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60Reckoning with Modernityhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/12/reckoning-with-modernity
Tue, 01 Dec 2015 00:00:00 -0500In the late summer of 1977, I made my way to New Haven, Connecticut, not yet twenty-two years old and afire to study theology at Yale Divinity School. At that innocent dawn of my theological life, I was surprised to discover that not everybody at YDS shared my passion for theology. People had other reasons for going to seminary besides wanting to read more Augustine and Luther, to say nothing of more Kant and Hegel. If you’re interested in that sort of thing, I was advised, take Lindbeck. I did.
The Theologian’s Ecclesial Vocationhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/10/the-theologians-ecclesial-vocation
Tue, 01 Oct 2013 00:00:00 -0400 Some years ago, during a national meeting of Catholic theologians, a group gathered to discuss John Paul II’s apostolic constitution
Ex Corde Ecclesiae
. The Vatican and the bishops were evidently serious about enforcing its requirement that Catholic professors of theology in Catholic institutions have permission, a mandatum, to teach from their local bishop. One after another, the theologians rose to voice their indignation at the very idea that the Catholic Church had the right to pass any sort of judgment on their fitness to teach theology. One member of the panel, a priest and an accomplished theologian, observed that requiring Catholic theology professors to profess the teachings of the Catholic Church didn’t seem like all that much to ask. An angry murmuring buzz filled the room. Had there been rotten fruit at hand, the theologians would have pelted him with it.
]]>Renewing Dogmatic Theologyhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/05/renewing-dogmatic-theology
Tue, 01 May 2012 00:00:00 -0400 Catholics in the last fifty years or so have almost completely ceased to do dogmatic theology. Save for a handful of admirable holdouts, we have practically given up the fruitful enterprise of a millennium: the believing mind’s effort to understand the Christian mysteries. The deep things of God, the mysteries of his own life opened up to us in Christ, we now think we need not, or fear we cannot, search out. Unless this development is reversed, the consequences of this unwelcome development for the Church and for Catholic life are likely to be grave. Whether dogmatic theology fares better in the Protestant world I will leave for others to say. For Catholics, Matthias Joseph Scheeben, more than any modern theologian, can show us how to get started again.
In the summer of 1888, Scheeben died in Cologne, having spent most of his fifty-three years teaching dogmatics and moral theology in the archdiocesan seminary there. He was Germany’s most persuasive defender of Vatican I’s decision on papal infallibility and an impassioned advocate of religious freedom in the Kulturkampf, Bismarck’s determined but finally unsuccessful effort to subject the Catholic Church to the control of his new German state. He was also the author of three major dogmatic works:
Nature and Grace
The Mysteries of Christianity
(1865), and the massive
Handbook of Catholic Dogmatics
, left unfinished at his death.
The generations that followed Scheeben regarded him as one of the greatest minds of modern Catholic theology. His books were repeatedly republished in Germany up into the 1960s and translated into other European languages, including English (the
, alas, only in highly truncated form). Since the Second Vatican Council, though, he has mostly been neglected by theological teachers and students who have wrongly imagined the nineteenth-century Catholic tradition to be a period of antimodern darkness.
The Catholic world of a hundred or more years ago was quite right, I think, to see the Cologne seminary professor as perhaps the finest modern Catholic dogmatic theologian. His writings not only yield rare insight into the mysteries of Christian faith, they draw the attentive reader ever more deeply into the mysteries themselves. Scheeben is more important now than he has ever been. He can teach a theological generation that has sold its inestimable birthright how to restore and renew dogmatic theology.
One of Scheeben’s favorite terms for the dogmatic enterprise is “speculative theology,” suggesting as it does the aim of seeing or looking into (
) the truths of the faith clearly and deeply. Theology so understood calls for specific intellectual virtues. These virtues are richly embodied in Scheeben’s work. His theology is rationally rigorous. He makes precise and often elaborate conceptual distinctions, identifies relevant objections to his ideas, and offers detailed replies. His interpretation of the Christian mysteries relies on vigorous and careful argument rather than mere currency, first-person authority, or pragmatic usefulness.
His theology is, moreover, charged with speculative boldness, even audacity. He seeks the deepest possible understanding of the mysteries of Christianity, not simply one by one but as a whole and in their luminous interconnection, what he calls their “wondrous harmony.”
Important as the virtues of disciplined argument and speculative courage are, even more important for our time are three further qualities everywhere manifest in his work. First, Scheeben habitually talks about God, focusing intently on the supernatural mysteries of God’s own nature and life. Second, he is an immensely learned theologian with an intimate and sympathetic knowledge of the theological traditions of the Church. Finally, Scheeben undertakes theology in humility, with reverence, joy, and submission before the divine mysteries he seeks faithfully to serve. Today we need to recover these three virtues”supernatural focus, sympathetic learning, and humility”if we are to restore dogmatic theology.
That theology should talk about God and that the theologian should be the “God-intoxicated man” may seem too obvious for comment. Scheeben thought it essential, though, for theology to avoid open-ended musings. Dogmatic theology must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ. These mysteries all concern nothing less than God’s sharing of his own uncreated nature with another. As such they are alone the truly “supernatural” mysteries.
First and foremost is the mystery of the Holy Trinity. From all eternity, the Father imparts the one divine nature to the Son by generation, and Father and Son communicate their one nature to the Holy Spirit by spiration, or active procession. That the divine nature, the source and goal of creatures, is the nature of persons who are themselves originated or produced”that the divine essence subsists as a Trinity of divine persons”is the most primordial of all mysteries, the source of any possible communication of the divine nature to creatures.
God does not only share his life within himself. Temporally and freely, the triune God makes his own uncreated nature that of a creature in the incarnation of the Son. God joins a created nature”our own”to his nature in the person of the Son. This is the most complete and intimate way in which the divine nature can be shared with created reality, the divine and the unconfused, yet undivided. So comes to be the mystery at which every knee will bend: God is the human being Jesus, and the human being Jesus is God.
Further, God offers to share his life with each of us. In the Word made flesh, God bestows upon the human creature by grace a participation in his own nature, which reaches its goal in the glory of immediate vision of him as the Holy Trinity. By uniting us with the incarnate Son, grace brings about a participation in the divine nature so intimately deifying that we become members of the eternal Son.
Therefore, we “really enter into the very same personal relationship in which the Son of God stands to his Father.” When we call upon the Father of Jesus as “our Father,” we lay claim to “the same relationship by which [God] is the Father of Christ.” This mystery of incorporation into Christ gathers around itself a wider field of teachings, including the luminous mysteries of original justice, the Eucharist, the Church and the sacraments, justification, and predestination, and also the “dark” mystery of sin.
These mysteries”the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, and our life in Christ”concern the innermost depths of God’s own nature and will. If we are to know of them, God himself, whose interior mysteries they are, must tell us of them, as a friend discloses his inmost heart to a friend. That God opens up his innermost life to us is sheer generosity on his part, a gift to which no creature has any inherent claim. This is essentially what Scheeben means when, following Catholic usage, he calls these primary mysteries of Christianity “supernatural truths.” They are beyond the ken of our natural powers of reason, as what they offer is beyond the reach of our natural powers of attainment. We know them, and can reach them, solely because God makes himself so liberally available to us.
Once the interior mysteries of God are revealed, however, we are able, indeed bidden, to contemplate them, so that we may enter more deeply into them. This is what makes dogmatic theology unique and unlike any other use of reason.
is Greek for “teaching,” and dogmatic theology involves reason taught or tutored by God in the fullest sense. God both teaches us the truths about his own nature that are the distinctive subject matter of dogmatics and, by the gift of faith, enlightens reason to understand these supernatural truths. Dogmatic theology has its own domain, made up of mysteries unavailable to natural reason and therefore beyond the competence of any other science. This accounts for the great dignity and sublime vocation of the dogmatic theologian, who is called not only to know the truth but to speak rightly, even wisely, about the very source of all truth.
Recognizing and sustaining this dignity requires a lucid distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Scheeben insisted upon this distinction and did a great deal to illuminate it for modern Catholic theology. Lacking a clear distinction between nature and grace, we will be unsure what our enterprise as theologians is supposed to be about. For whatever reasons, Catholic theology since Vatican II has generally exhibited confusion about what distinction, if any, to make between the natural and the supernatural, even when it has deliberately used the terms. As a predictable result, theologians now talk about anything and everything, on the assumption, or in the hope, that they are thereby already talking about God.
Among the most common topics for theological talk in this unsettled situation are formative personal or group experiences and social, political, and economic conflict”inside the Church as well as outside it. Liberation and feminist theologies are obvious examples, at least as often practiced, but so are theologies for which the Church must be a countercultural community of character, purity, and virtue. At times, it seems as though such discourse is meant to count as theology simply because psychological description or social theory is overlaid with a patina of piety or moral seriousness.
Even when theology is clearly in earnest about speaking of God, however, ambiguity about the proper subject matter of theology dims its chances of success. The interior mysteries of the triune God are simply not accessible to us from our apprehension of created natures and their activities, including our own. These mysteries are intrinsically supernatural and, as a result, suprarational.
Consequently, no analysis of psychological and social reality, indeed of any created reality, can provide us with a knowledge of God as he is in his triune self and as he has generously willed to be for us. Within the counsel of his own inner life, God has determined to be the giver of a supremely intimate share in that life, by the incarnation of the Son and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Theology can never succeed in speaking of God as Christians know him to be save by focusing on these supernatural mysteries of God’s nature and will.
When theology tries to speak of God by drawing the supernatural mysteries of the divine life down into the more familiar sphere of created realities, it wanders away from its sublime vocation. Theology that has lost a clear sense of the supernatural mysteries uniquely its own will merely see in a poor and confused way created things that other disciplines, designed to know just those things, see clearly and well. No wonder that such theology, whatever its good intentions, eventually begins to be unsure why it exists at all.
Of course anything and everything, including every aspect of experience and society, nature and history, can be an appropriate subject matter for speculative theological reflection. Precisely as a theologian, Scheeben himself wrote extensively on the social and political problems of his time, especially in resistance to Bismarck’s persecution of the Church. But as he saw clearly, nothing becomes a topic for genuinely theological reflection save by being drawn up into the sphere of the supernatural mysteries that are the proper subject matter of theology. Created natures, open as such to reason’s gaze, belong to theology just insofar as they can be drawn into the light that shines from the interior mysteries of the divine life. Genuinely theological talk of anything presupposes faith’s knowledge of the divine mysteries, a knowledge that cannot stem from creatures, and that no creature can provide for itself.
Another favorite topic of theological talk today is other theologians, especially those of the recent past. Here Scheeben’s engagement with the history of Christian thought has a great deal to teach us about the genuinely theological use of other theologians.
Scheeben was a staggeringly erudite theologian. This is immediately obvious in the
Nature and Grace
, but he could not keep it entirely hidden in the
Mysteries of Christianity
, even though that book was intended for a less specialized audience.
Reflecting on the intimate relationship by which we exist as Christ’s living members, Scheeben observes that further insight into this matter may be found in the commentary on Ephesians of Jacobus Naclantus (in the vernacular, Jacopo Nacchianti, O.P., ca. 1500-69), and gives a substantial quotation illustrative of the riches he expects the reader will find there. Articulating his idea that the mission of the Holy Spirit culminates in “the substantial hypostatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit into us,” and thereby in our “possession of his substantial being,” Scheeben suggests that we study
Expositio moralis et mystica in Canticum Canticorum
, a mammoth commentary on the Song of Songs, by Luis de la Puente, one of the great spiritual writers of the early-seventeenth century. Scheeben’s citations are not merely decorative but informative, and his readers today are virtually certain to learn much about the history of theology that they did not know.
Scheeben’s regular and sometimes extensive use of the Greek Fathers”especially Cyril of Alexandria, for whom he has an obvious affinity”calls into question the common assumption that an interest in the Eastern tradition, and in the Fathers more generally, entered modern Catholic theology only with the
theologians of the mid-twentieth century. He draws more or less constantly on most of the great theologians of the Middle Ages, from Anselm to Bernard of Clairvaux and the Victorines, and from Alexander of Hales to Bonaventure, Albert, Thomas Aquinas, and Scotus. Only the intellectual tradition stemming from Ockham generally fails to elicit any sympathy from him.
It is not just his learning, however, that impresses. Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. This is quite clear, for example, in his nuanced treatment of the motive of the Incarnation and its relation to sin, where he follows St. Thomas Aquinas in holding that the Incarnation is contingent on the fact of sin, but with Bl. Duns Scotus sees the Incarnation as realizing goods”in particular, creation’s perfect glorification of its Creator”beyond the remedy of the evil that occasioned it.
Scheeben did not habitually draw historical dividing lines or dismiss whole periods or schools of theology, as we so often do today. He had a vast knowledge of early modern scholasticism, from Cajetan to Cano and Soto, Gregory of Valencia, Suárez, Ruiz de Montoya, and Ripalda, and on to eighteenth century-scholastics like Gotti, Viva, and the Wirceburgenses. To this may be added his assimilation of the so-called positive theology of the seventeenth century and after, particularly of Petau and Thomassin. This mass of difficult material he does not simply know but puts to use as he carries out dogmatic theology’s own task of understanding the supernatural mysteries of Christianity.
All this learning was not the work of an unusually superannuated lifetime. Much of it was already in place by the time Scheeben published the
in 1865, at the age of thirty. Yet this only stands to reason. If we want to do speculative theology, we must learn how from those who have done it especially well, not only at one time or another but in every age of the Church. These are the deep wells from which we must drink.
Remarkable as it is, Scheeben’s erudition is not simply the work of a genius few of us can hope to emulate. If it differed in degree, his learning did not differ in kind from that expected of any academic theologian in the European world of his time. His erudition was the accomplishment not only of him but of the rich theological culture he inhabited when it met with an unusually capable and receptive mind. The theological culture that produced him and many others has largely disappeared. With it has gone much of the possibility of dogmatic theology such as he was able to write.
The theological culture of breadth and sympathy apparent on his pages has largely disappeared. For two generations now Catholic theologians have drawn a bright line between the theology before Vatican II and the theology after. The theology of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is for the most part labeled “neoscholasticism,” and thereby dismissed. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Catholic theology is almost entirely forgotten, unknown to all but a tiny handful of historical scholars. The theology of earlier centuries, having been written before the Enlightenment, may sometimes be of real interest, but the interest is almost always historical. Any such theology, we presume, comes from a world too different from our own to help us address our present needs and problems, at least in any direct way. Only the theology of the recent past has intrinsic value; all other theology matters only in relation to where we are now.
Scheeben teaches us to view the relationship between theology past and present quite differently. He practiced what has lately come to be called, with reference to the Church before and after the Council, a hermeneutic of continuity. On his reading, a very broad swath of theological material is relevant to present speculative work, from the ante-Nicene Fathers to his own contemporaries.
Unlike his teacher and contemporary Joseph Kleutgen, he does not have a preference in principle for “the theology of earlier times” over
that of his own day. Conversely, unlike some of his own near predecessors and contemporaries like Georg Hermes and J. J. I. von Döllinger, he sees no bright line in time before which theology cannot address our present questions”whether that line is drawn at the Enlightenment, Kant, Hegel, or wherever. The speculative theologian may find either old tools or new ones useful in his task of understanding what the faith teaches. He has no reason to assume in advance that only one sort of tool will do the job.
We need to recover Scheeben’s clarity about the supernatural character of theology and his profound and sympathetic knowledge of the Christian tradition. But it will be for naught if we do not learn Scheeben’s most important lesson: Humility is a speculative virtue, indeed the cardinal virtue of the dogmatic theologian.
Modern theology has grown used to thinking of the theologian as an intellectual virtuoso. He surveys the whole of the Christian tradition with an earnest desire to improve upon the past. He seeks an insight previously unpossessed, or possessed only by a few, in the hope that by it he can set right unresolved problems in the tradition, or problems heretofore unrecognized. Such problems, those worthy of the virtuoso’s effort, will naturally be systemic in nature rather than isolated difficulties of the sort that a good doctoral dissertation might clear up. In modern Protestant theology, virtuosity has been pretty much a vocational obligation for the dogmatic theologian. But Catholic theology too has been wooed by virtuosos.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing is his utter humility before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand. Like all real humility, it stems not from timidity or abjectness but from love for and gratitude to the God who, solely for the good of his creatures, has exalted us beyond all that we could otherwise ask or imagine, by opening up to us the innermost treasures of his own life. Immensely learned though Scheeben is, he is wholly indifferent to virtuosity. He seeks in love to understand with all the resources of mind and reason what he knows can be understood only by the poor in spirit.
Unsurprisingly, then, Scheeben concludes the
by finding in Mary’s humility “the ideal of reason,” precisely the reason of the speculative theologian. “As the call to be the mother of the God-man,” he writes, “raised Mary from a lowly handmaid to the Queen of all things, so there is no greater distinction for reason than its call to cooperate with faith in producing theological knowledge. In this way reason is raised above its natural lowliness to the highest nobility.” Even thus ennobled, reason continues to recognize its lowliness. “As Mary,” he continues, “was taken up to be the Mother of God precisely through the humble obedience of the handmaid of the Lord, and as Mother of God retained the humility of the Lord’s handmaid, so reason can take faith into itself only through a humble recognition of the rights of revelation, and an obedient submission to the call of God.”
Dogmatic theology is most creative when it is most genuinely submissive. True speculative achievement comes not from trying to be creative but from humbly seeking to understand the divine mysteries as God wills in love to make them known. Creativity is a mere by-product of this effort.
Vatican II was understood by many, and rightly so, to urge a renewed engagement with the scriptural and patristic sources of the faith, a
. Of this there has been much, and historical study of the Fathers and the medievals flourishes among Catholic theologians. The Council certainly did not recommend, either by what it said or by what it did, the abandonment of dogmatic theology or of the scholastic traditions, which have so deeply informed Catholic theological speculation since the Middle Ages.
Yet Catholic theology quite soon began to take the Council as proclaiming a release from captivity to “neoscholasticism,” an opprobrious designation of uncertain, but often very broad, meaning and application. Coupled with this was a cheerful dismissal of the innumerable “manuals” or “handbooks””many, like Scheeben’s
Handbuch der katholischen Dogmatik
, actually far too bulky to be carried about by hand. These books had been the standard literary form for comprehensive dogmatic theology in the Catholic world since at least the early nineteenth century.
No doubt those who dismissed neoscholasticism thought that new and more-fruitful forms of speculative theology would rise up to take the place of what were assumed to be the scripturally barren and rationalistic, crabbed and hairsplitting manuals. This has not happened. The rejection of established dogmatic traditions and approaches has led not to new and more-vital forms of Catholic systematic reflection but to the effective disappearance of dogmatic theology altogether. While the decades since Vatican II have certainly seen a renewal of Catholic theology on many fronts, it would be hard for even the most optimistic among us to claim that speculative theology has seen such a renewal.
Of course many Catholic theologians today will vehemently contest this judgment and point in proof to Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, or Bernard Lonergan (perhaps all three) as undeniable examples of renewed, postscholastic forms of dogmatics.
Whatever the merits of their highly influential and often contested substantive proposals, the extent to which either Rahner or Balthasar actually ought to count as a dogmatic theologian is, I think, far from clear. The distinctive, not to say eccentric, style and structure of their theologies raise questions on this score, as do the temptations to virtuosity they (especially Balthasar) sometimes exhibit. Lonergan is another story, but he (like Rahner) produced only pieces of a dogmatic theology, and the genuinely dogmatic parts of his corpus are also those that have had the least influence.
For the moment, though, let’s grant that, as many now hold, the dogmatic contributions of these three remarkable theologians (or at least one of them) will prove to be of enduring value. If so, this only underscores the disappearance of dogmatic theology as a fact of contemporary Catholic intellectual life. Rahner, Balthasar, and Lonergan have certainly produced followers, but their followers have not done dogmatic theology. Whatever their own intentions, the great figures in the decades following the Second Vatican Council have been influential not primarily in prompting others to talk about God but in prompting others to talk about them.
The disappearance of dogmatic or speculative theology represents a great loss to contemporary Catholic Christianity. Dogmatics is the application of human reason, at once rigorous and submissive, to the highest matters of Christian faith. It is often argued, not least by Pope Benedict XVI, that when religious belief rejects the proper ministrations of reason”when it tries to carry on without the dogmatic virtues”it offers an open door to moral abuse in the name of religion, and at worst to murderous fanaticism.
With at least equal vigor (though with considerably less support from the wider world), Benedict has argued that reason, when it rejects the light that faith alone can provide, cannot help falling into relativism, moral and otherwise. Without the transcendent purpose provided by the dogmatic virtues, reason eventually inflicts upon itself a mortal wound, submitting not to the gentle light of faith but to the nihilism that reduces reason to a sinister technical instrument in the hands of the will to power.
That faith and reason need each other, though in different ways, is of course a deep principle of dogmatic theology. In the influential formulation of St. Thomas Aquinas, robustly embraced by Scheeben, the grace of faith does not eliminate natural reason but presupposes it, since divine teaching presupposes that we, as reasoning beings, can be taught. At the same time reason finds its perfection in the knowledge faith gives. Supernatural truths heal reason’s wounds and lift reason up to know the deep things of God.
Different religions may have different ways of looking at the role of reason in relation to what they believe. In Catholic Christianity, though, the deep things of God are
to be searched out by the rational creature, as the rational creature is meant by God to find its perfection in the knowledge of divine mysteries. God reveals the secrets of his innermost life and the sublime destiny he holds out to us in himself, so that the mind can receive them, ponder them, and begin here and now its journey toward God.
To give up on the most diligent application of human reason to the highest mysteries of Christian faith, to give up on dogmatic theology, as contemporary Catholicism has unwittingly done, is not to honor these mysteries but to hold them at a safe distance. Seen only from afar, the divine mysteries remain vague to us, and as such they make few intellectual and moral demands on us. Our distance gives us the impression that we can make of these mysteries what we will, turning them into mirrors for our spiritual needs, real or imagined, rather than allowing ourselves to be reformed by them. Lots of very loose talk about the Trinity as little more than a high-sounding model for proper social or communal life provides an all-too-obvious example.
But we deceive ourselves. We must allow ourselves to be drawn close to the mysteries of God with Mary’s humility and to ponder them, as she has done, to the furthest limits of our creaturely reason. Failing to cultivate the dogmatic virtues”focus on the supernatural, sympathetic knowledge of the tradition, and the humility of the poor in spirit”does not leave us free to approach the mysteries of faith in other ways. It means we do not approach them at all.
In the deepest sense the value of dogmatic theology, and the need for it, lie with the interior life of faith. But the enrichment of the interior life in and through dogmatic reason also shapes communal and institutional reality. Vital speculative theology enables the Church to articulate the meaning and content of her faith as a whole, down to the most beautiful detail, and in a precise and persuasive way. When speculative theology languishes, the Church loses a great deal of her ability to say clearly what should be believed and why it should be believed”not only to outsiders whom she hopes to invite in but above all to herself and her own members.
We cannot by mere scholarship create, or reinvent, the almost vanished theological culture that Matthias Scheeben so richly embodies, as if doctoral programs and academic disciplines can make up for our deficit in dogmatic virtues. But we can read what he left us, and in a docile spirit quite out of step with our present-day cult of virtuosity we can let him lead us to others who have also used their intellectual gifts to enter into the divine mysteries. Most important of all, we can pray for the humility Scheeben brought to the task. The way back to a renewed and vital theological culture is long, but this is surely a good place to start.
Bruce D. Marshall is professor of Christian doctrine at Perkins School of Theology.
]]>Reading the Gospels with Benedict XVIhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/10/reading-the-gospels-with-benedict-xvi
Sat, 01 Oct 2011 00:00:00 -0400 A few days after Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, a distinguished Lutheran theologian happened to meet up with a Catholic colleague of long acquaintance. You should be very happy, the Lutheran observed. Why? his friend wondered in reply. Because you have just elected the best theologian to be pope since Gregory the Great.
When Gregory I came to the See of Peter in 590, the future of the Catholic Church”and whether the Church would have a future”was far from clear, and the papacy had little by way of worldly power to confront the crisis. The Church was besieged from without and troubled by dissension within. Rome lay in ruins about him, its population less than a tenth of what it had been during the closing days of imperial glory two centuries before. The barbarian tribes vying for control of Italy and much of the rest of Europe were either Arian or pagan, without loyalty to Rome and the papacy. And they were literally at the gates. One of the most important acts of Gregorys pontificate was to negotiate a peace with the Lombard chieftain Agilulf, saving Rome from complete destruction.
To a large extent Gregory the Great met the problems of his time simply by teaching the faith. In sermons, pastoral instructions, exegetical works, and lives of the saints, he sought to display the inherent beauty of Christianity and of lives shaped by the gospel. He made no claim to originality but merely presented the core teaching of the Church, the faith of Nicaea and Chalcedon, of Augustine and the Church Fathers, and did so in a clear, precise, and attractive manner. His originality lay at the level of particulars, a by-product of his extensive effort to teach in his own time what he had received from Scripture and the Fathers.
As a new dark age closes in, Alasdair MacIntyre famously observed, we hope for a new St. Benedict. The former Cardinal Ratzinger surely did not choose by accident the name under which he would be pope. But in his actual exercise of the Petrine ministry he more resembles Gregory the Great than that other ancient saint who is his namesake. Leading a twenty-first-century Church much diminished in power and influence throughout Europe, Pope Benedict XVI manifests a similar trust in the renewing power of the gospel, devoting much of his papacy to a persistent effort of clear, precise, and attractive teaching that seeks to transmit rather than innovate, to inform rather than speculate. As pope, the former professor of theology has been above all a catechist.
In countless public presentations he has spoken in plain terms of the prophets and the apostles, the Fathers, saints, and doctors of the Church, confident that their insight and example will prove pertinent to his twenty-first-century hearers. (During the summer of 2008, I heard him talk for close to half an hour, at a Wednesday audience under the warm Roman sun, of the historical and contemporary significance of Isidore of Seville.) In the many books gathered from these theological talks, in book-length interviews before and after becoming pope, and in his homilies, encyclicals, and apostolic exhortations, Benedict XVI has striven to teach the faith to a generation that, within and without the Church, is confused about it, puzzled by it, and hostile to it”to the generation of barbarians among whom most of us must, to some extent, also number ourselves.
The two volumes of his
Jesus of Nazareth
hold a unique place in the catechetical project that has defined his papacy. They have been published under his baptismal name, Joseph Ratzinger, with his name as successor of Peter only in second place on the book cover (though in much larger type, at least in the English edition). In the foreword to the first volume he emphasized that his book was not an official text that embodied the authority of his office but was rather the fruit of his personal search for the face of the Lord. As such, he said, Everyone is free to contradict me. Even the highest Catholic regard for the teaching authority of the pope does not require agreement with the biblical exegesis of Joseph Ratzinger in these books.
Whether it is really possible for a pope to publish a private book is perhaps open to question. But Benedicts effort to put a degree of distance between this work and his office reflects, it seems, his desire to teach about Jesus to all who will listen, regardless of their attitude toward the Church and the papacy. His personal search can be ours.
Only in this second volume, Benedict observes, do we encounter the decisive sayings and events of Jesus life”decisive, of course, not only for a historical appreciation of Jesus but for Christian faith in him. Covering just one week, from Jesus entry into Jerusalem to his resurrection from the dead, Benedict treats the final events of Jesus life as historical happenings, to be sure. But they are also divine mysteries, the acts by which God generously opens up his innermost life to us and invites us in. This, above all, is what Benedict aims to teach us.
The result is a book that reads, as Benedict informs us at the outset, rather like a traditional theological treatise on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. Despite the obvious differences in substance and style, the pope finds himself closer in spirit to Thomas Aquinas classic theological account of Jesus passion and resurrection in part 3 of the
than to the standard modern approaches to the figure of Jesus. While he sees this book as a historically responsible interpretation of the New Testament, Benedict clearly distinguishes what he is doing here from the characteristically modern effort to provide a purely historical reconstruction of Jesus life. In particular, he distances himself from the now common effort to breathe theological life into the religiously impoverished results of modern historical reconstructions.
Benedict structures the book around nine interconnected mysteries in the final days of Jesus earthly life: Jesus entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple, his eschatological discourse (Mark 13 and parallels), the washing of the disciples feet, the high-priestly prayer of John 17, the Last Supper, Jesus prayer in Gethsemane, his trial before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and burial, and his resurrection from the dead. To this he adds a brief epilogue wherein he discusses Jesus ascension, his session at the right hand of the Father, and his return in glory. His approach to each of the mysteries remains basically the same, and we can gain a clar sense of his project if we focus on his treatment of the cross.
Benedicts chapter the Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus begins with a brief preliminary reflection, what we might call (in language the pope uses sparingly) a hermeneutical observation. The four gospels differ in emphasis and detail, Benedict observes, but they are at one in the broad outlines of Jesus crucifixion, and all four saturate their presentations of Jesus final suffering and death with allusions to the Old Testament. Two texts have particular prominence. One is Psalm 22, which begins with the lament of one forsaken by God but ends with confidence that God will hear the suppliants prayer and that the whole assembly of Israel will rejoice. The other is Isaiah 53, the song of the servant of God whose suffering will justify many.
Benedict insists that we must keep these Old Testament texts firmly in mind when seeking the truth about Jesus, for without them we do not get at the same events in a different way but forfeit access to the events altogether. This is not a hypothetical temptation. Many modern scholars presume that we must remove the language of Israelite prophecy from our description of Jesus if we are to be rigorously historical. Others claim that we should renounce any claim to interpret Jewish scripture lest we make a morally illicit intrusion on the rights of another religious community.
Such worries fail to appreciate how the New Testament presents Jesus to us. The facts are, so to speak, permeated with the word”with meaning, writes Benedict, and the converse is also true: what previously had been merely word”often beyond our capacity to understand”now becomes reality, its meaning unlocked. This observation, as befits Benedicts ministry of restorative catechesis, amounts to a restatement of Vatican II, which taught Catholics to see Scripture this way. As we read in Dei Verbum, the economy of revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other.
And as Benedict points out, seeking to enter into this interpenetration of deed and word is not only a matter of following Church teaching. The methods of modern critical textual analysis also show that the first generation of Christians came to their faith in Jesus passion and resurrection by learning how to understand word and event in light of each other.
With this harmony between word and event in view, Benedicts reflection turns to Jesus on the cross. He acknowledges the differences in how the gospels depict the crucified and sees no need to harmonize the accounts; the differences themselves are essential to an adequate apprehension of Jesus. Still less does Benedict see the need to choose between the gospel accounts, to take one as closest to the event itself (a dubious honor most often accorded to Mark) while downgrading the rest as questionable theological glosses.
He follows, in part, a traditional form, offering a meditation on the seven last words of Jesus, the seven utterances the four gospels together ascribe to the Crucified. Interspersed with succinct reflections on these sayings is attention to the actions and events that affect the suffering Jesus: the mockery of the passers-by and the Sanhedrin, the casting of lots for his seamless garment, the anguished compassion of the faithful women (above all, the Mother of Jesus) at the foot of the cross, and finally the confession of the centurion and the effusion of blood and water from the pierced side of the slain redeemer.
Deed as well as word here overflows with scriptural allusion, and close attention to the Old Testament content of the gospel accounts becomes indispensable, Benedict clearly supposes, if we would approach the mystery of the cross as it actually is. In the dividing of Jesus clothes among the executioners, for example, Psalm 22:18 comes into view, a reference that John makes explicit. In their casting of lots for his seamless tunic, we may detect, Benedict writes, an allusion to Jesus high-priestly dignity, for the ancient testimony of Josephus reports that the high priest of Israel wore just such a seamless garment.
But illumination flows not just from word to event. Jesus dies at three in the afternoon, the very hour, Benedict several times observes, when the paschal lambs are being slaughtered in preparation for Passover. Here we find an event that unlocks the meaning of a previously mysterious word, in this case the prophecy of John the Baptist: Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
The words by which John the Baptist identified Jesus are, of course, those by which Catholics identify him each day, sacramentally present in every Eucharist as one who takes away our sins. In fact, as Benedict reads them, the gospels explicitly portray Jesus death on the Cross as a cosmic and liturgical event. The mystery of the cross, precisely as it is presented to us in the gospels, does not belong only to the past, which is why historical and textual analysis alone, no matter how sympathetic or doctrinally traditional, cannot fully illuminate that mystery for us. We must allow ourselves to be guided as well by the paschal mystery as a present fact.
The same goes for all the mysteries of Jesus life that are depicted with such seeming simplicity in the gospels. Each event from the entry into Jerusalem to Golgotha, the Emmaus road, and the upper room is pregnant with its own future, with the life it will have in the Church. The Last Supper is already laden”deliberately, by Jesus himself”with the Churchs Eucharist. Jesus agony in Gethsemane anticipates the Churchs faith in the reality of both his divine and his human will, and so forth.
The books subtitle gives a decidedly liturgical cast to the whole. Holy Week designates not simply a series of events in first-century Jerusalem but also, and primarily, the Churchs yearly celebration of them. All things human turn on what happened long ago in Jerusalem. These events cannot, therefore, belong only to the vanished past. Holy Week is not simply the recollection of what once occurred. It is the presence of the events it recalls, events in which each of us can now participate by liturgical deed and sacramental act as well as by hearing the words that tell of them.
It is therefore no pious afterthought, but essential to the apprehension of the events themselves, that Benedict concludes his chapter on the crucifixion and burial of Jesus with a section on the significance for every human being of Jesus death: the death of Jesus as reconciliation (atonement) and salvation. Here we find a relatively extended discussion of how the more technical questions of dogmatic theology”in this case, the doctrine of the atonement”arise out of the imperatives of biblical interpretation.
In Romans 3:25, St. Paul, evidently drawing upon a tradition of the earliest Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, speaks of the crucified Jesus as the
whom God put forward for us as his supreme act of justice, to be embraced by faith. This Greek term is usually rendered into English with some variation on the general term atonement (place of atonement, atoning sacrifice, and so forth).
But as Benedict several times emphasizes, most historical-critical exegetes now hold that it refers specifically to the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, the place at the heart of the Temple where, once a year, the expiatory blood was sprinkled on the great Day of Atonement, according to the prescriptions of Leviticus 16. Meditating on the mystery of the cross in light of the prophets and the apostles, Benedict argues, the earliest Christians soon came to believe that the crucified Jesus had accomplished the supreme act of expiation or propitiation for sin. In these terms the mystery of the cross began to live in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and in these same terms, Benedict clearly supposes, we should embrace the mystery of the cross today.
As he knows, objections abound, and Benedict considers several of the most important. Some will object that the first Christians were Jews and, as the New Testament relates, continued to frequent the Temple in Jerusalem. They could not have adopted so radical a view, one that takes the Temple sacrifices commanded in the Torah and replaces them with the cross of Jesus. According to this objection, the theological idea that the cross has obviated the need for the Levitical sacrifices must be understood as a later gloss (embodied, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews), an implicitly anti-Jewish notion all too eagerly embraced by later Gentile Christians.
Whatever its motives, Benedict suggests, this objection fails to account for the originality of Jesus: his historical impact, which means the capacity of his words, deeds, and sufferings to reshape the way even his first followers understood their scripture and themselves. One thing was astonishingly clear from the outset: with the Cross of Christ, the old Temple sacrifices were definitively surpassed. Something new had happened.
This need not conflict with the earliest practice of going to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple remained a venerable place of prayer and proclamation. Its sacrifices, though, were no longer relevant for Christians. To affirm the radical difference Jesus makes need not lead to an anti-Jewish stance that finds no value or purpose in the Old Testament law. In fact, Benedict apparently affirms, following St. Bernard of Clairvaux, that in the present time of the Gentiles the Church must not concern herself with the conversion of the Jews. This has rightly drawn much attention. How it squares with the universality of Jesus saving mission, affirmed by Benedict with equal clarity, is a problem he is not the first to leave unsolved.
Another objection resists the very idea of expiation (or atonement, as the popes German term
is often rendered in the English version), arguing that the Christian God does not demand the suffering of an innocent man in order to free a guilty humanity. He simply forgives, out of sheer mercy. This, Benedict replies, is not what expiation means and not how the New Testament understands the cross of Jesus. It is a profound mistake to play Gods mercy off against his justice, as Anselm long ago discerned.
The reality of evil and injustice that disfigures the world, Benedict writes, cannot simply be ignored by God. That would not be justice, and so it would not truly be mercy. But Gods just way of dealing with the reality of evil is not to impose injury on the innocent in order to make up for what the guilty have done to God. It is exactly the opposite: God himself becomes the locus of reconciliation, and in the person of his Son takes the suffering upon himself. At its heart the cross is not a punishment but an offering, a gift of Jesus”of God incarnate”to the Father and to the world, a total gift of self, a gift greater than any debt.
The thought that, in Jesus, God takes the suffering of the world upon himself suggests still another objection, one diametrically opposed to the last. Justice does not call for God to receive a gift from us so much as it calls for us to receive a gift from God. This gift, according to a significant strain of modern Christian piety and theology, should be understood as Gods complete solidarity with our condition. It is an identification with our suffering lot fully realized only at the point of Jesus cry from the cross, expressing his own complete experience of what we secretly fear most: the absence of God. According to this line of thought, Jesus cross can be meaningful for us only if Gods solidarity with us goes precisely, if paradoxically, to the point of abandonment by God. The cross is not what we must suffer in order to make up for what we have done to God. It is what God must suffer in order to make up for what he has done to us.
Benedict observes that there is something to this theology”theodicy, really”of solidarity, but not if it goes too far. In the books concluding bibliography, the pope quietly but tellingly identifies the Protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann and the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (the latter sometimes thought to be a particular favorite of his) as examples of an exaggerated theology of solidarity, which mistakenly takes Jesus cry from the cross as the expression of a personal experience of abandonment. The more balanced view, he argues, recognizes that Jesus certainly does take our suffering upon himself but not in order to succumb to it and be overwhelmed by it. He enters into solidarity with us, bears our griefs (Is. 53:4), not in order to experience them as we do, to be crushed by them as we are, but to transform them and triumph over them.
Therefore, we need to be sure-footed in our reading of Jesus cry of dereliction. He does, indeed, pray the opening lines of Psalm 22, the great psalm of suffering Israel, from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He prays these words, however, not in ignorance of how the psalm ends but as the people of God had always prayed them, certain of an answer from God: He did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him (v. 24). Nor does he pray simply as a lone suffering Israelite but as the second Adam, the head of the humanity he came to save. Jesus prays, writes Benedict, as the one who unites us all into a single common subject and incorporates us all into himself. Now, when we pray our own psalms of suffering, when we cry out, Why have you forsaken me? we pray in him, and in him find our suffering transformed.
Especially in the English-speaking world, the first volume of
Jesus of Nazareth
got a frosty reception from most biblical scholars. Benedicts New Testament scholarship, it was often held, was excessively reliant on German authors and generally outmoded in light of recent scholarship in English. More important, the book was dismissed as a misbegotten hybrid of critical scholarship and Catholic devotion, satisfying to adherents of neither. It is unlikely that the second volume will fare much better.
Undeterred by such criticism from the guild of professional exegetes, the pope clearly has no intention of reading, say, the Gospel of Matthew simply as an independent literary artifact but accepts it as one of the canonical gospels”very much including John, and not limited to the synoptics. He reads the gospels, moreover, in connection with the whole of the New Testament, so that Romans 3:25 becomes a crucial text for interpreting the depiction of Jesus cross in the gospels. And he reads the New Testament in relation to the Christian canon as a whole, so that Jesus is rightly understood as the speaker not only of the opening lines in Psalm 22 but of the entire song of suffering and triumph.
Some in the biblical guild embrace this way of reading particular New Testament texts in light of the whole canon, while others resist it. Either way”and this is the point on which Benedict insists”the interpreter of the gospels makes a decision of which no amount of historical evidence can relieve him. Nothing affects our interpretation of a text more than our convictions about what is most relevant to reading the text rightly. The decision to read the gospels as Christian scripture”or not to read them in this way”is ineluctably infiltrated with the readers convictions about God, about what God may (or may not) be doing with these texts, about the nature and authority of the communities that have held these texts to be sacred Scripture, and much more. It is, in short, a religious decision, which historical considerations alone cannot compel the reader to make one way or the other.
His recognizing this does not pit Benedict against historical criticism. On the contrary, he consistently draws on the insights and judgments of modern biblical scholars. But he insists that historical criticism, while a necessary component in an intellectually responsible interpretation of the Bible, must be taken up into a hermeneutics of faith and not the other way around. He deliberately subordinates the methods and results of modern biblical scholarship (historical-critical or otherwise) to the complex ways of reading long practiced by the Church. Here we find his deep difference from the work of many contemporary biblical scholars”and the source of their vigorous opposition to him.
Benedicts critics in the biblical guild sense, quite rightly, I think, that he is quietly calling for a deprofessionalization of biblical studies. The result would be an end to biblical studies as we know it. The academic field of biblical studies exists in order to have the last word about what the Bible means. Just this Benedict means to deny them: One thing is clear to me: in two hundred years of exegetical work, historical-critical exegesis has already yielded its essential fruit. If the scholarly study of the Bible is not to become religiously irrelevant, it must take a methodological step forward and see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character.
Forward, not backward. The undoubted technical and methodological expertise of biblical scholars makes an indispensable contribution to the Church. But it does not entitle them to the last word. No one has to choose between being blacklisted as a fundamentalist and delivering himself into the hands of a magisterium of professional exegetes. The Church should listen to what biblical scholars say, and then make its own decisions about what the texts mean. These decisions will always involve much more in the way of faith, tradition, experience, and communal discernment than the canons of biblical scholarship provide”or presently allow.
Benedict makes many such decisions and presents them in a direct, accessible way. His two volumes on Jesus help us see that the Church can give modern biblical scholarship all the credit it deserves yet rightly refuse it the final say in discerning what the Bible means. This is surely an important step forward. And it imparts a singular attraction to his account of what we can believe about Jesus and hope for from him.
Bruce D. Marshall is professor of Christian Doctrine at Perkins School of Theology.
]]>Treasures in Heavenhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/01/treasures-in-heaven
Fri, 01 Jan 2010 00:00:00 -0500 Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven (Mark 10:21). How shall we take these words of Jesus? Most readers will recognize Jesus injunction to self-sacrifice for the poor, but what shall we make of the thought that our gifts yield treasure in heaven? Jesus concludes his mandate to care for the poor by injecting a mercantile note into our relationship with God: We give to the poor, and God rewards us with a deposit in our heavenly bank account.
Disconcerted by the suggestion of a kind of financial arrangement between us and God, most modern interpreters ask us not to take this passage literally. We should give what we can to the poor, of course, but Jesus is only using figuratively the idea of alms as a source of credits good for the world to come. Yet Jesus goes on to insist that those who have given up everything to follow him will be rewarded for what they have done, and the repayment will come not only in the next life but in this one”at an astonishing rate of interest: a hundredfold now in this time . . . and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:30).
There are, no doubt, several ways to take all this as a rhetorical figure for a spiritual state that, in reality, involves no exchange. But in
Sin: A History
, Gary Anderson points out Jesus commercial language is not a mere passing thought in the Bible. In both early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, sin is overwhelmingly described as a debt owed to God, while the forgiveness of sin is understood as a repayment of that debt.
The earlier biblical texts were different. Before the Babylonian exile in 587
, sin was sometimes described as a defiling stain but mainly as a burden to be borne. Sins produced a weight that was loaded onto the back of the sinner and eventually would crush him. Thus, for example, the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16: Once a year, the most serious of Israels sins, those too grave to be removed by the regular provisions for ritual purification, were ceremonially loaded by the high priest onto the head of a goat. The animal then was led out into the wilderness, never to return. From this we derive the term
, but the term is misleading: The goat is not an object of punishment but a beast of burden. He carries the sins of Israel off into the desert, where they no longer burden the people.
Part of the reason all this changed after the Babylonian exile was linguistic. Aramaic became the primary tongue of the Persian Empire in which the Jewish people lived during the Second Temple period, and in Aramaic the language for religious transgression comes directly from the world of commerce. The word for a debt owed to a lender is the same as the word for a sin. Over time, the idea of a debt demanding payment became pervasive in Jewish discourse about sin and forgiveness: in Second Isaiah and Daniel, at Qumran, in rabbinic Judaism, and throughout the New Testament. The identification of sins with debts was not the unique heritage of a single Jewish sect or two, Anderson concludes. It was shared by all Jews of that time, and it shaped the way the rabbis and early Christians interpreted their biblical heritage.
Communal and individual suffering is clearly a basic biblical currency by which the debt of sin can be paid off. Isaiah 40, for example, tells us that Israel has paid God back in suffering double for all her sins (Isaiah 40:2). As Anderson observes, For the author of Second Isaiah, Israels sins at the close of the First Temple period had put her over her head in debt. Decades of penal service in Babylon would be required to satisfy its terms.
Suffering, however, is not the only currency. As the Second Temple period drew to a close, almsgiving came to be seen as the supremely effective way to pay down ones debt. Thus, in Daniel 4:27, King Nebuchadnezzar is advised, Redeem your sins by almsgiving (not merely by practicing righteousness, or something of the sort), and your iniquity by generosity to the poor. At root,
means to buy out of slavery. Generosity to the poor is so valuable to God that even proud Nebuchadnezzar can, with extravagant giving of alms, buy his way out of the impending servitude due his sin.
Unlike other good works, giving to the poor establishes a treasury of credits in heaven that future sins cannot draw down. God, in fact, treats each gift as a loan that he multiplies far beyond its initial worth. It is as if God were a peerless investment manager to whom we entrusted our savings. This is the logic of Jesus answer to the rich man who asks what he must do to gain eternal life (Matt. 19:16).
Not all debts end up being paid. Sometimes a creditor remits a debt, turning the sum owed by his debtor into an unmerited gift. It is for this that Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. In the Lords Prayer, the underlying Semitic idiom for sin and forgiveness is precisely that of Second Temple Judaism: Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who hold debts against us.
Seeking an explanation for Gods generosity, rabbinic Judaism looks to Gods special love for Israel. A midrash on Psalms 32:1 depicts God on the Day of Atonement. Moved by love and pity for Israel, he hides all her sins under his royal robes while Satan is off looking for further debts with which to burden Gods people. David, looking on, says Happy the one whose sins are covered.
In early Christianity, the Cross of Jesus motivates God to remit our debt. The most important text for the Church Fathers reflection on atonement is probably Colossians 2:14: Christ erased the bond of indebtedness that stood against us, nailing it to the cross. The author of Colossians here uses the standard Greek term for a debt instrument”
, a note of hand that was destroyed when the debt was repaid. In one patristical account, Jesus lures Satan into reaching beyond his rights. Innocent of sin, Jesus is not subject to the bond, so when Satan kills him, the bond is destroyed. In another account, Jesus by his Passion and death makes full payment on the bond, thus canceling humanitys debt forever. Either way, patristic thinking on the atonement is shaped above all by the idea of sin as a debt to God that is voided by the Cross.
One effect of Andersons argument, of which he is well aware, is to make a number of traditional Catholic practices and beliefs”almsgiving as a source of great merit; a heavenly treasury of merit available by way of indulgences; Anselms theology of the atonement (the subject of Andersons final chapter)”look much more biblical than even Catholics, at least in modern times, have generally supposed. Daniel 4:27 in particular was the focus of vehement controversy during the Reformation and after, with Protestant interpreters arguing that this text does not, appearances to the contrary, serve as biblical warrant for the idea that we can pay down our debt of sin by giving alms.
Anderson has no wish to ignite confessional controversy. Instead he suggests”rightly, I think”that traditional Protestant misgivings about matters such as the merit of almsgiving are largely misplaced when the nature of the debt we owe to God and the manner in which we have a hand in its repayment are rightly understood. Almsgiving, like any good work, presupposes faith. The person who seeks to follow the advice of Daniel or the command of Jesus to lay up treasure in heaven must
God with his or her own life and destiny. It is not by accident that words for religious faith in many languages are the same as those for financial relationships; indeed, the word
, loaned to English by Latin, simply means that one believes or trusts another. True faith, which trusts God and not ourselves for salvation, is necessarily active in love, as Galatians 5:6 puts it. As long as faith and love are not pried apart, there is no need to fear that the person who hearkens to Jesus words and stores up treasure in heaven is seeking salvation by works.
Where Protestants and Catholics historically differ is on the question of whether believers can share in Christs all-sufficient payment of our debt or only admire it in gratitude. The traditional argument is not over whether the concepts of debt and payment apply to humanitys relationship with God but over the extent of that application”whether it belongs only to Christ or also, in Christ, to us.
For some contemporary theologians, however, the idea that we could incur a debt to God, or that our relationship with God could involve repayment of that debt, is misguided”if not perverse and demonic. Theologians who incline this way worry that the ideas of debt and payment belong to an economy of exchange or barter. In this sort of arrangement, one party bestows goods on another precisely to make the recipient incur a debt. This debt constitutes an obligation on the part of the recipient, an obligation from which the giver intends to benefit.
The giver may be quite open about his intention, as when a bank gives us a mortgage. But as the anthropologist Marcel Mauss first argued in the 1920s, giver and receiver often will deny that any obligation has been created, thus concealing from themselves the self-interest at work on both sides. More recently, such scholars as Pierre Bourdieu and Mary Douglas have made the slogan no free gifts something of a commonplace among anthropologists and sociologists. For the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the idea of a gift, given wholly for the benefit of the receiver with no strings attached, is unhappily self-contradictory: When I convey some good”food, money, love”I do so with the expectation, and often the demand, for return.
When debt and payment are understood in this way, it is not hard to see why a theologian might reject the thought that such ideas can have any place in humanitys relationship with God. If Christs saving work involves the repayment of a debt to God, then God seems to be a selfish tyrant who demands that his abject, suffering creatures pay back with interest the loan of life and love he has made to them. Without this monstrous balloon payment, God will not forgive the sins of his creatures and so will not give them any of the other goods for which forgiveness is the prerequisite.
The solution to this problem, so the argument goes, is to drop the idea that the saving work of Christ, especially his Passion and Cross, are in any way a payment or even a gift made to God. Christs suffering is simply what human malice does to the innocent and in no sense an action on which any gift of God”especially forgiveness”might depend. Protestant theology had argued that sinners can merit nothing for themselves before God, but some theologians now maintain that the sinless Christ cannot merit anything for us, either.
The theological motives for taking this line vary. Some theologians see traditional notions of atonement as glorifications of violence and the passive acceptance of suffering, and view a commitment to nonviolence as basic to theology: Surely a good and loving God needs no payment or other inducement, least of all the bloody suffering and death of an innocent person, to forgive us. The standard target here is St. Anselm, although this is a bit bizarre, since no thinker in the tradition is clearer than Anselm that the satisfaction that Christ offers to God on the cross is an
to punishment: a perfect act of self offering to which the violence that accompanies it is quite accidental.
The objection to debt and payment is sometimes put in more comprehensive terms by opposing the economy of giving to an economy of gift. The Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion develops this alternative in one way, and the Protestant theologians Kathryn Tanner and John Milbank develop it in others. The pivotal step in the alternative economy that these authors propose is the claim that nothing is genuinely a
unless it is given without any expectation or desire for repayment. In a genuine economy of gift, the giver may hope the receiver accepts the gift, to benefit from it. But the giving is in no way conditional on the subsequent acceptance of the gift or the expectation of its acceptance.
In the economy of the gift, the impossibility of repayment applies most of all to the good God gives us in Jesus Christ. His Passion and death are Gods sheer unowed gift of forgiveness and new life; they are in no sense a human return of gift to God, let alone a recompense demanded by and offered to God. As Tanner succinctly puts it, In Christ debts are forgiven rather than paid.
Gary Anderson argues in
Sin: A History
that debt and payment belong to the deep grammar of sin and salvation in the Bible: an utterly basic scriptural element in Jewish and Christian liturgy, devotion, and tradition. If hes right, then several strands of recent theology are out of touch with Scripture.
One might simply write this off as pretty much the norm for theologians, who often exhibit a remarkable carelessness about what the Bible actually says. But the deeper issue is the character of the divine economy of salvation and, in particular, the difference between a debt owed to God and any debt we could owe in a worldly economy of self-interested exchange. Anderson pursues this point by drawing on rabbinic Jewish and Syrian Christian literature, especially Narsai and St. Ephrem. He rightly aims to make sense of the deep Christian and Jewish intuition that we
God everything, and not”as theologians of the gift suppose”that while we receive everything from God, we owe God nothing.
To think about this, recall the medieval commonplace, in discussions of Christs Passion and its saving power, that God could have remitted humanitys sins, forgiven and redeemed us, without the Incarnation and death of his Son. Like many commonplaces of medieval theology, this one stems from Augustine, in this case from his
. God certainly had the ability to deliver us from evil in some other way than he has, although he chose, Augustine suggests, the most beautifully suitable way of all: God, to whose power all things are equally subject, did not lack another possible way of healing our misery, but there was no more appropriate way, nor did there need to be.
Picking up this line of thought, Thomas Aquinas argues that God would not have acted against justice if he had simply remitted our sins by fiat, without any satisfaction”any offering or payment”on our part. In fact, though, God has decided to save us through the satisfaction offered in Christs Passion. This way of salvation, Thomas strikingly observes, is
merciful than salvation by mere divine fiat would be and so is a more beautiful and suitable way for God, who is mercy itself, to act. God gave us his own Son to make satisfaction for the sin of all human nature, as Scripture teaches: We are justified by his grace, as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as our propitiator through faith in his blood (Rom. 3:24“25). And this, Thomas continues, was a greater mercy than it would have been had God forgiven sins without any recompense.
We are apt to find this puzzling, since it may seem obvious to us that requiring satisfaction is less merciful and more demanding than sheer forgiveness would be. Why does God save by payment of a debt, when he doesnt need to act this way and doesnt get anything out of the exchange?
Thomas Aquinas and others answer that God redeems us this way precisely for our benefit, for the good of those whom he generously treats as debtors owing him satisfaction. By treating us as debtors even though he has no need of our payment, the good God gives us a share in the salvation he brings about for us: a human, creaturely part in Gods own victory over human sin.
If God had remitted our sins by sheer forgiveness”sent them away or simply declared them nonexistent”then our sins indeed would be gone, and we no longer would be sinners. We would, however, be mere spectators to our own salvation: observers who simply noted this fact about ourselves, without any involvement of our hearts and wills. By treating our sins as a debt for which he will accept payment, God gives humanity a genuine share in its own salvation. As any child knows whose father has given him or her money to buy him a Christmas gift, there is joy in this that can come in no other way, even though”or, better, precisely because”we know well that we are simply giving back what we have freely received.
This happens first of all in Jesus Christ, who, in the upper room and on the cross, makes to God that offering than which a greater cannot be conceived. Jesus offering to the Father in love is a more-than-sufficient, superabundant satisfaction or payment for the entire debt owed by all human beings on account of their sin. More than that: Jesus total gift of himself to the Father on the cross is also the creatures perfect glorification of the creator. I glorified you on earth, Jesus says, having accomplished the work which you gave me to do (John 17:4). Jesus makes the definitive thank-offering of the creature to God for all his gifts, an offering whose value reaches even beyond satisfaction for sin.
But this return of gift is our doing, too. In Christs Church and through his sacraments”not least through the giving of alms as a penitential satisfaction”we come to share in our own small way in the one great redemptive act accomplished by Jesus Christ. When he joins our modest efforts to his own supreme gift, he graciously allows the salvation he has accomplished for us to come, in some small way, from us as well. United to him, our salvation is not simply an event that happens to us but includes our own grateful gift of self”our merit.
In Christ, then, none of us is a spectator to our salvation; we are all, painfully and joyfully, full participants in it. Far from lowering God to an unworthy economy of self-interested exchange, Thomas Aquinas and others argue that Gods willingness to accept payment for our sins is a sheer gift from God to us, an act of greater mercy and generosity than any forgiveness by fiat would be, because God allows each of us to claim nothing less than a place in his salvation of the world in Christ. And for this the appropriate creaturely response, as to all Gods gifts, is not a sense of burdened obligation but an ever-greater gratitude.
Bruce D. Marshall is professor of historical theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
]]>Who Really Cares About Christian Unity?https://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/01/who-really-cares-about-christian-unity
Mon, 01 Jan 2001 00:00:00 -0500 Future historians of Christianity may well describe the century just past as the age of ecumenism; some have already given it that label. Yet the modern ecumenical movement has almost completely failed to attain its one overriding goal: the reunion of divided Christian communities. The great labor of ecumenism has barely managed to dent the walls of separation that keep the divided Christian denominations from a genuinely common life”above all a common eucharistic life. Zeal and energy for more ecumenical work are understandably in short supply, and it would be rash to expect even the relatively modest gains of recent years to be duplicated in the next generation. Protestant and Catholic, East and West, Christians remain divided”and seem by and large content with their separation. For anyone who cares about the ecumenical cause, to say nothing of those who have devoted the best energies of their churchly and theological lives to it, this is a hard and bitter pill.
Why has it come to this? Explanations abound, but one possibility, while clear enough on the pages of the Old and New Testaments, has only rarely been voiced. It is easy to understand why, because this possibility is too fearful for Christians, whether friends or foes of ecumenism, to contemplate for long. Perhaps ecumenism has failed because God has abandoned the Church”withdrawn from it His Holy Spirit, and so consigned the Church to death. We need to face the dreadful possibility that ecumenism as we have practiced it with so much learning and good will for over a century has failed because God wants it to fail. Not that God is indifferent to Christian division, as ecumenisms foes allow themselves to think. On the contrary: in Gods stringently merciful providence, death is the only destiny good enough for a willfully divided Church.
One recent writer has faced this possibility directly. In
The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West
(Eerdmans, 1998), Episcopal priest and theologian Ephraim Radner makes a remarkably learned and provocative (if at times convoluted) case for Christians not simply to consider, but to accept, that God means to bring down the divided Church. Only in the deliberate departure of the Spirit from the Church can we find an adequate explanation for the hardened durability of Christian division and the striking contentment of Christians with their shattered communal life. Modern ecumenisms valiant attempt to overcome these divisions has yielded such meager results because of ecumenisms own deep, if sometimes uneasy, complicity in the assumptions and logic of division.
At present we can only await the mysterious working out of the triune Gods judgment and grace upon our divisions, and upon our inadequate attempts to surmount them. In the meantime, as Radner rightly argues, we must lend a hand to the ecumenical enterprises already underway. This is part and parcel of the loyalty God demands of us, precisely toward the empty precincts of our Godforsaken churches. Like Israel in exile, mourning for desolate Zion, we can only love the Church, for whose ruin we have no one to blame but ourselves: You will rise up and have compassion on Zion . . . . For your servants love her very rubble, and are moved to pity even for her dust (Psalm 102:13“14).
I have elsewhere offered a detailed analysis and assessment of Radners profound and disturbing book (
, July 2000). My aim here is not to pre sent his argument, but to pursue some of the troubling issues he raises. Readers who pick up Radners book will quickly see how much these reflections owe to him. Outlandish though some of his ideas might seem at first, they are more difficult to ignore than one might suppose.
It may seem peculiar to suppose that anything important, let alone the very presence of God among Christians, hangs on the eucharistic unity of the divided denominations. Theologians and laity alike sometimes vehemently contest the ecumenical policies of their national churches, and lobby to maintain the long“standing denominational status quo (witness the furor in American Lutheranism over the recent agreement to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church). One often hears the argument that faithfulness to the theological insight of a particular tradition, its unique discernment of the gospels heart, requires continued separation from other churches.
But for many American Christians officially sponsored ecumenism is not so much an affront to traditional denominational sensibilities as an irrelevance that keeps getting in the way. On this view, attempts to bring about Christian unity from the top down by overcoming traditional doctrinal barriers ignore the obvious need for different kinds of Christianity to meet the needs and tastes of different kinds of people. Or, worse, they are feeble attempts by the denominations to retain some of their lost power and control over the lives of Christians. At the local level, we already have all the unity we need. At least among Protestants, our members are free to come and go among our congregations as they like, regardless of denomination. The eucharist is no barrier. Most Protestant congregations either make little of it or now practice open communion, inviting all the baptized”and increasingly everyone present, baptized or not”to share the sacramental meal. A common ministry we may technically lack, since the divided denominations still have to issue credentials for ordained ministers. But this makes little difference in practice. We can cooperate, or not, to whatever extent it serves local needs, in particular the need for growth.
This outlook helps explain the predatory relationship that so often obtains among Christian congregations in America. In every city, suburb, and village, countless churches must grow or die. They therefore compete fiercely for each others members, and the old denominational boundaries mean little. If a given Sundays visitors happen to come from the church on the next corner, few pastors or lay leaders will have any qualms about recruiting them for their congregation. Whether the denomination of their last church was different from”or the same as”ours seldom matters much. Its not just every denomination, but every congregation, for itself.
In this setting open communion is hardly an unambiguously unifying gesture. Whatever the intention behind it, the message is often clear enough: it doesnt matter where you come from”even if you come from Rome. If its the eucharist you want, well give it to you right now, no questions asked. We Protestants, it appears, practice open communion not because it is important that our congregations and denominations celebrate the eucharist together (this rarely happens), but because it hurts church growth not to invite people to take part. While often enough well meant, open communion readily turns into a proselytizing tool. If this free exchange”and pursuit”of each others members is all the unity we need, then local cooperation has neither solved nor bypassed the ecumenical problem of denominational disunity, but has simply made it worse.
The disunity of competing congregations apparently stems from the same source as the long“running eucharistic disunity of competing denominations: what Radner calls a contradiction of ecclesial love. This refusal of love need be neither vicious nor petty. It only requires that we persistently place our own interests above those of Christs whole body. These interests can be quite legitimate as far as they go, whether the purity of our doctrine or the growth of our congregation. But when our own interests, however legitimate, matter more to us than our unity with all the other members of Christs body (offensive to us though some of Christs members may be), then we love ourselves more than his body”and more than its head.
Christian congregations did not always tolerate the contradiction of love so readily as we now do. In the early days of Christianity, a baptized person traveling outside his own city would carry a letter from his bishop so that he could be received at the eucharist in another citys congregation. Such a gesture presumes that Christian congregations all belong to one body”Christs own”in which every member already has a share. The bishops or pastors job is not to steal someone elses sheep, but to shepherd any member of the flock who happens to come within his reach. At the same time membership in the Church was not offered to anyone who walked in the door. Preparation for baptism frequently took several years. Especially after the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, the Church was often notably cautious about admitting new members.
In this setting the very idea of churches, local or denominational, competing with one another for members was not so much regrettable as incomprehensible. You dont prey upon your own body. How could the mouth vie with the ear to see who gets the foot? Of course this doesnt mean that there were no dissensions and divisions in the early Church; there were plenty. But even when they fell short of separated eucharists and ministries”full“fledged schism”Christians in the ancient world sensed that this failure of love threatened the very existence of the Church. So Clement of Rome, writing to the church at Corinth around the end of the first century: Why are there strife and passion, schisms and even war among you? Do we not possess the same Spirit of grace that was given to us and the same calling in Christ? Why do we tear apart and divide the body of Christ? Why do we revolt against our own body? Why do we reach such a degree of insanity that we forget that we are members one of another? . . . Your division has led many astray, has made many doubt, has made many despair, and has brought grief upon us all.
The reasons why the early Christians set such great store by their unity with one another are not far to seek; the New Testament spells them out with disarming clarity. Whatever else the Church may be, it is Christs body, and Christ cannot be divided (note Pauls astonished repudiation of the very suggestion of this in 1 Corinthians 1:13). The Churchs unity in Christ is not simply a goal to be sought, still less an impossible ideal. It is a present reality”as much a reality as the risen Christ himself. In baptism the Holy Spirit makes members of the Church by joining us in love to Christ and, equally, to one another. Paul does not implore the Ephesians to seek by the Spirits power a unity they presently lack, but to
the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3), the very bond that holds together the one body of Christ (cf. Colossians 3:14“15).
The love and peace the Spirit gives are inseparable, above all, from the eucharist.
there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinthians 10:17). The love that unites Christians around the Lords table is not an invisible tie that we might succeed or fail at making known to the world, but which persists in any case. In the New Testament the eucharistic unity of the Church is an entirely public and visible bond. The love on display in the Churchs eucharist is, indeed, the means by which the world is to believe the gospel and come to know the triune God (cf. John 13:35). The Spirit forms Christs public body, gathered around the eucharist, simply by giving us a share in his own love. This love is the same bond that eternally unites the Spirit to Christ and both to the Father from whom they come forth. What visibly unites the Church in time is nothing less than the one love that eternally unites the persons of the triune God: As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may know that you have sent me (John 17:21; cf. 17:23).
Of course since we are commanded to abide in this love, to maintain it, it follows that we may also forsake it, and the New Testament is equally plain about the consequences of this contradiction of love. When any of us”congregations, denominations, or whatever”goes ahead with our own supper, regardless of whether the whole body can share and rejoice in it, then it is not really the Lords supper that we eat (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:20“21). When we go about our eucharists without discerning the body”surely not, in the context of Pauls polemic against Corinthian factionalism, the risen flesh of Christ in the eucharistic elements, but the ecclesial body with which the eucharist is supposed to unite us”then our eating and drinking fails to proclaim the Lords death until he comes; instead we eat and drink judgment against ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:26“29). From our sectarian eucharists, open or closed, the risen Christ is absent. A divided Church proclaims the Lords death, all right, but not the death of a Lord who yet lives and will come again; not the Lords death, but simply a dead Lord. A Church of separate and competing eucharists cannot, in other words, reveal the gospel of the resurrection to the world. It can only veil the gospel, not only from the world, but from itself. And, to recall Paul one last time (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:3), a community to which the gospel is veiled is a perishing community, itself a body slated for death.
Where love is contradicted the Church must perish. But equally the Church must die where truth is contradicted. Surely disunity is the price, great and tragic though it may be, we have sometimes had to pay for the truth of the gospel. So all the parties to the divisions that stem from the sixteenth century have traditionally maintained. For the sake of the gospel we have had to accept division, rather than remain part of a single eucharistic community and bear its self“inflicted wounds and dissensions in hope and love. Roman Catholicism has maintained this assumption as much as the various forms of Protestantism. But let us look at the matter from a Protestant point of view.
Whatever our ecumenical orientation, we Protestants will naturally insist that the divisions of the sixteenth century were a faithful and legitimate ecclesial response to the abuses of the medieval Church and the threat to the gospel that they presented. Some may regard the divided Western Church as an avoidable tragedy, others as a lamentable necessity, some (though once of course virtually all) as a liberation still to be celebrated. But few will finally contest that in the circumstances, the Reformers took the best option available to them. Roman Catholic theology too now usually accepts the legitimacy of the Reformation protest against the late medieval Church and its theology, even if it tends, understandably, not to endorse the division that resulted.
Surely, one might argue in defense of the Reformation, disunity is tolerable if the gospel itself is at stake. The Reformers for the most part did not initiate division, but reluctantly accepted it late in the game, after repeated efforts to maintain the unity of the Western Church had failed. By accepting disunity only for the sake of the gospel, it might seem as if the Reformers put as high a value on the public unity of the Church as it is possible for Christians to do. Nothing less than the gospel, and thereby Christ himself, could authorize us to accept a divided Church.
the Church be divided for the sake of the gospel? The Reformers believed that the gospel itself was under relentless attack from the most powerful forces in the Church. Let us assume that they were right about this. If the gospel authorizes us under such circumstances to set up our own church, then in effect we have Christs command to dismember his own body”the same body that, as the New Testament teaches, Christ does not despise, but nourishes, cares for, and loves unto death (cf. Ephesians 5:29). Even modest and ecumenically uncontroversial accounts of the Reformations legitimacy apparently end up, in Radners phrase, making Christ the very type of schism. Of course in the sixteenth century Rome was at least equally willing to carve up the wounded body, sometimes by murderous persecution. But one has to wonder whether being the victim of persecution really gives us the right to divide the Church”to match our tormentors lack of ecclesial love with our own.
What, though, was the alternative? Here again Radner makes a striking suggestion. The Churchs post“Reformation history, he argues, does in fact present an arresting paradigm of how to respond to assaults on the gospel without resorting to division: Jansenism. Especially in the wake of the papal Constitution
(1713), the already beleaguered Jansenists saw themselves confronted with the problem that had faced Protestants in the sixteenth century: How could one stay bound to a Church whose leadership had apparently attacked basic truths of the gospel? They self“consciously refused, however, the Protestant solution. In an immense literature reflecting on their plight and seeking a scripturally faithful response to it, the Jansenist Appellants determined that there would be no Jansenist church, no separated ministry, sacraments, and congregations. When forces opposed to Christ and his gospel are afoot in the Church”in fact seem to hold sway”for the sake of Christ and the gospel we must refuse submission to them, and live with the consequences. This the Jansenists did, for almost two centuries. We may appeal from papal authority to a future council, as the Protestants had done before. But we may not leave the Church. Even if excommunicated, we must remain loyal to it. The faithful response to such ecclesial misery, as theologians like Augustine and Radbertus had already suggested, is not separation, but solidarity with Christs wounded body”to suffer, as Radner puts it, Jesus suffering for the Church.
Of course Jansenism has vanished into history, while we Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and so forth are still around”as, indeed, is a separate Roman Catholic Church, sometimes apparently still determined to go it alone. Each of us might be inclined to claim our continued existence as a victory for the cause of the gospel in the world, at least as interpreted and defended by our own particular community. But if the gospel offers no authorization to dismember Christs body, then the survival of separated communities, however passionately each seeks to defend the Christian message in its truth and purity, cannot be taken as the gospels triumph. On the contrary, as Vladimir Soloviev already suggested a century ago: The cause of the general failure of the Christian enterprise . . . lies not in the protective Christianity of the East and not in the active Christianity of the West, but in their anti“Christian separation. The Jansenist movement eventually disappeared just because the Jansenists were unwilling to defend the gospel by an action against the gospel. In this acquiescence to what Radner calls its own disappearance as an act of protest some will no doubt see a reforming movement that was insufficiently radical to realize its ends. But perhaps one might see instead a willingness on the part of Jansenist theology”far more radical in practice than that of the Reformers, whatever their rhetoric”to commit the destiny of the Church and the cause of the gospel to God alone.
Historical and sociological explanations of Christian division can certainly be true and valuable as far as they go. But Christians, at least, will want to know what
has to do with the disunity of the Church. This is not an easy question to answer. The New Testament obviously depicts a number of conflicts among Christians. But of the long“standing Western denominational status quo”separated eucharistic communities that (more or less) recognize each other as churches but are content to remain separate”there is not a trace. In fact the New Testament apparently ties the presence and purposes of God in the world so closely to the creation of a single visible eucharistic community that the status quo to which we have grown quite accustomed is virtually unintelligible. Its not clear how to account for the obvious fact of Christian division, or to make sense of what God has to do with it.
One of Radners signal contributions is to have shown that there is a clear scriptural paradigm for coming to grips with the divided Church and its sober fate: that Gods Spirit is no longer with us. Biblical Israel serves as the chief figure or type of Christian division. Willfully sundered into conflicting kingdoms, scriptural Israel is abandoned by God for its loveless disobedience (see Ezekiel 10“11). Even the Lords beloved Zion must weep over the absence of the comforter (Lamentations 1). The destiny of divided Israel is exile, destruction, and death. Why should a divided Church expect a better fate?
Reflection on the passion of Christ only intensifies this thought. As Christian exegetes have long suggested, the crucified Jesus accepts Israels abandonment by God in a kind of concentrated form. Equally, Christians have insisted, the Church itself inevitably has a share in Christs passion; the baptized will not escape conformity to their crucified head (see Hans Urs von Balthasars
for a contemporary version of both points). Of course the precise character of the Churchs conformity to Christ will depend upon whether it accepts the cross willingly”bears the self“inflicted wounds of the whole body in love”or has the cross thrust upon it against its will. A stubbornly fragmented Church cannot escape the cross. Still less can it expect from its crucified head pardon for its divisions. Like divided Israel and its divinely abandoned Israelite Lord, the Church should expect instead death, and the grave.
The scriptural figure of divided Israel may thus grant us some comprehension of how Christian division may be embraced by the judgment and grace of a God who in no way wills it or tolerates it, and whose purpose in the world is the opposite of what the Church has become. It may also help us understand why so few Christians care that the Church is divided. The divisive contradiction of ecclesial love is sin, and so should lead to repentance. But divided Israel proves incapable of repentance, not for want of opportunity, but because she has foregone the spiritual resources to take offense at her own sin. They were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush, says Jeremiah 6:15. Even in exile, Israel can only wait for a repentance yet to come, when new life from the dead finally allows the tears of sorrow for the sins of the fathers to flow in earnest (cf. Ezra 9“10 and Nehemiah 8“9). So it is, apparently, with the divided Church. Our congregations are growing and our denominations, often enough, are flourishing. Why should we spend a lot of time and money on ecumenism, let alone worry that the Church is going to die?
This rejection of repentance may explain why modern ecumenism, despite its best efforts and intentions, has found it difficult to avoid complicity in the destructive logic of division. Christian unity, as ecumenical theologians know, must come to pass through an exchange of gifts, where each denomination supplies the others need and lack for the sake of the wounded whole. But in practice this vision proves impossible to sustain. Each of the divided denominations is convinced that it has all it needs in order to be Christs faithful Church. That any denomination might repent, might confess its need for another, is out of the question. Ecumenical dialogue has no option but to accept, albeit sometimes reluctantly, unrepentant self“sufficiency on all sides. But when the denominations approach one another on the assumption of self“sufficiency, rather than of mutual want and need, they will naturally see no need for each others gifts, and so feel free to spurn them. Little wonder that so much ecumenical effort has achieved so little in the way of actual unity.
To this assimilation of the divided Church to divided Israel it will surely be objected that the situation of Gods people is different after Christ. The Church cannot be abandoned as Israel once was, cannot die as Israel once did. For the moment we can leave aside the supersessionist tones in which this suggestion is often put. In any case the Church has Christs promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Or in the language of my own Lutheran tradition, one holy Church is to abide forever, even if that Church may sometimes be hard to locate. That God might hand the Church over to death, that the Spirit, and so the risen Christ, are even now withdrawn from our divided eucharists, seem like thoughts completely at odds with the legitimate confidence of Christians that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
To be sure, the tomb is not the last word upon the crucified Jesus, nor exile and destruction upon divided Israel. Let us recall that after all those who had lived in division perished in exile, a remnant of Israel returned to Zion, there to begin the life of Gods people anew. We too may expect that one day a new generation will arise from the withered branches of the divided Church, and gather in unity and love around the Lords table, as our ancestors once did. Of course each of the divided denominations is practiced at taking itself as the faithful remnant, and the rest of the divided Church as the branches fit for burning. But this is to misunderstand the way in which Israel is a figure of the Church. The faithful remnant goes into exile along with the faithless crowd”think of Jeremiah”and both alike die in an alien land, unable to bring the song of the Lord to their lips. The death of the divided Church is still before us, only dimly perceptible. We cannot know just how it will happen, but we can expect that all the Churchs members will share the same fate, from the most ecumenically devoted to the most hardened sectarians. Still less can we know what form the Churchs new life will take, but we may hope that God will give it new life from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus does not entitle us to think that the Church can never die, but only that death will not be the last word upon it.
Christ might be absent from the Church, as I have here suggested, is not quite the same thing as Christ being entirely absent. As ecumenical theology rightly argues, there is a persistent unity of the Church in the midst of all its divisions. This is not a eucharistic unity, for there division reigns. But another sacrament, baptism, unites the warring members of Christs body to their head. It joins to him those who refuse to be joined to one another. So the Christ with whom baptism unites Christians is indeed present in the Church, even now.
Divided Christians should perhaps not, however, take too much comfort in this thought. As the New Testament teaches, baptism at present unites us with Christ in death (cf. Romans 6:5); the resurrection it promises still lies in the future. In baptism a willfully divided Church remains united with Christ, but with the dead Christ, deposed from his cross and ready for the tomb. In that unexpected sense it is indeed one Church. But the baptismal unity of the divided Church is no basis upon which it can rebuild its lost eucharistic unity, moving as from strength to strength. The divided Churchs genuine unity”its union with the one Christ in his death”marks it for death. The Churchs death will come not from the absence of Christ, exactly, but from the peculiar way in which a deliberately divided body is united with him. As Christ himself could not, precisely in the tomb, be without the love of God, so the divided Church cannot be separated from this love, even in its coming death.
However much we may learn from the past, we cannot change it. We may regret that no side in the sixteenth“century conflicts accepted the burden of unity that the Jansenists were later willing to bear. Just because they did not, however, our situation is different from the Jansenists. They could bear ecclesial affliction from within, and accept the death of their own act of protest as the cost of unity in Christ. We are already divided, apparently beyond repair, having proven virtually powerless even to change the present”to escape the dreadful legacy of division. So our death will come out quite differently than did the Jansenists.
What shall we do? Perhaps, like Israel groaning under the prophets word of judgment, we can only worship the Lord as we have been commanded, seek to obey him, and wait in fear and hope for what he will make of our ruined ecclesial life. This is not to say that the Church has no vocation, nothing to offer the world. By its own dying it will reveal the crucified to the world, and beyond that, in a way unfathomable to us, its new life will reveal the risen one. The coming death of the Church need not mean the demise of Christianity in the West. Rather the Churchs acceptance of its death is its only hope for life. The love of Gods servants for the rubble we have made of the Church will not be in vain. As Psalm 102 continues: The nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory. For the Lord will build up Zion again, and appear in all his glory.
Bruce D. Marshall is Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.