Category Archives: Heresy

Sola Scriptura? Sola scriptura does not allow for a final, definitive interpretation of any given passage of Scripture.

sola-scriptura

joel_peters
-by Joel Peters

“As we have seen previously, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura maintains that the individual believer needs only the Bible as a rule of faith and that he can obtain a true interpretation of a given Scripture passage simply by comparing it with what the rest of the Bible teaches. In practice, however, this approach creates more problems than it solves, and it ultimately prevents the believer from knowing definitively and with certainty how any given passage from the Bible should be interpreted.

The Protestant, in reality, interprets the Bible from a standpoint of subjective opinion rather than objective truth. For example, say Protestant person A studies a Scripture passage and concludes interpretation X. Protestant B studies the identical passage and concludes interpretation Y. Lastly, Protestant C studies the same passage and concludes interpretation Z. (37) Interpretations X and Y and Z are mutually contradictory. Yet each of these people, from the Protestant perspective, can consider his or her interpretation to be “correct” because each one has “compared Scripture with Scripture.”

Now there are only two possible determinations for these three Protestants: a) each of them is incorrect in his interpretation, or b) only one of them is correct – since three contradictory interpretations cannot simultaneously be true. (38) The problem here is that, without the existence of an infallible authority to tell the three Protestants which of their respective interpretations is correct (i.e., objectively true), there is no way for each of them to know with certainty and definitively if his particular interpretation is the correct one. Each Protestant is ultimately left to an individual interpretation based on mere personal opinion – study and research into the matter notwithstanding. Each Protestant thus becomes his own final authority – or, if you will, his own “pope.”

Protestantism in practice bears out this fact. Since the Bible alone is not sufficient as a rule of faith (if it were, our three Protestants would be in complete accord in their interpretations), every believer and denomination within Protestantism must necessarily arrive at his/her/its own interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, if there are many possible interpretations of Scripture, by definition there is no ultimate interpretation. And if there is no ultimate interpretation, then a person cannot know whether or not his own interpretation is objectively true.

A good comparison would be the moral law. If each person relied on his own opinion to determine what was right or wrong, we would have nothing more than moral relativism, and each person could rightly assert his own set of standards. However, since God has clearly defined moral absolutes for us (in addition to those we can know by reason from the natural law), we can assess any given action and determine how morally good or bad it is. This would be impossible without moral absolutes.

Of course any given denomination within Protestantism would probably maintain that its particular interpretations are the correct ones – at least in practice, if not formally. If it did not, its adherents would be changing denominations! However, if any given denomination claims that its interpretations are correct above those of the other denominations, it has effectively set itself up as a final authority. The problem here is that such an act violates Sola Scriptura, setting up an authority outside Scripture.

On the other hand, if any given denomination would grant that it’s interpretations are no more correct than those of other denominations, then we are back to the original dilemma of never knowing which interpretation is correct and thus never having the definitive truth. But Our Lord said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). The predicament here is that each and every denomination within Protestantism makes the same claim – either effectively or formally – regarding its interpretations being “correct.” What we are left with are thousands of different denominations, each claiming to have the Scriptural “truth,” yet none of which is capable of providing an objective determination regarding that “truth.” The result is an inability to obtain a definitive, authoritative and final interpretation of any given Scripture passage. In other words, the Protestant can never say that “the buck stops here” with regard to any given interpretation for any given passage of the Bible.”

Love,
Matthew

37. The quantity of three is used here for illustrative purposes only. The actual historical quantities (i.e., the number of variant interpretations for various passages) are far larger.

38. It is not denied here that a given passage from Scripture can have different levels of interpretation or that it may have different levels of meaning in terms of its application in the life of a believer. It is, however, denied here that a given passage can have more than one theological or doctrinal meaning in the face of opposing interpretations. For example, if two people assert, respectively, “X” and “not-X” for a given interpretation, they cannot both be correct. Take the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist, for instance. If the first person says that the bread and wine at Mass actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and the second person says that they do not, it is impossible for both views to be objectively true.

Semper Ecclesia Reformanda: Franciscan vs Lutheran reform

saint_francis

taylor_marshall
-by Dr. Taylor Marshall

“Essentially, Francis teaches us that we cannot fight heresy by creating new heresies. Francis always submitted to the Church, the popes, and the bishops.

Whenever “reformation” begins to the buck against the institutional Church, more heresy arises. For example, in many regards the Monophysite heresy (i.e. “Christ has one nature”) was an over-reaction to the Nestorian heresy (i.e. “Christ is two persons”). The Catholic Church has always sought to aim directly at the truth, and not merely at the destruction of error. Too often the refutation of error crosses over into further error.

Similarly, Luther and Calvin sought to displace misunderstandings about grace and merit (i.e. the faulty nominalism spawned by William of Ockham) by creating an alternate vision of grace and merit (which ironically embraced Ockham’s nominalism and repackaged it). Luther’s “solution” was in fact heretical. A quick fix is often faulty. Duct tape can “fix” almost anything – but it eventually gives way to other problems.

The annals of Church history are filled with Catholic Reformers: Paul, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Maximus, John Damascene, Pope Gregory VII, Francis, Dominic, Catherine of Sienna, Ignatius, Teresa of Avila, et al. Each of these Catholic Reformers retained the unity of Christ’s Church, submitted to church leadership, and patiently brought about renewal. In many cases, each experienced active persecution from other Christians and even fell under the suspicion of heresy. However, their humility and silence eventually vindicated their cause as advocates for the evangelical truth of Christ’s doctrine.

Saint Francis of Assisi is perhaps one of the best examples of patience in the cause of reform. When St Francis went to Rome to seek recognition from the Pope, the Pope dismissed him impatiently and told him to go “lie down with the pigs.”

After a little while, Francis returned smeared with swine feces and stinking to high heaven. When the Pope objected, Francis answered, “I obeyed your words and merely did as you said. I lay down with the pigs.” Suddenly the Pope realized that this was a holy man who was willing to obey even in the face of humiliation. The Pope listened to Francis’ vision for renewal and the rest is history.

When rebuffed by the pope, Saint Francis could have appealed to Sacred Scripture, showing this his pattern of life was poor and lowly like that of Christ. He might even have contrasted his own “biblical life” against the extravagance of the Papal court. Francis may even have rightly rebuked the abbots, bishops, and cardinals for lacking evangelical witness. Instead, Francis followed the path of Christ. He allowed himself to be misunderstood and maligned, knowing that God would bring about his vindication…and God always does.

Contrast Saint Francis to Martin Luther. Luther did not visit Rome for confirmation of his cause, nor did he respect the structures of the Church. In fact, Cardinal Cajetan met privately with Luther and explained how Luther might modify his message so that Cajetan could have it approved by the Roman Curia. If Luther had moved more slowly and charitably, he may have become “Saint” Martin Luther.

Unfortunately, Luther was adamant and stiff-necked. He would not attempt compromise. If the Pope would not agree with him, then he would reject the papacy. Period. Luther would not tolerate any authority that failed to support him immediately and without question. Consequently, when the papal bull arrived, Luther burned it publicly and began to curse the pope as Antichrist.

Note the difference between Francis and Luther. The former moved slowly and humbly. The latter acted independently and rashly. Consequently, the history of Protestantism is marked by rash and hasty division – there are now 36,000 Protestant denominations.

As the Apostle James wrote: “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (Jas 1:20). History shows that God does not use “hot-heads” to guide His Church into righteousness. God chooses those who are little, meek, and humble – for such is the kingdom of Heaven.

Herein lies the mystery of Catholic Reform.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Sola Scriptura? produces bad fruit, namely disunity & division

sola_scriptura_2_tim_3

joel_peters

-by Joel Peters

“If the doctrine of Sola Scriptura were true, then it should be expected that Protestants would all be in agreement in terms of doctrine, as the Bible could not simultaneously teach contradictory beliefs. And yet the reality is that there are literally thousands (35) of Protestant sects and denominations, each of which claims to have the Bible as its only guide, each of which claims to be preaching the truth, yet each of which teaches something different from the others. Protestants claim that they differ only in non-essential or peripheral matters, but the fact is that they cannot even agree on major doctrinal issues such as the Eucharist, salvation, and justification – to name a few.

For instance, most Protestant denominations teach that Jesus Christ is only symbolically present in the Eucharist, while others (such as Lutherans and Episcopalians) believe that He is literally present, at least to some extent. Some denominations teach that once you are “saved” you can never lose your salvation, while others believe it is possible for a true Christian to sin gravely and cease being “saved.” And some denominations teach that justification involves the Christian’s being merely declared righteous, while others teach that the Christian must also grow in holiness and actually become righteous.

Our Lord categorically never intended for His followers to be as fragmented, disunited and chaotic as the history of Protestantism has been since its very inception. (36) Quite the contrary, He prayed for His followers: “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us.” (John 17:21). And St. Paul exhorts Christians to doctrinal unity with the words, “One body and one Spirit… One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Eph. 4:4-5). How, then, can the thousands of Protestant denominations and sects all claim to be the “true Church” when their very existence refutes this claim? How can such heterodoxy and contradiction in doctrine be the unity for which Our Lord prayed?

In this regard, the reader should be reminded of Christ’s own words: “For by the fruit the tree is known.” (Matt. 12:33). By this standard, the historical testimony afforded by Protestantism demonstrates that the tree of Sola Scriptura is producing bad fruit.”

Love,
Matthew

35. By some estimates there are approximately 25,000 different Protestant denominations and sects. In the approximately 500 years since Protestantism’s origin with Martin Luther (usually dated at 1517), this number translates into an average of one new Protestant denomination or sect every week! Even if you take a conservative estimate of 10,000 denominations and sects, you still have a new one developing every 2 ½ weeks.

36. Even the original “Reformers” – Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli – did not agree on doctrinal matters and labeled each other’s teachings heretical.

Sexual orientation & gender identity: what does the science say?

real-love

“Washington D.C., Aug 27, 2016 / 07:09 am (CNA/EWTN News).- For most young people who experience feelings of gender dysphoria, the experience is in fact temporary, and a non-heterosexual orientation is not as fixed as sometimes claimed, a new overview of the relevant research says.

“Only a minority of children who experience cross-gender identification will continue to do so into adolescence or adulthood,” said the report, published in The New Atlantis Journal.

As many as 80 percent of men who reported same-sex attraction as adolescents no longer do so as adults. There were “similar but less striking” results for women. The idea of innate sexual orientation is “not supported by scientific evidence,” the report said.

Titled “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences,” the report reviews various research studies to examine claims about sexuality and gender.

It was authored by Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer, Ph.D., a biostatistician and epidemiologist now a scholar in residence at Johns Hopkins University; and by Dr. Paul R. McHugh, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
The report considers various claims like the basis and permanence of gender identity and sexual orientation.

It found there is a lack of scientific evidence for claims that gender identity is an innate property “independent of biological sex.” Scientific evidence also does not support claims that a person might be “a man trapped in a woman’s body.”

Gender identity problems can arise for someone with Intersex conditions, where a person has ambiguous biological sex due to genetic abnormalities.

However, brain structure comparison of transgender and non-transgender individuals show only “weak correlations” between brain structure and cross-gender identification. These correlations are not evidence that this identity has a basis in the biology of the brain.

Similarly, sexual orientation’s neurological basis can be overstated. Against the “born that way” claim, the report authors write: “While there is evidence that biological factors such as genes and hormones are associated with sexual behaviors and attractions, there are no compelling causal biological explanations for human sexual orientation.”

The report also considered sexuality, mental health, and social factors.

Non-heterosexuals are two to three times as likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse.

The authors weighed the evidence that non-heterosexual attractions, desires and behaviors may increase the risk of suffering sex abuse, or that sexual abuse may cause non-heterosexual attractions, desires and behaviors. They said that more research is needed before claiming a link between sex abuse and non-heterosexual attractions.

Non-heterosexuals do face elevated risk of adverse health and mental health outcomes. They are estimated to have a 1.5 times higher risk of anxiety and substance abuse than the heterosexual population. They face double the risk of depression and 2.5 times higher risk of suicide.

The transgender population, recently estimated to make up 0.6 percent of the total population, suffers a lifetime suicide attempt rate of 41 percent, compared to 5 percent of the overall population.
There is “limited, inconsistent and incomplete” evidence that social stressors like discrimination and stigma “contribute to the elevated risk of poor mental health outcomes for non-heterosexual and transgender populations.”

The report said clinicians and policymakers should not assume that models focused on social stressors offer a complete explanation for these health differences.

“Just as it does a disservice to non-heterosexual subpopulations to ignore or downplay the statistically higher risks of negative mental health outcomes they face, so it does them a disservice to misattribute the causes of these elevated risks, or to ignore other potential factors that may be at work.”

Adults who undergo sex reassignment surgeries continue to show a high risk in mental health, being about 5 times more likely to attempt suicide and 19 times more likely to die by suicide compared to a control group.

Regarding therapies for children that delay puberty or modify sex characteristics of adolescents, there is “little scientific evidence” for their therapeutic value, the report said.

At the same time, “some children may have improved psychological well-being if they are encouraged and supported in their cross-gender identification.”

“There is no evidence that all children who express gender-atypical thoughts or behavior should be encouraged to become transgender,” the report added.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Sola Scriptura?: idea of sola scriptura did not exist prior to 14th century

open-bible-sola-scriptura

joel_peters
-by Joel Peters

“As difficult a reality as it may be for some to face, this foundational doctrine of Protestantism did not originate until the 14th century and did not become widespread until the 16h century – a far, far cry time-wise from the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. This simple fact is conveniently overlooked or ignored by Protestants, but it can stand alone as sufficient reason to discard the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The truth that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura did not exist before John Wycliffe (forerunner of Protestantism) in the 14th century and did not become widespread until Martin Luther came along in the 16th century and began setting up his own “traditions of men” in place of authentic Christian teaching. The doctrine, therefore, not only lacks the historical continuity which marks legitimate Apostolic teaching, but it actually represents an abrupt change, a radical break with the Christian past.

Protestants will assert that the Bible itself teaches Sola Scriptura and therefore that the doctrine had its roots back with Jesus Christ. However, as we have seen [in prior posts on this subject], the Bible teaches no such things. The claim that the Bible teaches this doctrine is nothing more than a repeated effort to retroject this belief back into the pages of Scripture. The examination of historical continuity (or lack thereof) provides an indication whether or not a particular belief originated with Jesus Christ and the Apostles or whether it appeared somewhere much later in time. The fact is that the historical record is utterly silent on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura prior to the 14th century.”

Love,
Matthew

The Heresy of Pelagiansim

Bad-Boys-of-Theology-Pelagius

rc_sproul
-by RC Sproul

“Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.” This passage from the pen of Saint Augustine of Hippo was the teaching of the great theologian that provoked one of the most important controversies in the history of the church, and one that was roused to fury in the early years of the fifth century.

The provocation of this prayer stimulated a British monk by the name of Pelagius to react strenuously against its contents. When Pelagius came to Rome sometime in the first decade of the fifth century, he was appalled by the moral laxity he observed among professing Christians and even among the clergy. He attributed much of this malaise to the implications of the teaching of Saint Augustine, namely that righteousness could only be achieved by Christians with the special help of divine grace.

With respect to Augustine’s prayer, “Oh God, grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire,” Pelagius had no problems with the second part. He believed that God’s highest attribute was indeed His righteousness, and from that righteousness He had the perfect right Himself to obligate His creatures to obey Him according to His law. It was the first part of the prayer that exercised Pelagius, in which Augustine asked God to grant what He commands. Pelagius reacted by saying that whatever God commands implies the ability of the one who receives the command to obey it. Man should not have to ask for grace in order to be obedient.

Now, this discussion broadened into further debates concerning the nature of Adam’s fall, the extent of corruption in our humanity that we describe under the rubric “original sin,” and the doctrine of baptism.

It was the position of Pelagius that Adam’s sin affected Adam and only Adam. That is to say, as a result of Adam’s transgression there was no change wrought in the constituent nature of the human race. Man was born in a state of righteousness, and as one created in the image of God, he was created immutably so. Even though it was possible for him to sin, it was not possible for him to lose his basic human nature, which was capable always and everywhere to be obedient. Pelagius went on to say that it is, even after the sin of Adam, possible for every human being to live a life of perfect righteousness and that, indeed, some have achieved such status.

Pelagius was not opposed to grace, only to the idea that grace was necessary for obedience. He maintained that grace facilitates obedience but is not a necessary prerequisite for obedience. There is no transfer of guilt from Adam to his progeny nor any change in human nature as a subsequence of the fall. The only negative impact Adam had on his progeny was that of setting a bad example, and if those who follow in the pathway of Adam imitate his disobedience, they will share in his guilt, Pelagius asserted, but only by being actually guilty themselves.

There can be no transfer or imputation of guilt from one man to another according to the teaching of Pelagius. On the other side, Augustine argued that the fall seriously impaired the moral ability of the human race. Indeed, the fall of Adam plunged all of humanity into the ruinous state of original sin. Original sin does not refer to the first sin of Adam and Eve, but refers to the consequences for the human race of that first sin. It refers to God’s judgment upon the whole human race by which He visits upon us the effects of Adam’s sin by the thoroughgoing corruption of all of his descendants. Paul develops this theme in the fifth chapter of his epistle to the Romans.

“For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” -Romans 7:19
or,
“I tried to be good, but I got bored.” 🙁 -t-shirt I own.

The key issue for Augustine in this controversy was the issue of fallen man’s moral ability — or lack thereof. Augustine argued that prior to the fall, Adam and Eve enjoyed a free will as well as moral liberty. The will is the faculty by which choices are made. Liberty refers to the ability to use that faculty to embrace the things of God.

After the fall, Augustine said the will, or the faculty, of choosing remained intact; that is, human beings are still free in the sense that they can choose what they want to choose. However, their choices are deeply influenced by the bondage of sin that holds them in a corrupt state. And as a result of that bondage to sin, the original liberty that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall was lost.

The only way that moral liberty could be restored would be through God’s supernatural work of grace in the soul. This renewal of liberty is what the Bible calls a “royal” liberty (James 2:8).

Therefore, the crux of the matter had to do with the issue of moral inability as the heart of original sin. The controversy yielded several church verdicts including the judgment of the church in a synod in the year 418, where the Council of Carthage condemned the teachings of Pelagius. The heretic was exiled to Constantinople in 429. And once again, Pelagianism was condemned by the church at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Throughout church history, again and again, unvarnished Pelagianism has been repudiated by Christian orthodoxy.

Even the Council of Trent, which teaches a form of semi-Pelagianism, in its first three canons — especially in the sixth chapter on justification — repeats the church’s ancient condemnation of the teaching of Pelagius that men can be righteous apart from grace. Even as recently as the modern Roman Catholic catechism, that condemnation is continued.

In our own day, the debate between Pelagianism and Augustinianism may be seen as the debate between humanism and Christianity. Humanism is a warmed-over variety of Pelagianism.

However, the struggle within the church now is between the Augustinian view and various forms of semi-Pelagianism, which seeks a middle ground between the views of Pelagius and Augustine.

Semi-Pelagianism teaches that grace is necessary to achieve righteousness, but that this grace is not imparted to the sinner unilaterally or sovereignly as is maintained by orthodox Christianity.

Rather, the semi-Pelagian argues that the individual makes the initial step of faith before that saving grace is given. Thus, God imparts the grace of faith in conjunction with the sinner’s work in seeking God. It seems a little mixing of grace and works-not-prompted-through-grace doesn’t worry the semi-Pelagian.

[Ed.  Catholicism holds ALL is grace.  The ability, the inclination to seek truth and grace is itself the fruit of God’s freely given grace.  Any good we do in this life is the fruit of God’s freely given grace, but it MUST be exercised.  It CANNOT be ignored or denied.  Faith, ALONE, is NOT sufficient.  This would be sinful, a sin of omission, as opposed to comission.]  It is our task, however, if we are to be faithful first to Scripture and then to the church’s ancient councils, to discern Augustine’s truth and defend it aright.”

Love,
Matthew

Irish Catholic Jansenism – #JOY is @#Heart of the Gospel!!!!!

OLPerpetualResponsibility

OLPerpetualResponsibility2

Jn 5:11

My mother, lovingly, and with the best of intentions for me, used to remind me, frequently, as a child, “The lightning is going to strike you, Mashew!!”  Ostensibly, to keep the straight and narrow.  And, “If my children lose their faith, I have failed as a mother!”  NO PRESSURE!!!

There is a severity in Irish Catholicism, cf joyless Irish nuns of discipline, i.e. Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, Lake Wobegon, MN.  Workhouses for Wayward Girls & Truant Boys, etc.  I thought the Irish were tough, until I met the Polish in Chicago!!  Jeesh!!!  Did anyone else notice how the Polish jokes just stopped dead cold after JPII’s election?  They did.

“…Why do they call this heartless place
Our Lady of Charity?

These bloodless brides of Jesus
If they had just once glimpsed their Groom
Then they’d know, and they’d drop the stones
Concealed behind their rosaries.
They wilt the grass they walk upon
They leech the light out of a room…”
-“Magdalene Laundries”, The Chieftains, Tears of Stone, 1999

Cornelius_Jansen_by_Evêque_d'Ypres_(1585-1638)
-Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638), professor at the Old University of Louvain, painting by by Evêque d’Ypres

The heresy of Jansenism is named after Cornelius Jansen, who was the Bishop of Ypres in the early 17th century. His main work, Augustinus, was published after his death. In this work, he claimed to have rediscovered the true teaching of St. Augustine concerning grace, which had been lost to the Church for centuries. Even though he was not strictly a heretic, his writings still caused great harm to the Church.

At that time, the Jesuits were heavily preaching on the mercy of God. This was seen by some as moral laxity. Also the debates with the Calvinists had an influence on Jansen’s thoughts. Without going into the details of the “five propositions from Jansen”, this heresy essentially taught that God’s saving grace is irresistible, though not given to everyone. According to Jansen, a person could neither accept or reject this grace due to his fallen nature. Although persons, who received it, were sure of salvation. Unfortunately not everyone received this saving grace. God decreed who was saved and who was lost. Jansen denied human free will and God’s desire to save everyone (1 Tim. 2:4). Even though the Jansenists hoped to combat the moral laxity of their time through moral rigorism, their denial of human free will and God’s mercy actually promoted moral despair or a carefree, frivolous life style, since personal actions had no effect on personal salvation. Due to the duplicity of its promoters, this heresy harmed the Church for over seventy years.

Summary of Catholic Teaching on Grace & Free Will:

1) The grace merited by Christ is necessary for us for all actions of piety and the exercise of every virtue and should be asked of from God.
2) With the help of grace, all the commandments of God are possible to obey, such that a chaste and holy Christian life without mortal sin is possible. Also, without this grace, we cannot do anything that is truly good, nor even persevere in good except by grace.
3) Grace prevents and aids our wills in such a way that we owe our salvation to God’s grace; if we do fall, it should be imputed to ourselves.
4) Grace strengthens and supplements our freedom, but in no way destroys it.
5) While maintaining the existence and freedom of the will, we should nevertheless remain in a posture of humility, remembering that our will is aided by grace in ways we don’t understand.

I have been trained as a catechist that the Truth, which the Church seeks, is often found in a middle course, a middle way between extremes. This is NOT splitting the difference!!! But, rather, a sincere search for and discovery of the Truth of God. The fact of the matter is, I have been trained, is that Truth happens to often be found in the moderation of extremes.

There are two known poles regarding the theological and metaphysical interplay of grace & free will, from a Roman Catholic perspective. The first, the heresy of Pelagianism, errs in assigning too great a role to free will and debasing God’s grace; the other, of course, is that of Calvinism, in which free will is negated and the operation of grace inflated to the point that we arrive at total (or double) predestination. These extremes are the Scylla and Charybdis of the theology of grace; a truly Catholic approach to this problem must sail skillfully between these two dangers, turning neither to the left nor to the right.

michael_moreland
-by Michael Moreland
May 26, 2015

“The big story coming out of the weekend was the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage, accompanied by barely concealed glee in some quarters at the humiliation of the Catholic Church. Here’s a hypothesis to ponder about the historical reach of theological ideas and the place of Catholicism in different cultures (not so much about the substance of the same-sex marriage debate itself), even if it might not hold up in every detail to scrutiny.

As Damian Thompson writing at the Spectator notes here, the influence of Catholicism in Ireland has waned for various reasons (most especially the sex abuse scandal), and one factor he mentions in passing is “the joyless quasi-Jansenist character of the Irish Church.” Indeed, while the Church’s influence across Europe has fallen, the collapse in those parts of Europe (or places missionized by Europeans) arguably influenced by Jansenism has been ferocious: the Low Countries (we think of Jansenism as primarily a French movement, but Cornelius Jansen himself was Dutch and Bishop of Ypres), France, Quebec, and Ireland. The place of the Church in the culture of those parts of European Catholicism less tinged by Jansenism has fared a bit better: Poland, Austria, Bavaria, Italy, and, most especially, Spain and Portugal and their former colonies in Latin America and the Philippines.

I am simplifying a great deal here, of course. There was, for example, a robust Jansenist movement in parts of modern-day Italy, and, more importantly, it is hard to say how much Jansenist influence there really was in Irish Catholicism (captured by the “quasi-” in Thompson’s essay). Because of English persecution, there were no seminaries in Ireland up through the end of the eighteenth century and so Irish clergy were often trained at Jansenist French seminaries, and there might have been some Jansenist influence in the early days at Maynooth, the Irish national seminary founded in 1795. But the scope of the actual influence of Jansenist ideas on folk Irish Catholicism is much harder to determine, as Thomas O’Connor notes in his 2007 entry on “Jansenism” in The Oxford Companion to Irish History (“The frequent claim that Irish Catholicism was Jansenist-influenced springs from the tendency to confuse Jansenism with mere moral rigorism.”). Jansenism was just one (perhaps small) factor among many contributing to Seán Ó Faoláin’s “dreary Eden.”

If there is something to this, though, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jansenism—with its hyper-Augustinianism, insistence on human depravity, confused doctrine of freedom and grace, other-worldliness, and moral rigorism—was theologically pernicious (condemned in Cum occasione by Pope Innocent X in 1653 and in Unigenitus dei filius by Pope Clement VI in 1713). A Catholic culture shaped by it distorts our understanding of the human person and society, and bad theological doctrines about God, human nature, and sin can wreak havoc even if the institutional forms of the Church endure for a time. Jansenism produced a towering genius in Blaise Pascal and a minor genius in Antoine Arnauld, but it was an unfortunate development in early modern Catholicism. As we think about how to build (or re-build, as it may be) Catholic culture, we would do well to remember that joy is at the heart of the gospel, and a Catholic culture drained of such joy by Jansenism or its cousins will, when the time comes, all too easily be swept away.”

Love & the JOY!!! of the Gospel,
Matthew

Sola Scriptura?: Bible not available to individual Christians until 15th century

Ancient-Bible

Let us recall that, until lately in the modern age, books were expensive possessions, and literacy, uncommon. Many will accuse the Church of burning heretics and their heretical books. Actually, it was the State which viewed heresy as treasonous, and burned heretics at the stake along with witches, et al. The Church was forbidden from shedding blood. The rack and the pear do not shed blood, necessarily.

This seems like a logical and reasonable practice to me if your goal is to preserve the intellectual integrity of knowledge amongst a grossly uneducated/undereducated populace. Seems reasonable. Of course, you can see how much unity and peace we have in the modern age from widely available varieties of texts, mass distribution and availability of ideas, the humility to learn, and general literacy and education, even if heretical. Right? (sic) While you may not approve of their methods, you cannot accuse their premise of being incorrect. You cannot; too much proof. Too much.

joel_peters
-by Joel Peters

“Essential to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the idea that the Holy Spirit will enlighten each believer as to the correct interpretation for a given Bible passage. This idea presupposes that each believer possesses a Bible or at least has access to a Bible. The difficulty with such a presumption is that the Bible was not able to be mass-produced and readily available to individual believers until the advent of the printing press in the 15th century. (34) Even then, it would have taken quite some time for large numbers of Bibles to be printed and disseminated to the general population.

The predicament caused by this state of affairs is that millions upon millions of Christians who lived prior to the 15th century would have been left without a final authority, left to flounder spiritually, unless by chance they had access to a hand-copied Bible. Even a mere human understanding of such circumstances would make God out to be quite cruel, as He would have revealed the fullness of His Word to humanity in Christ, knowing that the means by which such information could be made readily available would not exist for another 15 centuries.

On the other hand, we know that God is not cruel at all, but in fact has infinite love for us. It is for this reason that He did not leave us in darkness. He sent us His Son to teach us the way we should believe and act, and this Son established a Church to promote those teachings through preaching to both the learned and the illiterate. “Faith then cometh by hearing; and hearing by the Word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17). Christ also gave to His Church His guarantee that He would always be with it, never allowing it to fall into error. God, therefore, did not abandon His people and make them rely upon the invention of the printing press to be the means whereby they would come to a saving knowledge of His Son. Instead, He gave us a divinely established, infallible teacher, the Catholic Church, to provide us with the means to be informed of the Good News of the Gospel – and to be informed correctly.”

Love,
Matthew

34. It should be noted that the inventor of the printing press – Johannes Gutenberg – was Catholic, and that the first book he printed was the Bible (circa 1455). It should also be noted that the first printed Bible contained 73 books, the exact same number as today’s Catholic Bible. Protestants deleted 7 books from the Old Testament after the Bible had already begun being printed.

Sola Scriptura?: Hundreds of Bible versions

Saint-Augustine-Quotes-5

joel_peters
-by Joel Peters

“As mentioned in the prior post, there are thousands and thousands of variations in the Biblical manuscripts. This problem is compounded by the fact that history has known hundreds of Bible versions, which vary in translation as well as textual sources. The question which begs to be asked is, “Which version is the correct one?” or “Which version is closest to the original manuscripts?” One possible answer will depend on which side of the Catholic/Protestant issue you situate yourself. Another possible answer will depend upon which Bible scholars you consider to be trustworthy and reputable.

The simple fact is that some versions are clearly inferior to others. Progress in the field of Biblical research made possible by archaeological discoveries (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls) has vastly improved our knowledge of the ancient Biblical languages and settings. We know more today about the variables impacting upon Biblical studies than our counterparts of 100, 200, or 1,000 years ago. From this point of view, modern Bible versions may have a certain superiority to older Bible versions. On the other hand, Bibles based on the Latin Vulgate of Saint Jerome (4th century) – in English, this is the Douay-Rheims – are based on original texts which have since perished, and thus these traditional versions bypass 16 centuries of possible textual corruption.

This fact causes a considerable problem for the Protestant, because it means that modern Protestants may have in some respects a “better” or more accurate Bible than their forbears, while in other respects they may have a “poorer” or less accurate Bible – which in turn means that modern Protestants have either a “more authoritative” final authority or a “less authoritative” final authority than their predecessors. But the existence of degrees of authoritativeness begins to undermine Sola Scirptura, because it would mean that one Bible is not as authentic a final authority as another one. And if it is not as authentic, then the possibility of transmitting erroneous doctrine increases, and the particular Bible version then fails to function as the final authority, since it is not actually final.

Another point to consider is that Bible translators, as human beings, are not completely objective and impartial. Some may be likely to render a given passage in a manner which corresponds more closely with one belief system rather than with another. An example of this tendency can be seen in Protestant Bibles where the Greek word paradoseis occurs. Since Protestants deny the existence of Sacred Tradition, some Protestant translations of the Bible render this word as “teachings” or “customs” rather than “tradition,” as the latter would tend to give more weight to the Catholic position.

Yet another consideration is the reality that some versions of the Bible are outright perversions of the Biblical texts, as in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation. Here the “translators” render key passages in a manner which suits their erroneous doctrines. (32) Now unless there is an authority outside of the Bible to declare such translations unreliable and dangerous, by what authority could someone call them unsuited for use in teaching doctrine? If the Protestant responds by saying that this issue can be determined on the basis of Biblical scholarship, then he is ignorant of the fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses also cite sources of Biblical scholarship in support of their translation of these passages! The issue then devolves into a game of pitting one source of scholarship against another – one human authority against another.

Ultimately, the problem can only be resolved through the intervention of an infallible teaching authority which speaks on behalf of Christ. The Catholic knows that that authority is the Roman Catholic Church and its Magisterium or teaching authority. In an exercise of this authority, Catholic Bishops grant an imprimatur (meaning “Let it be printed”) to be included on the opening pages of certain Bible versions and other spiritual literature to alert the reader that the book contains nothing contrary to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles.” (33)

Love,
Matthew

(32) Of the numerous examples which could be cited, space considerations confine us to just a few to illustrate the point. In John 1:1, the NWT reads, “… and the Word was a god” rather than “and the Word was God,” because Witnesses deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. In Colossians 1:15-20, the NWT inserts the word “other” into the text four times because Witnesses believe that Jesus Christ Himself was created. In Matthew 26:26 the NWT reads “… this means my body…” instead of “This is my body,” because Witnesses deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

(33) Moreover, the old Latin Vulgate version of the Bible received a very particular approval by the Church at the Council of Trent among all the Latin editions of the Scriptures then in circulation. The Council of Trent declared: “Moreover, the same Holy Council [of Trent]… ordains and declares that the old Latin Vulgate Edition, which, in use for so many hundred years, has been approved by the Church, be in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions held as authentic, and that no one dare or presume under any pretext whatsoever to reject it.” (Fourth Session, April 8, 1546). Hence, as Pope Pius XII stated in his 1943 encyclical letter Divino Afflante Spiritu (“On the Promotion of Biblical Studies”), the Vulgate, “when interpreted in the sense in which the Church has always understood it,” is “free from any error whatsoever in matters of faith and morals.

In 1907 Pope Saint Pius X (1903-1914) initiated a revision of the Vulgate to achieve even greater textual accuracy. After his death, this huge project was carried on by others. In 1979 Pope John Paul II promulgated a “New Vulgate” as “Editio typica” or “normative edition’.”

United Methodism – Doctrinal Pluralism, and its effects

John_Wesley_by_George_Romney
-John Wesley, founder of Methodism

abraham
-by William J. Abraham, June 1998, is the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. He is the author of “Waking From Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church” (1995) and “Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology from the Fathers to Feminism”, from Clarendon/Oxford University Press.

“The United Methodist Church stands at a critical moment. Founded in 1968 at a time of ecumenical enthusiasm and euphoria, it now harbors within it forces that threaten to destroy it as a single body. Those forces did not arise overnight; indeed they stretch back into the parent bodies that merged to form United Methodism. Three groups, the liberals, radicals, and conservatives, are finding their uneasy compromise difficult to maintain.

It has long been agreed that United Methodism is a coalition of diverse conviction and opinion, having been formed under the banner of theological pluralism. Church leaders took the view in the 1970s that the core identity of United Methodism, if there was one at all, was located in commitment to the Methodist Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), and that this not only permitted but in fact sanctioned and fostered doctrinal pluralism.

Doctrinal pluralism, despite its intellectual incoherence, will work so long as something akin to Liberal Protestantism is held by the leadership of the church and so long as those who are not Liberal Protestants acquiesce. In fact pluralism is part of the intellectual structure of Liberal Protestantism.

If you believe that Christian doctrine is essentially an attempt to capture dimensions of human experience that defy precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations, then the truth about God, the human condition, salvation, and the like can never be adequately posited once and for all; on the contrary, the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine as mediated through Jesus Christ.

The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends. In these circumstances pluralism is an inescapable feature of the church’s life. Pluralism effectively prevents the emergence of Christian doctrinal confession, that is, agreed Christian conviction and truth; and it creates the psychological and social conditions for constant self-criticism and review.

The incoherence of this position is not difficult to discern, despite its initial plausibility. On its own terms it cannot tolerate, for example, those who believe that there really is a definitive revelation of the divine, that the church really can discern and express the truth about God through the working of reason and the Holy Spirit, and that such truth is necessary for effective mission and service. Hence pluralism is by nature exclusionary. Thus it is no surprise that pluralists readily desert their pluralism in their vehement opposition to certain kinds of classical and conservative theology.

Pluralism is at once absolutist and relativist. It is absolutely committed to the negative doctrine that there is no divine revelation that delivers genuine knowledge of God; it is absolutely committed to a radically apophatic conception of Christian theology, so that no human language or concept, no product of reason at all, can adequately express the mystery of the divine; and it is absolutely committed to using theology to articulate Christian doctrine given the needs and idiom of the day. But it is relativist in its vision of what constitutes the material content of Christian doctrine at any point in history. Doctrine for the pluralists is the expression of Christian teaching as worked out by some appropriate theology and expressed in terms adequate to the culture of the day. To them, Christian tradition constitutes a series of landmark expressions of the faith which are worth exploring, but which must change to incorporate new insights and new truth. On this analysis tradition is seen to be a relatively benign, if not strictly binding, phenomenon.

More recently, however, a very different attitude to the church’s tradition has emerged. There is now abroad in theology a form of Radical Protestantism which constitutes a whole new vision of Christian faith and existence. Its proponents claim that the tradition is dominated by patriarchy and exclusion, the product of oppressive forces linked to geographical location, social class, race, and gender. It is not to be tolerated, but stamped out and destroyed. Nobody, at least in public, would be prepared to state the matter that bluntly, but that is the truth of the matter.

Like the liberals, the radicals are both absolutists and relativists, but about different matters. They absolutize a commitment to liberation, emancipation, and empowerment. Equally absolute is the privileged position of designated victims of oppression. In some radical circles we can detect that a working doctrine of divine revelation has crept back into their discourse, where certain experiences of oppression and liberation are taken as epiphanies or as visible signs of the reign of God, and anything that questions the truth embedded in these experiences must be suppressed. On the other hand, radicals insist, we should not suppress the diverse convictions, ideologies, theories, and discourses of the new included groups. They become the real focus of pluralism as we try to foster different voices, experiences, readings, and proposals within the carefully circumscribed boundaries.

Within intellectual circles in United Methodism these developments have caused some consternation. Many of the great Liberal Protestant teachers of the tradition in the last generation have become disillusioned by the loss of their cherished conceptions of critical inquiry, courtesy, and academic standards. They are undergoing a mixed sense of despair, betrayal, and alienation. Their ideas of objective scholarship have been overtaken by forms of engaged or committed scholarship which they see as a mixture of radical subjectivism and political manipulation. A fertile few have managed to find a way to take on board some of the new theories without jettisoning the deep structure of their position, but the general sense is one of weariness and deep loss.

Recently, divisions that had only surfaced in academic discussions have begun to move out into the wider church. Significant numbers of women clergy now see opposition to their intellectual positions as ineradicably linked to right-wing Christianity or as inextricably tied to a backlash on the part of white male members in the church. This is entirely in keeping with the underlying convictions about knowledge and power that animate much of the new trend in theology.

These developments are a genuinely new arrival within the borders of United Methodism. This is not, of course, the first time that there has been a changing of the academic guard; but this time we have something more, an intentional political edge that does not permit it to be contained within the standard liberal language of tolerance and civility. “Engaged scholarship” brings into the heart of the discussion considerations related to emotion, commitment, personal identity, subjective reception, and radical enactment in the public arena. There is in fact a missionary dimension that drives its adherents to transform the church and the world. In this respect the new orthodoxy is very much like earlier forms of orthodoxy that sought to serve the church from within a very particular confessional stance. There is also a concomitant concern to link knowledge and action and to relate action to vital spirituality.

Many fine pastors, theologians, and administrators, people who have given a generation of service to the church and who are committed to a small core of Christological conviction surrounded by a very flexible outer ring of conviction, still imagine that things are much the same as they were when they were in seminary. Such leaders have been able to survive intellectually by folding the reigning diversity and pluralism into their conviction that Jesus really is the Son of God and the teacher and savior of the world. Their motto could be summed up: “Stick closely to Christ and leave the rest to God and human history.” This is an inadequate body of doctrine for the long haul of history, but it has served a whole generation remarkably well. Although they are aware that the intellectual landmarks are changing, they find it difficult to believe that the basic commitment to civility, relevant evidence, and respect for the tradition of the church across the ages might be overtaken by a very different vision of the church. Yet it is only a matter of time before the changes identified above will force themselves upon these leaders.

To round out this contemporary portrait of the United Methodist Church, something needs to be said about conservative or classical Methodists. It is this group, often identified in secularist fashion as the right wing of the denomination, that is accused of splitting the church.

This charge is puzzling in the extreme, for the practice of even the hard-line conservatives has been anything but schismatic. Rather than pull out, they have opted over many years to stay in and work for renewal. Indeed, most conservatives within United Methodism are instinctively oriented to renewal rather than schism. Those committed to schism have already left and gone elsewhere. The conservative wing of the church is itself a fragile coalition, including those who lean in a catholic direction, those who are card-carrying charismatics, those inclined in an Anabaptist direction, and those who are really pragmatists at heart but for the moment lean to conservatism out of convenience and traditional piety. Those who believe that there is some kind of conspiracy afoot to pull out and form a new church overlook these differences among conservatives, and underestimate the difficulty of bringing them all together. The coalition holds together informally for the most part because of the perceived threat to the integrity and continuity of the Methodist tradition. Take away that threat and the inner divisions within the conservative wing of the church will quickly become visible.

Three additional considerations are pivotal for understanding the current mood among conservatives. First, they have been reasonably effective at the local level; in some cases their success in growing local churches has been spectacular. This has kept them busy and enabled them to ignore those features of the larger church that disturb them. Secondly, they have become more organized politically within the church as a whole. Though still at the margins, they now have to be reckoned with seriously. Thirdly, a network of highly educated conservative academics has begun something of a renaissance of classical Wesleyanism. The development of such a network opens the way for a deeper renewal, looking to issues of principle that would otherwise be ignored and to articulating a more forceful diagnosis of the situation in the church.

Schismatic activity would involve conservatives abandoning their own principles. There are few more telling pieces on the evils of schism and its consequences than that provided by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. (The irony of Wesley’s own position will not, however, be lost on the perceptive reader, for Wesley made this attack on parties within the church all the while he was organizing one of the most effective renewal movements that Anglicanism had seen.)

Consider the following comments:

As . . . separation is evil in itself, being a breach of brotherly love, so it brings forth evil fruit; it is naturally productive of the most mischievous consequences. It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmisings, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger, and to resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethren, which if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred, creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to hell eternal.

Wesley provides a graphic catalogue of woes that follow from division and schism. Evil tempers lead to evil actions, which in turn lead some Christians to abandon the faith and put their eternal salvation at risk. Offense is given to the Holy Spirit, holiness is quenched, and evangelism suffers, for outsiders see no point in becoming Christian. Ultimately both the power and the very form of religion are destroyed. Even a cursory reading of Wesley is an antidote to any thought of schism in the church.

Despite these features of conservative Methodism, others still fear it as a source of division in the church, and perhaps understandably so. A new brand of conservative is emerging who is arguing that United Methodism really does have a substantial doctrine to which the tradition has been and should be committed. Non-conservative United Methodists instinctively fear that such a perspective will divide the church because it involves the marking of boundaries between those who are in and those who are out. In short, critics are relying on the old slogan that doctrine divides while experience unites. The insistence that United Methodism is a confessional church, a central claim of most conservatives, threatens the commitment to pluralism, diversity, and inclusiveness of the last generation of United Methodists. Here we have reached the nub of the charge, for abandoning pluralism and accepting diversity only within agreed boundaries does indeed represent a significant departure from the unstable orthodoxy that has been in vogue for so long.

Yet even this move on the part of conservatives need not lead to schism. On the contrary, those pressing this reorientation have done exactly what those committed to pluralism did a generation ago. They have worked out a careful account of the United Methodist tradition that rivals the prevailing one. They have proposed a deep conversation on the doctrinal identity of United Methodism, and they have insisted that any debate that emerges be conducted in a serious and civilized fashion. Moreover, they readily acknowledge that proposed legislative and other changes, if needed, should be carried out within the corridors and courts of the church in a rational and fair manner. Liberal Protestants should grasp the value of such an approach immediately. It is an open question whether they will actually do so, or whether they will join with Radical Protestants in dismissing this whole exercise as a cover for ideology and a quest for power.

In light of all these considerations, it is quite remarkable that United Methodism has been able to hang together for so long. While other factors are clearly involved, we have been fortunate to have had a cadre of Liberal Protestants who have been able to lead (albeit in a way that has exasperated both conservatives and radicals), and to have had a strong commitment on the part of conservatives to stay on board and work for renewal. However, as I have noted, this is now in the process of disintegrating, and it is the liberal commitment to pluralism that is giving way. Pluralism, much as it continues to be prized among liberals, is a self-destructive notion rejected by both radicals and conservatives. It is an inherently unstable arrangement that cannot survive either the force of logic or the march of events.

We are facing, then, the breakdown of a working consensus, and it is not difficult to imagine what it would take to complete the break. A headstrong figure, the theological and ecclesiastical equivalent of a Ross Perot, might emerge and insist that the whole church follow his way or die. A significant group of bishops could manage to develop an agenda deeply at odds with prevailing circumstances. Some large bodies, or jurisdictions, might become so alienated from the leadership of the church and so upset about funding policies in key areas that they decide to withhold all contributions to the Connection, the governing body of United Methodism.

Suppose there emerged from left or right an issue of moral commitment over which the diverse movements in the church could agree that church-wide action must be taken but could not agree on what action to take. Suppose, further, that this issue was logically related to matters of principle at a deeper level, so that one could not commit oneself on this issue without also making significant commitments about the internal logic and character of the tradition as a whole. Suppose, still further, that those demanding action intended to use not just argument and rhetoric but activist demonstration to secure their ends. Suppose, finally, that they were to form a community of local churches and other entities within United Methodism that both expressed their moral convictions and worked assiduously for the practical adoption of their agenda. If such a scenario were to develop, then there can be no doubting that the community would be ripe for outright schism.

It does not take a rocket scientist to work out what the relevant scenario actually is. Like all mainline Protestant denominations, United Methodism finds itself challenged on its traditional position on sexual morality by the emergence of the conscientious conviction that gay and lesbian relationships are a legitimate expression of God’s good and diverse creation. Revisionists are sufficiently agitated by the righteousness of their cause that they deem it essential to make use of both rational and nonrational means to win over the church as whole. More than a decade ago they took the important step of institutionalizing their position across the denomination.

There is a deep and unintended irony in this development. The theology driving the conscience of change is one that is deeply committed to inclusivism. In this theology gay and lesbian Christians have the same status earlier attributed to slaves and currently attributed to women, the status of those excluded from the traditional church. The clear aim is to include this new minority within the church, but the effect is to drive out those opposed to legitimizing homosexuality. Because they see themselves as agents of reconciliation and unity, the revisionists have difficulty seeing that their position is in effect exclusionary.

Awareness of this paradox may do little to alter the way things will turn out. Perceptive revisionists can see this, and they face a difficult dilemma. One prominent pastor personally committed to the position of the revisionists stated in a pastoral letter to his congregation that were the revisionists successful, those opposed to the legitimization of homosexuality would be forced to make a painful decision: they could either remain within a church that would stand for an agenda they found incompatible with obedience to Christ, or they could leave the church. “On an issue on which the whole body of believers finds so many unresolvable questions, I find it unacceptable to force a large number of our members to face this dilemma.”

This is a refreshing acknowledgment of the matter. Equally refreshing in its honesty is the following comment of a senior pastor of a Reconciling (i.e., revisionist) congregation.

Now it is our turn to get honest. Although the creeds of our denomination pay lip service to the idea that Scripture is “authoritative” and “sufficient for faith and practice,” many of us have moved far beyond that notion in our theological thinking. We are only deceiving ourselves—and lying to our evangelical brothers and sisters—when we deny the shift we have made.

We have moved beyond Luther’s sola Scriptura for the same reason the Catholic Church moved beyond the canonized Scriptures after the fourth century. We recognize that understandings of situations change. “New occasions teach new duties.” We have moved far beyond the idea that the Bible is exclusively normative and literally authoritative for our faith. To my thinking, that is good! What is bad is that we have tried to con ourselves and others by saying “we haven’t changed our position.”

Furthermore, few of us retain belief in Christ as the sole way of salvation. We trust that God can work under many other names and in many other forms to save people. Our views have changed over the years.

Such an admission makes clear that more is at stake on this issue than a new moral judgment of homosexuality. What is at stake are issues of principle—the role of revelation and Scripture in the formation of conscience—that affect matters of doctrine ranging from the place of the Methodist Quadrilateral in the formation of United Methodist identity to the place of Christ in salvation.

The dilemma for the conservatives, forced upon them by the attack against traditional teachings, is simple: they perceive their position to be essential to Christianity, so they cannot see it abandoned and retain loyalty to what is left.

Not surprisingly, we can look to the founder of Methodism for guidance. John Wesley recognized that not all internal disputes within the church could be traced back to bad faith or lack of love. Some were matters of conscience. Speaking of his relationship to his beloved Church of England, he wrote:

I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a minister of the Church of England. And I have no desire nor design to separate from it till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet, and right, and my bounden duty to separate from it without delay. To be more particular, I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel. Yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the church without omitting this, without desisting from the gospel, I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue to unite with any smaller society, church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to other doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.

This is a sobering admonition. Given that it appears within the canonical heritage of United Methodism, it is worth asking whether what it portends can be forestalled. How might division be avoided? We can think of several possibilities, all of them unlikely.

Perhaps there will be decisive new evidence or a fresh interpretation of the available doctrinal and empirical data that will lead one side to convert the other, thereby salvaging unity. This is a very unlikely possibility, for it is implausible to think that radically new evidence will emerge, or that a significantly new reordering of current data will be advanced. The standard lines are well known and unlikely to change.

Perhaps someone with the stature and wisdom of Solomon will emerge and find a way to develop a framework in which both sides could accept each other within an agreed consensus. This is an unlikely scenario for at least two reasons. First, the church as a whole has experimented at length with this very option in its commitment to doctrinal pluralism. As I have repeatedly argued, this is an incoherent and unstable arrangement that is now falling apart. Second, the tradition is too big and too full of parties, caucuses, movements, and organizations to permit such a person emerging on a national scale. The same logic applies to the possibility of concerted effort on the part of the Council of Bishops—the bishops themselves are deeply divided on the relevant issues and have now expressed that division in public.

Perhaps the revisionists will come to acknowledge the consequences of their position and withdraw either to form a new church or to join a church that advocates their position. This too is unlikely.

The revisionists do not present a monolithic front. In fact one of the most interesting features of the revisionist position is that it can harbor both liberals and radicals, a feat of significant proportions given the tension between these two groups. The revisionist position spans the field from those who might entertain second thoughts about their position all the way to those who are absolutely convinced that revision is demanded by the gospel, stems from the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and represents appropriate prophetic action in the current generation. Some of the latter also take the view that all opposition to their cause is prompted by bigotry, intolerance of minorities, and ignorance. Many of them believe that their cause is as correct as that of opposition to slavery and of the opening of ordination to women. Given these sorts of convictions, it is most unlikely that the revisionists will discontinue pursuing their aims within the church.

What then is likely to happen? Initially, much will depend on the speed of developments in the deliberations and actions of three major constituencies within the church: the liberal institutionalists, the racial and ethnic minorities, and the conservatives.

The institutionalists are concerned less with the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality and related issues than with the future of the denomination. Their natural reaction to the church’s dilemma is a mixture of anger, distress, irritation, and fear. They would dearly love not to address the issues at all, to muddle through as best they can, and to stay clear of all talk of division and schism. Their heads may well be with the conservatives, but their hearts are with the revisionists—hence they find themselves inwardly torn. They especially fear any discussion that goes to the principles of the tradition, preferring to live as best as they can with whatever compromise is worked out. The time for decision for this group will come when they must enact the practices of the revisionists in their local churches. At that point their heads must win out over their hearts if a schism is to be avoided.

The minority groups—African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans—will also be crucial for future developments. In this case there will be even greater reluctance to side with the conservatives in the church. In the past, these groups have perceived conservatives to be suspect on racism, while on the other hand they worked with liberals in the fight for civil rights, and several of their theological heroes are crucial forerunners if not advocates of radicalism. Their natural alliance would seem to be with the revisionists. Yet much of the theological and liturgical content of the African American, Hispanic, and Asian American traditions is in fact deeply conservative and orthodox. It is, therefore, very possible that the leaders of these traditions could break with their earlier alliances and move in a significantly different direction.

Finally, there are the conservatives. Some of them will undoubtedly take an aggressive line, resorting to legislative action, mass mailings, letter-writing campaigns, verbal agitation, and the like. This is all the more likely in light of the recent narrow acquittal by a church tribunal of a pastor on the charges that he violated church law by performing a wedding ceremony for two lesbian members of his Omaha, Nebraska, congregation.

Other conservatives, those who would gladly identify themselves as moderates, traditionalists, or centrists, may well be glad that there are more radical conservatives around to raise the issues, but they are extremely nervous about any kind of drastic action. Tempted perhaps to take the line adopted by institutionalists, they will bide their time hoping that the crash never comes.

In the short term we need some way to hold off precipitous actions on the homosexual issue that will lead to the division of the church. But it is clear that homosexuality is but one of a number of potentially church-dividing issues. In the long term we need to stimulate conversation toward the emergence of a new theological consensus that might command the allegiance of a majority in the church at large.

However this important conversation continues, and it surely will continue, it must be informed by the very real possibility that the Liberal Protestant project exemplified by United Methodism was flawed from the start. Perhaps the very idea of theological pluralism was bound to self-destruct in time. These are the ominous questions now engaged. The truth and the church we love deserve from parties on all sides of these questions clear thinking, honest speaking, mutual respect—and much prayer and fasting.”

Love,
Matthew