Ascension Day, May 5, commemorating Christ’s taking His place in the Godhead at the right hand of God the Father, is an important holiday.  Because of His Ascension, Christ fills all things.  Thus, He can be present in the Lord’s Supper; thus, He is present with His church; thus, He rules over all things.  After the jump, read what St. Paul says about the Ascension and read two more striking essays on the holiday, including what Douglas Farrow says about the political implications (so to speak) of Christ’s ascension. (more…)

Yesterday was Ascension Day, marking the resurrected Christ’s return to His Father.  Pastor Reeder quotes the classic Bible scholar Paul E. Kretzmann on what the Ascension means:

“By His exaltation and ascension the Son of Man, also according to His human body, has entered into the full and unlimited use of His divine omnipresence. His gracious presence is therefore assured to His congregation on earth. He is now nearer to His believers than He was to His disciples in the days of His flesh.

He is now sitting at the right hand of His heavenly Father. As our Brother He has assumed the full use of the divine power and majesty. He reigns with omnipotence over all things, but especially also over His Church. God has put all things under His feet, and has given Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all, Eph. 1, 22. 23.

By His Word and Sacrament He gathers unto Himself a congregation and Church upon earth. He works in and with His servants; He governs in the midst of His enemies. He preserves and protects His Church against all the enmity of the hostile world and against the very portals of hell. And His intercession before His heavenly Father makes our salvation a certainty, Rom. 8, 34.”

via On the Lord’s Ascension « Pastor Reeder’s Blog.

Strangely, the Reformed use the Ascension as an argument against the presence of Christ in the sacrament.  (“Jesus isn’t here any more.  He’s in Heaven.”)  But Lutherans use the Ascension as an argument for the Real Presence, since now the Son of God, having taken His place in the Godhead, is omnipresent.

That was yesterday.  Sorry I missed it.  Ascension Day marks an important event, but it is odd the way Protestants interpret it in two opposite ways.  For the Reformed, that Christ ascended into Heaven means that this is where His body is, so it can’t be on the altars of churches celebrating Holy Communion.  But Lutherans say that the taking up of the man Jesus into the Godhead makes the doctrine of the Real Presence possible, since now this flesh and blood human being shares the attributes of the Trinity, including omnipresence.

Today is Ascension Day, the 40th day after Easter, commemorating the day on which our Risen Lord ascended into Heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father Almighty.

It’s odd that the significance of Christ’s ascension is taken in two opposite ways: The Reformed say that it means Christ is ABSENT, no longer on earth, so that His real presence in the sacrament is impossible. Lutherans say that it means Christ, at the right hand of Power, His human nature assumed into the Holy Trinity, can now be omnipresent, so that He CAN be on every altar.

Ascension Day used to be a hugely important day in the church year. How can we bring it back?

An Italian journalist has quoted Pope Francis as saying “there is no hell,” a statement that the Vatican quickly backtracked, referencing an admission by the journalist that his interviews employs “reconstructions” of conversations.  But questions remain, including questions about the nature of the papacy.

Here is what happened.  From Michael W. Chapman, Pope Francis: ‘There Is No Hell’:

In another interview with his longtime atheist friend, Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis claims that Hell does not exist and that condemned souls just “disappear.” This is a denial of the 2,000-year-old teaching of the Catholic Church about the reality of Hell and the eternal existence of the soul.

The interview between Scalfari and the Pope was published March 28, 2018 in La Repubblica. The relevant section on Hell was translated by the highly respected web log, Rorate Caeli.

The interview is headlined, “The Pope: It is an honor to be called revolutionary.” (Il Papa: “È un onore essere chiamato rivoluzionario.”)

Scalfari says to the Pope, “Your Holiness, in our previous meeting you told me that our species will disappear in a certain moment and that God, still out of his creative force, will create new species. You have never spoken to me about the souls who died in sin and will go to hell to suffer it for eternity. You have however spoken to me of good souls, admitted to the contemplation of God. But what about bad souls? Where are they punished?”

Pope Francis says,  “They are not punished, those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and enter the rank of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

This contradicts two thousand years of church teaching, the pronouncements of numerous other popes, all of the authoritative theologians who have been named Doctors of the Church, and the current catechism, all of whose unanimous testimony is that Hell exists as a realm of eternal conscious punishment.

Soon the Pope’s handlers in the Vatican released this statement:

“The Holy Father Francis recently received the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica in a private meeting on the occasion of Easter, without however giving him any interviews. What is reported by the author in today’s article [in La Repubblica] is the result of his reconstruction, in which the textual words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted. No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”

Indeed, the journalist Scalfari has admitted that he never takes notes or makes a recording of interviews and that he employs “reconstructions” of what his subjects tell him.  An earlier story by Scalifari about a conversation with the Pope also created a stir when the pontiff was quoted as saying that efforts to convert people to Christianity were “solemn nonsense.”  The Vatican backtracked that statement too.

Pope Francis has previously warned people about going to Hell, and, presumably, the demons whose exorcisms he is always recommending have to live somewhere.  So let’s assume that the Pope does believe Hell exists and that the journalist’s reconstruction was incorrect.

Still, the question remains, what did the Pope say–in both conversations–to give Scalifari the impression that was the basis of his “reconstruction”?

I suspect that the Pope was trying to persuade his atheist friend to accept Christianity (“solemn nonsense” or not), and that he fell into the pattern that many people do in those kinds of conversations of softening the hard edges of the faith in an effort to make it easier to accept.

In any event, he was not speaking ex cathedra, so technically he was not using his alleged infallibility.

But the controversy illustrates one of the problems with the institution of the papacy.  Catholic apologists say that having a living, breathing source of theological authority protects the church’s teachings.  But surely having such an authority makes doctrinal innovation possible.  The Orthodox are bound by Holy Tradition and purport to change nothing, and the Bible doesn’t change for Protestants, though interpretations and applications may.  Catholicism, though, has a mechanism for introducing completely new doctrines into Christianity.  And it has done so throughout church history (e.g., purgatory, indulgences, the cult of the saints, papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, her Ascension, etc.).

Pope Francis could declare that Hell does not exist.  More precisely, he could proclaim an annihilationist view of divine punishment.  He could define Hell as “eternal death,” which he could define in terms reported by the journalist, as “the disappearance of sinful souls.”  Such an understanding has been adopted by certain Protestant theologians and sects such as the Adventists.  (Read this account of annihilationism.)

But if Pope Francis used his authority to make this the Catholic position, it would still contradict centuries of Catholic teaching.  Which would undermine the authority of other popes.  Which would also undermine his authority to change the teaching!  And in dismissing the teachings of Augustine, Aquinas, and church councils, that would undermine the authority of the magisterium of the Catholic church.

The papacy would thus prove to be a highly destabilizing institution and Roman Catholicism itself would be in jeopardy.

So, if the papacy is to function, the Pope needs to take great care in what he says.  Especially when talking to journalists.

 

Photo by Günther Simmermacher via Pixabay, CC0, Creative Commons

 

Having spent time lately in the “happiest” countries that are also allegedly among the least religious, I have pointed out that they are not nearly so “secularist” as they are usually portrayed.  (Do a search on my blog for my posts on Christianity in Finland, Denmark, Scandinavia, and Australia.)  Now Christian Smith’s sociology of religion, as developed in his book Religion:  What It Is, Why It Works, and Why It Matters, gives us some new ways of thinking about secularism.

Like other scholars, Prof. Smith discredits the “secularization theory,” the notion that modernity brings about a decline in religion.  This certainly hasn’t happened in the developing world.  Western Europe, though, would seem to be an anomaly.  Prof. Smith acknowledges that religions can fade, lose adherents, and change.  But religion, he says, is innate to human beings, and hardly any society is truly without it.

“No human society has existed that did not include some religion. A broad array of religions exists around the globe today, with a single religion dominating society in some places, while in others many traditions mix, morph, and clash. Efforts by some modern states to do away with religion have failed. Though thin and weak in some regions, religion is robust and growing in other parts of the world.” (1-2)

Secularization is relative and specific to a religion, he says.  Secularism sometimes is not so much the absence of religion but a change in the religion.  Many societies with little apparently “religiousness” (a quality he contrasts with “religion” as such) continue to have a strong religious presence in its “deep culture.”

Prof. Smith encourages his fellow social scientists to concentrate on religious practices, not just religious beliefs.  And he offers a new way to assess religious cultural influence.

Consider Scandinavia’s religious practices.  (These are my musings, not Prof. Smith’s.)  In these supposedly “secularist” countries, church membership remains extremely high, around 80% (even though this means paying a church tax of 1-1.5% of one’s income).  Virtually everyone has been baptized.  Virtually everyone goes through confirmation, gets married in church, baptizes their children, and has a church funeral.

Scandinavia observes more religious holidays than the ostensibly more-religious United States.  In addition to Christmas and Easter, Sweden takes off work for Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension, Pentecost, All Saints’ Day, Christmas Eve, Second Day of Christmas, and Epiphany.  Scandinavians continue to pray, both personally and at public events, including in public schools.

The religious practice Scandinavians–as well as other Europeans–do not do very much is attend weekly religious services.  Only about 2% of church members go to church on any given Sunday.  This is the primary metric being used today to quantify a country’s religious commitment.

But weekly worship is not a part of most of the world’s religions.  You can be a good Hindu or Buddhist without attending Temple.  Muslims have adopted Thursday prayers at the mosque, but they can just as legitimately conduct the prescribed prayers on their own.  Isn’t it possible to be a Christian, at some level, without attending church services except on special occasions?  (Scandinavians do tend to attend church on said holidays and at baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals.)

Liberal Protestant theology has diminished the sacramental role that the traditional divine service was thought to have.  Pietism–which has had and continues to have a powerful influence on Scandinavian Christianity–emphasized the individual’s relationship with Christ and stressed small group gatherings, such as Bible studies and prayer groups, over church rituals.  Isn’t it understandable, in this context, that a Christianity without regular worship might emerge?

Notice that worship attendance has also plummeted in American mainline Protestant churches.  Might we envision a time when these church bodies will simply stop holding weekly worship services?  This would free up the clergy to concentrate on individual counseling, small group activities, political activism, and community charity.  Worship services would continue to be held on major church holidays and for milestone life events (baptism, confirmation, weddings, funerals).

Prof. Smith says that the cultural presence of a religion can be determined by examining the elements in the culture that would not be there if the religion had not existed.  Scandinavian values such as benevolence and generosity to the disadvantaged are very different from those of its pre-Christian Viking heritage, with its warrior culture of violence and plundering, and can be traced directly to the continuing Christian influence.  Scandinavians’ specifically Lutheran heritage is still evident in their strong sense of vocation and service to the neighbor.  These persist even after the specifically religious beliefs that inspired them have faded.

So religious practices persist, but what about religious beliefsIn Denmark, 24% are atheists; 47% believe in “some sort of spirit or life force”; and 28% believe in God, with 25% confessing that Jesus is the Son of God and 18% confessing that He is savior of the world.

Clearly, church membership includes many non-believers, though if one-out-of-five Danes is a believing Christian, that is a significant number.  Certainly most Scandinavians do not hold to traditional Christian teachings.  But the same can be said of many–not all–of their churches!  The liberal theology that dominates the state churches allows for and even teaches these departures from historical Christian orthodoxy.

Liberal Christianity has long jettisoned the authority of the Bible and the historicity of what it teaches.  Even in the United States, there are bishops in the Episcopal Church who teach that Jesus is not God, did not atone for the sins of the world, and did not rise from the dead.  “Christian atheism” is even a respectable option in many mainline seminaries and pulpits.

The gospel of salvation has been largely replaced in liberal theology with the “social gospel” of left-wing political activism.  Traditional Christian morality–especially sexual morality–has been replaced with the values of acceptance, inclusion, and tolerance.  And these church values have become the norm in Scandinavia and Western Europe.

Are we to say that a society has no religion when it continues to follow the teachings of its official state church?

From the standpoint of orthodox, evangelical Christianity, though, secularism and liberal Christianity, however similar or equivalent, are both Godless.  Faith in Christ is necessary for salvation.  Belief in Christian doctrines is extremely important.  Christian ethics must not be minimized.  The Word of God is authoritative.  Regular worship is an essential part of the Christian life.

But that Scandinavia and Western Europe still has a religion, a Christianity that is highly attenuated and yet still culturally present, makes a difference.  The churches–which exist along a continuum of liberalism and orthodoxy, with some remaining quite conservative–provide a Christian infrastructure that have the potential of coming back to life.  What European Christianity  needs is what the devoted Christians I met there are praying for:  revival.

 


 

Photo:  Service at Missionskyrkan (Mission Covenant Church) in Vårgårda, Sweden, on the second Sunday of Advent 2008.  By David Castor (dcastor) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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