N.T. Wright Reviews Pope Benedict

Wright reviews Pope Benedict’s JESUS OF NAZARETH Holy Week: From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection here. Excerpts follow:

Benedict’s venture has already been dismissed by many (including Casey) on the grounds that it treats the four canonical gospels as more or less straightforwardly “true”, whereas the entire modernist “quest for the historical Jesus” has wrestled with the challenges posed by H. S. Reimarus in the eighteenth century and a multitude ever since. The attempt to place Jesus historically (or the assumption of a particular answer to that question) has been a significant element within European and American modernism. But you would hardly know that from the Pope’s books, which proceed (as he says) more after the manner of Thomas Aquinas’s “theological treatise on the mysteries of the life of Jesus”. Reading Benedict feels more like being on retreat, pondering ancient and subtle wisdom, than attending a seminar to struggle with questions of history.

Yet he has not simply ignored history. He has read the great German exegetes of the past generation, Protestant as well as Catholic, and draws on them for particular points even though the format of his work does not make for detailed discussion. He denies the suggestion that he is producing a “Christology from above” (in which the orthodox theological cart is placed before the historical horse) by arguing that scholarly exegesis of the New Testament “must see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character”, forswearing popular but shallow positivism and combining a “faith-hermeneutic” with “a historical hermeneutic” so as “to form a methodological whole”.

The Pope suggests that this is a step forwards. Many, though, will inevitably see it as a step backwards, to a pre-modern, pre-critical reading which simply pushes the problems to one side and allows the great ecclesial tradition to rumble on as if there had been, after all, no real cause for concern about the reliability of the New Testament in the first place. The parallels between this approach and the stance that the Church is perceived to take on some other issues will, naturally, raise eyebrows. The business of whether theology and history can actually meet without a serious explosion is of course a question which, in one form or another (whether through debates on science and religion, or on faith and politics), has stood behind a good deal of intellectual conflict in the West over the past two centuries. Many will take more convincing than is provided in Jesus of Nazareth before they will readily accept such a marriage.

Benedict’s book, for all that, is full of surprises. There is a welcome emphasis on the rootedness of Jesus and his followers in Israel’s Scriptures, something which older exegesis, both Protestant and Catholic, often passed over. The heart of the volume is an exposition of Jesus’s vocational understanding of his own death in terms of the Psalms and Isaiah, particularly the “servant songs” of Isaiah 42–53, leading to a clear statement of the cross as the moment of vicarious, substitutionary atonement. This, Benedict writes, “constitutes the most profound content of Jesus’ mission”. This is not a view that Protestants normally expect popes to hold. Some Roman theologians, I suspect, will be surprised as well.

There are plenty of details to keep the reader alert. Benedict’s own tradition shows through here and there, for instance on Mary. It is fascinating to watch him treading carefully through minefields: “the Jews” who demand Jesus’s death are not the nation as a whole, but only the Temple hierarchy on the one hand, and the supporters of Barabbas on the other. And the historical detail sometimes needs attention: first-century Jewish corpses were anointed for burial not (as Benedict suggests) to keep corruption at bay, but in order to offset the stench of decomposition as more bodies were placed in the same cave-tomb before secondary burial of the fleshless bones.

Two major linked emphases indicate the underlying strength and weakness of this book. First, Benedict stresses that Jesus believed he was constituting himself and his followers as, in some sense, a new Temple. This, I believe, is historically correct, and is near the heart of the Christology of all four gospels. But, second, Benedict insists that, with this, Jesus “achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world”. This, he says, “is what truly marks the essence of his new path”. Jesus “had inaugurated a non-political Messianic kingdom”. The cross indicates a radical stripping away of all power. This results in “the new community”, which Benedict describes as “the new manner of God’s dominion in the world”.

The problem with this is that the Jesus of the gospels (which, on Benedict’s principles, ought to be determinative) insisted that through his own work, Israel’s God was becoming King “on earth as in heaven”. The Pope’s proposed disjunction (reflecting, perhaps, a measure of penitence for earlier ecclesial power politics?) plays into that modernist split-level world which Benedict’s whole project is designed to outflank. The integration of history and theology that the Pope is proposing at the level of exegetical method stands in tension with the separation of politics and religion he is endorsing at the level of meaning.

Benedict offers, inevitably, an exegesis of the gospel passages that deal with Daniel 7, and the strange prophecy of “one like a son of man” who “comes on the clouds of heaven”. He takes the normal view, that these passages are predicting the “second coming”.

Catholics as Just Another Denomination

Mark Horne says:

But what if Roman Catholics are sectarians dreaming they constitute the historic and perpetual center of the identity of the Church?

What if the real Catholic Church is simply continuing on and the Roman Catholic Church is pretending that it is not lacking that full communion because it has created without warrant autistic conditions for fellowship?

Evangelicals have many issues to work on as they continue through history. But there is nothing to rejoin. If the Roman Catholic Church and another denomination join and receive, then that is simply two denominations uniting together. And if they join and receive under the shared assumption that the Roman Catholic Church is some kind of perpetual “center” that all others are “peripheral” to and must come “back” to, then all that would mean is that the Christian people of the other denomination have become persuaded of sectarian superstitions.

I Can’t Interpret the Bible but I Can Interpret History

Perhaps responding to recent apostasies, Mark Horne put the problem with certain conversions to Rome and the East perfectly:

You are not impressing anyone when you claim that you don’t have the ability to read the Bible for itself but you do have the ability to study all of Christian history and identify the supernatural office that can tell you what to think.
If you can really read and argue from history in the hope of persuading others, then why not simply argue for your views from Scripture?  If you aren’t following your own authority in deciding which church to submit to then how are you following your own authority when you read the Bible and believe what it says? If you are willing to argue over the meaning of the last papal writings, why not argue over the meaning of Scripture?
The fragmented nature of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches gives the lie to the “unity” narrative. And yes, you think you can interpret history perfectly, but not the Bible…patently absurd.

Defending Constantine

Coming in November, Peter Leithart’s new book:

Contents:

1 Sanguinary Edicts
2 Jupiter on the Throne
Instinctu Divinitatus
4 By This Sign
Liberator Ecclesiae
6 End of Sacrifice
7 Common Bishop
8 Nicaea and After
9 Seeds of Evangelical Law
10 Justice for All
11 One God, One Emperor
12 Pacifist Church?
13 Christian Empire, Christian Mission
14 Rome Baptized

I CAN”T WAIT!!!!

Is Conversion the Answer?

Rod Dreher makes several salient points about converts to Rome and Orthodoxy:

Yes, but in my personal experience, the Catholic Church in America has only a facade of unity. Every Catholic parish I’ve been a part of has been basically Protestant, insofar as most of the people seemed to believe that they had a right to believe whatever they wanted. The unity was fairly superficial. Mind you, I’m in no position to say to what extent the Orthodox Church in this country is any different, because my experience is relatively short and limited almost entirely to my own parish. But I would be surprised to learn that we Orthodox on the whole were much different in that regard.

I’ve said the same thing myself: Catholicism in the USA is just Protestantism with a different name. You have gay Jesuits, hardcore Trad Opus Dei types, the First Things crowd, EWTN, liberals like the Kennedys, and on and on. There is no unified, glorious Church. It’s an illusion in the mind of the convert who lives in the world of ideas. Dreher continues:

I keep telling Protestants I know who want to convert to Catholicism that I don’t want to get in the way of their decision — though I would like them to consider Orthodoxy — but that they should realize that they’re probably not going to find an escape from modernism in their local parish. The church of Pope Benedict and First Things magazine, and your favorite conservative Catholic bloggers, is not the church you’re likely to encounter down the street. If you’re convinced of the case for Catholicism, then you almost certainly have to become Catholic — but go in with your eyes open. Similarly with Orthodoxy, we have, like Catholicism, the institutional and historical tools for resisting modernism, but if the pastors and the people remain indifferent or hostile to them, Protestants searching for solid ground to stand on may be unpleasantly surprised.

Again, this is not an argument against becoming Catholic or Orthodox. But it is a warning that it’s impossible to escape modernity and its challenges to tradition and traditional faith. When Father Dwight says that the fissiparous nature of individualist modernist faith will eventually give way to disbelief, because it’s not anchored in communal experience, I agree with him in principle, but would ask him what his prediction is for Catholic parishes that are populated by individualists in religion? (N.B., Father Dwight recognizes in his post that modernist Catholic priests shouldn’t be surprised when people quit coming to mass.) Similarly, I am aware of several Protestant congregations who are far, far more unified in belief than any Catholic parish I’ve been a part of, no doubt because those Protestants who don’t share the core convictions of that congregation found another congregation to attend. Mind you, without a Magisterium (Catholic) or a high view of the authority of Tradition (Orthodox) to hold on to, I don’t know how those congregations over time will remain grounded in their particular judgments. But having the theological mechanism for stability, as the Catholics and the Orthodox do, is no guarantee either.

This makes lots of sense. Because Protestant churches in our day are usually based on shared convictions such as worship style or theology, we have much more unity (at the micro level) than Catholics do.

I have a friend who left the Greek Orthodox church to which he belonged, because he was desperate for a spiritual encounter with the living God, as opposed to the empty formalism of his home parish, which, as he puts it, was more interested in worshiping Greekness than in worshiping God. He became a born-again Evangelical. Despite all the legitimate criticism that can be leveled at American Evangelicalism re: its lack of stability and susceptibility to cultural trends, is it really the case that children raised in a traditional church that has valid sacraments but is spiritually dead are going to have a better chance of living as Christians there than they would in an Evangelical church that has all the trappings of modernity, and an essentially modernist, individualist theology, but that for whatever reason has chosen a theologically traditional set of principles around which to organize, and lives it out in a vigorous, vibrant way?

This is the rub. Tradition and liturgy are life to me and those like me who seek to escape the modern church wasteland, but they were death to my Mom who wanted relationship with God and wasn’t taught that in the Lutheran Church of her day (though she could have had it, had they rightly understood their own past). We can’t re-pristinate the past and create some perfect model that never existed. We can meld the best liturgy and tradition with our modern condition, all the while being bathed in the Scripture as the ultimate norm.

Scott Hahn gets pilloried!

A Catholic rips the most famous of Catholic converts here. A sample:

Such dilettantish intellectual mush that such figures as Hahn seek to feed us is very much the product of this iron age of Catholic thought. If I was to pick a legitimate criticism of this talk, and of Hahn’s “neo-Catholicism” in general, it is that I am not convinced that it is Catholic at all. When he described his first attendance at Mass, how “Patristic” the whole experience was for him, how Catholics read from the Old Testament at Mass, etc., I could only ask myself the question: “Is this man, who appears to be a smart guy, ignorant that all of these ‘reforms’ in the Mass are younger than he is? Did he really see the Catholicism of history, or was he drawn to his own vision of what he thinks the Catholic Church is? Would he have had the same experience at Mass if he had gone to one from the year of his birth?” You might think that I am splitting hairs, but I find these questions highly pertinent. For often Neo-Catholics like Hahn seem to be drawn by aspects of the Catholic Church that I would characterize as dysfunctional and illegitimate. It is the part of the Catholic Church today that is profoundly forgetful, profoundly ignorant of what the Church was like not so long ago, and only enamored with the Church insofar as it provides them with a sufficiently large bullhorn for their own strange ideas (and the book deals that go along with them). While seeking to engage the culture with its basketball gym rallies, glossy paperbacks, and events that seem to be Human Resources pep talks with a little holy water sprinkled on them, they succeed only in talking past the culture, in creating an atmosphere that is little better than a Book of the Month club, if not to say a peppy, clean-cut, bearded cult. What is missing, sadly, is tradition, with all of its boring, outdated, and inglorious burdens.

Catholic Idolatry

Mark Horne has a helpful post on why he is not a Roman Catholic. An excerpt:

  1. Idolatry is a huge sin and praying through icons (whether 3d or 2d) is idolatry.  I cannot possibly engage in such a practice, allow anyone in my guardianship to do so, or excuse such a thing, without falling into rank unbelief.
  2. Necromancy is almost as huge a sin and praying to the departed saints is necromancy.  See #1 above.  People raised thinking bigamy is Christian may be true Christians, but people who know better are living in sin and without hope of eternal life unless they repent of such behavior.
  3. The way some Roman Catholic constituencies provide ministry opportunities for defectors from Protestantism is, of course, tempting–but it can hardly count as anything more than thirty pieces of silver if #1 and #2 hold.  If one must be marginalized and impoverished in the Protestant world due to sectarian sins, well, God has called many Christians and their families to far worse martyrdoms.
  4. Claiming unity can be achieved by everyone else joining one’s own denomination is exactly the sect spirit that is so loathsome in many Protestant groups, and it gains no more attractiveness in Rome.

While Mark’s honesty will offend many who justify idolatry by appealing to John of Damascus, we have an opposite example in the Internet Monk’s interview with Bryan Cross, someone who has made that plunge into idolatry. I don’t know why these issues are never raised in these ecumenical interviews. Many Protestants still seem to assume that justification is the core issue between us and Rome, while in fact idolatry is and always has been one of the central concerns of the Reformation, if one that is often ignored today.

Wright on Rome

Over at Christianity Today there is an article on Protestants who defect to Rome. Bishop N.T. Wright is quoted in the article, but his full quote is not provided. Here is his full quote:

a. I’m on sabbatical writing Volume IV of my big series, on Paul; so I don’t have time for more than a quick response.

b. ‘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 . . .

c. 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; and 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. transubstantiation) 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. The best RCs I know (some  of whom would strongly disagree with the last point, some would  strongly agree) are great conversation partners mainly because they  have found ways of pushing the accumulated clutter quietly to one  side and creating space for real life. But it’s against the grain of the Tridentine system, in my view. They aren’t allowed to say that but clearly many of them think it. Joining in is just bringing more of your own clutter to an already confused and overcrowded room…

d. I am sorry to think that there are people out there whose Protestantism has been so barren that they never found out about sacraments, transformation, community or eschatology. Clearly this person needed  a change. But to jump to Rome for that reason is very odd. It reminds  me of the fine old German NT scholar Heinrich Schlier, who found that the only way to be a Protestant was to be a Bultmannian, so, because he couldn’t take  Bultmann, became a Roman Catholic; that was the only other option in  his culture. Good luck to him; happily, most of us have plenty of  other options. To say ‘wow, I want that stuff, I’d better go to Rome’ is like someone suddenly discovering (as I’m told Americans occasionally do — sorry, cheap shot) that there are other countries in the world and so getting the first big boat he finds in New York to take him there . . . when there were plenty of planes lined up and waiting at JFK. 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 . . .

e. I spent three very happy weeks as the Anglican observer at the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops last October. They were talking about the Bible: about how for so long they have more or less banned the laity from reading or studying it, and how now they want to change all that, to insist that every Catholic man, woman, child, cat and dog should have the Bible in their own mother tongue and be taught to read it, study it, pray with it, individually and together. Hallelujah! Who knows what might happen. Question: why did nobody say this in 1525? If they had, we’d have been saved a lot of bother.
Let’s engage cheerfully in as much discussion with our Roman friends as we can. They are among my best ecumenical conversation partners, and  some of them are among my dear friends. But let’s not imagine that a renewed biblical theology will mean we find ourselves saying ‘you guys were right after all’ just at the point where, not explicitly but actually, they are saying that to us . . .

Aside from what may be an implicit endorsement of women’s ordination in there, that’s pretty good stuff! I particularly like his rejection of Mariolatry in Rome. Perhaps Rowan Williams should listen to Bishop Wright more.

Various Fathers on Scripture

1.
I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.
Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf205.x.iii.ii.html
2.
That which the holy Scripture has not said, by what means should we receive and account it among those things that be true?
St. Cyril Glaphyrorum, in Genesis, lib. ii.
3.
Orth.—Do not, I beg you, bring in human reason. I shall yield to scripture alone.
Eran.—You shall receive no argument unconfirmed by Holy Scripture, and if you bring me any solution of the question deduced from Holy Scripture I will receive it, and will in no wise gainsay it.
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf203.iv.ix.ii.html
Theodoret, Dialogue I. The Immutable
Orth.—I would not so say persuaded only by human arguments, for I am not so rash as to say anything concerning which divine Scripture is silent.
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf203.iv.ix.iii.html
Theodoret, Dialogue II. The Unconfounded
One day when he had gone forth because all the monks had assembled to him and asked to  hear words from him, he spoke to them in the Egyptian tongue as follows: ‘The Scriptures are  enough for instruction, but it is a good thing to encourage one another in the faith, and to stir up  with words.
Spoken by St. Anthony in St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204/Page_200.html
The novice was required not merely to read Scripture but to learn passages from it by heart
“that he may have full assurance in his piety and may not form his conduct according to the traditions of men.”
Basil Reg. Brev. 95.

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection:

I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.

St. Cyril, Glaphyrorum, in Genesis, lib. ii.

That which the holy Scripture has not said, by what means should we receive and account it among those things that be true?

St. Theodoret, Dialogue I. The Immutable

Orth.—Do not, I beg you, bring in human reason. I shall yield to scripture alone.

Eran.—You shall receive no argument unconfirmed by Holy Scripture, and if you bring me any solution of the question deduced from Holy Scripture I will receive it, and will in no wise gainsay it.

Theodoret, Dialogue II. The Unconfounded

Orth.—I would not so say persuaded only by human arguments, for I am not so rash as to say anything concerning which divine Scripture is silent.

One day when he had gone forth because all the monks had assembled to him and asked to  hear words from him, he spoke to them in the Egyptian tongue as follows: ‘The Scriptures are  enough for instruction, but it is a good thing to encourage one another in the faith, and to stir up  with words.
St. Basil, Basil Reg. Brev. 95.
The novice was required not merely to read Scripture but to learn passages from it by heart  “that he may have full assurance in his piety and may not form his conduct according to the traditions of men.”

Converts can’t let it go

It seems that often when Protestants convert to becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox they do the following:
– Convert their blogs into a constant stream of Patristic quotes. You’ll see a fine example of this here. Do they think no one has ever read these quotes before? Do they think people are hanging on these words and converting themselves due to reading them? Or does it merely feed their own self-narrative of being part of the new, most correct church? How is it that a brand new convert is best qualified to teach the world about his newfound Church?
– Turn all of their energy to attacking their previous, woefully mistaken ways as Protestants. Protestants had this, that and the other wrong. Augustine was bad, preaching was over-emphasized, art was neglected, Tradition ignored, Authority not thought through, etc.
These attempts at converting other Protestants who have not made whatever leap these individuals have made are puzzling. Do they need the justification of others making the same choice that they have made in order to feel better? Why is it that you never (in my experience) see these bold new converts out in the world evangelizing the lost? Where is the Great Commission in their new life? So let’s just say to them:
“Hey, you converted, that’s great. Now why don’t you go fulfill our Lord’s command and evangelize the lost world? Get back to us and tell us how that goes. Until then, lay off the constant attempts at proselytization of Protestants.”
It seems that often when Protestants convert to becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox they do the following:
– Convert their blogs into a constant stream of Patristic quotes. You’ll see a fine example of this here. Do they think no one has ever read these quotes before? Do they think people are hanging on these words and converting themselves due to reading them? Or does it merely feed their own self-narrative of being part of the new, most correct church? How is it that a brand new convert is best qualified to teach the world about his newfound Church?
– Turn all of their energy to attacking their previous, woefully mistaken ways as Protestants. Protestants had this, that and the other wrong. Augustine was bad, preaching was over-emphasized, art was neglected, Tradition ignored, Authority not thought through, etc.
These attempts at converting other Protestants who have not made whatever leap these individuals have made are puzzling. Do they need the justification of others making the same choice that they have made in order to feel better? Why is it that you never (in my experience) see these bold new converts out in the world evangelizing the lost? Where is the Great Commission in their new life? So let’s just say to them:
“Hey, you converted, that’s great. Now why don’t you go fulfill our Lord’s command and evangelize the lost world? Get back to us and tell us how that goes. Until then, lay off the constant attempts at proselytization of Protestants.”