An unavoidable ‘Reformation 500’ post

Image courtesy of Mae

Happy 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses!

It’s been a bumpy 500 years, hasn’t it? I mean, all Brother Martin, Augustinian canon and university theology professor, wanted to do was exercise his academic freedom and hold a debate about the sale of indulgences.

And now, with the western church fragmented beyond all human hope of repair, all sorts of people claim him and his own reform movement of the 1500s as their own, including around 9000 different Protestant denominations. (If you enjoy revelling in the 33,000 number, read this article by a Roman Catholic that refutes it.) To some extent, there is a truth in this. Luther’s actions, and the hierarchy’s response to them, led to much bolder actions on his part and the part of others, snowballing over the years of his own lifetime into different calls for different levels and kinds of reform, from canon law to theology to moral action to church order to liturgy to all sorts of things. In a way, regardless of how much we Protestants (and, yes, Anglicans are a variety of Protestant; please don’t argue with me about that in the comments because it makes me tired) agree or disagree with the vast corpus of Luther’s writings, we are all — somehow — descended from his original movement of protest and call for reform.

I would like to state that I agree with the 95 Theses. Even if one were to subscribe to the doctrine of Purgatory (which I don’t; see Article of Religion 22), Luther gives some pretty cogent reasons for why they are conceptually flawed and theologically false to Scripture and tradition.

I also think, from what I’ve read, that I agree with him about justification. But, of course, what Luther taught may not be what your local Pentecostal pastor teaches. So watch out for that. Not to say that the Pentecostal is wrong, but rather that saying, ‘I believe in justification by faith,’ doesn’t suddenly mean you actually agree with everyone else who says the same.

For example, sometimes I think I agree with the Council of Trent (of all things):

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God. (Session 6, Chapter 5; pp. 32-33 of trans. J. Waterworth)

That is to say: God justifies us by grace acting in us. Our will cooperates with God’s grace freely, yet it is acknowledged that we are unable to cooperate freely without the grace of God acting in us. The awkward reality of faith as lived out in real life rather than in pious slogans.

Nonetheless, there are various other things that go on in Trent with which I disagree, so I’ll not convert to Rome just yet, thankyouverymuch.

Anyway, from what I recall from my studies back in 2011, around the time of Luther the teaching of the Latin church on this question was not, at large, clear. So when Luther found himself pushing back and resisted in the matter of indulgences, he found himself investigating the whole theological, sacramental, and canonical system of the Latin church concerning how we are saved and how this relates to the Bible.

And so we come to another happy Reformation slogan: Sola scriptura. I, again, take an Anglican line on this, that the Scriptures contain everything that is necessary for salvation. This does not mean that they are not to be understood in light of tradition or that tradition has no place in a healthy Christian life. More on that another time.

It has been said (possibly by Scott Cairns?) that Luther, a true Augustinian not simply by his vows but in his theology, who was steeped not only in Augustine but the other fathers and the greatest of the scholastics (whether he came out liking them or not is a different story) was in a very different position to say sola scriptura than the uneducated man on the street who reads the Bible for himself with no context.

That is, Luther claims in Table Talk to simply expound the plain sense of Scripture. But many of his meanings and understandings are those of Augustine. One’s past is almost inescapable. Either that, or the Holy Spirit inspired Luther and Augustine to say the same things.

So we see these things — justification by faith, a high view of Scripture, combating abuse and corruption in the church — and we say, ‘Huzzah! We are Protestants like Brother Martin!’

If you are Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal or a certain variety of Anglican or Salvation Army, go and read Brother Martin’s treatise On the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I like it. It has challenged my commitment to some of the Articles of Religion, I admit, but I still like it.

The upshot of this rambling post: Martin Luther did some Big Things, and his 95 Theses were the start of those Things. But as a figure, he is a man. Simul justus et peccator — at once justified and a sinner. You will like some of the things he says (even a modern Roman Catholic would!). You will probably dislike others (I know I do). But he is an unavoidable, unstoppable force who, I believe, did much good by the grace of God and despite his failings.

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Loving the Book of Common Prayer 2: Protestant

What follows is likely to be less popular than discussing the catholicity of the Prayer Book. But I am a Protestant, so it only follows that liturgy I love would also be Protestant.

220px-Thomas_CranmerThinking on this proposed series of 3 posts about loving the BCP, I’ve decided to add a fourth after catholic, Protestant, and beautiful, and that is theological. This is because, as I think on the ‘Protestant’ aspects of the BCP, I realise that many of the theological moments that I love and that come to mind are actually simply sound theology, and could easily be embraced by the Church catholic outside our small corner of Protestantism. Nevertheless, I think it is important to point out that the BCP is, in fact, Protestant.

So is Anglicanism.

It seems to have become fashionable in many Anglican circles these days to deny our status as a Protestant church. This, I think, is related to the use of the word Protestant by evangelical, dissenting churches such as Baptists, the Alliance Church, varieties of Methodism/Wesleyanism, varieties of Reformed, etc. There is also a long and strong tradition within the Anglican Church of seeing connections with the past in theology and liturgy, especially with the Church Fathers but also, to a degree, our forebears in the English Middle Ages and the best of mediaeval theology and devotion on the Continent, such as Sts Thomas Aquinas and Thomas a Kempis.

Nonetheless, by strict definition Anglicans are Protestant.

And so, as I said, is the BCP — hence its modification by both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics when they use it.

Now, it could easily be said that the BCP is Protestant because it tends to be a one-volume compendium of Anglicanism, containing the orders of service, the Psalter, and the doctrinal documents of our faith. The Articles of Religion, containing such words as ‘popish’ are obviously Protestant. What about the liturgy, though? When we consider the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi, we would expect to find Protestantism in the BCP.

Justification by faith is the most important Protestant doctrine that sets us aside from the Church of Rome. Does the Prayer Book teach justification by faith through grace alone? Yes it does, but more by aggregation than any single articulation. It is a doctrine that undergirds the BCP’s understanding of grace and sin. Here are some excerpts from Canada’s 1962 BCP, starting with the Communion:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them that with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him …

And although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences.

…most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy

Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

…although we are unworthy, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences

Morning & Evening Prayer:

He [God] pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.

Evening Prayer:

Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord.

As I say, it is the aggregate of passages, combined with what they do not say. If you read the Litany, for example, while it is not perfectly, explicitly justification by faith all spelled out, and while much of it is common to Anglicans, Catholics, and the Orthodox, there is a vein of such doctrine running through it. It would be tedious (albeit profitable, I have no doubt!) to go through all of Cranmer’s collects as well as the Exhortations, but I think you get the idea.

Justification by faith alone through grace alone is a rich vein of theology running through The Book of Common Prayer.

More easily spotted is the fact that Protestants do not believe in the sacrifice of the Mass:

who [Jesus Christ] made there [upon the Cross], by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memorial of that his precious death, until his coming again.

You will not find the following (from the English translation of the Sarum Use of the Roman Rite):

But after the offertory, let the deacon hand the cup with the paten and the sacrifice to the priest; and let him kiss his hand each time. But let him, receiving the cup from him, place it carefully in its own due place above the middle altar, and with bent head, for a little while, let him elevate the cup with both hands, offering the sacrifice to the Lord, saying this prayer:

Receive, O Holy Trinity, this oblation, which I, an unworthy sinner, offer in honour of thee, of the blessed Virgin and all the saints, for my sins and offences, and for the salvation of the living, and the rest of all the faithful dead. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Let this new sacrifice be acceptable to the omnipotent God.

Or this:

Therefore most merciful Father, suppliant we beg and beseech thee, through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.

    Here let the priest rising kiss the altar on the right hand of the sacrifice, saying: that thou wouldst receive and bless these cross gifts, these cross presents, these cross holy unspotted sacrifices.
And the sins being made over the chalice, let him elevate his own hands, saying thus…

Likewise, the Prayer Book has cut this:

Here again let him look upon the Host, saying: Which oblation do thou, O Almighty God, we beseech thee, vouchsafe in all respects to make cross hallowed, cross approved, cross ratified, reasonable, and acceptable, that it may be made unto us the cross body and cross blood of thy most dear Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

I think you get the idea. In pre-20th-century Prayer Books, the Canon of the Mass ended with the words of institution. In the Canadian Prayer Book of 1962, things have been rearranged, and we come dangerously close to offering a sacrifice:

And we entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, most humbly beseeching thee…

That prayer was intended for after Communion. Indeed, besides Christ’s sacrifice once offered for the sins of the whole world, the only other sacrifice, in a prayer after Communion, is:

And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.

Now, you may not be a Protestant. You may be Orthodox or Roman Catholic. You may believe that the Eucharistic sacrifice is an integral part of the service of Holy Communion. You may not think there is a sharp difference between justification by faith as represented by the Prayer Book and the concept of condign merit.

I’m not condemning you.

But I am praising The Book of Common Prayer. In this small, maroon-coloured book, the wisdom of the Church has been distilled, bringing us a beautiful book that is not only Protestant but catholic. Not only catholic — connected with the church universal throughout time and space — but Protestant, connected to the reform movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sure, there are problems with a lot of what Protestantism has got up to since 1517.

The Book of Common Prayer is not one of them.

Time to dig into church history — this field should be booming!

If you’re going to dislike Zosimus, find a reason beyond, ‘He was Pope, dude!’

Back in 2010, my now PhD supervisor remarked that as confessional entrenchment/denominational attachment has decreased, so has interest in ecclesiastical history (is this one reason we rebranded ourselves here as History of Christianity?). I’m not sure if this is true or if it was simply a feeling she had, but if it is true, I’m not so sure it makes a lot of sense.

I think that church history as a field of study can truly blossom with lessened denominational hostilities. This thought came to me today while reading about this guy Apiarius of Sicca Veneria in North Africa. Briefly, he was a presbyter who was removed from holy orders by his local bishop and decided to appeal to Rome. Pope Zosimus got involved and — well, ecclesiastical history. An important moment in western canon law, despite how little attention it tends to receive.

The book I was reading, Merdinger’s Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine (complaint: Why always Augustine?), observed that this issue has been misread and obscured by a lot of scholarship because of the confessional commitments of the scholars discussing it. A crude caricature of the scholarship in this case is pretty much the same as it always is whenever the popes get involved:

Catholics: Well done Popes exercising your apostolic authority against those rebellious Africans.

Protestants: Well done Africans in resisting the arrogant self-aggrandisement of the Popes.

This is also not far from every time the Bishop of Rome butts heads with orthodox Eastern Bishops, Gallic bishops, Sicilian bishops, Spanish bishops, Welsh and Irish bishops, and so forth. The pope and/or his representatives or those who at least side with him are pictured by Catholics as representing good order and good government, putting right the wrongs of the world, and by Protestants as representing the arrogation of worldly power and the stamping out of true Gospel spirit in the provinces.

Sometimes one side has more of the truth than the other, but it’s not really what’s usually going on.

With weakened, once-ingrained confessional prejudices clouding our vision less, we are in a time when scholarship about ecclesiastical history can really flourish. No longer need Catholics be embarrassed by badly behaved popes to sweep under the rug. No longer need Protestants hunt for some sort of proto-Protestant resistance. No longer need Protestants ignore the entire history of the church from the death of Augustine to 31 October, 1517 — nor need they ignore the awkward Catholicky (emphasis on ‘icky’) bits from before the 430 cut-off date, where church fathers whose Christology and triadology, and even beliefs about salvation, they praise also do awkward things like, well, exercise monarchical episcopal authority in their hometown. Or send people relics. Or talk about Eucharist in terms of sacrifice. Or have anything to do with canon law. Or burn incense.*

Also, we can lay off the anti-papal polemic. Gregory the Great sent missionaries to England because he thought London would become a rival patriarchate? Really?

And we can turn our eyes to the world beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Since we no longer feel compelled to obsess over our own Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran history, we can look at the history of the church in Mesopotamia or Ethiopia. We can ponder Franciscans in the Caliphate. We can take into consideration the Church of the East (‘Nestorian’) in China during the Middle Ages.

We have 2000 years of ecclesiastical history to play with. Just because something didn’t happen within one’s own confessional sphere of influence doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting and doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold wisdom for the church today.

*Fun fact: St John Chrysostom whose exegesis is much beloved by low-church evangelicals of late did all these things.

Reformation Day!

The Posting of Luther's 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878
The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878

It has become fashionable in some Protestant circles to poo-poo the Reformation or focus only upon its less impressive aspects and results, intended and unintended. And while I certainly mourn the destruction of beautiful Gothic abbeys and, indeed, the suppression of monasticism at large (why not Reformed reformed Benedictine orders?), as well as the unintended splintering of Protestants into a million factions with millions of individualist popes, I would like to focus on the positive aspects of the Reformation in this post. No matter how uncomfortable you may be with things people did in the name of the Reformation (like killing Carthusian monks), if you’re not Roman Catholic or from any of the Orthodox branches of Christianity, you are a child of this movement.

It’s time, then, to focus on the positive, as I said. And I mean positive in two respects. First, of course, aspects of which I approve. Second, however, things about being Protestant that are not simply un-Catholic or anti-Rome. I know I have some Roman Catholic readership — this post is not meant to cast shadows on your expression of the Christian faith but for me to take a moment and celebrate my own:

  • Sola fide. Justification by faith alone is one of the central tenets of Protestant faith, whether Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, or places even more radical. This is not the doctrine that it is often derided as being, of course. The foundation for this belief is the recognition that none of our acts can gain merit or favour in the sight of God and thereby our salvation — not even what Late Mediaeval thinkers call ‘condign merit’, where God pretends that our deeds have merit but, really, they don’t. The grace of God alone saves us, and we gain that grace simply through faith in accepting it. Faith means trusting in God, Christ, and the Spirit to save us and make us holy. It does not mean becoming a couch potato Christian with no room for good works. Some of the most robust believers in sola fide have also been some of the most austere Calvinists, so that image is a false appropriation of the teaching (that, sadly, occurs).
  • Sola scriptura. I’ve blogged about this before from the perspective of how I view tradition’s role in the life of the Christian. I take the Anglican line on the Holy Scriptures — they contain everything necessary for salvation. Nothing not in the Scriptures can be imposed on Christians out of necessity. Now, I say that as a consciously conciliar Christian, so how can I reconcile these two facts? I would argue that the Seven Ecumenical Councils are the working out of teachings that can be proven from Scripture — including icons, since the justification for them is rooted in John 1 and a robust, biblical faith in the Incarnation. In tandem with this, I still believe in the importance of tradition for a vibrant and lively faith life.
  • Worship in the language of the people. Now, I know that post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholicism has English-French-Spanish-Tagalog-what-have-you liturgies. Nonetheless, for 400 years, if a western Christian wanted liturgy in the local language, he or she would have to turn to the Protestants. For Anglophones, the English Bible is also coupled with Reformation (not so for other European languages, as it turns out). The heart of the faith, as expressed in the words of Scripture and tradition available in the Bible and the Prayer Book, is meant to be available to all; this is part of the idea of Common Prayer. This fact also gave part of the educational impetus of Protestants such as John Knox — people have to be literate to read the Bible.
  • Direct access to the Scriptures. Yes, Christ is available to us most especially through the sacraments, and reading the Bible alone in a room is not the same thing at all. But we believe that private reading of Scripture can be blessed and moved by the Holy Spirit in a vigorous way regardless of the official structures of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, says that the Christian who reads Scripture apart from the magisterium has cut himself off from the authoritative and prophetic voice of the Spirit and cannot rightly interpret the text (as discussed by Miroslav Volf in After Our Likeness). I acknowledge the danger of this approach and wonder if perhaps some middle ground between Protestant muddles and Roman Catholic authority would be best?
  • Married clergy. As the son of a priest, I cannot stress the importance of married clergy enough. 😉 I also believe that married clergy are an important part of the gradual Protestant freeing up of women in the Church. The married priest (and, in Presbyterian circles, Elder) has a woman’s voice in his life — her voice thus enters into the life of the ministry of the Church. Without getting into the thorny issue of women’s ordination, the Protestant woman has had a place of ministry and felt part of the church’s work long before she had access to the priesthood. Again, married clergy = me and my siblings and my dad and his siblings and my cousin (my uncle’s a bishop) and my nieces & nephew (my brother’s a priest) and my granny and my great-granny. My family wouldn’t exist without married clergy.
  • The rebirth of expository preaching. This, I think, is something that ‘Counter-Reformation’ Catholics and Protestants shared, considering the fame of the gospel preaching of some of the Capuchins. So it’s more Reformational than simply Protestant, if we think of reform as cutting across those boundaries. Anyway, I like a good, meaty, expository sermon. Not a big, long-winded one. Nor a short but piquant one. Something that helps open the Scriptures. This is a tradition that, sadly, had dwindled in average parish preaching by the 1500s. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic Reformers helped bring it back into an important place within the local community’s life and worship.

These are just a few of the good results of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation — and one or two that also spill over into the Roman Catholic ‘Counter-Reformation’ (it has been argued to drop the ‘counter’ from the term and simply say ‘Catholic Reformation’), even if they had to wait a few centuries for vernacular liturgy. I am sometimes tempted by the Eastern Orthodox, and a Tridentine Liturgy moves me powerfully, and we all know how I feel about San Marco, Venice — but I’m still a Protesant.

The End of Knee-jerk Anti-Roman Catholicism: What I think Leithart was aiming at

A little over a week ago, as I learned at Apologia and the Occident, Peter J Leithart published a piece over at First Things entitled ‘The End of Protestantism.’ Various people have since reacted and responded. R. Scott Clark’s response, ‘Contra Leithart: No, The Reformation Isn’t Over‘ seems to have missed the point of this individual article, caught up in intradenominational crises of the PCA; his piece stumbled over what a lot of people have been saying: Leithart redefines the word Protestant to suit the purposes of the current piece, thus confusing the issue. It struck me that Leithart’s ‘Reformational Catholicism’ wasn’t opposed to the Reformation and certainly doesn’t think the the Church of Rome is all hunky-dorey now.

The bigger issue with the piece was highlighted by Fred Sanders in his piece ‘Glad Protestantism‘ — people in the wider non-PCA audience of Leithart’s piece who already agree with its thesis may feel buoyed up by it, but the people Leithart should be trying to sway will be offended by Leithart’s rhetorical deployment and very probable use of a straw man or two.

And people who already agree sometimes try to convince Leithart to give up being Presbyterian (something, I think, some within the PCA wouldn’t mind).

So what is it that I think Leithart was trying to get across?

The time for knee-jerk, anti-Roman Catholic forms of Protestantism and similar Protestant ideas is past. Simply because something is done by Roman Catholics does not make it bad. Simply because someone is a Roman Catholic does not make him or her damned. Simply because a saint is revered by Roman Catholics does not mean that we cannot learn from and admire him or her.

This sort of anti-Catholic Christianity can be spiritually impoverishing. Rather than seeing the riches of a long, wide, broad Christian heritage that spans millennia and transcends national boundaries, many people have a vision of church history that has an enormous gap from the Apostles to Martin Luther or John Calvin or Menno Simons or George Fox. Or a smaller gap from Chalcedon to Luther. Or perhaps they fly from the Apostles with a touchdown on St Augustine of Hippo and then on to the Reformers or their own denominational founders — sometimes a detour to early mediaeval Ireland is involved. Anyway, I think you get the picture.

Why is such a view spiritual impoverishing? Such a view is spiritually impoverishing because of the beauty and truth and holiness expressed by Christians throughout all of those ‘dark’, ‘Catholic’ centuries in the middle. Rather than seeing the grace of God working in human lives for salvation everywhere, even when the institution of the Church was at its most corrupt, we see a belief that verges on people believing that all Christians of the ‘Dark Ages’ (that is, mediaeval era) are burning in Hell because they believed in saints and transubstantiation and hadn’t figured out Luther’s justification by faith formula ahead of time.

What Leithart envisages is a Christianity that embraces the glorious riches of those ancient and mediaeval centuries alongside the Reformers and modern heroes — although the Reformers, et al., get sidelined in the piece, he does mention them as being important for us today.

Opposed to knee-jerk anti-Catholicism, such a Christian vision would allow us to revel in God’s truth and God’s word as expounded in word and deed not only by St Augustine of Hippo (often the only Father known to many Protestants) but also by Sts Ambrose and Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Sts Leo and Gregory the Great, St Maximus the Confessor, the Venerable Bede, John Scotus Eriugena, Anselm, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and more, right up to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker — but also John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, for the Most Holy Trinity has not abandoned the Roman Church, for all its error.

He also calls for a return to more liturgical forms of worship, or at least an acknowledgement that they are not simply empty ritual. A friend of mine who recognises the importance for a simpler worship in the 1500s thinks that perhaps Protestants — and not just Lutherans and Anglicans — are ready for expressing themselves with more ritual and liturgical expression. I don’t think your local Baptist church should suddenly blast out the incense and tinkle a few bells. But I do like the PCA church I’ve heard of where they have done some responsive, liturgy-lite using the creeds as well as the Shorter Catechism. Why not?

The riches of Christian history — of liturgy, theology, exegesis, private prayer, ethical exhortation, etc — should not be kept hidden or avoided simply because they are used by the Church of Rome or come from the pen of those she has canonised ‘saints’. To do so is to forget where we’ve come from and who we are, to lose the transhistorical reality of the God Who dramatically entered history in the person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Why I’m not Orthodox

Seraphim of Sarov

I try to avoid polemic on this blog. I’d rather discuss those things from the Great Tradition and various other traditions of Christianity that most of us can benefit from, or those things that really just tickle my fancy. However, today I have a burning desire to write something less than irenic.

I write this post as a result of the fact that I dare to pray for other people when praying the Jesus Prayer. This, according to one commenter, is the height of arrogance, and is based on my proud assumption that I am already saved. And, apparently, I have made this assumption because I’ve read a lot of books and think I can pray:

Or you already apriori decided that once u have read and learn anything and “think” u can pray u r saved?)

I don’t know why the random parentheses are scattered across said commenter’s comments.

This brings me to the heart of why I am not Orthodox: salvation.

Reconcile me to the Virgin, the saints, the necessity of kissing icons, the Orthodox view of church history, Palamite hesychasm, the Eucharist, and so forth. I’m willing to be convinced. But I will be much harder to convince because of how this tradition approaches salvation.

At its best (and I try to look at all non-heretical Christian groups at their best), the Orthodox tradition wilfully refuses to parse salvation, saying that simply praying the sinner’s prayer isn’t enough to be ‘saved’, that salvation is found in the ongoing life of faith that follows.

At its best, Protestantism says, ‘Yes. That moment of conversion by faith is when we are initially justified, and then we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, being sanctified by the work of the Spirit in our hearts through the ongoing life of faith that follows.’

The whole bundle is ‘salvation’ for the Orthodox, while we parse the different bits.

Each catches a bit of the truth.

But this leads to difficulties for many of the eastern tradition, going back at least to Mark the Monk, a fifth-century Greek monk who lived in the Egyptian desert (maybe; it’s a common name, so all the sayings attributed to Mark the Monk may not all be by the same monk named Mark). If you read the selections from said Mark in The Philokalia, one of the things that will become apparent to a Protestant reader is that Mark has no assurance of salvation.

Mark the Monk, for all the various pieces of wisdom on prayer and the spiritual life he has, lives in the fear of Hell.

This may not be the best of Mark the Monk, and it may not be the best of Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is not uncommon.

Indeed, is this why many Orthodox pray the Jesus Prayer? For me, it is a way of drawing nearer to the Saviour who I know has saved me. If it is ‘salvation’, it is the ongoing purification from the presence of sin or the tendency toward sin in my life, not escape from Hell.

This is why it’s not so bad that we Protestants tend to parse salvation, even if we may go too far sometimes.

This concern of self-salvation is prominent in my Orthodox commenter’s concerns, evident when she quotes Seraphim of Sarov (but possibly attributing it to the Desert Fathers?) in the form:

Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved.

This seems to be a popular version of the quotation, although I have hitherto only encountered it as:

Keep your heart at peace, and a multitude around you will be saved.

And I immediately hear Fr John Romanides yelling in my ear, ‘Keeping your heart at peace, acquiring peace in your nous IS salvation, Protestant!’ And I respond, ‘It is a result of salvation, given by grace and usually after years of the walk of faith.’

If I save myself, if I keep my heart at peace, that is a terrible burden. I cannot lift that.

Is this not the entire point of the Gospel of Grace? God became man so that man might become like God? We are, each of us, beset by sin on all sides. We cannot, of our own accord, save ourselves. We, God’s beloved creation, are tending towards destructin. So he becomes one of us, and by the power of that Incarnation, and then the death of One of the Most Holy Trinity on our behalf, and then when He destroys death with the lightning flash of his Godhead and rises again, He gives us the grand gift of salvation from the penalty of sin.

And as we accept this gift of grace, he empowers us to live holier lives, day by day, lives of grace. If we accept his daily grace and walk with Him regularly and engage in the disciplines, we become holier and holier. This is the life of salvation, but all of it is grace.

Grace. The great scandal at the heart of the most ancient strand of the Christian tradition. The great incomprehensibility lying in wait for us in the Scriptures (read Romans, Ephesians, Colossians). A power so mighty that even those who claim the strongest ties to the ancient church live much of their lives as though salvation depended on themselves, not on it.

Maybe this is arrogance on my part. Maybe it is arrogant to say, ‘I have read the Scriptures and many of the Fathers and much of the Tradition. The earliest strand and truest strand and the strand most consonant with the Scriptures is grace.’ If it is, God have mercy on my soul.

And I know — to forestall certain comments — that Vera is not the Orthodox position, and that there is a diversity within Eastern Orthodoxy, and that there are shades of meaning in ‘salvation’ in Orthodox discourse, and that what I describe is not indicative of the experience of a great many Orthodox, and so forth. I have no doubt. But I have witnessed it with my own eyes — all the more, then, do I grieve for this state of affairs.

The heebie-jeebies about tradition

I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post hereTradition, or in Greek paradosis, is what is handed along, what is handed down. Usually, in Christian circles, we differentiate between the unwritten tradition and the Scriptures, although Cypriot Greek Orthodox priests do not; there is only tradition, of which Scripture is the primary and most important and authoritative part.

The rest of us, because of the Reformation, are aware of two forces acting upon how we do Christianity. In its widest sense, this force of tradition is enormous and unwieldy. It includes not just the ‘core’ in my more recent post about tradition as well as saints’ days (and the whole cultus of the saints), purgatory, the immaculate conception of the BVM, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, your mom, most of the liturgy/-ies, Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture, icons, stained glass, particular translations of Scripture, and so on and so forth.

And when, in the Reformation, the western Church was abusing certain aspects of these traditions, such as manipulating purgatory to get people to purchase papal indulgences to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the question was posed, and answered, forcefully: Why are all of these traditions binding?

And it was determined amongst we ‘Protestants’ that no tradition that was not supported by the force of Scripture was binding. Thus, in the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion, we have:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Nonetheless, tradition is still a force at work within Protestantism, especially in the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (whose descendants largely reside in today’s mainline denominations: Lutherans, the Reformed incl. Presbyterians, Anglicans). Anglicans have bishops, priests, and deacons, and basically use a Reformed, English version of Sarum Use for the Lord’s Supper and the daily office. Only priests can consecrate at the Eucharist, only bishops can ordain priests and deacons. These are matters for which, despite perhaps Reformed Presbyterian outcries on the one hand and certain types of ‘Catholic’ voice on the other, Scripture does not lay down a clear, discernible rule.

So we follow tradition. These matters of church polity are not necessarily the central, core realities of the Christian faith. So how does one go about organising a Protestant church? Sort of like a mediaeval one, if you ask the Anglicans and Lutherans (though each group with its own modifications). This is the design of church governance handed down to us by tradition.

Tradition alone cannot be binding upon any Christian. For example, I believe that a robust theology of the incarnation leads at least to allowing icons, if not necessarily venerating them. But I do not consider iconoclast churches heretical; I do not think their souls are in danger of hellfire. Indeed, sometimes I worry more about iconodules and where their own emphasis lies in personal devotion.

Tradition is useful today when so many divergent readings of Scripture abound. The core of the tradition as found in the canon of the faith that I blogged about two posts ago is a lens of Scriptural interpretation that was in existence before the set limits of the canon of Scripture. As Baptist scholar DH Williams discusses in Evangelicals and Tradition, the two canons played off of one another as the church lived, worshipped, and meditated on the truth. That of the faith helped the church discern whether or not a text such as the Gospel of Peter was Scripture or not. The various documents of Scripture helped dictate the shifts in the canon of the faith that happened at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).

With the various twistings of doctrine and ethics justified by logically valid readings of Scripture, whether being proferred to us by liberal Christianity, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, or agnostics, those of us who hold to an ‘evangelical’ view of how Scripture is to be read, we ‘conservatives’ need the ancient, central tradition to help us justify why our readings are more true than others’.

Beyond the canon of the faith, there are also traditional readings of Genesis and certain ethical issues regarding the law and Christian morality, that we find in a broad consensus of the orthodox Fathers, mediaeval writers, and Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic). So, when people come up with reinterpretations of moral commands, we need not abandon our vision either of sola scriptura nor of the old morality; for sola scriptura works best with tradition as a hermeneutical tool (famously, alongside reason and then experience as a last resort [to make Hooker’s three-legged stool Wesley’s quadrilateral]).

This, in brief, is how I feel about tradition right now and most broadly.