Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Development of Doctrine II: Adventures in Neology with John Henry Newman

The Council of Trent (1545-1563), which defined Roman Catholicism as a discrete confession, distinct both from the medieval catholicism that preceded it and from the Lutheran and Reformed confessions which it responded to, for nearly four hundred years, until John Henry Newman's neology* prevailed at Vatican II (1962-65).
(*Neology: literally a new doctrine or theology; historically it usually refers to certain German philosophers and theologians of the 18th century Aufklärung (the German Enlightenment) who attempted to reconcile Christian revelation with the new historical and scientific knowledge of the time, so as to preserve the possibility of faith among the educated classes.)

"Now the chief truths which Christians ought to hold are those which the holy Apostles, the leaders and teachers of the faith, inspired by the Holy Ghost' have divided into the twelve Articles of the Creed. For having received a command from the Lord to go forth into the whole world, as His ambassadors, and preach the Gospel to every creature, they thought it advisable to draw up a formula of Christian faith, that all might think and speak the same thing, and that among those whom they should have called to the unity of the faith no schisms would exist, but that they should be perfect in the same mind, and in the same judgment." Catechism of the Council of Trent (aka 'The Roman Catechism,' 1566)

"The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent -lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the Same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein-keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand..." Decree of the Council of Trent on Holy Scripture (April, 1566)

"St. Mary is our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit the Reason, she reasons upon it..."John Henry Newman, Sermon on 'The Theory of Developments in Religious Doctrine'(1843)

"If Christianity is a fact, and impresses an idea of itself on our minds and is a subject-matter of exercises of the reason, that idea will in course of time expand into a multitude of ideas, and aspects of ideas, connected and harmonious with one another, and in themselves determinate and immutable, as is the objective fact itself which is thus represented...the more claim an idea has to be considered living, the more various will be its aspects...and the more complicated and subtle will be its issues, and the longer and more eventful will be its course...keeping pace with the ever-changing necessities of the world, multiform, prolific, and ever resourceful..." John Henry Newman, 'Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine' (1845)

The historic pulpit of St Mary's Church, Oxford, from which Newman first ventured to propound his novel thesis of doctrinal development before the world in the form of a long sermon ostensibly on Luke 2:19 (of one and a half hour's duration by his own account!) in 1843, in which he cited the Virgin Mary as the exemplar of how the church was to ponder the truths of the Christian faith in her heart and bring forth new things. Almost exactly a hundred years earlier John Wesley had inaugurated the Evangelical revival in the Church of England by preaching his famous sermons on 'Salvation by Faith' and 'Scriptural Christianity' from the same pulpit. In 1833 John Keble had preached a sermon on 'National Apostasy' at St Mary's, protesting parliamentary interference in the church's internal life, an event which Newman himself marked as inaugurating the 'Oxford Movement', which rejected the doctrinal heritage of the Reformation and would change the face of Anglicanism profoundly.

Newman’s now seminal ‘Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine’, published in 1845, was widely read in Britain and abroad, and drew reactions from theologians across the ecclesiastical spectrum: Roman Catholics, Anglicans of high and low churchmanship, Presbyterians and Baptists. The majority of these reactions were critical. A modern editor of a 1974 edition of Newman’s essay, writing under the influence of the post-Vatican II veneration of Newman, could refer Newman’s essay as the most important theological treatise by an Englishman since William of Occam, but Newman’s more sober contemporaries were less appreciative. Indeed, the affront that Newman’s essay caused led some to regard him as a fellow traveller with the German neologists, and perhaps even an infidel.

As outlandish as these accusations may seem today, when Newman is presented as an exemplar of Roman Catholic orthodoxy (and is, tellingly, a figure highly regarded by both liberal and conservative Roman Catholics) it serves us well to remember that for much of his life as a Catholic Newman was held in suspicion as one whose sympathies lay with the liberal wing of the church. Furthermore, outside his own circle of Anglo-Catholic converts, it was among Catholic modernists that his theory was to receive its most unabashedly positive reception. Not that Newman was a modernist; he was too conventionally devout to be such. But as the siren song of Rome dashed his idiosyncratic version of Anglicanism on the rocks at Littlemore, he was clearly struggling with the same question that would later lead to the rise of modernism in the Roman church, namely the difficulty a historically conscious modern person had defending, let alone submitting in good conscience to, Rome’s a-historical claims about herself as they were then presented (the decrees of Trent and the Roman Catechism still defined Roman Catholicism in the 19th century, and would do so for more than a hundred years to come, with the official addition of Papal Infallibility and the Marian dogmas). This struggle indeed led Newman to sail close to the winds of neology blowing from Continental theology - it cannot be gainsaid that Newman’s ‘Essay’ contains many thoughts which struck his contemporaries as very novel indeed. In fact, even seventy years later, some of the propositions Newman puts forward in the ‘Essay’, for example his opinion that revelation did not cease with the death of the last apostle, were condemned by the Papacy as belonging to the modernist heresy [Cf. Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907) & 'Lamentabile: Errors of the Modernists (1907)]. This reveals just how radical Newman's proposal of development was; in fact, it would be over a hundred years before Roman Catholicism caught up with the subtle mind of John Henry Newman, an interesting development in itself which we hope to explore in a further post.

But first, to the heart of Newman’s thesis, which begins with the curious contention that Christianity is essentially an Idea, which, like all ideas, admits of development, whereby various aspects of the original idea are “brought into consistency and form…being the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field”. The idea “not only modifies, but is modified, or at least influenced, by the state of things in which it is carried out, and is dependent in various ways on the circumstances which surround it”. What is the process, then, by which Christianity has developed? Newman, quoting himself, opines that “the mind which is habituated to the thought of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, naturally turns with a devout curiosity to the contemplation of the object of its adoration, and begins to form statements concerning it, before it knows whither, or how far, it will be carried. One proposition necessarily leads to another, and a second to a third; then some limitation is required; and the combination of these opposites occasions some fresh evolutions from the original idea, which indeed can never be said to be entirely exhausted. This process is its development, and results in a series, or rather body, of dogmatic statements, till what was an impression on the Imagination has become a system or creed in the Reason.”

As examples, Newman suggests that the Roman Catholic doctrine and system of penance is a development from the doctrine of baptism which has led to a historically new doctrine, and furthermore elaborates that the historic episcopate is a political development, the doctrine of the Theotokos a logical development, the determination of the date of our Lord's birth date a historical development, the Eucharist a moral development, and the Athanasian Creed a metaphysical development of the simple, original ‘Idea’ of Christianity, which is the Incarnation. All of these Christian truths are evidence of the evolution – yes, as we saw above, Newman uses the word – and modification – he doesn’t shy away from that term either - of the simple, original Christian idea as the Christian mind has contemplated it in the light of new and challenging contexts (the parallels with Darwin’s soon to be published theory of biological evolution, whereby the morphology of species is modified through interaction with new environments, are obvious). Newman also suggests that Roman Catholic Marian piety is a legitimate development of the confession of the early church that Mary was the Theotokos. At the time of publication of Newman’s essay, the papal definition of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, a belief already widely held and observed as a holy day, was only 9 years away. We don’t know if the Pope was emboldened towards promulgating this dogma by Newman’s convoluted and flawed as it is, we think probably not.

As mentioned above, publication of Newman’s essay caused considerable affront. Protestants were offended that a figure who was educated by and had so obviously benefited personally from the Protestant Anglican establishment had resorted to such obvious special pleading to defend the absolutist claims of Rome (remember, there were political as well as religious dimensions to the claims of Rome - every English child knew the story of Guy Fawkes and looked forward to burning his effigy every 5th November, even if only for the accompanying fireworks display!). Meanwhile, Roman Catholics were uneasy that Newman appeared to cede too much to traditional Protestant criticisms by apparently acknowledging that distinctive Roman doctrines could only be drawn indirectly from the apostolic deposit of faith. But, as unpromising as the reception of his published essay was to be, the exercise of writing down his notion of development, which he had first publicly outlined from the pulpit of St Mary’s, Oxford in 1843, had enabled Newman to reconcile, at least in his own mind, the obvious differences in doctrine and life between the Roman church of his time and the early church as he knew it from his historical research. To the Protestant charge that the early church knew nothing of penance, purgatory and the purity of Mary from original sin, Newman could respond that all these doctrines, along with other distinctive Roman doctrines and the practices which flowed from them, were developments of the original deposit of faith, which met Newman’s own proposed seven criteria for legitimacy. Hypothetically, Newman speculated, if St Ambrose of Milan were alive today he would certainly be a Roman Catholic!

A somewhat idealised portrait of Newman during the period of semi-monastic retreat at Littlemore which he largely devoted to composing his 'Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine'. Newman is pictured here with his close companion - even in death they shared a grave - and fellow convert to Romanism, Ambrose St. John. Newman tasked St. John and his other acolytes at Littlemore with composing lives of the English saints. Modern day homosexual activists within and without the Roman church have claimed that Newman's friendship with St. John is evidence that he was a homosexual. Personally I am not convinced, although undoubtedly this friendship compensated somewhat for Newman's lack of a marriage partner. However, I can't fail to note what a contrast Newman's effete personality, his dissembling ways (Tract 90!) and his various all-male domains present to Luther's stout-hearted, guileless character and his lively domestic household at Wittenberg!

By publishing his essay, Newman intended to provide not just an apologia for his looming conversion (which took place on October 9, 1845), but a persuasive towards conversion to Rome directed to others. Thousands since have been thus persuaded, and many more “cradle Catholics” have found in Newman’s theory a justification for remaining Catholic because it – and his theology as a whole – has enabled them to become “intellectually fulfilled modern Roman Catholics”. But, ironically, these gains have been made only at the cost of introducing the principles of subjectivism and rationalism into the heart of Catholic theology. I say this is ironic because, as anyone who has studied Newman’s own ‘development’ knows, it was his horror at how Protestantism had supposedly introduced first subjectivism and then rationalism into Christianity that set Newman on the path to Rome in the first place. Mutatis mutandis, with reference to Newman's Essay, we might well turn his own words, from his "Tract for the Times Number 73: On the Introduction of Rationalistic Principles into Revealed Religion’ back upon himself: “To Rationalise in matters of revelation is to make our reason the standard and measure of the doctrines revealed…to frame some gratuitous hypothesis about them and then to garble, gloss and colour them…and twist them… in order to bring them into conformity with the idea to which we have subjected them.”

Just how Newman was guilty of doing this I shall explore in an upcoming post, which will review contemporary responses to Newman from within Anglicanism and also offer a criticism of our own. Further, apropos Newman and the Oxford Movement's rejection of the Reformation, I will consider in yet another post how Newman misread and maligned Luther, re-writing Anglican theology and history in the process.


Many thanks to those who've contacted me on and off the blog to express their interest in this series. I apologise for the delay in publishing this second post - the southern hemisphere winter has brought influenza and asthma to the old manse, which, after catching-up with pastoral duties, has not left me with much energy for blogging.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Development of Doctrine: Norm or Novum?

The Council of Nicea (fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Rome)

Has the belief that doctrine develops always been the norm in the church's history, or is it in fact a novum (a new thing, an innovation...itself a development!)? Your answer to that question probably turns on whether you are a Roman Catholic or not, for modern Roman Catholicism is, as far as I am aware, the only church body to officially work with the notion that doctrine can be developed (true, theologians from other confessions may say "doctrine develops", but they most often mean something different from what Rome claims). For all churches apart from Rome, however, Christian doctrine has historically been regarded as a given; it is the doctrinal content of the apostolic deposit of faith (variously: "the faith", fides quae, de fide), set down once and for all in the holy scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Church may differ from traditional Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed and others in broadening the definition of the deposit of faith to include 'tradition' as the life of the Holy Spirit in the church (some avant garde Orthodox theologians have pushed this in the direction of an idea of development, but more traditional Orthodox theologians (e.g. Florovsky) have written against this), but all have traditionally been united in affirming that the apostolic deposit of faith is a given, not subject to development in any true sense, defined as growth in content.

This statement immediately calls for clarification. It is not denied that there has been growth in the church's subjective understanding of the apostolic deposit of faith. This growth in understanding has come about particularly as the church has had to confront various heresies, disputes occasioned by the erroneous public interpretation of aspects of the deposit of faith whose resolution called for more specific definitions of doctrine than had hitherto existed (the Christological definitions are the classic case). But that actual new doctrines not explicitly contained or logically implicit in the apostolic deposit of faith could develop or grow out of these confrontations, or even apart from doctrinal controversy as a normal process in the life of the church, is a view which, as far as I am aware, only developed [sic!] in the 19th century.

As we consider the advent of the theory of doctrinal development, it should be noted that the Western world of the 19th century was generally fascinated by ideas of progress, development and evolution, but at the same time the new scientific approach to historical research was contributing to a growing historical consciousness. This historical consciousness was reflected in the Romantic movement, which permeated both popular and intellectual culture, especially in Germany, France and in the Anglosphere, the most developed cultures of the time. The 19th century world, then, was equipped to look both into the past and into the future in a way which no previous era of humankind was able to do. Indeed, the hubris of 19th century culture is displayed in its many attempts to define the past and thus direct the future, acting as if from a position of unassailed intellectual and spiritual authority. With that background in mind, let us focus on the individual responsible more than anyone else for the rise of a theory of the development of doctrine.

Newman about the time of his conversion

The proposition that doctrine develops or grows was developed in the years 1843-1845 out of the fertile mind of John Henry Newman, who was in the process of conversion to Roman Catholicism and struggling to provide a credible answer to Protestant criticism of Roman doctrines which were clearly absent from the life of the early church, such as Purgatory (the German Catholic theologian J.A. Moehler, had proposed doctrinal development some 20 years earlier than this, but by all accounts his published views are too vague to be called a 'theory'; it does, however, show that notions of development were 'in the air' at the time, particularly among those influenced by Romanticism, as Moehler and Newman both were). Newman had begun his Christian life as an Anglican Evangelical, so he knew the power of these criticisms from the inside, as it were (indeed, he had even made these criticisms himself - see below). It's true that Newman frames his work from the beginning as an attack on "Protestantism" for its alleged unhistorical character, but the tenor of the work is purely apologetic (defensive).

Littlemore, the modest set of cottages in Oxford where Newman lived with like-minded young men in a quasi-monastic setting from 1842-1845, whence his great idea was conceived

To this task Newman applied his subtle and creative mind and his gift for expressing himself in captivating, almost hypnotic prose. The end result was a seminal theological text which Roman Catholic intellectuals of the 20th century, oppressed by the growing realization that advancing historical research increasingly revealed the untenable nature of the old Roman claim of simple continuity with the early church, were to find indispensable in providing a defence against Protestantism, which dominated mid-20th century theological discourse (Barth, et al). To mangle a phrase from the debate about development in the biological field, "Newman's doctrine of development made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled, modern Roman Catholic" (with apologies to Richard Dawkins!).

No-one, to my mind, expresses the importance of the doctrine of development to the modern Roman Catholic more honestly than the Dominican theologian, Aidan Nichols:
"Why is the issue of doctrinal development worth studying? In what respects is it a significant, or even a crucial, issue for theology, and, indeed, for faith?

In the first place: for Catholic theology, the issue of doctrinal development is vital to the justification of specifically Catholic Christian doctrinal insights, vis-à-vis the serious objections to these which other historic Christian communities can lodge. For it may be said that certain elements met with in Catholic teaching today, such as, for example, the doctrine of Purgatory, were not found in the early Church, or, at any rate, can be found there only with difficulty. But if an aspect of the public faith of the Church today was not a constitutive part of the original apostolic preaching, at least not in any obvious sense, how can this aspect be supported, or even tolerated?

Put negatively, in terms of apologetics, this is a matter of defending the Catholic Church against the claim that it has corrupted the Gospel by adding to it elements which are not divinely revealed, being of merely human devising. The classic case against Catholicism in just such terms was made by John Henry Newman in his Anglican period. Writing in 1837, in pursuance of the theme of Anglican identity, Newman wrote:

"Romanism may be considered as an unnatural and misshapen development of the Truth; not the less dangerous because it retains traces of its genuine features, and usurps its name . . . However the Church of Rome may profess a reverence for Antiquity, she does not really feel and pay it. There are in fact two elements in operation within her system. As far as it is Catholic and Scriptural, it appeals to the Fathers; as far as it is a corruption, it finds it necessary to supersede them. Viewed in its formal principles and authoritative statements, it professes to be the champion of past times; viewed as an active and political power, as a ruling, grasping, ambitious principle, in a word, as what is expressively called popery, it exalts the will and pleasure of the existing Church above all authority, whether of Scripture or Antiquity, interpreting the one and disposing of the other by its absolute and arbitrary decree." (1)

Nor should it be supposed that such objections to Catholic belief are no longer met with in the contemporary period. Thus in the wake of the proclamation of the dogma of the Bodily Assumption of the blessed Virgin Mary in 1950, the Lutheran Friedrich Heiler commented that, in the matter of dogmatic evolution:

"Roman Catholic apologetic has not only happily adopted, overnight, one of the basic affirmations of the Modernist concept of dogma, but has outdone the Modernists themselves." (2)

Or again, R. P. C. Hanson, one of the most classically Anglican theologians of recent times, had this to say:

"Their (Catholics') religion is a religion which looks to the present, and to the future for its revelation, indeed one which may confidently expect new revelations and new fundamental doctrines of Christianity to emerge in the future into public gaze ... In this insistence it has entirely deserted the whole emphasis and outlook of primitive Christianity, it has reversed the current of original faith." (3)

And pointing out that the Church must consider itself bound by its original tradition, expressed in Scripture, Hanson maintains that such apparent doctrinal advances as the affirmation of the Son's consubstantiality with the Father, made at the First Council of Nicaea, are not development of that tradition, in the sense of adding fresh articles to its faith. Rather are they measures of defence expressed in the thought-forms of a period, and constructed in such a way as to meet some particular attack on an original identity. (4)

Genuine development of Christian doctrine ... has taken place only in the enunciation of certain formulae necessary to protect the original tradition of the Church from error. These formulae are only de fide, necessary to salvation, in as far as points of controversy have been raised to which they could be the only answer if the witness of the Bible to God's revelation in Jesus Christ was to be maintained in its truth.

Nor are such gravamina confined to individuals, perhaps isolated or in some way atypical. At the time of the promulgation of the Assumption dogma, the Evangelical-Lutheran faculty of theology in the University of Heidelberg issued a joint statement to the effect that the Catholic Church now claims in practice:

"to be able to generate apostolic teaching, whereas its official commission is meant to be simply to guard and interpret historically transmitted apostolic teaching..." (5)

...The ecumenical importance of the theme of development has been well expressed by the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, best known for his part in the marking of the Second Vatican Council's declaration on religious freedom. Murray wrote:

"I consider that the parting of the ways between the two Christian communities [he is speaking of Catholicism and Protestantism] takes place on the issue of development of doctrine. That development has taken place in both communities cannot possibly be denied. The question is, what is legitimate development, what is organic growth in the understanding of the original deposit of faith, what is warranted extension of the primitive discipline of the church, and what, on the other hand, is accretion, additive increment, adulteration of the deposit, distortion of true Christian discipline?" (6)"

As for the Eastern Orthodox, Nichols notes later in his book that:
"A majority...of Orthodox writers register serious reservations about what they take to be the Catholic theory of doctrinal development. Some consider it to involve a 'vitalistic' theory of pre-conscious knowledge which is little different from an admission of blank unawareness, by the ancient Church, of some later points of confessional believing. Again, some regard the movement of Catholic thought on the issue as an attempt to transcend the notion of a closure of revelation with death of the last apostle. Many avoid the term 'evolution of dogmas', but find the phrase 'doctrinal development' acceptable at any rate when taken in the sense of a refinement of the language of theological statements, and a deeper understanding of the revealed contents."

Aidan Nichols, 'From Newman to Congar: The Development of Doctrine', T & T Clark, 1990.

-- + --

Part II of this post, which will look at Roman claims more closely and compare them with holy scripture and the patristic witness, will follow shortly, D.v., as pastoral commitments and family life permit (yes, blogging is a hobby, not my life!). I am also working on posts on the misreading of Luther by both Newman and Ratzinger.

Here are Nichols references:
1. J. H. Newman, Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (London 1837),
p. 100.

2. F Heiler, 'Katholischer Neomodernjsmus. Zu den Versuchen emer Verteidigung
des neuen Mariendogmas', in Oekungenjsche Einheit II. 3 (1951), p. 233.

3. 1n R. P. C. Hanson and R. Fuller, The Church of Rome. A Dissuasive (London
1948), p. 84.

4. lbid., p. 102.

5. Cited by Heiler in his 'Das neue Mariendogma in Licht der Geschichte und im Urteil der Oekumene, 2' in Oekumenische Einheit II. 3 (1951). pp. 240-55. On the
controversy aroused by the preparation of the dogma, see H. Hammans, Die neueren katholischen Erklärungen der Dogmenentwicklung (Essen 1965), pp. 7-9: much more fully: A. G. Aiello, Sviluppo del dogma e tradizione. A proposito della definizione dell'Assunzione di Maria (Rome 5979); and, from a Protestant perspective (Auctores varii) Die Geschiclstlichkeit der Kirche und ihrer Verkündigung als theologisches Problem (Tubingen 1954), pp. 44-5.

6. J. Courtney Murray S.J., The Problem of God Yesterday and Today (New Haven
1964), p. 53; cited in J. Pelikan, Development of Christian Doctrine. Some Historical Prolegomena (London 1969), p. 1.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Sweetest Fruit on the Tree of Lies: The Pious Lie

With the discussion generated by the last post on 'The Roman Way' still fresh, I now want to combine the theme of that post with that of the preceding post on the ethics of speech, with a nod to the sub-theme of the development of doctrine which was inevitably raised in the comments. I can think of no better way to do so than by presenting here a reflection on "the sweetest fruit on...the tree of lies: the pious lie", from the pen of the redoubtable German-Australian Lutheran theologian, Hermann Sasse (1895-1976), who here and in many other places in his writings seems to assume a prophetic mantle. The picture of Sasse is, according to my best estimate, from about the time he joined the stellar theology faculty of the Erlangen University in 1933 - three years before the following words were written:
“…there is in the church one particularly sweet piece of fruit on the broad canopy of the tree of lies… the greatest ethicist of our church (August Vilmar –MH) once spoke, warning the theologians of his and our time about the most grievous sin, the lie to God. The most fearful thing about the pious lie is that it will lie not only to men, but also to God in prayer, in confession, in the Holy Supper, in the sermon and in theology. The pious lie always has the propensity to become the edifying lie. It was once expelled from the church when it existed in the form of legends of the saints and the fraud of relics. Then in the full view of pious eyes, it returned in a new form, such as in the Luther legends, or in pietistic times in the form of almanacs and tracts containing the accounts of miraculous responses to prayer and equally miraculous conversions, which either never happened, or in which the kernel of historical truth was no longer discernible. This "edifying" lie even forces its way into the sphere of the church, which teaches revealed truths of revelation. After sufficient preparation it can obtain the status of "doctrinal maturity". Thus it becomes the dogmatic lie.
We ask our Roman Catholic fellow Christians to believe that it is very difficult for us to use the word "lie" here, and we do not do so to offend them. We know that they affirm a dogma such as the Immaculate Conception of Mary out of deep conviction of faith, and they will accept the yet-awaited extension of Marian dogma from the hand of the ecclesiastical teaching office with the same sincerity. But this changes nothing of the fact that in these dogmas false doctrines are established, and that the Roman Church thus finds itself in a guilt-laden error...
When we speak of the dogmatic lie, we do not, however, have in mind only the celebrated dogmas pronounced by the Catholic Church, through which theories are elevated to the level of ecclesiastical dogma, and have no basis in Holy Scripture, and are not true. We include here also precisely the dogmas with which modern Protestantism has been at pains to correct, to complete, or to replace the doctrine of the evangelical church, such as the false doctrine of Pietism concerning the church, or of rationalism concerning the person of Jesus Christ. What a fearful thing it is indeed that things are taught in the church which are not true, under the guise of the eternal truth entrusted to her. No atheism, no Bolshevism can do as much damage and destruction as the pious lie, the lie in the church. In this lie the power of one is made evident whom Christ Himself calls a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44)."
Extracted from Sasse's essay 'Union and Confession' (written in Germany in 1936), trans. by Matthew C. Harrison, published by the Office of the President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 1997.


Sasse reminds us of something that must never be forgotten if we are to remain true Evangelical Christians. As much as we are in conscience bound to protest the pious lies behind the false dogmas promulgated by the papacy, we must remain aware that no church body is above succumbing to a 'pious lie' and thus falling into the most grievous sin of lying to God in prayer and worship. Today, among the churches descended from the magisterial Reformation, we witness church body after church body succumbing to the great pious lie of our time: the 'Gospel of radical inclusion', which in practice calls evil 'good' and good 'evil', and does so with an air of superior piety that must sicken God's heart, if not raise his ire. See previous posts on the 'Church of Scotland' and the 'Evangelical Lutheran Church in America'. May God preserve us and our churches from such a sin and may he safely guide the faithful remnant in such church bodies to green pastures and still waters.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Roman Way : Dogma Trumps History

For several decades since Vatican II it has been a common refrain in Protestant circles that Rome has changed. Therefore ecumenical engagement and ecclesial rapprochement were to be actively sought. Of course, in a sense Rome has changed; no earthly institution, not even the Papacy, can remain unmoved by profound changes in the tenor of the world in which it must exist. Rome has certainly adjusted the face it shows to the 'modern world', at least cosmetically. But that Rome has changed substantially is a claim of which I have never been convinced.

Certainly, there was a move at the time of Vatican II towards a more conciliar ecclesiology, and a beginning made in dialogue with other Christians; but a sober reading of the documents of that Council reveals that in actuality Vatican II re-affirmed all of the prerogatives traditionally claimed for the Papacy, including those promulgated as de fide centuries after Luther had pointed to the late medieval Papacy as the clearest manifestation of the spirit of Antichrist in the church. Vatican II does not resile from the claims of Vatican I; in fact the documents of Vstican II cite the claims of that Council (claims which made even Cardinal Newman uneasy) in support of the continued Papal right to universal jurisdiction and unfettered power in the church.

Such assertions of Papal supremacy are a triumph of dogma - in the Roman sense - over history (in fact, none of the peculiar Roman additions to the apostolic deposit of faith can be justified at the bar of history, but for the present time we are focussed on the Papacy; for a convenient summary of the history and falsehood of Papal absolutist claims see von Döllinger's 'The & Pope and the Council'). But as the churches 'genetically' descended from the magisterial Reformation increasingly succumb to doctrinal and moral disintegration, such unhistorical claims to absolute jurisdiction and power by a church which presents itself as creedally and morally orthodox have a mysterious and for some a seemingly irresistable appeal (ironically, most Roman Catholics born within the fold whom I have spoken to view such absolute claims through a jaundiced eye; however, a liberal Catholic does not a Lutheran make!). Especially is this the case for doctrinally and morally conservative Protestant Christian intellectuals. "Is not a return to Rome the obvious solution", they plead, "to the problem of the disintegration of Christendom?" Only Rome can save the world!

Thus we observe the oft-commented on trend among Protestant intellectuals of converting to Rome, much like a panicked sailor on a sinking ship in the midst of a storm who spies land and concludes he has little to lose and much to gain by swimming for it. One can cite, to mention only the most recent example I have heard of, the case of the moderator of the 'Reformed Church in France' who announced his intention to become Roman Catholic immediately after the synod of his church voted to open holy communion to the unbaptised. The reverend gentleman may well be sincere, and we cannot fault his principled objection to the lamentable decision of his synod, but on the face of it his conversion to Rome on such a basis strikes me as fundamentally irrational - his decision is based on a massive non sequitur, namely that because the Reformed Church of France is sinking into apostacy the claims of Rome to be the one, true church of Christ and the thus the only refuge for the storm-tossed Protestant Christian must be true. But how can one be Reformed one day, and Roman Catholic the next? Surely only someone under great duress, or mightily confused about what he believes, can adopt such a course?

I have made a study of the conversion stories of many such people, and the thing which strikes me most is how they 'swim the Tiber' blindfolded, as it were, or half asleep, as if stupefied by the promise that awaits them on the other side. There seems in most cases to be no extended period, away from the tumult of ecclesiastical life, given to reasoned searching out of Roman Catholic claims with the light of history or indeed scripture (the view of the authority of scripture in such cases demands a separate post). Or, when there is, it stands out as the exception that proves the rule. Instead it most often seems that a single doctrinal issue engaged in the heat of ecclesial warfare, be it the ordination of women and/or active homosexuals, or the above-mentioned opening of communion to the unbaptised, or a single question of conscience, such as the morality of birth control, acts as a fulcrum which propels the Protestant intellectual Rome-ward (right over the Tiber, if you will, no swimming required!). Only then, when the decision to convert has effectively been made, is a formal study of Roman doctrine begun, by which time the convert has too much invested emotionally in the decision to reneg. Time and again one reads in such conversion accounts of how difficulties with this or that Roman doctrine are suspended in the interest of being "received into the church", after which the difficulties are expected to melt away. It would seem that Pascal's phrase aptly describes the state of such people: "the heart has its reasons which reason doesn't know."

I therefore view this contemporary trend as yet more evidence of the growing irrationality of our time both within and without the church. Just as the non-confessing Protestant churches sink deeper into a-historical neo-Gnosticism, some of their supposedly "best and brightest" surrender their judgment in religious matters to an authority which has an equally tenuous relation to history. In my judgment, then, this 'home to Rome' movement seems to be only the flip side of a coin minted by post-Enlightenment, liberal Protestantism. And it is essentially a reactionary movement which, because it jettisons so much of value from the legacy of the Reformers (again, note the a-historical tendency), does not present a real option for confessing and confessional Evangelicals struggling in these stormy times. We do better, if our ecclesial ship actually is sinking, to prepare to take to the boats and navigate our way out of trouble. Take heart, we have the heavens to guide us.


Which is all by way of extended introduction to the following scholarly opinion which has appeared in a new ecumenical study on the Papacy (click on the post title for an Amazon page)

In the first millennium there was no question of the Roman bishops governing the church in distant solitude. They used to take their decisions together with their synod, held once or twice a year. When matters of universal concern arose, they resorted to the ecumenical council. Even [Pope] Leo [I], who struggled for the apostolic principle over the political one, acknowledged that only the emperor would have the power to convoke an ecumenical council and protect the church.

At the heart of the estrangement that progressively arose between East and West, there may be a historical misunderstanding. The East never shared the Petrine theology as elaborated in the West. It never accepted that the protos in the universal church could claim to be the unique successor or vicar of Peter. So the East assumed that the synodal constitution of the church would be jeopardized by the very existence of a Petrine office with potentially universal competencies in the government of the church.

Just how far is this history from the Roman claim, promulgated at Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 22) and repeated in the current Catechism that "the Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire church has full, supreme and universal power over the whole church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered"? The amazing thing is that this opinion comes from the pen of an eminent Roman Catholic theologian, namely Archbishop Roland Minnerath, and can be found in his essay 'The Petrine Ministry in the Early Patristic Tradition', in How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church? (James F. Puglisi, Editor, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©2010, pgs. 34-48). Not that we should expect this admission of profound ecclesiological diversity in the ancient church to lead to a revision of the claims of Rome or her Protestant converts. Remember: in Rome, dogma trumps history every time.