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.



Christ Pantokrator, Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens

The little chapel was lit only by ambient light from the sides, the chandelier from the ceiling turned off — this, of course, augmented by the lights on Fr. Raphael’s lectern and the glowing candles in the lamps before the iconostasis and those lit by the faithful before the icons near the door.

Icons hung on the four walls of the room as well as on the iconostasis, although not completely covering this piece of ecclesiastical furniture which was made from simple timbers and boards, no fancy carvings in sight.  Although the chapel had no dome (I believe Fr. John lives upstairs), a circular icon of Christ Pantokrator was mounted to the ceiling above the nave.

When the curtain in the iconostasis opened, I could see the Holy Table* with an ornate cross with two other ornate objects flanking it; they reminded me of monstrances, but I knew they couldn’t be since Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a western phenomenon associated with the 13th-century feast of Corpus Christi.

Fr. Raphael stood at his lectern in the back left corner of the chapel and chanted and sang Vespers.  There were Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, Kyries, and many others.  Amidst these beautiful hymns and chants were hymns for St. Ambrose of Milan whose feast was the next day.  These were beautiful and complex, verse homilies in miniature, teaching us of the life and teachings of St. Ambrose, praying that our faith might mirror his.

My Sundays of worship at Evensong at St. Alban’s in Ottawa as well as the many nights I have prayed Compline alone gladdened my heart when Fr. Raphael sang the Nunc Dimittis.  I mouthed the words silently along with him.

Every once in a while, I would see Fr. John behind the iconostasis, standing before the Holy Table, bowing, praying, and chanting a few portions of the order for Vespers himself.  At one point, Fr. John censed the Holy Table and then proceed out from behind the iconostasis with the censer.  He censed the doors, the icons of the day posted near the doors, Theodore, me, and Fr. Raphael, before proceeding back to his position behind the iconostasis.

Theodore, a young Romanian student of electrical engineering at the University of Edinburgh, and I were the only two congregants for most of Vespers last night.  We stood at the back, crossing ourselves at the right moments and lifting up our hearts to God.  Using skills developed at Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic services, I kept half an eye on Fr. Raphael to know when to cross myself.  I tried to listen to the words of the service, but sometimes, especially when the chanting became singing, I got caught up in the melody and lost track of the words.

I prayed the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) many times over.  My charismatic upbringing also manifested itself in the quiet praying in tongues through the movement of the Holy Spirit in that quiet, holy space.  At times, my mind wandered as I stood there, thinking about Eastern Orthodoxy, liturgy, and worship, as well as St. Ambrose.  Inevitably, my thoughts turned to the fact that my back was hurting.

I sat down.  Theodore had already done so, so I didn’t feel bad about it.

Within about a minute of having sat down, Fr. Raphael called me over to his four-platformed spinning lectern to read.

I read the Trisagion, the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer to St. Ambrose, and a prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  I may have prayed something else, but those are the prayers that stand out in my mind.  Fortunately, I know enough of Orthodox liturgy to have been able to pray the Glory Be without printed words properly.

After this beautiful service, we retired to the church hall for tea and cake.  I met Theodore and Dimitri, and had a conversation with Fr. Raphael about Pope St. Leo the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria.  Then, as it was about 8:15 and I hadn’t had supper, I went home.

I’m glad I stopped in at the Orthodox Community of St. Andrew the Apostle.  The Lord blessed me through that visit, and I worshipped him in spirit and in truth.

*If I recall Fr. Alexander Schmemann properly, the entire space involved in the iconostasis is the altar.  Not knowing the Orthodox word, I give you the Anglican.

In Light of Bible Sunday …

Since yesterday was Bible Sunday (see my post here), I’ve decided to post a catena (Lat. for “chain”) of quotations about the Bible; it is not patristic, especially given the presence of Asimov of all people!  If you want to read more of my thoughts about the Bible, I’ve got a list of posts at the bottom.  Here we go (in vaguely chronological order):

Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate on them day and night.  We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put is precepts into practice.  Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love.  So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page but channels of grace into our hearts. –Origen

Wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have [before you] the testimony of the Holy Scriptures. –St. Antony the Great

All of Holy Scripture is bound together, and it has been united by one Spirit.  It is like a single chain, one link attached to another, and when you have taken one, another hangs from it. –St. Jerome

For my part I declare resolutely and with all my heart that if I were called upon to write a book which was to be vested with the highest authority, I should prefer to write it in such a way that a reader could find re-echoed in my words whatever truths he was able to apprehend.  I would rather write in this way than impose a single true meaning so explicitly that it would exclude all others, even though they contained no falsehood that could give me offence. –St. Augustine

Constant meditation upon the holy Scriptures will perpetually fill the soul with incomprehensible ecstasy and joy in God. –St. Isaac the Syrian

If you do not love the blessed and truly divine words of Scripture, you are like the beasts that have neither sense nor reason. –St. Nilus of Antioch

Read this book.  It contains everything.  You ask for love?  Read this book of the Crucified.  You wish to be good?  Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good. –Savonarola

The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold on me. –Martin Luther

We owe to Scripture the same reverence that we owe to God. –John Calvin

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. –39 Articles of the Anglican Religion

Unity must be according to God’s holy word, or else it were better war than peace.  We ought never to regard unity so much — that we forsake God’s word for her sake. –Hugh Latimer

Time can take nothing from the Bible.  It is the living monitor.  Like the sun, it is the same in its light and influence to man this day which it was years ago.  It can meet every present inquiry and console every present loss. –Richard Cecil

The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge.  It was given to change lives. –Dwight L. Moody

The English Bible, the first of national treasure and the most valuable thing this world affords. –King George V

Sir Arthur St. Clare … was a man who read his Bible.  That was what was the matter with him.  When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible?  A print reads a Bible for misprints.  A Mormon reads a Bible and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his and finds we have no arms and legs … –Fr. Brown by GK Chesterton

The Character of the Christian’s experience of god is determined by the reality of God who has spoken his word and who continues to speak his Word. –John Woodhouse

I have found nothing in science or space exploration to compel me to throw away my Bible or to reject my Saviour, Jesus Christ, in whom I trust. –Walter F. Burke

The infliction of literalism on us by fundamentalists who read the Bible without seeing anything but words is one of the great tragedies of history. –Isaac Asimov

The church may not judge the Scriptures, selecting and discarding from among their teachings.  But Scripture under Christ judges the church for its faithfulness to his revealed truth. –Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials

Classic Christianity never asserts either scripture against tradition or tradition against scripture.  Rather, it understands itself as the right remembering of the earliest testimony of scripture to God’s self-disclosure in history. –Thomas C. Oden

Scripture became written in order that the events attested in preaching might be more accurately preserved and remembered.  A written text was obviously more stable than an oral tradition, which might always be controverted by another alleged oral tradition.  A text, if drafted faithfully, did not distort memory but stabilized it in writing.  The written Word of canonized scripture was assumed to consistent with its anteceding oral expressions, and its transmission stood under the protection of the Holy Spirit, who accompanied the apostolic witness. –Thomas C. Oden

The Gospels were not just written to describe events in the past.  They were written to show that those events were relevant, indeed earth-shattering, worldview-challenging, and life-changing in the present. –Tom Wright

God’s Word does not breed quarrels and divisions.  It brings the simple truth and love of Jesus, who heals and unites.  It brings salvation. –John Michael Talbot

the Bible is the unique, infallible, written Word of God, but the word of God is not just the Bible.  If we try to dignify the Bible by saying false things about it — by simply equating the word of God with it — we do not dignify it.  Instead we betray its content by denying what it says about the nature of the word of God. –Dallas Willard

The Bible is a finite, written record of the saving truth spoken by the infinite, loving god, and it reliably fixes the boundaries of everything he will ever say to humankind. –Dallas Willard

In the modern world we seldom looked at the Bible as a composite picture revealing a cosmic vision of the world; we were too busy with the details to see God’s narrative whole.  We were too concerned with analyzing its parts, with literary criticism, historical verification, and theological systems. –Robert E. Webber

To suggest that only Christians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been and are capable of understanding the Bible is to deny the Bible’s universality — that it is addressed to all people of all times, not only to the learned of a particular time — and consequently to reduce Christianity to a kind of modern gnosticism. –Boniface Ramsey

A faithful reading of scripture . . . means that we seek to understand how the passages that we are reading at the moment, and the questions that we are presently asking, fit into this forgiving, healing, and life-giving drama that has been initiated by God himself. –Edith M. Humphrey

If you have the Spirit without the Word, you blow up.  If you have the Word without the Spirit, you dry up.  If you have both the Word and the Spirit, you grow up. –I never wrote down the name

Pocket Scroll posts on the Bible:

How are we to interpret the Bible?

The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy

John Wesley on Spiritual Reading

Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2

Reading the Bible (pt. 1)

Why Read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

Unspiritual Reason to Read the Bible #2: Everything Other Than Books

The Third Unspiritual Reason to Read the Bible

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.

Happy Bible Sunday!

In the days of one united Prayer Book and lectionary, Anglican circles called this Sunday, the Second of Advent, “Bible Sunday” because of the Collect:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The epistle reading is similarly Bible-focussed: Romans 15:4-13.

We would do well to pray this collect over and over again, for, like many of Cranmer’s little masterpieces,* it is a sermon unto itself.  We learn first (regarding the Bible; no doubt an entire homily could be preached on “Blessed Lord”):

  • God caused all holy Scriptures to be written

This alone is to give us pause when we recall some of the things we hear, such as that the NT writers were choosy in their selection and not everything in them is historically true.  Like the Virgin Birth.  Or the Resurrection.  Or the very idea of Jesus being God-in-flesh.  If God caused all holy Scriptures to be written, then we should take these passages and doctrines very seriously before moving on to:

  • written for our learning

The purpose of this writing of Scripture was our learning.  The Bible is there to teach us.  We are to learn from it.  How?  Cranmer shows us next:

  • hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them

The Word of God is to be proclaimed and read aloud.  I believe this applies even to today when most of the population is literate.  The spoken word, as an action, has force and power different from the printed word.**  We are also to read it ourselves, though.  Sunday morning is not enough; our involvement with the Scriptures is to be personal.  As we read the words of life, we are also called to mark them, learn them, and inwardly digest them.

That last phrase, “inwardly digest them,” is among my favourite Prayer-Book phrases.  As we study the Scriptures, we aren’t just supposed to observe them critically as we would the Aeneid or the Tome of Leo.  We are to digest them.  They are to enter into our very being and become part of us.  This is a very dynamic, very physical image.  And what is the result of our intimate acquaintance with the Scriptures?

  • by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life

The Scriptures give us patience — endurance through suffering — and comfort — strength.  Through this endurance and this strength, we come to a place where we are able to embrace — again, a very personal verb — and hold fast — imagine someone holding onto a rope so as not to fall into a chasm — the blessed hope of everlasting life.

The Christian hope is not simply the hope of a better world, the hope of temporal joy, the hope of moral improvement but the hope of eternity for those who put their trust in Jesus, in God, Whose character is displayed to us on the pages of the Bible.

And whence does our hope come?

  • our Saviour Jesus Christ

The Christocentrism of Reformational thought (I acknowledge that there was/is much Christocentrism in Catholic thought; I am not speaking of Catholics, though) comes forth.  Our hope of eternity comes from Jesus.  Cling to him whom we have found in the pages of the Scriptures and we cling to our hope, we cling to eternity and escape from death.  This is a good thing.

So we should all read our Bibles, and read them carefully, so that we can come to know better the God who saves us through Jesus Christ and be transformed and cling to the hope of everlasting life.

*I hereby acknowledge Archbp. Thomas Cranmer’s debt to the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries.  Part of his genius was in selection and translation, part in adaptation of the tradition, part in original composition.

**My own adaptation of Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy.

Saint of the Week: Albert Lacombe

Since I spent June 28 – July 10 in Alberta, I feel that it is only fitting for the first weekly saint since my return to be Albertan.

Technically, though, Albert Lacombe (1827-1916) was not Albertan but Quebecois.  However, in 1827, the only people being born in what was to become Alberta were Metis or First Nations.  Lacombe was educated at the College de l’Assomption and the bishop’s palace in Montreal.  During his studies, he learned about the need for western missionaries from George-Antoine Bellecourt who was visiting from the Red River mission.  In 1849 he went West for the first time.

1851-1852 saw him engaged in parish ministry, but his heart was in the West with the First Nations and Metis peoples.  Thus, 1852 saw return to Rupert’s Land, and 1855 was the year of his novitiate in the Oblate Order.  From 1853 to 1860 he was using Lac Ste-Anne as a hub for missions, visiting Jasper House, Fort Edmonton, Lac la Biche, Lesser Slave Lake, and Fort Dunvegan.  In 1861, Bishop Tache moved Lacombe to a new location just north of Fort Edmonton, a place he named St. Albert in honour of Lacombe’s patron saint.

In 1865, Lacombe requested to be relieved of his duties so he could begin an itinerant mission among the Cree and the Blackfoot.  During this period of mission, he established Saint-Paul-des-Cris which was the first Roman Catholic mission amongst the native peoples of Alberta.  He encountered many dangers during this itinerant ministry, as one can expect, given not only the climate and wildlife but also the epidemics that were moving across the West at the time.  On one occasion, he was almost killed by disease.

In 1869, he learned the Blackfoot language during a three week stay at a Blackfoot settlement near Rocky Mountain House (my hometown!).  This would also have been the year that the Dominion of Canada purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company.  In 1871, he was part of the North-West Territories’ health committee to deal with the smallpox epidemic.  This began many years of Lacombe engaging in various different public roles.  He spent time in the St. Boniface area (the original Canadien settlement at Winnipeg) involved with schemes to encourage French settlement of the West.  He went at least twice to the General Chapter of the Oblates in Europe.  He lobbied for the rights of French Canadians involved in the Red River uprising.

He was blessed with a return to his Indian missions in 1882.  He was in active ministry until 1890, when he tried to retire as a hermit in Pincher Creek.  However, since he had spent the better part of a decade trying to help native Canadians understand the desires of white Canadians and vice versa, including bringing the petitions of Chief Crowfoot to the Canadian Pacific Railway, he was not to be left alone.

In 1894, he found himself in St. Boniface again, this time representing the rights of the French Canadians, seeking to restore the educational privileges recently removed.  This task involved him with politicians in Ottawa and lasted until 1896.  This sort of endless moving about was the sort of thing he was to spend the rest of his life doing.  He did a lot, seeking to bring people of differing perspectives together so that a fair solution to a problem could be found, whether the problem was between Cree and Blackfoot, or First Nations and white Canadians, or English and French Canadians, or Eastern and Western Rite Catholics.

He was also involved in the study of native languages such as Cree, Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan, Ojibwa — especially Cree, for which he worked on a Cree New Testament and various Cree hymns.  Although a man of his time in many ways, his desire to see the Gospel proclaimed among the nations as well as to bring reconciliation amongst different peoples is a beacon of light in a history often very dark and gloomy.