Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (6): Dishing Out the Docetism

Below is the sixth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

Wow – you seem to take the regulative principle as being self-evidently true, and because the comments in my last letter fall outside the narrow confines of your application of this principle, they must necessarily be false. But did you ever stop to ask whether the regulative principle, as explained in your last letter, actually conforms to its own criteria? That is to say, does scripture itself teach the legitimacy of the regulative principle as you have articulated it?

I leave that for you to ponder while I move on to address the stuff from Calvin that you gave me to read. Trust you to refer me to John Calvin!

Actually, I think Calvin was a first-rate thinker, and I have a lot of admiration for him. But in this chapter you gave me to read from the Institutes on the “Impiety of Attributing A Visible Form to God,” Calvin is completely sub-par.

I did find it very interesting, in light of what I said in my last letter, that while Calvin goes through all the various times God did appear in a form (as when He appeared in the cloud, the smoke, the flame, and when the Holy Spirit appeared under the form of a dove), he lacks any mention of the incarnation itself! I found that most puzzling. Curiously, Calvin does mention the times when “God sometimes appeared in the form of a man...in anticipation of the future revelation in Christ.” Had the revelation of Christ itself qualified as an instance of God appearing in visible form, one wonders whether Calvin could still have confidently concluded that

It is true that the Lord occasionally manifested his presence by certain signs, so that he was said to be seen face to face; but all the signs he ever employed were in apt accordance with the scheme of doctrine, and, at the same time, gave plain intimation of his incomprehensible essence.

Or consider later in the same chapter of the Institutes:

“The Lord, however, not only forbids any image of himself to be erected by a statuary, but to be formed by any artist whatever, because every such image is sinful and insulting to his majesty.”

How these statements of Calvin’s can square with the reality of the incarnation remains a complete mystery to me. If a visible image of God is insulting to His majesty, then the physical body of Christ would be insulting since that was a visible image of the invisible God according to Colossians 1:15 (“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation”). If this be true, then it’s time to start dishing out a bit of Docetism.

No offense George, but I think you have followed in Calvin’s wake in manifesting a similar type of hermeneutical schizophrenia. Consider, you are more than happy to interpret the fourth commandment through the lens of Christ’s resurrection, yet you stop short of interpreting the second commandment through the lens of the incarnation – that great event when visible form was attributed to God.

In no way is it my intention to gloss over the dangers of idolatry. I agree that maintaining the distinction between veneration and worship does not make one immune to the sin of idolatry. However, since you mentioned the issue of bowing before icons and statues of venerated saints, I am wondering if the issue is really as clear cut as you assume. While bowing down before someone is frequently associated with worship in the Bible (Acts 10:26; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9), this is not always the case. James Jordon recognizes this in The Liturgy Trap and argues that bowing down before men is often Biblically appropriate. In fact, he even advocates having the pastor bow before the congregation. What Jordon will not allow is bowing before inanimate objects. Yet it is a point worthy of mention that the Bible gives examples where the saints express devotion to God by bowing down before inanimate object such as the Temple or the altar in the Temple (Psalm 5:7; 2 Chr. 29:28-30) or fire that comes from God (2 Chron. 7:3) or the reading of the Word (Nehemiah 8). These passages seem to undermine the knee-jerk assumption that any time a person bows to an inanimate object he is automatically committing idolatry. Now the person may be guilty of idolatry, but you would need another argument to establish that.

You write that when we meet to worship God, the focus should be on Him and not on the Saints. I agree. But it is far from obvious that icons or statues of saints takes the focus off the Lord any more than a Bible or a pulpit. Quite the contrary, for where are we when we meet for worship? The book of Revelation shows us what a worship service in Heaven looks like, and what we find is departed saints gathered around the innermost sanctuary of God’s throne room. Imitating this Biblical model and populating the sanctuary with saints cannot be wholly without warrant.

Now I’m not saying that because of the incarnation that our church services can now become a big free for all, or that public worship can legitimately include elements that fall outside broad scriptural warrant. In this regard, I agree with the nuanced version of the Regulative Principle that Jeff Meyers has articulated in his book The Lord’s Service. But I am suggesting that if we are prepared to incorporate the denunciation of all images into the very worship service itself (which is what your church does when it reads the Heidelberg Catechism during the service), and if we are prepared to dismiss as idolatry those ecclesiastical traditions which have been using images for hundreds of years (which is the implication of the Westminster Catechism treating the issue under the Second Commandment), and if we are to join Jordan in condemning as “apostate” all who leave our reformed churches to become a high Anglican, then we need some pretty clear scriptural warrant. At the moment, I struggle to see that such warrant can be found in scripture.

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why the Need to Tinker with the Prayer Book?

Why are there tendencies in the Episcopal Church to deviate from conformity to the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer? What explains the need that some feel to tinker with the liturgy, or even (without any valid authority and in violation of ordination vows) to wholesale revise the Prayer Book's liturgies for the sake of _________ (fill in the blank)?

While I've noted several instances of illegal liturgical revision on this blog, I've never really answered the "why" question. But it's a very good question. And it's a question that Bishop Daniel Martins of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield reflects on in a recent blog posting entitled "Bored With the Book of Common Prayer?" Here's some of what he writes:

From time to time—more frequently now that I am a bishop—I find myself in situations of corporate worship with other Episcopalians. Whether it’s sitting in a pew on a rare Sunday off, or attending a meeting or conference or the like, I have come to expect that what I find when I step into the worship space will probably not be a straight-from-the-book BCP service. Sometimes it is, but more often it’s not. On occasion, it’s one of the authorized supplemental texts from Enriching Our Worship, but not often. And, of course, there is the unauthorized but widespread informal emendation of Prayer Book language to render it more palatable to various sensibilities (“And blessed be God’s Kingdom, now and forever…”, “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord”, “Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel [and Leah]”). But I’m not actually talking about this sort of thing either (although, arguably, it deserves to be talked about).

No, what I have in mind are worship services that are cobbled together not quite on the spur of the moment, but almost. They appear on a printed sheet or booklet, so presumably some amount of thought has gone into them. They’re not exactly confected from whole cloth, because very often they incorporate substantial material from a Prayer Book rite (“Scenes from Morning Prayer,” some of them might be called). But they are almost invariably at a time of day for which there is an appropriate Prayer Book office. So, one wonders, why not simply use what we have? From whence comes the need to tinker?

Two factors immediately suggest themselves. One is a fairly widespread aversion in some quarters to traditional liturgical language that is considered sexist and/or patriarchal and/or insensitive to non-western cultures and thought patterns. The other is a practical concern to integrate worship with the particular objectives or ethos of a conference or retreat.

I wonder, however, whether a major contributing factor, and perhaps the major contributing factor, is simply … boredom. Itching ears. We are an over-stimulated society. We are addicted to constant change. Popular culture (music, fashion, entertainment media) is in a state of continual flux. Technology evolves so rapidly that the cycle of obsolescence keeps getting shorter and shorter. “Yesterday’s news” is no longer a euphemism but a literal descriptor. Should it be a surprise that people who exist in, and are formed by, secular culture would carry their conditioning with them into the councils of the church?

Even if it doesn't account for all of the liturgical deviations and unauthorized revisions out there, I think that Bishop Martins' reflections are on to something important. We do, in fact, live in a culture characterized by over-stimulation and constant change. How many times have you - or I - checked Facebook or e-mail, surfed the Internet, or sent text messages in the last hour? Should we really be surprised that as this cultural shift become increasingly a taken-for-granted reality that it affects how we approach what it means to worship, do liturgy, and be the Church?

As a result, it may seem more difficult to justify the ritual of Prayer Book liturgy: gathering week in and week out to do the same things and to say the same words over and over again. And so the very idea of common prayer as a defining feature of Anglican practice and identity may seem not only oddly out of step with the realities of the world we live in, but boring as well.

Are changed cultural realities a sufficient reason to justify tinkering with or revising authorized Prayer Book's liturgies? Do we lose something precious and central to our identity in efforts to be relevant and appealing by deviating from or rejecting the ritual of liturgical repetition?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Best Conspiracy Ever

This is a brilliant video from Lutheran Satire.

If it's true that Jesus never rose from the dead, then why did all the Apostles endure persecution and even death to say otherwise? Watch this super true story to find out.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (5): What's So Bad About Graven Images?

Below is the fifth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

I’d like to begin by responding to your following comment:

“Of course, there is nothing wrong with lapsing into praise of God because you have just climbed a majestic mountain or beheld a lovely sunset. In that sense, created things may certainly aid us in personally worshiping God. But public corporate worship is a different matter entirely. When gathering to worship God in the sanctuary, there shouldn’t be anything visual that assists us, least of all images.”

I’ll start by explaining where I agree. I do think your distinction between private and public worship is necessary when dealing with questions of this sort. The people I know who conflate this distinction always end up devaluing both the sacraments and the Lord’s day.

But while I accept the distinction, I think the argument you go on to make is problematic. If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that visual/material phenomena is fine in private worship, but is idolatry in corporate worship.

Immediately certain problems arise. First, if an image is simply a visible sign of an invisible reality, then the Bible is just as much an ‘image’ as a statue to the blessed virgin.

Secondly, consider that the Psalms, which you agree use created things such as the firmament and mountains as aids to worship, make up the hymnal that your church uses (I don’t go along with your church on exclusive Psalmody, but that is a debate for another time!).

Thirdly, how do you explain that the public/corporate worship of God in ancient Israel did include a vast array of visual objects and “graven images.” It is hard to read the descriptions of the temple and dismiss the precious stones (2 Chron 3:6), the carved Cherubim (3:7), the two Cherubim carved in the Most Holy place (3:10-13), the one hundred pomegranates on wreaths of chain work (3:16), the molten sea or bath supported by the likeness of oxen (2 Chron 4:1-5), etc., as mere decoration rather than a means of worshiping Yahweh. While the people were not to worship these images throughout the temple, they were a means to worshiping God along with everything else in the temple.

The people of God always understood that the plethora of images throughout the temple was fundamentally different to the images of false gods, the worship of which God had forbidden by the second commandment (Duet 5:8-9; Ex. 20:4-5). They also apparently saw no contradiction between the Lord’s command to make these carved images for the temple, on the one hand, and his prohibition of all “likenesses” in Deuteronomy 4:16-19, on the other. I feel that your comments have failed to take this into account.

You quoted James Jordan’s book The Liturgy Trap, where he wrote that the second commandment “means that no pictures of God, angels, or saints are allowed. It also means no pictures of men, dogs, whales, trees, or anything else are allowed.” Well, my question for you is simply this: how do you square this with the fact that God mandated pictures of both angelic beings and animals in His temple? Even James Jordon, when writing about the temple shortly after the section you quoted, has to qualify his earlier prohibitions by saying that “We are free to make pictures and sculptures of things in the creation, including heavenly things...it is not wrong to have pictures, including faces, in the house of worship--provided we never, ever bow down toward them.” Then later on he adds another qualification: not only are we never to bow down to the pictures in the house of worship, but we are not allowed to even look at them! As he says, “the only thing to look at in worship is other people.” I must confess that all of this seems most confusing to me. What is the point of allowing pictures in the sanctuary if people are not allowed to look at them? Does this mean that the art God ordered for the temple was also not intended to be looked at? Even though the whole temple complex was designed to facilitate the worship of God, are we to conclude that the graven images in the temple were extrinsic rather than intrinsic to such worship? I must admit, this is also very confusing to me!

One final point before I let you go. In appealing to the Old Testament temple, I do not want to gloss over the important paradigm shifts that have occurred between the Old Testament to the New Testament. I guess my question would be: does scripture give us any explicit or implicit warrant for assuming that use of visual representations in worship is one of those changes? Does the New Testament ever abrogate the Old Testament’s use of visual representations in worship? Granted that the temple system has now been abolished, and that the symbols we use in Christian worship should reflect that important shift, are we to assume that the very principle of using visual representations in worship has changed?

I don’t think so, and here’s why. If anything, the Incarnation would seem to further legitimize the use of such objects in worship. After all, the second person of the Trinity became a visual object Himself, taking on the form of one of God’s image-bearers. While this does not, in itself, suddenly legitimize the use of representations of God Himself in worship (although it should not be overlooked that Deut. 4:15-16 can no longer be truthfully said since mankind has now seen the form of God through the incarnation), it does underscore the fact that our faith needs to be robustly sacramental, rendering visible that which is invisible, even as Jesus was the image of the invisible God (John 1:18, Col. 1:15; Heb 1:3). From here, it is an easy step to the contention that visual objects can play an important role in new covenant worship, even as visual objects played an important role in old covenant worship. Only by introducing a radical discontinuity between the two covenants does it seem possible to justify the type of language used by the reformed creeds on this issue.

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Episcopal Church Welcomes All Viewpoints and Interests - Really?

I came across a website called Panorama which describes itself as "Blog of the Episcopal Church." The first posting kicks off with a reflection on the familiar slogan visible on many church signs: "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." The posting notes that, in spite of differences and even "heated discussions," we Episcopalians still do a pretty good job of being gracious and welcoming towards each other. Sure, there are exceptions, but on the whole that strikes me as a reasonably accurate assessment. So far so good.

But then things take an odd turn with the following:

Panorama will show that all viewpoints and interests are welcomed in the Episcopal Church. Panorama provides an avenue for these various voices to be previewed and highlighted.

"All viewpoints and interests are welcomed in the Episcopal Church." Really?

Surely not!

The fact is there are many viewpoints and interests we reject as unworthy of inclusion within our church. Don't we take a strong stand against racism and sexism? Don't we reject anti-Semitism as incompatible with the Christian faith? Don't we reject hatred and discrimination against persons because of their sexual orientation? If we're being faithful to the theology of our Prayer Book and to what is affirmed on the Episcopal Church's official website about the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, then aren't we including the orthodoxy of Nicaea and Chalcedon while rejecting other viewpoints as heretical (e.g., Arianism, Docetism, and Gnosticism)? And aren't there plenty of other viewpoints and interests we rightly say "no" to and commit ourselves to proactively excluding from our church when we promise in our Baptismal Covenant to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship" and to "respect the dignity of every human being"?

The desire to be inclusive is a good thing. But there are limits to inclusion. It's not just the fact that some viewpoints and interests should not be included for theological or ethical reasons. It's also that inclusion of certain viewpoints and interests necessarily means excluding other viewpoints and interests that contradict or reject what the Episcopal Church has included and affirmed as normative and acceptable.

It's more accurate to say that the Episcopal Church does not welcome all viewpoints and interests. And rightly so!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why the Pall on the Casket?

A parishioner recently asked me the question: "Why do we place the pall on the casket when it enters the nave?" Here's how I responded:

We place the pall on the casket for several reasons. First, the pall symbolizes the deceased being clothed with immortality in Christ. “For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

Second, by covering the casket, the pall reinforces the reality that all of us – regardless of social position, wealth, etc. – are rendered equal in death and that all Christians are equal by virtue of our baptisms into the death and resurrection of Christ. So it doesn’t matter if the body is placed in the most expensive casket or in a pine box, nobody’s going to see it during the funeral.

Related to both of these reasons is the fact that, by matching the other hangings and vestments with the color of Easter, the pall mirrors the heart of the burial liturgy by visually shifting the focus away from death and dead bodies to the resurrection. This is also the principal reason why we don’t allow for open caskets at funerals.

I welcome the insights of others in response to my parishioner's question.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (4): Images in Worship

Below is the fourth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

I’m not ignoring your rejoinder about the saints, but I’m conscious that I still haven’t yet responded to your remarks about the use of images in worship.

Your comments about the second commandment are certainly interesting. But as with the issue of saints, the problem seems to be that if your statements are sound they prove too much.

Since you didn’t present any argument but simply referred to the Westminster Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism, I went and looked up the relevant passages. I found it interesting that the Westminster divines not only forbad worshiping representations of God, but also “the making of any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever.” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 109). While the Catechism does not explicitly reject representations of saints, I noticed that the Heidelberg Catechism takes care of that when it asks, “may not images be permitted in the churches as teaching aids for the unlearned?” The people are instructed to answer with is a resounding: “No, we shouldn't try to be wiser than God. He wants his people instructed by the living preaching of his Word not by idols that cannot even talk” (Heidelberg Catechism 1563, Lord’s Day 35).

I must say, George, that the automatic association between visual aids and idolatry does seem tenuous, as was the Westminster Assembly’s decision to support their argument against Christian iconography with proof texts that uniformly refer to Israel’s worship of false gods. Calvin seems to make the same mistake in Book 1, Chapter 11 of The Institutes, where his argument against Christian images rests on the assumption that such images are idolatry (and, of course, if that is your starting point, then it is very easy to construct a Biblical case against them!)

But this raises a legitimate question: is it even possible to eradicate all visual stimuli from the worship of God? We may be able to worship the Lord in a room with bare walls like my uncle does, but how many of us who can honestly claim to have sat through one church service without at some point representing God “inwardly” in our mind.

Moreover, if we are good regulative-principle-Calvinists like you are, then every time we sing the Psalms we are endorsing the use of created things as means of, or aid in, or prompt to (call it whatever you like) worship, seeing that frequently the Psalmists reach the peak of worship only after considering and meditating on the visible phenomena of the natural world. That is why I said a minute ago that if your argument proves anything, it proves far too much.

On the other hand, if we allow that we can meet with God in the natural world, since it “declares the glory of God” (Psalm 19) and moves us to spontaneous praise when we contemplate it (Psalm 97), then on what basis are we prepared to say artistic sub-creation cannot serve a similar end? If the things that God made can be so central to worship, why not the things that man makes which equally reflect the beauty of God’s holiness (Psalm 90:17)? If it is appropriate for the sight of God’s handiwork in the firmament to propel us to new heights of worship (Psalm 19:1-6), then why is it not appropriate for the sight of God’s handiwork in his saints (and I have Christian iconography in mind here) to propel us to new heights of worship? None of these questions can be adequately answered without first taking the time to develop a theology of sub-creation and to explore the spiritual function of art in the Bible. However, your knee-jerk reaction against the use of images in worship leaves no room for this.

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thoughts on Christian Witness

I recently came across some interesting responses given by the Most Reverend Metropolitan Ambrosios of Korea, to questions posed by students at a Protestant theological school outside of Seoul. The questions largely center around Eastern Orthodox confession and worship.

Here is his response to the question "What is your understanding of missionary activities in the Orthodox Church?":

To start with, the term “mission” does not express the spirit of the Orthodox Church. We use it compromisingly because it has universal prevalence. Instead we prefer the term “witness.” The term mission, which derives from Western theology, does not exist in Holy Scripture, while the corresponding term, witness, is found many times. The teaching of the Gospel does not mean to say beautiful words about Christ but to give a daily witness of Christ with one’s words and with one’s silence, with works and by example. And if need be, if necessary, to martyr for Christ, namely, to spill one’s blood for Christ, as was done by millions of martyrs and confessors of the faith.

Read it all.

While I'm not sure about pitting terms like "witness" and "mission" against each other, I fully agree that our faith calls us beyond merely using beautiful words (which we certainly have in The Book of Common Prayer!) to our everyday speech, works, and example. That strikes me as very much in keeping with the Baptismal Covenant promise to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ." The language we use to talk about each other and the way we live our lives bear witness beyond ourselves. Do they bear witness to Christ? Do they proclaim the Good News? Or do they bear witness to someone or something else and proclaim a different "gospel"?

I was particularly struck by part of Metropolitan Ambrosios' response to the question "What process is followed in the Orthodox Church for someone to work as a missionary?":

This subject has great theological significance for the spreading of the true faith and for the unity of the Church. If everyone acts according to his opinion and desire, then the faith and unity of the Church is in danger.

At this point permit me to mention the following event: Once I flew from America to Greece with an American woman, a self-appointed missionary. When I asked her why she chose Greece for her missionary work, she told me that she admired the Greeks a lot because she knew a lot about their glorious ancient history, and that is why she had great zeal to Christianize them.

“Do you know what modern-day Greeks believe in?” I asked her.

“Of course, the twelve gods of Olympus!” she answered.

“Do you know,” I told her, “that 2000 years before you some other apostle, the Great Apostle of the Nations Paul went to Greece and preached Christianity? And that Greeks have had an uninterrupted Christian Orthodox tradition ever since?”

Such waggishness and much worse happens when behind every self-called missionary it is not the Church doing the sending.

I've heard similar stories involving Protestant missions to Russia. While no doubt well-intentioned, such efforts are a sad reminder that sometimes we Christians end up bearing witness, not so much to Christ, but to our own needs for approval, affirmation, and esteem in ways that fail to respect the dignity of every human being, including Christians who belong to traditions different from our own.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (3): Praying to Saints

Below is the third installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (2): Catholic Protestants."

Dear Geneva George,

Alright, I concede that I equivocated on my definition of “catholic” and “catholicity.” And certainly I do agree that not all the problems in Roman Catholicism can be reduced to Rome simply not going far enough. Keep in mind that I was merely responding to the areas you had specifically addressed.

You ask whether I would use this same rubric for areas of clear excess rather than neglect, such as prayers to saints and the use of images in worship. If you don’t mind, I’d like to just reply to the issue of saints in this letter, and address the question of images in the next. As you may know, the high Anglican tradition leaves a great deal of freedom in both these areas.

I’ll be straight-forward with you George, I don’t pray to the saints. In N.T. Wright’s book For All the Saints? he goes into the origins and motivations behind prayers to the saints, and the book convinced me that such a practice is an unhelpful distraction.

Having said that, I want to point out that my reason for not praying to the saints is very different to yours. You say we shouldn’t pray to saints because it is “first degree idolatry” and you go on to say that “there is no clearer sign [than praying to saints] to prove that Rome is an apostate church.” From here you go on to argue that a Protestantism which seeks to emphasize its continuity with Rome is “seeking to build bridges with idolatry.”

It all seems very clear in your mind, yet a problem with your basic argument is that, if true, it proves too much. If what you say about 1 Timothy 2:5 is correct, then it would not only exclude us asking the saints to pray for us, but the same logic would also have to exclude us even asking our friends to pray for us.

When we were at the conference and I asked you to pray that my job interview went well, did that mean that I was turning you into an idol? Did that mean that I was using you to replace the mediatory role of Christ? Certainly not! So why is it any different if I ask Saint Ignatius to pray for me?

If you say that the difference is that you can hear me and Saint Ignatius cannot, then I can accept that. I don’t ask the saints to pray for me because I don’t see any Biblical grounds for thinking that they can hear us. In order to hear everyone who is praying to them simultaneously in all the different time zones, the saints would have to be virtually omnipresent. But although talking to someone who can’t hear me may be a waste of time, do we really want to call this idolatry? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is idolatry to talk to someone who cannot hear me. If it is, then am I guilty of idolatry every time I speak to a living person that fails to hear me?

One final thing. Regardless of whether the saints can hear us when we talk to them, we do know that they intercede for us. In the book of Revelation the martyrs in heaven are interceding for justice to be done on the earth (Rev. 6:10). Is it too much to hope that maybe some of them are also interceding for me?

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris

P.S. By the way, George, I’m currently reading The Catholicity of the Reformation, edited by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. It’s highly relevant to some of the issues we’ve been discussing and I recommend you try to get yourself a copy.

Monday, May 2, 2011

St. Athanasius on the Relation of Christology and Soteriology

"If the works of the divinity of the Word had not taken place through a body, humanity would not have been made divine. And again, if the properties of the flesh had not been ascribed to the Word, humanity would not have been thoroughly freed from them. ... But now the Word became human and took as his own the properties of the flesh. Thus, because of the Word which has come in humanity, these attributes [death and corruption] no longer pertain to the flesh, but have been destroyed in the body by the Word. Henceforth people no longer remain sinful and dead according to their own attributes, but they rise in accordance with the Word's power, and remain immortal and incorruptible. And just as the flesh is said to have been begotten from Mary the Theotokos, he himself is said to have been begotten, he who brings to birth all others so that they come into being. This is in order that he may transfer our birth to himself, that we may no longer return as earth to earth, but, being joined with the Word from heaven, we may be carried up with him into heaven."

~ St. Athanasius, Orationes contra Arianos

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (2): Catholic Protestants

Below is the second installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media."

Dear Geneva George,

Trust you to push me for more precision (yes, I know, we serve a precise God, as Richard Rogers rightly reminded us). Certainly Anglicanism is fully Protestant in the technical sense in which you have employed the term. When it was established the Church of England was described in the coronation oath as ‘Protestants’ and the sovereigns were expected to swear that they understood the terms of the oath “as they are commonly understood by English Protestants.” Certainly this included Anglicans as well as orthodox dissenters under the generic term ‘Protestant.’ Joining with all Protestants, the British sovereign was expected to solemnly disavow certain doctrines of the Church of Rome, which is why historians can quite rightly speak of the ‘Protestant succession’ of sovereigns after James II.

Yet it is also clear that the particular understanding of Protestantism nuanced by the via media is very different to the type of Protestantism that you advocate in your last letter. This should become clear as I interact with some of the comments you made about Roman Catholicism.

Certainly if what you call “the temptation of Rome” is one of the greatest dangers within contemporary Protestantism, then everything you wrote in your reply follows with irrefutable logic. Yet I would dispute that this is a great danger facing Protestantism. Have you considered that the greatest danger facing Protestantism today may be neither Roman Catholicism nor liberalism, but anti-Catholicism?

I know this question sounds bizarre because we have come to think of Protestantism as being, by definition, anti-Catholic. Certainly there is a sense in which Protestantism is based on protest, but the question is protest against what? In your last letter you specifically mentioned (A) the protest against Rome’s sacramentalism; (B) the protest against Rome’s claims to universality; (C) the protest against Rome’s concept of authoritative traditions or the magisterium.

There is a whole tradition of reformation thinkers who have actually argued that we protest against Rome for not being catholic enough. The distinction is crucial so I want to repeat myself: there is a whole tradition within the reformation stream which has argued that we protest against Rome for not being catholic enough. According to such thinkers, the characteristics you mentioned are problematic for Rome, not because she puts too much emphasis on them but too less. You are right that Rome’s sacramentalism is a problem, but wrong about the reason: the real reason Rome’s sacramentalism is a problem is because she isn’t sacramental enough. You are right that Rome’s claim to universality is a problem, but wrong about the reason: the real reason Rome’s claims to universality is a problem is because she isn’t universal enough. You are right that Rome’s concept of an authoritative tradition is a problem, but you are wrong about the reason this is a problem: it is a problem because her traditions aren’t authoritative enough.

With regard to the first, think of the way the blessed Eucharist was functionally devalued in medieval Europe within a system that was prepared to deny the wine to the laity and restrict even the bread to annual services. Rome is to be applauded for her high view of the Eucharist, but we do right to protest against her for not holding a higher view.

Or consider Rome’s claims to universality. Rome is right to emphasize the importance of the church’s visible unity and catholicity. Yet when she excommunicated the entire Eastern portion of Christendom in 1054, and later excommunicated Protestants for recovering many of her own teachings (including teachings that had been preserved in the East), one has to wonder how deep her commitment to visible unity really ran. Rome is to be applauded for her high view of catholicity and visible unity, but we do right to protest against her for not holding a higher view.

Or again, Rome is to be applauded for her high view of tradition, but we do right to protest against her for not holding a higher view. Think of the way Vatican II rendered much of the Church’s past tradition meaningless by reinterpreting its original meaning without recourse to authorial intent, rather like liberal judges routinely do with the American constitution. When a Protestant succumbs to the impulse of liberalism, all he has to do is to say that he no longer agrees with his church’s historic confessions, whether it be the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession. But when a Roman Catholic becomes liberal, he cannot reject the infallible magisterium and so he simply reinterprets it. Hence, a statement like Cyprian’s Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church there is no salvation”) which was once used to exclude Protestants, can now be interpreted in a way that includes Hindus (check out the Mystici corporis Christi of 1943). We are thus left with the bizarre situation of priests like Father Feeney being officially excommunicated for affirming doctrines that were once considered orthodox by Rome. Paradoxically, by making church tradition subordinate to Holy Scripture, Rome ends up with a fluid concept of tradition that has the effect of devaluing the authority of tradition in practice. Rome is to be applauded for her high view of tradition, but we do right to protest against her for not holding a higher view.

Put all of this together and what do you get? You get Protestants like myself and others within the Anglican tradition who can legitimately object to Roman Catholicism for not going further in the areas she claims to affirm. This is in contrast to Protestants like yourself who object to Roman Catholicism for her alleged excesses in these areas. The former perspective asserts that we can do a better job at being Catholic than Roman Catholics themselves, and this is something that the emphasis of the ‘via media’ tries to achieve. In other words, Anglicans have realized that we can trump Roman Catholics at their own game. But we must recognize that it is, in fact, our game – a game that is lost as soon as we make anti-Catholicism a central pillar of our credo as you have done.

I close with a penetrating quotation from the foreword that Peter Leithart wrote to Brad Littlejohn’s book The Mercersburg Theology and the Quest for Reformed Catholicity (Brad Littlejohn is the editor of Fermentations, by the way – an excellent magazine that I highly recommend):

I teach my theology students to be ‘because of’ theologians rather than “in spite of” theologians. God is immanent not in spite of His transcendence, but because of His transcendence. The Son became man not in spite of His sovereign Lordship, but because He is Lord, as the most dramatic expression of His absolute sovereignty. Creation does not contradict God’s nature, but expresses it.

So too with Protestant Catholicism: Protestants must learn to be catholic
because they are Protestants, and vice versa.

I’ll leave it at that for now.

Blessings in Christ,

Canterbury Chris