Saturday, 23 November 2013

Chrysostom on Faith Alone

" of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”
But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43, from the alternative Gospel of the day, Last Sunday of the Church Year, LCA lectionary.

"Let us see, however, whether the brigand gave evidence of effort and upright deeds and a good yield. Far from his being able to claim even this, he made his way into paradise before the apostles with a mere word, on the basis of faith alone, the intention being for you to learn that it was not so much a case of his sound values prevailing as the Lord's lovingkindness being completely responsible.

What, in fact, did the brigand say? What did he do? Did he fast? Did he weep? Did he tear his garments? Did he display repentance in good time? Not at all: on the cross itself after his utterance he won salvation. Note the rapidity: from cross to heaven, from condemnation to salvation. What were those wonderful words, then? What great power did they have that they brought him such marvelous good things? "Remember me in your kingdom." What sort of word is that? He asked to receive good things, he showed no concern for them in action; but the one who knew his heart paid attention not to the words but to the attitude of mind."

John Chrysostom (c.347-407AD), Sermon 7 on Genesis, in St. John Chrysostom, Eight Sermons on the Book of Genesis, pp. 123-24 (2004), Robert C. Hill translator.

More Patristic quotations collated here.

Monday, 18 November 2013

A Very Helpful Resource for Luther Students

 This is a very helpful resource for students of Luther, particularly if you want to read a quote in the secondary literature in context - an online index of the St Louis, American and Weimar editions of his works. Many thanks to the website author for making this available.
While on the subject of free online Luther resources:
If you want to check a quote or citation in the Weimarer Ausgabe you can do so here.

And here is a handy list of links to Luther's writings in English translation online.

And here is an index to the English edition of Luther's sermons. 

For general readers, here is a free download of Roland Bainton's biography and here is an American PBS documentary, 'Martin Luther: Reluctant Revolutionary'. Like all popular accounts of Luther's life aspects of it are questionable, including the title.  Theologically speaking, Luther could only be regarded as a revolutionary from the perspective of a diehard traditionalist Roman Catholic, while historically speaking by no means can all that stemmed from the Reformation period can be attributed to Luther. In particular, the idea that Luther is responsible for the break up of the putative unity of the Western church is a gross, unhistorical simplification. And, as suggested in the previous post, the homogeneity of the church bodies which arose out of the Reformation period has in the past been overstated; we should really speak of "Reformations" rather than "the Reformation". But there is interesting commentary from the likes of Anglican theologian Alister McGrath and it does attempt to present Luther in a broadly historical perspective. The production values are excellent.    

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Does the Death of Writing Mean the Death of Protestantism?

The Gospel of St John, Tyndale's New Testament, 1525
Last week I was down with the "flu", although I managed to take a service on Sunday, and this week I've contracted a chest infection which has inflamed my asthma. The enforced downtime has given me more time than usual to experience 'The Great Din' otherwise known as the internet. I came across this piece on the death of writing and its likely influence on politics, written with the USA in view but probably also applicable to Australia and other western democracies.

I was particularly interested in the author's use of the journal a soldier in the American Civil War as an illustration of a literate culture because to my mind the most powerful aspect of Ken Burns's brilliant TV documentary The Civil War (yes, TV can inform and even edify, but only if at the same time it fulfils its primary purpose, which is to entertain)  was not the images (the documentary was inspired by Matthew Brady's well known war photographs) but the words read from the letters and journals of participants, often simple foot soldiers from industrial towns in the north-east or farms in the deep south. Their words, earnest and simple but yet capable of expressing the most profound reflections on life and death, are just one example that testifies to the 19th C. as the peak of the literate Christian culture of the Western world.

By literate culture I don't mean just the ability to read and write, which is officially still in the 95-100% range for Australia, the US & Canada and Europe (although there are anecdotal reports that suggest those figures are inflated), but a culture in which reading remains the primary means of acquiring new information and writing remains the primary means of reflection and communication. And all this was Christian in that, even for atheists and other dissenters from the common vision, it took place under the generous imaginative canopy provided by the Bible, which gave this world its religious outlook, its ethics, its aesthetics and, in translation, its language. We in the West (using that more as a cultural than a geographical term) are clearly in a transition phase: heading out of a Christian literate culture and into a Pagan visual culture and have been for some time, probably since  television broadcasting expanded in the 1950s.

Something the author doesn't note is that Protestantism was the matrix of mass literate culture in the West. "Protestantism" is not a very helpful term to use in either history or theology, for the various reform movements, including Lutheranism (the ur-Protestants of the second Diet of Spires), rural Swiss Zwinglianism, urbane Genevan Calvinism with its Scottish and English Presbyterian versions, the typically English hybrid of Anglicanism and the radical Anabaptists, are too heterogeneous in historical origin and doctrine for one umbrella term to do them justice. But "Protestantism" can be used sociologically as a sort of short-hand term to denote the broad culture that these various movements gave impetus to in the lives of the western European peoples who embraced them.

Central to that culture was the value attached to the written word, which of course stemmed from the high value placed upon the Holy Bible and which led to systems of public education whose goal was to make even the humblest subjects and citizens literate, particularly in the Bible. Thus, Luther could write, exhorting nobles to establish and expand public education: "That which should be read first and most universally in the higher and lower schools must be the Holy Scriptures, and for the youngest boys, the Gospels. And would God that every town also had a girls’ school wherein the maidens might hear the Gospel for an hour every day, be it in German or Latin… Is it not meet that every Christian should know the whole of the Holy Gospel, wherein His name and His life are written, by the age of 9 or 10?" [Martin Luther, Address to the Christian Nobility (1520)]. Melanchthon developed the curriculum for the German Lutheran version of public education, adapting the humanist liberal arts curriculum to the purposes of the Lutheran Reformation and expanding it to include the burgeoning sciences. His model proved quite influential outside of the German lands too, and is even being studied again today as a live option for educators seeking alternative models to secular education, which despite popular perceptions, is not neutral in its philosophy or practice.

Now, if we are witnessing the death of writing, does that mean also the death of Protestantism? We need to be cautious here because 1) it is impossible to predict the future; all we can do is project present trends and speculate; 2) even those trends have exceptions - present day publishing statistics alone might suggest we are presently in a golden era of book reading supported by recalcitrant spirits like my thirteen year old daughter, who has already has a personal library of c. 100 books;  3) the adopted children of Protestantism, so to speak, in Asia, Africa and South America give signs of aspiring to a high degree of literacy born of the desire to read and study the Bible and may inaugurate a renaissance of literate Protestant culture in different customary dress. But, it is hard to deny that the literate Protestant culture born in western Europe and exported with migrants to the new world probably died on the battle fields of World War I,  an epochal event which cast the West into a downward spiral from which it cannot pull out (just consider how many of the major and minor geo-political flashpoints of today had their fuses lit in the immediate aftermath of WWI). In that case, perhaps the better question to ask is "Has the death of Protestantism led to the death of writing?"

Be that as it may, as a sociological phenomenon "Protestantism" may be dead but I have no doubt the various ecclesial movements named above will continue a sub-cultures, or probably more likely, given the nascent shape of the soon-to-be reigning culture which slouches into view more clearly every moment, as counter-cultural movements in the West. In order to do this what they cannot surrender or neglect is their commitment to developing and passing on a literate Christian culture born of their love for the Word of God written, through which they might become islands of learning and devotion, a little like the communities of Irish monks who survived and even thrived in their own way during a previous dark age. That will necessitate a thoroughgoing reform of their educational institutions and methods, which, at least in my sphere of activity and observation, have long since been surrendered to the approaching, slouching beast. 


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

In Memory of John Taverner

The English musician John Taverner, one of the most significant composers of our time, has died aged 69. In his latter days he was an unconventional figure in regard to his religious views go (and they underwent considerable development, tending from Presbyterianism to Russian Orthodox and finally, it seems, a sort of eclectic universalism), yet he could reach heights of religious expression few others in our very mediocre times have. Indeed, much modern art across all forms is not just mediocre but nihilistic, something Taverner took a resolute stand against both through the nature of his music and by his occasional public utterances on the subject: "I think there are an awful lot of artists around who’re very good at leading us into hell. I’d rather someone would show me the way to paradise". Interestingly, then, Taverner first emerged out of the hippy scene in late 1960s London, where he was "discovered" by John Lennon and first recorded for the Beatles' label, Apple.  For those not familiar with his work, here is a sampler - his sublime musical setting for another unconventional religious figure's words, William Blake's The Lamb, which will take you to a playlist:

Taverner's musical career began as a youth playing the organ in his Presbyterian congregation. In a late interview he recalled the deep impression made by the preacher, who used to break down in tears during sermons at the apprehension of God's love for us in Christ. We can only hope John Taverner had occasion to hearken back to that preacher's message - God's love for him in Christ - during his last days.    

Monday, 11 November 2013

Lest We Forget

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
                                                            Lest We Forget.

                     [Pic.: Lutwyche War Cemetery, Brisbane, Queensland; public domain]

Friday, 8 November 2013

A Russian Orthodox Prayer for Salvation by Faith and Not Works

Here is a beautiful prayer from the Russian Orthodox tradition for salvation by grace through faith in Christ and not by works :

"O my plenteously-merciful and all-merciful God, Lord Jesus Christ, through Thy great love Thou didst come down and become incarnate so that Thou mightest save all. And again, O Saviour, save me by Thy grace, I pray Thee. For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty; yea, Thou who art great in compassion and ineffable in mercy. "For he that believeth in me," Thou hast said, O my Christ, "shall live and never see death." If then, faith in Thee saveth the desperate, behold, I believe, save me, for Thou art my God and Creator. Let faith instead of works be imputed to me, O my God, for Thou wilt find no works which could justify me. But may my faith suffice instead of all works."

8th Prayer for the Morning, Prayer Book, Holy Trinity Monastery (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia), Jordanville NY, 1979.

Now of course I can't resist a bit of theological commentary, my virtual glosses on the margins of the prayer book, if you will. Regarding the second last line, as a Lutheran I would rather pray "let Christ's righteousness instead of my works be imputed to me, O my God". And one must be careful not to regard faith itself as a meritorious work: "my faith suffices instead of all works" not because it is meritorious but because by it, as by an instrument, I receive both the benefits of Christ's death - chiefly the forgiveness of sins - and the merits of His righteousness. Orthodoxy has a weak doctrine of original sin and consequently a more positive theological anthropology than the Lutherans or indeed the Roman Catholics. The prayer avoids this error if by asking that faith be "imputed" it means faith is given by God (it would be interesting to have the original Russian version to follow this up). But with those caveats this prayer is a fine example of what the  Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper called a "felicitous inconsistency", whereby one who formally adheres to doctrinal error (in Pieper's view it was usually Calvinists or Romanists) yet notwithstanding that error apprehends the true Gospel and trusts in Christ to their salvation.

The doctrinal error in the case of the Orthodox is the belief that love and good works are a contributory factor in our salvation, a belief which finds expression in the Longer Catechism of the Orthodox Catholic Eastern Church (Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, 1823), a standard among Orthodox catechisms : "Q482. Is not faith alone enough for a Christian, without love and good works ? No; for faith without love and good works is inactive and dead, and so can not lead to eternal life." Of course, this can be understood in the orthodox sense in which true faith is indeed always active in works of love, as the Apostles James and John and Luther (!) teach, but the Orthodox, in my experience, always take an anti-Reformation stance on this question and teach that good works are formally necessary for our salvation and contribute something to it. This position approaches the Roman Catholic teaching of fides caritate formata, wherein faith must be formed by love if it is to be salvific.*

To the theologically uninitiated, this may sound like splitting hairs, but the integrity of the proclamation of the Gospel depends upon the exclusion of works from the sinner's justification. This is why the Apostle Paul could write so forcefully to the Galatian Christians, whose salvation was placed on the line by their return to a reliance on works of the law as necessary to salvation: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.  I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?  Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" Galatians 3:1-6.

* This is the basis of the Roman objection to the term "faith alone" and is something the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification didn't resolve (the curious RC Annex to the document notwithstanding)...and indeed couldn't without the Roman Catholics giving up the Council of Trent, which remains their authoritative doctrine on the matters in dispute during and since the Reformation. The Lutheran dialogue partners erred grievously and betrayed the Lutheran Reformation when they stated that the Lutheran understanding of faith includes hope and love as the Roman Catholics understand them.  

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Back to the Future with Pope Francis to Vatican II

In case you haven't noticed, dear reader, I like to keep a weather eye on Rome from the obscurity of the study in the old manse. Like it or not, what happens in Rome shapes the landscape in which all Western churches must work. It has been very interesting, then, to learn in recent months that Pope Francis has a less ambivalent, more embracing attitude towards Vatican II than Benedict XVI, who was a theological advisor to the Council but famously later took a decisive personal stance against the abuses which flowed from it. The recent speech on the state of the church by the Pope's primary advisor, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa in Honduras, can be read as an attempt to put some flesh on the bones of Francis's plans for the Roman church for English speakers (the speech was delivered by the Cardinal in English, a language in which Francis is not proficient). You can read or listen to the speech _here_ (the usual caveat applies).

Is that a DeLorean?
Note the Cardinal's determination to follow through on the Council's "unfinished business", which must inspire nightmares about_ liturgical dance and giant papier mache puppet heads _among the conservative Catholics I know.  It is nothing if not a passionate speech, although there seems to me to be a distinct lack of a sense of God's transcendence about it, as though that has all been swallowed up by His immanence in the world.*

It appears that in the Cardinal's mind the eschatological hope can be hastened into existence through political action in which the church works alongside the poor in their struggle for economic and social justice. But in a balanced theology God's transcendence and immanence both need to be maintained in tension until the parousia resolves them. If anything, God's immanence in this fallen world is experienced only from the perspective of the Cross and is therefore always ambivalent unless mediated by His Word (the sacraments being visible Words, following Augustine's terminology).  There is mention of the need for personal conversion but only in two sentences at the end, as if an afterthought. There are also hints of the usual naivety of churchmen in regard to economics and how the poor of the world might best be helped - in that matter the road to hell is paved with the good intentions of clergy. 

From the Lutheran perspective, Vatican II was like the curate's egg: good in parts. The question which interests us then is which parts will Francis promote most strongly? So far Francis seems to be more given to praxis than theoria, at least in his public pronouncements. That might give the impression of being effective for a time, but sooner or later the content of the "new evangelization" must be filled out for our time with more than pious exhortations to hold a "preferential option for the poor". In terms of that content, Rome appears to be suffering amnesia in regard to what could learn from the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, flawed though that document is. Failing a review of the doctrinal content of the Gospel based upon Biblical studies (might the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation provide an impetus to that?), I'm afraid the Roman Catholic church at the end of Francis's tenure as Pope may look much like it did in the mid-1970s during the final years of Paul VI's pontificate - polarised, demoralised and rankly synergistic in its proclamation of the Gospel.

*  The Cardinal even condescends to call the Kingdom of God Jesus' "program", as though our Lord were a politician elected on a reform platform. Later a South American episcopal document is quoted which refers to the need for the church to side with the poor in their (political?) struggles. It was this sort of enthusiastic but naive talk which, in the 1970s, led to the attempted synthesis of South American Catholicism and Marxism known as Liberation Theology, which was roundly criticised by then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1983. Among Ratzinger's criticisms was the playing off of "the people of God" against the hierarchical church  - I wonder if Papa Benny is experiencing deja vu as he reads the Cardinal's speech?  

Friday, 1 November 2013

For Reformation Day

There is more on the Lutheran Mendelssohn here (contrary to his Wiki entry, Felix was a devout and orthodox Lutheran and not a member of the Reformed Church).