Why Calvinism Matters

When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.

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What Transformed Churches Used to Look Like

Over at Front Porch Republic I posted some reflections on the urge for contemporary Christians to hope for and try to implement “radical” Christianity. It strikes me that such radicalism is at the heart of #woke Christians’ deep and abiding resentment of the fall’s effects on human institutions, not to mention its influence on humans.

Roger Olson is also surprised by the turn that some evangelicals are taking in their awakened state. And he also remembers what used to characterize a transformed Christian culture. Hint, it was not radical:

“The Christianity of my youth is gone; I don’t find it anywhere.” I have thought that to myself but been afraid to say it to anyone. I had to agree with him. We both grew up in and began our ministries within the “heart” of American conservative Protestant, evangelical Christianity. We both have taught at several Christian institutions of higher education and we both have traveled much—speaking to Christian audiences both inside and outside of churches. We have both written books published by evangelical Christian publishers. We both have our finger on the “pulse” of contemporary American evangelical Protestant Christianity and we both grew up in and began our ministries in what that used to be. We are both dismayed at how it has changed.

We were not talking about “drums on the platform used during worship.” We were not talking about styles of dress or hair or anything like that. We were talking about substance.

We both know what evangelical Protestant Christianity was like in terms of substance in the middle of the twentieth century—in America. We both know what it is like now. And to us, at least, the change of substance is so radical that we have trouble recognizing contemporary evangelical Protestant Christianity in America as in continuity with the religious form of life we both grew up in and began our ministries in.

Let me explain….

It’s actually difficult to know where to begin! Almost everything has changed substantially. But what I mean by “substantially” will only be revealed by my examples.

First, church was extended family; people knew each other and were involved in each other’s lives. There was no notion of “personal privacy” if you were a member of the church—except in the bathroom and (normally) bedroom. When the church was large, the Sunday School class was your extended family. If you were a member or regular attended and missed two Sundays in a row without explanation you could expect a visit from a pastor or Sunday School teacher. I could go on, but that should give you a taste of what I’m talking about.

Second, and following from “first,” home visitation was a big part of a pastor’s job. If the church was large this might be delegated to Sunday School teachers or others (e.g., elders or deacons). Also, hospital visitation was expected of pastors—even if they could not get to everyone every week (due to the size of the church and the city).

Third, evangelism and missions were central to church life. People had missionaries’ pictures at home and prayed for them as well as supported them financially. Many churches had “missionary barrels” where people put non-perishable items to send “overseas” for the missionaries. When the missionaries came “home on furlough” they traveled around speaking in churches and were expected to talk about conversions and church planting and building. “Transformative initiatives” were not enough; “winning lost souls to Jesus” was the common language and it was expected.

Following as part of “third” is that all evangelical churches had programs for training members to witness and evangelize. Everyone was expected to witness to their neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, etc.

Fourth, the worship space was treated as a place for reverence and respect. It was not “the auditorium” but “the sanctuary” and drinking beverages and eating food was absolutely forbidden. Every church had “ushers” part of whose job it was to speak to people who were not showing proper reverence and respect for the worship space—not so much because it was considered especially “holy” or “sacred” but because munching food and gulping beverages was distracting to others and just not proper during worship.

Fifth, most of the work of the church was performed by volunteer lay people instead of paid staff people. It was expected that every member would volunteer part of his or her time to do something for the church. Anyone who didn’t was considered a backslidden person in need of correction or even excommunication. There were excommunicated people who attended regularly, but they were not allowed to hold any positions of leadership and were the subjects of much prayer and visitation.

Sixth, Sunday was set aside as a time to be in church—morning and evening—and afternoons were devoted to rest, reading, visiting “folks” in their homes, etc. Normally, television was turned off on Sunday (unless possibly for religious programming in the morning while the family got ready for church or in the afternoon after the usually abundant Sunday noon dinner). People who did not spend most of Sunday at church were considered unspiritual and not given any kind of leadership in the church. (Of course exceptions were made for people who were for whatever reason not able to spend most of the day in church.)

Seventh, if a person attended church often (e.g.,with a “loved one”) but did not show any sign of interest in growing spiritually, he or she would be talked to and eventually asked to stop attending—if he or she was living a “sinful life.” That’s because children and youth would possibly assume that the person’s sinful lifestyle was acceptable.

Eighth, every evangelical church had occasional revivals—“protracted meetings” where people came every night of the week to hear music and preaching that was not “ordinary.” The focus was on both evangelism (“Bring your friends!”) and re-dedication or new consecration to the Lord. “Deeper life” or “higher life” was a major focus of evangelical churches with retreats, seminars, workshops, etc., that people were expected to attend.

Ninth, churches that “shut down” programs for the summer or for holidays were considered unspiritual. Summer, for example, was one of the most active times for evangelical churches with Vacation Bible Schools, “Backyard childrens’ clubs,” “Camps” and “Mission Trips”—usually to visit missionaries “on the field” in the countries where they were working for the Lord. Of course, only some people could go on these, but when the people who did go returned everyone was expected to come and listen to their stories about the missionaries and the people they were evangelizing and view their slides.

Tenth, every evangelical church had at least “Wednesday Bible Study” that usually met in the evening for at least an hour and any church member who did not attend was considered less than fully committed.

Eleventh, when evangelical Christians gathered for social fellowship with each other, whether in homes or at restaurants, wherever, they talked about “What Jesus is doing,” what they were learning from the Bible, reading Christian literature, their favorite radio preacher, or something spiritual and not only sports or politics or the weather. If they gathered in a home on Sunday afternoon, for example, they watched Billy Graham or Oral Roberts or Rex Humbard or some other evangelical Christian program (not football). Of course there were exceptions, but these fellowship gatherings of evangelical believers in homes were common and much of the “talk” was about religion, faith, God’s work in people’s lives, etc.

Twelfth, evangelical Christians had fairly high standards about entertainment. Many did not attend movies in movie theaters. If they did, they were highly selective about what ones they would attend (and let their children attend). Along with that, modesty in dress was expected—of both males and females. Most evangelical churches did not permit “mixed bathing” (boys and girls swimming together at camps or “lock ins” at the YMCA or YWCA). Young people were encouraged to listen only to Christian music on the local Christian radio station. Often they were given notes to take to school saying that they were not permitted to dance. Alternatives to “prom” were routinely planned by churches and local evangelical ministers’ associations. Such alternatives included (mostly) banquets to celebrate the coming commencement.

Thirteenth, Sunday sermons were expected to convict congregants and visitors of sin and “backsliding” and call them to new repentance and greater involvement in spiritual practices such as daily devotions, Bible reading, prayer and witnessing to the unsaved.

This was what I experienced as a yute. And it also explains why I found Reformed Protestantism more appealing and reassuring. I would certainly in my confessional and two-kingdom Protestant self construe church life and personal piety differently that Olson does.

At the same time, that older kind of evangelicalism (or fundamentalism) was earnestly otherworldly and congregational.

As much as the anti-liberal Christians out there, from Rod Dreher to Adrian Vermuele and N. T. Wright want to reject secularism and modern social forms, they don’t seem to have a place for the fairly thick glue of older congregational life and worship. Instead, they seem to prefer that the nation-state take on the attributes of a congregation (without of course all of the earnest striving to avoid worldliness). Meanwhile, the voices for social justice also seem not to notice how the protests and outrage distract from higher responsibilities (because more eternal) of fellowship, evangelism, discipleship, and worship. Again, part of the explanation seems to be an expectation that the world conform to the church or that the eschaton be immanentized.

I am not sure how to conclude other than to say, what the heck happened?

Baseball for Sabbatarians

With the completion of the 2018 season, an old article from the Nicotine Theological Journal (October 2007) on fans, pennant races, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy (and an excuse for an image of Mr. Utley):

NTJ Diarist: Day of Stress and Worry

It seems a distant memory now. But the last Lord’s Day of the 2007 Major League Baseball season created great conflict for the NTJ’s editors. Each of us grew up rooting for either the Mets or the Phillies. We are also committed to sanctifying the Sabbath. Consequently, the prospects of the Eastern Division’s title being settled on a day reserved for rest and worship generated considerable soul searching and much distraction by earthly and perishable things.

What follows is a confession of the editors’ unsuccessful efforts to keep September 30th holy. (The Phillies’ fan’s account is in bold for the victor’s emphasis.)

September 29, 4:35 pm: I was prepared to give up on the Metropolitans the night before. As their home losing streak extended to five games, they surrendered first place at last to the Phillies. Still I followed this afternoon’s game on the Internet, and, remarkably, John Maine came within a few outs of the first no-hitter in Mets history. The 13-0 shellacking of the hapless Marlins, combined with the Phillies loss, virtually wiped clean weeks of futility. We were tied again, and the Mets had their mojo back.

6:45 pm: I have a bad feeling of foreboding as I go out for the annual progressive supper on our block in Philadelphia. Could it be that the Phillies’ rise to first place yesterday is only setting us up for an even more depressing defeat tomorrow, the perfect way to cap a season in which they achieved 10,000 losses? The team looked bad today in their 4-2 loss to Washington. Thankfully, the neighbors bring lots of wine and don’t talk much about sports. Avoidance mixed with a buzz is bliss.

September 30, 8:30 am: Does God hear the prayers of the not-so-righteous? I am hoping and praying for discipline to concentrate on today’s services and sermons. But I can’t help think how great it will be if the Phillies actually surpass the Mets and win the division. I am also hoping that the season ends today. A playoff game tomorrow will be agonizing.

10:30 am: A sermon on Christ the resurrected King prompts my mind to drift. Is it impious to employ the resurrection as a metaphor for this horrible month? Will the Mets’ September humiliation yield to their October exaltation? That’s an inviting way to frame the narrative, and it pleases me to imagine how it will silence the obnoxious swagger of Phillies fans.

11:40 am: The pastor is preaching from the Beatitudes and I am doing my best not to think about the game this afternoon. But the notion that those who mourn are blessed gives me a perfect retort to gloating Mets fans should they win. The mourning Phillies fans would seem to qualify as those deserving of the Lord’s blessing. Even so, such a benediction doesn’t bring needed consolation.

2:30 pm: Before an afternoon nap I need to return an email about an ecclesiastical matter, surely a work of necessity. The problem is that I must get to my webmail via my homepage, which is the web page of Sports Illustrated. I am careful to pass over it quickly with barely a glance. All I remember seeing is a reference to the “Miracle Mets.” Oh yeah. 1969 . . . 1986 . . . and now, 2007.

3:05 pm: It suddenly dawns on me: si.com did not refer to the “Miracle Mets.” It said something like, “Mets need a Miracle at Shea.” Hmm. That’s a strange way to overstate the challenge. All we need today is the ordinary providence of Beltran’s bat, Glavine’s arm, and Reyes’ speed. So why the miracle talk?

3:20 pm: Overcome with confusion, I go back to si.com, which now features a photo of a forlorn Tom Glavine. I read where the Marlins scored seven runs off the future Hall-of-Famer in the first inning. SEVEN: the number of fullness and completeness and, well, Sabbath. It’s over. There will be no miracle today. I sense no impulse to check the Phillies score.

4:20 pm: My wife and I are out on our Sabbath stroll through the neighborhood and I am searching for signs of the outcome of the game at Citizens Bank Park. I am worried. I see no little pennants mounted on cars to show allegiance to the victors. I also hear no shouts or honking of horns. The town is way too quiet. I am preparing to find another team for which to root – too bad the Eagles only play on the Lord’s Day.

5:25 pm: I am tempted to check the score at one of the baseball websites so that I can concentrate better during the evening service. I resist temptation.

6:40 pm: Godliness, the seminary intern instructs the flock in the evening sermon, is manifested in obedience to God’s command. I suppose that includes the fourth commandment. I fall under conviction and take at least a measure of comfort in considering that I will not face a trial like this next week. Not with the way the Jets are playing.

7:10 pm: I stand with the pastor at the back door to greet exiting worshipers. While talking to the pastor I learn that one of the families in the church was celebrating the Phillies’ win in such a lively manner that the pastor and his wife heard the revelry from a few doors down the street. I am stunned. The Phillies have at least tied for the division.

8:15 pm: I begin to pack for a trip, oddly enough, to Philadelphia. I cringe at the satisfaction my friends will enact. I flee, where I have in the past, to the Psalms: “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us – a laughing stock among the peoples. All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.”

8:45 pm: I finally give in to temptation and check the Internet for scores. I justify this by observing that the sun is officially and Pharisaically down. There I read the staggering news that the Mets also lost. I can barely believe the results. The Phillies were 7 games out with two weeks to go. They did not merely make the playoffs as the wild card team, but won the division outright. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Win a Free Book

Anyone who can guess the author of the following article will receive a copy of On Being Reformed:

Putting the X Back in Xmas

How to make “Jesus the Reason for the Season” – that is the dilemma facing evangelical Protestants. Some, the socially militant ones, insist that Christmas is a holiday by divine right and fight for the public nativity scene in town square, hoping to hide its otherwise nakedness. The evangelistic evangelicals (perhaps a redundancy) hope to use the holiday to reach the lost, taking advantage of banners, plays, or even worship to proclaim the gospel to those nominal Christians who go to church during the holy month of December. But rarely have evangelicals owned up to the commercial nature of modern Christmas celebrations and their part in its commodification. In his recent book, Selling God, R. Laurence Moore shows how the evangelical Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, transformed his downtown Philadelphia department store into a church during Christmas, complete with the largest pipe organ in the world (!!), programs of Christmas carols, and other Christian symbols. According to Leigh Eric Schmidt, whose Consumer Rites parallels Moore’s book on religious consumerism, the nativity scene in Wanamaker’s Grand Court “remained the center-piece” of the store’s Christmas Cathedral, “often spotlighted with a beam of light that looked as if it had come shining down from the heavens.” According to Schmidt, the interplay between the divine gift of God’s only begotten son and the gifts exchanged at Christmas energized Wanamaker’s displays. “Christmas gifts provided a tangible vehicle for connecting with the sacred drama.”

THE PROBLEM WITH ALL evangelical approaches to Christmas, from the crassly commercial to the devoutly evangelistic, is that of begging the question. Is Christ’s birth really about “Christmas cheer,” whether the secular variety of spiked eggnog, jingle bells, and jolly Saint Nick, or the seemingly more dignified joy that comes from gratitude to God for sending his Son to redeem the lost? In other words, should the incarnation make us glad or humble? Any answer to this question should, of course, keep in mind the less sentimental aspects of Christ’s birth, the manger in the stable and Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

A better reason for Christmas gloom comes from the Bible’s teaching about the humiliation of the second person of the Trinity in the incarnation. Children reared on the Westminster Shorter Catechism are taught to conceive of Christ’s earthly ministry under the rubric of his humiliation, as distinct from his exaltation. Question 27 reads, “Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?” Answer: “Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.” What is important to notice is that the birth and death of Christ, and everything in between, compose a single act of God in which he humbled himself by being subject to his own creation in the most humiliating fashion. So what is said about the incarnation applies similarly to the crucifixion, the former being initial, and the latter the culmination of Christ’s suffering.

SINCE BIRTH AND BURIAL ARE part of Christ’s humiliation, they should nurture a similar response from us as Paul says in Phillipians 2. Unfortunately the piety of Christmas is insensitive to this teaching as revealed by the spirit and traditions of the holiday. So instead of celebrating the birth of Christ at Christmas, the church should look to a more appropriate form of celebration – the regular receiving of the Lord’s Supper, It is the proper alternative to Christmas cheer, consumerism and yuletide indulgence.

INSTEAD OF LINKING THE incarnation to fictional tales about Santa and his elves, the Lord’s Supper unites Christ to real events in the history of Israel, filled with redemptive significance, like the Passover. And rather than forcing new and irrelevant significance on to the narrative to achieve a new market-centered gospel of trade and consumption, the Lord’s Supper explains the true significance of Christ’s coming, namely, to be the sacrifice for the propitiation of God’s wrath. Moreover, the Lord’s Supper produces a reverence and solemnity appropriate for something as awful as the incarnation. Instead of this being a time of gorging and giggling, the Supper’s small portions nurture self-examination, repentance, and faith. One last thing – an important one for Presbyterians and Reformed – the Lord’s Supper is biblically prescribed whereas Christmas is not. As J. Gresham Machen wrote,

the Bible makes no definite provision for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, but provides the most definite and solemn way for the commemoration of his death. . . . Indeed that commemoration of the death of Christ was definitely provided for by Jesus himself. “This cup is the New Testament in my blood,” said Jesus: “this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” In those words of institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus carefully provided that His church should commemorate His death.

Evangelicals used to cry, “Back to Jesus.” Maybe its time they did by taking up the cross and giving up the manger.

Fear’s Double Standard

A prominent theme in John Fea’s book, Believe Me, is that fear drives evangelical politics. The word “white” should go before evangelical because Fea also contrasts white and black evangelicals’ politics. He writes:

Even the most cursory reading of the Old and New Testament reveals that, ultimately, Christians have nothing to fear. Scripture reminds us that we already have a strong protector in times of need. . . . In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father Good pleasure to give you the kingdoms.”

But of course, evangelicals did not believe this when the voted for Donald Trump:

While many of Trump’s evangelical opponents said that they could not tell their children or grandchildren that they voted for such a moral monster, other evangelicals were saying exactly the same thing about voting for Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, long-held fears or threats whose specter had been stoked for decades simply could not be overcome.

Recently, Mike Horton echoed Fea when he wrote under the title, “What Are Evangelicals Afraid of Losing?”:

In a Monday meeting with evangelical leaders at the White House, President Trump reportedly warned of violence against conservative Christians if the GOP loses in November. Evangelicals, he said, were “one election away from losing everything.”

As evangelicals, we would do well to correct the president on this point. If an election can cause us to lose everything, what is it exactly that we have in the first place?

What I don’t understand is why the evangelical voters for Trump, why their fears are a sign of infidelity. We have heard a lot about how evangelicals fear the Trump administration’s immigrant policy, the Southern Baptist Convention’s pastors’ treatment of women and sexual abuse, and the racial bias of police and related shootings.

Someone could argue that these fears about the plight of immigrants, women, and African-Americans are legitimate fears while the socio-economic concerns that motivated evangelicals to vote for Trump were illegitimate.

That may be, but that would also undermine the point that Christians should not be afraid, unless it is that white Christians don’t need to fear but Christian people of color do. Either way, a Christian no matter what his or her race or ethnicity is supposed to trust a sovereign God. If Psalm 23 is true, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” then it is true for all people who trust God.

If Peter Can Deny Our Lord Three Times (dot dot dot)

In the current climate of Roman Catholic discontent about sexually abusive and active priests, bishops, cardinals, and a church structure that made cover-up possible, it may not be the best time to raise questions about sexual infidelity among pastors. But a dinner with old friends and colleagues this summer at General Assembly and now reading about what to do about priests who have fallen has me thinking (always dangerous to do in public).

The thought is this: why is sexual infidelity worse than other sin? As the title of the post indicates, Peter did something that was pretty rotten. He denied his Lord three times. At certain times in church history (persecution in N. Africa in the third century and in Korea in the twentieth century), that kind of infidelity could get you booted from the ministry. But you could add lying and stealing as big deals. How do you trust a pastor who commits those sins? And perhaps not as obviously wicked, but what about idolatry or blasphemy (never mind keeping the Lord’s Day holy)? Why do we zoom in on the seventh commandment to adopt a one-strike and you’re out?

Here is how Robert George put it this week:

In short, what the Church (and by “the Church” I am referring to the lay faithful as well as to the Church’s hierarchical officials) should demand—that is, absolutely insist upon without exception—of its clergy is what the clergy should preach to the people, namely, fidelity. Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Priests must believe and preach what the Church holds as true about God and man—and must practice what they preach. Am I advocating a zero-tolerance policy toward grave sexual sins, such as fornication, adultery, and sodomy (even when committed by consenting adults)? Yes, I am. It is not because I think these sins are unforgivable, or even that they are the worst sins. (In fact, they are forgivable and, though grave, they are not the worst sins.) It is because the infidelity expressed by and embodied in these sins, and because the scandal—undermining of the faith (including the faith of the sinning priest and the faith of the person with whom he sins)—they occasion, is simply intolerable. These sins are toxic to the priestly ministry. Priests who cannot or will not avoid them cannot effectively carry out their mission.

So there is the logic from a conservative Roman Catholic:

Sexual infidelity undermines the faith corporately and personally.

Therefore, sexual infidelity is intolerable.

I understand it but the argument is not exactly airtight since you could insert idolatry, lying, and stealing into the premise and come to the same conclusion.

I am not trying to excuse sexual infidelity (or lying and stealing). I am curious though if our revulsion at sexual sin reveals more about those judging the sin than it does about the nature of the sin. I understand that according to our standards, some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others. But that catechetical language gives room for what may only be “like your opinion, man.”

Monuments in Heaven

This story reminds me of a thought that occurred while singing a hymn on Sunday: will #woke Christians let David’s throne stand in the new heavens and new earth? (The story is about the toppling of a Confederate monument, Silent Sam, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.)

“Jerusalem the Golden”‘s third stanza in the old Trinity Hymnal goes like this:

There is the throne of David;
And there, from care released,
The song of them that triumph,
The shout of them that feast;
And they who with their Leader
Have conquered in the fight,
For ever and for ever
Are clad in robes of white.

So we may have a throne that commemorates an adulterer, a man who plotted the death of his lover’s husband, and a king who could not manage his own household. Not to mention that he purged the holy land of pagan dwellers. Yes, the Lord commanded it but in these times of social righteousness, such aggression is not just macro but cosmic.

Even so, Bernard of Cluny and John Mason Neale seemed to think Christians could draw comfort and inspiration from the thought of a throne in the new Jerusalem that commemorated the very flawed King David. Which makes you wonder if the pursuit of righteousness here (by some Christians) is going to be sufficient preparation for the righteousness to come.

Is This 2018 or 1517?

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 to end the Imperial Episcopate.

After the gospel triumphed in the Roman Empire, the Church gradually acquired forms of life borrowed from imperial organization. Many of those forms still serve us well. But over time some of those forms have ceased to make sense and have become impediments to the evangelical freedom of the Church. I believe this is evident in significant aspects of how bishops now live and exercise their Catholic ministry.

Exalted titles and elaborate uniforms, for example, tend to distance bishops from their priests and people, and also subtly nudge them toward self-important and self-referential ways of thinking and acting. As the recent catastrophic scandals demonstrate, too many bishops have proven unable to act as pastors and evangelists and have instead behaved as managers and bureaucrats. The current crisis in the Catholic Church reveals that the clerical culture in which bishops and priests live is in many ways diseased and deformed, requiring renewal through the fire of divine love and the revealed truth of the Word of God.

Grotesque unchastity is an obvious symptom, but perhaps even more dangerous to the priesthood is the habit of mendacity that hides unchastity and other sinful habits. Superficial flattery and fawning over the person of the bishop can deprive him—unless he has an uncommonly strong and healthy personality—of the evangelical simplicity and candor he needs to fulfill his duties. While deference to the bishop may begin with true reverence for his office, it too often leads to the growth of vanity, ambition, and clerical careerism. And so it is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.

But wait. The Imperial Episcopate is dead. Long live the Imperial Episcopate:

Deep reform will, of course, depend primarily on the bishops themselves. . .

Wait, there’s more:

We should encourage bishops to abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black. . . . How does that pageantry serve the gospel now, if it ever did? For the purification of the priesthood and the authentic reform of the Church, everything that is of Imperium rather than Evangelium needs to go.

Every diocesan bishop is known by the title of his See city because it is the place of his cathedra, the apostolic chair from which he teaches the gospel. For this reason, every diocesan bishop should celebrate at least the principal Sunday Mass in his cathedral church every week. . . .if the bishop is actually in his cathedral on the Lord’s Day, then not only can he celebrate Mass there, he can also lead the singing of Vespers each Sunday evening and show his priests and people how and why to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for the salvation of the world.

Every diocesan bishop should look at each employee in his chancery and ask this question: If this person’s job disappeared, would anyone in our parishes ever know the difference? If not, then why does this job exist? Chancery bureaucracies generally do not serve the mission of our parishes in which most of the Church’s vital work takes place; . . .

Every diocesan bishop’s most important task is to be pastor of the pastors, and each bishop should know all of his priests personally and intimately. Why is each man a Christian? How and why did he become a priest? What are his joys and sorrows? What are the main obstacles in his life to greater holiness? Is he happy and effective in his ministry? The business of getting to know priests in this way cannot be delegated to vicars. . . .

As for the auxiliaries, who are by far by the most numerous of the titular bishops, these exist primarily for one reason: to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation in the parishes of large dioceses. I submit that this is a deformation of the episcopate. If a diocese is too large for its proper pastor to serve, perhaps that diocese should be broken into smaller local churches. And even if the bishop cannot personally celebrate Confirmation in each parish, he can teach his people that he is the original minister of that sacrament and is present to the people in the sacred Chrism he consecrates every Holy Week in his cathedral. Then the bishop can delegate to priests the duty of administering the Sacrament of Confirmation without in any way diminishing the essential role of the episcopate in the sacramental life of the Church.

You’d have thunk this fellow was reading Luther and Calvin. You’d be wrong. Roman Catholics don’t listen to Protestants.

In That Church with This Editorial?

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.

Meanwhile, Bryan and the Jasons got zip, nada, zilch.

What Rome and Mainline Protestants Have in Common

Fear of being small and on the margins.

The most poignant part of Ross Douthat’s new book on Pope Francis and the crisis over remarriage and divorce is the admission that to be large and influential, Roman Catholicism cannot demand too much from its adherents. Douthat uses several episodes from church history to put the current controversy in perspective and one of those was the seventeenth-century conflict between Jansensists and Jesuits. Jansenism lost not because they laced “theologically decisive argument,” “brilliant” exegesis, or a persuasive interpretation of Augustine’s thought. The problem was that Roman Catholicism would not survive as a global faith on Jansenists’ grounds. Here he quotes Leszek Kolakowski (who wrote a book on the controversy):

In the new world, full of novelty and excitement. . . Christianity had to mae itself, if not “easy,” at least much easier, in order to survive. One could not resurrect as a universal norm the ethos of the apostolic time when the faithful lived in the shadow of imminent apocalypse. But that is precisely what the [Jansenists] tried to do — to their doom.

One way of putting that is to say that to ask Christians to live as if pilgrims and exiles, as if this world is not their home, is too much, even if that’s exactly what Christ and the apostles taught.

Douthat adds that this — the gap between rigor and accommodation — may be why Francis will wind up winning:

…history’s likely verdict on this era in the church would be that Pope Francis had understood, as his critics do not, what the Catholic faith must accept to move forward and continue preaching Christ. Like the Jansenists before them, with their desperate quest for purity in a changing world, the “more orthodox” church of today’s conservatives could only be a sect, not a universal faith, so great is the gap between our own new world and their kind of rigorism. So the faith must change, and in the changing, the conservatives must diminish, and like the Jansenists before them, lose. (To Change the Church, 167, 168)

What this says about why conservative churches are growing is anyone’s guess. And whether its a consoling view for Protestants who operate in micro-communions may be tempting, but pride in smallness is a danger also.

What it does explain is the consolation that many Roman Catholics take from that 1.2 billion number. It is encouraging apparently to belong to something big (like those who follow Tim Keller on Twitter). But size has its cost and one of those debits is faithfulness. The current Vatican and many others in the church want Roman Catholicism but not too much.