Monday, 3 January 2011

Rabies theologorum

Rabies theologorum: lit. "the madness or rage of theologians".
We're not just talking about passion here, either, but a real form of (usually temporary) madness which descends into irrational personal attack and animosity (the ad hominem attack is regarded by some as the best form of defence, especially if their arguments are weak). I've seen examples of it at seminary and pastors' conferences, where I've certainly been on the receiving end of it, which may account for my sensitivity to it. Karl Barth, whose early theological method was called "combative theology" famously succumbed to it in his ongoing debate with Emil Brunner (they were eventually reconciled). Hermann Sasse and his Erlangen colleague Hermann Strathmann carried on a ferocious public display of it through the church newspapers of 1930s Bavaria that came to be known by others, somewhat humourously, as Die Hermannsschlacht (a reference to a famous German play by von Kleist, "Hermann's Battle").

Melanchthon once gave thanks that death would finally deliver him from it, and we fellow sensitives can well relate to that. Luther was infected by it, as indeed were most medieval theologians, and many of the theologians of the period of 17th century orthodoxy - this was one of the factors that led to Pietism. It's rife now on the internet, especially, but not always, from behind the mask of anonymity, and I've some pretty good examples of it in the correspondence files of my blogs (that's why I moderate the combox). I know I've succumbed to it, certainly in thought if not in word or deed, as I expect have most of us for whom theology is a passion. It's probably as good an argument for a radical doctrine of original sin as there is (see the post below on Lancelot Andrewes for more on that).

So often, it seems that it is displayed in discussion on issues which are secondary or tertiary in the theological encyclopedia (one could almost forgive instances of the rabies theologorum where articles of faith are at stake). Of course, everything in theology is important, but there is a hierarchy of truths. For Lutherans that hierarchy is structured by the Gospel. Which brings me to the following quote from Pieper's dogmatics, most of which Pieper has actually taken from Luther (my Greek NT teacher and mentor Dr Greg Lockwood held that the best thing about Pieper was the Luther quotes):
Now, since Scripture furnishes no information on these open questions and theological problems, it is foolish to spend much time and energy on them. We surely have enough to do if we study and teach what is clearly revealed in Holy Writ. If we do not make that our sole business, but take time to discuss useless questions, we are, as Luther points out, “hindering the Gospel”. The great matters which should be man’s sole concern are pushed into the background. And experience shows that the interest of the crowd os too easily won for human speculations.; it will have its curiosity satisfied. Luther adduces the example of the Jews, who bothered about the genealogies, and of the Papists, among whom there was endless wrangling about useless fables and empty trifles, and everyone wanted to be in the right. Let us heed Luther’s warning: There are two hindrances to the Gospel: the first is teaching false doctrine, driving the consciences into the Law and works. And the second is the trick of the devil: when he finds that he cannot subvert the faith by directly denying the Gospel, he sneaks in from the rear; raises useless questions and gets them to contend about dead saints and departed souls, where they abide, whether they sleep, and the like. One question follows another in endless succession. Wretched curiosity busies itself about unnecessary and useless things that are neither commanded nor serve any purpose. Thus Satan comes in the back way, people gape with wide-open mouth at these things and lose the chief things.

Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, V1, pp95-96.

Anyway, this is all a round about way of indicating here that I've pulled out of a discussion on whether the perpetual virginity of Mary is a dogma of the Lutheran Church over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia because I do not want to place myself in a situation where I might succumb to the rabies theologorum and thus "hinder the Gospel" and be inflicted with a bad conscience. I should be devoting my time to "the great matters".

The irony in all of this is that I have always been inclined to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. That may very well be because I have a very strong historical consciousness, even to the point of romanticism about the past. But what I do not believe is that the semper virgo is an article of faith for the Lutheran Church (amazing how quickly that question got side-tracked over at Sentire as the personal attacks started). It is, rather, an open question because it is not decided by scripture (the quia or quatenus question is a red herring here - what we're talking about is not confessional subscription but whether the perpetual virginity of Mary actually forms part of the doctrine which the confessions teach). I'll happily take my stand on that with the three men who were probably the greatest conservative confessional scholars of the 20th century: Sasse, Piepkorn, and Robert Preus (OK, I know invoking authorities is a fallacy, but check out their arguments).



Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, I agree! Regards.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Stephen.
I appreciated your comment over at Sentire - much wisdom in it.

LPC said...

Pr. Mark,

I also do not think semper virgo is an article of faith which needs first to be an article of fact before anything can be an article of faith anyway.

Here is the quote from FCSD who showed His divine majesty even in His mother's womb, inasmuch as He was born of a virgin, with her virginity inviolate. Therefore she is truly the mother of God, and nevertheless remained a virgin

I believe when Jesus was born, Mary was a virgin - meaning knew no man of whatever sort. Her virginity at the time of Jesus' birth was not violated. It was in tact.

But the question in this quote then is what does this "remained a virgin" implies? The sentence stopped of any explicit details and hence, it is an open question at the very least or at a minimum.

For example, remained a virgin for when when? Forever? Is this what the last sentence implies? Those who criticize Lutherans who do not believe in semper virgo on this account is to me, grabbing at the straws to bring non-semper-virgo believers down.

The criticism does not stick because the last sentence was open and in fact if the previous sentence remains in context, it seems to suggest to me that the BoC authors though believers of semper virgo themselves entertained doubts as to whether or not should be an article of faith. The sentence looks too soft for me to be pressed as to be an article of faith.


Pr Mark Henderson said...

"grabbing at the straws to bring non-semper-virgo believers down."

That's pretty much my conclusion, Lito. It's no longer about theology but personal attack.

The discussion in the FC certainly seems to pertain to the Virgin Birth, which of course is an article of faith, not what happened with Mary afterwards. Since scripture does not decide the question either way, belief in the semper virgo can be regarded as a opious opinion, provided agnisticism about it is not regarded as impious!

Of course, there is much more at stake here when the RCC makes it a part of the deposit of faith and imposes it on the conscience of believers without scriptural warrant - then we have "solo ecclesia" in operation.

LPC said...

Go back to Sentire and see how I stood up for your position. I also won't spend much time because as you said, it is now bordering on speculative talk and will derail people. I do have strong evidence linguistically that I take Mary had other children after Jesus.


Schütz said...

Hi Mark,

I know that you are in the middle of a catastrophe up there, and don't have time for this sort of thing right now. In fact, current events rather put this discussion in perspective. I hope you aren't saying that I have "theological rabies"!

But I never did receive an answer to my final quesitons to you on that com-string, basically along the lines of "what does this mean for us?"

I do have one question here though.

Let us look at the doctrine of Christ's bodily resurrection. It is a doctrine of the faith, as you and I would agree. In fact, you could say that it is "THE" doctrine of th faith, with out which all faith is useless as St Paul says.

So in this sense, you and I both confess that this is a "true doctrine". It is true theologically. And also theologically essential to Christianity, in a way that admittedly the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is not. We agree on that.

But the reason that you and I affirm that the doctrine of the Resurrection is true is not just that it is theologically necessary. It is also (we believe) historically a fact. Unless we are thorough-going Bultmannians, we have to affirm this. If it is not historically true, then it can't be theologically true.

Now some people assume that the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is an invention of theologians. Some could affirm tht it is is "true" theologically, if not historically. But you and others have pointed out that even the Fathers such as St Basil affirm that it is not theologically essential to Christianity. Why then believe it at all. I would contend that it is because it is historically true. If it wasn't, it couldn't be theologically true either.

Which is why I have a certain curiosity as to how you can hold that Mary remained a virgin as a "private opinion". Either this is true historically or it isn't true at all - even if some are drawn to the idea for theological reasons. We can all have "personal opinions" about historical matters and respect that others have other opinions, but in one way or another all that matters is the history, not the theology. In this case, theology cannot decide if it is true or not.

I accept it as an historical truth for the simply reason that it concurs with an historical reading of the gospel narratives and that the Early Church continued to regard it as an historical fact. In other words, I trust the Tradition of the Church as an historical source, and not only as a theological source. An hermeneutic of suspicion - which does not have the same regard for the historical reliability of the Church's Tradition - may well reject this.

Paul said...

Pastor, it's starting to make sense. Thank you.

Acroamaticus said...

Happy this helped, Paul.