Friday, 30 April 2010

Infallibility: The Incredible Shrinking Doctrine

"...each individual church should be the keeper of her sisters. To know this is the beginning of true ecumenicity." Hermann Sasse (1895-1976) 'Thoughts on the Centenary of the First Vatican Council', Reformed Theological Review, 29.2, May-August 1970.

I once knew a Lutheran pastor who converted to Rome. The driving force in his conversion, if I understood his position correctly, was the guarantee provided by what he had come to believe was the infallibility of the teaching office, or Magisterium, of the Roman Church, which meant that when the bishops gathered in council with the Pope at their head and defined church teaching, or in extraordinary cases when the Pope himself spoke authoritatively (ex cathedra, lit. from his seat or chair as successor of Peter) on a matter of faith or morals, the matter was closed: Roma locuta est, causa finita est - Rome has spoken, the case is closed!

"Scripture is self-evidently not a clear or sufficient authority", this Lutheran pastor reasoned, "since sincere Christians who follow scripture alone come to different conclusions on matters of faith. Where, then, is one to find certainty?". “Ah, look to Rome, young man” was the advice he was given by a prominent former Anglican priest who had already swum the Tiber, “and you will find the certainty which you seek”. And look to Rome the young pastor did, with the bright-eyed fervour that only a new convert can muster.
“So, if the Pope declared tomorrow that women could be ordained”, I once asked him, since that matter was the occasion of his initial doubts about the truth of the Lutheran position on scripture, “you would accept it without question?” “Yes” was his immediate response. "Even if it contradicted your present understanding of what scripture teaches?" I replied, incredulous. "Yes, I must submit my private judgment to the Magisterium of the Church", was his almost immediate reply, punctuated with only the slightest perceptible hesitation as his mind was presumably weighing up just what was at stake. My diary notes indicate I left off the discussion at that point - it is pointless to argue with such blind faith.

But some recent comments I have received off-blog from a life-long Roman Catholic suggest my erstwhile friend and colleague was incorrectly advised. Infallible pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Magisterium, I have been assured, are extremely rare, so rare that no more than two, or at most five doctrinal definitions meet the criteria set down for such pronouncements. I have to say I am not convinced by this argument. As I wrote in the last blog post on this subject, I can understand why modern Roman Catholics, even ostensibly conservative ones, push this line of thinking and even sincerely believe it; it is probably the only way they can meet the historical and theological difficulties inherent in the doctrine. But it does seem to render the doctrine practically useless - if there is no agreement even among Catholic theologians (or bishops?!) on which pronouncements or documents are infallible and which are not, how does this help the ordinary Catholic in the pews navigate her way through the doctrinal and moral maze of post-modernity? Infallibility is, after all, not an abstract question of interest only to theologians, it is an eminently practical matter.

The most well-known modern case of the perplexities this intra-Roman confusion over the status of papal and magisterial pronouncements gives rise to among the ordinary Roman faithful is the 1968 official teaching document Humanae Vitae, in which Pope Paul VI solemnly taught that contraception, even when practiced by married couples, was unlawful, evil and to be condemned. This teaching was variously received: some still contend it is infallible (for argument’s sake, I’m inclined to agree with them!), while others insist it is not and therefore loyal Catholics may in good conscience dissent from it, both in theory and practice, without their status as communicant members in good standing with the church being jeopardised - and the anecdotal evidence is that many...very many, do dissent. And once uncertainty as to the status of the Pope’s teaching is fostered or allowed, as more than a few Roman bishops, theologians, priests, teachers and lay intellectuals have done in the post-Vatican II period, the much-vaunted unity of the Roman Church that Protestant converts praise so highly in the delirium of their conversion begins to unravel into tatters like a flag that has flown too long in the wind. That is precisely the position Rome is in today, especially in the West, as the present Pope has admitted, but also in formerly traditional Roman strongholds like Central and South America where liberalism, evangelicalism and the revival of animism threaten to render traditional Catholicism irrelevant (the crisis the present Pope faces because of the ever increasing reports of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy has exacerbated these problems, challenging as it does the credibility of the church in peoples' eyes, but we will leave that aside for the moment as a separate issue).

But as interesting as the present-day fortunes of the Roman church are, that is a subject for another post. What I want to focus on presently is the question of whether the view put to me by my RC interlocutor, which might be called the 'minimalist position on infallibility', is historically accurate and theologically defensible if one claims to accept the Roman Catholic position on authority. To determine whether this is so, we need to go back to Vatican I, where the doctrine of infallibility was officially asserted.

-- + --

To be continued.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Are Ecumenical Councils Infallible?

"I put no trust in the mere authority of the pope or the councils, since it is obvious that they have often been mistaken and have contradicted each other." Martin Luther, before the Diet of Worms, 1521.

Are Ecumenical Councils infallible? Every Evangelical knows the answer given to that question by Martin Luther. The church may err, it has done so in the past, and may do again, and yet the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. For the Lutheran, infallibility is not a special charism granted to this or that office in the church, but a promise that the light of the Gospel will never be fully dimmed within her ranks (more properly termed the church's indefectibility). But in Rome's eyes Ecumenical Councils are infallible; at least that's what I always thought. Imagine my surprise then when a Roman Catholic wrote to tell me it was not so!

Yes, a Roman Catholic wrote to me off-blog to say that my point in the previous post titled 'Infallible?' about the Roman Magisterium contradicting itself and thus committing a formal error of logic as well as an error on a substantive matter of faith was null and void, since the document Lumen Gentium is not infallible. Now, I realise that this is a common view among Roman Catholics, and indeed it is perhaps the only way a contemporary, thinking Catholic can meet the theological and historical difficulties posed by the dogma of the infallibility of the Pope and the Catholic Church. But I beg to differ on the question of the infallibility of the teaching contained in the document. It seems to me that infallibility - protection from error - is precisely what the Roman Catholic Church claims in regard to church councils, where their bishops are viewed as exercising the charism of their infallible teaching power in an extraordinary manner (as opposed to the ordinary manner, when they teach authoritatively in their dioceses).

Let us remind ourselves once again of what Lumen Gentium actually says on the subject: "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." Lumen Gentium 25, [italics mine]. Indeed, I would contend that it was one of the goals of Vatican II to vest the charism of infallibility more solidly in the church as a counter-balance to the very strong claims made for the infallibility of the Papacy in the Vatican I document The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ.

However, this view - the infallibility of church councils - was certainly de fide even before Vatican II defined it in this manner. Consider what Ludwig Ott writes in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, a standard dogmatics text from the immediate pre-Vatican II period:

The Council of Trent also teaches that the Bishops are the successors of the Apostles (D 960); and so does the Vatican Council [ I ] (D 1828). As successors of the Apostles they are the pastors and teachers of the faithful (D 1821). As official teachers of the faith, they are endowed with the active infallibility assured to the incumbents of the Church teaching office.
Two forms of the activity of the teaching office of the whole Episcopate are distinguished - an extraordinary form and an ordinary one.
a) The Bishops exercise their infallible teaching power in extraordinary manner at a general or ecumenical council. It is in the decisions of the General Councils that the teaching activity of the whole teaching body instituted by Christ is most decisively exercised.
It has been the constant teaching of the Church from the earliest times that the resolutions of the General Councils are infallible. St Athanasius says of the Decree on faith of the Nicene Council: 'The words of the Lord which were spoken by the General Council of Nicea, remain in eternity' (Ep. ad Afros 2). St. Gregory the Great recognises and honours the first four General Councils as much as the Four Gospels; he makes the fifth equal to them (Ep. I 25) . . .
b) The Bishops exercise their infallible teaching power in an ordinary manner when they, in their dioceses, in moral unity with the Pope, unanimously promulgate the same teachings on faith and morals. The Vatican Council [ I ] expressly declared that also the truths of Revelation proposed as such by the ordinary and general teaching office of the Church are to be firmly held with 'divine and catholic faith' (D 1792) . . ."
[Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, tr. Patrick Lynch, Nihil Obstat & Imprimatur granted, The Mercier Press, 1955].

It might be gainsaid that Lumen Gentium is not a dogmatic pronouncement. It is true that it does not formally set forth dogmatic pronouncements with the usual formulae, nor does it contain any anathemas, in accordance with Pope John XIII's goal that the Council be a pastoral one, but it contains no shortage of dogmatic assertions, including the one quoted in my original post, which are clearly intended to teach and guide the faithful. In further defence of our claim, we note that the document's formal title is Dogmatic Constitution on the Church , and that it is most definitely a teaching document set forth by "Paul, Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God, Together with the Fathers of the Sacred Council for Everlasting Memory", and it concludes with these words, "Each and all these items which are set forth in this dogmatic Constitution have met with the approval of the Council Fathers. And We by the apostolic power given Us by Christ together with the Venerable Fathers in the Holy Spirit, approve, decree and establish it and command that what has thus been decided in the Council be promulgated for the glory of God." We can only suggest that if such confusion as to the status of documents like this reigns even within Roman Catholicism, it might be advisable henceforth for the Holy Father and his bishops to explicitly state when a teaching is infallible, and when it is not.

One other possible objection to my point would be to claim that Boniface VIII's statement was not pronounced ex cathedra, and thus is not vested with infalliblity. I'm inclined to view this objection as a case of special pleading. I've already noted in that post the solemn formula which precedes the statement, and asked if it is not infallible, what is? Indeed, if this were a valid objection, we might well be justified in referring to papal infallibility as "the incredible shrinking dogma".

Monday, 26 April 2010

Worldwide Anglican Realignment Continues

The realignment of ecclesiastical power and moral authority within the world-wide Anglican Communion continues. Last week witnessed the 'GSE4', for those not in the know the 4th Global South Anglican Encounter, which was held in Singapore, and drew together, as the official document from the gathering tells us (click on the post title to read), over 130 official ecclesiastical representatives from the overwhelming majority of the membership of the Anglican Communion (more Anglicans attend worship in Nigeria on the average Sunday than in England, a good indicator of the demographic shift that has taken place in world Anglicanism).
The local churches represented in the GSE movement are consciously committed to biblical, creedal and ethical orthodoxy as traditionally understood within the Anglican tradition. Since many of the churchmen and women who gatheed in Singapore represent the evangelical wing of Anglican churchmanship (note for American Lutheran readers, 'evangelical' in 3rd world Anglican terms does not necessarily mean non-liturgical), their movement not only represents the forces reshaping world-wide Anglicanism demographically and geographically, but also theologically, as it indicates the passing of the torch of ecclesiastical and missionary leadership from an increasingly liberal Anglo-Catholicism to Evangelicalism, a shift that has taken place largely within the post-WWII period.

The official document from the meeting committed the member churches to a decade of evangelism, which leads this writer to suggest that if the evangelical Anglicans are only just now getting serious about evangelism, and given that in much of the Global South Anglicanism rubs shoulders with Islam, then we would do well to follow what happens next.

Finally: Why, we may well wonder, is there no parallel movement of similar significance within world Lutheranism, where similar demographical shifts are taking place? The answer perhaps lies along these line: Paradoxically, world Lutheranism is both more de-centralised than Anglicanism (the bonds of ecclesiastical communion are weaker) and yet, as far as Lutheran World Federation member churches are concerned, more strongly influenced by European churches. Funding and financial aid in world Lutheranism is much more critical to the life of 3rd World Lutheran churches than is the case with their Anglican neighbours, and it is controlled by the LWF, headquartered in Geneva. 3rd World Lutheran churchmen seem wary of endangering their funding by speaking out too boldly against the lapses of European churches. There are signs, however, that that is beginning to change as European Lutheranism drifts further away from its biblical and confessional moorings.

Another factor could be that theological liberalism has made greater inroads into 3rd World Lutheranism than is the case in Anglicanism; this could be related to the Pietistic origins of many Lutheran missions in former European colonies in Africa and Asia. Anglican evangelicalism, while a sister movement to Lutheran Pietism, retained a stronger theological basis, grounded partly in the 39 Articles of Religion and partly in more overtly Reformed influences. Lutheran Pietism by and large eschewed strongly confessional influences and became enamoured with theological subjectivism.

But that is a subject for another post!

Sasse Revival Widens

The revival of interest in the theology of Hermann Sasse continues. For about 10 years after Sasse's death in 1976, his two primary published books, 'Here We Stand', and 'This Is My Body' were kept in print by the Lutheran Publishing House in Australia, but that was all that was available in English. Around 1986, however, Concordia Publishing House published the first of a series of translations of Sasse essays by the US based Australian theologian Norman Nagel, and the 'Sasse revival' really began. Now interest in Sasse is once again extending beyond German and English readers to other languages ('Here We Stand' was originally translated into several languages after its initial publication, including, we believe, Japanese). For example, here is a pic of a Portuguese translation of 'Here We Stand' that we found in the catalogue of a Brazilian academic bookseller (don't ask!):

We can't let the occasion go by without including a provocative extract from the English translation of 'Here We Stand': Lutheran theology differs from Reformed theology in that it lays great emphasis on the fact that the evangelical church is none other than the medieval Catholic Church purged of certain heresies and abuses. The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Ireneaus once belonged. The orthodox evangelical church is the legitimate continuation of the medieval Catholic Church, not the church of the Council of Trent and the [First] Vatican Council which renounced evangelical truth when it rejected the Reformation. For the orthodox evangelical church is really identical with the orthodox Catholic Church of all times. And just as the very nature of the Reformed Church emphasizes its strong opposition to the medieval church, so the very nature of the Lutheran Church requires it to go to the farthest possible limit in its insistence on its solidarity and identity with the Catholic Church. It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages, and no more was it romanticism or false conservatism which made our church anxious to retain as much of the old canonical law as possible, and to cling tenaciously to the old forms of worship.

Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand (trans. Theodore Tappert), Augsburg Publishing House, 1938, pp. 110-11.

Note: By 'Evangelical' Sasse means Lutheran; in German 'Evangelische' is/was a synonym for Lutheran or more generally for Protestant.

Comment: Sasse's concern is to define and defend the Lutheran faith over against the Reformed outlook which was leading German Evangelicals towards a Lutheran-Reformed Union in his day (the present EKD, or 'Evangelical Church in Germany'); but we may also turn his thought around to counter a present-day danger, crypto-Romanism in the Lutheran Church. If the Evangelical Church is the medieval Catholic Church reformed, then the distinctly Roman Catholic Church begins with the Reformation, or more specifically with Rome's authoritative response to the Reformation, the Council of Trent. Roman Catholicism surely reaches its 'apotheosis' with the promulgation of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I in 1870. This doctrine, which exalts the Pope over scripture and history, stands in absolute contrast to the Evangelical rule of faith, which is that scripture alone establishes doctrine (see the relevant entries at 'Lutheran Catholicity' [link from this blog] for various patristic testimonies to the primacy of scripture).

[Sola scriptura is often misunderstood both by Evangelicals and Catholics as though scripture were the only authority in the church (solo scriptura would be a better slogan for this view, which stems from the Anabaptist Radical Reformation rather than either the Lutheran or Reformed branches of the Magisterial Reformation). The true conception is that scripture is the primary authority in the church, but creeds and confessions and the teaching office of the church also have real authority, albeit subordinate to scripture. I will be posting more on this in the near future, d.v. .]

Friday, 23 April 2010

"The Father and I Are One", A Homiletical Meditation on John 10:30

"The Father and I are one" [John 10:30]. This is a very powerful statement by our Lord, occurring as it does in the midst of a conversation with some Jewish leaders who, with feigned sincerity masking an evil purpose, had asked Jesus if he was the Christ. Jesus' response concludes by indicating clearly that he and the Father are one.
As Luther pointed out, the Greek word hen here is in the neuter, not the masculine form, which indicates that it is not a personal oneness that Jesus is talking about, as though he and the Father were one undifferentiated person, but rather it is an ontological oneness that he speaks of: the Father and the Son share the same ground of being, which is divinity or Godhood.
Augustine knew little or no Greek, and thus probably didn't realise the full import of Jesus' words, but he did well to use this text to combat ontological subordinationism. We today might well use it as a basis from which to combat the claims of the Jehovah's Witnesses and others, even misguided Christian theologians who deny the divinity of Christ and his equality of being with the Father.
But most importantly of all, this text can be used to comfort and encourage disconsolate Christians: Jesus and the Father are one, and yet the eternal Son of God, who is one with the Father, the holy one whose death we are responsible for, knows us, knows even our names, has obtained eternal life for us, and promises that no-one shall snatch us out of his hand. Praise be to Him! Amen.

Thursday, 22 April 2010


"The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys... infallibility by virtue of his office when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful...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."
Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 25.

__ __

"We declare, say, define and pronounce, that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human being that they be subject to the Roman Pontiff."
Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctum.

"Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation"
Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 16, repeated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, para 847.

__ __

For the moment, I will set aside the questions raised by the theological anthropology that seems to inform the last statement from Lumen Gentium (although I suspect these questions are at the heart of the differences between Roman and Evangelical catholics). The first statement, by Pope Boniface VIII, certainly seems to meet the stated requirements of a definitive pronouncement on a matter of faith (and if it doesn't, what does?).

The second pronouncement was formulated by the Roman bishops, with the Pope at their head, gathered at what Rome maintains was an Ecumenical Council, a gathering which according to their own teaching partakes of the infallibility Christ has guaranteed to the church. It might be argued that the second statement is not a dogmatic definition, but it is surely intimately related, even a constituting part of a dogmatic definition, namely the supremacy of jurisdiction of the Pope (which our first statement certainly makes a matter of faith). In any case, occurring as it does in an official teaching document it requires the "submission of faith" of loyal Roman Catholics, which certainly implies that it is a matter of dogma.

My purpose here is to draw attention to the readily apparent contradiction between these two formal pronouncements of the Roman Magisterium; by any reasonable canons of interpretation, the difference in teaching between Pope Boniface VIII and Vatican II would certainly appear to be a contradiction, a formal error on the part of the Roman Magisterium. Yes, there may be roughly 700 years separating the two statements, but then the Roman doctrine is maximal in its assertions and does not admit to qualifications on account of the passing of time or cultural changes, and the matter under discussion is certainly a substantive one, pertaining to the eternal salvation of non-Roman Catholics.

Comment from a Roman Catholic would be appreciated, and provided it is expressed politely and furthers the discussion, it will be published. This is not an invitation to a debate, it is an opportunity given for clarification, although I reserve the right of response [it is my blog, after all :0)]. Those using noms de plume are requested to inform me of their identity by e-mail, if they have not done so already. Anonymous comments will receive close scrutiny before being posted, if they are posted at all.
[In time I hope, d.v., to draw attention to other problematic moral and theological issues in several other papal documents. These difficulties, among others, prevent me from giving assent to papal claims.]

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Vatican I on the Canon of Scripture

In numerous discussions over the years with Roman Catholics on the question of authority the subject of the canon of scripture has usually come up. I have often heard it said that the church's magisterial authority is revealed by the fact that it was the church which 'canonised' the scriptures, in the sense of authoritatively drawing up a list of writings to be accepted as the 'canonical'. "The Catholic Church gave you your Bible", it is said, "so how can you not accept the authority of the Catholic Church?" I have always responded with Reformational theology's view that the church indeed received the scriptures as canonical, but only because her mind recognised them as divinely inspired. To put it in a nutshell, the church discerned the canon, she did not create the canon. This seems to me to be demonstrably true both historically and theologically. "Circular reasoning!" is the usual response, and there the discussion ends.

Needless to say, then, I was very interested to come across the following while doing some research on the subject:

"The books of the Old and New Testament, whole and entire, with all their parts, as enumerated in the decree of the same Council [Trent] and in the ancient Latin Vulgate, are to be received as sacred and canonical. And the Church holds them as sacred and canonical not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without errors, but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their Author." [italics mine]

Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Session 2, 6th January, 1870.

It seems as though some would-be Roman apologists have not been doing their homework. Setting aside the matter of the apocryphal books included in the Trentine decree and the Latin Vulgate Old Testament, a matter on which the Roman Catholic Church has made an historical error, this is a very acceptable statement of the matter.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Juxtaposition: Scripture Sufficient for Salvation

A husband shocked a Manhattan, N.Y., court by giving his wife's murderer a Bible and encouraging him to save his soul, the New York Post reported on Tuesday: "Just read this Bible, and come to him (Jesus), and save your soul..." he told the convicted killer.
(Source: The New York Post, 13 April, 2010)

"I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book!"
John Wesley (1703-1791)

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple (Psalm 19:7).

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Richard Dawkins: Status Creep?

No, this is not an ad hominem attack on Richard Dawkins, as the post title might seem to indicate. Although Prof. Dawkins is known for making ad hominem attacks on his perceived opponents himself, as when he recently referred to an Australian politician known to be a Christian as having an I.Q. less than that of an earthworm, I do not believe Christians should respond to him in kind. We Christians are to ‘play the ball, and not the man’ in debate. But then this post does not so much deal with 'the ball' - Dawkins's arguments - but rather seeks to explain his current popularity and credibility in terms of the modern phenomenon known as 'status creep', so I suppose it is more an attempt to explain why the current condition of the pitch and the prevailing wind favours our opponent so much at present.

"Status creep" is a phenomenon that feeds off the present-day diffusion of knowledge across various fields of specialised endeavour, which means that the idea of universal knowledge that cultures ascribed to in the past and tried to inculcate in their brightest and best (hence the idea of the "University") has disintegrated. Yet because the public still craves an explanation of, well…everything, a person who gains prominence and respect in one field of endeavour that society values highly, such as science, can easily find themselves regarded as an authority on subjects beyond their area of demonstrated expertise: status creep!
(Probably the most culturally debased form of 'status creep' is when the political opinions of entertainers are accorded credibility by sections of the general public simply because they appreciate the artist’s music and persona. One would like to see 'Bono' or 'Sting' given some real responsibility for poverty eradication or carbon reduction in the world, but for the probable negative impact upon real people, that is. Australian readers need only consider the case of Peter Garrett, formerly a singer with the popular, ideologically driven band Midnight Oil, lately a somewhat inept government minister with responsibility for the environment and setting houses on fire.)

Richard Dawkins’s main contribution to his field of evolutionary biology is actually fairly modest: it is his speculation about the "extended phenotype", which is intended to extend evolutionary biology's understanding of how inherited genetic traits are 'concretised' in the life of an organism beyond the organism itself to the physical world, e.g. the ant’s nest, the rabbit’s burrow, the mollusc’s shell, etc. Dawkins’s real genius, however, is as a populariser of evolutionary science, which talent first came to the fore in his 1976 book 'The Selfish Gene', followed up ten years later by ‘The Blind Watchmaker'.

The success of ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ seems to have extended Dawkins’s reputation, both in the public’s mind and his own, beyond the field of his training into the territory of theology and the philosophy of religion, as exemplified by his recent book ’The God Delusion’ (2007). Not that there is anything wrong, on the face of it, with an amateur theologian, or in Dawkins's case an anti-theologian, expressing his opinions in writing, and if he can find a publisher (and Dawkins is gold to a publisher) good luck to him! I have read some very stimulating theological essays by men and women untrained in the field (C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, for instance), but their arguments stand or fall on their merits, not on the basis of their well-deserved reputations in other fields of endeavour.

That caveat does not seem to apply in Prof Dawkins’s case, however. With ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ to a certain extent, and more so with ’The God Delusion’, Dawkins has become the prime exhibit, I contend, of ‘status creep’. Most bright theology undergraduates could successfully disarm the arguments Dawkins uses in ‘The God Delusion’. The problem is that the average reader who buys the book is probably not a bright theology undergraduate. In fact, he or she probably has even less familiarity with philosophical and theological thought than Prof Dawkins apparently does, but that doesn’t stop them from ascribing almost infallible authority to Dawkins’s arguments and consequently feeling justified in dismissing the existence of God from their lives altogether, and there‘s the rub!

There is a spiritual dimension to this phenomenon, but for now I want to focus on the immediately explicable aspect of it. Perhaps there is something to be said for 'status creep' as a symptom of the loss of the quest for universal knowledge, but I also wonder whether its cause isn't a little more simple, to wit an education system that no longer teaches people to think critically, or even attempts to educate them in the classical Western tradition to which they are heirs, which would involve at least some knowledge of and appreciation for philosophy, theology and the principles of logic, but which instead indoctrinates students with the politically correct opinions of the day. From that point on intellectual laziness sets in, for it is always more pleasant to have one's half-formed prejudices confirmed than to have to re-examine them critically.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

This Is Exciting!

Got a lazy $500 000 lying around? If so, you might want to consider putting in a bid for an item at an upcoming Sotheby's auction. The item concerned is a 1st edition of Erasmus's 10 volume set of Augustine's works, printed at Basle in 1527-1529.

What's so exciting about that?

Well, the volumes have been carefully glossed with marginal notes (actual pic above) in Latin and German containing comments on contemporary events, corrections of Erasmus, and interaction with Augustine's theology, including record of doctrinal comments by Luther and Melanchthon. What's more, the notes appear to have been written by someone very close to Luther and his inner circle, such is the knowledge the commenter displays of goings on in 1530s Wittenberg. No doubt the identity of the glossator will be determined as scholars continue to work through his annotations, although there were any number of brilliant scholars in Wittenberg at the time.

Most importantly, the glosses promise to shine much light on the reception of Augustine by the Reformer's inner circle.

See what I mean by 'exciting'?

[click on the post title to read a report from the UK Guardian.]

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Leftists Join Conservatives in Rallying Against the Sexualisation of Children

Over the last couple of decades I have found it increasingly galling to observe how so-called soft-porn magazines have crept out from under counters, or from the separate rooms or the back of the shop in newsagents to be displayed, apparently without shame, front and centre at a child's eye level in shops where one simply stops to buy a newspaper or some petrol, or in a child's case a comic book or some lollies.
But when a clergyman complains about this, as I have, it is labelled wowserism (for American readers, an Australianism meaning 'puritanism'), as if name-calling were a substitute for an argument. Or, such complaints are dismissed as the attempt to inflict one's religious or moral beliefs on others, as though an argument based on moral grounds is automatically untenable and must be excluded from public debate. Never mind, it seems, the obvious dangers the open display of such material poses to the healthy development of children, let alone the dignity of men and women!

But you know the situation must be getting bad when left-leaning liberals begin to complain. An article today in The Age, Australia's most liberal broadsheet (click on the post title to read), explains that a report issued by child experts has called for soft-porn and "lad" magazines, which are reported to increasingly feature models just over the border-line of the age of consent made up to look years younger - surprise, surprise! - to be banned from newsagents, service stations and the like and relegated to adult only bookshops. The report is accompanied by a petition for the same which features such names from the left-leaning liberal ascendancy as Noni Hazlehurst, Clive Hamilton, Steve Biddulph, and Alastair Nicholson, along with more socially conservative women's groups. But not a clergyman is present on the list, except for Tim Costello, who is known more as the head of World Vision, as a social commentator and brother of the former Federal Treasurer and some-time aspirant to the Prime Ministership than as a Baptist pastor.

One is certainly grateful for the public stance taken by these notables, but I wonder why the churches were not invited to sign on? Is our social currency at such a discount these days that our inclusion would only cheapen this statement? It would be very interesting to know why.

[To date, 66% of the respondents to The Age's on-line poll on the question have indicated they are against removing soft-porn magazines from shops also frequented by children. The libertarians still rule, apparently, at least among those who read The Age.]

[Post edited on 7.3.10 at 4.20PM to reflect new information, courtesy readers Matthias and Vicar Thomas Pietsch. We at the old manse are nothing if not responsive to readers' suggestions and corrections! :0)]

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Seven Stanzas at Easter

I love this poem by the late American novelist and poet, John Updike; in fact on the previous two Easters I posted an extract from it here on the blog. A regular reader, Erika Hoffman, noted in a comment today how salutary it is to reflect on this poem during the Easter season, which has prompted me to post it here in full for the edification of readers who may not know it (with the hope and prayer that the copyright acknowledgment at the end will be sufficient to keep this legal!)

Without checking Wiki, I'm sure I'm correct in saying that Updike (pictured) was born into an old Pennsylvania Lutheran family, but later in life became an Episcopalian, i.e. the American version of an Anglican. Now, pray tell, why would someone do that? Why forsake Zion for Gerizim? (I beseech my Anglican readers to graciously bear with this joke at their expense.)

Needless to say, this poem was written when Updike was still Lutheran, in 1961.

Seven Stanzas at Easter

By John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

From 'Telephone Poles and Other Poems' © 1961 by John Updike. Reprinted here by the unbelievably kind and exceptionally magnanimous permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc, which I believe is now owned by the redoubtable former Australian, Rupert Murdoch. We seek his indulgence.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Blog Matters

We interrupt our regular correspondence to address some blog matters.

We don't like to blow our own trumpet here at the old manse, but we were thrilled to be quoted (favourably too!) in the latest post over at WorshipConcord, the on-line contribution of the noted Lutheran liturgical theologian James Allan Waddell and other Lutheran luminaries to the task of attaining concord in the Lutheran Church on worship matters. Here's the link: (a full-time link also appears in the right-hand column).

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Matthias, a regular reader and commenter, recently asked if he and I are the only regular commenters here. Indeed we seem to be, although several other readers drop a line to us semi-regularly. I know from my statistics recorders that I have about 30 unique hits a day, and many return readers, but few comments.
That's quite OK as far as I am concerned, as I didn't set this blog up to be a place for theological debate, but can I encourage my regular readers to leave the occasional comment, especially if they've appreciated a post - even if only so I know who is out there!
No need to be shy or tentative about commenting, this is a virtual old manse where guests are welcome and their thoughts too. (It is preferred that comments are not anonymous; using a pseudonym is fine, or even just your first name. In such cases, you may like to drop me a line via e-mail (available on my profile) to let me know who you are, although this is just a suggestion, not something I will enforce in order for your comments to be posted.

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Speaking of comments, just lately we have noticed that the Blogger dashboard indicates that comments are ready to be modified, only to find that no comments are in fact listed. I assume this is a glitch with Blogger, but if your recent comment has not been posted, it is just possible that it has gone missing somewhere in the cyber-halls of Blogger.

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We have been "fisked", from time to time, by an erstwhile Lutheran brother who has "swum the Tiber" (converted to Rome), especially when we venture to say something apropos Roman Catholicism. That has a brought a few Roman and other non-Lutheran readers our way, and we hope you too derive some benefit from these cyber-pages. Frankly, I welcome comments from non-Lutheran folk, as I am really quite "catholic" in my tastes and reading, despite (or because of?) my fervent adherence to Lutheran doctrine!

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Speaking of statistics, the old manse recently clocked up 5000 unique page visits since just before Christmas, including returning visitors from the Russian Federation, Belgium, France, Germany, India, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Fiji and Brazil. By far our majority of readers, however, come from the US and Australia, with the UK and Canada following some distance behind.
Cordial greetings to all who have dropped by!
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Oh, and just for the record, the provision of a link on the Glosses homepage to a blog of a friend, follower or cyber-acqaintance does not necessarily imply agreement with the position of that blog or the opinions expressed there. There are some fine Lutheran blogs listed, along with some equally fine evangelical Reformed, neo-orthodox Reformed, Anglican and Roman Catholic blogs, the authors of which your glossator would obviously have some differences with; as always in the world of theological reflection, read with discernment, accept what is evangelical and scriptural, and know why you disagree when you do. As my esteemed Old Testament lecturer and mentor John Kleinig used to say, 'You learn most by interacting with those with whom you disagree.' (Just think how much great Lutheran theology was done in 'dialogue' with Roman Catholics and the Reformed. The polemical spirit may have been dimmed since the age of Luther and Chemnitz, which may not be entirely a bad thing, but the sword of our faith (fides quae) is still sharpened by duels with our separated brethren.)

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A blessed Easter season to all: May God equip you with every good thing you need in order to do His will, and may He make you effective witnesses to the Risen Christ!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Easter Sunday - The Resurrection of our Lord


Rise, heart, thy lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him may'st rise:
That, as his death refined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and, much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art,
The cross taught all wood to resound his name
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort, both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long;
Or, since all music is but three parts vied
And multiplied
Oh let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

George Herbert (1593-1633, Anglican clergyman and poet)

[I particularly like the photo that accompanies this post - yes, it's an ancient tomb in Jerusalem, probably much like the one our Lord was laid to rest in. With a little imagination, it can seem as though this crowd has gathered, mystified, after hearing the news of the Risen Lord.]

Friday, 2 April 2010

Holy Saturday II, The Harrowing of Hell

"...we believe simply that the entire person [of Christ], God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power." (Solid Declaration, Art. IX)

[Pic: The Harrowing of Hell by Nicholas Roerich, 1933]

Sabbatum Sanctus - Holy Saturday

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of thy dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[The stunning painting is The Entombment of Christ by Rogier Van Der Weyden (1450). Van Der Weyden's The Last Judgment has recently been cited by Peter Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens's brother, as setting his mind to re-consider Christianity.]

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Luther on Good Friday

Luther on how to reflect aright on our Lord's Passion on Good Friday:

"...they meditate on the Passion of Christ aright, who so view Christ that they become terror-stricken in heart at the sight, and their conscience at once sinks in despair. This terror-stricken feeling should spring forth, so that you see the severe wrath and the unchangeable earnestness of God in regard to sin and sinners, in that he was unwilling that his only and dearly beloved Son should set sinners free unless he paid the costly ransom for them as is mentioned in Is 53, 8: "For the transgression of my people was he stricken." What happens to the sinner, when the dear child is thus stricken? An earnestness must be present that is inexpressible and unbearable, which a person so immeasurably great goes to meet, and suffers and dies for it; and if you reflect upon it real deeply, that God's Son, the eternal wisdom of the Father, himself suffers, you will indeed be terror-stricken; and the more you reflect the deeper will be the impression.

...that you deeply believe and never doubt the least, that you are the one who thus martyred Christ. For your sins most surely did it. Thus St. Peter struck and terrified the Jews as with a thunderbolt in Acts 2, 36-37, when he spoke to them all in common: "Him have ye crucified," so that three thousand were terror-stricken the same day and tremblingly cried to the apostles: "0 beloved brethren what shall we do?""

From a sermon by Martin Luther first published in 1519. The sermon went through many editions between 1519-1524 and was one of Luther's most popular writings. It can be found in The Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume II, p.183, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI).

Maundy Thursday

Lord Jesus Christ, in Thy sacrament Thou hast left unto us a memorial of thy passion: Grant us so to reverence the holy mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever know within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption; who livest and reignest with the Father in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.