You Gotta Exegete Someone

Reformed Protestants may be a tad hung up on Scripture, though it is supposed to be the very word of God. But if you begin to waffle on that canon notice how you begin to add to the authoritative texts.

For Roman Catholics, the doctrine of development has a hard time nurturing content with the Bible (even including the Apocrypha):

The deepest reason for the identity of Revelation in its ecclesial continuity is given in the hypostatic union, i.e., in the unity of the human and divine natures in the one divine person of Jesus Christ. The many words he spoke, revealing God’s plan to us through the medium of human language (cf. Joh 3:34; 6:68), are united in the hypostasis or person of the one Word that is God and has become flesh (cf. Joh 1:1, 14). The Word of God comes to us through the preaching of human beings (cf. 1 Thess 2:13); it is made present through human words, with their grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, it is possible and necessary to grow individually and communally in our understanding of the revelation that has been given to us once and for all in Christ. It is clear, then, that Catholic theology has always recognized the fact and necessity of the development of dogma. It is part of Christianity’s essence as the religion of the incarnate Word—the religion of God’s self-revelation in history—to affirm the identity of the doctrine of the faith along a continuous process by which the Church comes to an ever more differentiated conceptual comprehension of faith’s mysteries.

Make of that what you will about the potential problems of development but here you see an affirmation of continuity between the incarnation, divine revelation, and the ongoing revelation of divine truth in the doctrines of the church. Finding a distinction there between the prophets and apostles, and the teachings of the bishops and councils becomes fairly murky when the word incarnate, the word inscripturated, and the mystical body of Christ (the church) are all pieces of ongoing understanding of truth.

Unfortunately, it seems that Lutherans have a similar problem distinguishing between the apostles and the church’s theologians or pastors:

From a very practical standpoint, we have, as Lutheran pastors sworn to uphold the theology of the Book of Concord of 1580, also consequently, committed ourselves to the hermeneutic of reading the confessions we find in the Formula of Concord, and that is, if ever a question arises within the Lutheran church, the writings of Luther are to be consulted for the answer. In other words, the confessions understand themselves not to be so much a theology in and of themselves, but a summation of Luther’s theology:

“Since Dr. Luther is rightly to be regarded as the most eminent teacher of the churches which adhere to the Augsburg Confession and as the person whose entire doctrine in sum and content was comprehended in the articles of the aforementioned Augsburg Confession and delivered to Emperor Charles V, therefore the true meaning and intention of the Augsburg Confession cannot be derived more correctly or better from any other source than from Dr. Luther’s doctrinal and polemical writings.”[1]

Thus the confessions are not the bottom of a theological well from which Lutheran theologians thereafter would draw, but instead the confessions are the peak of the mountain, the mountain which is the theology of Martin Luther. But if that mountain remains unknown to us, how then are we to understand our task as pastors today in view of the Lutheran confessions?” (Paul Strawn, “Rediscovering the Theology of the Small Catechism, i.e. Martin Luther”)

Luther was great and is always edifying to read. But he did not approach salvation by following a great theologian, unless you consider (as some do) Paul the church’s first great theologian. Here, though, Paul had an advantage over Luther. He was infallible.

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Celebrating a Reformed Church

I saw a story today about the U.S. bishops having to calculate the uprightness of the Republican tax plan:

After Paul Ryan told an audience at Georgetown University that his legislative work conforms to Catholic social teaching “as best I can make of it,” he homed in on the importance of reducing the federal deficit. “The overarching threat to our whole society today is the exploding federal debt,” he said. “The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has charged that governments, communities, and individuals running up high debt levels are `living at the expense of future generations’ and `living in untruth.’”

That was in 2012—a smart (if incomplete) retort to scholars, bishops, and commentators who argued that Ryan’s budget priorities ran afoul of Catholic social doctrine. But on October 25, House Republicans under the Wisconsin congressman’s leadership approved a budget blueprint that would bring about an alarming increase in federal debt to achieve tax cuts weighted to benefit the rich. Even in the annals of federal budgeting, an additional gap of $1.5 trillion or more over ten years is a lot of money. When the Senate put forth this plan, which the large majority of Ryan’s caucus rubber-stamped, the Congressional Budget Office warned that “the high and rising debt that is projected would have serious negative consequences for the budget and the nation.” . . .

To give Ryan the benefit of the doubt, there is still time to work out a more principled budget. But, like just about every American politician who claims support in Catholic teaching, he needs to go beyond cherry-picking. He’ll need to consider factors beyond the deficit—especially distributive justice, which, as Pope Benedict wrote in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, the church has highlighted “unceasingly.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops highlighted this facet of Catholic teaching in an October 25 letter on “moral criteria to assist Congress during deliberations on possible tax reform.” The letter said that the tax burden should not be shifted from the rich to the poor, and noted that the Republicans’ “Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code” states that a revised tax code “would be at least as progressive as the existing tax code.” . . .

The bishops’ moral criteria also include concern for the poor; strengthening families; “adequate revenue for the sake of the common good”; avoiding cuts to poverty programs to finance tax reform; and encouraging charitable giving.

I don’t know what Ryan would make of this list, which was part of a letter to all members of Congress from Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. But these are points the bishops have made time and again as they advance the notion that a budget is a moral document. Before the House vote on October 25, the bishops’ conference took the step of posting a notice online saying that “Christ teaches that we should find Him the `the least of these,’ (Matthew 25). Call on your Representatives to not forget the poor as they debate and vote on the budget resolution.”

On Reformation Day 2017 I’m so thankful for pastors who actually attend to God’s word and leave politics to politicians.

I’m also glad for reformers who created a separate realm for the church so that secular society could be secular.

I’m especially glad that Orthodox Presbyterian pastors and elders, as gifted as they are, don’t feel responsible for explaining tax policy to Congress.

Subsidiarity Matters

What happens when you locate the vitality of your religious tradition in the officers who are far removed from the socializing and rearing of human beings?

American Protestants are keeping their children in the faith at a higher rate than Catholics or the unaffiliated, according to the latest study from the Pew Research Center.

Four out of five children raised by two Protestant parents remained Protestant into adulthood. For those raised in Protestant homes where religion was very important or often discussed, the retention rate jumps even higher (85% and 89%, respectively).

For those raised by a single parent who was Protestant, the retention rate doesn’t dip much. Three-quarters of American adults who had a Protestant single parent still identify as Protestant.
Those raised by two Catholic or unaffiliated parents, on the other hand, were equally less likely (62%) to remain in their parents’ religion—or lack thereof.

A theology of the body for the trenches?

“One pattern regarding the passing on of religious identity from one generation to the next is clear,” Pew stated. “Among those who were raised in a single religious background (especially within Protestantism), the family’s religious commitment is closely linked with retaining one’s religion into adulthood.”

At Least It's Not 30,000

Michael Sean Winters is following the meeting of the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops in Baltimore this week and he — echoing Machen — thinks the church is really two:

If I may borrow Cardinal Dolan’s metaphor, there are two Catholic Churches in the U.S. today. One Church is thrilled by Pope Francis, glad not to feel that everything is their fault, happy that they no longer feel the lash of judgment because they cannot measure up to the moral standards articulated by certain conservative commentators, delighted to know that it is OK not to be obsessed exclusively by certain issues, even — what was unimaginable for most just a short time ago — proud to be Catholic again.

The other Church is meeting in the ballroom in Baltimore this week. There is no excitement. The agenda is very pre-“VatiLeaks”. The obsession with abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage rolls on in dreary predictability. Everyone is “in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace,” the very thing Pope Francis said would have worried him if it had characterized the recent synod. It characterizes the meeting of the USCCB so far. It is bizarre to me that the encomiums to Pope Francis are formulaic at best or absent entirely. So far as the public discussions go, you would not know that this is an interesting, let alone exciting, time to be a Catholic. The whole world knows. The cat is out of the bag. And the bishops seem to be asking, “What is a cat?”

I understand some might think quoting Winters is dirty pool, but when did Roman Catholics adopt the Puritan sensibility of the pure church, as if Winters has no right to think like a Roman Catholic?

This post coincides with a revelation about another church within the church. This one is the world of Roman Catholic apologists. Mark Shea describes the rise of Roman Catholic apologetics and links it to a perceived deficiency in the church at the time:

I’m glad of the boomlet in apologetics that has happened since the 80s. It began, almost single-handedly at first, through the efforts of Karl Keating and the good people at Catholic Answers. For some reason, apologetics had become a dirty word after the Council, with the predictable effect that Catholics soon lost the ability to articulate what they believed and why. When I was coming into the Church, it was like pulling teeth to find an RCIA group that would, like, tell me what Church taught instead of reflexively obeying the impulse to just affirm me in my okayness. Karl Keating, more than any other figure in the 80s, is the guy who took action to turn that trend around. And (I strongly suspect) no small reason for the resulting resurgence of apologetics was due to the relief Catholics felt after years of hearing what fools they were for believing the Faith and having few tools other than a gut feeling to counter these charges. . . . There was a rising flood of Evangelical converts and, as Evangelicals do, they started trying to articulate what they had done and why for the benefit of those they had left behind. Evangelicals have a bred-in-the-bone sense that, “If you can’t verbalize your faith, then there’s some doubt as to whether you really know what it is.” So we started writing the books and making the tapes that filled that Catholic book table by 1998. And, as we were doing this, we slowly started looking around and realizing to our surprise that we weren’t alone–usually well after our entry into communion with Rome. In fact, it was not until the early 90s, that I discovered people like Hahn, David Currie, Akin, Rosalind Moss and the whole current crop of Evangelical converts existed. The experience was similar for a lot of First Wavers. We thought we’d pretty much stepped out of Evangelicalism into the Incalculable Catholic Abyss, and to our astonishment there were all these other Evangelical converts! Result: The First Wave started “networking” just as a Second Wave (who read our books and listened to our tapes) were persuaded and started to convert too.

But the problem with these apologists is that they may be doing work that is properly reserved for the bishops. Shea admits:

I have found that, in an era where laity have been taught to mistrust their bishops–not only by the media and the culture, but by the shocking incompetence and perfidy of the bishops themselves in the abuse scandal–it’s very easy for laity to hive off and anoint new ersatz Magisteria in the form of whatever faction they happen to fancy. For some, the New Magisterium is the advocates for women priests. For others, it’s Catholics for a Free Choice. For still others, it’s whatever Richard McBrien says is the consensus of Thinking Catholics in the Academy. For some, it’s Dan Brown.

But for not a few in the apologetics subculture, it’s what I or Scott Hahn or [insert favorite apologist] thinks about X, Y and Z. And that’s a very dangerous thing to do, because we apologists are not protected by the charism of infallibility in the slightest.

I have long wondered about the various cultures in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church and how the apologetic world is dominated by the laity. Why aren’t the bishops doing this? Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a popular bishop who did a form of defending the faith, but his existentially inclined faith was a long way from the textbook approach that dominates the popular apologetic front.

So to correct Winter’s observation, not two churches but three (maybe four if you count Jason and the Callers).

An Extra Helping of Conscience

That’s the advice to Cafeteria Roman Catholics from the Boston Globe‘s new website:

Q | Dear OMG,

What of those who cannot accept in good conscience various teachings of the magisterium [official Church policy]? Are we still to consider ourselves Catholic, or should we go elsewhere?

A | Dear Albert,

Ah, the age-old identity questions.

Are we black with one African-American parent? Jewish if we’ve never set foot in a synagogue? Catholic if we oppose the Church on questions of personal morality, such as homosexuality, divorce, abortion, contraception, and pre-marital sex? What degree of observance, adherence, and agreement is required of Catholics to consider themselves Catholic?

This is a difficult question, especially in the US, where a certain tension between teachings and observance has always existed among the faithful, and “conscience” has been the tool people use to justify individual departures from orthodoxy. There are women who, in good conscience, have taken priestly ordination vows and consider themselves Catholic; and (many more) people who’ve had abortions or supported the right to abortion who do as well. These self-defined Catholics defy official teaching and risk excommunication; yet on some level, the choice to be Catholic remains a deeply personal (and private) one.

Perhaps a more provocative question is this: To what extent must the hierarchy heed the consciences of the faithful?

For decades, the bishops have appeared to be a my-way-or-the-highway kind of crew, and Pope Benedict gained a reputation for disdaining the cafeteria approach of American Catholics, wanting instead to build a smaller, purer church.

But Pope Francis has taken a different, and historically significant, tack, says the Rev. Drew Christiansen at Georgetown. For him, the beliefs of faithful Catholics ought to define the faith – at least as much as the hierarchy does.

“The faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief,” Francis told America magazine last year. “This church … is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

My unordained advice, therefore, is this: Hold onto your Catholicism – as well as your conscience – and perhaps your leaders will follow you there.

That’s audacious alright.