16 March 2013

Pope Francis, Carl Trueman & Protestant Reflection

Carl Trueman wrote recently, in the midst of a brief look at George Weigel's Evangelical Catholicism (see his distilled version in this month's First Things), on "what the point of reflecting on Rome is for a Protestant" at such a time as this. He offered three reasons, which you can read at the link provided above.

They're decent reasons, but they're also largely skin-deep. There's a more fundamental reason that Protestants ought to reflect on Rome when a pope is chosen, and it's teleological and twofold in nature. (Note my assumption: Catholic, Orthodox, and creedal Protestant communions are Christian communions. Each have their tares, their wolves, their covenanters who don't persevere.)

The first teleological fold is one major goal in which our hope as Christians is placed, a fixed post that our triune Lord promises throughout the various texts of sacred Scripture:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever.
(1 Thess. 4:16–17)
In short, we Christians are in this together, forever—whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, the resurrection to life on a new earth is our great hope. The election of a new overseer of the largest Christian communion in the world ought to promote Protestant reflection, precisely because we share the same destiny with the Christians in that communion.

The second teleological fold may be particularly distasteful to Protestant ears that don't share my ecclesiastical sentiments. It has to do with a more finite goal, one that is hardly fixed: the reconciliation and reunification of Protestants and Catholics in this time between the times. This is by no means a given, but it is a hope, and one I believe all Protestants should share. Caring about and reflecting upon Rome at such a time as this comes naturally if you think and hope that one day the pope himself will one day be a pastor under whom your pastor (and their pastors) ministers, at least in a collegiate sense (as primus inter pares).

Yet most Protestants don't even consider that their respective communions are not to be ends in themselves. They've forgotten that they're branches shooting off the one, mother trunk, and instead believe the lie that they are trees themselves, every bit as robust and as life-giving as the tree from which they sprang. It's not true. Much of Protestantism is wilted, particularly in those places where God's Word and Sacraments are neglected.

I hope this doesn't come across as a romanticized version of reality or flat-out naïve (or "young and cool," even though I am young-ish and definitely cool). It's just that I don't care about the things you do, or at least I don't think they're as important as you think they are. Put another way, I think it's far more important to reflect on Rome and her pope and our shared destiny than it is to continue, unfazed, in the work of building up your own little fiefdom.

Update: It has come to my attention that the "you" in the above paragraph may be misconstrued to refer to Carl Trueman. That is emphatically not the case. Carl is one of the last persons I'd suspect to be guilty of creating his own little fiefdom. Generally speaking, my antagonist around here is the autonomous, demagogic, second-degree separationist Christian leader. That's who I'm carrying on my make-believe conversation with in the concluding paragraph—whether or not he/she actually exists.

07 March 2013

More Than a Feeling: the Death of God?

This marks our sixth (and final!) post in this series, continuing my response to Schleiermacher's points of criticism regarding the hypostatic union:

The inability to know anything objective about God, coupled with his suggestion throughout The Christian Faith that Scripture is in totem only an expression of human experience, of discovering one’s relation to God, paves the way for Schleiermacher’s christological dead end (insofar as it’s truly meant as a replacement to Chalcedonian christology; but see n. 7 of the previous post). Barth’s retort at this point brings God-talk back from the ledge: On the contrary, the purpose of the inscripturated Word is to be discovered by God, to bring the reader “face to face with the subject-matter of the Scriptures.”1 That “the subject-matter of scripture is not merely history, a system of morality, or religious piety but the God of the gospel: the message of what God was and is doing in Jesus Christ for the sake of a fallen world” is properly basic to the ecclesial reading of the Word.2 For Schleiermacher, knowledge of God is either scientific or mystical; he shows no awareness that knowledge of God can be objective (i.e., “warranted”) without being scientific, and therein lies one significant problem with his program. Instead of a cosmic God-event that can be known in a particular place and time through the life of Jesus of Nazareth, we’re left with the scraps of forming new relationships based on a mutual vague awareness of being utterly dependent on . . . pure potency, a “Whence” incapable of immanence.

Some of the difficulties associated with the language used in the patristic doctrine notwithstanding, Schleiermacher, despite his caveat of “complete agreement” with the sentiments expressed in the christological creeds, displaces the doctrine of those creeds—one person in two natures—by reducing the God-man to a man (albeit archetypal and ideal) with one nature. If Schleiermacher at times seems to waver between Ebionite and Apollinarian (or docetic) solutions, we’d not be far from his fears about the restatement (replacement) of the ecclesiastical formulae:
It would be difficult for anyone to prove that there is anything docetic or Ebionite in this description. It could be called Ebionite only by one who feels that he must insist upon an empirical emergence of divine properties if he is to recognize a superhuman element in the Redeemer; and the only thing that could be regarded as docetic is that in the Redeemer the God-consciousness is not imperfect.3
As we’ve seen thus far, on the one hand (according to Schleiermacher), in Jesus one aspect of his human nature—his God-consciousness—is perfect and thus his humanity is potentially unlike humankind’s (a kind of higher form). This implies docetism, in that if the God-consciousness was determinative of his every move, without constraint, then there was no possibility of real human actions or growth (ibid., 398). Thus (so the criticism goes), “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed.”4 On the other hand, Jesus was not the incarnate Word, the pre-existent Logos made flesh, but a human like the rest of us, save for his perfect God-consciousness. By “empirical emergence of divine properties,” Schleiermacher means those very attributes the church has always confessed about the Christ since its earliest moments—that God the Son was born of the Virgin and became fully human, he talked, ate, healed, forgave, suffered, died, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of his Father. But, again, Schleiermacher takes umbrage with the notion that God can be in any objective sense, apart from our mutual feelings of absolute dependence, revealed in nature or man and thus be known as an object doing anything anywhere.

This challenges the core of the patristic doctrine (not to mention collapses under the weight of its own incoherence5), and as such would be considered nonsensical in their day: Why, they would ask, would anyone even bother to have a savior if that savior isn’t also God, doing what God and only God can do? The christological creedal question of the process of the incarnation, of the manifestation of the unity of God and man in the person of Jesus, may just be the wrong foot with which to start in many instances today.6 Nevertheless, Schleiermacher’s alternative doesn’t go far enough, or precludes unnecessarily the heart of the Christian faith for the sake of its "cultured despisers." While beyond the scope of this series of posts, Schleiermacher’s version of redemption as it relates to the redeemer also has implications here: there is no need for vindication on the day of judgment, no real need for the cross or the resurrection or ascension, and thus no atonement worth mentioning. If Schleiermacher’s redeemer lacks dignity and looks small, it’s because so too does Schleiermacher’s rendition of what redemption entails. Indeed, “his Christology is the incurable wound in his system,” and “if the Bible and classical Christian dogma are right to see in Christ this final word, then it must be said at least that in Schleiermacher’s Christology with its great quid pro quo, executed with so much intelligence and piety, we have a heresy of gigantic proportions.”7

1 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: repr. OUP, 1968), x.

2 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Discourse on Matter: Hermeneutics and the ‘Miracle’ of Understanding,” in Hermeneutics at the Crossroads, eds. Bruce Ellis Benson, James K. A. Smith, Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2006), 9.

3 Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (§96), 391.

4 Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101, in “Letters on the Apollinarian Controversy,” Christology of the Later Fathers, Edward R. Hardy, ed. (Louisville: WJK Press, 1954), 218.

5 “If no human concepts applied to God, at least one human concept would apply to him—the concept of being such as to escape characterization by human concepts.” From Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), 19.

6 This is not to deny in any sense the validity or veracity of the christological creeds. Indeed, they were indispensible in combating the undermining of the central gospel message of the triune God’s condescension, of salvation by grace through faith because of the God-man, and they still provide authoritative parameters within which the community of Christ must do the work it has been called to do. I reckon the works noted in the previous post (n. 6) to be about the business of accomplishing the same in our day (not least in our post-Schleiermachian hermeneutical world), but without the ecclesial authority, of course.

7 Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1982), 107, 104.

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