Still Protestanting

Heck, we were even kicking and bellyaching back in Rome’s post-Vatican II glory days (from the forum, “We Protest,” a series of reflections on the legacy of John Paul II in the October, 2005 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

The Pastor with the Funny Hat

With the passing of John Paul II Protestants might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. For at least fifteen years, the papacy, through John Paul’s skillful handling of his responsibilities, has emerged as arguably the most prominent voice opposing the sins of modernity. As the veteran evangelical apologist, Norman Geisler, put it, John Paul stood up to the three main foes of evangelicalism, namely, “relativism, pluralism, and naturalism.” The best evidence of this opposition was the pope’s defense of the culture of life, which in the words of Southern Baptist theologian, Timothy George, “provided a moral impetus that [evangelicals] didn’t have internally within our community.” The papacy’s understanding of the sacredness of human life, its teaching on sexual ethics, in addition to any number of other declarations or encyclicals affirming the absolute truth of Christianity, made Roman Catholicism an attractive option for young (and sometimes old) Protestants in search of a church that would stand up for the truth, for what Francis Schaeffer used to call “true truth.” While mainline Protestant denominations descended farther into the abyss of moral relativism thanks to their fear of giving offense, and while evangelicals floundered about trying to find hipper ways to super-size their churches, John Paul II was a popular figure, seemingly approachable like the affectionate grandfather, who also refused to equivocate on some of the most important fronts of the culture war.

At his death, several pundits and journalists assessed the way in which John Paul II changed the face of Christianity around the world, improved the health of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and fundamentally altered the relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics, at least in America. Seldom mentioned is how little the Vatican changed during the deceased pope’s tenure and how much the surrounding situation did, thus significantly altering perceptions of the pope and his accomplishments. Back in 1979 during the pope’s first visit to the United States, evangelicals were still worked up about the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even having the Roman Catholic conservative, William F. Buckley, give the opening address at one of the assemblies of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The Bible was then thought to be the bulwark against relativism, materialism, and atheism, and its cultural significance was such that a prominent conservative spokesman, even from the wrong church, could offer encouraging words to conservative evangelicals.

But in the quarter of a century since then, the Bible seems to have run out of gas for Protestants as an authoritative guide to truth. Instead, the imposing voice of one person in a high-profile office (which happens to be in Vatican City) appears to be more effective in countering the drift of secularism and relativism. After all, the Bible’s truth can be fairly relative depending on the eye of the beholder. Much harder is it for one person to equivocate. This has always been the dilemma of Protestantism – its tendency to speak in multiple and conflicting voices compared to the relative unity of the papacy (some of us still remember church history lectures on the difficulties of Avignon and Rome). Before, Protestants would band together in either the National Association of Evangelicals or the National Council of Churches to try to achieve clarity. Today, the conservative ones seem to be willing to rely on the extraordinary ability and connections of the bishop of Rome.

Yet, for all of John Paul II”s gifted use of his bully pulpit, was he opposing secularism and relativism any more than my local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor? My minister has been no less clear over the course of his ten-year (and still counting) tenure in denouncing relativism and secularism. Nor was he any less forthright in condemning sexual immodesty or immorality. In fact, if anyone in our congregation had slept around or received (or performed) an abortion, discipline would definitely have followed. My pastor may not have had Continental philosophy informing his sermons or speeches at session, presbytery, or General Assembly meetings, but this may have made him even more accessible and clear than John Paul II.

Equally important to consider is whether the pope’s courage in opposing relativism, secularism and sexual license was any more effective than my pastor’s. To be sure, the local Orthodox Presbyterian minister never attracts the front pages of the New York, London, Paris, Rome or even Glenside, Pa. dailies. But that may be a blessing. It may also be a lesson that the much vaunted Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity teaches. That idea says that authorities of higher rank should not do what is necessary for lesser authorities to perform. This is partly an argument, for instance, against a federal welfare system that is inefficient, impersonal, and creates a culture of dependence by either upending the work of local charities and government social programs, or by taking over duties that families and individuals themselves should perform.

The doctrine of subsidiarity, likewise, should warn against becoming dependent on the worldwide, highly orchestrated statements of one church official when what is needed is the week-in-week-out teaching and counsel of local pastors who minister to their flocks. Indeed, it is ironic to this Protestant that many young evangelicals convert to Rome because of the pope’s moral stature and careful reflection and yet find themselves in parishes and dioceses where the application of his moral teaching is very often lacking. Without wanting to beat a proud denominational breast, it does seem probable that any number of small, insignificant and seemingly sectarian denominations like the OPC or the Presbyterian Church in America or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Reformed Episcopal Church (to try to be ecumenical) are more disciplined in their sexual practices than American Roman Catholics despite those Protestant denominations’ meager public statements or formal teachings. This is not to say that John Paul II’s encyclicals are without merit – far from it. But the point stands that an encyclical is only as effective as the willingness of the local priest or bishop to apply such truth.

Golfers have a saying that you drive for show and putt for dough, which is the duffer’s way of saying that the church universal may be great on paper but is only as faithful as the local church. John Paul II used his powers as the head of the Roman Catholic church to raise the visibility of the universal church’s power and wisdom. Seldom noticed is the unintended consequence of making local clergy, church members and even Protestants dependent on a universal voice when what is most needed is the fidelity of local clergy and church members. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction by local churches against religious dependence on Rome. If only evangelicals were more concerned about their ecclesiological heritage and the difficult responsibilities it includes than they seem to be in seeking encouragement and affirmation from a pastor who is as far removed from their churches as Tiger Woods’ drives are from mine.

Ecclesiastical Upgrade

Kathy Schiffer summarizes the most recent batch of reflections by evangelical converts to Rome. Here are the main reasons:

The contributors to Evangelical Exodus were influenced by diverse factors, notably the biblical canon, Christian orthodoxy, and the two concerns most frequently cited by Protestants: sola scriptura (all truth can be found in the Scriptures) and sola fide (man is saved by faith alone). Doug also named Beauty as one of the factors which led him and his fellow seminarians to a new appreciation for the Catholic Church. “In Protestantism,” Doug said, “there’s a tendency to dismiss any reason other than the intellectual. But as human beings, we’re both physical and spiritual creatures. In the Catholic Church, he found, intellect and reason are respected; but the Catholic Church is also more beautiful and more historical. There is an attractive package which draws the spirit, combining art and music and beauty, a long history, and tradition, with solid intellectual arguments.”

When Martin Luther broke with the church, he feared for his soul. He worried about his sins. He needed an alien righteousness to cover his transgressions which haunted him everywhere he went.

Why do Protestants who go to Rome never seem to sense the spiritual angst that motivated Luther? They’ve gone to a church that teaches if you die in mortal sin you risk going to hell. They now are in a communion where mortal and venial sins are numerous and the prospects of purgatory are real. But these “converted” folks seem to operate with the assumption that they were already “saved” as a Protestant but now have found a better version of Christianity, like going from Windows 8 to Windows 10, from Bill Hybels to John Paul II.

Give Protestants credit. We worry about salvation. We learned that worry from the church in Rome. Where did that worry go on the other side of the Tiber? It seemed to get lost in the efforts to preserve Christendom, the papal states, the West, and to win the culture wars.

Gnostic Audacity

The myth:

What I came to recognize, in other words, was that the Catholic position was in actuality the much more humble of the two. Indeed, it was downright self-effacing. For the Catholic position, paradoxically, was that it is precisely because mere men can claim no genuine spiritual authority that the successors of the apostles could claim it; and, in particular, it is precisely because no man can possibly be infallible that the bishop of Rome had to be.

The fundamental conviction here is really quite straightforward: Catholics think that we’d better not be left to our own devices, or else we’ll probably screw things up. When you get right down to the core of the thing, it isn’t that Catholics are misanthropes; they don’t think that human beings are just absolutely idiotic or irredeemably horrible. But they do have a lot of skepticism about man’s inherent capacity to get things right on his own; to see things straight for himself; to understand things clearly and objectively, apart from the potentially adverse influence of the cultural categories and presuppositions, the inherited traditions, through which he sees the world and understands the Bible – but which themselves usually remain unseen. They believe that owing to these inherent and historical limitations to which all men are subject, an individual person, even if he is a Christian indeed, cannot always rely upon himself – that his own internal “feelings” of certitude, or the inward confidence he has in his own views and in those of his tradition, do not necessarily come straight from the Holy Ghost and do not automatically mean he is right.

The reality:

The Vatican is not an organism that thinks only one thought at a time, it’s a bureaucracy. It’s staffed by human beings, each of whom has his or her own wants, fears, intentions, visions, hopes and dreams. There’s far less internal coordination than the mythology would suggest, meaning that often, diversity – at times, even border-line chaos – is the order of the day.

For every official inside the system who embodies whatever one thinks “the Vatican” said or did today, there are probably routinely a half-dozen who aren’t on the same page.

There are at least three reasons why: Structural, cultural and political.

Structurally, Vatican systems are set up in some ways to minimize interaction among different departments. There’s a strong emphasis on respecting the juridical “competence” of each, so that cardinals and their lower-level aides are often hesitant to intervene outside their area of authority.

Documents and policy decisions can be in the works in one department for months, in some cases years, before anyone else knows about them.

Although the atmosphere has loosened up somewhat, I recall distinctly when I first began covering the Vatican twenty years ago, if I were to go out to dinner with two officials from different offices and ask each what was bubbling in his shop, they’d get nervous – not so much about discussing it in front of me, but someone from a different outfit inside the system.

The bottom line is that there simply is no Vatican “war room” where officials hammer out a master plan on much of anything.

Culturally, the Vatican is an international milieu, home to people from a staggering variety of geographical points on the compass. What seems natural or obvious to one official in one office, therefore, will often seem puzzling, even objectionable, to others.

It’s almost always a mistake to assume, for instance, that if an American official in the Vatican says “x,” that view would be shared in precisely the same way by, say, the Italians, or the French. Similarly, if a Latin American head of a department makes a statement on some news story, one can’t presume that his German or Polish colleagues would see it the same way.

Politically, popes often like to appoint officials to Vatican jobs who don’t exactly see eye-to-eye, on the theory that what results can be a sort of “creative tension.”

During the John Paul II years, it was well known that Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina, the Vatican’s top official for liturgy, and Archbishop Piero Marini, who organized the pope’s own liturgical celebrations, were on completely different planets – Medina a staunch conservative, Marini an ardent reformer.

Insiders knew not to take much of what either man might say on liturgical matters as a corporate Vatican line, but rather as part of an ongoing internal debate, until the pope officially pronounced one way or the other.

When will Bryan and the Jasons tell the truth that John Allen tells while actually covering real-life church officials in the Eternal City?

Same Only Different

Are these commentators talking about the same bishop (remember, it’s about office not the man)?

Here‘s an excerpt from a review of a biography of William Henry O’Connell, the archbishop of Boston for the better part of the first half of the twentieth century. Notice how authoritarian the papacy seems in 1992 (not 1492):

Even at the height of the papacy’s temporal power, when medieval and Renaissance popes deposed emperors, appointed kings, and divided the world among competing colonizers; even during the Reformation, when popes fought Protestants to the death and excommunicated half of Europe, the universal Church’s ancient claim to “inerrancy” in its mission of handing on the Gospel was not formally restricted to the person of the Bishop of Rome. The claim that the Pope, teaching ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals, was exempt from the capacity for error was not solemnly made until 1870 — as an act of the fathers gathered at the First Vatican Council. They were moved to make this extraordinary proclamation as a kind of compensation for losing the last remaining temporal holdings of the papacy to King Victor Emmanuel II, in the same period. The Papal States had once stretched from coast to coast across Italy, but from then on the Pope’s worldly sway was to extend only to the hundred-odd acres of Vatican City. The fathers of the council saw to it that the spiritual sovereignty of Peter’s successor would be as absolute as possible — far more absolute than Peter’s authority had ever been.

The story of the Catholic Church from 1870 through the first half of the twentieth century, ending with Vatican II and Humanae Vitae, is the story of an efficient, ever extending spiritual imperialism under the banner of papal infallibility. That proposition has politicized — and parochialized — the New Testament notion of the Holy Spirit’s enduring presence in the Church. Future generations of Catholics will surely seek to explain away this astounding doctrine with ever more arcane redefinitions, much as this generation explains away the once solemn doctrine of no salvation outside the Church. The key to the papacy’s success in solidifying its hold over the soul of the Church was not the virtue of the men who held the office or the clarity of their moral vision but a far simpler thing: the Pope’s expanded authority to appoint bishops without regard for the preferences of local churches. The Pope controls dioceses and archdioceses around the world by making sure they are administered by men whose first loyalty is to him. Nothing demonstrates the significance of this power better than the career of Boston’s flamboyant Cardinal Archbishop William Henry O’Connell.

Now a recent word of encouragement to liberals in the church in relation to the current pope. Notice how open the church now is:

But culture’s about more than sex, and this pope is no less confrontational than his predecessors. In Laudato si’, he treats economic and environmental policy as moral and, yes, cultural issues, and he doesn’t seem to mind offending those who stand in the way of conversion and reform. Did you hear what he said to Congress about the arms trade? If Francis is a pope particularly committed to dialogue, he is also a pope who believes in plain-speaking.

So, if you are a Catholic who supports same-sex marriage, women’s ordination, or anything else about which this pope’s position cannot be described as liberal, you should feel perfectly free to share in the widespread enthusiasm for him. There are, after all, many reasons to admire Francis, and you don’t need anyone’s permission. You should also feel free not to admire him: there’s no obligation, not even for Catholics. But Catholics should at least respect him, and that means taking him at his word. All his words.

Arminians in the Southern Baptist Convention might think that their change of fortunes in the wake of the New Calvinism are just another day at the office compared to this makeover. And the apologists think that we don’t notice the lack of discipline and what goes with it, coherence? Shouldn’t office count for something?

Apostolic Audacity

A new sermon series from 1 Corinthians stimulated thoughts about apostolic greetings in the New Testament. Here are the ones Paul used with Corinth:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:1-3 ESV)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:1-2 ESV)

Compare that to the first pope (ahem):

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you. (1 Peter 1:1-2 ESV)

Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. (2 Peter 1:1-2 ESV)

Now to round out the comparison, one from John Paul II:

Venerable Brothers and Dear Sons and Daughters,
Greetings and apostolic Blessing

What’s striking about Paul’s greetings is that if Peter were as supreme among the apostles as papal defenders allege, you might think Paul would acknowledge Peter or the wider body of apostles since his status was in dispute. But he claims to be called directly by God and has as much authority as any apostle does. Peter’s claims are even more subdued than Paul’s — an apostle compared to an apostle “by the will of God.”

When you do read the New Testament, Matt 16:18 sure does seem like a slender reed on which to rest all of the Roman See’s authoritative weight. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that confirmed somewhere else in the New Testament? And for the guys who get more pages than anyone else — Paul and Luke (especially if Luke is the author of Hebrews) — you would think they would have gotten the “on this rock” memo.

How Times Have Changed

As Robbie George explains it, from one THE-ROCK star:

I grew up in West Virginia as a Catholic in a Protestant culture, the kind we would today describe as evangelical. We Catholics had the pope — but he was a distant and, to be blunt, foreign figure. Our Protestant neighbors had Billy Graham, the friend of presidents, business magnates and celebrities, who through the magic of television was a frequent, familiar guest in the homes of ordinary people; and he was as American as apple pie.

We didn’t admit it in those days, but we Appalachian Catholics — like, I suspect, many of our coreligionists throughout the land — envied those Protestants. We figured that Billy Graham made being a Protestant in America something like what it was to be a Catholic in Italy. And while we weren’t quite sure it wasn’t a little bit disloyal to watch, listen to and even like and admire a Protestant preacher, watch and listen many of us did — sometimes against the warnings of our parish priests or the nuns who taught us in parochial schools.

It was hard not to watch and listen to Graham. He was mesmerizing: movie star looks; a strong, compelling voice; a charmingly soft Southern accent; stage presence. His message was as simple as it was powerful: Our lives on earth are short. Soon enough each of us will die. Do you want to go to heaven? Then you must give your life to Christ. You must accept him as your Lord and Savior and enter into a personal relationship with him. He is even now lovingly extending his hand to you. Will you not take it? Quoting Scripture, he would say, “ ‘Now is the accepted time; today is the day of salvation.’ This is the hour of decision.”

Then would come the altar call: As Graham’s superb musical team played and sang the moving old hymn “Just as I Am,” the acclaimed evangelist would invite — encourage — those attending his “crusades,” or listening to his “Hour of Decision” program, first on radio, then television, to stand up and give their lives to Christ. Watching from home, even we Catholics felt the impulse to get out of our seats, though we believed that we already belonged to Christ sacramentally, through baptism.

To another:

I suspect that Graham’s only real competitor for the title of most influential Christian evangelist of the 20th century is Pope John Paul II. And the comparison is apt. A John Paul II event, whether in Paris, New York, Los Angeles or Manila, resembled nothing so much as one of Graham’s crusades — a vast crowd in an allegedly postreligious age, and often in an allegedly post-Christian city, drawn to a larger-than-life figure preaching a demanding message of repentance and reform, but doing it with the accent on God’s mercy and the liberating joy of the Christian life.

Wacker reports that Graham and John Paul II met three times, and that Graham’s admiration for John Paul was “manifest.” Did the pope reciprocate that admiration? At one of their meetings, he grasped the Protestant preacher by the thumb — yes, the thumb — and said, “We are brothers.” John Paul II was not a glad-hander or a flatterer. He didn’t say what he didn’t mean. In Graham he clearly saw a fellow Christian, a fellow evangelist and, no doubt, a fellow pioneer in the effort to heal the divisions that had fractured Christianity. Graham, who earlier in his life had been suspicious of Catholics, took great satisfaction in the pope’s regard for him.

All of which confirms my hunch: without a celebrity pope, Roman Catholicism would not have picked up the Protestant following that it has. The irony of course is that after Vatican 2 Protestants didn’t need to convert. Even the pope recognized Protestants as saved.

And A Lutheran Will Lead Them

Amid all the clamor over sanctification (and perhaps the not so sanctified aims of improving one’s own standing by taking down a ministerial rock star), what seems to be missing are the very basic categories that animated the differences between Protestants (yes, that includes — ugh!! — Lutherans) and Roman Catholics. When you consider this debate among Mark Jones, Tullian Tchividjian (hereafter Double T), and Rick Phillips (for starters), it sure does seem that this is an internecine quarrel among experimental Calvinists who are still trying to sort out the ordo salutis, rather than a basic discussion of our right standing before God. Are we right with God by our works? Or are we right with God by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us that comes by faith? Granted, those questions don’t reflect later theological developments. But when you read Rick Phillips’ statement of what’s at stake, a major category is missing:

The matter is not about legalists claiming that the law provides the power to obey God’s commands. Neither is this a fight between Tullian’s defense of the radical grace of the gospel versus those who are afraid of grace. Quite to the contrary, it is precisely the grace of God that is being denigrated, since it is by God’s amazing grace that Christians are not only justified through faith alone but are born again and given the power of Christ to lead new lives (Eph. 1:18-20).

So if the issue is grace and whether it is being denigrated, then what about Roman Catholics who insisted that their view of justification and virtue (what we call sanctification) was just as saturated with grace as the Protestant account? Everyone is claiming grace. What is much less clear is what people are saying about good works and human effort. Phillips and others can claim that the good works that believers do is all of grace. But any believer hearing that gracious account still has to decide what to do with her day, whether to wait for God’s grace (“let go, let God”), or simply get on with it and hope she doesn’t have too many sinful motives dirtying her otherwise useful activities of family worship, dissertation writing, and meal preparation for the pregnant woman in the congregation. That believer also needs to have some idea about whether not to prepare the meal in question is a sign of spiritual declension. Either way, the Phillips-Jones scenario seems to move the anxiety that Martin Luther faced from pre-justification blues to post-justification angst. Have I grown in holiness today? Am I becoming more sanctified and more sanctified? And if I am not, and if sanctification is necessary for salvation, then does my lack of growth in holiness mean I am not saved?

These nagging questions made my recent reading of Gilbert Meilaender’s (the smartest Christian ethicist on God’s green earth) essay, “Works and Righteousness” (paywall alert), particularly refreshing. For in recognizing similarities and differences between John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Helmut Thielicke’s Theological Ethics, Meilaender was able to cut through experimental Calvinist introspection and find the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants while also recognizing the tension that lies at the heart of the Protestant account of the gospel, the good news of justification by faith alone.

For instance, Meilaender frames the essay around the question of whether character precedes actions (faith precedes works) or whether actions (holiness) determine character (standing before God). The challenge of Protestantism is to do away with ethics (i.e. antinomianism):

We can also frame the issue in something more like the language of the New Testament, and the encyclical does so. Faith opens us freely and entirely to call God good. “There is no doubt,” John Paul writes, “that Christian moral teaching, even in its Biblical roots, acknowledges the specific importance of a fundamental choice which qualifies the moral life and engages freedom on a radical level before God. It is a question of the decision of faith, of the obedience of faith (cf. Rom. 16:26) ‘by which man makes a total and free self-commitment to God.’” Of this commitment, St. Paul writes that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” At least in that sense, the character of the person determines the quality of the work.

But what follows from that? Could we also say that any action that proceeds from faith”anything done by one who has made a fundamental choice for God” must be God-pleasing rather than sinful? That hardly seems to follow, but it does make clear the difficulty of relating person and work. For if we hold, as Thielicke does, that the character of a person depends on whether he is or is not in right relation with God, and if we also say that the character of the person determines the moral quality of his works, then we might seem committed to thinking that the actions of anyone whose basic determination is that of faith must be God-pleasing actions.

Thielicke raises this issue very early in his Ethics , and he does so, interestingly enough, when discussing the story”so central to the discussion in Veritatis Splendor ”of the rich young man who comes to Jesus inquiring about what is good. His reading of the exchange focuses on the “person” of the young man. While the encyclical characterizes the encounter as one in which Jesus directs the man toward “a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection,” Thielicke suggests that Jesus aims to free the man from bondage to himself in order that he may be bound to God. Jesus does this through a “movement of concentration” in which imperatives are forms of the command to love God wholly and entirely, not requirements of particular actions.

Particular acts seem to disappear, faith in God occupies the entire moral field, and Thielicke himself sees the difficulty. “We must therefore put the question quite pointedly,” he writes. “Does not all ethical reflection always involve an act whereby ethics really does away with itself by reducing the ethical question to a problem that is essentially dogmatic? . . . In short, does not the solution of the ethical problem lie in the dissolution of ethics?” How we respond to this question will depend on how we understand the claim that a Christian is simul justus et peccator , simultaneously saint and sinner.

One way to understand this assertion “often thought to be the Lutheran way but in reality only one of several ways Lutherans have understood it” is to take it to mean that the believer is wholly and entirely saint and (simultaneously) wholly and entirely sinner. Viewed as one who trusts in the divine goodness and mercy revealed in Jesus, the believer is wholly saint. But viewed apart from that divine goodness, the believer is entirely sinner. The state of the person seems unrelated to his particular actions, for everything depends on the person’s relation to God. The theological task is simply to announce (again and again) the mercy of God that elicits a person’s fundamental decision of faith”leaving us, in short, with what looks like the dissolution of ethics.

Meilaender argues that there is no easy way around the tension that surrounds a faith-centric account of righteousness because we are caught in a conflict that is eschatological (could we get a little help from the Vossians, please):

Ethics always exists in “the field of tension between the old and the new aeons, not in the old alone, nor in the new alone.” To try to say more specifically what the shape of the Christian life should be within this tension would, he argues, be a non-eschatological ethic, something Thielicke associates with Roman Catholicism’s attempt to establish “a hierarchy of moral values with a corresponding casuistry of moral action.” Hence, he does not move very far or for very long beyond an understanding of the simul that he himself has found inadequate. He will accept no static “formula for the unity of the Christian’s existence,” no rules that can ease the tension between the two ages.

So faith alone means the dissolution of ethics, and grace-filled growth in holiness raises the specter of perfectionism: “if we make the connection between person and work too tight, right action may seem to be a condition that must be met in order to attain God’s favor, a tendency not altogether absent from Veritatis Splendor.”

Does this mean that forensic-centric Protestants can make no distinctions between a more or less sanctified life? No. Even a Lutheran can see the problem with an account that recognizes no difference between an adulterer and a husband who is merely tempted by adultery:

a Christian who is faithful to his wife even when experiencing temptation and a Christian who is unfaithful to his wife have the same status before God: They are simply sinners in need of forgiveness. And if going forward is just beginning again, there is no reason to distinguish between them. Each is a sinner, each needs to repent and believe, and each may be right with God. What they do, their agency, seems to make no difference in their relation to God.

But recognizing the tension doesn’t fix it. And the reason may be that bit of eschatology that Meilaender already invoked. We live in between the fall and consummation, and acting like the Christian life is road to holiness may commit the same naivete that John Paul II did, at least, according to Meilaender:

The encyclical exudes a kind of serene confidence about the Christian life that may sometimes be difficult to reconcile with the experience of individual Christians. “Temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them . . . . Keeping God’s law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible.” Surely this is true. We would not want to say of baptized Christians that the power of Christ’s Spirit cannot enable obedience in any circumstance. “And if redeemed man still sins,” Veritatis Splendor continues, “this is not due to an imperfection of Christ’s redemptive act, but to man’s will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act.”

What we miss here, though, is some sense of our weakness, of the differences in strength and circumstances that mark individual Christian lives. In the famous refrain of Book 10 of his Confessions ”give what you command, and command what you will”St. Augustine also expresses confidence in the power of the Spirit to enable virtuous action. But in his repetition of that formula we sense something that is also present in Thielicke’s thought”the precariousness of our lives as Christians, the deep divisions that sometimes continue to mark the psyches of believers, our sense on occasion that the best we can do does not measure up to what we ought to do, our sense (so strong for Augustine) that God knows our character better than we know ourselves.

I for one don’t think that Double T (though I haven’t read much) captures the precariousness of our Christian lives. Simply to say everything is forgiven (if that is what Double T suggests) doesn’t wrestle with gravity of sin and its penalty, the idea that my sins sent Christ to the cross. But neither do the “obedience boys,” as Bill Smith calls them, capture this precariousness, that even the best of what we do is inferior to God’s righteous standard and comes mixed with a host of selfish and confused motives.

So perhaps the way forward is to read more Lutheran ethics — not the oxymoron that some experimental Calvinists think it is.

Canonization Fall Out

If you like the social aspect of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, you feel warmed and filled after the recent canonizations:

Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II can rightly be called “the human rights popes.” In their teaching and their actions, they did more to advance the church’s teaching on human rights and to promote the dignity and rights of the human person globally than any other pope. Blessed John’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris brought about a sea change in the Roman Catholic tradition. It declared for the first time the Catholic Church’s full commitment to the modern human rights agenda, encompassing democratic freedoms and economic, social, and cultural rights. Blessed John Paul built on the foundation of John XXIII by unremittingly reminding the world of the inviolable dignity of the human person and her rights on pastoral visits all over the world. This is why in 2011 the United Nations honored him as a “consistent promoter of peace and human rights.” He trenchantly reminded Christians not to dismiss human rights as a product of the Enlightenment, or a “wish list” of political parties. Rather, argued the pontiff, Jesus Christ and his Gospel are the ultimate source of human rights. Moreover, John Paul argued that the rights of the poor and marginalized cannot be postponed because affluent nations and individuals think their “freedom” entitles them to hyper-consumption (see Redemptor Hominis, no.16). He also penned the Church’s most complete ethic and spirituality of labor, Laborem Exercens. John Paul maintained that the Son of God became a carpenter, thereby revealing that all work possesses equal dignity because it is done by a human being. All workers – not just those highly valued by the market – must be guaranteed rights such as a just wage, affordable healthcare, rest, retirement pensions, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, maternity leave, and safe working conditions (no. 19).

But if you are concerned about liturgy and piety, then cool and unsatisfied:

Then we have the canonization of John Paul II, which is being treated in media accounts as the Traditionalist half of a political process. On the same Sunday, both John Paul II and the liberal hero Pope John XXIII will be canonized. We are told that Pope Francis is trying to effect the reconciliation of two spheres in the Catholic world, and consolidate the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to bring the church up to date with the modern world. This narrative leaves me cold.

Like a lot of Catholic Traditionalists, I have extremely mixed feelings about John Paul II. He inspired many of the best men in todays’s church to join the priesthood. But I do not consider him a representative of Traditionalist views. He made additions to the Rosary, which have been thankfully ignored by the faithful. His allowance for the Traditional Latin Mass was insultingly ungenerous. He made bold ecumenical gestures that seem impossible to reconcile not only with the texts of Vatican II, but also with the teachings of the pre-conciliar church.

I find that John Paul’s writings are alternately inspiring, opaque, and incomprehensible. His governance of the church was lax in the extreme, to the point of negligence. Even before his death, my view was that here was a celebrity pope who traveled while Rome burned in scandal.

John Paul II’s record on sexual abuse was abysmal, full stop, even if there may be some room to doubt his personal culpability. I’ve sometimes wondered if his personal charisma blinded him to the obviously un-Catholic spirit of personal obedience written into the heart of the Legion of Christ, led by the noted abuser, liar, womanizer, and drug-addict Marcial Maciel. Or if his view of priestly abuse allegations were shaped by his experience in Poland, where communist authorities routinely accused priests in order to undermine the church. But for over two decades he was the supreme authority in the church, and he did next to nothing to abate this crisis.

There is still much goodness and grace in the church today, and much growth and heroism among its members in Africa and Asia. But for the Western world, the post-Vatican II era, the one that is supposedly being consolidated and sanctified by these canonizations, has been one of shocking decline in Catholic practice, weakness of faith, and demoralizing immorality. Why the rush to canonize those who initiated and oversaw it?

Meanwhile, Jason and the Callers are up to speed with more reflection on Mary (who blogs here).

Show Me Jesus

Unam Sanctam helps sort through the confusion about canonization (especially those of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II):

By virtue of this fact, the second aspect of the person’s canonization, that they are a person of heroic virtue who should be seen as a model for the faithful is not a question that is at all up for dispute. Simply because a Saint makes mistakes in his life, or even makes objectively wrong choices, has no bearing on the matter. A Saint is not a person who lived their whole life perfectly; but rather, a Saint is a person who, by the end of their earthly pilgrimage, demonstrated the fact that through God’s grace they were able to attain to an eminent degree of perfection. For this reason they should be seen by all as a model for the faithful of heroic virtue, and the fact that they have been canonized dispels any doubt there might be in the matter.

This is not to say that elements of the pontificates of John XXIII or John Paul II are not problematic; they certainly are. This is for history to assess. Because of the changes in the process and the manner in which these canonizations are proceeding, it has been the position of this blog that there is an unfortunate confusion in modern canonizations when it comes to saints who also held ecclesiastical office vis-a-vis the question of whether a saint who was personally holy but had significant failures in the exercise of their office should be considered a model of heroic virtue (see here and here). Without reopening that argument, it suffices to say that a saint must always be a role model for heroic virtue in so far as we are talking about their personal holiness, which is the fundamental reason for their canonization. In the case of John Paul II, Cardinal Amato said very plainly that the canonization is based on the late pontiff’s personal holiness, not how he administered his papacy or the impact he had in the world. We may not appreciate that distinction or think it is helpful, but at least in making this statement the Vatican has, in a certain sense, sorted out the question of whether John Paul’s canonization means he was also a model pope. The answer is clearly no, and Cardinal Amato’s answer thankfully allows us to maintain this point whilst simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of his canonization as a true exercise of the infallibility of the pope.

“An eminent degree of perfection” in this life? When did Rome become Wesleyan?

What did Paul say?

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
(Romans 7:18-25 ESV)

This is one of those thorny matters the Callers need to ‘splain (like how such perfection is possible apart from Christ).