Monday, November 28, 2011

Logging in PNG

So this is unrelated to most of what I've posted here, but PNG (Papua New Guinea) is an important part of my past and who I am. I've been keeping my eye out for news from PNG more than usual lately and came across an article and a short documentary that I found somewhat disturbing. As with most issues like this I initially feel frustrated at my own seeming helplessness.

I figure having more links on the internet to them might be helpful:

Rampant Logging 'Destroying PNG'

Bikpela Bagarap (Big Damage) Documentary made by one man named David Fedele

May God give me the perseverance to remember injustices in PNG and across the world in my prayers and life choices. I know anger over injustice can be handed over to God and used for good. My own life should be constantly open to examination regarding complicity in injustice. And prayer matters.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Just Some Links

Thanksgiving break is about to start. Alas I'll have to spend most of it working, but I was just procrastinating and ran across some interesting links that I thought I'd pass on.

There was a recent article in Christianity Today called "The Confidence of the Evangelical" that attempts to make an evangelical response to the intellectual challenges raised by many prominent evangelicals becoming Catholic (note: I am not one of those prominent evangelicals). I actually think the arguments in this article are particularly weak. I'm sure there are better arguments that can be made for a Church without a Magisterium (unified teaching authority), and I found myself questioning his historical claims--a lot of which I think are mischaracterizations.

Still, Christianity Today is a big deal for a lot of people. It's hard for me to tell whether these issues are suddenly getting discussed much more than they were or if I'm only now becoming aware of them.

Anyway, there is a good response to the article at the Called to Communion blog: We don't need no magisterium: a reply to christianity today's mark galli. 

If you read the comments you can see that Mark Galli actually made at least one post trying to clarify some of his positions. Reading the CT article, the Called to Communion response, and then Mark Galli's response to it should showcase a decent amount of dialogue. Just in case any readers were interested. And please, if you read the CT article, please do read the response at Called to Communion.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Bible Made Impossible

I’m sorry it’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been focusing on classes and such, which is probably a good thing.

I had thought about making a post just discussing the sorts of things that I’ve been learning and thinking about, but about a week and a half ago I went to an optional lecture that spurred a lot of thought and conversation and that I think will be worth sharing.

The Thesis:

The talk was modeled as a conversation between Christian Smith, who presented a thesis, and Mark Noll who responded. The thesis was based on Smith’s new book: “The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture”. I haven’t read the book, so I won’t attempt to review it in any coherent way here, but I think the main point is fairly easy to follow, and I really enjoyed the conversation that happened between Noll and Smith at the talk, the formal questions and answers that followed, and the continued conversations with Catholics, Evangelicals, and other Evangelicals turned Catholic that the talk has given birth to.

In short, Smith began with a fairly detailed 10 point definition of Biblicism. He acknowledges that not all evangelicals (or Biblicists for that matter) would sign onto all 10 points, but he thinks these 10 provide a good picture of what’s happening in American evangelical Christianity. He then simply documents that there is PIP (Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism), meaning that there are many different interpretations of virtually every Biblical text one can imagine. Smith thinks that if Biblicism is true, then that should not be the case. Instead, as Christians in different situations gather around the Bible, they should be led into a unity (if not a uniformity) of belief. That is, their interpretations of Scripture should not be mutually self-contradictory.

Critical Responses:

From what I can tell through online searches, and from what Smith said at the talk, most evangelical criticism of his thesis has centered on claiming his definition of Biblicism is a caricature or represents only “fringe elements” of the evangelical world. DeYoung at the Gospel Coalition wrote some (defensive and critical) reviews which accord with this:

Smithereens (a critical review by Books and Culture magazine)

You have to pay attention to notice it, but DeYoung actually agrees that Biblicism as defined by Smith is a bad thing, and that a Christocentric reading of Scripture is a good thing. The focus, though, is overwhelmingly on claiming that the broad center of evangelicalism is not Biblicist in the way Smith defined it.

Some more moderate (and I think thoughtful) reviews from other evangelicals:

On Biblicism (Scot McKnight)

Noll’s Response:

Mark Noll’s response was great I think in large part because Noll is just a thoughtful and charitable guy. He never came across as defensive, and made some similar points. He made it clear that he thought Smith’s argument was “accurate in the main”. He also (or so it seemed to me) granted that Biblicism is at least more prevalent in evangelicalism than others (like DeYoung) were willing to grant. He acknowledged it as a problem. He still argued that it’s not as bad as it would initially seem, in part because some evangelicals (like Noll) affirm statements like the Westminster Confession which are much more nuanced, and because even people who claim to be through and through Biblicists don’t actually consistently follow through on their claims. (like Smith, he thinks their claims are incoherent, so they can't really consistently follow through on them)

He also thought it important to see Biblicism as part of a larger picture, the American religious landscape, which has produced many more positive things as well. America produced unprecedented lay activism and personal conversion, and this came hand in glove with Biblicism. Alternately, he’ll grant that Christianity as it emerged from say, the Byzantine empire and western Europe, did a better job of maintaining a coherent and unified interpretation of the basic truths of Scripture, but also fell short as compared to American evangelicals in other areas.

I found this a helpful contribution to the conversation. I should probably have noted before that Christian Smith is also a professor at Notre Dame (in sociology, whereas Noll is in the history department), and that Christian Smith relatively recently entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. You can see his book related to this journey, which from my perusal through it on Amazon and in the bookstore, looks great. 

My reflections:

Everyone appears to agree that a dangerous and incoherent Biblicism exists within Evangelicalism, but there’s disagreement as to how common it is. Based on personal and anecdotal experience, I was a lot more inclined to agree with Christian Smith that it’s more prevalent than most Evangelical pastors and scholars admit. As a respected sociologist, his claim should carry some weight. He believes that even where more nuanced documents on approaches to Scripture exist, they are not always followed by the majority at the popular level. I think I was a Biblicist at one point, although I was unaware that that’s what I was at the time.

One question which I had trouble answering was whether I think Evangelicals can proceed towards a Christocentric (more truly Evangelical) reading of Scripture without increased institutional unity. Catholics too, have different interpretations of Scripture. Sometimes this isn’t a problem at all, but instead a beautiful thing as the Spirit speaks with many voices to different people through the same passage of Scripture. The fact that we live in one Church with a clear and visible organization means, though, that if interpretations are mutually contradictory, the Church will eventually make it clear that we hold one and not the other, especially when this is directly relevant to the Christian life and apologetics. This is why the world isn’t scandalized by Catholic uncertainty as to whether infants can or cannot be baptized, how leadership of local churches should be organized, etc.

Evangelicals can make huge steps forward by realizing that the Bible, while the inspired Word of God, was also written by many different human authors in many different situations all of them quite different than the 21st century United States. By learning to look at all of Scripture through the lens of Christ, and viewing Scripture as an invitation on the part of Christ to partake of His life, rather than as a manual to bash our opponents with, we could all be substantially better off. A lot of movement forward can be done and is being done by godly young (and old) Evangelicals around the world. I don’t doubt this at all.

I agree that the Holy Spirit will guide us into unity and truth, but I believe it’s foolish to believe that the Spirit always elects to do this without institutions. For most Evangelicals, their most unifying institutions are not their churches (which are in fact the most divisive), but their para-church organizations. A broad consensus exists that people should read the Scriptures in their own language, pray to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and that Christians should help those in need, but doctrine is so divisive that many churches don’t even publish all of what they believe, limiting their statements to a few key points. Can Evangelicals attain a greater institutional unity, both in terms of para-church organizations and maybe even in their denominations? If not, to what extent will that be a hindrance towards movement towards a truly Evangelical reading of Scripture?

As someone who still identifies as evangelical in some senses even as a Catholic, I have to question the extent to which one can be truly Evangelical without becoming Catholic. I of all people recognize that most evangelicals see the Catholic Church through a different lens, but even if evangelicals still don’t think becoming Catholic is a good idea, what steps can be made towards greater institutional unity, and towards a more Christo-centric reading of Scripture where you are? And I'm honestly still not sure whether those two steps can or cannot be taken apart from each other. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Reconciliation and Rededication

I find the energy of evangelicalism to be one of its most endearing characteristics. While experiences can vary widely, it’s among evangelicals that I’ve found the greatest number of people willing and striving to persistently think creatively about how to live the Christian life. It’s my opinion that a lot of these creative attempts to push back towards a more pristine Christianity ended up resulting in ideas or practices that were able to “prefigure” my later discovery of Catholic ideas and practices. I place “prefigure” in quotes because although in my case, they came prior to my discovery of Catholicism, the Catholic practices were of course older.

For example, I think the interesting concept of “rededicating” one’s life to Jesus possesses a lot of interesting parallels with what Catholics call the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Background:

In many but not all evangelical Churches, the paradigmatic way to become a Christian (synonymous with “getting” or “being” saved) is by praying some form of a “sinner’s prayer”. The content of the prayer varies but usually involves an admission of sin, a statement of faith in Jesus and His saving work (the incarnation and crucifixion), and a stated desire to somehow act on this (often vaguely worded in language about inviting Jesus or accepting Jesus into one’s life). In some Churches an appeal to pray this prayer may be given every week in Church. It’s even more common at retreats or special meetings of any sort.

Here’s the interesting thing: appeals for people to raise their hands and/or pray this prayer are often accompanied by the opportunity to pray a similar (or identical) prayer with the intent of rededicating one’s life to Jesus. This is usually aimed at people who have “been saved” but who, in the most common language I’ve experienced have since “fallen away”. What does it mean to fall away?

A precise definition is probably non-existent, but I really think the distinction is a valid one that comes from an honest experience of living the Christian faith. Certainly everyone agrees you don’t have to rededicate your life if you lost your temper and swore at someone while driving, although that would still be considered a sin. It has to be something bigger: something that amounts to a rejection of the grace of God that had been working in your life. For some people that means they rejected friends and family for drugs. For others it means they consistently chose to neglect prayer, church, community, Scripture---any of the means of grace that were available to them in their day to day lives. Thus in my opinion, the fact that it’s hard to define does not mean that “falling away” does not refer to a very real part of Christian experience.

And people need the rededication. There has to be a way that God reaches out to us, even when we’ve “fallen away”. I’ve heard so many appeals for it that they all meld together in my mind. There’s a lot of room for improvisation, though, and if a pastor thinks someone needs healing, he or she can really work up their delivery to address those people. I have memories of hearing the speaker say again and again things like,

“God loves you…He forgives you…He welcomes you back—say these words with me now, if that’s you who’s been walking away from the Lord for a while now, if that’s you who has felt lost and alone because you’ve been pushing God out of Your life. He’ll always take you back, though, because our God is a loving God, and so I invite you to just lift your hands up right now…and say this prayer with me.”

The Connection

Ok, for evangelicals reading this, you really may not see where I’m going with this. Here it is:

“Rededicating your life to Jesus” is really really similar to what Catholics call the sacrament of reconciliation or confession. Like evangelicals, we distinguish between types of sin. Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the distinction:

1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.
1856 Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us - that is, charity - necessitates a new initiative of God's mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation:”

I won’t at this point make an apology for the history of the development of Catholic thought concerning mortal and venial sin (starting perhaps with 1 John talking about "sin that is unto death"), or look at how the Sacrament has developed over time (a long story involving persecutions, martyrs, and Irish monks). The point I want to make in this post is that I think this Catholic practice is ultimately trying to respond to the same reality that evangelicals experience, albeit with what I think is more thorough theological reflection.

As Catholics, we too acknowledge that we must rededicate our lives to Christ, and as we’ve thought about what it means to “fall away”, we’ve come to realize that we all need to rededicate our lives (at least once a year according to current Church discipline!) and that it’s actually quite good for our soul to do so quite often.

In praying that prayer of rededication people who need forgiveness find Christ’s healing power. Given Christianity’s sacramental worldview, Catholics believe that Christ is mysteriously but truly present in reconciliation. That’s why when we confess we confess to a priest who not only then prays with us but also represents Christ to us by speaking in the person of Christ saying the words of absolution, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It’s powerful, and one of my favorite parts of being Catholic now is the ability to receive this Sacrament. In it I find Christ and healing for my soul. It reinforces the scandal of God’s love for us in an incarnated way.

And it feels like it’s a natural step, a progression, an answer to the sort of questions we wrestled with in evangelical churches. This is one of the many reasons why moving from being evangelical to Catholic feels more like a natural progression than a conversion. I don’t think back to last year or the years before that with regret or chagrin. But I’m also quite glad to be where I’m at, and thank God that He’s led me here, to be able to start over again without ever having to change directions. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Verbum Domini


Classes commenced this week and I'm getting myself all geared up to read all sorts of great stuff this semester. Before I dive into all that though, I did realize that I had meant to share some thoughts about one of my summer reading projects.

I had seen that a new post-synodal apostolic exhortation was out entitled Verbum Domini or “The Word of the Lord” towards the end of last spring. This means it’s the Pope kind of summing up the thoughts of a large group of bishops which meet to discuss and provide teaching for the Church on important issues every couple years. I saw a copy of it in the bookstore at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC before I flew out for France and of course couldn’t resist the temptation to buy it. I didn’t actually start reading it until near the end of my time in Paris, but when I did, I remembered why I often find reading theology to be so fulfilling. Despite its systematic layout, it addresses so many important points and thinks to address issues that I wouldn’t have even thought of. My copy is now full of underlined words and occasional exclamation points. In an effort to share this joy with you, I’ve gone through and quoted some of those underlined parts in the hopes that maybe you’ll be persuaded to read the exhortation (and Scripture!!).

On definitions of the Word of God

“They rightly referred to a symphony of the word, to a single word expressed in multiple ways: ‘a polyphonic hymn.’ The Synod Fathers pointed out that human language operates analogically in speaking of the word of God.” (12) (all page numbers are from the booklet published by Paulist Press)

We can speak of Christ Himself as the primary manifestation of the Word of God, the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. The Apostolic preaching, the living Tradition of the Church, and Sacred Scripture, inspired in both the Old and New Testaments also form elements of this polyphonic hymn, which we refer to as the word of God.

“All this helps us to see that while in the Church we greatly venerate the Sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’: Christianity is the ‘religion of the word of God,’ not of ‘a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.’ Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, receive, and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable.” (14) (underlining mine)

Seeing these words on paper led me to reflect in at least three different directions at once. For one, Islam traditionally understands Christians and Jews to also be “people of the book”, which gives us a sort of legitimacy, showing a fidelity to God’s revelation at least in as much as we have had access to it in corrupted form. Instead of responding by going straight to the issue of textual integrity (although that’s important), a response based on this teaching can say that Christians never were “people of the book” in the same way. We are not centered around God’s teaching in one book in one language, but around the revelation of God most fully in Jesus, and still present with us in a myriad number of ways including Scripture. (the polyphonic hymn!)

Also, might it be easier for Pentecostals to swallow this than other evangelicals? One of the books I’m going to read this semester is called “A Problem of Presence” and apparently recounts the experience of an African Pentecostal Church which began to make a point of embracing the word of God available directly to them through the Holy Spirit over the seemingly much more remote and dead words available in Scripture. Needless to say, this is an outlier, but I think it’s still safe to say that Pentecostals in general have benefitted by recognizing a broadening of the presence of the word of God in their lives beyond Scripture without cutting themselves off from Scripture.

Jesus

“To use an example, we can compare the cosmos to a ‘book’—Galileo himself used this example—and consider it as ‘the work of an author who expresses himself through the ‘symphony’ of creation. In the symphony one finds, at a certain point, what would be called in musical terms a ‘solo,’ a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it. This solo is Jesus….He is the center of the cosmos and of history, for in him converge without confusion the author and his work.” (23)

“Here the words of Hugh of Saint Victor remain a sure guide: ‘All divine Scripture is one book, and this book is Christ, speaks of Christ, and finds its fulfillment in Christ.’” (62) YES!

“…it is important that the faithful be taught to acknowledge that the root of sin lies in the refusal to hear the word of the Lord, and to accept in Jesus, the Word of God, the forgiveness which opens us to salvation.” (41)

“As the cross of Christ demonstrates, God also speaks by his silence.” (34)

“God’s silence prolongs his earlier words. In these moments of darkness, he speaks through the mystery of his silence. Hence, in the dynamic of Christian revelation, silence appears as an important expression of the word of God.” (35)

The Holy Spirit

“Just as the word of God comes to us in the body of Christ, in his Eucharistic body and in the body of the Scriptures, through the working of the Holy Spirit, so too it can only be truly received and understood through that same Spirit.” (27)

“Here too we can suggest an analogy: as the word of God became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the same Spirit.” (32)

Mary

“Mary is the image of the Church in attentive hearing of the word of God, which took flesh in her. Mary also symbolizes openness to God and others; an active listening which interiorizes and assimilates, one in which the word becomes a way of life.” (43)

Interpretation

“Saint Jerome recalls that we can never read Scripture simply on our own. We come up against too many closed doors and slip too easily into error. The Bible was written by the People of God for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in this communion with the People of God can we truly enter as a ‘we’ into the heart of the truth that God wishes to convey to us. Jerome, for whom ‘ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,’ states that the ecclesial dimension of biblical interpretation is not a requirement imposed from without: the Book is the very voice of the pilgrim People of God, and only within the faith of this People are we, so to speak, attuned to understand Sacred Scripture. An authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church.” (47)

“The ‘literalism” championed by the fundamentalist approach actually represents a betrayal of both the literal and the spiritual sense, and opens the way to various forms of manipulation, as, for example, by disseminating anti-ecclesial interpretations of the Scriptures. ‘The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human…for this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various human periods.” (69)

“A notion of scholarly research that would consider itself neutral with regard to Scripture should not be encouraged. As well as learning the original languages in which the Bible was written and suitable methods of interpretation, students need to have a deep spiritual life, in order to appreciate that the Scripture can only be understood if it is lived.” (74)

Ecumenism

“All this can only strengthen our conviction that by listening and meditating together on the Scriptures, we experience a real, albeit not yet full communion;” (71)

So true. We should be doing it more.

Liturgy

“Every liturgical action is by its very nature steeped in Sacred Scripture.” (85)

A faith-filled understanding of Sacred Scripture must always refer back to the liturgy, in which the word of God is celebrated as a timely and living word: ‘In the liturgy the Church faithfully adheres to the way Christ himself read and explained the Sacred Scriptures, beginning with his coming forth in the synagogue and urging all to search the Scriptures.’” (86)

“The relationship between word and sacramental gesture is the liturgical expression of God’s activity in the history of salvation through the performative character of the word itself. In salvation history there is no separation between what God says and what he does.” (88)

The word of God and the world

“The Synod of Bishops forcefully reaffirmed the need within the Church for a revival of the missionary consciousness present in the people of God from the beginning.” (139)

“Whoever claims to have understood the Scriptures, or any part of them, without striving as a result to grow in the twofold love of God and neighbor, makes it clear that he has not yet understood them.” (154)

“The inculturation of God’s word is an integral part of the Church’s mission in the world, and a decisive moment in this process is the diffusion of the Bible through the precious work of translation into different languages.” (167)

The document actually made reference to the need for Bible translation at multiple points, lamenting that not all people yet have access to the Scriptures in their own languages. Having spent so much time around Bible translators, this quite predictably warmed my heart. Maybe the next 20 years will see an increase in Catholic-Protestant cooperation in regards to Bible translation?

One encouraging discovery from my time in France was the “traduction oecuménique de la Bible”—a French translation of the Bible that appeared to be fairly popular from my perusal of religious bookstores. It consulted Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox scholars throughout its translation process. Another part in Verbum Domini recommended that this sort of endeavor happen more often. The need may not be as great or the end results as strongly felt in the English language Bible market, where any new single translation would have to work hard to make a dent, but if one translation was endorsed by the US Catholic bishops, and got the marketing power in evangelical markets that the NIV and ESV have benefitted from, we could all be reading the same translation…which could be cool.

Enough rambling, though. We should all be reading Scripture more, reading it humbly, and praying while we do so. Pray that I commit to doing exactly that. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Authority Part V: God's Grace Made Perfect in Our Weakness


As the quote I started this little series with was meant to show, it was the juxtaposition of authority, sin, and grace that I found most convincing in the Papacy.

A key moment in this was reading Called to Communion by Pope Benedict XVI. In his concluding reflections on the Papacy and the unity of the Church, (p. 72-74) I was able to see God’s love reaching out to me in Scripture once again. Right after Jesus called Peter the rock and said that God had revealed a truth to him, Peter messes up and Jesus calls him satan! Before, this would have been the stuff of proof-texting wars.

-      INQUISITION214:  “Jesus called Peter the rock!! He said He’d build His Church on Peter! How can you not believe in the papacy?!”
-       BIBLE_THUMPER461: “But then he calls him Satan! Peter was just a normal human who said some true stuff through the Holy Spirit. The other popes have been even worse and worse, especially in the middle ages. How can you not see that the pope is the antichrist?!”

(sorry…script-writing probably isn’t my life-calling)

This addresses the exact tension that I felt in examining the Papacy, though. I have such a deep, deep respect for Blessed Pope John Paul II and for Benedict XVI, but what if the next Pope has none of the charisma, obvious wisdom or sanctity of the excellent Popes we’ve been blessed with in recent times? What if the Pope spends his papacy expanding the Vatican’s real estate assets? or has an affair and an illegitimate child?? Scandal is nothing new to evangelicals and Pentecostals—we’ve seen charismatic leaders fall…and then we leave them.

I forget which scandal or preacher made me think this through years before, but I had previously thought about this: about whether the Holy Spirit leaves people who are sinning. After scandals in Pentecostal churches, the skeptics are quick to want to say that the whole thing was a scam. There never were healings. There never was anything or anyone called the “Spirit” in the rooms where people cried and fell and prayed and felt Him (or “Her” depending on the language) so intensely. And then there are still some people left believing, that despite the undeniable knowledge of grave abuses (embezzlement, adultery, whatever it may be), the gift that they received, even through that same sinful preacher, was and is real.

God did such an amazing work of subtly preparing me to become Catholic, because these thoughts were really already sitting there. I had meditated at times, on why God would know, before others knew, that so and so was sinning grievously, and yet still choose to work through that person day after day not just in an ordinary way but in what seemed to be an extraordinary way, continuing to bestow special gifts on that specific person. The preacher living in sin may still be able to prophesy or heal or teach, while those with clear consciences may not have access to those gifts in the same way.

God’s grace is made perfect in our weakness. This is the way God works. He gives His gifts to those whom He wills, different ones to each of us, and expects us to actually use them. He insists on including us in His work of redemption. So many of our attempts to bypass the human to reach the divine directly inadvertently bypass God's actual divine plan (to work through humans)! It's scandalous, though. So scandalous. And so seemingly dangerous. 

So many of my objections to the Papacy were rooted in fear. In the fear of what we’re to do if that leadership is wrong. It’s not a bad question. Not at all.  Luckily for us, it didn’t take long for Popes to start having problems! Peter gives me hope, because he was so predictably human. He seemed so weak. In this perfect story of the redemption of mankind, someone has to come in and open his mouth at inopportune times. But God used Peter in such a powerful way, so that when he opened his mouth at Pentecost, he could fulfill the role in the body which he was called to.

And in that image of Peter, I have something of an answer. Even when the other parts of the body are messing up, I continue to work with them, not refusing to send blood to the head or refusing to digest food because I disagree with what the feet are doing. I don’t try to remove myself so that I start my own body; I might just end up with 2 fingers, a spleen, and an appendix.

If that didn’t make sense let me try again: we weren’t meant to just follow whoever we take a fancy to. We were meant to receive teaching from those who are called to it, who have been given it by God Himself. (I think of Paul telling Timothy to not neglect that gift that was within him through the laying on of hands) And as we move together as a body, we have God’s promise that the heart will never cease to beat, we have the promise that Peter, and I would dare to say his successor as well, will indeed in the end prove to be a rock, that he will be what God has called him to be, despite the own inclination to sin found in every Pope starting with Peter, God works in them. It is the grace of God that we follow rather than anything found inherently in any pope or bishop as a human being. When councils make binding decisions or the Pope makes a rare infallible proclamation, then I can trust that the Holy Spirit is working in the people involved.

At some point, my faith must win out over my fear. As God tells me I am a child of God and holy, I must suppress my fear that I can never live up to this calling and instead say in faith, “Let it be done unto thy servant according to thy will.” I must suppress my fear of the fact that God scandalously works out salvation through people, not only as individuals but in community. My faith in God’s promise to Peter must be stronger than my fear of what will happen when Peter fails.

“…If in the course of history the attribution of such authority to men could repeatedly engender the not entirely unfounded suspicion of human arrogation of power, not only the promise of the New Testament but also the trajectory of that history prove the opposite. The men in question are so glaringly, so blatantly unequal to this function that the very empowerment of man to be the rock makes evident how little it is they who sustain the Church but God alone who does so, who does so more in spite of men than through them. The mystery of the Cross is perhaps nowhere so palpably present as in the primacy as a reality of Church history. That its center is forgiveness is both its intrinsic condition and the sign of the distinctive character of God’s power.”

And a succinct statement of what I think I’m trying to get at:

“When the Church adheres to these words in faith, she is not being triumphalistic but humbly recognizing in wonder and thanksgiving the victory of God over and through human weakness.”

-       -all from p. 73 of Called to Communion by Pope Benedict XVI (written well before he became Pope). I highly recommend this little book and its quite brief section on the Papacy if this is something you want to think through more.

And I guess this rings so true because once more, I had had to meditate on the scandal of how highly God views the Church. It was relatively easy to become convinced of my own depravity. The way that God rescues me out of that depravity requires so much more faith. I really think that the structures of the Church, including the bishops of the Church gathered in communion with the bishop of Rome as the successor of St. Peter are part of that economy, that plan of salvation. As the teaching of the leaders of the Church throughout the ages have and do speak to me, I can feel the benefit I receive by being part of this body. The benefit is real. It has been so far.

As always, if you want to talk more about it, please contact me. I’m just still putting posts like this out there so there is something public explaining how I’ve come to be where I am. Peace. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Authority Part IV: Scripture Speaks


Yet again, I don’t have the space or willpower to make an exhaustive presentation of the Scriptures that influenced me, but I’ll try to give you an idea of what the journey was like.

A key text is, as many of you probably know, the quick sequence of words and events found in Matthew 16: 13-28. A key verse for the Papacy being v. 18-19

“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (NAB)

A couple notes:

The word for “church” is only used twice in all four Gospels (the other usage also being in Matthew (18:17). (Nearly) all of us Christians believe in something called the Church, so it’s just interesting that the Gospels don’t show Jesus explicitly talking about it all that much, but when He does, Peter obviously has an important role to play.

Catholics were the first to introduce me to the almost certain (only place where keys are mentioned in the OT) allusion in the “keys” and binding and loosing to Isaiah 22, where God replaced Shebnah with Eliakim as “master of the palace”. I found the parallels pretty astounding

“On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah;
I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open. I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot, to be a place of honor for his family; On him shall hang all the glory of his family: descendants and offspring, all the little dishes, from bowls to jugs. On that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg fixed in a sure spot shall give way, break off and fall, and the weight that hung on it shall be done away with; for the LORD has spoken.” (NAB)

So here we have Jesus evoking a case in which God handed a lot of power over to a certain person who was the vizier or vicar of the king. This person was not the king, the son of David, but held in a certain sense that person’s power. To spell it out, this jives with a Catholic ecclesiology, because Jesus is the one, true, ever-reigning King, the son of David. If the Church is to have any earthly authority structure, then it is an authority like what Eliakim had: a delegated authority. 

The allusions to power, and status as a father figure are all there. What did Jesus mean by making allusion to this? Why is it mentioned in Scripture? 

Scripture has such a subtle power. It can capture us with such force, yet at any given point it can feel like it is us who holds the power and Scripture which lies open to our own manipulation. I’d obviously read this verse many times without so much as thinking of the Pope. Many people who study Scripture will think for many reasons that to interpret it in that way is to entirely miss the point. Within Catholic interpretation, Scripture can have many meanings, so there’s certainly no argument that there’s a lot else to be learned from the passage.

For me, though, I felt a jump in my heart as I re-read this passage during my search. The same jump that I felt whenever I saw Jesus meeting me in Scripture in new and unexpected ways that I’d never seen before, a process that I hope is evidence of the Holy Spirit beginning to open up the riches of the Scriptures to me.

And then there was more. Peter is mentioned all over the place, always first in any list, always speaking on behalf of the other disciples, playing a key role in the Council of Jerusalem. (Acts 15) I guess before I just saw this as a historical coincidence that happened to be recorded in Scripture. I should have known better than that, though. All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for doctrine.

As I’ve said, there was a definite point where I realized I wanted in, where I was no longer afraid that after years of study I might have to become Catholic, but where I wanted to be and simply needed to see that my basic questions could be answered. What started out as a long list of Protestant objections to the Papacy all seemed to fade away quite quickly. In trying to make sense of it now, I might guess that some of my objections were just defensive. Some were answered by what I saw in Scripture. Some weren’t answered in words at all, so that I’m still attempting to find those words even as I write now.

I read through a book trying to lay out Scriptural claims for the Papacy, and then tried to read at least one book that I thought would make some counter-arguments. After this, it all at least seemed feasible in my head. In my next and I hope last post on authority (I’m trying to cut this little narrative into chunks in an attempt to make this already text-heavy blog ever so slightly more reader friendly), I’ll talk about how I felt more inner confirmation about the Papacy by looking directly back at those problem Popes that my mind first initially turned to.