Monday, 26 January 2015

A Short Sketch of the Earliest Australian Christianity

I was recently able to enjoy a brief visit to Parramatta in connection with a family wedding which also afforded me the opportunity to visit some of the most historic sites in Australia connected with the establishment and growth of the British penal colonial originally begun on the nearby coast at Sydney Cove on 26th January, 1788 (incidentally, Capt (later Admiral) Arthur Phillip R.N., who founded the colony, was of German, probably Lutheran, ancestry on his father's side, though as we shall see his own nominal Anglican Christianity was adulterated by Enlightenment principles). These sites included St John's Anglican Cathedral, the oldest continuing place of Christian worship in Australia (which still thrives,  hosting several immigrant congregations as well as holding numerous services every Sunday for traditional evangelical Anglicans), and its cemetery, the oldest Christian burial ground in Australia, old Government House,  Lennox Bridge, Experimental Farm, etc.. For the historically aware, the Parramatta CBD teems with colonial associations, although you have to look beyond and sometimes beneath the grotty commercial overlay to detect it (which reminds me of Russian poet Yevtushenko's remark on Australia - "a cafeteria built on a graveyard").

The pure Gospel was yet to reach these hitherto benighted shores but God's purposes can be worked even through imperfect instruments, and we can be thankful that the newly founded colony was provided with an evangelical Church of England minister, Richard Johnson, who preached a faith based on the great doctrinal truths of the Trinity, the authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture, original sin, the redemptive sufficiency of Christ's life and work and justification by faith in Him, as outlined in the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith (drafted with reference to the Augsburg Confession, albeit not in complete agreement with the latter, largely due to political concerns).

Johnson (pictured), a Yorkshireman and a Cambridge graduate, not only held to an evangelical confession of faith, he was animated by his convictions to minister to the neglected urban poor in London (who, in the 18th C., were often the rural poor displaced), with a sincere desire to work for their salvation and the improvement of their mean circumstances, the latter largely through the outworking of sanctification. It was his work in London which attracted the attention of two great names among English evangelicals at the time, the reforming politician William Wilberforce and the reformed slave trader John Newton, who were both instrumental in recommending Johnson for the post of chaplain to the proposed antipodean penal colony.

And so it was that on 3rd February, 1788 , Johnson preached the first known sermon during the first known Christian service in the history of the continent of Australia, taking as his text Psalm 116:12-23: What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.

As far as I know a manuscript copy of Johnson's sermon does not survive, but we can probably glean its content from a pamphlet he had published in London some four years later in 1792 for distribution back in the colony, An Address to the European Inhabitants of the Colonies Established in New South Wales and Norfolk Island by the Rev. Richard Johnson A.B., Chaplain to the Colonies. This address is earnest in tone and evangelical in spirit (although no doubt too strong in its emphasis on observing the Sabbath and perhaps displaying an overemphasis on sanctification, although we must be careful to place this aspect in the theological, historical and social context of Johnson's time and place) but it also undoubtedly gives hints - more than hints, complaints at times - that reveal that Johnson was ploughing hard ground. He also encountered opposition Governor Phillip, who, as a representative of the Enlightenment then in contention with orthodox Christianity, insisted that Johnson preach on exclusively 'moral subjects'. 

Perhaps overcome by a sense of defeat, Johnson returned to England in late 1800 to eventually be appointed to a parish in London, leaving a second, recently arrived clergyman, the Rev. Samuel Marsden (a fellow Yorkshireman; a.k.a "the flogging parson" and by all accounts a more robust personality than Johnson) in charge of the chaplaincy. Johnson continued his interest in the nascent colony, reporting to a parliamentary committee on one occasion and recommending suitable clergy. A memorial (pictured) today stands in Richard Johnson Square in Sydney's CBD at the corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets, marking the spot where Australia's first sermon was preached by Richard Johnson in 1788. Now, as then, Sydneysiders seem to be oblivious to its significance.  

Happy Australia Day to local readers!   

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Pope in Joint Prayer with Grand Mufti

It's a topic that keeps on giving: do Roman Catholics and Muslims worship the same God? [See previous posts.] 

Following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Pope Francis has visited the famed Blue Mosque in Istanbul on his visit to Turkey, where he initiated  public prayer with the Grand Mufti:
 Vatican City, Nov 29, 2014 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- During Pope Francis’ visit to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, he paused for a moment of prayer alongside Ankara’s Grand Mufti – a moment of “inter-religious dialogue” which mirrored that of his predecessor.  “When they were under the Dome, the Pope insisted: ‘not only must we praise and glorify him, but we must adore him,’” Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J. told journalists Nov. 29. “Therefore it is reasonable to qualify this moment of silence a moment of silent adoration.”  “(It was) a beautiful moment of inter-religious dialogue, and it the exact same thing happened in 2006 with Pope Benedict, it was exactly the same.” Pope Francis’ visit to the historic Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the “Blue Mosque” due to the blue tiles covering the inside, marks the third time a Pope has ever gone inside, the first being St. John Paul II in 1979.
In John's Gospel, our Lord is recorded as saying, "Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). In Christian prayer this truth is enacted by praying to the Father in the name of the Son, concluding with the Trinitarian doxology "through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen." 

We can only assume that the doxology, which would have been offensive to the Grand Mufti and the Muslims present, was ommitted on this occasion. Thus the Pope, the self-declared spiritual head and teacher of all Christians, dissembled in his duty to profess Christ before the world and gave credence to religious syncretism. 

It is a pity the old Roman Catechism is no longer in favour - for all its errors it at least taught the doctrine of God with a clarity that does not appear to survive in post Vatican II Catholicism, for example:   
"The pastor should also teach that he who says, I believe, besides declaring the inward assent of the mind, which is an internal act of faith, should also openly profess and with alacrity acknowledge and proclaim what he inwardly and in his heart believes. For the faithful should be animated by the same spirit that spoke by the lips of the Prophet when he said: I believe; and therefore did I speak, and should follow the example of the Apostles who replied to the princes of the people: We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard. They should be encouraged by these noble words of St. Paul: I am not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; and likewise by those other words; in which the truth of this doctrine is expressly confirmed: With the heart we believe unto justice; but with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."
 "What heart so cold as not to be inflamed with love by the kindness and good will exercised toward us by so great a Lord, who, though holding us in His power and dominion as slaves ransomed by His blood, yet embraces us with such ardent love as to call us not servants, but friends and brethren? This, assuredly, supplies the most just, and perhaps the strongest, claim to induce us always to acknowledge, venerate, and adore Him as our Lord."

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Luther in 1527, 10 Years After the Reformation Began

"The [Reformation] represents the outpouring of Christianity unshackled and blossoming. Like Hilkiah finding the Book of the Law, the thirty-four year old Luther began to re-proclaim the doctrinal “solas” to the world: scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the recognition that all of life is lived to the glory of God alone. ...But a closer look at Luther in 1527 shows some surprising details. Scholars mark this as the year Luther’s health increasingly began to deteriorate. It is recorded that he had several fainting spells, even fainting during a sermon. Luther, a man who loved to preach, had to stop preaching for a while. He also complained of intense pain in his chest, accompanied by painful buzzing in the ears. It had become so severe that it was thought he was about to die. News of this spread quickly, and fear gripped the people of Wittenberg. An entire deathbed scene of “Luther’s last words” was recorded in which Luther, surrounded in bed by his closest companions, voiced a deep concern for his pregnant wife and infant son: “Lord God, I thank Thee for having allowed me to be a poor beggar on earth. I leave no house, property, or money. But you gave me a wife and children, I commend them unto Thee. Feed, instruct, and preserve them as Thou hast preserved me, O Thou Father of children and widows...Luther recovered, but his physical condition continued only to become worse from this point. This physical weakness brought on serious bouts of depression. This melancholy would accompany Luther throughout his life...In all these trials, Luther clung to that Word, and its promise that it would see believers through the difficulties of life, and that it alone showed us Christ and our salvation, the only really important thing. Luther best expressed this at the end of the troubled year 1527, by penning, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Luther expresses that in our trials, God will be victorious, and so will we: 

And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim? We tremble not for him.
His rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure. One little word shall fell him..” 

Read the entire, edifying post here, at James Swan's blog. 

James is Reformed, but has a deep interest in and respect for Luther. His blog, which largely focuses on Luther is well worth following...although we at the old manse don't always agree with every view James expresses.  

Monday, 6 October 2014

To An Unknown God, Roman Catholic Style?

Thanks to reader Paul for alerting me to this - the coat of arms of the new Roman Catholic archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, being installed today. One wonders what the apostle Paul would have made of this - the point of interest, in light of our recent discussions about Roman Catholicism and Islam, is the tree in the bottom-right panel, bedecked with symbols of the various religions, including the cross.

Let it be said straight away that contemporary Christians, at least, have no problem co-existing socially with devotees of the world's religions, especially in pluralistic Western societies... although we note that Islam is certainly less tolerant where ever it has the upper hand, not least in the archbishop's own country of Malaysia.

What is potentially scandalous about the Christian use of this symbol - by an archbishop, no less - is the implied equality of  the Christian revelation with the world's religions and the philosophical relativism which lies behind such a notion. Perhaps that is not the message the archbishop intended to convey, in which case concerned Roman Catholics might like to enlighten him as to how it could be perceived. However, in light of the joint prayers in June in the Vatican in which Roman Catholics, Jews and Muslims were invited to pray together, an act which, as I noted in a previous post, would seem to be consistent with the attitude to Islam and Allah set forth in Lumen Gentium, I would need some persuading that this is not another example of a profound confusion in Rome as to the exclusivity of worship in the name of the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This confusion, I might add, has been amply illustrated by Catholic commenters on this question here at the old manse.

I have a theory as to why Rome so easily tends towards this error, of which more anon, D.v.  

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Church's Role in the Present Crisis

As an ex-Anglican I keep a weather eye on my former communion. The present Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC), Justin Welby, who recently visited Australia in order to fulfill his promise to visit every province of the Anglican Communion, has at times impressed me but at other times left me non-plussed. It remains to be seen whether he can rescue the Anglican Communion from its course of self-destruction - I think probably not, given the direction of his leadership so far.

Be that as it may, as the Church of England remains the established church in that country, the ABC is one of the Lord's Spiritual, which means he sits in the House of Lords at Westminster and has a say on political matters (in Australian or American terms he is the equivalent to a senator, with less political power, however strange that notion may seem to us). Last week in the Lords Archbishop Welby spoke in support of UK participation in the strategic bombing of the IS in Iraq with the aim of curtailing the group's advance and providing the opportunity for humanitarian aid to be provided to those innocents suffering on the ground. For what it's worth, I applaud the Archbishop's stance on this matter, but what I want to draw attention to here is the wisdom with which he concluded his speech in the House of Lords,

"The action proposed today is right, but we must not rely on a short-term solution on a narrow front to a global, ideological, religious, holistic and trans-generational challenge. We must demonstrate that there is a positive vision far greater and more compelling than the evil of ISIL and its global clones. Such a vision offers us and the world hope, an assurance of success in this struggle, not the endless threat of darkness."
Pope Francis has already remarked that we are in World War III; a retired Australian general and adviser to the government on international affairs has suggested the struggle against Islamism will continue for 100 years. Their voices and that of Welby are not voices that can be easily dismissed as shrill and alarmist. In the language of post-modernism, what the Archbishop is saying is that in order to prevail over Islamism the West needs more than military might - it needs an alternative narrative that offers hope and light, both to sustain us in this struggle and to dissuade and convert those drawn to the nihilistic darkness of Islamism. That is, as I see it, a challenge to the West to recover the Biblical narrative as its own story with Christ as its Alpha and Omega, and that is, in the first instance, a challenge to the churches (not least Welby's own Anglican Communion) to recover belief in that narrative and proclaim it with conviction.

Are the churches of the West up to the challenge?

Pray that they may be.    

The Archbishop's speech is here in full (usual caveat - linking to it does not imply agreement with all its content).

As a postscript, let me add that I am not advocating a utilitarian view of Christianity - that it should be recovered because it will be helpful in the fight against Islamism, in the way Stalin revived the Russian Church in the struggle against Nazism. What I am suggesting is that this is a kairos moment -  an opportunity which the churches should grasp in the service of the missio Dei in the time and particular places in which God has placed us. Or, more properly, the time when God will act through us.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Do Roman Catholics and Muslims Worship the Same God Part II

This is not the second part of this series that I was intending to publish, but as I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth...
“In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate,” [Roman Catholic Cardinal] McCarrick said as he introduced himself to the audience at a meeting arranged by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. That praise of the Islamic deity is an important phrase in Islam, is found more than 100 times in the Koran, and is akin to the Catholic prayer, ”In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  McCarrick next claimed that “Catholic social teaching is based on the dignity of the human person… [and] as you study the holy Koran, as you study Islam, basically, this is what Muhammad the prophet, peace be upon him, has been teaching.”

One can only wonder what the Chaldean Catholic Christians of northern Iraq would say in response? 

More here:

The third part in the series will follow soon, Deo volente.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Do Roman Catholics and Muslims Worship the Same God? Does It Matter?

Pope Francis hosts an inter-faith prayer meeting for peace between Israel and Palestinians in the (consecrated?) grounds of the Vatican, 8th June, 2014. Representatives of Judaism, Islam and Roman Catholicism participated.
Do Roman Catholics and Muslims worship the same God? 

Apparently so, according to the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992): 

841 The Church's relationship with the Muslims. "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day." [italics mine].
The catechism is quoting the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church; LG 16). While the authority of the Catechism has been the subject of some debate among Catholics, with even some bishops averring that it mixes theological opinion alongside authoritative doctrine, the doctrine taught by a Council in communion with the Pope is infallible and calls for the full assent of faith from the loyal Catholic. Therefore, one must conclude that the Roman Catholic Magisterium teaches its adherents that they and Muslims do adore (i.e. worship) "the one merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day." 

Having answered our first question in the affirmative (according to the Roman Catholic understanding, that is), we now move on to our second question: Does it matter? 

Yes, it does. 

Firstly, Roman Catholic teaching on this subject misrepresents the teaching of the Quran, but that does not concern us nearly as much as how this misrepresentation impinges upon the Christian doctrinal of God: Allah is not "the one merciful God who will be mankind's judge on the last day". To make this assertion is to veil with error the light of the Gospel which God has given to the church as the means to salvation for all people. 

The first error in the assertion that Catholics and Muslims adore the same merciful God who will be our judge on the last day is that it misrepresents Islamic doctrine. This misrepresentation is no doubt prompted by the overly optimistic view that since Judaism, Christianity and Islam are historically the three so-called "Abrahamic faiths" they share the same basic conception of God as Father and Creator. This position is intellectually lazy and religiously dissembling in that, presumably for the sake of cultivating good relations with Muslims, it feigns agnosticism in regard to the question posed by the advent of Jesus, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" (Matthew 16:13-16), the proper answer to which leads to the confession of the divinity of the man Jesus Christ, "the way, the truth and the life" through whom alone is God the Father known (John 14:6). In fact, in accordance with the teaching of the Quran, Muslims disavow the view that Allah is to be identified with any Person of the Holy Trinity and while they acknowledge Jesus to be a prophet and messiah of the Jews they deny the Godhood of the One whom Christians confess will be our judge on the last day (when Isa returns, according to Islam, one of his duties will be to correct the errors of Christians!). The Quran declares such assertions as the Roman Magisterium makes to be blasphemous and disbelieving:

 "They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their blasphemy, truly a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them" (Quran 5:73)  
"They indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary. (Quran 5:17)     
The second and more serious error in the assertion that Catholics and Muslims adore the same merciful God who will judge us on the last day is a misrepresentation of the Christian doctrine of God. The Christian God is a communion of three Persons whose nature is Love, who, in the Person of the Son, condescended to take on human flesh in order to redeem fallen humankind from the powers of sin, death and the devil, graciously leading us back into the Divine communion of love. The Allah of the Muslims is al-Jabaar, the supreme potentate of the universe who commands that all creatures submit to his will, even at the point of the sword. To identify these two theologies does not give glory to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit but leads to the syncretism of multi-faith services. 

Why does Roman Catholicism so glibly fall into the error of identifying Allah with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Comments welcome. Part II to follow, D.v..   

Friday, 4 July 2014

Lutherans Do Not Believe in Consubstantiation, OK?

Lutherans do not subscribe to the theory of the 'how' of the 'real presence' called consubstantiation. But if you received your orientation to Lutheran doctrine only from evangelical Reformed dogmaticians, you might be excused for thinking so, for in my experience that is how they almost unanimously represent the Lutheran doctrine of the 'real presence' of our Lord's body and blood in the Lord's Supper (even the Anglican scholar Alister McGrath, who wrote a decent study of Luther's theology of the cross, did so in his Christian Theology).

The latest example of this egregious misrepresentation comes from Australian Anglican theologian, Michael L. Bird, who holds a PhD from the University of Queensland in my home city of Brisbane and teaches at Ridley Theological College in Melbourne. In his systematics text, Evangelical Theology (Zondervan, 2013; pictured),  after correctly describing the Lutheran doctrine as a reaction against the Roman Catholic doctrine of sacrifice, Bird also correctly notes that Lutherans still hold to a 'real presence' in the sacrament of the altar, a position which he says is called consubstantiation. No reference to the primary literature of the Lutheran Confessions is made to justify this terminology; in fact, if Dr. Bird had checked, he would have found the term is never used in them!  

Bird then goes on to compound his error by suggesting an illustration for the Lutheran doctrine: Lutheran teaching regards our Lord's body and blood as present "within" the bread and wine like a "nut is within a cookie". Now, I realise theologians writing text books for the American college and seminary market need to dumb things down a bit, but really...a nut in a cookie!? No Lutheran would ever use such an illustration because it leads so easily to the false representation of the Lutheran doctrine as Capernaitic. And that is the real nub of the issue, I think: even Reformed scholars who propose to write objectively about the Lutheran doctrine cannot get around their unfounded prejudice that the Lutheran doctrine involves something akin to cannibalism. The Lutheran Confessions addressed this charge in this manner:
"...we hereby utterly condemn the Capernaitic eating of the body of Christ, as though [we taught that] His flesh were rent with the teeth, and digested like other food, which the Sacramentarians, against the testimony of their conscience, after all our frequent protests, wilfully force upon us, and in this way make our doctrine odious to their hearers; and on the other hand, we maintain and believe, according to the simple words of the testament of Christ, the true, yet supernatural eating of the body of Christ, as also the drinking of His blood, which human senses and reason do not comprehend, but as in all other articles of faith our reason is brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and this mystery is not apprehended otherwise than by faith alone, and revealed in the Word alone." [[Formula of Concord, Epitome, VII The Lord's Supper, Negative Theses]
The Lutheran doctrine is properly characterised not as 'consubstantiation', a philosophical doctrine which uses Aristotelian categories to teach a mixture of substances in the sacrament, but as a 'sacramental union' between the heavenly and earthly elements effected by our Lord's Word. The justification for this belief is not philosophy - unlike the Reformed, Lutherans do not use philosophy to authorise doctrine but merely as a handmaiden to theology - but Holy Scripture:
"We believe, teach, and confess that the body and blood of Christ are received with the bread and wine, not only spiritually by faith, but also orally; yet not in a Capernaitic, but in a supernatural, heavenly mode, because of the sacramental union; as the words of Christ clearly show, when Christ gives direction to take, eat, and drink, as was also done by the apostles; for it is written Mark 14:23: And they all drank of it. St. Paul likewise says, 1 Cor. 10:16: The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? that is: He who eats this bread eats the body of Christ, which also the chief ancient teachers of the Church, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Leo I, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine, unanimously testify." [Formula of Concord, Epitome, VII The Lord's Supper, Affirmative Theses]
Disagree with the Lutheran teaching if you must, Reformed theologians, but please, if you write about it, at least take the trouble to represent it correctly.

Let ma also say that any theology which permits philosophy to be a guiding principle cannot be truly evangelical.

Friday, 27 June 2014

A Shot Heard Around the World: How WWI Shaped Our World

Princip's arrest after Franz Ferdinand's assassination, Sarajevo, 28th June, 1914
Apologies for the rather cliched title, but being a modern history buff I can't allow this most significant of anniversaries to go unremarked at the old manse. 

June 28th, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Hapsburg throne which ruled over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This event triggered a series of events which, by late July, had led to the beginning of World War I.   

Of the five great royal houses which entered into conflict in 1914, ruling over the British, German, Hapsburg, Russian and Ottoman imperial houses, only one was to remain in power after the war, and the course of the world - not just Europe, but the world - was irrevocable and profoundly altered by changes which ring down to our own day.

The royal house which survived was, of course, the British House of Windsor, formerly Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was forced to abdicate his throne in November 1918 and Germany subsequently lost its colonial territories (including German New Guinea, which passed to Australia, opening up a successful sphere of Lutheran missionary work, as it happens) leaving a power vacuum in the tumultuous 1920s which eventually brought forth Hitler and Nazism in the early 1930s. 

The Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, lost his throne in Russia, being replaced by Bolshevik Communists after a very brief interlude of social democratic government (led by Alexander Kerensky, who later married an Australian, Nell Tritton, and spent time in my home town of Brisbane where the local Russian emigre community was less than enthused by his presence), which led eventually to the Cold War with the West following WWII, which was itself the direct result of WWI. 

The war was triggered by the assassination of the heir to the Hapsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand, (who had spent time as a young man hunting kangaroos and emus in Australia!) by a Serbian Yugoslav nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. After the war the Hapsburg empire collapsed, leading to chronic instability in its eastern regions, especially after the later collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the Hapsburg empire's former constituent parts, western Ukraine, is asserting its pro-Western identity today, leading to armed conflict with Russia.    

The Ottoman empire dissolved, its middle eastern territories being divided up by Britain and France, an unhappy legacy we are still living with today not only in the Arab-Israeli conflict but as we survey Iraq, which has really only ever existed as a united nation on maps, becoming the scene of terrible sectarian and ethnic conflict and violence (already in the 1920s the British were fighting Islamic extremists in Iraq).

Muslim Turkey, the head of the Ottoman Empire, after the war came under the secularising rule of Kemal Ataturk, who, incidentally, had commanded the Turkish troops against the Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli. In 1924 Ataturk abolished the Muslim Caliphate which had been held by the Ottoman royal house, leaving the Sunni Muslim world without a figurehead leader. This led to a conference in Cairo in 1926 seeking to re-establish the Caliphate there; when that effort failed the Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928, the first of several Sunni Islamic groups who spearheaded the Islamic resurgence of the 20th century which in the early 21st century presents as the greatest challenge to Western hegemony in the world. Their goal of restoring the Caliphate based in the Middle East and uniting Sunni Muslims around a strict interpretation of the Koran makes Kemal's abolition of the Caliphate look like a very unwise political move indeed.  

All this from a gun shot fired in an assassination attempt on a Hapsburg royal in Sarajevo, an obscure corner of the Hapsburg empire, an attempt which only came about because Franz Ferdinand's security chief had forgotten to tell his driver that he had changed the route as a precaution. That's right, the archduke wasn't even meant to be on Franz Jozef Street, where the assassin, fleeing an earlier attempt on Franz Ferdinand's life in which he was involved that day, took advantage of the car stalling as it attempted to reverse to change routes, to fire his fatal shot from 1.5 metres away. It was a shot heard around the world, and which still echoes down to our time. 

Why? Why was this event permitted to open the abyss? History teaches us that Europe's leaders wanted it open because, as Solzhenitsyn said in his 1983 Templeton Address, they had cast aside the claims of God upon their consciences and so they led their people into that abyss of suffering, destruction and international disorder from which we are still struggling to emerge.    

"...inquire now of your ancestors, and consider what your fathers have learned, for we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing. Our days on earth are but a shadow; will they not teach you and tell you, uttering words out of their understanding?" Job 8:8-9

Hitler in the crowd in the Odeonsplatz, Munich, August 2nd, 1914, celebrating the outbreak of war.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Wars of Religion?

That the post-Reformation, European wars of religion were just that - violent conflicts motivated by differences of religious doctrine - and that they led directly to the establishment of the non-confessional, secular state is a view that has been stated so often by secular historians that even careful Christian scholars, such as Kurt Aland (History of Christianity, vol. II, 1986), have come to repeat it. But is it true? As so often happens in the writing of history, this view appears to owe more to the ideological commitments of historians than the complex historical reality, which defies simple explanations. Contemporary historians are indeed mounting a case against it. Here, for example, is William Cavanaugh (Research Professor, Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago),
"...the secular state did not resolve the so-called "Wars of Religion" - the first state in which church and state were formally separated made its appearance a good century and a half after the Treaty of Westphalia. When the so-called "Wars of Religion" came to an end, the absolutist state was the victor. The way had been paved for the deification of Louis XIV.If we look to the origins of these wars themselves, further problems...arise. Can they really be called "Wars of Religion" if Catholics killed Catholics, Lutherans killed Lutherans, and Protestants and Catholics often collaborated? Holy Roman Emperor Charles V spent most of the decade following Martin Luther's excommunication at war, not against Lutherans, but against the Pope. When the Lutheran princes did take up arms against the Catholic Emperor in the 1550s, they did so with the aid of Catholic France.The French "Wars of Religion" are full of collaborations between Protestants and Catholics, and the Thirty Years' War - perhaps the most notorious of the "Wars of Religion" - saw Cardinal Richelieu throwing the full force of French might on the side of the Lutheran Swedes, who in turn attacked Lutheran Denmark. While the Calvinist Dutch were helping the French royal forces to defeat the Calvinists at La Rochelle, Catholic Spain was supporting the Protestant duke of Rohan in his battle against the French crown in Languedoc. The Thirty Years' War was, in fact, primarily a contest between the Habsburgs and the Bourbons, the two great Catholic dynasties of Europe." 
This is an interesting development not only in itself, but also for its apologetic value.

The above quote is taken from a debate between Cavanaugh and fellow academic Russell Blackford on the Religion and Ethics website of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. See also Cavanaugh's earlier piece, 'The Wars of Religion and Other Fairy Tales' on the same website.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Assurance of Salvation in Light of Justification by Faith on Account of Christ

"We must daily...destroy at the root that pernicious error that man cannot know whether or not he is in a state of grace, by which the whole world is seduced. If we doubt God's grace and do not believe that he is well-pleased with us for Christ's sake, then we are denying that Christ has redeemed us..." Martin Luther* 

The question of whether a believer can have assurance of their salvation in this life is a vexed one among Christians. The Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian is likely to regard the Lutheran claim of assurance of salvation as presumptuous; this judgment is based on their underlying assumption that our faith is to be supplemented by works of love. Since no-one can be sure that the quantity and quality of their works meets with God's approval we must await God's post-mortem judgment upon our life before we can be certain of our eternal destiny. 

On the other hand, the Lutheran regards the Catholic or Orthodox denial of the possibility of assurance of salvation in this life as presumptuous, since it calls into question the completeness of Christ's saving work on behalf of sinners and teaches that our Lord's work must be supplemented by our works in order to be efficacious for eternal salvation. As the quote prefacing this post shows, Luther was strongly critical of the denial of the possibility of assurance in the late medieval church; it could even be said that Luther's quest for assurance of salvation was the matrix of the Reformation. While there may be points of misunderstanding in this matter that can be clarified through discussion, surely the two positions are fundamentally opposed and hence irreconcilable, even for the most deftly ambiguous of ecumenical theologians.

While discussions on this question usually come to focus on the place and value of works in the justification of the believer, a question we will come to shortly, it seems to me that the real nub of the problem is that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do not fully grasp the proleptic nature of God's judgment upon the believer in Christ (proleptic = a future act made present). This was brought home to me when I recently read a Russian Orthodox writer on the matter who opined that we can never have assurance of salvation in this life because we cannot judge ourselves - only God can judge us. This view, I submit, represents a fundamental failure to grasp the reality of God's work in justifying the ungodly (Oh, the is usually Catholics and Orthodox who claim the Lutheran doctrine of justification is a "legal fiction"!).  

In Romans, the apostle Paul writes, But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).  Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not grasp the fact that God has already judged believers in Christ and has not only pardoned them but declared them righteous for Christ's sake. It is on this basis - the active (keeping the Law) and passive (suffering for our sins) righteousness of Christ - that the Lutheran's assurance of salvation rests and not on any presumptions about the quality of his or her works of love. Works of love done in grateful and joyful service to God and our neighbour are the the fruit of justifying faith in Christ, not a contributing factor in the believer's justification, which is all of grace because of Christ ("We love because he first loved us" 1 John 4:19; cf the whole passage from vv10-24). Interestingly, by a felicitous inconsistency, the Eastern Orthodox funeral service does not commend the deceased to God on the basis of their works of love but appeals to His mercy which derives from His love for us in Christ.

There is more than can be said, particularly on the individual believer's judgment upon death and the role of works and reward in that judgment, but I will leave that for another time. I would be grateful for any comments from Catholics or Orthodox. After a month of not attending to the blog for various reasons I just noticed that my last post on the infallibility of church councils (a topic I hope to return to soon, D.v.) was one of the most read ever posted on this blog, but no comments were received; I'm always grateful for and will post constructive comments that test my arguments.  

* Cited in Stephan H. Pfuertner, Luther and Aquinas, A Conversation (Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1964, p120). 


Monday, 28 April 2014

When Is a Church Council Not Infallible?

"In many places, [the Fathers at Vatican II] had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict and open the door to a selective reception in either direction."
Cardinal Walter Kasper,  L'Osservatore Romano, April 12, 2013.

When is a church council not infallible? This is not a question that keeps Lutherans awake at night, since we hold that church councils may indeed err and have done so in the past - it is not the church that is infallible but God and his Word. Lutherans would rather say the church is indefectible - it will last until the Last Day - in accordance with Christ's promise in Matthew 16:18b: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (a belief given expression in Grundtvig's well known hymn). But thoughtful Roman Catholics might be troubled by the admission last year of Cardinal Walter Kasper (former head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) that compromise statements were written into the documents of the Second Vatican Council (hereafter Vatican II) in order to placate otherwise irreconcilable camps in the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

"So what?" you might ask, "isn't that a mark of human deliberations?" Indeed, but here's the problem: according to Roman Catholic teaching the bishops of the church meeting in council with the pope at their head constitute an extraordinary level of the church's magisterium or teaching office whose teachings on faith and morals, once promulgated by the pope, are infallible and therefore require the full assent of the faithful.*

But how can the teaching of a document be infallible if the bishops themselves disagreed on its content to the extent that compromises which reflected not just ambiguities but different doctrinal positions had to be written into it? In the Bible, God's prophets and apostles did not speak out of both sides of their mouths - why would their supposed successors do so? How can the faithful give their full assent to the teaching contained therein if the bishops themselves could not and if the documents actually contain contradictory positions, as the cardinal implies?

It is no wonder that, according to the cardinal, these compromises opened the door to the conflict and division - not to mention the outright crisis of the precipitous decline in priestly and religious vocations and participation in the sacramental life of lay Catholics - that has racked the Roman church ever since (which, it is lately hoped, Pope Francis can heal, although in attempting to do so he seems to be adding to the confusion). It is also no wonder that traditionalist Roman Catholics, according to their lights, regard Vatican II as indeed not infallible and thus by definition a false council...nay, even a robber council through which a strange spirit has taken hold of their church. The times are indeed strange when confessional Lutherans and traditionalist Roman Catholics find themselves in agreement!

Now, to answer our question: when is a church council not infallible? Well, there are several things a Lutheran would offer in response, but apropos the cardinal's remarks I will just say that self-evidently a council cannot be infallible if the bishops do not speak with one heart (concordia!). So much for the oft vaunted magisterium of the Roman church, which has more than once been proposed to me as the solution to what ails Lutheranism and a panacea for those seeking religious certainty.

* Someone contacted me overnight to query if this was correct. The definition of the authority of the magisterium meeting in an ecumenical council can be found in the Roman canon law [Canon 749.2]. It is true that there are many educated Catholics, even priests and religious and perhaps also bishops for all I know, who opine that Vatican II was a pastoral council, not a dogmatic one, and that therefore its documents "only" speak with the authority of the ordinary magisterium, or indeed even less authority - presumably something akin to the magisterium cathedrae magistralis of the theology professors of the middle ages whose proposals could be debated and dissented from in good conscience (this second, more liberal interpretation is certainly erroneous). The origin of this somewhat artificial distinction, which has not been applied to any previous ecumenical council recognised by Roman Catholics, appears to be a personal statement by Pope Paul VI the exact meaning of which is debated. The main problem, as I see it, with designating Vatican II as a "pastoral council" is what exactly does this innovative designation mean? Sound pastoral counsel rests on the dogmatic foundation of the faith and includes doctrinal instruction - Catholics and Lutherans can agree on that. Furthermore, the most important document of Vatican II is Lumen Gentium - the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church and the next in importance is Dei Verbum - the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; are we to regard these as "pastoral documents" and not authoritaive promulgations of Roman dogma?

It is true the other 14 documents of the council - the most notable of which are Sacrosanctum Concilium (liturgy)Unitatis Redintegratio (ecumenism) , Nostra Aetate (non-Christian religions) and Gaudium et Spes (pastoral constitution of the church), focus on more practical questions of church life, but these documents also are informed by and inform their readers of the Roman church's doctrinal teachings. No, the "pastoral council" designation, while it may reflect the spirit which supposedly animated Vatican II, is too inexact for what was, according to both John XXIII who opened it and Paul VI who closed it, the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. But let us give the final word on the Roman view of the authority of ecumenical councils to noted Roman Catholic philosopher Ralph McInerny:

"The Catechism of the Catholic Church spells out the infallibility of an ecumenical council:
"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the Faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to Faith or morals.... The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an ecumenical council.
Consequently, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are the official teachings of the Church. That is why the more than thirty years that have passed since the close of the council are evaluated by the Church in the light of the council. That is why Paul VI and John Paul II have regarded their papacies as dedicated to the implementation of what was decided during those fateful three years of the council. That is why rejecting the council is simply not an option for Catholics."
Ralph McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II? (Sophia, Manchester, NH, 1998)


Next month, God willing, we'll continue to focus on issues that stem from Roman claims to infallibility, considering another logical contradiction from the pages of recent church history and also the doctrine's relation to religious certainty.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Raised for Our Justification

Used with permission.
“For before three days have passed, our dear Lord Christ brings another, beautiful, healthy, friendly, joyous picture with Him, in order that we might learn the consolation that not only are our sins destroyed and strangled through the passion of Christ, but that we should be made righteous and eternally blessed through His resurrection, as St. Paul says…” (Rom. 4:25 follows). A little later Luther continues: “For as we see in the first picture on Good Friday, how our sin, our curse and death are put upon Christ, so we see on Easter Day another picture, where there is no sin, no curse, no displeasure, no death but only life, grace, bliss and righteousness on Him. With such a picture we should establish our hearts. Then it is shown and given to us that we should receive Him in no other way than as if God has raised us today with Christ. For as little as you see sin, death and curse on Christ, you should so strongly believe that God wants to see as little (of sin) on you for the sake of Christ, if you accept this resurrection of Christ for your consolation.“
Martin Luther, House Postil, 1531

Luther's House Postils were sermons delivered to his household, which included his family and domestic staff, resident theological students and visitors from near and far. Free editions, in various electronic formats, of a 19th C. American English translation can be downloaded by following the link. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

How We Should Believe in Christ's Descent Into Hell

"And since even in the ancient Christian teachers of the Church, as well as in some among our teachers, dissimilar explanations of the article concerning the descent of Christ to hell are found, we abide in like manner by the simplicity of our Christian faith [comprised in the Creed], to which Dr. Luther in his sermon, which was delivered in the castle at Torgau in the year 1533, concerning the descent of Christ to hell, has pointed us, where we confess: I believe in the Lord Christ, God's Son, our Lord, dead, buried, and descended into hell. For in this [Confession] the burial and descent of Christ to hell are distinguished as different articles; and we simply believe that the entire person, God and man, after the burial descended into hell, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his might. We should not, however, trouble ourselves with high and acute thoughts as to how this occurred; for with our reason and our five senses this article can be comprehended as little as the preceding one, how Christ is placed at the right hand of the almighty power and majesty of God; but we are simply to believe it and adhere to the Word [in such mysteries of faith]. Thus we retain the substance [sound doctrine] and [true] consolation that neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us and all who believe in Christ."

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. IX Christ’s Descent To Hell


"While according to medieval theologians the descent into hell was regarded as an act by which Christ, with His soul only, entered the abode of the dead; and while according to Calvin and the Reformed generally the descent into hell is but a figurative expression for the sufferings of Christ, particularly of His soul, on the cross, Luther, especially in a sermon delivered 1533 at Torgau, taught in accordance with the Scriptures that Christ the God-man,body and soul, descended into hell as Victor over Satan and his host.With special reference to Ps. 16, 10 and Acts 2, 24. 27, Luther explained: After His burial the whole person of Christ, the God-man, descended into hell, conquered the devil, and destroyed the power of hell and Satan. The mode and manner, however, in which this was done can no more be comprehended by human reason than His sitting at the right hand of the Father, and must therefore not be investigated, but believed and accepted in simple faith. It is sufficient if we retain the consolation that neither hell nor devil are any longer able to harm us. Accordingly, Luther did not regard the descent into hell as an act belonging to the state of humiliation, by which He paid the penalty for our sins, but as an act of exaltation, in which Christ, as it were, plucked for us the fruits of His sufferings which were finished when He died upon the cross.
Luther's sermon at Torgau graphically describes the descent as a triumphant march of our victorious Savior into the stronghold of the dismayed infernal hosts. From it we quote the following: "Before Christ arose and ascended into heaven, and while yet Iying in the grave, He also descended into hell in order to deliver also us from it, who were to be held in it as prisoners ... However I shall not discuss this article in a profound and subtle manner, as to how it was done or what it means to 'descend into hell,' but adhere to the simplest meaning conveyed by these words, as we must represent it to children and uneducated people.""Therefore whoever would not go wrong or stumble had best adhere to the words and understand them in a simple way as well as he can. Accordingly, it is customary to represent Christ in paintings on walls, as He descends, appears before hell, clad in a priestly robe and with a banner in His hand, with which He beats the devil and puts him to flight, takes hell by storm, and rescues those that are His. Thus it was also acted the night before Easter as a play for children. And I am well pleased with the fact that it is painted, played, sung and said in this manner for the benefit of simple people.We, too, should let it go at that, and not trouble ourselves with profound and subtle thoughts as to how it may have happened, since it surely did not occur bodily inasmuch as He remained in the grave three days."
Luther continues: "However since we cannot but conceive thoughts and images of what is presented to us in words, and unable to think of or understand anything without such images, it is appropriate and right that we view it literally, just as it is painted, that He descends with the banner, shattering and destroying the gates of hell; and we should put aside thoughts that are too deep and incomprehensible for us." "But we ought ... simply to fix and fasten our hearts and thoughts on the words of the Creed,which says:'I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,dead,buried, and descended into hell,' that is, in the entire person,God and man, with body and soul, undivided, 'born of the Virgin, suffered died, and buried'; in like manner I must not divide it here either, but believe and say that the same Christ, God and man in one person, descended into hell but did not remain in it; as Ps. 16, 10 says ofHim: 'Thou wilt not leave My soul in hell nor suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption.' By the word 'soul,' He, in accordance with the language of the Scripture, does not mean, as we do, a being separated from the body, but the entire man, the Holy One of God, as He here calls Himself. But how it may have occurred that the man lies there in the grave, and yet descends into hell-that, indeed, we shall and must leave unexplained and uncomprehended; for it certainly did not take place in a bodily and tangible manner although we can only paint and conceive it in a coarse and bodily way and speak of it in pictures." "Such, therefore is the plainest manner to speak of this article, that we may adhere to the words and cling to this main point, that for us, through Christ, hell has been torn to pieces and the devil's kingdom and power utterly destroyed, for which purpose He died, was buried, and descended,-so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us, as He Himself says, Matt. 16, 18 ... "
F. Bente, Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions (CPH, St Louis, 1965)