Why is “Catholic” a Gloss for “Creation”? (or why “sacramental” needs a moratorium)

This is from a comment response to a post here (with slight editing so as to make my writing look better than it is).

The divide is not between some generic “catholic” Church (which oddly includes magisterial Protestants) versus the more modern “Baptist”, but rather the older one of nature and grace. Modern evangelicalism looks a lot more like medieval Romanism in this regard than many would care to admit. The classic Protestant position admits that nature is already a reflection of the divine and possesses its own integrity. This is also why it is no surprise to find great works of techne among even the non-believers and pagans (see for instance, the sons of Cain in Gen. 4:20-22). Continue reading


N T Wright on Protestantism’s Advantages Over Rome

When asked to respond to the neo-Catholic converts who are claiming him as inspiration for their decision, N T Wright pleasantly defends Protestantism.  He writes:

“Sacramental, transformational, communal, eschatological”? If you gave me that list and said “Where in the Christian world would you find that?” I could easily and truthfully answer:

  • (i) in the best of the Reformed tradition — spend a couple of days at Calvin College, or read Jamie Smith’s new book, and you’ll see;
  • (ii) in much of the best of the charismatic movement, once it’s shed its low-church prejudices and discovered how much God loves bodies;
  • (iii) in the best of… dare I say it… Anglicanism… ;
  • (iv) in some bits (not all) of the Emerging Church movement . . .

Trent said both much more and much less than this.

  • Sacramental, yes, but in a muddled way with an unhelpful ontology;
  • Transformational, yes, but far too dependent on unbiblical techniques and practices;
  • Communal, yes, but don’t let the laity (or the women) get any fancy ideas about God working new things through them;
  • Eschatological? Eschatology in the biblical sense didn’t loom large, and indeed that was a key element in the Reformers’ protest: the once-for-allness of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection as producing, not a new system for doing the same stuff over and over, but a new world.

Trent, and much subsequent RC theology, has had a habit of never spring-cleaning, so you just live in a house with more and more clutter building up, lots of right answers to wrong questions (e.g. transsubstantiation) which then get in the way when you want to get something actually done.

In particular, Trent gave the wrong answer, at a deep level, to the nature/grace question, which is what’s at the root of the Marian dogmas and devotions which, despite contrary claims, are in my view neither sacramental, transformational, communal nor eschatological. Nor biblical.

He also gives a pretty brilliant line about Rome’s view of authority:

Rome is a big, splendid, dusty old ocean liner, with lots of grand cabins, and, at present, quite a fine captain and some excellent officers — but also quite a few rooms in need of repair. Yes, it may take you places, but it’s slow and you might get seasick from time to time. And the navigators have been told that they must never acknowledge when they’ve been going in the wrong direction . . .

Now this is basically what my friends have been saying for some time now.  If you wanted liturgy, you wouldn’t have gotten much in old Rome.  It was fairly exclusive to the clergy and rather dead (Catherine Pickstock’s hypothesis that “mumbling” was an attempt by the finite to express the infinite through apophatic ecstasy to the contrary…).  If you wanted sacraments, again, you probably wouldn’t have gotten much of it in old Rome.  If you wanted tradition, you would have only gotten it as mediated by the magisterium.

The Reformation was about all of these things.  And yes, there was something to the nature/grace opposition as well.  Rome’s view of “holiness,” as well as their political theory betrays their commitment to grace superseding nature.  The Prots were all over that from the start.

The new Catholicism is simply trying to pass Protestant teachings off as its own.  You know, like Scott Hahn does.

Now we just need to get Bishop Wright straight on philosophy and the medievals…

History and Apologetics

Some of the contributing factors to “conversionitis” come from a false view of history.

Many fundamentalists have a skewed narrative, assuming some sort of “great apostasy of the Church” after the death of the last apostle.  The true religion was, according to this story, recovered at the time of the Reformation.  The presupposition here is that what “really counts” is a correct systematic formulation or perhaps purity of morals among the Church’s ministers.

RC and EO traditionalists have their own narrative, of course.  They presuppose that there has been a drastic falling away at some point in history, but the first five to eight centuries (depending on who you are talking to) indeed represent the apostolic Church.  The assumption of correct systematic formulation is about the same as the first group.

Liberals also tell their story.  They find discontinuity all around, and thus they assume that there is no united Church, or at least no such thing as “orthodoxy.”  Again, the assumption of correct systematic formulation is retained, only its absence serves as conclusive proof.

All of these historical narratives are false.  Continue reading

Calvin on the Tradition of the Fathers

In his preface to the Institutes, addressed to the king of France, John Calvin gives his own view of the patristic tradition and how it relates to the situation prior to the Reformation.  Both admiration and critique can be seen in Calvin’s outlook.  He writes:

4. It is a calumny to represent us as opposed to the Fathers (I mean the ancient writers of a purer age), as if the Fathers were supporters of their impiety. Were the contest to be decided by such authority (to speak in the most moderate terms), the better part of the victory would be ours.  While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in some things it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin. Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves.

It is not without cause (remark our opponents) we are thus warned by Solomon, “Remove not the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28). But the same rule applies not to the measuring of fields and the obedience of faith. The rule applicable to the latter is, “Forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house” (Ps. 45:10). But if they are so fond of allegory, why do they not understand the apostles, rather than any other class of Fathers, to be meant by those whose landmarks it is unlawful to remove? This is the interpretation of Jerome, whose words they have quoted in their canons. But as regards those to whom they apply the passage, if they wish the landmarks to be fixed, why do they, whenever it suits their purpose, so freely overleap them? Continue reading


Peter Brown sets forth this third-century Coptic frieze as a prototype for later Alexandrian iconography.  It isn’t terribly difficult to connect the dots.  In Bede, we find out that Pope Gregory instructed Augustine of Canterbury to retain much of the native religious infra-structure.  As late as Cortez in Mexico and Jesuit missionaries in Japan, this same approach was used.

Now, certainly there is some value in bringing Christianity to the world through receivable media.  “All things to all people” serves as a sort of Pauline missionary approach, consistent with the theology of Pentecost.  But to suppose that this can be done even in the context of idolatry is a bit too much of a stretch.  The Jerusalem Council required Gentiles to honor Jewish scruples on these matters, and John reminds his readers to flee from idols.

And so it seems that when churchmen over the ages point out these issues, they should not be dismissed as kooks.  It should not require a great leap of the imagination to see idolatry in the Church.  It happened in the Old Testament, it is warned against in the New Testament, and we see numerous examples of it throughout the early, medieval, and modern church.  To deny that this is even possible really is to voluntarily cover your eyes, something that I view as moral failing.

We’ve got to be able to critique our own traditions, while still claiming them as our own.  This is what our Reformers did, by the way.  Richard Field explains this in some length.  Bucer also argued this way, as did Calvin on the whole.  Their harshest critiques were aimed at the minority of hierarchical leaders who either deny that the errors existed or suppose that they are of no special interest, as if submission to an office is the chief concern.

And that’s where the doctrine of justification comes in.  If submission is the linchpin of religion, then we’ve got a very different religion from St. Paul.

Only One

Sadly little known in our day, David Pareus was a major figure.  He taught at the University of Heidelberg in the early 17th century and labored particularly towards Protestant ecumenism.  He was able to reduce the disagreement in doctrine between the Reformed and Lutheran to one point:

Building directly on the precedent established at the colloquy of Marburg in 1529, Pareus reduced the disputed points between Evangelicals and Reformed to a single article: the Lord’s Supper…

Pareus, for example, distinguished between “articuli catholic,” which form the foundation of faith and salvation and must therefore be taught to all Christians, and “articuli theologici,” which pertain to theological knowledge proper to the profession of theologians but are not part of saving faith.  The few questions separating the Evangelical churches belong to the category of inessential, non-fundamental, “theological” articles, which are not legitimate grounds for dividing the churches.

( Howard Hotson, “Irenicism in the Confessional Age,” Conciliation and Confession. pg. 236)

Walter Lowrie on Early Church Bishops

In Walter Lowrie’s “interpretation” of Rudolph Sohm, a very convincing case is made that the “bishop” in the early church was a local church, a congregational, minister whose primary job was to preside over the Eucharist, which was a communal feast.  He writes:

Both Gentile and Jewish usage required a president at the feast, and this was particularly the case with regard to Passover, from which the Eucharistic feast was derived.  In the Eucharist there were two functions especially that fell to the part of the president: namely, the breaking of the bread, and the thanksgiving prayer.

~The Church and Its Organization in Primitive and Catholic Times, p 268

He adds that this bishop was selected on the basis of a personal leadership charismata.  The office was necessary for order, and there was naturally a leader who best fulfilled the office.  In the absence of such a person, however, a layman could step up and fulfill the role.  Lowrie quotes Tertullian, saying:

Are not also we laity priests?  …When there are no clergy thou makest the offering and baptizest and art priest for thyself alone.  When three are present, there is the Church, although they be laymen.

~De exhort. cast. c. 7.

To dismiss ideas that this is simply an aspect of Tertullian’s sectarianism, Lowrie adds:

Tertullian does not contend for this principle, he merely assumes it as a premise for his argument: therein lies the proof that it was not an individual opinion of his own, nor a distinctive tenet of Montanism, but a commonly accepted position, a primitive tradition which had not yet been successfully impugned.

~Lowrie, p 269

Lowrie gives extensive treatment to Ignatius, showing that this view of the bishop, that of congregational Eucharistic president, is precisely what is meant and that this is something qualitatively different from the later metropolitan system of bishops as heads of a larger jurisdiction.  Lowrie writes:

We have seen, however, that the single bishop and the whole organization of which he was the head is explained by the nature of the Eucharistic assembly… For Ignatius, the single bishop is the correlative of a single Eucharistic assembly, and he avails himself of the unity of organization which actually existed to press the plea for unity of worship.  This is his great remedy for schism.  He urges this point in all his epistles– except in that to the Romans.  In Ephs. c. 20 he says: “Assemble yourselves together in common, … to the end that ye may obey the bishop and the presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread,” etc. Ib. c. 5: “If any one be not within the precinct of the altar, he lacketh the bread of God.  For if the prayer of one and another hath so great force, how much more that of the bishop and of the whole Church…

…Let that be held a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one to whom he shall have committed it.  Wheresoever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as wherever Jesus is, there is the catholic Church.  It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold an agape.

~ p 295

That last quote of Ignatius presses the point home: the bishop was a congregational minister.  The activities of the church were to be done in his presence, just as the Church acts in the presence of Jesus, because the bishop was regularly present at the local church.  He was to be there for every baptism or agape, except in those cases when he appoints a representative.

When the episcopacy shifted to a metropolitan administrative office, the exception became the norm, and the bishop had to appoint permanent “representatives.”  But in so doing, the presbyters effectively became Ignatian bishops, though without the name and, in a fateful shift in doctrine, without the authority.

The Church and the early church: Sweet Messiness

There seems to be an assumption that “the Church” is equivalent to a particular institution, and thus “the early church” must be a singular institution to which all of “the fathers” belonged.  Since Ignatius talks about “the bishop,” which he does, then the institution must be one of a sort of apostolic succession, or so the saying goes.

There are lots of problems with this.  Ignatius’ bishop is a local eucharistic president (see Lowrie and Sohm on this) and not a jure divino bureaucratic institution.  “The early church” consisted of several institutional churches, mainly divided along national lines, which then became theological lines: Antioch vs. Alexandria, Rome, Byzantium, Persia, Copts, etc.  “The fathers” is a variegated collection, limited to those authors (by no means a basic representation of pastors) whose works we still have.  Many of the church historians (Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret) belonged to groups considered heretical or partially heretical by today’s “Catholic” Christian.  Origen has become a heretic, but was loved by most of the fathers (Ambrose, Nyssa, Augustine).  Cyril of Alexandria probably should be held with more suspicion, and Nestorius should probably be held with less.  In fact, the Alexandrian bishops all tended to be bad dudes.

And of course, what we usually call “the fathers” tends to be limited to 3rd-6th centuries, with the Second Council of Nicaea coming in quite late in 787.  The truly “early church” are the Jewish Christians (Petrine and Jacobean Christianity) who are almost wholly lost now; there are a few exceptions to be found among the apostolic fathers and the Syriacs.

The Reformers dealt with this problem of “the Church” by appealing to the visible/invisible distinction.  This didn’t mean elect and reprobate, as it later came to mean, but rather the Holy Spirit and polity, with the goal that the two would work together, but the understanding that they did not always do so.  Thus, “the early church” and “the Church” are two very different things.

In fact, sometimes “the Church” can be best seen through actions of “the State” restricting those of the clergy.  I would put Theodosius II in this category when he arrested both parties at the Council of Ephesus and forced them into concord.  Charlemagne is also an example of this, when he rejects Nicaea II and calls the Council of Frankfurt.  This was also how the Papal Schism was settled at the imperial-powered Council of Constance.

We are still moderns though, not ready for the medieval Christendom of kings (the true Christendom), and thus we turn to hierocracy, since it still promises to subvert the state through the church (which again is not actually “the Church” at all).