Ecumenism is Radical (and that’s not good)

If conservatives value variety, why do conservative Roman Catholics insist on church unity? Russell Kirk said that true conservatives actually appreciate difference and pluriformity:

[C]onservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

Maybe that makes John Turner a conservative who is not going along with the Reformation as tragedy because it divided the church:

First and foremost, there was no good reason for the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the first place. Jesus bestowed the keys of the kingdom on Peter, but it seems clear from the Book of Acts and the Pauline epistles that Peter hardly exercised anything like papal authority in the early church. The historical evidence for Peter becoming the first bishop of Rome (or even being in the city) is unconvincing to one not already convinced. While Protestants obviously sundered the institutional unity of the Western church, it was a sort of unity unauthorized by scripture and unwarranted by the circumstances of the early church. (It also seems snarky but necessary to mention that Rome bore considerable responsibility for the Great Schism between East and West that preceded the Reformation by a half-millennium).

Second, it is not at all clear to me that Jesus’s prayer for Christian unity means that Jesus wanted his church to have an institutional, hierarchical unity along the lines of either the late-medieval or contemporary Catholic Church. The Book of Acts suggests that the apostles in Jerusalem exercised a measured primacy among early Christians, but for the most part Christianity spread around the Mediterranean world and to the East in a way that fostered local autonomy and diversity. This diversity of theologies and even collections of scripture alarmed many Christians, some of whom identified many strands of Christianity as heresy. By the fourth century, newly tolerated and then established Christianity sought to impose theological order on this chaos. The result was the institutionally useful but not terribly New Testament idea that all Christians had to have essentially the same understanding of Jesus Christ and of the relationship among the members of the Trinity. Getting at least most Christians to assent to the fourth- and fifth-century creeds took a considerable amount of viciousness and sometimes violence.

So it’s the church unitedists who also likely go for the United Nations and the European Union (even while in some parts of the world arguing for a “two-state” solution).

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We Got This Not

An academic institution where Protestants and Roman Catholics teach together sponsoring a conference about the Reformation is one thing, but a Presbyterian seminary holding a series of lectures on the Reformation that includes Roman Catholics and Protestants? That’s what’s happening at Covenant Theological Seminary this fall. The explanations do not add up:

“Though significant differences still divide Protestants and Catholics, there are real reasons to listen to each other, even learn from each other, so that we might give better testimony to Christ by loving one another across our differences,” said Ryan, professor of religion and culture at CTS and director of the seminary’s Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. “Our goal is to somehow get past lingering caricatures of each other’s positions to find the common ground we share as we seek to bear a more credible witness for the Lord before the watching world.”

Jerram Barrs, CTS professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and one of the speakers at the lecture series, agrees. “It is important that we do not merely endlessly rehearse the reasons as to why the Reformation took place as if neither we nor the Roman Catholic Church have learned any more or changed in any manner since the 1500s.”

The lecture series will feature five speakers — two of them Catholic — discussing topics ranging from why the Reformation still matters today, to the pastoral legacy of the Reformation, to an evangelical and Catholic and Reformed view of faith and culture.

The part that stuck out to mmmeeeeEEEE was about “endlessly rehearsing the reasons as to why the Reformation took place.” Last time iiiiiIII checked, Protestants and Roman Catholics in the United States are seriously in need of learning the reasons for Luther’s original complaints and Rome’s rejection of Protestant proposals. Consider the following:

nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation (a belief held by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, known in Latin as sola fide). But about half (52%) say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic belief.

U.S. Protestants also are split on another issue that played a key role in the Reformation: 46% say the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians – a traditionally Protestant belief known as sola scriptura. Meanwhile, 52% say Christians should look both to the Bible and to the church’s official teachings and tradition for guidance, the position held by the Catholic Church during the time of the Reformation and today.

When these two questions are combined, the survey shows that just three-in-ten U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura. One third of Protestants (35%) affirm one but not the other, and 36% do not believe in either sola fide or sola scriptura.

Pew’s findings corroborate Ligonier’s survey. (And Redeemer NYC’s outreach to skeptics isn’t doing much to put the sola in the Reformation.)

The thing is, works righteousness comes naturally to human beings. That’s why whenever you have the chance to bang the gong for the sufficiency of Christ and the insufficiency of human virtue (not to mention the sin of pride that virtue sometimes encourages), you take it.

If More Congregationalists Read Machen

They might understand the difference between a Baptist and Presbyterian. But to UCC pastor, Peter Laarman, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne’s proposal to re-brand evangelicalism (post-Trump) is a fool’s errand:

Campolo and Claiborne even get their history wrong. What they regard as the first successful re-branding of Bible-centered “orthodox” American Christianity in the early 20th century was in fact a complete failure, just as their proposed “Red Letter” re-branding will be this era.

They cite Carl F.H. Henry as the principal re-brander in the 1930s, but Carl Henry was not really a force to be reckoned with prior to the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, Carl Henry’s beliefs were immediately understood to be contaminated by the same poisons that had fatally tainted Fundamentalism: i.e., a rigid view of biblical inerrancy (including a literalist view of the miracle stories), insistence that mere individual conversion fulfills God’s will, complete acceptance of the old patriarchal frame, etc.

It would be hard to find any daylight at all between the theological commitments of Carl Henry and those of J. Gresham Machen, who was heralded during the 1930s as the single brightest light among the Fundamentalists.

See what he did there? Machen signals fundamentalism (and Laarman didn’t even give Orthodox Presbyterians a trigger warning). Therefore, invoking Carl Henry is really to say you haven’t progressed beyond fundamentalism (yuck!), which makes Campolo and Claiborne even more clueless from a mainline Protestant perspective than even progressive evangelicals can fathom.

The problem is that you can see separation between Machen and Henry if you actually care more about theology, sacraments, and polity than about being in the American mainstream. Henry may have been a Calvinist on soteriology but his Reformedness didn’t go much beyond that (plus his high view of the Bible). Henry also refused to baptize babies, which puts Machen closer to Laarman than to Henry. And then Machen took Presbyterian polity seriously — hello, his church refused interdenominational cooperation in settings like the National Association of Evangelicals where Henry was an intellectual guru.

But that kind of Protestant fussiness only comes up fundamentalist for mainliners. Even though telling the difference between Congregationalists and mainline Presbyterians is impossible (and something you’re not supposed to do in polite Protestant ecumenical company), if you do did in your heels on denominational identity you are merely a separatist. You lack the good graces and tolerant bonhomie of mainstream, well-connected Protestantism. Never mind that after 135 years of ecumenical activism, the UCC and the PCUSA remain — get this — separate. And by all means don’t notice that Congregationalists and Presbyterians descend from the mother of all church separations — 1054, the year that the church Christ founded (as some put it) split up.

Lots of separations out there in church history, but the UCC puts “United” in church unity. As if.

The Parachurch with the Mind of a Superpower

In 1922 G. K. Chesterton said of the United States it was a “nation with the soul of a church.” He was referring in part to the difficulty he had finding an adult beverage, Prohibition being the law of the land thanks to the support of both modernist and fundamentalist Protestants.

Seldom noticed is that American evangelicals think they are the center of world Christianity. Consider this report on what the recent presidential election says about evangelicalism:

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the campaign reminded him of the Vietnam War in the way it divided families; he’d heard from spouses who couldn’t discuss it, or watch the news together anymore.

Not everyone sees a major split, though.

“There’s always been a minority of evangelicals that are more liberal in their political leanings,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal evangelical supporters, “and it’ll always be that way, but it’s less divided than I’ve seen it in a long time.”

But Moore makes a distinction even among those who voted for Trump: There were “reluctant Trumpers,” who regarded the candidate as the lesser of two evils, believing he was more likely to appoint a Supreme Court justice who was pro-life than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Then there were “the people who have actively sought to normalize” Trump as the candidate of choice.

“For me, I think the bigger issue is with the political activist religious right establishment that, in many cases,actually waved away major moral problems,” he said, citing the Access Hollywood tape, in which the now president-elect talked about grabbing women by their genitals and forcibly kissing them.

Moore, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump, said that among those evangelicals who were “Never Trump,” or “reluctant Trump,” reconciliation is already underway. But he said those evangelical leaders who have “repurposed the gospel itself in order to defend a political candidate” reveal a problem bigger than a political election.

Falwell sees the divide in evangelicalism as being between its leaders.

“The evangelical rank and file closed in behind Donald Trump long before most of the leaders did,” he said, because those in the pews were “tired of business as usual” and excited by Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as running mate.

For the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the schism is between white evangelicals and African-American born-again Christians, and, as a result of the election it “just grew larger.”

The story links to reactions from historians (and other academics) who study evangelicalism and so you would think might be aware of different ways of evaluating born-again Protestantism, such as global Christianity:

History professor John Fea; authors Preston Yancey, D.L. Mayfield, and Skye Jethani; and author and activist Shane Claiborne all have distanced themselves from, if not abandoned, the label. While still identifying as evangelical, former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty wrote she “can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.”

Earlier this week, Fuller Theological Seminary issued a statement that was nothing short of remarkable for the influential evangelical institution.

“To whatever degree, and in whatever ways, Fuller Theological Seminary has contributed, or currently contributes, to the shame and abuse now associated with the word evangelical,” said the statement, signed by president Mark Labberton and president emeritus Richard Mouw, “we call ourselves, our board of trustees, our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, and our friends to repentance and transformation.”

Ever since Philip Jenkins wrote The Next Christendom, global Christianity has become “hot.” Scholars have been amazed at the growth of evangelicalism in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia for starters. Jenkins even argued that by 2050 Christianity in the global North (Europe and North America) would be in the rear view mirror of the churches in the global South.

But when it comes to politics, American evangelicals put the born-again in evangelical Protestantism. What do Canadian, British, Swiss, Nigerian, Australian, Costa Rican evangelicals think about Donald Trump? Did the election divide evangelicals outside the United States? I surely doubt it. But no one really knows because American journalists only follow the cues of American evangelicals.

So why do American evangelicals think that their religious identity hangs in the balance thanks to what happens in the nation’s electoral politics? (The short answer is that U.S. evangelicals, like their mainline predecessors are Christian nationalists and have trouble separating national from religious identity.) Especially when the evangelical academy is supposed to aware of the non-American church among the people of color around the world (and celebrates those Christians when the campaign season is over), all of a sudden the future of evangelicalism depends on white Protestants’ votes in U.S. elections? It’s hard to think of a faith more parochial, nationalist, and introverted.

And yet, somehow the people who voted for Trump are bigoted, intolerant, and mean nationalists.

Evangelicals need to get out more. They need to go to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and hear reports from fraternal delegates who minister in churches in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Asia, Scotland, and Switzerland. If they did, maybe their understanding of the church would be more like the one that prevails in the OPC — a communion that transcends national boundaries but ministers in a low key way (if you aren’t all that impressed with word and sacrament) chiefly in a particular nation. As near as I can reckon, neither SCOTUS’s ruling on gay marriage nor the 2016 presidential election is threatening to divide our little, off the radar, church.

That proves once again the Old Life maxim: the higher your estimate of the nation, the weaker your ecclesiology (or vice versa).

Buyer Beware

A common refrain among converts to Roman Catholicism is a lament about the sorry state of Protestantism, especially the mainline Protestant churches. Betsy Fox Genevose spoke for many when she described the lack of Christianity she had experienced while growing up a Protestant:

Throughout my non-churchgoing, non-believing adult years, I had always considered myself a Christian in the amorphous cultural sense of the world. Having been reared on the Bible and Protestant hymns, I was conversant with the language and basic tenets of Christianity. I had, moreover, been reared with a deep respect for the great Hebrew prophets, assorted Protestant leaders and Catholic saints, and even the unique value of Jesus Christ as the preeminent exemplar of loving self“sacrifice. Never, I am grateful to say, did I, like too many secular intellectuals, denigrate or disdain believing Christians, whom I had always been inclined to regard with respect. But for long years, I did not give much thought to joining their number.

So why is it that the communion that was supposed to elevate former Protestants and give them a better grade of faith is entering into ecumenical discussions with one of the churches, mainline Lutherans, that sent Protestants in search of witness firm on sex and the body?

Nearly 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Castle Church door, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. has approved a declaration recognizing “there are no longer church-dividing issues” on many points with the Roman Catholic church.
The “Declaration on the Way” was approved 931-9 by the 2016 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly held last week at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton called the declaration “historic” in a statement released by the denomination following the Wednesday vote.

That’s right. A female bishop welcomed the news of entering into closer relations with church that will not ever ordain women.

But some Roman Catholics are not happy (the unhappy Lutherans are already in a different synod — LCMS):

The ecumenical drive has been part of the check-list of popes before the current pontiff. The joint worship service has been described by both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation as a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration” in order to avoid further controversy. Some Catholics, especially traditionalists, have criticized the prospect of a pope celebrating a schism. Another issue that has traditionalist Catholics and some clerics baleful is the issue of the differing theologies held by the Catholic Church and Lutherans regard the nature and the confection of the Eucharist.

On the upside, Betsy Fox Genovese, who died in 2003, will not have to witness her church’s pursuit of unity with her former church.

Prexit

State sovereignty goes hand in hand with ecclesiastical sovereignty, or it sure looks like it.

Michael Lind explains the phenomenon of Trump and what it means for Democrats and Republicans:

The culture war and partisan realignment are over; the policy realignment and “border war” — a clash between nationalists, mostly on the right, and multicultural globalists, mostly on the left — have just begun.

***

For the nationalists, the most important dividing line is that between American citizens and everyone else—symbolized by Trump’s proposal for a Mexican border wall. On the right, American nationalism is tainted by strains of white racial and religious nationalism and nativism, reinforced by Trump’s incendiary language about Mexicans and his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

But while there is overlap between nationalists and racists, the two are not the same thing. The most extreme white nationalists don’t advocate nationalism as a governing philosophy in our multiracial country; they hope to withdraw from American life and create a white homeland within the nation-state. Nationalism is different than white nationalism, and a populist American nationalism untainted by vestiges of racial bigotry might have transracial appeal, like versions of national populism in Latin America.

The rise of populist nationalism on the right is paralleled by the rise of multicultural globalism on the center-left.

For multicultural globalists, national boundaries are increasingly obsolete and perhaps even immoral. According to the emerging progressive orthodoxy, the identities that count are subnational (race, gender, orientation) and supranational (citizenship of the world). While not necessarily representative of Democratic voters, progressive pundits and journalists increasingly speak a dialect of ethical cosmopolitanism or globalism — the idea that it is unjust to discriminate in favor of one’s fellow nationals against citizens of foreign countries.

Now watch (thanks to our W. Michigan correspondent) how church affairs line up with temporal politics, with ecumenists (globalists) on the left opposing the constraints of denominationalists (nationalists) on the right:

Many who witnessed the continuing denominational imprisonment of the Lord’s body and blood experienced ecumenical agony. The late Emilio Castro, the WCC general secretary who hired me, was a Methodist pastor who yearned for eucharistic sharing. He would say, “I’m not even asking the Catholics (or Orthodox) to recognize the validity of the Lord’s Supper that we Methodists celebrate. I’m simply asking them to accept that I see the body and blood of Jesus Christ fully present in their Eucharist.”

In spring 1994 I sat in a restaurant with Castro and his longtime Orthodox friend and WCC colleague Ion Bria, a priest in the Romanian Orthodox Church. The two lifted their wine glasses and said to each other with tears in their eyes, “Someday, before we die, we shall be able to share the body and blood together, with our churches’ blessings.” But they never did. Nor, if they were still living, could they do so today.

So I returned to ecclesiastical disobedience. That became more complicated once I was elected general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. When I assumed that post, I didn’t know all that would be demanded of me as general secretary, but I knew I couldn’t go forward without retreating. I knew I needed regular times away, with a spiritual director, and the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood. A Carmelite retreat center near my home in New Jersey provided all this.

As a church official, I wanted more than ever to show absolute respect for my Catholic hosts. But their invitation to receive at the table was unambiguous. On my retreat days, I’d often be invited to read one of the scriptures at their eucharistic service.

Indifference to church polity and theology like this is why confessional Protestants exited from the modern ecumenical movement.

Arguably the most astounding aspect of contemporary ecumenical discussions is that the leader of the only true church is also apparently indifferent to ecclesiastical laws:

This tension in how we understand the Eucharist is one that, remarkably, Pope Francis himself has acknowledged. Last November he met with a Lutheran congregation in Rome and responded to one member, Anke de Bernardinis, who is married to a Catholic and who asked what it would take for them to receive the Eucharist together. The pope’s spontaneous ten-minute answer was revealing, unprecedented, and even stunning.

Francis said, “I ask myself the question. To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path, or is it a viaticum (food or provision accompanying one on a journey) for walking together?” He posed that question rather than give the doctrinal response—that she could either become Catholic or continue to pray with her husband over the pain of a divided church.

Pope Francis went on to focus on baptism. “I ask myself. But don’t we have the same baptism? If we have the same baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together?” Then he went further. “The supper? There are questions that only if one is sincere with one’s self and the little theological light that one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself. This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me—this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.”

And Francis didn’t stop there, going on to address the classic dividing line over the meaning of Christ’s “real presence.” The pope recalled a Protestant pastor and friend who told him, “We believe that the Lord is present there.” So he said to the Lutheran woman, “You believe that the Lord is present. And what’s the difference? There are explanations and interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.”

Having noted the trademark tension between official policy and actual practice, Pope Francis concluded by saying he would not “dare to give permission to do this” but then repeated, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism. Talk to the Lord, and then go forward. And I wouldn’t dare—I don’t dare say anything more.”

In ecumenism, as in diplomacy, ambiguity can be a helpful tool, allowing room for movement on issues where formal agreement is not yet possible. Pope Francis opened the door more than a crack.

Since We’re Talking about Talking

The Pertinacious Papist cautions Roman Catholic apologists about how to talk to confessional Protestants (via Greg Krehbiel). An excerpt:

Get Over Jack Chick Already

Along with these accusations of hard hearts and thick skulls comes the staple of apologetic discussion: your apologists are meaner than ours. Yes, we all know that some anti-Catholics misrepresent Catholicism. Guess what? It goes the other way, too. And yes, we all know that some people can be very mean. Guess what? People are sinners. I even heard a rumor that one of the apostles wasn’t a choir boy.

Along those lines, former Protestants who have converted to Catholicism are not necessarily experts on any form of Protestantism, including the one they left, and they can misrepresent Protestant doctrine. Do you trust a former Catholic’s knowledge of Catholicism? Then don’t expect Protestants to trust a convert’s view of Protestantism.

When it comes to the “your apologist beats up old ladies” argument, the best thing to do is to get over it. Or, as a friend says in a slightly different context, “don’t feed the energy creature.”  I’s best to ignore rude noises at the dinner table, and I think we can treat the apologetic variety of those rude noises the same way. Fussing and whining about how mean the other guy is just makes you a crybaby.

23,000 Denominations

Some Catholics have the apologetic equivalent of Alzheimers. They criticize Protestantism because there are (so the story goes) 23,000 separate Protestant denominations, all teaching different things. And then a minute later the Catholic apologist will speak to a Methodist as if he is a Baptist, or a Lutheran as if he’s a Pentecostal. If they all teach different things, then for heaven’s sake don’t treat all Protestants the same.

It is very annoying to a confessional Presbyterian to be treated as if he’s guilty of the same errors as the non-denominational charismatic. Listen to what the other guy is really saying without putting his words through an apologetic filter that says “this guy is a Protestant, and I’ve read all about those guys.” You may find that you have more common ground than you suspected.

BAD HABIT: Learning about Protestant doctrine from Catholic sources.
BAD HABIT: Learning about generic Protestant doctrine and applying it to all Protestants.
REMEDY: Let your Protestant friend speak for himself. Listen to what he’s saying without imposing any doctrinal template on his words. . . .

No One Ever Heard of ____ Until the Reformation

It’s very common for a Catholic apologist to argue that Protestant doctrine is unhistorical, that nobody held to Protestant positions until the Reformers came along and invented them all out their fevered brains. (Remember, of course, that there are all kinds of Protestants, and on many issues the Reformers would be on the Catholic side arguing against many modern Protestant beliefs.)

The claim goes like this. “No one ever heard of sola scriptura, or sola fide, or doubted the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books, [or whatever,] until Martin Luther.”

Really now. Have you read all the Christian theologians of east and west from the time of Christ until 1517? If you’re particularly ambitious, you may have read bits and pieces from a very small sample of the church fathers. The Reformers were serious scholars, and they also read the church fathers. They did not believe their doctrines to be novelties, and only an expert on the history of doctrine is qualified to say that they were. And there are experts on both sides of that question.

Pointing out the contrast between the faith of the early church and the faith of your modern Protestant friend is a very effective apologetic tool. It’s very easy to show how Catholic doctrine developed from the faith of the early church, and it’s very hard to show any continuity between the early church and the faith of Bethel Bible Church down the road. So don’t spoil a good argument with claims you can’t prove or defend.

BAD HABIT: Asserting a universal negative.
BAD HABIT: Repeating extravagant claims you read in apologetic literature that the apologist himself could not possibly have known.
REMEDY: Stick to what you really know.

What’s that Verse Scott Hahn Uses?

Every once in a while I meet someone on the train, or in a store, and I get a sense that person is an Evangelical Christian. I spent a lot of years among Evangelicals, and I got to know their mannerisms. Sometimes it’s a certain tone of voice, or a choice of words. When someone’s been baptized into Evangelicalism, it starts to wear off on him. It makes a difference.

Scripture is the same way. When you start talking to someone about the faith, it’s very obvious who has and who has not devoted himself to Bible reading. It comes out.

Again and again I’ve run across well meaning Catholic apologists who seem to know Scott Hahn better than they know their Bibles. Believe me, it shows, and every decently trained Protestant is going to spot it and recognize that apologist for what he is. The Protestant will know that the Catholic is just proof-texting — that he hasn’t internalized the text. It’s just something he cites to prove his point, and when he does read the Bible, it’s only to find ammunition for the next battle. The Protestant will assume that the Catholic apologist lacks a personal relationship with Christ, and he’ll have all the more reason to mistrust Catholic arguments.

If you’re that apologist, it’s time to stop, retire, apologize to your opponents, wish them well, and spend some time (a few years, perhaps) getting to know God through His word. Donate all your apologetics books to your priest and spend the next few years reading nothing but the Bible and the catechism. Your goal isn’t to find 25 reasons why Protestants are wrong about Baptism. Your goal is to listen to what God says to you about your soul.

When apologetics is a distant memory, if you still feel the call to witness to other Christians about the Catholic faith, praise the Lord. You’ll be better prepared.

BAD HABIT: Using the Bible like a tool to win arguments with other Christians.
REMEDY: Quit apologetics, major in Bible study and work on your personal relationship with Jesus.

What Good is an Infallible Bible?

“What good is an infallible Bible without an infallible church to interpret it?” I’ve heard that too many times to count. What good is an infallible Bible? That any Christian can seriously ask the question defies belief. We want to know what God is like. We want to know how He regards us, and what we have to do to please Him, and here we have, not just a document, and not just a pretty good document, but the very words of God.

What good is the Bible? That kind of language makes Protestants roll their eyes. “Those Catholics really don’t get it, do they?” Any serious Evangelical knows scores of people whose lives have been miraculously transformed by reading the Bible. Besides that, the Evangelical himself has personally experienced God speaking to him in the words of Scripture.

When a Catholic says, “What good is an infallible Bible?” he has given up any claim to credibility with that Evangelical. It would be like asking a man who was just rescued from the desert, “What good is water without a crystal glass to drink it in?”

BAD HABIT: Trying to magnify the church and Catholic doctrine by disparaging the Bible.
REMEDY: Always speak of the Bible reverently. Read Psalm 19 and 119 and learn to regard the Bible the way king David did. Never, ever even consider saying “What good is the Bible?” You’d be better off to cut out your tongue and chop off your fingers.

Now, some will complain that I’ve missed the point of the question. The Catholic doesn’t mean to disparage the usefulness of the Bible, but the usefulness of the Bible as the sole guide for the church. I’ll get to that, but I felt it necessary to point out the horrible blunder that is made by making the point by criticizing the Bible.

The Catholic apologist looks around at the mess in the Protestant world and wonders why Baptists interpret the Bible one way while Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and the Assembly of God all interpret it differently. He concludes, correctly, that the Bible alone is not a sufficient guide to regulate faith and life.

It is clear that something else is necessary, and that something else is an authoritative church.

But the Catholic apologist typically makes two errors while making this argument. The first is to imply that authority requires infallibility, which is clearly not true since parents and governments have authority but are not infallible. The second error is to claim that infallible Scripture requires, in the very nature of the case, an infallible interpreter: that it does no good to have infallible Scripture unless someone can tell us infallibly what it says.

The obvious reply to the question “What good is an infallible Bible without an infallible church?” is “What good is an infallible church without an infallible church interpreter?”

Just as the Catholic criticizes the variety of opinion among those who confess the authority of an infallible Bible, so the Protestant can criticize the variety of opinion among those who confess the authority of an infallible church. Traditionalists come to mind.

The problem is that there has to be a break in the chain somewhere. God is infallible, we are not. If we diagram the progression from God’s infallible self-revelation to our fallible perception of that revelation — for simplicity’s sake let’s just say the steps are A then B then C then D — the infallible part has to get lost somewhere. It starts off infallible in God’s mind and ends up a muddled mess in mine. It really doesn’t matter where you put the transition; the logical problem is the same. We can ask, “What good is an infallible A without an infallible B?” just as well as we can ask “What good is an infallible C without an infallible D?” It’s simply the wrong question.

The Protestant confesses that Scripture is infallible, but the church that tells us which books belong in Scripture is not. The Catholic confesses that the Magisterium is infallible, but the ministers who teach us what the Magisterium says are not. Both have to move from an infallible something to a fallible something, so the Catholic apologist has to guard against unleashing an attack dog that bites his own leg.

BAD HABIT: Tossing around infallibility as if it solves everything.
REMEDY: Focus on the need for an authoritative church. Once that is established, then work on infallibility.

The Mystery of Dialogue

Another blog is up and running and it targets yet again Calvinists for ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics (most of whom converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism). This ecumenical endeavor, however, is different from Bryan and the Jasons Called to Communion. In fact, Bryan Cross would likely be fairly dismissive of “Catholics and Calvinists” (CaC vs. CtC). Cross once identified two kinds of ecumenism, one false, and one true. The former is wrong because it is — well — liberal:

That is because it seems to seek its goal of achieving general agreement about doctrine by way of compromise. So those who think a particular doctrine is essential feel pressured to drop their belief that this doctrine is an essential doctrine in order to attain some unity with those who think that that doctrine is adiaphorous (i.e. indifferent, non-essential). The very nature of the goal of this type of ecumenicism makes this kind of compromise essential to ecumenical progress. As someone said to me a while back, “True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise.” And the necessary result of such a methodology is a least-common-denominator minimalism regarding doctrine, an acceptance as sufficient of something far short of the unity in communion to which Christ calls all His people.

In contrast for Cross, true ecumenism comes from recognizing the truth and unity of Roman Catholicism:

. . .this ecumenicism has complete agreement on doctrine as its goal, or more precisely, complete agreement on what each person believes to be essential doctrine. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, it rejects compromise regarding what anyone believes to be truly essential as a means of achieving its goal. As a result, there is no pressure to compromise in order to attain this ecumenicism’s goal. Instead of proposing compromise as a means to reaching a watered-down unity, this type of ecumenicism recognizes that we are not fully united until we are doctrinally united on every doctrine about which anyone believes to be essential. In this ecumenicism we do not sweep our essential doctrinal differences under the rug. We even straightforwardly, and in genuine charity and sincerity, remind each other that the other person’s position, from the point of view of our own tradition, is nothing less than heresy.

That is not exactly a conversation starter and explains why discussions with Bryan and the Jasons generally descend to Dr. Dave Bowman’s conversation with H.A.L. 9000.

How then is CaC different from CtC? Put simply from this observer’s perspective, it’s the difference between the pre- and post-Vatican II church. While Bryan and the Jasons reflect a no-salvation/truth-outside-the-church outlook, CaC seems to embrace Vatican II’s ecumenism:

Our refusal to engage in “sheep stealing” is not merely a rhetorical front, as if that posture itself were a guise under which to carry on a still-deeper project of effecting conversions. It is also not a bracketing of theological questions for the time being, as if we will for a time carry on a project of “ground-clearing” only to then change gears and begin bringing in the sheep. We recognize that this a pervasive – and deeply problematic – style of Catholic and Reformed engagement, and we repudiate it in no uncertain terms.

Rather, our approach is rooted in the ecclesiological vision articulated by the Second Vatican Council and by other leading ecumenists that there are genuine gifts cultivated by the Holy Spirit outside the boundaries of those churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome that are genuinely beneficial to the churches which are in such communion, and which lead these churches into a deeper desire for union. We want to understand those gifts more clearly, and we want to help other Roman Catholics understand the under-appreciated richness of the Reformed tradition more deeply. We do this while seeking, of course, to have our own views as Roman Catholics – devoted first to Scripture and then to the Roman Catholic tradition expressed in such thinkers as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and the great theologians of the twentieth century – come to be better understood by our brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition.

An initial observation is this: why don’t CaCers engage in dialogue with CtCers? After all, it sure looks like Roman Catholics are on different pages when it comes to church unity and what to make of Reformed Protestants.

That conversation might then include discussions of Vatican II and the apparent rupture of the church’s understanding of its relationship to those outside the church (both other professing Christians and non-Christians). In fact, since CaC is interested in the shared use of scholasticism by Roman Catholics and Protestants, the dialogue it promotes might include trying to reconcile a church that was for much of its modern intellectual history committed to Thomism and then after 1965 opened itself to non-scholastic methods (and more). In other words, I don’t understand (maybe a dumb Protestant) how you invoke both scholasticism and Vatican II on theological discussion since the former achieved remarkable clarity and the latter was purposefully equivocal.

That difference between Vatican II and scholasticism also brings up the tricky matter of the Council of Trent. Why is it that the church that relied on scholasticism as its method for articulating theological and dogmatic truth did not open dialogue with but condemned Protestantism? Trent was not an invitation to dialogue. It put an end to it. So the challenge for CaCers is how to read 16th- and 17th-century theological sources as a way to pursue what Vatican II had in mind when those old sources drew clear lines between truth and error and pursued ecumenism far more along the lines that Bryan Cross advocates than what Pope Francis embodies.

The larger point here is one about Roman Catholics understanding Roman Catholicism. Instead of trying to understand Calvinism, making sense of Rome’s fits and starts and changes might be much more useful for dialogue (whether ecumenical or academic). For Protestants like mmmmeeeeeeEEEE, Roman Catholicism looks like a moving target. That is a mystery that needs much more attention from Roman Catholics than appreciating Luther or Calvin. In fact, as Mark Massa has argued, it is a mystery up to which the post-Vatican II church is still catching:

. . . the widespread acceptance of the seemingly self-evident truth that things change will make it increasingly difficult to propound or defend Church teaching and practice by appealing to timeless, static categories of propositional truth. This applies most particularly to the intellectual tradition of scholastic natural law, which the Catholic tradition has relied on for presenting its most important teachings since the thirteenth century. The fractious nonrecption of Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control, if nothing else, illustrates this with startling clarity. Whatever the truth of Paul VI’s teaching, the massive noncompliance accorded his encyclical shows that the great majority of American Catholics did not form their consciences along the lines of such moral reasoning, and have not since. There are of course many possible reasons for this lack of compliance on the part of the vast majority of practicing Catholics on an issue that the hierarchical Church has termed “serious matter.” Some of those reasons may indeed involve personal ignorance, sinful willfulness, or just plain selfishness. But an important reason for that noncompliance, what I would label as the main reason, is that the classical unchanging world it presupposes no longer makes sense to the vast majority of the faithful in the United States. What Bernard Lonergan so elegantly called the “transition from a classicist world view to historical mindedness” in fact describes the intellectual revolution that mainstream Catholics underwent during the sixties.

Whatever the strengths of that older classicist worldview — and it served the Catholic Church extraordinarily well for centuries — it can no longer provide plausible explanations for Church teaching . . . . The older intellectual categories of scholastic natural law, first enunciated so brilliantly by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, appear unable to accomplish that now. Perhaps the intellectual justification offered in its place to explain Catholic teaching will represent the most important long-term fruit of the intellectual revolution sponsored by historical consciousness in Catholic Christianity. Time will tell.

Some of us are still waiting for converts to Roman Catholicism to have a conversation with clergy and academics like Massa. It sure doesn’t seem like a meaningful conversation can take place between confessional Protestants and Roman Catholics as long as one side is so uncertain about that for which it stands.

Postscript: Comments should be open at a cite committed to dialogue.

When Ecumenism and Environmentalism Collide

Pope Francis’ determination to meet with the Patriarch of Moscow involves several risks according to Massimo Faggioli:

First, there’s the political-diplomatic dimension of the meeting. The pope is going to meet the leader of a church that is seen more and more as part of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and an ideological support for his neo-imperial foreign policy. This criticism stresses the risks to Francis’s credibility, especially if considering the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in supporting Putin’s military actions in Syria and in Ukraine. (Kirill was, however, more cautious about Ukraine, given the potential consequences of the loss of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine for inter-Orthodox relations between Moscow and Kiev).

Second, there’s the internal politics of the Orthodox churches, in light not only of the historical rivalries between Moscow and Constantinople for supremacy within Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of the upcoming Great Synod of the Orthodox Churches on the Greek island of Crete in June. Some see Francis as naïve in regard as to how the patriarchate of Moscow could use the meeting to assert a new supremacy at a critical time for the future of the Orthodox churches. Here too the war in Ukraine factors into the equation.

Third, there’s the ecumenical dimension of the meeting. The Russian Orthodox Church has been far less engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church than the patriarch of Constantinople has; in agreeing to meet with Kirill, Francis is accused of sitting at the table with a leader who has not shown the minimum amount of ecumenical spirit required to start a conversation with the pope.

Professor Faggioli leaves out the risk to the environment. Since the Pope is meeting Kirill in Cuba, both church officials will be emitting lots of carbons into an environment on the brink of overheating.

How is this trip consistent with Pope Francis’ recent prayer video?

My Jaws Just Got Tighter

A few days ago, Terry Mattingly, of gotcha journalism fame, mocked the Washington Post for inserting a hyphen into Marco Rubio’s comments about Jesus. Here’s the quotation:

For the next few minutes, Rubio sounded more like a Sunday school teacher than a presidential candidate holding an early January town hall. He talked about John the Baptist, he referred to Jesus as “God-made man,” and he explained his yearning to share “eternity with my creator.”

Mattingly thinks that hyphen shows how little the Washington Post’s reporters know about Nicene Christianity (even though without the hyphen it the phrase “God made man” sounds strange when applied to the eternal son of God):

…for Trinitarian Christians, Jesus is not a “man,” “God-made” but, rather, “God made man” (or perhaps “God, made man”).

This may seem like rather picky stuff, and it is. However, it’s hard to name a more central doctrine in the Christian faith than the Holy Trinity. Wasn’t there someone on the Post copy desk who has taken Christianity 101, or was this simply a bad day when it came time to handle this particular piece of copy?

Now, it’s possible that the original copy for this story actually stated that Rubio “referred to Jesus as ‘God – made man’ ” and that turned into you know what?

So, will the heretical hyphen simply vanish in the online version of this story? Here is hoping that the Post editors actually do the right thing and, perhaps with the help of someone at the Catholic University of America, produce a correction. I cannot wait to read it.

Applying that logic to the church instead of newspapers, what does Mr. Mattingly think about Pope Francis’ decision to celebrate the Protestant Reformation (posted by Rod Dreher)?

Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a German church, beginning the Protestant Reformation that led millions to break with the Roman Catholic Church and ushered in more than a century of conflict and war.

On Monday, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will participate in a joint Lutheran-Catholic worship service in Sweden this October, kicking off a series of events planned for 2017 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The effort to mend relations with Protestants has been on the agenda of many popes before Francis, but it is a delicate endeavor. The worship service in Sweden was billed by its sponsors, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, as a “commemoration,” not as a “celebration,” in order to avoid any inappropriate note of triumphalism. Some Catholics have criticized the notion of a pope celebrating the anniversary of a schism.

Some of those Roman Catholics who object to Lutheranism almost as much as the Obedience Boys do say this about the pope’s recent warming up to Lutherans:

According to Edward Pentin, a group of Lutheran pilgrims were given communion in St. Peter’s Basilica itself this week. What is significant here is that communion was offered to them unilaterally by the celebrants of the Mass — the Lutherans themselves were expecting to receive only a blessing, and the celebrants knew they were not Catholics.

It is scarcely possible that this happened without the knowledge of the Basilica authorities. Are we now seeing the practical effects of Francis’ ambivalent words on holy communion for Lutherans?

You would also think that if you knew your Canons of Trent the way Mattingly expects the Post’s reporters to know the Nicene Creed or the way we might expect the pope to know conciliar teaching, you wouldn’t be all that ready to celebrate Martin Luther. After all, Luther not only disobeyed the magisterium, but was inhuman:

Before the bar of every rational and decent person, does Luther not convict himself of utter inhumanity?

Before the bar of all that is reasonable in moral exhortation – from parental to educational to civil and criminal, does he not convict himself of a crime against all law? Is he, therefore, anarchical?

Before the bar of Catholic Dogma, supreme criterion on earth of what we know is and is not part of and/or in harmony with the Deposit of Faith, does he not convict himself of heresy?

Before the God whom we ought to honor, to whom we ought to ascribe only what is good and true and fitting, does he not convict himself of great blasphemies, greater even than the Gnostics who first attempted to ruin the Church? For the Gnostics distinguished two gods, one good and one evil. Does not Luther add to the evil by subtracting from the number of Gods, folding that Evil, which all right reason and right faith and common decency vomit out as execrable, into the one God?

So why would a Roman Catholic pontiff make amends with a church (a liberal one at that) started by such a person as Luther? And why wouldn’t Mattingly apply the same standards to Rome as he does to Washington?