Monday, 27 January 2014

Post-Modern Pope

Apparently, Pope Francis recently said this: "We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes...Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute."

At a first, superficial glance this attitude to dialogue with an unbelieving world may seem commendably humble and open, but it is actually incredibly wrong-headed and it leads Christians down an intellectual and spiritual cul-de-sac

Firstly, for the Christian "one's own ideas" are not one's own, but are derived from Divine revelation and expressed in commonly held creeds and confessions (there are, of course, real doctrinal differences between the churches, but that fact should not lead us to overlook the amount of common ground in Christian doctrine). 

As for "traditions" (to be distinguished from customs) I always understood that for Roman Catholics the repository of Tradition was also a part of the Divine revelation (?). 

And by the way, what have "ideas" to do with the Christian Faith anyway? Christianity is not a religion of "ideas", it is a religion of facts. Heaven help the preacher who ascends to the pulpit to proclaim "ideas"! Hungry, desperate souls want facts and life! 

Secondly, if our "ideas" are not valid then they are invalid; if they are not absolute then they are relative. Do Jesuits (the Pope is a member of this RC religious order, which was the spearhead of the Counter-Reformation), who once prided themselves on their rigorous philosophical training, no longer believe in the law of non-contradiction? (I have often been told by traditional Roman Catholics that the Jesuits are not what they used to be - the rot set in during the cultural revolution of the 1960s; now it seems the rot has risen to the very top of the RC church in the form of the Pope's woolly thinking.) What Christian worth his salt would suggest that the Christian doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, original sin, redemption and sanctification - the doctrines every neophyte must be taught - are not valid or absolute?  Christianity is a doctrinal religion; without doctrine it is mere sentiment which does not deserve the respect or interest of the doubting yet hopeful "men and women of today".   

To be sure, fruitful dialogue does involve seeing the other's point of view, not to cede it validity when it differs from "one's own" considered beliefs however, but to discern where the other has gone wrong that we may know how to correct him. That is true humility and openness which lets God be God and seeks the ultimate good of the other - that he too may be renewed in his mind and put on a new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:23). Relativism is not the path to the spiritual renewal of the West. 

Is this yet another case of the Pope speaking without first thinking through the implications of his thoughts? 

Or is he really the post-modern Pope? 

I can understand why traditional Roman Catholics are very disappointed with this Pope. 
Why, even as a confessional Lutheran I'm disappointed in him!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Why Preachers Should Read Luther

Why should preachers, particularly lectionary preachers, read Luther? Of course there are many reasons, one of them being to study and learn from the freshness of his insights as he preaches the same texts year after year:

"Luther's sermons followed the course prescribed by the Christian year and the lessons assigned by long usage to each Sunday. In this area he did not innovate. Because he commonly spoke at the nine o'clock service, his sermons are mostly on the Gospels rather than upon his favorite Pauline epistles...Year after year Luther preached on the same passages and on the same great events: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost. If one now reads through his sermons of thirty years on a single theme, one is amazed at the freshness with which each year he illumined some new aspect. When one has the feeling that there is nothing startling this time, then comes a flash. He is narrating the betrayal of Jesus. Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver with the words, "I have betrayed innocent blood," and the priest answers, "What is that to us?" Luther comments that there is no loneliness like the loneliness of a traitor since even his confederates give him no sympathy. The sermons cover every theme from the sublimity of God to the greed of a sow."

From Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon, 1955), still one of the best popular biographies of Luther, available on-line here. English translations of some of Luther's sermons can be found here. There are also sermons available to the English reader in the American Edition of Luther's Works, which edition is presently being expanded by Concordia Publishing House with the inclusion of three further volumes of sermons. 

Luther preached an estimated 7000 sermons in 36 years of preaching (!), of which about 2300 survive in written form. He followed the traditional one year lectionary, whereas most preachers today have the luxury of a three year lectionary. One must remember too that most of Luther's sermons were delivered to the same town congregation, whereas preachers these days expect several calls in their time of ministry. Nevertheless, most contemporary preachers will have struggled with the need to maintain freshness (which is different from novelty!). In that endeavour Luther can be a valuable teacher. 

The pic is of the pulpit in the town church in Wittenberg; it's a pity the drab, ill-conceived parament detracts from an otherwise impressive scene. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Augustine and other Fathers on Matthew 16:13ff: "Upon This Rock"

"Remember, in this man Peter, the rock. He's the one, you see, who on being questioned by the Lord about who the disciples said he was, replied, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' On hearing this, Jesus said to him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jona, because flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you...‘You are Peter (rocky), and on this rock I shall build my Church, and the gates of the underworld will not conquer her. To you shall I give the keys of the kingdom. Whatever you bind on earth shall also be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall also be loosed in heaven’ (Mt 16:15-19). In Peter (rocky), we see our attention drawn to the rock. Now the apostle Paul says about the former people, ‘They drank from the spiritual rock that was following them; but the rock was Christ’ (1 Cor 10:4). So this disciple is called rocky from the rock, like Christian from Christ...Why have I wanted to make this little introduction? In order to suggest to you that in Peter the Church is to be recognized. Christ, you see, built his Church not on a man but on Peter’s confession. What is Peter’s confession? ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ There’s the rock for you, there’s the foundation, there’s where the Church has been built, which the gates of the underworld cannot conquer."
 Works of St Augustine, Sermons, Vol. 6, Sermon 229P.1, p. 327. (John Rotelle, ed., New Rochelle: New City Press, 1993).


For Augustine, the rock upon which Christ founded the church is not the man Peter but his confession of faith in Christ as the Son of God, which is representative of the faith of the church as a whole in Christ. This is in accord with the Lutheran confessions, which state, in the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope:

"In all these passages Peter is the representative of the entire assembly of apostles [and does not speak for himself alone, but for all the apostles], as appears from the text itself. For Christ asks not Peter alone, but says: Whom do ye say that I am? And what is here said [to Peter alone] in the singular number: I will give unto thee the keys; and whatsoever thou shalt bind, etc., is elsewhere expressed [to their entire number], in the plural Matt. 18:18: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc. And in John 20:23: Whosesoever sins ye remit, etc. These words testify that the keys are given alike to all the apostles and that all the apostles are alike sent forth [to preach].
 In addition to this, it is necessary to acknowledge that the keys belong not to the person of one particular man, but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys adds, Matt. 18:19: If two or three of you shall agree on earth, etc. Therefore he grants the keys principally and immediately to the Church, just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling. [For just as the promise of the Gospel belongs certainly and immediately to the entire Church, so the keys belong immediately to the entire Church, because the keys are nothing else than the office whereby this promise is communicated to every one who desires it, just as it is actually manifest that the Church has the power to ordain ministers of the Church. And Christ speaks in these words: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc., and indicates to whom He has given the keys, namely, to the Church: Where two or three are gathered together in My name. Likewise Christ gives supreme and final jurisdiction to the Church, when He says: Tell it unto the Church.]

 Therefore it is necessary that in these passages Peter is the representative of the entire assembly of the apostles, and for this reason they do not accord to Peter any prerogative or superiority, or lordship [which he had, or was to have had, in preference to the other apostles].
 However, as to the declaration: Upon this rock I will build My Church, certainly the Church has not been built upon the authority of man, but upon the ministry of the confession which Peter made, in which he proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He accordingly addresses him as a minister: Upon this rock, i.e., upon this ministry. [Therefore he addresses him as a minister of this office in which this confession and doctrine is to be in operation and says: Upon this rock, i.e., this preaching and ministry.]

Furthermore, the ministry of the New Testament is not bound to places and persons as the Levitical ministry, but it is dispersed throughout the whole world, and is there where God gives His gifts, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers; neither does this ministry avail on account of the authority of any person, but on account of the Word given by Christ. [Nor does the person of a teacher add anything to this word and office; it matters not who is preaching and teaching it; if there are hearts who receive and cling to it, to them it is done as they hear and believe.] And in this way, not as referring to the person of Peter, most of the holy Fathers, as Origen, Cyprian, Augustine, Hilary, and Bede, interpret this passage: Upon this rock. Chrysostom says thus: "Upon this rock," not upon Peter. For He built His Church not upon man, but upon the faith of Peter. But what was his faith? "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Hilary says: To Peter the Father revealed that he should say, "Thou art the Son of the living God." Therefore the building of the Church is upon this rock of confession; this faith is the foundation of the Church."
          Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 22-29.

The influential 20th C. Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar likewise acknowledged the lack of support among the church fathers for the later Roman Catholic interpretation of this passage, upon which is based the doctrine of papal primacy, writing, 'It does sometimes happen that some Fathers understood a passage in a way which does not agree with later Church teaching. One example: the interpretation of Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16–19. Except at Rome, this passage was not applied by the Fathers to the papal primacy; they worked out an exegesis , more anthropological and spiritual than juridical.' (Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions, New York, Macmillan, 1966, p. 398).

"at the level of their own ecclesiological thought, more anthropological and spiritual than juridical" can only propose that the absence of the artificial need to make a juridical case for Roman ("Petrine") primacy protected the Fathers from even considering such a tendentious exegesis.    

The lack of historical continuity for this and other doctrines peculiar to Roman Catholicism - papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas - seems to me to be very problematic as far as the truth claims of Roman Catholicism go. Without scriptural warrant and without subsequent early historical evidence for these beliefs, all one really has as a basis is the ecclesiastical positivism of papal definition or some sort of theory of doctrinal development, both of which solutions only multiply the problems. 

For more quotes and occasional commentary on the church fathers, see Lutheran Catholicity.

Update: Intra-Roman squabbles over the keys