What Wright Got Right
What Wright Got Right
Edward T. Oakes’ review of Simply Christian by N.T. Wright (January) was, in my opinion, unfair. He ignored the substance of Wright’s work in favor of criticizing its perceived tone.
Oakes praised C.S. Lewis but does not seem to recognize how Wright builds on and expands Lewis’ argument from universal moral law. Wright describes the human longing for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty as echoes of our Creator’s voice. In good Reformed style, he contends that the echo is not enough, by itself, to lead us to God; but, when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, we recognize the voice.
Oakes seems to appreciate only half the book’s purpose. We all know that few people are argued into faith, and apologetics aims as much at those within the Church as at those outside it. Simply Christian is an apology to defend the faith and persuade. It is also, however, an explanation of the faith. It describes what Christianity is”a different and more basic task than convincing people to believe it.
If all I knew of Simply Christian were what I read in Oakes’ review, I would not read it. That would be a great loss. I have found this book to be personally meaningful and an effective tool for ministry.
(The Rev.) David C. Mauldin
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Edward T. Oakes replies:
I freely admit I neglected to stress the many virtues of N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian instead of placing it, as I chose to do, in a certain school of apologetics that strikes me as less effective than Pascal’s. That said, I do happen to regard Bishop Wright as one of the most effective apologists for Christianity in this dawning century, not so much for his Simply Christian as for his magnificent trilogy on the historical Jesus, especially the last volume, The Resurrection of the Son of God . Here, however, he was being not so much apologetic as scientific, carefully demolishing, on strictly historical-critical grounds, all the nonsense about the early Christians hallucinating their visions of the risen Jesus. The trouble is, in an age when The Da Vinci Code leaves behind so many false impressions, how can you get the public to read such a demanding work? At all events, I think a comparison of these two recent books from Wright will show that the best apologetics comes above all from theology at its best, whether its primary purpose is apologetic or not. Or, to put it more tautologically, the best defense of truth is the truth.
Agreeing to Disagree
Agreeing to Disagree
Thank you for taking the time to read my book (A Letter to Tony Campolo by Jordan Hylden, February). Most of my critics don’t do that. You are to be commended for your thoroughness and thoughtfulness.
As I criticized tendencies in the evangelical community to be chauvinistic, homophobic, militaristic, sexist, and hyper-nationalistic, I was not specifically lambasting conservatives. I find that my conservative friends are just as committed to overcoming these appalling tendencies as are my liberal friends. I find that the real difference between conservatives and liberals is not in their goals. I find that the goals of conservative Christians express just as much compassion and concern for justice as do those of my liberal friends. Neither end of the political spectrum has a monopoly on such things. I find that the real difference between conservatives and liberals is the degree to which there is belief that government can play a decisive role in such matters. Obviously, conservatives want to address these problems in ways that tend to minimize governmental involvement. Any indication in my book that truly Christian conservatives are not just as concerned about justice as liberals are may be a failure on my part. The methods for addressing such concerns are what create differences between us, but there is little question that we have common commitments to the realization of the values of the Kingdom of God on earth as they are in heaven.
You are quite right in pointing out that I not only make a strong case against gay marriage and against abortion but also carefully delineate the arguments from the other side. This is because most evangelicals have not considered that there are viable arguments that are alternatives to their positions. I tried to be fair and outlined both sectors with some degree of balance. If I failed, I’m sorry. I really did try to be balanced. Having declared what I believe, I thought it was best to reflect on both sides of these controversial issues. I find that so often my evangelical brothers and sisters do not listen to the arguments on the other side, and, hence, we end up with shouting matches, with people on opposite extremes condemning each other instead of listening to why their opponents believe what they believe. I think that dialogue requires that we understand both sides of every issue, and that’s what I try to achieve in the book. If I failed to do that, it is a serious failure.
I wanted my book to be a source of discussion, and in that respect I appreciate what you had to say, because it’s obvious that you are entering into the discussion in a reasonable, thoughtful, and Christian manner. I thank you for that. We may disagree on a lot of things, but I’m sure that we are in agreement in loving Christ and trying to change the world that is into the world that God wants it to be.
St. Davids, Pennsylvania
Jordan Hylden replies:
I appreciate Mr. Campolo’s kind response and his call for genuine discussion between Christian conservatives and liberals. Unfortunately, there was very little genuine discussion in Campolo’s book. He admits that any indication in my book that truly Christian conservatives are not just as concerned about justice as liberals are may be a failure on my part. Yes, that is a failure, and a significant one. Not only in his most recent book but also in his many other books and speaking tours, Campolo fails to recognize that many thoughtful and faithful Christians are politically conservative precisely because of their commitment to justice. In Campolo’s rhetoric, it is taken for granted that the religious right is in the pocket of the Republican party, and that the Republican party is the sworn enemy of Christ’s gospel. Conservatism is equated with fundamentalism, chauvinism, militarism, and lack of concern for the poor, while progressive politics is made out to be the equivalent of God’s politics. If Campolo has now decided to abandon such unhelpful rhetoric and instead engage his fellow Christians in discussion about the proper role of government”for instance, with Michael Novak on economics or with Maggie Gallagher on marriage”then I will look forward to it. I think it would be much more helpful than his endless blanket condemnations of the religious right.
But, more fundamental, it is worrying that Campolo encourages young people to view Christian moral teachings on abortion and marriage with doubt and insouciance. As he admits, Campolo made a point in his book to present both sides of the discussion on these two controversial issues. To start with, one must wonder why these two issues”both of which ought to place politically liberal evangelicals in significant conflict with the Democratic party’s social platform”are presented as controversial matters about which faithful Christians may disagree, while issues like foreign policy, environmentalism, and economics are presented as simple matters of justice. It is severely wrongheaded of Campolo to present abortion and sexual ethics as controversial. While it is true that these issues have occasioned much controversy in American politics and that we ought to engage civilly and respectfully with those who dissent from Christian teachings, it is not true that God might or might not want us to kill unborn babies or that God might or might not call us to live by biblical sexual norms.
In fact, it goes too far even to say that Campolo presents both sides of these issues. In his book, Campolo follows a distinct pattern”first, he somewhat apologetically admits that he holds to the conservative and traditional point of view; then he argues persuasively for the other side; and finally he hints suggestively that young and progressive Christians have moved beyond him on issues like abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex. There is almost no attempt to make the case for the traditional Christian positions”and in effect, by presenting them as the conservative point of view held by old evangelical fuddy-duddies, he leaves no doubt as to what a true progressive would believe.
One puts down the book with the impression that Campolo’s sympathies lie with brave progressives like Brian McLaren and the rest of the Emergent Church movement, who have had the courage to emerge from old and worn-out things like Christian doctrine. (Campolo has encouraged this impression by coauthoring a book with McLaren, Adventures in Missing the Point .) The real excitement, Campolo seems to suggest, lies in being at the forefront of progressive politics and new-age spirituality rather than with the old Christian hang-ups about orthodoxy and the pursuit of holiness. It is sad. I know far, far more young Christians who are excited by G.K. Chesterton’s invitation to the infinite wonder of orthodoxy, and by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s bracing call to radical holiness and discipleship. But Campolo’s book did little to introduce young people to either, and for the sake of everyone who will read it hoping to learn what it means to follow Christ, it is a great pity.
More Light on Mary
I commend Timothy George for his balanced article Evangelicals and the Mother of God (February). I also appreciate George’s reference to the wonderful work of the Groupe des Dombes. Evangelicals will certainly benefit from embracing what the first seven universal councils confess about Mary. As a pastor in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, I am concerned about the uninformed anti-Mary attitudes among some in my own church body, which can only frustrate constructive dialogue with our fellow Christians in the Roman Catholic Church.
However, as wonderful as George’s article was, I wish he had given more details concerning official Roman Catholic teaching about Mary that should be cause for great concern among evangelicals”especially Lutherans. For example, can sincere and constructive dialogue between Rome and evangelicals move forward unless Rome is willing to reconsider the following in Pius IX’s 1854 declaration on the Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus : Hence, if anyone shall dare”which God forbid!”to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should dare to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart.
Obviously, these words apply especially to those who are already members of the Roman Catholic Church. But these words do not encourage humble dialogue with those who are not.
I sometimes wonder how many Roman Catholics are aware of what Rome actually teaches about Mary. Concerning prayer to Mary, a Roman Catholic priest once told me: Rome sees Mary on the same level as every Christian. When we pray to Mary, we are simply asking her to pray for us as I can ask any fellow Christian to pray for me. If that were all that Rome actually taught about prayer to Mary, Lutherans wouldn’t be so concerned.
However, Ineffabilis Deus says: All our hope do we repose in the most Blessed Virgin”in the all fair and immaculate one who has crushed the poisonous head of the most cruel serpent and brought salvation to the world: in her who is the glory of the prophets and apostles, the honor of the martyrs, the crown and joy of all the saints; in her who, with her only-begotten Son, is the most powerful Mediatrix and Conciliatrix in the whole world; in her who is the most excellent glory, ornament, impregnable stronghold of the holy Church; in her who has destroyed all heresies and snatched the faithful people and nations from all kinds of direst calamities; in her do we hope who has delivered us from so many threatening dangers.
In addition, Lutherans are even more concerned about how such views on Mary affect our understanding of the doctrine of justification. Lutherans confess that the justification of the sinner is a gift of God that is total and complete, based as it is on the merits of Christ alone. However, Rome’s doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as confessed in Ineffabilis Deus can be used to support Rome’s view of justification being a process that can be increased before God through human merit”our own merits as well as the merits of the saints (especially Mary) given to us.
For example, in paragraph 956 in The Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness . . . . They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus. In addition, in Canon XXIV of the Council of Trent we read: If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and is also not increased before God through good works, but that the works are only the fruit and the signs of the justification received, not also a cause of its increase, let him be anathema.
Any sincere and constructive dialogue about Mary between evangelicals and Rome will have to consider the serious differences that continue to exist between Rome and evangelicals on the doctrine of justification.
Pastor Tom Eckstein
Jamestown, North Dakota
Timothy George, in his encouragement to evangelical Protestants to accept the title Mother of God for Mary, quotes Karl Barth, who wrote that this designation is sensible, permissible, and necessary as an auxiliary christological proposition.
The use of that quote, which is from Church Dogmatics 1.2, could create a misimpression of Barth’s position. In the next paragraph, Barth writes: This statement has a biblical foundation, and is very instructive in the christological context. But its use as the basis of an independent Mariology (as it is called) was and is one of those characteristically Roman Catholic enterprises against which there has to be an Evangelical protest not only for their arbitrariness in form but also for the precariousness of their content.
I am reluctant to point this out. But it illustrates one of the problems with what George accurately describes as the current fascination with Mary among some evangelical Protestants. The focus on Mary can tend to exacerbate rather than lessen the division between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Having delved into Roman Catholic beliefs about Mary after encountering some Protestant pastors who were experiencing that fascination, I am now much more conscious (and concerned) about theological differences I have with my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters than I was before.
There is no doubt that we Protestants have missed much by downplaying Mary, owing to overcompensation for what we perceive as Catholic imbalances. But I suggest that Protestants who are fascinated with Mary be careful not to expect us to adopt titles for Mary like Mother of God or Mother of the Church, when those terms, even when technically correct, come with connotations that some of us believe, with Barth, necessitate an Evangelical protest.
The problem with Mr. George’s analysis (and much Catholic theology in regards to Mary) is that it draws connections between biblical texts that to the Protestant mind are not compellingly necessary. Why should the daughter of Zion in the Old Testament be identified with Mary? To the Protestant mind, the passages George points out in Lamentations, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah are understood quite well without reference to Mary. Indeed, any discussion of Mary in regards to those passages is at best off subject.
Many Catholics”even well-educated and theologically trained Catholics”do not understand that Protestants do not just have a hang-up about Mariology. Protestants are horrified by it. They also are insulted by any suggestion that heretical liberal Protestantism is a result of the absence of devotion to Mary. Rather, they see liberal Protestantism and Mariology as separate branches of the same heretical tree.
Michael Wm. Dooley
I wish to make two points about the Marian problem in response to Timothy George’s excellent article Evangelicals and the Mother of God. First, George mentions that Catholics do realize that Mary isn’t the object of the sort of worship given to God but that this distinction often seems to get lost at the local level. I think what Protestants don’t realize”and what even Catholic converts can find difficult to comprehend”is that this local level devotion arises as much from the gut as does the average person’s love for his mother. In other words, you might as well tell a person that he loves his mother too much as to tell Catholics they love Mary too much. And, if you were to suggest to this person that somehow he worships his mother, he’d look at you funny or might well say, Of course I worship my mother; you got a bad relationship with yours? Some converts will probably never understand the emotional aspects of Marian devotion because they weren’t raised Catholic, but they will probably also tell you that this devotion looks a lot different from inside the Church than from outside it.
Second, the doctrines about Mary and the resulting devotion to Mary arise almost exclusively, it seems to me, from the Catholic sacramental worldview. One of the best short elucidations I’ve read on the sacramental view of reality comes from Anthony Esolen’s wonderful translation of Dante’s Inferno , specifically from his notes to Canto One: What meets Dante in this first canto are real beasts, really intending to devour him. Like the mysterious waters of my heart,’ the beasts hover and flicker between objects of body and objects of mind.
That is as it should be. Dante’s allegory is not one genre among others, but a habit of viewing the whole universe; and that habit is justified, he would remind us, because in fact the universe itself is one great system of coruscating and interreflecting signs. It is not that, for example, believers found it convenient to compare the pelican to Christ, but that one of the reasons why God from all eternity created the pelican was precisely that it should be a sign of Christ.
Just so, God created Mary from all eternity so that she should be the channel through which grace flows to the Church. As a sign of this, she carried Jesus in her body for nine months, making her the New Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, the sign of the Church with Jesus present in the tabernacle. To Catholics, this is not just one event in history but rather a sign and sacrament that is true throughout all eternity: Through Mary we received Jesus, and through Mary we receive Jesus. This is why Catholics say Mary is a shortcut to Jesus, because they believe God so ordained it”and ordains and ordains and ordains.
Catholics who live their faith will tell you that if you pray the rosary you find that not Mary but Christ becomes more radiant, more real. This is because, when one goes to Mary, she always points to her son and says, Do whatever he tells you.
I found Timothy George’s article very illuminating. Since evangelicals place such strong emphasis on having a personal relationship with Jesus, I have sometimes wondered why they do not pay more attention to Mary, who had a uniquely intimate and presumably very strong personal relationship with her son. If evangelicals looked at her in this light, could it make them more sympathetic to the idea of Mary as a model of Christian discipleship?
Stephen M. Barr
Timothy George’s survey of how each of the various scriptural titles for the mother of Christ can and cannot be reconciled with biblically based evangelicalism caused this Roman Catholic to sit up and take notice. The construction of an evangelical Marian theology cannot but remind me of John Henry Newman’s endeavor to create a via media theology for the Anglican Church, as famously detailed in his Apologia . Eventually, Newman discovered that his own Anglican bishops not only failed to teach the principles of the via media but opposed them. He was left with the reality that his theology was that of a mere paper church that did not exist.
Harsh as it may sound, George’s proposals on how to incorporate fully the Virgin Mary into evangelical Protestant worship are similar: admirable, interesting, but, alas, a novelty all the same. Can we really expect evangelical denominations to embrace Marian devotion, however shorn of Catholic excesses it may be? I suspect that George’s theology will meet the same fate in the Southern Baptist Convention as did Newman’s in the Church of England.
Timothy George replies:
I thank my interlocutors for their thoughtful interaction with my essay on Mary. In the book I am writing on the Blessed Evangelical Mary, I take up a number of these issues in detail. For now, let me offer the following comments:
First, it should be noted that I write as an evangelical Protestant, a duly dunked Baptist with Reformed convictions, and I do not minimize the serious substantive differences that still divide the churches of the Reformation from both the Church of Rome and those of the East. I am committed to an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation, but I do believe that all of Jesus’ disciples have much to learn from one another, even about controverted matters such as Mary.
Second, it is well to remember that Ineffabilis Deus (1854) was not intended to be a friendly ecumenical gesture to non-Catholic Christians. If one is looking for that sort of statement, the place to go is Ut Unum Sint or chapter seven of Lumen Gentium , where Catholic theologians are admonished to refrain from statements about Mary that might cause separated brethren to stumble. It is not difficult to find in Catholic literature many statements that exaggerate Mary’s role in the economy of salvation. I quoted some of these in the essay, and there are many more. It is up to Catholics to say how such statements can be squared with the official position of the Catholic Church as expressed in the Joint Declaration on Justification, which says nothing about Mary but does affirm that justification means that Christ himself is our righteousness, and that by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.
Third, quite apart from the polemic of Ineffabilis Deus , I must admit that, of the two infallibly promulgated Marian dogmas, the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption, the former is more problematic theologically, though I find no biblical or historical warrant for either. The Immaculate Conception is a problem for anyone who takes seriously, as I do, the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. This is one reason why the idea that Mary, from the first moment of her conception, was kept free from the stain of original sin proved controversial for centuries in the Catholic Church and was denied by no less a theologian than St. Thomas Aquinas. I appreciate the recent effort of Anglican and Roman Catholic scholars to re-receive the two Marian dogmas in a more consensual manner, but I remain unconvinced by their arguments. The ecumenical question that must be explored further is whether within the development of doctrine there can be a genuine reformation (and not a mere reformulation) of doctrine.
Fourth, I do not say that the biblical texts I referred to must bear the exact interpretation I suggested, but to deracinate Mary from the storyline of God’s covenant people in the Old Testament is to veer dangerously close to a Marcionite hermeneutic. We must not exaggerate Mary’s role in the Incarnation, but neither may we denigrate it, for, indeed, in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, born of woman (Gal. 4:4). Barth’s reticence about Mother of God language echoes Calvin’s reservations, but both theologians embraced without hesitation the teaching of the Council of Ephesus, which acclaimed Mary as Theotokos, the God-bearer, or, as Jaroslav Pelikan renders this term, The one who gave birth to the One who is God. One cannot affirm less about Mary and still believe in the full deity of her son, as orthodox Christians of all traditions have always taught. We should, of course, be alert to how this title for Mary can be sullied by pagan overtones, but we do not stop using the word Trinity simply because Unitarians invariably think that it implies tritheism.
Finally, while it is certainly flattering to be compared to Cardinal Newman, whom I greatly admire, it is not my purpose to construct a Marian via media. Such an approach usually ends in either conversion (like Newman) or dissolution (as in liberal Protestantism). My own approach has been to dig deeply into the core of my own tradition and to find there surprising convergences with other Christians drawn from the great heritage of the apostolic faith and the inspired Holy Scriptures we cherish in common. Karl Barth understood this well when he wrote: Strange as it may seem, it is still true, that those who fail to understand other churches than their own are not the people who care intensely about theology, but the theological dilettantes, eclectics, and historians of all sorts; while those very men who have found themselves forced to confront a clear, thoroughgoing, logical sic et non find themselves allied to each other in spite of all contradictions, by an underlying fellowship and understanding, even in the cause which they handle so differently and approach from such painfully different angles. But that cause, it may be, is nothing less than Jesus Christ and the unity of the Church.
The King of Horror
What Wes Craven does for the cinema, Stephen King does for literature: He feeds America’s hunger, not for God, least of all for a Christian God, but for spooks, angels, and demons. That seems to be the message of Ross Douthat’s essay [February] regarding Stephen King and his oeuvre . Therefore, I was puzzled by its inclusion in your journal. Just what this critical analysis of King’s novels has to do with religion, spirituality, or theology”the usual focus of FIRST THINGS”is unclear to me.
If King’s conception of the Deity or deities that inhabit our solar system is that possessed by a primitive tribe of hunter-gatherers or by one of the earliest of civilizations, one of half-human gods (chimeras) or monsters, little concerned with the fate of humanity, both capricious and threatening (As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport), that is interesting from an anthropological perspective, but what does it have to do with first things?
Barton L. Ingraham
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Quality vs. Quantity
Why do I subscribe to a journal whose editor in chief is happy to send me, a sociologist, into extinction? (As many have observed, sociologists are an endangered species. We’re going to miss them. Or maybe not. [While We’re At It, April]). Neuhaus himself is perfectly happy to play the sociologist when, for example, he argues the importance of mediating structures in society. And he clearly adores his three pet sociologists, Peter Berger, David Martin, and James D. Hunter. But why does he feel the need to turn disagreements with particular things that other specific sociologists say into a categorical dismissal of an entire discipline? Seems pretty simplistic.
In any case, whatever Neuhaus or many others think, for the record, sociology is hardly an endangered species. The American Sociological Association has more than eleven thousand members and is growing. The number of B.A. and M.A. sociology degrees conferred between 1984 and 2004 has more than doubled, to 27,020 undergraduate sociology degrees conferred in 2004. And research and development expenditures in sociology grew more than 130 percent in constant dollars between 1992 and 2002. Neuhaus may wish sociologists would die off, but his belief that we are dying off is ill informed. But, whoops, silly me, there I go again: typical sociologist interested in empirical reality.
Center for the Study of Religion and Society
University of Notre Dame
Of course, Prof. Smith is right. I should have made it clearer that I was not referring chiefly to the quantitative vitality of contemporary sociology.
Fair and Balanced?
Richard Neuhaus (The Public Square, December) did not like the recent University of St. Thomas law-journal symposium on the future of pro-life progressivism. There are, of course, legitimate debates over the matters of war, the economy, anti-poverty efforts, etc., on which several contributors to that symposium offered left-leaning perspectives. But Fr. Neuhaus falsely charges that the symposium was one-sided, in that John Paul II’s vision in Centesimus Annus ( CA ) for helping the poor enter into the circle of productivity of exchange . . . rates barely a mention, and then only to complain about the way it has been hijacked by conservatives.
Even a glance at the issue’s table of contents shows the article by the Acton Institute’s Kevin Schmiesing, Another Social Justice Tradition: Catholic Conservatives, which highlights and quotes CA : The pope approves of that capitalism which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector.’
Likewise, Helen Alvare’s paper quotes CA ‘s passages on the importance of know how and education and argues that the traditional family structure bolsters education and achievement, an argument I expect Fr. Neuhaus would have endorsed had he happened upon it while flipping through the symposium pages.
Fr. Neuhaus charges that all the liberal participants in the symposium believe they care more about other people than conservatives do and that they displayed moral smugness. Of course, people on the left can be morally arrogant, but it would have helped if he had offered some specific evidence rather than simply the fact that those writers had argued on moral terms for a stronger presumption against war or a greater redistributive role for the state. Assuming that such arguments are inherently morally smug shuts down legitimate moral-policy debates as much as lefty smugness itself does. The line between arrogance and admirable moral energy is not necessarily a bright one”haven’t traditionalists often had their moral energy tarred in this way?”and so the charge shouldn’t be thrown around too casually.
Thomas C. Berg
University of St. Thomas
School of Law
St. Paul, Minnesota
Thomas Berg correctly notes that there were more sympathetic references to Centesimus Annus than I suggested. My point was, and my point remains, that the very structure of the conference reinforces the stereotype that the Catholic social-justice agenda and the Catholic pro-life agenda need to be reconciled, when, in fact, there is no more urgent question of social justice and moral progress than the protection of innocent human life at every point of development and dependency.