Friday, February 04, 2011

Safe Haven: Chapel-Skipper Edition. Ahem. So, my second session of the affectionately-named "E & E" was this morning. It's worth a note that Dr. Robert Peterson is a gifted man. More than that, a lovely, godly, man. He might do a fair bit of verbal sinning when I'm not present, I don't know, but he's always building people up. It's almost shame-inducing, it really is. And he's a good (Reformed) systematician. [According to, that's not a word.--ed.] All that proves is that lexicographers don't talk to theologians. [Or all lexicographers are godless pagans.--ed.] Be nice. Seriously, that was uncharitable. [Well, since I'm not an idiot synergist like you, I'm not worried about it.--ed.] I have serious doubts about your justification, sir, in the Reformed sense. [You strike me as uniquely unqualified to make that determination.--ed.] Perhaps. But the judgment cometh, and that right soon. Anyway, I was saying that Peterson is a good man. And he knows his Bible. Before the Romish get too smug about the alleged errors of Calvinism, remember first that we're dealing with people here, and more than that, Christian people. Further still, some pretty formidable intellects. [Yeah, he made some pretty solid Trinitarian arguments from the Bible itself.--ed.] I agree. I hope Catholic apologetics isn't sold out on the idea of the impenetrable opacity of Scripture.

Speaking of formidable intellects, I just imagined "Captain Jack" pulling a Ricardo Montalban and doing a test-reading for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Would you seriously not pay a lot of money to hear him say, "It is only the fact of my genetically-engineered intellect that allowed us to survive," or, "I've done far worse than kill you. I've hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me, as you left her. Marooned in the center of a dead planet, [in a whisper] buried alive, buried alive, buried alive!" I would pay a substantial chunk of eleventy billion dollars to see this.

Anyway, I have two lingering questions: If most (if not all) of the ordo salutis can be said to be progressive, and not limited in the mysterious grace of God to a discrete, fixed process, why is justification exempted? Some Reformed people have the guts to talk about a final justification, and indeed, the term "definitive sanctification" has the same meaning. But let's put a sharper point on it: Why can't justification be progressive? Or, to take it out of the possible realm of challenging the sufficiency of the work of Christ, why can we not grow in justification? If the work of Christ means nothing unless we apply it, and if the veracity of our profession can be challenged if we do not grow in sanctification, why the firm distinction? When the Reformed say that saving faith is not mere intellectual assent, Catholics agree. Thus, the real argument has always been about the application of redemption. Frankly, if the sacraments are "means of grace" in the Reformed phrase, and the end of that is definitive sanctification, the distinction between justification and sanctification utterly collapses. The Catholic critique of Sola Fide has always been that it opened the way for intellectual assent to pass itself off as saving faith by denying agape as a necessary part of justification. And seemingly the only reason for denying it was to avoid agreeing with Trent, which for a Protestant is the equivalent of saying, well, something truly horrible. But we accidentally agree with Trent all the time. I was looking for Dr. Neal Judisch's post on this article, "Uncle Bryan," if you happen to be lurking. Ahem. ['Lurking', that's about right.--ed.] Hey, now. [Unbloody papist, poisoning the minds of good Reformed leaders.--ed.] Oh, stop. Clearly, I sought him out, in a sense. The conversations with "St." Justin had definitely put words to the profound unease with Reformed/Protestant theological pronouncements I'd been feeling for several years. I told one hero of mine, (God help him) "It's your job to keep me in the Reformed tradition." We see how well that has gone.

But what were the questions? What was the unease? Continuity. We have said Luther was right, that Calvin was right. How do you know? What did people believe before that? How did people know the truth? How did they discern it? Why are we so complimentary of every Reformer, (except the Catholic ones) whether they agree with us or not? (Among young Reformed, for example, you can get a pretty glowing endorsement of John and Charles Wesley, of all people.) This smacks of two things that irritate me, to say the least: 1. Theological indifferentism, and 2. Mindless (anti-Catholic) evangelicalism. But I repeat myself. Bonus Gripes: "Are we sure we want a battle cry that is explicitly rejected in Scripture (James 2:24)?" Corollary/Follow-Up: If we've spent 490 years qualifying it, what's it worth? "Oh, smeg, I think 'derivative authority' might be a sham." Yes; if you modify a creed's original meaning to suit your reading of Scripture, it's no longer an authority at all, much less a subordinate one. "Where is this 'Church' we're always blathering on about? How do I know my own stupidities/preferences haven't put me outside it?" When does the individual get to rest from doing hermeneutics, and to simply know he's in possession of the gospel (and not some pride-prison of his own imagining)? Bonus: If we're all "invisibly united in the essentials" what are those? Isn't the history of Christian division the story of people vehemently disagreeing about "the essentials"? The great Timothy Butler, in answering my question about essentials, simply retorted, "Jesus is LORD." And that is indeed a good answer. But once I ask, "Who is Jesus, and what can you tell me about him?" well, barnacles, now you have to do theology. At which point the question of who has the right to define what must be believed concerning Him becomes critical. Not saying the Catholic Church has to win by default. But they have a much easier time showing continuity from beginning to the present. Or so it seems at the moment.

Summary of Chaotic Blather: Rabbi Collins rules; evangelicalism is decidedly less awesome; What is the Church? What are the fundamentals of Christian faith, given the Christian people are divided on this very question? What can we say about what Scripture says, given that the Christian people are divided here also? KHAAAAAAAAN!!!!

Monday, January 31, 2011

I can't well describe the terror I felt in my first day of Ecclesiology and Eschatology class. By my instructor's own admission, this is the most sectarian class at the seminary. [And you're not Reformed.--ed.] Right. On the other hand, I've wanted to take this class for 6 years. Still, I cannot assume the truth of Reformed theology, or the legitimacy of its ecclesial structures. Frankly, why would we allow all that to be assumed for so long? How do we account for what even a cursory glance at the Fathers reveals as glaring continuity issues in doctrine? [Eucharist, authority] We could, of course, assume they were wrong. But that would surely invite the question, "What else were they wrong about?" [So you're saying that all of Protestant Christianity is standing on the same ecclesiological ground as, say, the Mormons?--ed.] Exactly. If you have a built-in assumption of corruption, you can believe pretty much anything you want. It gets even less clear when we remember that most of confessional Christianity (whatever that means) accepts, explicitly or implicitly, the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, plus the Definition of Chalcedon. But don't hear what I'm not saying: I'm not saying a Lutheran is a Mormon is a Presbyterian. [Quite the opposite.--ed.] What I am saying is, given the fact that Protestant Christianity is in agreement with the Catholic Church (and her Orthodox brethren) on the fundamentals of Christology, why?
The fundamental principle of the Reformation is individual interpretation. Sorry if that's unfair. Yet most leaders must have realized quickly that their stated conception of the Church and its authority would open the way for all manner of monstrous interpretations they did not intend. The appeal to ancient creedal authority has a two-fold function, it would seem: 1. To confer at least the appearance of continuity with the ancient Church; and 2. to prevent the most dangerous of the ancient heresies from growing in those communities. (Which, it must be noted, is close to impossible when the individual is the ultimate arbiter of what to accept and reject from the ancient Church.)
Why do I not say that the final interpretive authority of Scripture is the legacy of the Reformation? Because what is so very obvious is that the one meaning of Scripture cannot be determined by us. How can it be definitive when millions of people using the same methods reach different conclusions on matters of so great a significance that, to reside in the same spiritual house would be detrimental, they believe? Let us put aside our easy ecumenism that says, "We're invisibly united in the essentials" because, in fact, we are not. I applaud those confident enough to die with the Covenanters in Scotland, or the Hugenots in France. If you are willing to say that these theologies lately born are the gospel, peace be with you. But make no pretense of continuity.
But what about Scripture? Does it not vindicate both the skeletal outlines of the Protestant theologies, and the Catholic (including the Orthodox)? It appears so. But we cannot possibly determine how reliant upon ecclesiastical authority the Protestant Reformers were. There is no "pure" reliance on Scripture Alone; the rejection of institutional fellowship with the visible remnants of the ancient heresies (Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, "Oneness" groups are obvious examples) prove, to the credit of the Reformers in the main, that individual interpretation has limits. What we've utterly failed to do is explain the nature and the criteria of our loose connection to the episcopal communions and our lack of fellowship generally with the ecclesial descendants of the Reformation itself. We all know and use the word "fundamentalist," and fundamentalism in one sense is a bit like pornography: we know it when we see it. But what kind of ecclesiology is that?
What we really need is to talk about reunion; not as a feel-good story, but as the means of preventing the individualism and indifferentism from swallowing up our communities as surely as it swallows up souls. We're not simply asking, "What does the Bible say?" but we are asking, "Who are we?" We've asked what the Bible says for 500 years, and we're not any closer to unity or truth than when we started. Is that harsh?
To be quite honest and personal about things for a moment, I can't say that anything I've learned from the Reformers (save what they share with the ancients) is something I'd die for. You're not killing me for Sola Fide, or the 5 Points of Calvinism, or Calvin's Eucharistic doctrine. Whatever ends my life if it came to that was probably settled by 400-500 AD. Actually, more than probably. Even were I committed to some barely defensible notion of the invisible church and willing to stay where I am, that would still be true. If I'm on to something at all there, that suggests we should probably zone in on that thousand years in the middle, and get to work. (It might mean Christ's true Church has only two contenders now, but I'm willing to hear an argument on the point.)