Day One without a Washcloth

I know this boarders on tmi, but why is it that Europeans and Turks don’t furnish hotel patrons with a simple washcloth? I get it that Americans are not in the habit of outfitting bathrooms with bidets — but neither are the Irish or the Turks. So what is the aspiring ablutionist to do? When it comes to the handy devise of said washcloth, I am willing to use that dreaded phrase, “human flourishing.”

That said, this morning’s rituals in Dublin (where I am doing some research while not crawling from pub to pub — kidding, dear but you’re probably not reading) included a full Irish breakfast in the hotel’s dining room. There I brought along a recent issue of First Things (to keep away the friendly tourist) and found a readable discussion of Robbie George’s proposal that churches should get out of the civil marriage business (April 2014). As a side point, I was struck by the number of appeals to the deeply theological accounts of marriage and how the secular version is merely an inferior copy. For one, Scripture itself doesn’t say that much about marriage, though the analogy of the church and Christ does give lots of wiggle room — yet it is only an analogy, like a piece of bread and a thimble of wine is a meal. For another, complaints about the inferior nature of secular marriage strike me as yet one more version of Christians bellyaching about the loss of Christendom — oh, how inferior a secular republic is to the deeply textured presence of faith in medieval Europe. Put not your hope in princes, their territories, or their marriages.

None of the Protestant contributors to this discussion picked up on what George’s proposal would do for Protestant ministers. Since Protestant churches know nothing of marriage as a sacrament, since marriage is a common institution not reserved for believers, the only kind of marriage that Protestants offer is a secular version. In our records we don’t keep a special class of members who are married. We have no instruction from Scripture that pastors are supposed to perform marriages (and I can’t think of any explicit cases or instruction from the Old Testament that would have led the apostles to think they needed to perform marriages, though I didn’t score high on my English Bible exam). And we have nary little instruction from Scripture about a happy home except for that impossible stuff about wives submitting and husbands loving (what pastors cover in marriage counseling before a ceremony is a true mystery — do ministers really know anything about finances or balancing a checkbook?).

So I’ll take the challenge. I propose that Reformed churches encourage their pastors to get out of the marriage racket. At the very least, it puts us out in front of that difficult situation when a gay couple wants to make an example of one of our congregations. At the most, what do we lose? So we as a body of believers accompany a couple and their witnesses (the signed ones) to the city courtroom to observe a civil marriage ceremony. Would that be so bad? Imagine the savings on flowers and wedding party attire.

On the other side, I could see abandoning the wedding ceremony for its inclusion within a Sunday morning worship service, sort of like the vows that new members take before the observance of the Lord’s Supper. So the couple would go forward, the pastor would offer some brief instruction about marriage, bride and groom would take their vows, return to their seats, and participate in the rest of the service. The reception? Coffee hour.

Imagine the even more savings!

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Infallibility In Denial

Here I thought we had entered a new era of warm relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics. We are almost twenty years from the first iteration of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The architects of that project, Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson have passed from the scene but the George brothers (in name only), Timothy and Robbie, have extended the spirit of culture war cooperation with the Manhattan Declaration. Add to mix Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Is the Reformation Over? and you have a setting in which the lines dividing Rome, Geneva, Wittenburg, and Wheaton are increasingly fuzzy. That could be a reason for Protestants to convert to Rome since the differences aren’t great. But it could also be a reason to remain Protestant. If the differences aren’t significant, why bother putting up with bad liturgical music when you can keep the lousy praise band in your own congregation?

And then along comes the ex-Prots who write at Called to Communion to remind all the partyers that a curfew exists and, oh, by the way, they also called the cops if we don’t break up the revelry. CTC’s heavy handed insistence on older Roman Catholic verities is laudable in many respects but comes as a complete surprise to the world of Protestant-Roman Catholic relations. If some wonder why objections to CTC have been so pronounced at Old Life of late, the reason has something to do with how out of synch CTC seems to be with the rest of the Roman Catholic world and the vibe Protestants get from that Roman universe. Instead of telling us how much we share in common with them the way most Roman Catholics do these days, CTC is there to remind us how far Protestants fall short of the fullness of glory that is Rome. Like I say, this bracing splash of alcohol on the wound is welcome at a time when differences between Rome and Protestants look increasingly like personal preference.

At the same time, the other wrinkle in CTC’s project is how little they seem to notice that Rome is not a monolith of fidelity to the teachings of the pope, magisterium, and church councils. The Jesuits, Roman Catholic higher education in the United States, and the nuns are all examples of Roman Catholics out of sync with official church teaching and practice. But when you search around at CTC, you find more about problems among Reformed Protestants than you do about the nuns. Perhaps it is a function of a poor search engine, but if you want to know about the deficiencies of President Obama receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame, you’re not going to find it readily at CTC.

CTC’s lack of attention to problems in the Roman Catholic Church has me wondering if CTCers’ insistence on infallibility in ways that would have made Benjamin Warfield’s head swim is responsible for this apparent hiding from Rome’s difficulties. Could it be that if you are so committed to an innerant church hierarchy, you’re predisposed deny errors in your communion?

To illustrate the point, I refer to the recent remarks at Old Life about development of doctrine and certain caricatures of Rome that may have surfaced. In one of my comments, I believe, I questioned the persuasiveness of an exegetical case for Rome’s view of justification since it didn’t seem to me that the Bible figures all that prominently in CTC defenses of Rome (minus Matt. 16:18 which is for CTCers what John 3:16 is for Free Will Baptists). Jason Stellman responded that this was a bit of a cheap shot since Roman Catholics care about the Bible do do exegesis. Only children who are ignorant make the mistake of saying that Roman Catholics don’t read and know their Bibles.

Well, that’s not what David Carlin says over at CatholiCity:

According to the poll, 25 percent of Evangelical Protestants read the Bible daily, as do 20 percent of other Protestants, while daily Bible-reading is done by only 7 percent of Catholics. Now this result didn’t bother me very much, since one can be very familiar with, and very greatly influenced by, a book without reading it on a daily basis. I myself don’t read the Bible daily; nor do I give a daily reading to Plato or Shakespeare; and it’s years since I read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Yet I know that all these writing have had a strong influence on the way I look at life and the world.

Far more disturbing was the poll result that showed that 44 percent of Catholics “rarely or never” read the Bible, while this is true of only 7 percent of Evangelicals and 13 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants. The level of religious vitality must be very low in a Christian church in which 44 percent of the membership almost never bothers to read the Bible.

Carlin explains this phenomenon by appealing to Trent, and part to the sacramental nature of the church:

All this changed, officially at least, at Vatican II, which dropped the Church’s 400-year-old “defensive mode of being.” Lay Catholics were now at long last given the green light to read the Bible; indeed, they were encouraged to read it. Yet today, nearly a half-century later, 44 percent of American Catholics “rarely or never” read the Bible, and only 7 percent read it on a daily basis. How can this be?

Part of the answer, of course, is inertia. Four centuries of a certain policy cannot be changed immediately overnight – any more than an aircraft carrier at sea can make a turn of 180 degrees on a dime. Another part of the answer is the sacramentalism of the Catholic Church: To save your soul, it is more important to participate in the sacraments than to read the Bible. But a third part of the answer is, alas, that the leadership of the Church (I mean its bishops and priests) have not stressed the importance of Bible-reading for shaping the Christian mind and heart.

Carlin’s point about Trent’s defensiveness on Bible reading is confirmed by an article in the old New Catholic Dictionary (1910) on Bible Reading by Laity (the date is important because this is a description of the Roman Catholic Church prior to Vatican II:

The Council strictly prohibited the reading of all heretical Latin versions, unless grave reasons necessitated their use. The Council itself did not forbid the reading of the new Catholic translations, although even these later fell under the ban of the Index Commission which Trent set up for the supervision of future legislation regarding the Bible. In 1559 the Commission forbade the use of certain Latin editions, as well as German, French, Spanish, Italian, and English vernacular vereions. Two centuries later, however, it modified the severity of this legislation by granting permission for the use of all versions translated by learned Catholic men, provided they contained annotations derived from the Fathers, and had the approval of the Holy See. Our present discipline grows out of the decree, “Officiorum ac Munerum,” of Leo XIII. This decree states that all vernacular versions, even those prepared by Catholic authors, are prohibited if they are not, on the one hand, approved by the Apostolic See, or, on the other hand, supplied with proper annotations and accompanied by episcopal approbation. However, it contains a provision whereby, for grave reasons, biblical and theological students may use non-Catholic editions as long as these do not attack Catholic dogma.

This does not prove that Roman Catholics can’t or should not do exegesis. The point instead is about the conservative Roman Catholics who are more intent on showing Protestantism’s errors than the problems in their own ecclesiastical home. And I cannot help but think that an emphasis on infallibility produces a culture in which denial is a habit of mind if not a w-w.

The Law Coalition

While working on a talk for a conference last week hosted and attended by academic conservatives, I revisited the Manhattan Declaration. My point was that so many who think themselves conservative think they also take religion seriously by injecting faith into public affairs. But what ends up happening most often is that the complexities and depth of faith are sacrificed for the sake of a common cause, and that commonality is almost exclusively moral and comes from the Second Table of the Decalogue. Listen, for instance, to the way that the Manhattan Declaration’s writers (and the Baylys and Rabbi Bret may well want to follow along) turn the sanctity of human life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty into “the Gospel.”

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.

Which gospel would that be exactly? The one professed by Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox? J. Gresham Machen, in one of the quotations I used recently, might have a very different understanding of such joint endeavors:

I am bound to say that the kind of discussion which is irritating to me is the discussion which begins by begging the questino and then pretensd to be in the interests of peace. I should be guilty of such a method if I should say to a Roman Catholic, for example, wthat we can come together with him because forms and ceremonies like the mass and membership in a certain definite organization are, of course, matters of secondary importance – if I should say to him that he can go on being a good Cathoilc and I can go on being a good Protestant and yet we can unite on comon Christian basis. If I should talk in that way, I should show myself guilty of the crassest narrowness of mind, for I should be shoing that I had never taken the slightest trouble to understand the Roman Catholic point of view. If I had taken that trouble, I should have come to see plainly that what I should be doing is not to seek common ground between the roman Catholic and myself but simply to ask the Roman Catholic to become a Protestant and give up evertyhing that he holds most dear.

In other words, if Trent still matters, or the the Westminster Confession still matters, the signers of the Manhattan Declaration were in serious denial about the gospel.

What is also important to observe, though, is that they are also in mega-denial. For the law that they affirm, merely calling it the gospel, is only a few brief rules outlined in Scripture. For starters, God’s law also says a fair amount about worship and church polity that again would drive Roman Catholics and Protestants not together but apart — can you say the Mass, or how about apostolic succession? (The same can be asked of the Gospel Coalition — are they ignoring the means of grace, or ecclesiology in order to affirm a meager understanding of the gospel?)

So why is it conservative to affirm the law as revealed in holy writ during public debates if you don’t affirm all of the law? And how conservative can it be to rename the law “gospel”? This is not conservative. It is actually liberal and may border on being modernist.

But saying so makes you an antinomian and a secularist? Shazam!