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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Sacramental Efficacy, Reformation, And The Search For Truth

I'll get right to it: Right at the point where someone says, "The sacraments are intrinsically efficacious," this is exactly the point where you walk out of the Reformation. Because apostolic succession is the only way to assure this, within the theological paradigm where that's important. Obviously, you could say, the sacraments are conditionally efficacious, depending on the faithful reception of the word preached, by faith alone, blah, blah, blah. In other words, the Reformers felt they could separate from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church precisely because they denied the theological significance of apostolic succession as a guarantor of sacramental efficacy. That's why the perspicuity (clarity in an absolute sense) of Scripture goes right along with Sola Scriptura. Put it together, think like a Protestant: "Look fellas, we don't need this hierarchy, because the Scripture is clear, and your doctrines are false, anyway. Because [long litany of Bible quotes to refute whatever]".

This is actually the meaning of the terms "ex opera operato" and "ex opera operantis." The first means, "by the work worked." In the context of sacraments, then, this means that if the priest says the right words, and bread and wine is there (and he's actually a priest, of course) that's the Eucharist. Bam. Doesn't matter if he killed a guy before the liturgy started. Well, it does, but just go with me here.

"Ex opera operantis" means, "in virtue of the agent". That means that, in the context of the sacrament of the Supper, you'll receive the Body and Blood if you have true faith, etc. There's no need for "magic Bread," because it's by faith that any of this really serves its spiritual purpose.

So, James Jordan, Ben Carmack, et al., pick a side. You're welcome to adopt ex opera operantis as an explanation for how the sacraments work. But that means the whole lot of you are getting sappy about a piece of bread. And that also means that nothing objective can be given through it, strictly speaking. Sorry, Federal Vision.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Really? That's What You're Going With?

Consider this quotation: "...all true liturgy is verbal, not visual. Nowhere does the Bible command acts of obeisance before any manmade object. The Bible never shows anyone rightly doing such a thing. The Bible expressly forbids it, and threatens a great curse on those who do it. Because of this, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglo-Catholic churches are not liturgical churches; they are anti-liturgical." -- James B. Jordan

Some of you don't know who James B. Jordan is. Well, I don't know who he is, either. But I do know he's at the forefront of what has been called the "Federal Vision" movement. It's hard to summarize, but in very general terms, it characterizes a theological outlook that uses the biblical theology--centered on the notion of covenant--to argue for objective sacraments, and a much more ecclesial worldview than is common among some Reformed. Baptismal regeneration, paedo-communion (communion to infants and very small children) and a belief in the real possibility of apostasy are some of its distinctives.

Unsurprisingly, many advocates have been charged with heresy, and accused of being Catholic sympathizers. Other advocates have welcomed Catholics and Orthodox to their celebration of the Lord's Supper. (Not that good Catholics or Orthodox would receive it, but even so.) Does it sound remotely coherent for that sort of a man to attack those Churches? Zwingli at his most ill-considered could have said this. Pastor Bob from Living Waters Bible Church could have said this. Arius could have said this.

Do you know what I think? I think guys like Jordan deep down realize that their theology implies a return to the Catholic Church, but they are afraid. And they like being liked. So, every now and again, they throw some red meat out to throw the suspicious off the scent of the papist incense that you can almost smell on their clothes. As if. But if it makes them feel better. It's not just a river in Egypt.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Well, I'd Like A Solid Gold Toilet, But...

Ahem. Some science to muddy those waters a tad. And then we get to decide if we are "vulgar Marxists" (materialists) or not. Gotta love being Catholic. Thanks, Jacob Torbeck.

Things To Remember

If you write things long enough, you may actually say something that you remember, that others remember, something that's worth grasping. Today, I woke up with this in my head: "The fundamental posture of any person in the sphere of revealed religion is that of a receiver." It's mine, but like anything, it's cobbled together from who knows what that I have read or heard. (Almost on command, my mind goes to a philosophical teaching--maybe St. Thomas?--"That which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver." I digress.) That first idea is that desire to be simply a creature in humble submission to God. When someone says, "You have no principled way to distinguish between revelation and human opinion,"--whether that claim is true or not--he's laying a very serious charge at your feet. He's saying that, in your system, there is no way to take one's fundamental posture toward God.

It goes right along with the fundamental reason why I cannot be any version of Protestant. Call it the JK Corollary, maybe: "One cannot be both the arbiter of divine revelation, and a humble receiver of it at the same time." What I call the Tyranny of the Plausible is the multiplicity of arbiters in the form of churches or at least putative churches. If a church is to be a true arbiter, it must have the very gift of infallibility in some context, because that infallibility is actually a sign or mark of God's authority, which allows the creature to take his proper place in submission to God. So when we say to Mathison, "You have failed to distinguish Sola Scriptura from Solo Scriptura in a principled way," another way to say that is, "Your proposed mediating authorities are not true arbiters." If I hold the Ace, they don't. So, Sola Scriptura + invisible Church is a master-stroke of individualist arrogance. No, the true genius of the whole thing is convincing all of us that we weren't individualists and fundamentalists the whole time. That'll be hard to hear for some of you. You're proud of your "historic" whatever, your "creedal" whatever. What did I call it before? "A deeply historical, reverential, Chestertonian Protestantism." Too bad it's ad hoc. If I hold the Ace, they don't. It doesn't really matter who "they" are.

And that reminds me: Some people say that pointing these things out puts us in a "combat zone" that they don't like to enter. Why not celebrate what we agree on as Christians? Well, we do. But what we do not agree on actually matters. If it didn't, those people who allegedly don't want theological combat wouldn't be so bothered by the fact that we don't agree with them. Isn't that funny? Besides, discussing settled matters gets boring fast.

Have you seen this guy? It's so funny, and (mostly) true, it'd make a Lutheran out of me...but for the fact...well, you know. Anyway, if you watch a lot of these, he'll eventually get around to saying something like, "The Christian Church has always held," or some such. And that's where the trouble is. Inevitably, that "Church" is conceived by him as fundamentally invisible. It would have to be. There are no visible bonds, no sacramental bonds, (save baptism) etc. between my community and his. To whom is he referring? For whom is he speaking? When he says something distinctively Lutheran, he doesn't speak for me. And this is where "We're all united in what matters" dies the death of harsh reality. The steps beyond the celebration of that which is held in common are inevitably of a more polemical nature, and are summed up as, "Did that idea x really come from God? How do you know?" If we find the principled means for knowing both of those things, then and only then can we find the Church, and dare to speak for her.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

5 Thoughts For Today

5. I'm not opposed to American exceptionalism, per se. It just seems like we feel superior about all the wrong things.

4. Barry Manilow didn't want to go on 'The View' because of Elizabeth Hasselbeck and her pro-life views. That's just stupid. Should I not go on the show because the others haven't said one true thing about really anything in the entire history of the show?

3. It's "dangerous" to believe that killing your child yet born is morally wrong? Stop and think about that before you talk again, Barry.

2. The tragedy is not that people bring morality into politics. The tragedy is that everything is political; morality itself is left at the whims of majoritarian consensus.

1. From the "It's obvious if you're nerdy" Department: It is clear that euthanasia is morally wrong. Euthanasia refers to the intentional killing of another person, or of oneself, in order to ease suffering. Indeed, the word means, "good death." However, death itself is not proper to the existence of man in his ideal state: "And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever." (Ps. 23:6) So, euthanasia brings a man to a less-than-ideal state, from which other men cannot retrieve him by natural powers. Therefore, euthanasia is morally wrong.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Did You Feel?

I did a lot of thinking and arguing and praying in looking into the Catholic Church, and of course, reading. As a conscious choice, I did my best to ignore how I felt during that time. I'm a feelings person; when I speak and write, you get my heart first. If you want to get me to do something, move me. It's just who I am. So I did my best to correct for this. I couldn't actually become a Catholic until the truths converged; I had to reason it out, because I did not trust my feelings, though I have always greatly valued them.

So what was it like emotionally? First, let me say it was hard. I felt like I belonged nowhere. I felt as though my mind had brought questions to me that demanded answers. They were simple questions, but I realized that I'd not asked them. Also, whatever slice of the Reformed world I was in, others had not asked them, either. But how did I ask questions alien to my theology? I don't know. Why were these questions so demanding, the kind that required an answer? I don't know, entirely. I do know that the heart who seeks God knows the difference between questions of loving contemplation that can be left in mystery, and questions that need answers NOW. And they were all of the latter kind. I simply will not accept that I am somehow an unbalanced person that tolerates no mystery. I had been urging a deeper willingness to say, "I don't know" the entire time I did ministry. Some things can wait for Heaven, and some things can't. If your questions lead to joy, quiet, and holy contemplation, you have found God; if the answer that purports to be from God sounds like an evasion, your theology was made by a man.

That's the beauty of it: there is only one God. If you seek God, He will find you. What question could Jason Kettinger, dust of the earth, ask that the Lord God could not answer? If I can ask it, and the answer does not satisfy, if it prompts me to inquire further, I am not Job, screaming into the face of the Almighty; I am a man seeking truth, who stumbled upon idolaters, whose worship of a wooden god of their own making has been exposed. I know when someone is afraid and hiding something.

I take that risk of vanity only to say that I do not trouble with settled questions for the sport of it. I like discussion, and I like arguing, fair enough. Yet not for its own sake. I prize agreement more than you know. I can say with the clearest conscience that if I take the risk to disturb the calm--especially in theology--it is because that calm has been purchased at the price of the truth.

And that's how it felt: I knew my questions were prompted by God Himself. I could not articulate it at the time, but I was inquiring about the loss of the dogmatic principle within my theology on account of prior commitments. You need to hear me say it, even if I'm a Catholic to whom you can no longer listen: There is a systemic flaw in Reformed theology that leads either to skepticism, or to the Catholic Church. Actually, it's inherent in all Protestantism, but it takes on a specific theological flavor with respect to the questions, depending on your context. Big Meta-Question: "Who is God, and how do I know Him?" Specific Meta-Question: "What is the Church?" Problem Prompted By The Specific Meta-Question: "How does my visible church function, given the prior commitment to an invisible Church, comprised of many churches of varying commitments?" More Direct and Personal Version: "How does my church bring the whole truth of God to me? And what is it?" Do you see the problem?

I instinctively sensed that the nuts and bolts of hermeneutics was something of a distraction. "Oh, man. [Pardon the arrogance of the phrasing here] These people actually believe that becoming experts in the use of these tools will settle all interpretive questions." I saw it in my mind, all the young people across the country and the world diligently studying their Greek and Hebrew, relishing the new knowledge, occasionally shaking their heads at the silly Methodist or Lutheran or what have you who believes doctrine x that is "obviously incorrect," because Captain Jack (or their version of him) said so. I could see them. Can't you? I can feel their zeal for Christ. Can't you? Obvious Idiot Question: "I'm gonna get a piece of paper at the end of this that says I know what the Bible says. They will make a big to-do about me, and some old men will put their hands on me and send me out as a 'minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.' Doesn't everyone do that? Have you met a man or woman who did something like this, who, at least at some point, was not passionately committed to whatever body of truth he was commissioned to defend? Doesn't every putative church have at least one old woman who will yell, "The whole counsel of God!" when confronted with some monstrously deformed version (in their view) of the Good News? (For the uninitiated, this is a shorthand way of saying, "We are biblical, and they are not.") My people, just sit and think on this. This is why John H. Armstrong, whatever his tendency to an irritating reductionism, travels to as many different kinds of churches as he can find. This is why he sounds like a relativist. He knows this reality. He just doesn't have an answer. That's OK, too. We do need people to affirm and celebrate truth wherever it is found. But we can't stop there. We just can't.

I was forced to ask, "Why do I believe this and not that?" It was very specific. It has to be. But I read books from authors who were not in my denomination. I was trained with those books. That's inevitable, I suppose. But don't you naturally say, "What's wrong with that guy?" Once you spend more time with him, you say, "What's wrong with me?"

Look, friends. I grew up nothing. I've been raised by a vaguely spiritual daughter of an ex-militant atheist. When Jesus Christ spoke to me, I was not in The Christian Club, OK? I understand faith, unfaith, and everything in between. So when I say, "We have a theological problem, a question that needs an answer," I hope you understand the weight that carries. All the appreciations and attempts at harmony and leaving it alone have been tried. You'd have to. And if you're me, pluralism is not a problem unless and until it casts doubt on the truth of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, and doubt on the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

But I couldn't answer the question, "Why this, not that." I got no comfort from reading the Scriptures, or, better said, I got no answer to the questions. By some mercy, the only truth I gleaned from the Scriptures was that God loves us. I said in some desperation to a friend some time in 2010, "Don't ask me about atonement or justification or even faith, because I don't know." Can you feel the pain in that? Do you understand it? I preached from the Bible dozens of times, and I didn't even know what it said, beyond, "Jesus loves us." What a terrible, beautiful, and heroic thing!

By another mercy, it was cool and fashionable to speak of "unity in the essentials" centered around those two creeds we all know: the Apostles' Creed, and the Nicene Creed. Walk into any PCA church not in the Deep South, where the Presbyterians are more like Baptists in their lack of concern for unity, (though some sanguine sorts have made their way down) and you'll hear a lovely soliloquy from a pleasant man, extolling the creeds as our link with the past, and our link with other Christians who may not share all the tenets of our faith. The Eucharistic soliloquies are just as epic. We'll call those, "This is not a Presbyterian Table" speeches. What I'm saying is, I'm on to you. I know how you talk when the problem of Christian disunity first strikes. These little efforts are nothing more than Jedi mind-tricks to keep the deeper ecclesiological questions at bay. But they keep coming. Or they should.

Start with the agreement, and work backward. Then forward. You realize pretty fast that you've failed to properly contextualize the creeds, and the crises that occasioned them. In short, I knew I had been ad hoc toward it all. It was ecclesial plagiarism. It was that "ecclesial" part that caught my attention. I knew that I'd find the Church when I found the principled reasons for saying "this, not that."

I met Bryan Cross in the spring of 2009. I met him because I went to a talk on the Council of Trent from the Association of Hebrew Catholics. I was neither Hebrew, nor Catholic, but the man giving the talk was Dr. Lawrence Feingold, a professor of Catholic theology. Within an hour, I made two forever friends. Bootstrap Turner was there. I thought I was "safe".

My alignment was bad, and my wheelchair lift stopped functioning. It was a crazy night. But I knew almost instantly that I had made a friend closer than a brother in Bryan. I don't understand it even now. But it's true as the day is long. Bryan was and is like a living sanctuary to say the dangerous things, to air the things we tend to keep quiet, at least in theology. I could live in 2 worlds, and switch between them, and have someone there who understood what I felt. He was always an ally, and he has been ever since. He was the one who gave me Mathison's book, "The Shape of Sola Scriptura." It was only the beginning of the earthquake. Mathison did not argue poorly; he was not careless, except perhaps with Catholic theology. Bryan told me he and his friends were composing a response to the book. I was insistent that I did not want to read any critique until I had read and reflected upon it. I do not even now possess the tools to describe what it felt like to read it. I had to stop myself from becoming Catholic when I finished it. That is certainly not what the author intended! That's why it's funny. Called to Communion (the academic Catholic blog of former Reformed converts) waited 1 year for a response to their response. I read that response eagerly when it came. What a disappointment! What a failure! Every Reformed person should weep, and hope it is not the best that can be done.

I digress. I never felt safe contemplating being received into the Catholic Church. Rarely did it seem like a good idea, or fun, or cool. Actually, for most of the time, I feared that I was sinning against God. It seemed like a mistake. I liked everyone I met, and they seemed to like me, but I thought they were all crazy. But I needed to understand Catholicism. Why do they believe these things? Why do they insist it is the Church that Christ founded? Why does most of the Christian world (at least numerically) seem to agree? Is there any evidence for this?

I felt safe with Bryan and his family, because they are wonderful people. There is a tranquility in the places where they dwell; it is the love of God. It is that supernatural charity which will save us from eternal death. It seemed like I could drink it there. I have often wondered why I went to so many Masses with them. I did not yearn to be Catholic. What I did yearn for was safety. I felt safe to speak any number of Reformed heresies without fear. I would not have said that my theological environment was stifling, but it was. The reason I always felt like a rebel is because, like I said, I know when people know truths they are afraid to speak.

There is only one God. Remember that. I can say this now, but every time I went to Mass, it seemed like God was calling out to me. It felt like a love song. It felt like falling for a girl. Multiplied a billion times. When the first of my friends was received at Pentecost, I have never desired the Eucharist as I did that day. I didn't understand it at all. My heart said, "This sacrifice is for me." And I do not mean Our Lord's Passion. We all know that. I mean, this Sacrifice of the Mass. I told you before, though, I don't do things on feelings, even strong ones. I continued to read and study. I prayed to the only God every day, "If this is false, show me." But I know when God speaks. Nothing or no one sounds like Him. This is why I wrote to a friend, "If you are invited to do something, and you think you might do it, look for Jesus first. Where He is, falsehood cannot be." I was not ready to change my life on a feeling, but I did look for Jesus. I did "listen" with my spirit. If I heard Him, if I saw Him, I went. I went even if I was afraid. That's what any Christian would do, amen?

The evidence for the Catholic Church being the Church that Christ founded is very strong. They said they had evidence, and I said, "Show me." If you have the guts to consider the possibility that there is a visible Church (because something gracious kicks that door open at some point) and you look at the evidence for this particular candidate, you cannot help but be impressed. The Orthodox are the only other live option, and if you landed there...could be worse. Valid clergy and sacraments is no small thing. But the Catholic Church is not limited to the West, as much as some profit from making it appear so. I highly value all the liturgical and theological pluralism in the Church, and let me not fail to thank all the Churches in union with the Bishop of Rome for all that they offer us. It is indeed an oversight when any of them is neglected. The one visible Church that Christ founded needs a principium unitatis, a principle of unity, and the successor of Peter has always been that, so...there you go, as Papa Costas from My Big Fat Greek Wedding would say.

One more thing: I was not afraid when I first realized that objectively speaking, I had been outside His Church for most of my life as a Christian. Because He is love and mercy. And if so, our hearts resonate with His. "My sheep hear My voice..." All we ever have to do is follow when we hear Him calling. I don't negate or denounce where I have been, because God was there. But I know we can't stay there if He bids us go. The only hard thing was to leave my brothers and sisters to enter the Church. I wish that I were cut off from Christ for their sake! Lord, have mercy! There is only one God. "Though none go with me/Still I will follow/Though none go with me/Still I will follow/Though none go with me/Still I will follow/No turning back/No turning back." Why'd I do it? Because the only Lord God Almighty said so. Game Over.

Monday, September 16, 2013

5 Thoughts For Today

5. The fuel of feminism's lust for power is a similar male domination, and, well, lust. In other words, my brothers, there are feminists because we have failed to be the kind of men who earn the deference that is not humiliating, but empowering.

4. Yet that is no easy cosmetic, cultural fix. And political leaders get tarred as "anti-woman" when fighting against feminism's false premises precisely because they don't show concern for the innumerable crimes against women that make feminism an appealing political outlet.

3. Blogging strategy in general: Just talk about stuff in your Facebook News Feed that smarter, cooler people find interesting.

2. Bob Newhart just won an Emmy now? Are you kidding? Look, I wasn't here in the '70s, and I haven't seen all that many episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, because I'm already a bum who watches too much TV. But I know funny. That dude is funny. He's never not funny, from what I've seen. Hollywood: Where they praise you to the skies when you are old, knowing they despised you in your youth.

1. Is The Big Bang Theory actually funny? I'm asking, because I've never seen it. Yes, I know. I'm lame.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Be 'Impractical.' Be Curious. For The Sake Of The Good.

I just saw one of those internet memes. They're often funny. This one? Not quite. It was a woman saying, "Yet another day passes, and I did not use algebra once. Very interesting." You know what? Who cares if something is useful? Is it good? Learn it. Do it.

I'd venture to say we've had quite enough input from the Useful Brigade. It's not practical or useful to hire a secretary over a computer. It's not practical or useful to have a baby with Down Syndrome. You get the picture. Maybe I was wrong about public radio and TV. What good is efficiency, when we are callous, crude, and stupid?

My thoughts for the day.

What He Said. A Million Times.

Once again, a dispatch from the "Why is this not obvious?" Department. I guess it's cool to be a "conservative" Catholic (whatever that means) and say, "Pope Francis? Meh." Me? I love him. Entirely. Completely. He would have to get a serious case of the Borgias before I changed my mind. Sorry. Convert joke. Anyway, seriously. He should dress up like Billy Graham for Halloween. Because he has "Jesus Loves You!" pouring out his eyeballs. Tell me you wouldn't donate some serious bacon or cabbage or whatever you want to call it to make this happen.

The man is nearly 80 years old, and he looks like he just played in the Little League World Series. That's charity, my friends. Some incorruptible nuns just called and said, "Yep. True story."

Who would you rather have talking to your atheist friends? The dude who always looks like he just won a tight game of 'Settlers' and is trying not to gloat, or the guy who's always muttering about how this or that wasn't "clear enough"?

That's what I thought.