 271 pages, $27.95


    The first known use of the word “mainline” to describe the largest Protestant denominations and distinguish them from their growing evangelical and fundamentalist counterparts appeared in the New York Times in 1960—at the very moment when mainline Protestantism began its rapid decline. You don’t call something “mainline” or “mainstream” unless its supremacy is being disputed (think of the “mainstream media”). And the supremacy of older, more socially prestigious churches within American Protestantism was being directly disputed in the mid-1950s. It’s impossible to speak with precision about what constituted mainline Christianity, but in general the mainline churches de-emphasized doctrinal differences; were Northern and Midwestern rather than Southern; promoted social causes rather than personal conversion or repentance; and virtually always took the liberal line in politics. By 1960, liberal Protestantism enjoyed almost nothing of the authority that had seemed unassailable 15 years earlier.

    In “The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline,” Elesha Coffman charts the half-century ascendancy of liberal Protestantism in American society from its beginnings in northern seminaries at the turn of the 20th century to its brief triumphant moment immediately after World War II, when it had no effective rival. She does this through the lens of the magazine that, in the absence of any formal governing body, was effectively this strand of Protestantism’s voice and conscience: the Christian Century.

    The Christian Century (its original title was the Christian Oracle) was founded in 1884 as a magazine of the Disciples of Christ, one of the seven principal mainline denominations. Charles Clayton Morrison, a young minister with intellectual ambitions, purchased it in 1908, soon made it nondenominational and edited it for 39 years. Morrison had strong opinions, and he knew how to acquire and use what Ms. Coffman, following the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, calls “cultural capital”—assets in the marketplace of political and social influence.

    Ms. Coffman’s use of Bourdieu’s concept captures the essence of 20th-century American Protestant liberalism. For the men who created and sustained that movement—the anti-fundamentalist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, the religious pragmatist Edward Scribner Ames, the Social Gospel theologian Shailer Mathews, and Morrison himself—the aim wasn’t to convert sinners or even to persuade the unconvinced but to use status and credentials to shape the wider culture. Morrison filled his magazine with contributions by chaired professors and college presidents, and his style was less polemical than oracular. Ms. Coffman relays a revealing episode early in his editorship in which the Century (then still a denominational magazine) expressed an editorial view on the subject of baptism that directly contradicted the official position of the Disciples of Christ and the beliefs of a great majority of its members. Roundly criticized, Morrison defended his editorial on the grounds that the Century’s job wasn’t to “reflect” the denomination’s views but to “interpret” them. In other words: You may have your opinions, but we will decide what you really believe.

    The Century’s target audience was, as Morrison put it with characteristic pomposity, “those who might be said to represent the Christian intelligentsia of all the churches.” The Christian Century, he thought, would influence the “best minds” in the church, and they in turn would influence the laity.

    It didn’t work out that way in reality. Ms. Coffman has read six decades of correspondence to the Century, including hundreds of testimonial letters sent in 1928 to celebrate Morrison’s 20th anniversary at the helm, and finds evidence of a polite estrangement between the magazine’s largely clerical readers and their less cerebral congregants. The Century provided intellectual stimulus to the liberal clergy precisely because their more conservative laity didn’t go in for a lot of high-flown argumentation about social justice. Ms. Coffman clearly shows that any idea of a united liberal Protestant establishment was always more a social construction than a unified body of believers.

    That is the risk you run when you base your strategy on cultural capital rather than the actual capital of money or popular support, and actual capital is exactly what, beginning in the 1950s, fundamentalists and evangelicals were realizing they had. With wealth and industry moving South and a burgeoning evangelical movement on the West Coast, conservative Protestants could no longer be dismissed so easily as a lot of snake-handling bumpkins.

    Ms. Coffman’s research has uncovered a great deal of material about the rise and decline of mainline Protestantism, and she tells its story well. In my view, however, she treats her subject a little too delicately, with a young scholar’s reluctance to draw broad conclusions. So allow me. The decline of liberal Protestantism that began in the 1950s had at least three sources.

    First and most obviously: the embrace by its leaders of political positions that were either unpopular, manifestly ridiculous, or both. For much of its first four decades as a nondenominational magazine, for instance, the Century embraced the prohibition of alcohol as a distinctively “Protestant” position and just one part of an editorial stance that consistently skirted along the edges of straight anti-Catholic bigotry. Morrison himself set the Century on a firmly pacifist trajectory by embracing the cause of “outlawry”—the belief that war could be eliminated by making it “illegal.” “If we are to abolish war,” Morrison wrote in 1927, “the first decisive thing to do is to outlaw it!” The Century’s pacifist line became deeply problematic on Dec. 7, 1941, and the editors simply began to avoid the issue. But the episode illustrates nicely the fact that liberal clergy and their flocks have frequently been on the opposite sides of political debates.

    Then there was the smugness and general unkindness of liberal Protestantism’s “intelligentsia.” Ms. Coffman quotes a 1923 editorial in the Century, to take one of many examples, in which fundamentalism was said to be “a weak imitation of the Ku Klux Klan.” Or consider the 1947 piece on the rise of conservative seminaries in which Morrison referred contemptuously to “wealthy lay men and women who, as a class, are peculiarly susceptible to the appeal of weird or reactionary interpretations of the Scriptures.” Nor were the editors above dirty tricks, at one point accusing Billy Graham of illegal pecuniary arrangements without anything more than rumor as proof and even hiring an investigative reporter to find some impropriety in his organization’s finances. None came to light, but in something of a scoop, Ms. Coffman has discovered documents linking the revered historian Martin Marty to the rough anti-Graham campaign.

    Third, and most important, Ms. Coffman’s analysis of the Century and its readers strongly suggests that liberal Protestantism, for all the eminence it achieved in American society, was crippled from the start. She catalogs a deep divide between liberal churchmen and their congregants. Even today, many older members of mainline churches would be shocked to discover that their ministers or priests don’t believe that the Bible is in any sense revelation or that God’s existence is knowable. No movement can survive long if its leaders have to sidestep expression of their beliefs in the presence of the rank and file. And when the rank and file figure out that assent to the old verities isn’t mandatory, they’ll either go where it is mandatory or head to Starbucks SBUX +0.84% on a Sunday morning. And that, Elesha Coffman’s book suggests, has a lot to do with why the word “mainline” is so often accompanied by the word “decline.”

    Mr. Swaim is the author of “Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere, 1802-1834.”

    A version of this article appeared July 5, 2013, on page C6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Behind the Decline.



  6. D.G. – BTW, I wonder if Bryan has been avoiding Oldlife because I gave Jason top billing

    Erik – Just like Peter & Paul, Paul & John, Donald & Walter, and Hart & Muether they need to sort this out for themselves.


  7. Certainly Bryan’s professorial, cap wearing aesthetic is no match for Jason’s bald, goatee-wearing, Mad Men avatar persona chic. Jason must rise and Bryan must diminish if the Callers are to reach the next generation of certainty-seeking Presbyterian & Reformed questers.


  8. Erik & Chortles…

    Excerpt from recent interview I gave:

    (Chortles Weakly and Unnamed Interviewer)

    UI: Chortles Weakly, why have you become such a force of late in the internet environs of the Old Life Theological Society?

    CW: Simple: My comments are pithy and my barbs are sharp.

    UI: To what do you attribute this preponderance of pithiness?

    CW: I type only whilst wearing a pith helmet which is cocked at a jaunty angle between 21 and 25 degrees.

    UI: How very empirical of you!

    CW: Quite so.

    UI: What of your strained love/hate relationship with young Mr Charter, the prolific — may we say — serial commenter?

    CW: We have creative differences. Let’s just leave it at that. This interview is over.


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