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

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