Tuesday, October 04, 2005

the protesting turn

In recent decades, pragmatism has been recycled in the form of self-esteem doctrines, the therapeutic gospel, and the health-and-wealth message proclaimed by prosperity teachers. More recently we have seen outcome-based education and the endless stream of mission statements we must fashion to spell out in advance just how God may transform our lives. Thoughtful challenges to these teachings have been made, but we keep leaning in the pragmatic direction.

What follows was occasioned by recent conversations, on the blogosphere (particularly Fr. Kimel’s interlocutions with Fr. Zahl), as well as the above which I believe I found on T19, and finally by an ongoing conversation I have been having with a priest who has repeatedly and adamently denied that the Lord Jesus is either God or the Son of God (to say nothing of his denials of the Virgin Birth and his very strange assertion that God sometimes sins).

There seem to be two possible turns for Protestantism in general (Protestantism taken as protest of Catholicity). One is toward Fundamentalism, the other is toward the "therapeutic gospel". These turns are two sides of the same coin, and have to do, ironically, with too-high an anthroplogy, or rather perhaps an emphsis on the specific protest against the catholic notion of mediation. Specifically, these errors have their source in our having seized upon the idea of Jesus as our only mediator and advocate, that our Lord's supreme mediation is extracted and distorted and taken to mean that an individual's relationship to God is through Jesus only, and has nothing to do with the Communion of Saints, nothing to do with those with whom, traditionally, Christians were said to share the faith. I suspect that this abstracting of our Lord’s mediation is the source of evangelicalism’s having failed hitherto to come up with a coherent ecclesiology. It is therefore, perhaps, also the reason for Protestantism’s continual fracturing into oblivion.

Once religion has become divorced from the communion of saints, divorced from the Church, divorced from obedience to our Lord's command that we should love one another as he has loved us, which means, in part, with a mediatorial love -- bearing one another's burdens -- then the Protestant turn moves to insist that what is important is the individual's relationship to Jesus, the individual's walk with the Lord, the individual's being right with God. The turn has then been made definitively toward the chiefest general error of the heirs of Reformation, namely that of private judgment. It is all about MY relationship with God. And who is to judge the status of that relationship but me and God? The exhortation and prayers of my neighbor turn into exhortations to a private life of loving God, rather than to the correction, teaching, and admonishment of one another which is a proper function of catholic Christianity (Colossians 3.16), and to growth in the love of God and the indwelling of his Holy Spirit together, in the communion of the Church, and the fellowship of all the saints who are our ancestors in the Faith and on whose shoulders we stand. They are the ones who, by the power and authority of the Holy Spirit, wrote our Creeds, collated the Canon of Scripture, and defined for our benefit the Word of God; who likewise preserved for our benefit the Sacred Liturgies and the forms of our Common Prayer. They are the ones who thereby mediate for us God’s own self-revelation, and apart from whom our Faith would be without form and void. For it is the same Holy Spirit of God, brooding over the Waters of Chaos (Genesis 1), which separated the light from the darkness, the same Holy Spirit of God which God’s Son breathed onto his Apostles, to the Church, giving them authority to bear witness to himself to the ends of the earth, teaching faith in Christ Jesus to all nations. It is the same Holy Spirit of God who broods over the Waters of our renewal (our re-Creation), in Baptism, who incorporates us into the Communion of all who have accepted the Faith taught by the Apostles, who separates us out of the Darkness of sin and death, and into the Light of His own Life (Psalm 36.9). It is the same Holy Spirit of God given to us through the apostolic laying-on of hands in Confirmation by which we receive power and authority to take our place in the Apostolic mission of bearing witness to Christ to those still in Darkness.

It is the Church, therefore, who mediates for our benefit both the Doctrine of God (i.e. God’s self-revelation, chiefly as in Scripture), as well as our prayers and petitions TO God. The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church translates God’s self-revelation into language comprehensible to those whom he has made. And the Church gathers the prayers of the faithful and offers them liturgically, translated into the language of God: into, namely, the perfect Sacrifice of the Son of God, the only oblation acceptable to God the Father, the only language He speaks. The language of God is spoken within the faith of the Church, and nowhere else. This language is the language of sacramentality. The Church alone translates the substance of creation, bread and wine, into the substance of the Body and Blood of the eternal Word of God, through whom bread and wine, and all things, were themselves made.

One can see the cycle of individual protest. We abandon the Faith of the Saints by insisting that what is important is my own walk with God, rather than my walk with God as part and parcel of my progress in the common Faith of the One Hoy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The turn is toward Quakerism on the one hand -- in believing that what is important is the divine "inner light" the potential for which is common to all and beyond which nothing is necessary -- and on the other hand to Fundamentalism -- in beieving that “the Bible said it; I believe it; that settles it," without recourse to the interpretive framework provided by our Brothers and Sisters in Christ, and especially our brothers the bishops, who have inherited from the Apostles, and through them from our Lord himself, the special charism of teaching, exhorting, and building-up the Church through the passing-on of the Apostolic faith taught to them by Jesus -- our Lord and our God – himself (John 1.48 and 20.28).

These are they who have forsaken the voice of the Lord, who have not walked according to what He taught them, but followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals (Jeremiah 9.14) -- that is, those who have gone after a god cast in their own image, not the God revealed in Scripture, Who made the heavens and the earth, but a god who submits him/herself to their own smallness of mind, to their little expectations of divinity, to their own pet ideologies and interests. For "though I have taught them persistently, they have not listened to instruction" (Jeremiah 32.33). And by spurning the language of God’s self-revelation, by insisting on their self-sufficiency apart from the Bride of Christ, the spotless Chosen-of-God, the form of their Faith unravels, as they slide backward past the primordial chaos and into the Nothing that is the foundation of sin and evil, that is eternal death.

What therefore is the way? Paul reminds Timothy: “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” Here we have it succinctly: Scripture and Tradition. Remember, in other words, (1) the teaching of the Catholic Church (‘what you have learned’), (2) THAT it is the teaching of the Catholic Church (‘from whom you learned it’), and (3) the testimony of Scripture (‘the sacred writings’). “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and god our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. Finally, brethren, pray for us…”


Garland said...


I find your analysis to conform to my own view of things which is to say that I find it to be correct. However, I am curious to know if you think that Protestantism was triggered by a certain set of historical circumstances (e.g. the sale of indulgences) which made it seem to the protestors that the Church had abandoned Tradition and that subsequently to fill a theological gap, greater emphasis was placed on the individual's relationship with God as superceding his or her relationship with the Church; or if the protesting turn used certain circumstances to justify and excuse their inevitable actions. In the end, I suppose, the differences between the possible causes for Protestantism would be nil as the end results would prove the same.

Anonymous said...

Very, very nice work Fr OS. Applause here.

The young fogey said...