The curses of Twitter are often noted, espcially now it mediates with musky tones. But there are blessings. One recent one has been a reference to an Australian artist I had never heard of before, Clarice Beckett. Extraordinary. Relevant to Holy Week is a link noticed this morning to a post by Diana Butler Bass, The Holy Thursday Revolution.
Another fairly common blessing is notices of books.
Yesterday a Tweet alerted me to a recent book prefaced by Cardinal Burke* and afterworded by Cardinal Sarah - an Anglican equivalent would be prefaced by the Archbishop of Nigeria and the concluding word would be by the Archbishop of Uganda.
This book is The Faith Once for All Delivered: Doctrinal Authority in Catholic Theology edited by Kevin L Flannery with 13 contributors. It has in its sights theologians such as Rahner and Kasper and its great concern is the lifting of the anchor of Catholic theology, especially post Vatican 2, from the objective doctrine of the church, deposited once and for all in Scripture and Tradition. That lifting of anchor is through the unwelcome efforts of Kant, Hegel, and the nouvelle theologie of the first half of the 20th century. Thus this comment is made by Pecknold, and recited in the Introduction:
“Maritain’s early worry that ‘the new theologians’ were playing the early Church Fathers to the music of Hegel has proven prescient.” [Location 229/762 in the Kindle sample of the book which I downloaded for free].
Ironically (with philosophers Hegel and Kant in view as enemies of sound doctrine) the key to sound doctrine which threads through the Introduction is that theology-and-philosophy is critical to maintaining the faith. Thus a sharp jibe concerning Kasper’s theology is made:
“Stark neatly summarizes the consequences of Kasper’s line of thinking by concluding that “in theology politics is slowly replacing philosophy.” “ [Location 260/762 in the Kindle sample]
“Politics” here means theology undertaken with a view to the hsitorical circumstances of the day and thus with the possibility that the consensus of today’s faithful might be different from yesterday’s.
The first half of the book can be summarised as:
“ the negative effects of German idealism on Catholic theology throughout the twentieth century, in particular, of the doctrinal and moral relativism produced by the influence of historicism.” [Location 355/762 in the Kindle sample]
The second half sets out the way forward to avert doctrinal disaster. Topics include the Magisterium, development of doctrine, the sense and consensus of the faithful, the apostolicity and historicity of Scripture, and the (limited) role of bishops meeting in national conferences.
Of course, the great target through the book is the Pope himself. The Introduction implies that throughout the essays in the book, no opportunity to state that popes are not above criticism is left unstated!
As best I can see, from reading the Introduction, the thesis of the book is that there is sure and certain doctrine held by the church which is in grave danger of being revised and deconstructed by theologians who have lost sight of the - in this case, Catholic - basics of knowing and maintaining “the faith once for all delivered.”
All good then?
Not really, in my view, and working only from the Introduction, per my free Kindle sample download, it is interesting that a lot of emphasis is placed on being sure and certain that Scripture is without grave problems as a clear repository of doctrine because (e.g.) the questions raised by modern critical approaches to the Bible can be waved away.
Yet the very fact of needing to restate what the Magisterium is (and is not) and what different levels of magisterial-speak mean supposes that we cannot be (and, indeed, never have been) sure and certain about the teaching of Scripture since it is not even intuitively clear what authority (in this case, the Magisterium) constitutes the uncontested authority to determine what the teaching of Scripture is.
In this respect, we must always remember, whether we are Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox that on the most basic issue of doctrine, the nature of God in relation to Jesus Christ and to the Holy Spirit, the church took centuries to settle the “faith once for all delivered.”
With reference to a parallel in the Protestant world, I also refer readers to recent comments to the post below re Nostalgia. What are "confessional" statements but tributes to the failure of Scripture to be "sure and certain" on various matters?
We might, then, this Passiontide, also reflect on another matter of basic doctrine: the truth of the cross. What was and is the meaning of the cross, or, what was it that Christ achieved through his death and resurrection?
Now, let's get something straight at the beginning: Scripture, via the Gospels and Epistles, with a significant helping hand from Isaiah, teaches many things about Christ's salvific work on the cross. It is not in doubt that many things are taught. Nor is it in doubt that each such thing is inordinately, indeed eternally valuable. Nor is it in doubt that Scripture teaches that through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, the possibility of salvation exists for all who respond to Jesus Christ in faith.
What is at question is whether Scripture yields one definitive or "sure and certain" theory of atonement.
What does Scripture say? (With NRSV as translation used unless otherwise indicated.)
First, we might note that the Gospels themselves are pretty coy about what Jesus himself said about the meaning of his imminent execution.
Matthew and Mark emphasise that Jesus died, according to his own words, "to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28//Mark 10:45). But what is meant by ransom (normally meaning the price paid to set a slave free)?
Luke 21:28 refers to a future "redemption" (without explicitly associating that with Jesus' death on the cross) and reports to us that after the resurrection, Jesus twice refers to the cross as necessary suffering the Messiah had to undergo (24:26, 46). (We might note that in Peter's Pentecost sermon, the purpose of Jesus' death seems to be that his being raised from the dead is the greatest of all the signs and wonders associated with Jesus).
John makes the strongest link between the death of Jesus and its consequences for our wrongdoing. In John 1, Jesus is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29, cf. 1:36) and in John 18-19, Jesus dies at the hour the lambs for the Passover feast are being sacrificed.** Yet in John 10, where Jesus speaks of his being the shepherd who "lays down his life for the sheep" (10:11, 15), there is no explicit explanation of how this sacrifice brings life (10:10) or salvation (10:9) to the sheep.
John is quite allusive to the meaning of the cross. On it some kind of work is done ("It is finished", 19:30), but what is that work? On the cross, God is glorified and thus the cross is, somehow, a testimony to the truth which God reveals in Jesus (see, e.g. the high priestly prayer of Jesus in chapter 17). Finally, in his death, Jesus expresses the love of God (3:16) and exemplifies the way of love for his followers (part of the point of the washing of his disciples' feet in chapter 13).
Of course the clearer understanding of Jesus' death comes when we open up the key epistolary commentary on the Gospel according to John, the epistle bearing John's name, finding these helpful words:
"But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2) - with "atoning sacrifice" translating hilasmos = expiation; or propitiation (ESV) (also 4:10).
Generally, the epistles are "the" Scriptural providers of interpretation of the meaning of the cross. Some examples - by no means an exhaustive set:
1 Peter 2 is pretty clear that
"Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps" (21)
"He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (24).
We may note that the second meaning of the cross for Peter does not take us deep into "how" we are freed from our sins or healed by his wounds.
Hebrews, especially through chapters 9 and 10, is more detailed in its understanding of the cross. There Jesus, our great high priest offers himself as a permanent and complete sacrifice for our sins, understood with the Mosaic law to mean that we are sanctified or cleansed from our sins. A few verses only cited here, such as:
"he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption" (9:12)
"But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself" (9:26)
"For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (10:14)
"Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, ... let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (10:19-22).
Ephesians 2 proposes a different understanding, with an emphasis on "reconciliation": between humanity and God, and simultaneously between humanity's two groups, Jews and Gentiles:
"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace: in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us ... that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death than hostility through it." (2:13-16)
Earlier in the same chapter, Paul writes about how his readers were once "dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived" but now they have been "made ... alive together with Christ" (2:1, 5) while not spelling out exactly how this is so. Even though "wrath" is mentioned in 2:3, there is no sense, here, that God has punished Christ in our place.
And, bien sur, Romans where 3:21-26 sets out, in the context of why the law and obedience to it counts for little and faith counts for much, how Jesus has justified and redeemed us through becoming "a sacrifice of atonement" or hilasterion (a means of propitiation (ESV) ; a means of expiation (REB; NEB) - also used at Hebrews 9:5 = "mercy seat" - and Romans 5 follows through with:
"Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God" (9)
Finally, we should note a theme which has already appeared above, redemption or the sense that we have been slaves to sin and now through Christ's death we have been redeemed from that slavery. So, one example, Colossians 1:13-14:
"He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."
Other "redemption" examples include Galatians 3-4 and 1 Peter 1:18-19, while the whole of Romans 6-7 is focused on our freedom from slavery to sin without the word 'redemption" appearing.
In summary, Scripture proposes a wonderful, richly themed account of what Christ achieves on the cross: salvation in which we are justified, we are made righteous, we are redeemed, we are forgiven, we are reconciled to God. Yet, if we press Scripture hard and ask questions such as "to whom is a ransom paid? To Satan? If so, why would God be beholden to that snake?" or "How is our forgiveness from sin and reconciliation with God achieved - is it by propitiating or by expiating God's wrath against us?" or "Is it Christ's death on the cross alone which saves us, or Christ's death-and-resurrection?" then Scripture is not as comprehensive and full of detail as we might like it to be so that we had utter clarity in the answers. There is a mystery in the death and resurrection of Jesus: we can be certain of what it achieves (our salvation) and not quite so certain of how that is achieved.
Moreover, a bit like what Scripture says in relation to the relationship between God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the statements relevant to these questions are here and there across many writings in Scripture. There is no definitive teaching about salvation to be found in one writing only. Hebrews, Romans and Galatians come close, but our understanding of salvation is illuminated by other passages - in the Gospels, in 1 Peter and 1 John (per citings above) and elsewhere, and could we be as rich and deep in our understanding if we only had one of Hebrews, Romans or Galatians?
So, I don't buy the confidence The Faith Once for All Delivered has in the apostolicity and historicity of Scripture as though it provides some uncontestable space for theology to begin and doctrinal development to take place, providing we do not let the Kants and Hegels cloud our minds.
I do understand the human desire for clarity in teaching and certainty and conviction in what we are meant to believe, whether we are among the brainiest of current Catholic theologians or the oh so very crisply toned English rebels in London who a few days ago announced a piece de (literal) resistance to the CofE bishops by setting up a "deanery" because of their certainty that the bishops are wrong on a matter.
But can we be so certain when Scripture is a complex amalgam of writings, with varied themes and emphases, and, however uncomfortable it is to acknowledge, a lack of a sentence or two on many matters which, if made, would have saved (and would save) the church hundreds of years of debate!
Is the calling of Jesus to follow him accompanied by a promise of clarity and certainty on what to think? Are disciples of Jesus better disciples because they learn all the propositions they are meant to believe (whether as rationalistic evangelicals or rationalistic Catholics) and hold steadfastly to them no matter what?
The call of Jesus, in gospel reality, seems to be much more a call to follow Jesus through storms and into controversies with the only certainty being that Jesus will always be in the storms and in the controversies.
The propositions of our faith are helpful but they may not get us to where God is leading us. Peter thought he had discipleship sewn up in a neat rational "for the Jews only" package, until he encountered God and Cornelius. Paul knew the propositions of his faith forwards and backwards. Then he met Jesus!
There are many certainties in Scripture - that we are saved, that God is the God who identifies with Jesus Christ the Son and with the Holy Spirit, etc - but there are also uncertainties, some of which have been so worked on that the universal church proposes through the creeds what we may be sure of (e.g. that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and some of which, despite assertions of "we are certain" are not quite there as universal dogma (Does the Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son?).
This mix of certainty and uncertainty, I suggest, is also true of moral theology (a significant concern of The Faith Once for All Delivered). We can be certain that God intends for marriage to be lifelong and not asundered and less sure what we are to do when a marriage breaks and there is a divorce (again, note differences between Western and Eastern Christianity, and within Western Christianity). We can be certain that killing is wrong, that beginning a war is consequentially wrong, and less sure whether, when invaded, we should fight back or not, or, if pressed to join the military we should do so as Christians or not.
Finally, to the matter at hand, we may be sure that God in Christ loved us so much that on the cross he died for us, that we might live an abundant life for eternity, saved from sin, redeemed from the clutch of the evil one, cleansed and made whole through the high priestly sacrifice of the Great High Priest, a matter made sure by the resurrection on the third day.
To the resurrection the next post will turn. A blessed Holy Week to all readers.
I can't usually find the time to make such a long post but the last few days have unexpectedly granted me some spare time!
*As an illustrative case of why this same Cardinal might be wrong when he is sure that he is right, and, in particular, that history (the new appreciation of the equality of women with men) may affect our understanding of some matters, see Bosco Peters' post on Burke's resolute opposition to girls/women in the sanctuary.
**I leave aside here the question of how a lamb takes away sin when the Mosaic law speaks of a "scapegoat" taking sins into the wilderness, and the Passover sacrifice of lambs commemorates Israel's release from slavery in Egypt.