Archive for the ‘Christian Unity’ Category

Reflecting on the Divisions in the Catholic Church at the Fordham Conversation Project

My good friend Charlie Camosy (check out his blog No Hidden Magenta) helped organize and host the Fordham Conversation Project a few weeks ago. The FCP (which I heard him refer to in conversation as the “anti-conference”) was an opportunity for young, non-tenured Catholic theologians to come together to discuss the divisions in the church and the future of Catholic theology. I was honored to be invited to Fordham to participate.

The FCP kicked off with a keynote address by Peter Steinfels, author of A People Adrift, on the current sociological data on the 70 million American Catholics. The data doesn’t look good. For example, only 10% of Catholic teens say their faith is extremely important in shaping their daily life, as opposed to 40% of Mormon teens and 30% of Evangelical teens. One-third of the adults raised Catholic have left the Church, and three Catholics leave for each one that enters. Steinfels noted tongue in cheek that the problem of declining members wasn’t exclusively a Catholic problem: “If it weren’t for people leaving the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church would have died a long time ago.”

Steinfels went on to describe two opposing concerns in the Church: concerns of identity and concerns of inclusion. Those Catholics who emphasize more the former tend to want a smaller, more homogeneous church, while those who identify the latter want a larger, more diverse church. If we think of these two concerns on a supply and demand graph, argued Steinfels, the best place for the church is where the two lines meet.

The next day, we listened to Catholic reporter John Allen talk about two trends from his new book The Future Church: globalization and the rise in Evangelical Catholicism. Regarding the first, Allen and others are adamant that the Church is moving south, and that this new “southern majority” is going to bring big changes to the current Euro-American dominated church. First of all, southern Catholics (those who live below the southern hemisphere) tend to be conservative on sexual issues but liberal on social justice. They tend to be more biblical than European and American Catholics and they tend to place a heavy emphasis on the supernatural. Southern Catholics are also more likely to prefer an “incluturated” liturgical celebration that incorporates elements of their own indigenous culture. Clearly, these southern Catholics challenge our traditional Catholic stereotypes.

At the same time, in the US we are seeing a different trend which Allen calls the rise of Evangelical Catholicism. These Catholics are characterized by their efforts to revive a traditional form of Catholic identity (on Steinfels’ chart, these are the “identity Catholics”). Evangelical Catholics are likely to say the Rosary regularly, go to confession regularly, prefer more traditional forms of liturgy, and choose a religious vocation.

So essentially, we have two opposing trends in the southern hemisphere and in the U.S. What does this mean? It means that the church is in a state of tension. We might say that U.S. Catholics are tending to emphasize “identity” more while southern Catholics are tending to emphasize “inclusion.” It also means that the Catholic Church looks and sounds very different depending on where you are. So are we doomed? Is the Catholic Church a church divided?

I don’t think so, and if you want to see some of my thoughts on this, check out my comments on the National Catholic Reporter “Distinctly Catholic” site. To draw from some of Fr. Robert Imbelli’s remarks at the conference, I think that in light of all the negative sociological data on the Catholic Church, there is still hope, a hope that is based in an incarnational reflection on the global Church. Despite the vast differences in the church on specific matters of faith, politics, morality, and liturgy, the center of the Church is strong enough to hold it all together. That center is Christ.

The essence of the Catholic Church’s identity is not a specific liturgical form (though some forms may be better than others; I, for one, would like to see more acapella singing and fewer organs drowning out the feeble voices trying to offer up a suitable worship to God). Nor is the essence of the Church its Marian devotions, its emphasis on the sacrament of confession, its Catechism, or its popes and bishops. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are incredibly important. They may not make the Church, but they surely do make her strong. No, the essence of the Church is her firm, enduring, unchanging conviction that Jesus Christ, the only son of the one eternal and immaterial God, became flesh for our sake, living among us and dying as one of us so that in dying, He might defeat death and the power of sin that had enslaved humanity. The essence of the Church is that we believe that Jesus lives still and works with us still through His Holy Spirit, until that day when our work will be through, and we can join Jesus where he reins.

This does not mean that our differences are not unimportant, nor does it mean that everybody who calls themselves “Catholic” is right about everything he or she holds. But it does mean that our center is not ideology, but Christ, and through that Center, we can, God-willing, work with Christ to reconcile the whole world to Him.

The Fordham Conversation Project was a wonderful opportunity for theologians and teachers like myself to think about how we might do just this—maintain unity in the face of diversity while at the same time, working to speak and live the truth. Catholic theologians, like every theologian since the time of Augustine who invited the Donatists back in the fold despite their heresy and apostasy, have to figure out how to address and reconcile the differences that exist in the Church without letting those differences ultimately triumph over us.

A Christian Response to Pew’s “Faith in Flux”

The “Faith in Flux” report from Pew Forum on Religion provides some pretty dire news for those who take religious identity seriously. About half of American–that’s right, half–leave their childhood faith at some point in their lives, and many who change their religion do so more than once.

The reasons people give for changing their religion – or leaving religion altogether – differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert. The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.

Catholics, according to the report, have been hit hardest by this trend. According to Pew, “Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change.”

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown the most due to changes in religious affiliation, the Catholic Church has lost the most members in the same process; this is the case even though Catholicism’s retention rate of childhood members (68%) is far greater than the retention rate of the unaffiliated and is comparable with or better than the retention rates of other religious groups. Those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly a four-to-one margin. Overall, one-in-ten American adults (10.1%) have left the Catholic Church after having been raised Catholic, while only 2.6% of adults have become Catholic after having been raised something other than Catholic.

A lot of those Catholics leaving, around half to be more specific, are becoming Protestant, and most of those are becoming Evangelical Protestants.

Former Catholics are about evenly divided between those who have become Protestant and those who are now unaffiliated with any religion, with fewer now adhering to other faiths. Among Catholics who have become Protestant, most now belong to evangelical denominations, with fewer associated with mainline Protestant denominations and historically black churches.

Why are so many leaving? Pew gives a variety of reasons:

*the most common reason for leaving Catholicism cited by former Catholics who have become Protestant is that their spiritual needs were not being met (71%).
*A similar number of former Catholics who have become Protestant say they left their former religion because they found another faith they liked more; nearly six-in-ten of those who changed denominational families within Protestantism also say this.
*Nearly two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic Church because they stopped believing in its teachings.
*Other reasons include dissatisfaction with the worship service, dissatisfaction with the clergy, and unhappiness about the teachings of the Bible.

In light of this data, Randy Harris, the renowned Church of Christ preacher and ACU professor provides a moving and compelling Christian response. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Church of Christ (also referred to as Churches of Christ), it is an evangelical and congregational Christian movement with three distinct markers: adult believer baptism, acapella worship, and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Other distinctive elements of the Church of Christ include a strong Biblical literalism, a conscious effort to restore first century Christian church as established by Christ, and a common sense post-enlightenment philosophical basis (with sadly no emphasis on metaphysics).

Randy Harris is perhaps the most famous preacher within the Church of Christ community, and if not the most famous, definitely one of the most talented. Look up his popular sermon “Jesus–God’s YES” on iTunes if you don’t believe me. However, Randy Harris also has a deep love for contemplative prayer, and at the Church of Christ university where he teaches, he is known as “the only Church of Christ monk.” He has also participated in Jesuit and Franciscan retreats. With all of this, it makes sense that he would get the question, “Why not just become Catholic?” And, in fact, he does get this question quite a lot, which he answers on his blog:

How can a contemplative mystic stay in Churches of Christ? Why don’t I move to Catholicism or Orthodoxy where mysticism is more at home?

The simple answer is I am a catholic with a little c. I am a part of the universal church of God which Jesus came proclaiming, so I can rightly claim those mystics as part of my spiritual heritage. To be Catholic with a big C in order to lay claim to Trappist, Carmalite, or Franciscan spirituality (all of which have blessed me!) requires a sectarianism that I have already rejected in wrestling with my own heritage. I reject both Catholic and Church of Christ claims of exclusivity. So I happily embrace my deeply flawed tradition rather than jump to equally flawed ones and I embrace all of those Christians through the ages who have taught me to pray. And as a matter of calling, I hope to make the mystical element a little bigger part of a movement that has been hyper-rational.

All of us who claim that our Christian faith plays an important part in our lives get frustrated with some of the specificities of that faith. Progressive Catholics get frustrated about the teachings on artificial birth control, the failure to ordain women, and the opposition to abortion. On the other side, more conservative Catholics bemoan the liturgical decline following Vatican II, the acceptance of female altar servers, and the widespread support within the Catholic community for gay marriage, legal abortion, artificial birth control, and a whole host of “mortal sins.” Evangelical Protestants are starting to realize that accepting evolution doesn’t have to undermine the Bible, and mainline Protestants are starting to realize that accepting everything is not the way to keep congregants in the pews.

No Christian church, and no Christian denomination can claim to be perfect, to adequately and accurately represent the church that Christ founded. But, as Randy Harris reminds us, all Christians are little-c catholics in a deeply divided church. Much of the discontent we feel, and much of the desire we have to seek out a better and more perfect church, one with better liturgy and preaching, one with a more Biblically-grounded faith or a more integral appropriation of the tradition, is a natural recognition of the deep divisions that exist within the Christian Church. The solution to those divisions, I am becoming more and more convinced, is not conversion. As a Catholic, especially in light of the realities Pew provides, I recognize that an emphasis on conversion is a losing game–for every Randy Harris we get, another 3-4 Catholics will leave. Rather, I think Christians who continue to take their faith seriously (I can’t speak to those who lose their faith) ought to, in most cases, stay put, to continue to worship in the tradition that has formed them and claims them, and to reform it from within. I think we also need to listen to others who stand on the solid rock of Christ, to discern the spirits of our faith, and integrate those elements of other Christian traditions we find to be true and good and holy.

Randy Harris is not a Catholic, but he is a Christian. And he is teaching hundreds of Church of Christ students and even more Church of Christ congregants a year to love and appreciate elements of the Catholic tradition, and more importantly, to call Catholics “brothers and sisters in Christ.” I think this is an excellent Christian response to Pew’s “Faith in Flux.”

Timothy Radcliffe on the Implications of the Sex Abuse Scandal

EverdayThomist is a big fan of Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominican Order and author of numerous very fine books, including two of my favorites: What is the Point of Being a Christian? and Why Go to Church? His recent treatment of the the sex abuse scandal in The Tablet is characteristically insightful and nuanced.

First, Radcliffe addresses those who want to leave the Roman Catholic Church in protest of the way the sex abuse crisis has been handled.

Some people feel that they can no longer remain associated with an institution that is so corrupt and dangerous for children. The suffering of so many children is indeed horrific. They must be our first concern. Nothing that I will write is intended in any way to lessen our horror at the evil of sexual abuse. But the statistics for the US, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, suggest that Catholic clergy do not offend more than the married clergy of other Churches.

Some surveys even give a lower level of offense for Catholic priests. They are less likely to offend than lay school teachers, and perhaps half as likely as the general population. Celibacy does not push people to abuse children. It is simply untrue to imagine that leaving the Church for another denomination would make one’s children safer. We must face the terrible fact that the abuse of children is widespread in every part of society. To make the Church the scapegoat would be a cover-up.

Then he addresses the much stickier issue of the cover-up within the Church. After all, people are not angry primarily because priests abused young children, but because the bishops and other members of the Vatican hierarchy did nothing to stop it. Radcliffe admits that the bishops have, at times, “been shockingly irresponsible in moving offenders around, not reporting them to the police and so perpetuating the abuse.” “But,” he goes on,

the great majority of these cases go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when bishops often regarded sexual abuse as a sin rather than also a pathological condition, and when lawyers and psychologists often reassured them that it was safe to reassign priests after treatment. It is unjust to project backwards an awareness of the nature and seriousness of sexual abuse which simply did not exist then. It was only the rise of feminism in the late 1970s which, by shedding light on the violence of some men against women, alerted us to the terrible damage done to vulnerable children.

Moreover, he notes, we should remember that the Vatican is a tiny organization, with only 45 employees working for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which must deal with the doctrinal and disciplinary issues for 1.3 billion Roman Catholics (comprising 17 percent of the world’s population, 400,000 of them priests). He notes, “When I dealt with the CDF as Master of the Dominican Order, it was obvious that they were struggling to cope. Documents slipped through the cracks. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented to me that the staff was simply too small for the job.”

But Radcliffe is not trying to simply defend the Vatican. For those who are sick of the New York Times’ seemingly anti-Catholic coverage (see here and here), Radcliffe reminds us that we “owe a debt of gratitude to the press for its insistence that the Church face its failures. If it had not been for the media, then this shameful abuse might have remained unaddressed.”

What I love especially is how Radcliffe concludes with the implication for Catholics debating whether or not to stay in the Church. Catholicism, Radcliffe insists, is not a choice, and he insists he is “not a Catholic because of a consumer option for an ecclesiastical Waitrose rather than Tesco.” His response deserves to be cited in full. I am a Catholic, he says, “because I believe it [the Church] embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.

When Jesus died, his community fell apart. He had been betrayed, denied, and most of his disciples fled. It was chiefly the women who accompanied him to the end. On Easter Day, he appeared to the disciples. This was more than the physical resuscitation of a dead corpse.

In him God triumphed over all that destroys community: sin, cowardice, lies, misunderstanding, suffering and death. The Resurrection was made visible to the world in the astonishing sight of a community reborn. These cowards and deniers were gathered together again. They were not a reputable bunch, and shamefaced at what they had done, but once again they were one. The unity of the Church is a sign that all the forces that fragment and scatter are defeated in Christ.

All Christians are one in the Body of Christ. I have deepest respect and affection for Christians from other Churches who nurture and inspire me. But this unity in Christ needs some visible embodiment. Christianity is not a vague spirituality but a religion of incarnation, in which the deepest truths take the physical and sometimes institutional form. Historically this unity has found its focus in Peter, the Rock in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the shepherd of the flock in John’s gospel.

From the beginning and throughout history, Peter has often been a wobbly rock, a source of scandal, corrupt, and yet this is the one – and his successors – whose task is to hold us together so that we may witness to Christ’s defeat on Easter Day of sin’s power to divide. And so the Church is stuck with me whatever happens. We may be embarrassed to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning.

The Catholic Church, indeed, all of Christendom, is deeply flawed. All those who call themselves “Christian” belong not only to the mystical body of Christ, but also to the “frail, fearfully, and wonderfully made” human institution. If we are critical for the way the humans within the institutional hierarchy have behaved, our response should not be abandonment, but rather, reform. In pushing for this reform, the press is absolutely indispensable, much as they may rile us sometimes. But if the Church is to remain unified, this means that we must bear with one another. We must be content to be a church of sinners dependent on the grace of Christ to hold us together. The Church is not a fraternity or a sorority of like-minded people, nor is it a voluntary association. It is a body consisting of diverse members, often in virulent disagreement, but all standing on the solid rock, not of Peter, but of Christ. And it is from Christ, not the bishops, or the the CDF, or the pope, that we derive our unity. The sex abuse scandal is a tragedy, but it should compel us to ever more turn to Christ for our strength, for our truth, and for our knowledge of the good. And it is from Him that we will ultimately find the source of our reform efforts. Who knows, maybe this scandal, in forcing us to see Christ as the solid rock on which we stand, will be an opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church to forge greater unity with the rest of Christendom.

Some Thoughts on Ecumenism and Christian Unity in Honor of the Feast of St. Richard Mullins

Ecumenical scholars are in a bit of disarray in the wake of the Vatican’s move to make it easier for Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism. In response to the Traditional Anglican Communion, an disaffected Anglican group opposed to the ordination of women and gay priests as well as the blessing of same sex unions, the Vatican announced the creation of new ecclesiastical structures which would allow Anglicans and U.S. Episcopalians to become members of the Roman Catholic Church while still holding on to their distinctive spiritual practices, including the ordination of married Anglican clergy as Roman Catholic priests.

The ecclesiastical structures would operate by allowing Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world to create personal ordinariates, basically, a diocese not attached to a specific geographical location, to accept Anglicans under the leader of a former Anglican priest who would be designated as bishop. Anglican clergy who are married would retain their holy orders but would be exempt from selection as bishops. Former Anglican seminarians could have separate houses of formation as well.

It’s a remarkable development in many ways because it will require Pope Benedict to release a new apostolic constitution in order to amend the Code of Canon Law. Notre Dame’s Cathleen Kaveny comments on this in today’s NYTimes:

It is worth noting that that the flexible, unity-in-difference that Rome has in mind is in fact an arrangement that is made possible only by the “modernizing” Second Vatican Council, and the new code of canon law produced in its wake.

Reginald Whitt, O.P. who is both a civil and a canon lawyer teaching at the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, has shown that Canon 372 of that code makes possible “personal particular churches” which allow distinctive groups with distinctive needs to preserve their identities while remaining in communion with the universal church.

While this canon has been used to meet the needs of traditionalist Catholics, Professor Whitt argues that it could also be used to assist other distinct groups of Catholics with their own needs and cultures of worship — such as African-American Catholics.

The criticism is that the Vatican’s move endangers ecumenical efforts between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church by basically taking sides in a Christian community almost on the brink of schism, and providing refuge for conservative Anglicans who do not see themselves in union with the larger Anglican communion.

National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen counters that the Vatican’s move actually represents a victory for ecumenical efforts because it allows Anglicans to maintain their distinctively Anglican spiritual practices (including the beautiful Book of Common Prayer) whereas previously, Christians from other denominations who wanted to become Roman Catholic had to essentially leave their spiritual heritage behind in order to participate in the distinctively Roman Catholic forms of prayer, worship, and ministry. Allen writes, “Today’s decision instead represents an option for ‘unity in diversity,’ which at least tris to show respect for the tradition out of which these new Catholics are emerging.”

Colleen Carroll Campbell agrees with Allen that the Vatican’s move represents the true spirit of Ecumenical efforts. She writes,

[N]othing in this action by the Vatican contradicts the principles of genuine ecumenism: the commitment to speaking the truth in love, to seeking common ground where it can be found and to honestly acknowledging deep differences — including those differences that have divided the Anglican Communion. . . Genuine ecumenism does not require that the Catholic Church turn away converts knocking on its doors, just as the Catholic Church’s genuine respect for tradition does not preclude the creation of a canonical structure that allows Anglican converts to retain some liturgical riches of their Anglican heritage while uniting with Rome. As the saying goes, “Unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; and in all things, love.”

This brings me to Richard Mullins, whose birthday is today, October 21. Richard Mullins was a Christian singer and songwriter who not only dedicated much of his career to teaching music on a Navajo reservation, but also donated all the profits from his music to his church and to a charity called Compassion International/Compassion USA. My husband and I like to think of Rich Mullins, who died on September 19, 1997 in a car crash on the way to a benefit concert, as the patron saint of Christian unity and we are celebrating his feast day today. As a couple trying to live out Christian unity in our own lives by worshiping both in the Church of Christ, which is my husband’s heritage, and the Roman Catholic Church, which is my own, Richard Mullins is a source of inspiration for us both, and can also perhaps help us understand the Vatican’s recent ecumenical efforts.

Mullins was Protestant by background, raised by Quaker parents in Indiana and baptized when he was in third grade. He got his degree in music education from Friends University, a private non-denominational Christian university with a Quaker heritage in Wichita Kansas.

Richard Mullins interest in Roman Catholicism was due in large part to his attraction to St. Francis of Assisi. Rich and his best friend Beaker founded the Kid Brothers of St. Frank (i.e. Francis) in the late 1980’s as a ministry to mentor young men in the Christian faith. His family now runs what is called the Legacy of a Kid Brother of St. Frank sponsoring missionaries, interns, and volunteers as well as organizing programs in music and the arts for Native American youth. In 1997, he teamed up with his best friend Beaker and Mitch McVicker to write a musical based on the life of St. Francis in the post-Civil War United States entitled The Canticle of the Plain.

Rich also attended daily mass regularly at the Navajo reservation where he lived until his death. There is much speculation about whether or not Rich was truly planning on converting to Catholicism. Some say that Mullins was scheduled to be received into the church the Monday following his death, after completing the RCIA program under Father Matt McGuinness of the Newman Center at Wichita State University.

Wikepedia cites this quote from a radio interview Artie Terry in Wheaton Illinois in April of 1997:

A lot of the stuff which I thought was so different between Protestants and Catholics [was] not, but at the end of going through an RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults] course, I also realized that there are some real and significant differences. I’m not sure which side of the issues I come down on. My openness to Catholicism was very scary to me because, when you grow up in a church where they don’t even put up a cross, many things were foreign to me. I went to an older Protestant gentleman that I’ve respected for years and years, and I asked him, “When does faithfulness to Jesus call us to lay aside our biases and when does it call us to stand beside them?” His answer to me was that it is not about being Catholic or Protestant. It is about being faithful to Jesus. The issue is not about which church you go to, it is about following Jesus where He leads you.

This quote points to something important about ecumenism and the move among the Christian churches to foster Christian unity: the goal of ecumenism is not conversion to a specific church like the Roman Catholic Church, but rather, conversion to Christ. As Christians, we are always in a state of conversion. Rich Mullins was once asked when he was born again, and his answer was “which time?” The way of Christian discipleship is constant conversion to a truer, more loving way of following in Jesus’ footsteps, and this is something I think Richard Mullins realized in his exploration of Catholicism, a realization that is especially reflected in his music.

Roman Catholics officially believe that the unity of the Church, which Christ bestowed from the beginning, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never fully lose, but is nevertheless not fully actualized at present. In order to recover the full unity of Christ’s Church on earth, the Catechism says that a number of things are necessary:

•Conversion of heart as the faithful try to live holier lives according to the Gospel for it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ’s gift which causes divisions
•Prayer in common, because change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians should be regarded as the soul of the ecumenical movement, and merits the name “spiritual ecumenism”
•Fraternal knowledge of each other
•Collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to human kind (821)

The reason my husband and I consider Rich Mulllins the patron saint of Christian unity is that his life provides a concrete example of how to live out these elements of Christian unity in our own life, by worshiping together, by learning each other’s tradition, by engaging in service together. Rich Mullins’ life is a reminder that the goal of the ecumenical movement is not to get more Catholics or more Protestants but to get more Christian disciples. Rich Mullins’ life is a clear example of how to live out St. Augustine’s ecumenical model: “Unity in the essentials; liberty in the non-essentials; and in all things, love.” In a concert in Lufkin, Texas, only a few months before he died, Rich Mullins told a concert audience:

Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.

Lest you think that Rich Mullins is another wishy-washy advocate of ecumenism without doctrine, like those who, as Colleen Carroll Campbell writes, are “equated with a lowest-common-denominator approach to doctrinal differences that glosses over serious conflicts and seeks peace at any price,” remember that next to the Bible, his favorite book was Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, who incidentally was a Catholic convert from Anglicanism.

On the unofficial feast of the not-yet canonized St. Richard Mullins, let us pray that Christians of every tradition and background can recognize that the end, the telos, of ecumenism is not conversion to a church, but conversion to Christ. There are a diversity of ways to be a Christian disciple, to worship, to pray, and to serve Jesus Christ in this life. But there is only one Lord. Let us pray also that through the intercession of the “kid brother of St. Frank,” the recent ecumenical developments between Catholics and Anglicans will be a means of realizing how through the grace of God, great diversity can exist within unity. In the words of St. Richard Mullins,

“The Christian faith is not about mere intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, but about a daily walk with this person Jesus. It’s about living in awareness of Christ risen, resurrected, and living in my life. Even though doctrine is important, wisdom in the Bible has more to do with character, and the art of living Christianity is about living out the will of God, and living abundantly.”

A Thomistic Response to N.T. Wright on Metaphysics, Trinitarian Formulas, and the Historical Jesus

In Chapter 4 of Scripture and Metaphysics, Matthew Levering takes on N.T. Wright who argues that traditional Western Trinitarian theology bypasses the narrative account of Scripture especially regarding the historical Jesus, and instead presents a fundamental non-narrative Trinitarian theology which “approache[es] the Christological question by assuming this [ontological] view of god and then fitting Jesus into it” (Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God,” 54).

Wright begins his essay with a personal anecdote of talking to students who claim to not believe in god. Wright probes them to explain “which god they don’t believe in” and determines that when students say this, what they mean is that they do not believe in a god who sits on high, looking down and casting out judgment, what Wright calls the “spy-in-the-sky.” To these students, Wright responds that he does not believe in such a god either, but rather, believes in the God that is revealed in the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Wright’s point is that we need historical studies of Jesus because it is all too easy to create an idol of Jesus, a heavenly, perfect, sinless, and non-Jewish Jesus “who wanders round with a faraway look, listening to the music of the angels, remembering the time when he was sitting up in heaven with the other members of Trinity, having angels bring him bananas on golden dishes.” Rather than starting off with the Orthodox, post-Nicaean and post-Chalcedonian Jesus as the second person of the Trinity (what Wright calls the kyriarchal portrait of God), Wright argues that we need to start with the historical Jesus who reveals to us not a creedal formula, but rather, the Old Testament God of Israel:

In Jesus himself, I suggest we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Isa 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do, the creator God giving new life the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures, the faithful God dwelling in the midst of his people, the stern and tender God relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation, and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall carry the lambs in his arms; and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11). It is the OT portrait of YHWH, but it fits Jesus like a glove.

In this chapter, Levering wants to save Aquinas from the implicit criticism of people like Wright, namely, that his conception of Jesus is sterile and formulaic, and completely detached from the Jesus as revealed in Scripture. Instead, Levering claims that Aquinas rejects the kyriarchal portrait of God just as strongly as Wright does. He cites the Tertia Pars, QQ. 46, art. 3. where Aquinas asks whether there was a more suitable way of delivering the human race than by Christ’s passion. In the first objection, alluding to St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, Aquinas states that God could have liberated humankind solely by His Divine Will! This could have not only spared the life of the incarnate son of God but would have more suitably revealed God’s superior power.

But Aquinas rejects the mighty display of God’s power as more suitable than the Passion (as does Wright) on the grounds that Christ’s passion teaches us about the God who saves us: “In the first place, man knows thereby how much god loves him, and is thereby stirred to love him in return, and therein lies the perfection of human salvation” (IIIa, Q. 46, art. 3). As Levering writes:

Christ’s Paschal mystery reveals to human kind the extraordinary depth of God’s love. Without Christ’s passion, humankind would not have known the superabundance of God’s love. The Paschal mystery reveals the Trinity (God-in-himself) in terms of a wisdom of wondrous love,, to the point of the Son of God giving his own life for the salvation of sinners, that is, for the salvation of those who by pride had cut themselves off from God” (Levering 134).

Aquinas does not give us the “disembodied theological cipher” which Wright wants to counter with the historical Jesus, but rather, to use Wright’s own words, “the Jesus whose body was killed as the revelation of the love of God and raised to new life.”

Aquinas gives another reason that Christ’s bloody passion was more fitting than a mighty display of God’s power neatly accomplishing the same task. That is, by his passion, Christ “set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (I Peter 2:21): ‘Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps” (IIIa, Q. 46, art. 3). Levering’s point is this, that like Wright, Aquinas appeals to the cross and the scriptural account of Jesus to dispel what Wright calls the “kyriarchal” or aloof, uncaring and philosophically formulaic God. But unlike Wright wants to argue that his scriptural and historical account of Jesus reveals a God of superabundant love, of humility, and of personified wisdom, as opposed to the philosophical accounts of God that his students reject, Aquinas uses philosophy to probe the depths of this mystery further. Namely, Aquinas draws a Trinitarian conclusion.

Jesus, Aquinas argues, was able to endure such suffering (which we have already established is intended to suitably reveal the intimate love of God that God is willing to suffer with and for God’s people) because of intimate knowledge of the Father. In suffering, and suffering without sin, for the sins of others, Jesus had full knowledge of Father, which gave Jesus the ability to suffer the most profound sorrow for sin out of the love which is manifest in the Father. As Levering writes, “the Father inspired Christ’s human will with this perfect charity by infusing Christ’s humanity with the fullness of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s passion, one thus sees manifested the incarnate Son’s obedience to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ reveals God’s wisdom and love in Trinitrarian form” (136).

For Aquinas, the scriptural Jesus, and especially the scriptural account of Jesus’ death reveals the Father as the one who sends the Son as the Father’s Word of love for the world, reveals the incarnate Son who is God’s perfect Word in the world, and reveals the Holy Spirit who enables the incarnate Son to suffer with supernaturally-inspired love. That is, for Aquinas, it is not the study of metaphysics, though metaphysics certainly helps, and not the study of creeds, though creeds are important, but precisely the study of Scripture and especially the Passion which reveals the Trinity.

We see the central and foundational importance of scripture in Aquinas’ Trinitarian formulas elsewhere, specifically in his commentary on John. Commenting on John 5:20, Aquinas writes that “because the Father perfectly loves the Son, this is a sign that the Father has shown him everything and has communicated to him his very own power and nature” (Super Ioan. 5, lect. 3, no. 753). Because the Father gives the Son everything he has, the Son is the perfect image of the Father (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15) or as Aquinas reflects using metaphysical language “since likeness is a cause of love (for every animal loves its like), wherever a perfect likeness of God is found, there also is found a perfect love of God” (Super Ioan 5, lect. 3, no. 753). Just as the Father bets the Son by absolute self-gift, so too the Son, in order to reveal the Father, must give himself completely.” Hence, we get the Passion.

This is not a way of ignoring the God of Israel which Jesus reveals perfectly through his earthly life (as Wright wants to argue); it is, however, a fuller revelation of the God of Israel. Levering writes, “Before Christ’s coming, the people of Israel knew God the father, but they only knew him as father in the sense of Creator, and as the one and only God. Christ’s disciples, on the other hand, are able to know Father by faith (by the grace of the Holy Spirit) as the Father of the only-begotten son” (139). Aquinas cites John 5:36 on this point: “The very works which m Father has given me to perform—those works that I myself perform—they bear witness to me that the Father sent me.” According to Aquinas, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, by revealing himself through his works, also reveals the Father. This is the basis of Trinitarian formulas—the works of Jesus as related by Scripture.

Wright wants to say that if we really study the Jesus as revealed in Scripture, we will not get at a creedal Trinitarian formula. The real Jesus and the Second Person of the Trinity have nothing to do with each other. He writes,

After fifteen years of serious historical Jesus study, I still say the creed ex animo; but I now mean something very different by it, not least by the word “god” itself. The portrait has been redrawn. At its heart we discover a human face, surrounded by a crown of thorns. God’s purpose for Israel has been completed. Salvation is of the Jews, and from the King of the Jews it has come. God’s covenant faithfulness has been revealed in the good news of Jesus, bringing salvation for the whole cosmos.

But for Aquinas, as Levering points out, it is precisely by studying this historical, earthly Jesus that we are taught, as Jesus taught his friends, about the Trinity. Jesus teaches us through his words and actions. On this, Aquinas would agree with Wright. But whereas Wright uses only historical and literary methods to understand this Jesus, Aquinas also integrates metaphysical methods to not only exegete the historical Jesus, but also to be conformed to true knowledge of the living God revealed in scripture. Metaphysical speculation does not, as Wright criticizes, lead to the construction of an aloof kyriarchal idol, but rather, seeks to illuminate the true meaning of scriptural narrative of the transcendent and immanent God revealed to Israel as YHWH. In short, metaphysical speculation, in addition to historical and literary methods of understanding, complement one another by instilling within the believer greater contemplative understanding of the mystery of the Trinity. Or as A.F. Gunten, O.P. remarks,

“The texts of Scripture invited [Aquinas] to undertake a philosophical study that bears its fruits. It then permits him to give a more precise interpretation of Scripture.”

More on Metaphysics

As I mentioned in my last post, I am doing a series of articles on Matthew Levering’s new book entitled Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, largely in hopes of starting an ecumenical conversation between traditions like the Church of Christ that tend to be sola Scriptura, and traditions like Roman Catholicism that tends to be heavily philosophical. The point of this blog is to probe deeper into the subject of metaphysics, in order to understand why Levering’s project is so important.

In the last post, I said that Protestant theology tends to reject metaphysics in favor of using Scripture to understand God. This claim, however, requires some clarification. There are several different ways of “rejecting metaphysics.” As I mentioned before, metaphysics is simply the study of that which is not physical like God, angels, demons, and the soul. One way which a person could reject metaphysics is by rejecting that any such metaphysical or immaterial realm exists. This is a move frequently made in the modern sciences, and is sometimes called materialism, meaning that only a material realm of reality which is subject to empirical inquiry exists.

One example of a materialist rejection of metaphysics is found in this recent op-ed from the New York Times evaluating the selection of Francis Collins as the director of the National Institute of Health. Collins is a geneticist and former head of the Human Genome Project, and he is also a practicing Catholic and believer in God. Collins actually wrote a book called The Language of God which tries to show how faith and new developments in genetics are not at odds, but are rather mutually reinforcing (a good Thomist position). The author of the op-ed, Sam Harris, is not so much uncomfortable with Collin’s belief in a God but rather with his position that some things “including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.” are beyond scientific scrutiny. Harris writes,

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

Collins holds the position that he does because he believes in a metaphysical realm that cannot be the subject of scientific empirical inquiry which by definition can only study material phenomena. Harris, on the other hand, rejects such a metaphysical realm. If there is a reason, according to Harris, that we think that free will, morality, and suffering are mysteries, it is simply because we have not developed sufficiently sophisticated scientific methods to study these phenomena (For a good argument that probes materialist rejection of metaphysics on a deeper intellectual level, check out this from First Things).

Christians, however, who reject metaphysics, do not do so in the same way as Harris. Christians are not materialists, meaning that they do accept a metaphysical realm. Christians who reject metaphysics do so on different grounds, namely, by rejecting the validity of metaphysical speculation or philosophical arguments to talk about God. Christians who reject metaphysics tend to claim that everything we need to know about God has already been revealed to us in Scripture, and so rather than using philosophy to talk about God, we need only to open the Bible.

There are two big reasons why that position is a problem. First, say you have an atheist or agnostic scientist or believer in science like Sam Harris and you want to talk to him about Christianity. Opening up the Bible and reading about all that God has done is going to do little to persuade someone like Harris to accept the Christian claims of faith. But say instead you close the Bible and use a metaphysical argument to engage Sam, perhaps an argument from Aquinas. You might say something like, “Sam, our senses tell us that everything is in motion, and that things are set into motion when they are acted on by something else in motion. But things were not always in motion. For example, the theory of the Big Bang tells us that before time, there was no molecular motion at all, but something must have initially set things into motion. This first mover, we can reasonably say, is God.” (For the record, this is Aquinas’ first way of five for demonstrating reasonably God’s existence).

Now Harris may or may not be convinced by such an argument, but the point is, that such an argument, which is a metaphysical argument, has the benefit of being able to show how the God which Christians take on faith is not beyond reason. Certain things can be known about this God through ordinary human reasoning. Now, faith in the living God of Israel, fully revealed in Jesus Christ, cannot be attained through mere rational speculation, but is rather an effect of God’s grace. But Aquinas believed, and I think rightly, that we can make ourselves more or less amenable to faith. Sam Harris is not going to be made amenable to faith by reading the Bible, but he might be by rational, philosophical, and metaphysical arguments. Get him convinced enough that faith and reason are not in conflict, and he may get to the point where he can actually open the Bible and read it with a certain degree of docility. So metaphysics can be a powerful tool for evangelization.

The second reason that rejecting metaphysical arguments in favor of a sola Scriptura position to understand God is a problem is that God as revealed in Scripture does not always seem to make a lot of sense. For example, a Christian may site Psalm 118, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good! for His mercy endures forever” and make a claim along with the Psalmist that God is good. But then somebody could open the Bible and read 2 Samuel 6 where Uzzah, a seemingly good guy and servant of God, reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant to keep it from falling, and God gets angry and strikes him dead. A person reading this passage could claim that such a God is not good. Or a Christian could say that God loves peace and mercy and cite the numerous Biblical passages which support this, like when Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” or in the Old Testament:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21,22)

“Seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14)

But then someone else could open the Bible and look at the following passages and draw a very different conclusion:

Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I am driving out from before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Take heed to yourself, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land where you are going, lest it be a snare in your midst. But you shall destroy their altars, break their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images. For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (Exodus 34: 11-14)

<blockquoteYou will chase your enemies, and they shall fall by the sword before you. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight; your enemies shall fall by the sword before you. For I will look on you favorably and make you fruitful, multiply you and confirm My covenant with you. You shall eat the old harvest, and clear out the old because of the new (Leviticus 26: 7-9)

Reading these passages, someone could make a very valid claim (as lots of people do, and they frequently abandon their faith as a result) that God is actually not peaceful and merciful, but is rather capricious and wrathful, going so far as to command genocide, one of the greatest of atrocities.

Levering says that it is all too easy to read these passages and others from the Bible and create an idol out of God. Our idol may be a wrathful God who sends down punishments on the wicked and hates his enemies. Or our idol may be a revolutionary God involved in radical societal reform and social justice. Or our idol may be a God who loves and accepts all his creatures, no matter what they do. Or our God may be a strict authoritarian who has set down rules in Holy Writ and fully expects his creatures to follow them.

All of these understandings of God are present in Scripture and thus all of them have at least some element of truth. But Levering wants to argue that taking any one of these understandings of God on its own, despite its scriptural warrant, is still making an idol out of God.

Levering wants to make the claim in his book that a basic metaphysical assumption about God is that God is reasonable, and thus, we can use our reason to understand and explain these seeming conflicting passages about God. That is, if we put metaphysical speculation about God into dialogue with scriptural exegesis about God, we can come up with an understanding of God that is richer, truer, and less prone to idolatry. We will go into the details of how Levering thinks this should proceed in later posts, but he basically wants to argue that Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysical assumptions allowed him to resolve apparent conflicts regarding God as God is revealed in Scripture. Metaphysical speculation allowed Aquinas to make sense of Scriptural accounts of the seeming capriciousness of God and scriptural accounts of God as unchanging. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the Christian claim that God is good, despite Scriptural evidence to the contrary. Aquinas’ metaphysical speculation allowed him to make sense of the fact that God is one, despite the fact that Christianity hold that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also God. And Levering thinks that these are exactly the tools that Christians need to today in order to understand God and enter into greater union with that God.

Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology

Metaphysics is that science which studies all that is beyond the natural world, yet still relates to the natural world. Metaphysics studies the nature of being (ontology) and causation and transcendentals (the Beautiful, the Good, the True). Metaphysics (meta ta phusika) itself simply means “beyond the physics” and was the word assigned to the sequel of Aristotle’s book the Physics which examined the natural world. Everything that our senses can perceive is subject to contingency and change and it is these things that are the object of the study of physics. Metaphysics studies those things which are beyond apprehension of our senses. We can perceive a rock or a tree or a piece of cake with our senses, and so these can be the subject of physical inquiry. But we cannot perceive God or the immortal soul or spiritual beings like angels with our senses; these, then, are the subject of metaphysical inquiry.

Aristotle himself did not use this word but called the subject of his book the “First Science,” “Wisdom,” or “Theology.” The subject of his inquiry was specifically the first cause of things or non-material things which do not change. This is sometimes described as “being qua being,” or “being as it is in itself.” Because this was the most fundamental subject, Aquinas thought the study of metaphysics as “wisdom” (sophia), the highest type of knowledge.

Metaphysics has always had a reputation of being about matters which are notoriously difficult. Andronicus of Rhodes probably assigned the title ‘metaphysics’ to Aristotle’s text indicating that the subject matter of the Physics must be fully grasped before one could understand the subject of the sequel. Metaphysicians use phrases like “essence precedes existence” or “substances, while not universals, are subjects of predication that cannot themselves be predicated of things.” Such language is especially prohibitive according to our modern sensibilities which seek to explain all phenomena in positivistic or empirical language. Kant rejected metaphysics because he claimed that the immaterial world was beyond intellectual inquiry. Hume claimed that all we could know was what we could experience, thus precluding metaphysics as a viable mode of inquiry since it was specifically about things which could not be experienced. Modern materialists reject metaphysics because they claim there is no immaterial world–all that exists is what we can apprehend with our senses.

In Christian theology, metaphysical language has been used to talk about and explain various things about God. In the creed, for example, when you say, “begotten not made, one in being with the Father,” you are expressing a metaphysical conclusion which was once a hot debate in the early church. Metaphysics has been especially employed throughout history to discuss the nature of the Incarnation (word becoming flesh) and the Trinity (one being or ousia of three persons or hypostases). Aquinas relied heavily on metaphysical language to explain these mysteries. Aquinas used metaphysical language to talk about God’s simplicity (that he lacks composition), his perfection, his eternity, his immutability, and his power. But he also employs heavily metaphysical language to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, given that God is one and simple, how can we also say that God is three persons?

Much of Protestant theology has assumed an irreconcilable division between Scripture and metaphysics. For many Protestants, the best way to talk about God is not in the metaphysical language of being, but rather in the language that God gives us in Scripture. That is, if we want to understand God, we turn to Scripture which tells us who YHWH is, who Jesus Christ is, and who the Holy Spirit is.

There is good reason for this turn to Scripture, rather than philosophy, in order to understand God. Luther, for example, quite famously said that metaphysics was prohibitive for understanding God, and was a way of getting around the fact that the living God has revealed himself historically in Scripture. Moreover, it is hard to deny that it is much easier to be inspired and captivated by the scriptural tales of the various acts of the God of Israel, and the stories of Jesus, and the Pauline arguments about Jesus’ significance than it is to be inspired and captivated by a discussion like the following from Aquinas’ treatment of the Trinity:

the divine simplicity requires that in God essence is the same as “suppositum,” which in intellectual substances is nothing else than person. But a difficulty seems to arise from the fact that while the divine persons are multiplied, the essence nevertheless retains its unity. And because, as Boethius says (De Trin. i), “relation multiplies the Trinity of persons,” some have thought that in God essence and person differ, forasmuch as they held the relations to be “adjacent”; considering only in the relations the idea of “reference to another,” and not the relations as realities. But as it was shown above (Question 28, Article 2) in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself. Thence it follows that in God essence is not really distinct from person; and yet that the persons are really distinguished from each other. (Ia, Q. 39, art. 1).

However, the assumed antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is in many ways a straw man. First of all, Scripture uses metaphysical language to talk about God. When God tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Prologue of John is heavily metaphysical:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Second of all, many of those who use metaphysics, like Aquinas, do not do so in order to replace Scripture, but rather to shed light on the mysteries narrated by Scripture.

Overcoming the antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is the subject of Matthew Levering’s excellent new book, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, which I will be discussing in subsequent blog posts. Levering argues that metaphysical speculation about God, rather than rendering God distant and meaningless, is necessary to ensure that our worship is oriented towards Israel’s God, rather than culturally relevant idols. Aquinas, he argues, is an invaluable guide for learning how metaphysics enhances our understanding of Scripture and deepens our knowledge and union with God. He writes in the introduction,

We learn from Aquinas how the language of ‘being’ [metaphysical language] preserves Israel’s radical insistence upon the intimate presence in the world of her transcendent god, a presence that is ultimately Messianic, given the evil of the world. Aquinas exposes how the doctrine of divine Personhood attains real knowledge of, without over-narrating, the inner life of God as revealed in Scripture. He finds in the proper names of the Trinity—father, Son, Word, Image, Holy Spirit, Love, Gift—the biblical distinctions of the divine communion-in-unity into which our lives have been salvifically drawn. Against supersessionism, including the unconscious supersessionism that is Trinitarian ontology, he teaches Christians that we must always speak of our triune God under two aspects (4).

Metaphysics, for Aquinas and for Levering who wants to defend Aquinas, belongs to the personal encounter in which human beings use human words and human concepts to truly express divine revelation. Aquinas uses metaphysics to illumine the meaning of Scriptural revelation, to talk in a meaningful way about the God who has made himself known, and ultimately, to help Christians contemplate and enter into greater union with this living God. A Jean Pierre Torrell writes:

When Thomas says that theology is principally speculative, he means that it is in the first instance contemplative; the two words are practically synonymous in Thomas. This is why—we shall not be slow to see this operative in Thomas’ life—research, study, reflection on God can find their source and their completion only in prayer. The Eastern Christians like to say of theology that it is doxology; Thomas would add some further clarifications to that, but he would not reject the intention: the joy of the Friend who is contemplated is completed in song (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1: The Person and His Work, 157).

On a final note, I hope this post and the subsequent posts I write on this book and the topic of scripture and metaphysics will foster ecumenical dialogue. As a Roman Catholic married to a member of the Church of Christ, and as a regular mass attendant and active worshipper in a local church of Christ, I am very interested in finding points of similarity and unity between a tradition that is heavily speculative and metaphysical, and a tradition that is historically rationalistic, positivistic, and solely reliant on Scripture to know God and how to worship him. I think that Aquinas is an invaluable resource for this dialogue, and for future ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and other Christian traditions, and I hope that these posts can help to foster an ongoing conversation between different Christians who seek to climb the steep mountain of the knowledge of God.

Part Three of the Christian Response to Abortion: Christology

We have already addressed how God is the sovereign Lord of life and death. We have also addressed how human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made, and that the human condition is characterized by the same frail, mysterious vulnerability of the pre-born in the womb. In light of both of these realizations, we have seen that the proper Christian response should be one of awe and humility. Reflecting on both God and our own human condition should always turn our eyes upward.

What gives us the power to turn our eyes upward to the merciful heavenly Father is Jesus Christ, who reveals to us the Father, and reveals to us the salvation from this human condition that the Father has provided for us, and who pours out his Spirit on us so that we have strength for the journey. John Calvin writes,

Since we have fallen from life into death, the whole knowledge of God the Creator that we have discussed would be useless unless faith also followed, setting forth for us God our Father in Christ. The natural order was that the frame of the universe should be the school in which we were to learn piety, and from it pass over to eternal life and perfect felicity. . . [But after man’s rebellion] even if God wills to manifest his fatherly favor to us in many ways, we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that he is Father. . . As all our senses have become perverted, we wickedly defraud God of his Glory. We must, for this reason come to Paul’s statement: ‘Since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe’” (II, vi.1).

What Calvin is saying here is if we were to only reflect on God and the human condition, we would either despair that we are separated from God, or try and become God’s ourselves. Only the “foolishness” of Jesus, the God-man, reveals to us what it truly means to be both God and human.

This is why we turn to Christ, to attempt to construct a Christological understanding of abortion to complement the numerous arguments that already exist. It is because we cannot know God’s will apart from Christ. Moreover, we cannot fully know what it means to be human apart from Christ. Science and philosophy may lead us to some understanding, and reflecting on the magnificent achievements of mankind in history may lead us to some awareness of our creation in the image of divinity, but apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know who we humans truly are and what we have been called to be. As Paul says, we are not to be “conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds, to discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Scripture makes it clear that the life of Jesus Christ begins in the womb: The angel Gabriel tells Mary, “Behold, you shall conceive in you womb and bear a son.” When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, the infant [John] leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, crying out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The sovereign God, who the Psalmist declares to have knit him together in his mother’s womb, saw it fit to take human flesh, not initially in the form of a man, but first, in the dark and formless void of the womb.

The mistake that we make as Christians is that we try and compare Christ’s humanity with whatever definition of humanity we have created through human means. A Christological argument does not say, “life begins at conception, therefore Jesus’ life as a human must have begun at conception.” A Christological argument starts rather with Christ himself. The life of Christ shows us that God does not conform Himself to our human definitions and our human expectations in that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a virgin. The virginity of Mary is important, not because sex is bad, but because it reveals to us that human beings do not know through science or philosophy or any other human discipline how God works. Science cannot make sense of the incarnation, and likewise, science cannot ever fully reveal to us the meaning of our humanity. Calvin, again, puts it nicely:

As philosophers have fixed limits of the right and the honorable, hence they derive individual duties and the whole company of virtues, so Scripture is not without its own order in this matter, but holds to a most beautiful dispensation, and one much more certain than all the philosophical ones. The only difference is that [the philosophers] as they were ambitious men, diligently strove to attain an exquisite clarity of order to show the nimbleness of their wit. But the Spirit of God, because he taught without affectation, did not adhere so exactly or continuously to a methodical plan; yet when he lays one down anywhere he hints enough that it is not to be neglected by us (III, vi, 1).

In the womb of a virgin, where God saw fit to take flesh, we see the life of Christ begin. We do not know the exact point that matter and form came together to form the person of Jesus. Conception is a mystery. But what we do see is the response we are called to have when we reflect on this mystery. Mary says, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”

I see great potential for Christian unity on the issue of abortion. However, I do not think this unity will be founded on natural law arguments or scientific explanations or talk about human rights. Those arguments have a place, but that place is to reveal to the world what Christians already know in Christ. That God is sovereign Lord, and “nothing will be impossible with God;” that human beings are His creation, made in His image and likeness. And that Jesus Christ shows us what that image and likeness is. And like Mary, with each mysterious new life, we as Christians are called to say, “The Lord has looked with favor on his lowly servant” because we know that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

A Distinctively Christian Response to Abortion, Part One

Today we solemnly note the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This is largely a symbolic anniversary. Although much hype surrounds the 1971 Supreme Court decision, it simply guaranteed what individual states were already doing–giving women a right to have an abortion. If Roe v. Wade were revoked today, every state, in all likelihood, would re-institute that right on a state level.

Nevertheless, the symbolic importance of today remains. Abortion is legal and culturally acceptable. This country considers abortion a right. Abortion is also widespread. Today, approximately 3,700 women will have an abortion in the United States. This year, about 1.3 million abortions will occur.

There are lots of statistics one can refer to today. There are also many, many rational, secular, scientific conversations one could have, both in support of and in opposition to abortion. I have written about abortion in these terms before. But I want to do something different. I want to examine what a Christian response to abortion might look like, not according to the world’s standards, but according to the standards of faith and life in the church. My goal is not to contradict or downplay the importance of other arguments against abortion that are not explicitly Christian. I think that these arguments, based in natural law, in utility, or other standards of morality are necessary to fight abortion in the public square. However, I am troubled that the Christian response to abortion is divisive, that Christians claim they can follow the law of Christ and still support abortion. As part of this week of Christian unity, I want to examine how the theological resources in our shared Christian faith might formulate a unified, authoritative, and distinctively Christian response to abortion.

Due to length, I will divide my argument into three posts, modeled on the tripartite format of Thomas Aquinas‘ Summa Theologica. This first post will examine abortion from the perspective of the sovereignty of God; the second will examine abortion from a Christian anthropological perspective in light of the sovereignty of God; the third will posit a Christological argument against abortion.

I. God is sovereign Lord over life and death

We live in an era of rights. We are told that human beings have a right to life, to health, to happiness, to education, to our bodies, to property, to a nation. We also live in a culture that prioritizes control–control over our bodies, control over our lives, control over our destiny. Rights and control are what the world offers, but the Christian is called to recognize these as deceptions. Our faith demands that we recognize that we are not the ones in control over our lives, our plans, or our destiny. We are subject to the sovereign God, who is the Lord over life and death.

Scripture tells us over and over again that our lives are not our own. God tells Moses in Exodus, “Who gives one man speech and makes another deaf and dumb? Or who gives sight to one and makes another blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). The Song of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy is really an extended sermon on God’s sovereignty: “Learn then that I, I alone, am God, and there is no god besides me. It is I who bring both death and life, I who inflict wounds and heal them, and from my hand there is no rescue” (Deuteronomy 32:3). Hannah dedicates her son Samuel back to God, recognizing that he was not her own: “I prayed for this child, and the LORD granted my request. Now I in turn give him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:27-28). The sovereignty of God is the overarching theme of the wisdom literature, emphasizing that the root of human wisdom is acknowledgment of God’s lordship: “The pronouncement of mortal man: ‘I am not god; I am not God that I should prevail‘” (Proverbs 30:1).

The New Testament also emphasizes the sovereignty of God. Jesus tells his disciples to not worry about what they will wear or what they will eat because God is the one who provides for his creation: “Your heavenly Father knows what you need. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides” (Mt. 6:32-33). Paul writes that God “gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17). Paul attests that Christians must know that their lives are not their own: “Who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, ‘Why have you created me so?’ Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one?” (Romans 9:20-21).

Against the wisdom of the world, which offers us the right to life, the Christian is called to respond that we belong to the LORD who gives and takes life, whose ways are inscrutable. To the world which tells us that our bodies are our own, the Christian is called to respond that our body “is a temple of the Holy Spirit, whom we have from God.” To the world that offers us freedom, the Christian is called to respond that we have been purchased at a price (1 Cor.6:20). To the world which offers us control over our destiny, the Christian is called to respond that “the world or life or death or the present or the future” belong to God, and we to Him (1 Corinthians 3:22).

Stanley Hauerwas says that as Christians, we are not to believe that we have a right to life, nor are we to think that life has any inherent dignity. We believe, instead, that life is a gracious gift from God. We believe that our life, and any life that comes from us, is a gift and a terrifying mystery. Our response to our own life, and the life around us should always be one of awe and hospitality and hope. God is sovereign, and we are his subjects. How are we to decide when life begins, who is to live, and who is to die? In his article entitled “Abortion Theologically Understood,” Hauerwas writes,

When you frame the abortion issue in sacredness-of-life language, you get into intractable debates about when life begins. Notice that is an issue for legalists. By that I mean the fundamental question becomes, How do you avoid doing the wrong thing? In contrast, the Christian approach is not one of deciding when has life begun, but hoping that it has. We hope that human life has begun! We are not the kind of people that ask, Does human life start at the blastocyst stage, or at implantation? Instead, we are the kind of people that hope life has started, because we are ready to believe the at this new life will enrich our community.

Hauerwas’ argument bears much in common with the earlier argument Karl Barth made against abortion in his chapter on the “The Protection of Life.” Barth writes, “human life has no absolute greatness or supreme value, that it is not a kind of second god, but that its proper protection must be guide, limited, and defined by the One who commands it, ie., by the One who is a real God, the supreme good, the Lord of Life” (398). Barth goes on to say that the Christian response to abortion is not merely legislative change (although that is a noble, and necessary goal), but also the cultivation of a whole new attitude: “the only thing which can help is the power of a wholly new and radical feeling of awe at the mystery of all human life as this is commanded by God as its Creator, Giver and Lord. Legal prohibitions and restrictions of a civil, moral and supposedly spiritual kind are obviously inadequate to instill this awe into man“ (418).

What both Hauerwas and Barth recognize is that a properly Christian response to abortion must begin and end with the sovereignty of God, the living God who is Lord over life and death. The Christian realizes that our lives are not our own, that God judges our hearts, our plans, and our acts, and he is the source and goal of our life, our love, and our power. To restrict life to a definition, to make distinctions about who lives and who dies, and even to assert that our life is a “right” is a usurpation of God’s sovereign power. We thus end this first of three installments with a supplication from Augustine: “This alone I know: without you it is evil for me, not only in external things but within my being, and all my abundance which is other than my God is mere indigence.”

Christian Church and State: A Barthian Response to the Two Kingdoms Doctrine

Martin Luther believed that God has two ways of ruling, known as the two spheres or the two kingdoms–the law, which is carnal, and the Gospel, which is spiritual. These two spheres were completely separate. The law, which the civil government belongs to, rules by coercion. Its existence is necessary to restrain the “ravenous wolves” of the world, which are always pressing at the Christian community and threatening to destroy it. The church, on the other hand, belongs to the spiritual sphere. This is a sphere characterized by freedom from the law, by love, and by peace.

One way to think of the two kingdoms in Luther’s thought is that they represent the right and the left hand of God. Each hand does a different task and rules in a different way. The two kingdoms, therefore, are God’s kingdoms, and both have a divine mandate to resist a third kingdom, the kingdom of Satan. Luther emphasized, however, that the spiritual realm could not prevail over the carnal, and that the two must remain separate. Thus he advocated for a rigorous separation of church and state as having different priorities and different concerns.

There is much one could admire about Luther’s political theory. He dismissed the idea that religious states of life were holier than secular, claiming that God favored both the holiness of the priest and the housewife. Against the Anabaptist radical reformation, Luther advocated participation, rather than withdrawal from society, and particularly the government. And he tried to find a way to hold both the church and the state as good parts of God’s creation, without collapsing one into the other.

The problem with Luther’s system is that it results in a heavy dualism between the church, ruled by Christian morality, and the government, ruled by whatever morality is expedient for keeping order. The Christian believer, who participated in both spheres, while only belonging to the spiritual sphere, had little recourse, and little motivation, to challenge injustice in the secular realm. This resulted in a passive and impotent church when it came to political matters. One example might be the Lutheran Church in Germany during the 1930’s which allowed Christians to lead a double life as both a believing and practicing Christian and a supportive Nazi. However, the quietistic implications of his two kingdoms doctrine became evident in Luther’s own day, which manifested itself in a complacency toward the injustices of the German princes (to give you an idea, Luther wrote a treatise called essentially, “Against the Ravenous Murderous Hordes of Peasants”).

You see a similar approach to church and politics in much contemporary American political discourse. The idea is that you can be a faithful Christian and still support political agendas wildly divergent from your Christian beliefs. Joe Biden, for example, has argued that he is a faithful Catholic who attends Mass regularly and holds to what the Church teaches, but that in his capacity as a public figure, he feels justified supporting legislation supporting abortion, which is completely inconsistent with his Catholic beliefs, based on the principle of separation between church and state. This is an excellent example of the pervasive and long-lasting influence of Martin Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” theory.

As an alternative, in honor of this week of Christian unity, I turn not to Aquinas or any other Catholic thinker, but rather to Karl Barth. Karl Barth once wrote that “wherever there is theological talk, it is always or implicity political talk as well.” Barth believed that Christians should approach politics as they approach all things–Christologically. In a 1935 essay entitled “Gospel and Law,” Barth wrote that Christ establishes the relationship between law and Gospel, such that “we can certainly make the general and comprehensive statement that the law is nothing else than the necessary form of the gospel, whose content is grace” (80). The state, therefore, is a Christological sphere.

As a Christological sphere, Barth has a somewhat positive view of the state (though he still subordinates it to the church), but more importantly, he insists that the state, like the church, serves Christ. In Church Dogmatics IV/2, he writes that the state is not just called to resist sin, but is called to be an instrument of divine service, with its ministers acting as God’s ministers. The state becomes a sphere of wrath, according to Barth, when is deviates from the path of salvation wrought by Christ.

The implications for the Christian is that he is called to participate in the state and give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but always in a way motivated by and terminating in the service of Christ. This means that there is a harmony and coherence in the activity of Christians in the world. The Christian has a political responsibility to serve Christ, not by forming a “Christian political party,” but by serving the government in ways consistent with what Christ demands, and by supporting a political agenda consistent with Christ’s lordship. As Barth writes, “No neutrality with God is possible. We must choose between the true God and idolatry” (III/4, 307).

As we usher in a new president, and as we continue to reflect on and pray for Christian unity, I encourage my Christian readers to reexamine their opinions about church and state. Just as Christ is one, so too should the Christian life be one, not divided between secular and religious obligations and practices, but consistently and tirelessly oriented to the service of Jesus Christ.

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