12 June 2014

With Great Zeal, and Little Thought

As mentioned in the first post of this series, one of the intents of Jesuit priest Richard Simon back in the 1670s–80s with his Histoire Critique du Vieux Testament was apologetic in nature: the Old and New Testaments as they've come down to us could not bear the weight of the formal cause or principle of the Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura, in that Protestantism lacked the means with which to determine the truth from a fallible text.

We then went on to see how for Dryden the Deists of his day suffered from incoherence: The best of their doctrines that they thought could be squeezed out of general revelation alone actually presupposed special revelation. What makes the Deists such "vain, wretched creatures" is their spitting in the face of the God who condescended to reveal himself in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, session and eventual return of his Son for the sake of a lost and dying world. They know better, in other words; they're sinning with a high hand (Num 15:30).

Next, we looked how Dryden in Religio Laici more directly challenged Simon's claim of the infallibility of tradition in order to save the revealed religion come to us in a fallible text. Dryden's answer in this matter, as with the others, was quintessentially Anglican (for his day): the Scriptures are sufficient unto salvation (even if errant in some of the historical minutiae of the OT, hypothetically speaking), and the few articles necessary thereunto (and contained therein) are so simple and self-evident that they are available to all grace-enabled people. Dryden wasn't out of bounds in his response. Two hundred years later, the so-called father of modern inerrancy, B.B. Warfield, could say that verbal plenary inspiration is, at most, a secondary doctrine:
Were there no such thing as inspiration, Christianity would be true, and all its essential doctrines would be credibly witnessed to, as in the generally trustworthy reports of the teaching of our Lord and of His authoritative agents in founding the Church, preserved in the writings of the apostles and their first followers, and in the historical witness of the living Church. Inspiration is not the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, nor even the first thing we prove about the Scriptures. It is the last and crowning fact as to the Scriptures. (“The Real Problem of Inspiration,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review [April, 1893]; HT Mike Licona)
This was the essential argument of the late seventeenth-century latitudinarian Anglicans in the face of nascent higher criticism: Granting errors in a few minor details did not undermine the veracity of the faith in any way, for the gospels and the apostolic letters are basically reliable eyewitness testimonies and teachings based on those reports. Add to this their universality and timelessness over the span of 1,700 years (the age of the Restoration), and you've got a faith and practice that is more true than any of its competition, which probability is the most we can hope for when embracing a fallible tradition.

Disparaging infallible tradition, however, does not a radical make. By the time of Dryden, the Protestant call for sola scriptura (while both scripture and tradition work together in the life of the church, scripture wields the primary authority, and thus is the final arbiter in matters of faith and practice) had already come to bear much schismatic rot as well as devolved more and more into the practice of solo scriptura (tradition has no bearing upon the church’s interpretation of scripture). So, finally, we come to Dryden's criticism of the puritans and their heirs, the nonconformists (at the time of the Restoration, these constituted everyone not under the rubric of the Church of the England).

It's important to recognize that while Dryden targets explicitly the purely rational theology of the Deists on the one hand and fideistic papists on the other, his critique of the more radical elements of voluntaristic nonconformity occurs indirectly.

As an Anglican, Dryden would not do away with tradition. Like Richard Hooker before him, matters of faith and practice are in part determined by that which “the church by her ecclesiastical authority” thinks and defines as true (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 5.8:2). Tradition, indeed, is not "useless here"—when "general, old disinteress'd and clear" (ll. 334–35). Through "the reverend Majesty of Age," the tried and tested commentary of the "Ancient Fathers" has the force of their catholicity confirmed (ll. 335–37). Dryden, like any good catholic Christian, assumes that the closer a church can get to the apostolical tradition (best ensconced in Scripture, the Apostles' Creed, and the seven ecumenical councils), the more robustly Christlike and truth-carrying she will be:
And still the nearer to the Spring we go
More limpid, more unsoyl’d, the Waters flow.
Thus, first Traditions were a proof alone;
Cou’d we be certain such they were, so known: (ll. 340–43)
Granting a relative amount of certainty regarding apostolic traditions, those traditions then come to define what the church ought to practice in matters of faith. But how (we might hear the Catholic retort) are we to determine which tradition is binding and which isn't? Being a realist, Dryden admits that "since some Flaws in long descent may be, / They make not Truth but Probability" (ll. 344–45). Then are we not hopelessly lost in a morass of equally competing sects of opinion? Hardly.
Truth by its own Sinews will prevail.
Tradition written therefore more commends
Authority, than what from Voice descends: (ll. 349–51)
So, then, there is probable cause to practice the faith one way and not another. There is not, nor can there be by definition in this fallen age, an infallible extra-biblical determining source (another quintessential Anglican response). But again I must be quick to point out that Dryden's not suggesting there's no determinative source (against the nonconformists, confessional though they may be), for tradition . . .
. . . as perfect as its kind can be,
Rouls down to us the Sacred History:
Which, from the Universal Church receiv’d,
Is try’d, and after for its self believed. (ll. 352–55)
This is rather more like the Eastern Orthodox Church's view of tradition than anything else (even if the Orthodox end up slipping infallibility in through the back door), the so-called Vincentian Canon: "Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all" (Vincent of Lérins, Commonitory ch. II, §6; NPNF Series II Vol. XI, p. 132). It's important to remember that when Vincent wrote this he had in mind the undivided church founded by Christ (giving further impetus to the reasons behind holding the first seven ecumenical councils to be universally and timelessly binding), which is precisely the church Dryden has in mind when he speaks of "first Traditions" that are "nearer to the Spring" (ll. 340, 342).

To put it another way, for Anglicans in general (Dryden included), universality, antiquity, and consensus are inextricably bound together: "first Traditions" stemming from "the reverend Majesty of Age" by "the Universal Church receiv'd" determine for God's people the content of their common faith and practice. Or, to paraphrase Irenaeus, the one church, expanded and scattered in the whole world, yet speaks with one voice, holding the same faith everywhere, as it had been handed down by the blessed apostles and preserved by the succession of the presbyters.

This, then, serves as our only recourse in the face of competing interpretations. For example, arguments over christology: 
We hold, and say we prove from Scripture plain,
That Christ is GOD; the bold Socinian
From the same Scripture urges he’s but MAN.
Now what Appeal can end th’ important Suit;
Both parts talk loudly, but the Rule is mute. (ll. 311–15)
Not just with respect to indifferent matters (but not less than), Dryden goes on to critique the blind sectarianism of both radical and conservative nonconformists. In lines 400–16, we see that when the "Book thus put in every vulgar hand, / Which each presum'd he best cou'd understand," the tried tradition of "Sacred History" became the prey of the "rabble" (i.e., the nonconformists). The guy with the loudest mouth was the one most able to expound Holy Writ ("gifted most that loudest baul'd"). Spirit-led private interpretation of scripture over against reason, learning, tradition, and church discipline (i.e., solo scriptura) became most highly prized:
Study and Pains were now no more their Care;
Texts were explain'd by Fasting, and by Prayer:
This was the Fruit that private Spirit brought;
Occasion'd by great Zeal, and little Thought. (ll. 413–16)
No doubt such criticism is not without its political overtones given Dryden's time and place (the puritans had not too long ago brought civil strife to the nation, and the nonconformists of the day were thus more reprehensible than Catholics). What good is "great Zeal" with "little Thought"? The proof was in the historical pudding. To all such sectarians who continued to act divisively against the established church (remember that religion and politics were on the same continuum back then)—especially the nonconformists—Dryden would say, simply, submit:
. . . after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern. (ll. 445–50)
In short, with respect to matters inessential to salvation, go with the traditional flow. Embody the latitude with which Jesus calls all, without exception or prejudice, to come to him. For Dryden, this meant to shut up about "obscure" nonconformist or Roman Catholic adiaphora and, if not join the Church of England in her fight against the rising tide of Deism, at least refrain from destabilizing society with disputes that disturb the "publick Peace."

05 June 2014

Ever-Day Has Begun

Not only does the church suffer from an open wound of schism, she is weak, and unsurprisingly so, in this time between the times. The former continues in disobedience; the latter is just the way it is, at least until that final day.

Has anything ever been decreed absolutely by God (when it comes to his contingent creation), without any expectation of meeting certain conditions on our part, without any response on his part to intervening historical contingencies? Taking our cue from the sacred Scriptures, we see that even those decrees (oracles, prophecies, apostolic utterances, etc.) that appear at first glance to be absolute (e.g., Jonah 3:4), are nevertheless laden with conditions (when dealing with humankind in particular).

I submit that the same holds true with respect to the people of God and their calling to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Put another way, I'm talking about a God who called out of the massa perditionis a Christ (the eternal Son of God who took upon himself our nature), in whom people are united (through baptism and faith), which people are then called to be what they are. Being thus made posse non pecare they are given the tasks laid out in various places throughout the Scriptures of embodying what it means to be corpus Christi, and, by virtue of the indwelling Spirit of God, are thus able to do so. In doing so, they falter, they err, and all the while their loving and patient God struggles with them, responding to them, and continually goads them on toward the unity (of will and purpose and substantiality) that is shared among the Godhead, the great Three in One.

And the reality is, the church continues to fail in this particular calling toward unity set before it, a church of the open wound. So far as this world and our finite perspectives are concerned, Christianity, with all its divisions, worldly alliances, demagoguery, and heterodoxy, does indeed look false. But there's hope with each dawn, which will be fully realized on that final morn when there will be no more night, for the Lord God himself will shine (Rev 22:5); indeed, the city will have "no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb [will be] its light" (Rev 21:23).
No-nightness comes.

Ever-day has begun to encroach upon the lightless land,
and we, lamp-stands all, called to remove the basket covering.
But how is the church "rightly" weak today? Perhaps it's better stated this way: the church has always been weak, and we have the tools to recognize it as such, and therefore we have the tools to better "let our good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise our heavenly Father" (Matt 5:16).

Recently, an essay over at First Things by Matthew Rose on "Karl Barth's Failure" produced some critical responses by a few Protestant bloggers. One, in particular, stood out: David Congdon's "In Defense of Modernity." In brief, Congdon writes, "Put plainly: modernity is Protestant, so to reject modernity is to reject Protestantism. Perhaps that is the underlying message of Rose’s article. Barth finally fails, because he remains, at the end of the day, "a theologian of the Reformation."

And what are some of the contours of that modernity? You can read Congdon's post to see, but I'd like to highlight one—the rise of historical consciousness as a genuinely theological event. He quotes Gerhard Ebeling at length to unpack the point:
The sola fide of the Reformation is directed not only against justification by works and thereby against a legalistic exposition of scripture, not only against mysticism and against multiplication of the revealing reality in the form of saints and against materialization of the revealing reality in the form of sacred objects. But the sola fide has undoubtedly also an anti-sacramental and an anti-clerical point. To the sola fide there corresponds solus Christus. Revelation and the present are separated from each other in such a way that only one bridge remains: the Word alone—and indeed, lest any misunderstanding should arise, the Word interpreted as salvation sola gratia, sola fide. All other bridges have been broken up. The whole system of Catholicism has thereby collapsed. There is no such thing as a simple, matter-of-fact presence of revelation. (emphasis mine; Word and Faith, 35–36)
"There is no such thing as a simple, matter-of-fact presence of revelation." The sola fide of the Reformation implies a rejection of all absolute institutional claims, of all offers of restored taken-for-granted institutional certainty (to paraphrase Peter Berger). But does this mean that no institution is left standing? No. But what type of institution can we then speak of? Extraordinarily weak associations of individuals with no deep commitment. Can such institutions survive? They can and do. (I'm a member of a vibrant parish in a decidedly progressive mainline diocese, and it has much more in common with its traditionalist counterparts in Roman and Lutheran churches, and yet is not filled with parishioners who maintain a posture of alleged certainty. And this phenomena occurs regularly within the old mainline churches, often cast in less traditional forms, whether broad-church or evangelical.)

No doubt the certainty of Rome’s institution has been considerably weakened by historical scholarship and the social sciences. The same holds true, of course, for Protestant institutions as well. Every time the structures of Protestant orthodoxy sought to recapitulate Rome's absolute claim—in order to maintain a "strong" institution, one that has a "foundation of taken-for-granted verities, requiring representatives who exude an air of self-assured certainty," so Berger—those structures have also come tumbling down. It's one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation—the divine and human protest again any absolute claim made for a relative (i.e., socially constructed) reality, which immediately turns directly back on to itself.

What this means is simply this: "For the sake of Christ, take pleasure in your weakness . . . . For when you are weak, then you are strong" (2 Cor 12:10). Knowing you're weak, recognizing the gaping wound in the side of our Lord's bride, reshapes the mission each of us have been called to in this American life.

02 June 2014

Strange Confidence: On the Infallibility of Tradition

Previously we looked at the occasion of Dryden's writing of Religio Laici, and then we looked briefly at his dealings with the Deists. Those "vain, wretched creatures" argued for a rather robust revelation extrapolated from nature alone; but as it turns out (according to Dryden), their arguments themselves were made possible only through the special revelation put forth in God's holy Word. In short, "Reveal'd Religion first inform'd thy Sight, / And Reason saw not, till Faith sprung the Light" (ll. 68–69).

You may also remember that Dryden's approach to matters of faith and reason and tradition was quintessentially Anglican, indeed, Hookerian, and now we'll see how that position played itself out poetically "as a via media . . . maintaining a proper equilibrium between a purely rational theology (Deism) on the one hand and fideism (Catholicism) and voluntarism (Puritanism) on the other."1 Specifically, in this post, Simon's claims for an infallible magisterium in response to a fallible received holy text will come under Dryden's scrutiny.

At the outset, it's worth to note the majority Anglican approach to both tradition and the church's authority2: Both are contingent, and are not absolutely necessary for salvation (but nota bene: the church isn't contingent). The orthodox Anglican view in Dryden's time had been to affirm the truth and sufficiency of a few articles of faith, such as the Apostles' Creed (as understood by the early church Fathers), with all other matters adiaphora ("things indifferent"), and hence liable to differences of opinion. Note, however, that this can be overstated quickly.

The Anglican position by the late seventeenth century and into the "Age of Lights" grew increasingly latitudinarian, and thus shared greater similarity with other Protestant groups in its approach to this matter than it had previously. Note also that just because a particular group of Protestants deem much of the Christian tradition to be a matter of traditions (plural) and thus filled with things indifferent, doesn't mean that its opinions on, say, ecclesiastical polity (or how Christ is present in the Eucharist, or eschatology, etc.) are held lightly or loosely. In other words, this isn't subjectivist theological reductionism for the sake of sidestepping the Catholic solution to the pluralism problem; it's objective salve for the sake of the soul oppressed by the demagogic eclipse of the simple gospel: "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom 10:9).

At any rate, Dryden, like his orthodox Anglican forebears, argued that the Scriptures were sufficient unto salvation and that the few articles necessary thereunto (and contained therein) are so simple and self-evident that they are available to all grace-enabled people. Thus he writes that Scripture "speaks it Self, and what it does contain, / In all things needfull to be known, is plain" (ll. 368–69). To show humankind his way, God furnished a "Sacred Volume" in which is contained all that is sufficient and clear to that end (see ll. 121–67). Reason attests to this canon (even if it's limited in its attestation of saving faith), just as it did to the early church Fathers.

Here we come to the crux of Dryden's response to Simon's higher critical history: he asserts the fallibility of tradition, and consequently the necessity of weighing the evidence by the light of reason (not fideistic reliance on tradition), which is exactly what the formulators of that tradition did, having no other option open to them (whether at Jerusalem, Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, or Chalcedon). While agreeing with Simon that many errors have crept in through the copyists' and translators' fault ("And where Infallibility has fail'd," l. 251), Dryden disagrees with him on how to resolve that tension. He articulates the Catholic argument thus:
Oh but says one, Tradition set aside,
Where can we hope for an unerring Guid?
For since th' original Scripture has been lost,
All Copies disagreeing, maimyd the most,
Or Christian Faith can have no certain ground,
Or Truth in Church Tradition must be found. (ll. 276–81)
To this argument for the primacy of an enduring church tradition to fix the problem (and its necessary correlation—an infallible church), Dryden replies sarcastically:
Such an Omniscient Church we wish indeed;
'Twere worth Both Testaments, and cast in the Creed:
But if this Mother be a Guid so sure,
As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure,
Then her Infallibility, as well
Where Copies are corrupt, or lame, can tell;
Restore lost Canon with as little pains,
As truly explicate what still remains:
Which yet no Council dare pretend to doe;
Unless like Esdras, they cou'd write it new:
Strange Confidence, still to interpret true,
Yet not be sure that all they have explain'd,
Is in the blest Original contain'd. (ll. 282–94)
With no small amount of irony, Dryden remarks that were it true that church tradition be infallible, we would wish indeed for "Such an Omniscient Church." Scripture, however, is another matter. Its adequacy unto salvation rules out the need for such an infallible guide:
More Safe, and much more modest 'tis, to say
God wou'd not leave Mankind without a way:
And that the Scriptures, though not every where
Free from Corruption, or intire, or clear,
Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, intire,
In all things which our needfull Faith require.
If others in the same Glass better see
'Tis for Themselves they look, but not for me:
For MY Salvation must its Doom receive
Not from what OTHERS, but what I believe. (ll. 295–304)
Here we have it—the quintessential modern Anglican answer to Simon's higher criticism and its attendant Catholic apology. Such a position finds itself immune to the more destructive (unintended, in the early years) consequences of higher criticism to the faith, given that whatever is necessary for salvation is in Scripture "uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, intire," even if it is "not every where / Free from Corruption, or intire, or clear."3 Added to this is Dryden's commitment to the idea that such fundamentals of the faith must eventually be a matter of fiducia on the part of individuals—one cannot simply rely on what others believe to save her (which he thinks is implied by the Catholic Church's assertion of an infallible magisterium with respect to matters essential to salvation).

Lest we miss it, Dryden's arguing specifically against Simon's apologetic here (re-read ll. 282–94): if indeed the Catholic Church has recourse to an infallible magisterium, why doesn't it "Restore [the] lost Canon" (something that "yet no Council dare pretend to doe," by the way)? What "Strange Confidence" indeed, to pontificate infallibly on scriptural matters that the pontiff itself is unsure are even contained in the original autographs. It's much more modest to conclude reasonably that "God wou'd not leave Mankind without a way" and that that way would reflect the reality of the world as it is, rather than so much wishful thinking.

I must quickly point out that Dryden, however, cannot be put to service in the ranks of modern Western Christianity, with all its repudiation of the catholic tradition in favor of solo scriptura. After providing his answer to Simon's apologetic (which apparently didn't hold for terribly long—remember he converted to Catholicism by 1687), he turns his attention to the Puritans and their heirs, the Non-Conformists (at the time of the Restoration, these constituted everyone not under the rubric of the Church of the England). We'll dig into all this more deeply when we look at the next portion of the poem.

The Anglicans are, by definition, governed by tradition, which tradition they deem closest to the apostolical tradition, and which is best ensconced in Scripture, the Apostles' Creed, and the seven ecumenical councils. This is, of course, basic to the Anglican position that its churches are more robustly catholic than many of Rome's churches.

This is not to suggest that therefore the Anglican church becomes an end in itself, for then we run the risk of making sacred an open wound. It is to suggest, with Dryden, a "much more modest way": God's breath-out word, much like his Son the Word, is a "Common Largess to Mankind," not more for Roman Catholics "than every Man design'd." The "welcome" good news, the simple heralding that God's Messiah is now king of kings and lord of lords, having begun to make all things new through his victory over Sin and Death, "is in the Letter found." In a fragmented state of ecclesial affairs, there is no one "Carrier," like, for example, the Roman Catholic Church, that's "Commission'd to expound" (ll. 364–67). To suggest otherwise would be to assume, . . .
                                 . . . with wondrous Art,
Themselves to be the whole, who are but part
Of that vast Frame, the Church: . . . . (ll. 358–60)
So much for Dryden's response to the "father of higher criticism"—Richard Simon—and the Roman Catholic apology he employed alongside his hermeneutical work. I don't find Dryden's response groundbreaking or anything, but it is pretty impressive in that it's cast entirely in the "plain and natural" yet "majestic" heroic couplet (see last paragraph of Religio's preface for Dryden's explanation for using this style).

In the next and final post, I'll wrap it up with Dryden's commendation to go with the traditional flow in matters inessential to salvation.

1 Thomas H. Fujimura, "Dryden's Religio Laici: An Anglican Poem," PMLA, 76.3 (June 1961): 205-217, at 207. Fujimura's essay is especially important when discussing the "theography" of Dryden, who converted to Catholicism by 1687. What part does Religio Laici (1682) play in Dryden's journey of faith? Fujimura's answer to the "widely accepted view that it is a Catholic poem in spirit" is that this is "completely unsound, and that [Religio Laici] is, in most respects, a conventional work of Anglican apologetics" (205).

2 We've already discussed the typical Anglican understanding of how faith relates to reason, i.e., that the two are not opposed but rather complementary. Neither anti-rationalistic nor rationalistic (though the latter certainly was a temptation, given that many of the Deists came out of the Church of England), Anglicans typically recognized the limitations of reason in the realm of faith, but they also understood that it played its part in the apprehension of God's Word and the formulation of conclusions "by force of reason" (to use Hooker's words).

Beyond our scope here is the possibility that by Dryden's time, and quite probably in reaction to the misuse of reason in the direction of Deism and Socinianism, churchmen in general began to follow the Cartesian divorce of the spiritual and natural realms. With the rise of early modern empirical investigation, "reason was delegated more and more to the domain of natural knowledge, and the domain of religion was handed over to faith" (Fujimura, 206).

3 This principle, incidentally, was adopted by all the early higher critics who remained Protestant churchmen: They had no intent of acting destructively against the faith. But they thought that such criticism is the appropriate tool for investigating the historical ground and theoretical formulation of theology. While personal faith could not be harmed in this manner, theology, which is a matter of public and objective expression, requires the full arsenal of critical scholarship.

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