Is God different than we are?: The ontological controversy

Consider this quote from Timothy George, in our recent Christianity without the Atonement post:

The problem comes when we use an anthropopathic term like “wrath” and apply it univocally to the God of eternity. Before long, we have constructed “a god who looks like me,” to use the title of a recent book of feminist theology.  Then caricatures of divine wrath proliferate:  God having a temper tantrum or acting like a big bully who needs to be “appeased” before he can forgive or, as is often alleged with reference to the atonement, practicing cosmic child abuse.

Note the word “univocally.”  This alludes to a historically important theological issue having to do with ontology, or the nature of being, as it applies to God.  The “univocal” position is that God is a being in the same way we are beings.  The “analogy of being” position is that only God has being in its fullness, while we and the whole creation exist in a related but qualitatively lesser way than He does.

Now this may seem like an arcane issue, but–as I will try to explain,with some help, after the jump–it is extraordinarily important, having to do with the Catholic critique of Protestantism, the nature of the Sacraments, the relationship between Christianity and science, the rise of secularism, and the very way we think about God.  [Read more...]

Indulgences via Twitter

Pope Francis will be offering a plenary indulgence–that is, a full release from Purgatory for sins committed up to that point–for those who follow the World Youth Day activities on Twitter or other social media sites. [Read more...]

Happy Augsburg Confession day!

Today, June 25, is the anniversary of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, which happened in 1530.  Now it was not just one monk saying “Here I stand.”  The Reformation had become a movement.  Read it today.  (Non-Lutherans, what do you think?)

After the jump, background on the event and how this particular confession ties the Reformation to the church universal. [Read more...]

My book on George Herbert is back in print

My first book, Reformation Spirituality: The Religion of George Herbert, is back in print.  It is basically my dissertation, which I revised for publication by Bucknell University Press back in 1985.  Recently, Wipf & Stock approached me about re-issuing it.  You can see in it the research I was doing in Reformation theology and 17th century Anglicanism that would eventually lead me to Lutheranism.  As a work of literary scholarship, it was not without impact.  Previously, most scholars interpreted Herbert in terms of medieval Catholicism.  My work on Herbert, along with that of some other folks, showed that he was a poet of the Reformation and, further, explained what the Reformation entailed by way of Herbert’s poetry.  Today, the “Protestant” reading of Herbert is pretty much the scholarly consensus.  [Read more...]

Why Lutherans can’t take Catholic Communion

Russell E. Saltzman, a pastor in the North American Lutheran Church (the relatively conservative off shoot of ELCA), wrote a post at the First Things blog plaintively asking, “Why Can’t Lutherans Take Catholic Communion?”  After all, he says, Lutherans and Catholics are agreed on justification–as of that Joint Declaration on the subject–and we are pretty much OK about other things, properly conceived.

Rev. Saltzman exhibits the annoying quality of speaking for “Lutherans” while ignoring those millions of us in that tradition who are conservative theologically and don’t go along with the Joint Declaration and other ecumenical overtures.   The mostly Catholic commenters tried to explain why he can’t commune at a Catholic altar, and in this case we conservative Lutherans do agree with conservative Catholics that this would be highly inappropriate.

You’ve got to read Anthony Sacramone’s discussion of this issue, which concludes with a vivid account of the differences between Rome and Lutherans, especially when it comes to the Gospel:

Let’s cut to the chase: would the Roman Catholic Church today accept as doctrinally true the Lutheran teaching of the alien righteousness of Christ, of the great exchange of His righteousness for our sin, of our sanctification as being in Him, even though we are called to good works — but for the sake of our neighbor and not in aid of increasing our justification? If not, again, who are these Lutherans Reverend Saltzman is talking about whose differences with Rome are now of little significance?

Do these Lutherans now accept the existence of a Treasury of Merits? Or has Rome admitted that this was a bankrupt medieval invention and is now, in the interest of ecumenicity, disposable? Have indulgences, the flashpoint of the Reformation, also become irrelevant?

I ask this honestly: what is the true nonnegotiable here?

Let’s discuss the papal office for a moment: Was Pope Urban II Infallible, “evangelically understood,” when he declared, in regard to the First Crusade:  “If anyone who sets out should lose his life either on the way, by land or by sea, or in battle against the infidels, his sins shall be pardoned from that moment. This I grant by right of the gift of God’s power to me.”

Did the bishop of Rome have this authority? Urban II is addressing men who are off, he hopes, to kill the enemies of the Faith and to retrieve stolen property. Is this the true nature of the power of the keys as described in the Gospel of Matthew? Does this notion of dying in a holy war and going straight to Paradise sound familiar?

Here’s another question: Does the pope have this same authority today—to proactively forgive the temporal punishment for sins that would otherwise send someone to Purgatory (or to a purgative state), thus promising them a straight ticket to heaven in the event they died trying to kill someone else? I’m not interested in whether or not it is likely to be exercised in this day and age, nor whether the Muslims in the 12th century invited this response for overrunning the “Holy Land.” I’m only interested in whether Benedict XVI, by virtue of his office, has this authority, given him from Christ.

Whether the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals is inextricably tied to how justification is construed. The same can be said for the nature of the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

What is the wedding garment without which no one enters the wedding feast of the King? Is it something of our own, dry-cleaned, purified, and bleached? Or is it the gift of Someone else? Is it something we do to ourselves, by aid of grace? Something we endure, in the sense of suffer? Or is it something we receive, like the Eucharist, from Another?

For some, the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ is a legal fiction, and Luther’s image of the dunghill covered with snow is usually cited as evidence. And yet these same Christians have no problem with the transfer of the supererogatory merits of the saints to the accounts of the properly disposed.

The merits of Christ’s sacrifice transferred to the sinner, as a sinner, is a fiction, but the merits of Josemaria Escriva transferred by dint of papal proclamation — that’s real.

Really?

The issue remains the same today as on October 31, 1517.

via Reformation Day: Lutherans vs. Alien Righteousness « Strange Herring.

Reforming the Church

Today is Reformation Day, the 495th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences.  Some people have been criticizing Lutherans and others who celebrate this day.  Why should we celebrate the shattering of the universal church?

First of all, the posting of the theses did not shatter the universal church.  Luther was reforming the church, and it needed reforming.  Financial corruption (the sale of church offices, the indulgence and relic trade, profiting from Christians terrified of purgatory), sexual immorality (popes with illegitimate children whom they named bishops, brothels for priests, the notion that fornication is better than marriage for clergy under vows of celibacy), and political power (popes with armies waging war against other countries, popes claiming temporal power over lawful earthly authorities).  Even worse, the gospel of Christ was obscured in favor of an elaborate system of salvation by works.  To be sure, the medieval church taught Christ’s atonement on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, but in practice that was relegated to baptism only.  After baptism, Christians had to atone for their own sins in a complex penitential system, requiring the confession of each sin, works of penance, and even after absolution the punishment of those sins after death in purgatory (unless an indulgence was purchased or rewarded).

That the church needed reforming because of these practices is proven in part by the Council of Trent, which addressed the most blatant financial and moral faults, while keeping the penitential system, though also encouraging personal piety (another fruit of the Reformation over against what had become a mechanistic approach to religion).

The splitting of Christianity came when the Roman church excommunicated Luther for his stance on indulgences, even though it would later grant most of his points.

Reforming the church, though, is something to celebrate and something to keep working on.  I would argue that the same issues that sparked the Reformation are still problems in today’s church, including protestant and Lutheran congregations:  financial corruption (the prosperity gospel, religious scams), sexual immorality (scandals among pastors and church leaders; the pornography plague), political power (the new social gospel of both the right and the left).  And now, as then, we see the Gospel consigned just to first becoming a Christian, so that many people think of Christ’s atonement as applying to conversion, but feeling themselves now as being under the Law.  They have lost the sense of God’s grace and forgiveness as a continuing reality, available through the Word and Sacraments as the constant life force for the Christian life.

So we still need Reformation Day and we still need the message of the Reformation.


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