Lying Sacrifices (An Addendum from Radner)

LEviticus radnerEarlier this week I discussed the alleged split between the prophets and the priests based on problematic readings of the prophetic critique of the cult. In it, I summarized the work of Jonathan Klawans, who has shown the ideological split has been exaggerated and absolutized.  Better to think of it as a contextually-situated critique of Israel’s practice of sacrifice, rather than a wholesale rejection of sacrificial religion as such. At least some of the problem in Israel, was that her economic injustice rendered her ritual sacrifices meaningless: you cannot sacrifice with stolen goods, because if they are stolen, they are not truly yours to sacrifice.

This little passage Ephraim Radner’s commentary on Leviticus is a suggestive addendum:

The movement of qorban is measured by the one who comes. In this light, it is a movement easily stymied, a movement whose fulfillment demands the whole of one’s integrity as a person. Jesus explicitly upbraids those who claim to be bringing qorban when in fact they are seeking a way to hold back, for example, support for their parents. Such offering is a subterfuge for “void[ing] the word of God” in its command to honor mother and father (Mark 7:9-12). If anyone brings an offering, if anyone would come forward to God bearing a gift, then this gift must somehow genuinely carry the whole of one’s self, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira demonstrates negative (Acts 5:1-6).

This is perhaps why the opening call to offering in Leviticus is immediately qualified as an offering of a live beast—often translated ‘cattle,’ but referring in general to land animals, which can be distinguished here only by their presumed cleanliness as coming from a domesticated herd…A true offering to God implies flesh with its blood (Lev. 17:14), something that is subject to human will and dominion, a “creature” to humans as humans are to God…:”You shall bring your offering of cattle from the herd or from the flock”; you shall bring me the life that is yours. (41-42)

There is much that could be unpacked here, but note two things. First, regarding the second paragraph, even the requirement that an offering be made from domesticated animals further reinforces the character of the ritual as offering up “the life that is yours.” It is life that you have tended, poured energy, effort, time, and money into. It is symbolic of your own life because in a very real sense your own life is caught up with it. In which case, we have even more reason to think that economic exploitation would spoil the atoning character of the sacrifice insofar as it is entirely contrary to its ritual meaning. It turns the truth of sacrifice into a lie.

Second, we see this also reflects the critique that is carried over into the New Testament. Jesus is a true prophet who sees through the legalistic corruptions of worship in his own day which rendered even the practices of tithing null. In declaring qorban what was owed to parents, mother and father are being robbed of honor in to sacrifice to the Lord in such a way that it doesn’t cut into your own way of living.

Radner’s addition of the dark tale of Ananias and Sapphira into our analysis tells even more deeply against anti-retributive appropriations of the “anti-sacrificial” polemic. Even in the days of the Early Church, when sacrifice has lost its atoning character after the self-offering of Christ, God still punishes such a perversion of sacrifice, for it is a “lie against the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3).

A lying sacrifice is a false sacrifice.

Soli Deo Gloria

Must We Choose the Prophets Over the Priests?

‘‘has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams’’ (1 Sam. 15:22–23).

‘‘what to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats’’ (Isa. 1:11).

‘‘the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord’’ (Prov. 15:8; 21:27).

“For I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6).

For more than a century it has been common in OT scholarship to pit the prophets against the priests. Drawing on texts such as these, scholars would draw a stark contrast between two sorts of religious streams of consciousness within Israel, and the practice associated with them. Originally proposed by German scholars like Julius Wellhausen, an evolutionist paradigm of the growth of Hebrew religion (which typically went hand in hand with a sort of European, liberal Protestant, anti-Semitism) liked to see a line of development from older, retrograde forms of religion caught up with ritual, blood, and sacrifice, towards later, moral, spiritual, anti-sacrificial religion in the Prophets. Max Weber also worked a prophet v. priest paradigm into his classic Economy and Society, and let’s just say the priests don’t come out looking too good, either.

While this line of thought waned a bit, or transformed, in his work challenging the anti-sacrificial bias in 20th Century scholarship, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple, Jonathan Klawans notes that forms of this paradigm still have some vigorous advocates in the academy (75-77). (Though, it should be noted that later iterations have consciously and rightly tried to purge the anti-Semitic sentiments.)

At a popular level, though, recent advocates of non-violent, “Christocentric”, or Girardian re-readings of the Old Testament will often point to these sorts of texts to show that the Bible itself contains dialogue and disagreements that present ideological disjuncts, which force readers to choose between them. When we encounter these passages, we may begin to re-evaluate our entire notion of God’s gift/revelation of the Law, its sacrificial prescriptions, and its place in understanding Christ’s work on the cross in the New Testament. In which case, when we see that Christ himself “takes sides” in his own non-violent, anti-sacrificial ministry (Matt. 9:13), the choice becomes clear.

But is this dichotomy between a priestly and an anti-sacrificial, prophetic ideology really at work in Israel’s Scriptures? Or if there is one, is it a hard one? Are we dealing with an absolute, theological disagreement in these critiques, or something more mitigated, more specific, more contextually-focused?

purity and klawansKlawans argues vigorously and decisively for the latter in chapter 3 of his aforementioned work. What I want to do in this post is simply summarize a bit of his case, since it’s very helpful in clearing up recent muddled discussions, and drawing our attention to pertinent facts which are frequently glossed over in these discussions.

Challenging the Dichotomy

First, after summarizing the paradigm, Klawans makes the important point that Weber’s influential dichotomy doesn’t really hold up cleanly on close inspection:

Jeremiah was descended from priests (Jer. 1:1), as was Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:1–3). Prophetic heroes like Moses, Samuel, and Elijah are remembered as actively performing sacrificial offerings (e.g., Exod. 24:4–8; 1 Sam. 3:1, 7:10, 9:14; 1 Kgs. 18:30–39)… It is sometimes surmised that Isaiah—whose call vision is situated in God’s sanctuary (Isa. 6:1)—may have been of priestly descent himself, though the evidence in this regard is certainly inconclusive. Without any doubt later prophets such as Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were actively involved in the restoration of sacrificial worship in the early Second Temple period. Under the influence of Sigmund Mowinckel (1884–1966), the designation ‘‘cultic prophet’’ has also been applied to additional biblical figures, including Nahum, Habbakuk, and Joel, among others If prophetic activity could be cultic, and prophets themselves priestly, could their rejection of sacrifice really have been complete? (79-80)

Tracing this out at length does much to dissipate the appearance of an absolute disagreement about sacrifice and cult.

Second, the ideal types don’t match up when you consider the fact that some priestly material evinces some of the allegedly prophetic, moral edge. Leviticus 19 blends the two without any sense that cultic piety concerned with proper sacrifice and moral piety concerned with social justice and love of neighbor are at odds.

Third, we must consider the fact that prophets criticize more than sacrifice:

Amos objects to the Israelites’ festivals (Amos 5:21), and Isaiah objects to their prayers (Isa. 1:14–15). Is it conceivable that the prophets have categorically opposed all forms of worship? If they didn’t oppose all prayer, could they really have opposed all sacrifice? (80)

We rightly don’t have significant theses about the anti-supplicatory bent in prophetic theology, so why sacrifice?

Fourth, relatedly, some prophets include the Temple and the restoration of sacrificial worship in their visions of the restoration of Israel. Isaiah and Micah see visions of worshippers streaming to the Temple (Isa. 2:1-4; Mic. 4:1-5). Jeremiah mentions sacrifices specifically (Jer. 17:26; 33:17-18). And obviously Ezekiel, with his vision of the restoration of the Temple and its worship spanning 7-8 chapters certainly didn’t have an anti-sacrificial bias.

Fifth, the Prophets were a feisty bunch. They were prone to dramatic provocation in order to make a point. Isaiah walked around naked. Ezekiel cooked his food over feces. Hosea likely married a prostitute. It helps to remember, then, that violent, poetic, hyperbole was one of the least controversial means at their disposal to render a critique.

This really can’t be stressed enough. Work through the prophets at length, consult good guides to genre, style, the nature of Hebrew poetry, etc. and you realize just how unnecessary some of these dichotomous readings really are. Klawans argues that, “What seems like a categorical rejection can probably be better be understood as a prioritization” (81). Formulations of advice with the “not…but…” structure appear elsewhere (Prov. 8:10), and in these cases, it seems clear the advice is not absolute.

Taken together, these various considerations ought to make us slow to accept the absolute dichotomy between “sacrificial” ideologies and “prophetic” religion proposed by both scholars and popular thinkers. (I don’t have space to fill this out, but here I’d simply add that when we turn to the New Testament and consider Christ’s ministry and work, we should similarly avoid such dichotomies. Christ ministers as King, Priest, and Prophet, fulfilling the divine directives of all three.)

Explaining the Challenge: Sacrifice without Cost

But how can we explain these texts? Because there really is a critique. And it’s very likely that the prophets were denouncing actual priestly practice they were observing. We cannot and should not try to muzzle, or dismiss these texts.

I cannot adequately summarize Klawan’s full proposal or analysis here, but I’ll try to note a few key points.

First, he suggests that the most common approach, which suggests the problem is not sacrifice per se but the abuse of the practice, has merit: “Proper worship presupposes moral righteousness” (82). In the absence of righteousness, then, the worship itself becomes detestable, as Abraham Heschel argued. Klawans cautions, though, that many iterations of this response often assume modern, theological sensibilities foreign to the text, such as the “ritual-versus-ethics distinction”, or merely external versus internal obedience, or letter versus spirit.

Second, Klawans argues that light is shed on the situation when you consider that sacrifice as ritual should be understood as a form of repeated, symbolic action (yet another way of breaking down the world of the prophetic and the priestly).

Materially, Klawans notes that however you come to think of the function of sacrifice (communion, expiation, gift, etc.), every notion involves “at least in part the transfer of property from the layperson to the priest, and from the priest to God” (84). Your sacrifice is to be something you own, or else it is not sacrifice on any reading. Klawans supports this analysis in a variety of ways from Levitical literature involving ownership, the laying on of hands, laws of restitution, etc. (85-86). He takes this as a key hook into part of the prophetic critique of sacrifice.

Exemplary here is David’s protest in 1 Chron. 21, when Araunah offers to give him the threshing floor and the sacrifice to avert the destruction of the plague: “no, I will by them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24; 1 Chron. 21:24). Klawans comments, “If what’s given to you constitutes an inappropriate offering to God, how much more what is stolen!” (86)

Klawans goes on to point out that much of the prophetic critique concerns the immoral means by which sacrificial material has been acquired. Amos’s condemnation connects transgressions cult with violations of the rights of the poor (2:6-8). Isaiah 61:8 explicitly pictures the Lord declaring, “for I the Lord love justice: I hate robbery with a burnt offering.” Malachi is also concerned with right offerings before Lord and sees them tainted through their being lame, blind, sickly, and stolen (1:6-13). They are detestable to the Lord because they are “brought without due cost” (87).

Passage after passage could be adduced connecting the concern for economic exploitation with the critique of sacrifice (Amos 5; Isa. 1; Jer. 6), suggesting “the prophets ‘rejection’ of sacrifice was deeply connected to their belief that Israel was economically rotten to the core” (87). This renders their sacrifices both ritually and morally grotesque. There is a gap between the meaning of sacrifice and the moral and economic culture surrounding its current practice that nullified it. On this understanding, if you take the prophets tendency towards exaggeration, hyperbole, and provocation, “who wasn’t a thief in Amos’s conception of things?” (88). For Amos, there is a fundamental problem with the practice of sacrifice in his time.

We can even say there may be a split between the prophets and the priests at the time when the critiques were leveled. They may have differed in their evaluation of Israel’s spiritual state, or how bad the corruption had gotten—was it the kind of thing the cult could deal with or not? But this is far from a matter of rejecting the cult in toto, or seeing it as not truly given by God, or replacing it with a completely different form of religion because Israel has evolved in its relationship beyond such messy, violent, sacrificial forms.

I don’t have time to follow out the rest of his analysis, but even glancing over at Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (Jer. 7:9-14), you see many of the same concerns at work. The whole text gives you a sense that the economic dimension is connected to that broader concern that Israelite practice of the cult is corrupt, rather than the cultic system as given in the Law itself.

While we may not be convinced that this economic dimension is the heart of the critique, or its only facet, nor that this solves all of our problems with these texts, Klawan has shown that those who refuse see the prophetic critique as fundamentally opposed to priestly practice and the cult are on to something. Instead of an irreconcilable, ideological division, we have historically-situated criticisms of practices and institutions surrounding the Temple, sacrifice, and so forth. We therefore “must avoid simple categorizations, be they religious or scholarly”, and we “cannot selectively take certain prophetic texts at face value” (99).

Slowing Down

As a final point, I’d simply add I believe the same sort of case can be made with a number of the apparent, ideological splits, or theological “contradictions” in Scripture currently being proposed as wedges, asking us to listen to these verses, not those, or these voices, not those. Yes, there are many apparent difficulties. There are tensions which are difficult to resolve—especially when we pit hasty readings against each other. And, at times, it is simply easier to throw our hands up and “admit”, or “be honest”, that we just can’t make the parts fit together.

But this is an impatience that, if given into, stunts our ability to sit humbly with the texts and hear from the Lord. We will become readers who need our Scriptures simple, immediately transparent, and able to be summarized in a soundbite. We more and more become a people uncomfortable with nuance and tension in our theology, our preaching, and ultimately our practice of faith.

Indeed, it’s instructive that Jesus invites his hearers to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’,” (Matt. 9:13). He does not presume the answer will be immediately apparent. He invites them to go learn, consider, meditate slowly on the text, and then come back and evaluate his work. I suggest his invitation remains the same today.

Soli Deo Gloria

Immanuel, The Holy One of Israel in Your Midst—in Your Flesh!

prophet_isaiah-cut-760x276“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has long been my favorite Advent hymn. It’s marriage of rich, biblical theology and pathos perfectly capture the pain, longing, and anticipated joy of this season of expectation.

I’ve noticed that each year I return to it, a different line or stanza captures my imagination. It was the third that hooked me this year:

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.

Now, on the face of it, this stanza is highlighting the “great Lord of Might”, or God Almighty. While that is appropriate, the text upon which it reflects (Exod. 19), can also fittingly be considered under the rubric of God’s majestic, terrifying holiness; here Israel meets the Lord who has sanctified and elected her to be his own (Exod. 19:4-6).

Yet encountering the Holy One has ever been a harrowing experience. Facing God at Sinai, the Israelites quailed before him as he descended in the smoke of his fiery purity, causing the mountain to tremble with a voice like thunder (Ex. 19:16-20). For all the (valid) criticisms which can be registered against his generalized account of religion, Rudolf Otto’s articulation of the mysterium tremendum in The Idea of the Holy captures something of the awful, overpowering majesty communicated in the Biblical narrative.

Confronted with the prospect of hearing Yahweh’s awful voice once more, with concomitant threat destruction that attends it, the Israelites are overwhelmed, begging Moses to mediate: “You speak to us, and we will listen: but do not let God speak to us, let we die” (Ex. 20:19).

Isaiah’s personal Sinai encounter with the holiness, the incomparable majesty of God in the Temple is similarly overpowering (Isa. 6). To the seraphim’s refrain, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (v. 3), Isaiah must reply, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes of seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (v. 5). He is a sinner who has fallen short of the Law given at Sinai. In the overwhelming perfection of the presence of Holy King Yahweh, prepared to execute judgment from his throne, Isaiah is undone.

And yet, our hymn-writer, says that Israel ought rejoice at his coming of the Holy Law-giver from the Mountain. How can this be? Is not the coming of the Holy One wrath, judgment, and terror? Does not Isaiah testify the Lord is exalted as holy in his judgments (Isa. 5:16)?

Yes, yes, he is all that and more. But Isaiah came to know the Lord as Holy One, not only in his judgments, but in his merciful salvation:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:6-7)

Isaiah experienced the mercy, the grace, the cleansing fire of God’s holy presence. For this reason, he could testify to Israel in her future affliction:

You shall rejoice in Yahweh, in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory. (41:16)

I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Deliverer. (43:3)

I am Yahweh, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. (43:15)

Precisely as the Holy One—the only, majestic, incomparable, electing Lord—he is the Redeemer of Israel. At Sinai he gave the Law, but he also bound his Name—his self—to them as their Redeemer. Therefore Yahweh testifies to the faithless house of Israel:

I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. (Hos. 11:9)

It is the holiness of God which sets him apart—he can restrain his anger against their betrayal, their violation of his holy Law, and come to redeem them. He can maintain relationship, purify them once more, and be the Holy One in their midst. Indeed, it is his will to be known has holy that moves him to save Israel from her enemies:

And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel. (Ezek. 39:7)

When the Lord redeems his people from their sins and their enemies in accordance with his perfect power and righteousness, he will be seen as the Holy One in Israel.

And this is the child for whom we rejoice and await in Advent.

Recall the Angel’s response to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). In the virgin-born, Christ-child, the Holy One comes into the midst of Israel, just as Isaiah foretold:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14)

The holy marvel of Christmas is that the Lord did not simply give a sign himself, he gave himself as the thing signified. Jesus is Immanuel, the Holy One of Israel, in your midst—in your flesh!

The One who appeared in “cloud and majesty and awe” upon Sinai, incarnate in a mewling, powerless child, come not to destroy, but redeem us from sin, death, and the devil!

It is for the first coming of this Holy One, we rejoice. And it is for the second coming of this Holy One, we wait, again.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers

preaching and preachersI allow myself few reviews during the school semester, but I wanted to take a little pause between papers to highlight a new Herman Bavinck book. James P. Eglinton, lecturer in Reformed Theology at New College in Edinburgh and author of the groundbreaking study Trinity and Organism, has just edited and translated a little volume Herman Bavinck on Preaching & Preachers. In it he collects a couple of lectures on the nature of Eloquence, the place of the sermon, reflections on language and preaching in America, as well as a translation of the only published sermon of Bavinck’s we have. (Apparently Bavinck mostly preached from sparse notes, or without any.) Eglinton also includes a helpful short biography of Bavinck as a preacher, introducing the work as a whole.

We ought to be grateful to Eglinton for filling this gap in the literature. Many of us have benefitted from the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics and have seen it bear fruit in our preaching and teaching. Still, very little on has been available on Bavinck’s own theology and practice of preaching, which grew out of his exposition of the Reformed emphasis on the Word of God as a means of grace.

I won’t give a full-dress review, but a couple of points stand out in Bavinck’s assorted reflections.

First, Bavinck highlights the centrality of good preaching to the practice of ministry. If God works through his Word, then the task of preaching cannot be shirked, minimized, or given short shrift in a pastor’s ministry. Yes, there are differences in natural talents and ability according to God’s providence and gifting, but Bavinck assumes that the call of every pastor is to learn to practice, develop, and grow as an orator in order to present the Word with as much persuasive power to the hearts of their congregations as possible.

Bavinck was troubled even a hundred years ago at the new competition the pulpit had in newspapers, lecture halls, speaker circuits, and so forth. If preachers did not rise to the occasion, the danger is that the Word of God would be drowned out by every other voice under the sun. (One only wonders what he might have made of our new social media order.) Pastors may have other tasks, but they were called to rise to the occasion nevertheless, and strive to proclaim the Gospel with power.

This is not a matter of mere technique, though. “Eloquence” may involve the training of your voice, your delivery, and so forth, but it doesn’t mean engaging in cheap speaking tricks or faux theatrics. Nor is it a matter of a dazzling display of knowledge, stringing quotations and literary references together for grand effect. Bavinck is scathing of the sort of affected mannerisms and arrogant displays of knowledge paraded in many pulpits of the day.

No, eloquence is a matter of the unity of argument, description, and persuasion aimed at the heart which are ultimately effected only when they come from the whole person. In other words, it is knowing something deep in your own bones and honestly using every power at your disposal (linguistic, rhetorical, emotional) in order to convey it with force to the heart of your hearers. Which is why eloquence requires study, practice, a sense of poetry, and an integrity between the preacher and his message that can’t be faked. Eloquence in preaching is a holistic virtue that is developed over time.

Bavinck, of course, sees Scripture itself as central to that task. And not just because it is the matter to be preached. Bavinck sees in Scripture a formative power which, when studied and soaked in, trains a preacher in eloquence. It has the sort of simplicity, emotional resonance with the whole of life, poetic form of course, and moral power which can instill within the preacher a confidence necessary to go up and declare the Word of the Lord to the people of God.

Another striking point about Bavinck’s reflections is how contemporary they seem. In more than one essay he complains about the problems facing the pulpit. Shortened attention spans, the aforementioned competition from other forms of media and opinion outlets, a general sense that the service of God in the Church is less important than getting out there in the world and “doing something,” and so much else.

There are a few ways of learning from this. First, there is the realization that in many ways the challenges of contemporary preaching are less contemporary and more perennial than we realize. There has always been an issue with boredom, with attention-span, with weak attendance, with spiritual listlessness, etc. and so pastors ought not feel uniquely put upon in our age. This is why the wisdom of the past—such as the kind represented in this book—is still of use. Indeed, it can help us slow down and stop from jumping on every bandwagon fad we’re tempted to adopt in our desperation and fear.

Second, in those places where there are some unique challenges in the modern age, it helps us have a sense for how long this has been developing. Also, even in those places where it is dated, it shows us how Bavinck tried to encourage his students to respond on the basis of deeper theological principles which can continue to guide us even as the specifics change.

Finally, for fans of Bavinck, I’ll just say that a lot of the same features you love about his Reformed Dogmatics show up here too. The broadness of mind and learning, the beauty of speech, and the Scriptural basis.

With all that said, I obviously think the book is worth your time if you’re regularly teaching and preaching God’s Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity w/ Carl Trueman: Did the Reformation Ruin Everything?

Mere FiThis week on Mere Fidelity we had the pleasure of hosting Carl Trueman, professor of church history and theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, author of a good many excellent books on Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. On this episode, we asked Trueman about a number of the recent challenges to the Reformation: Is it actually something to celebrate or is it rather a tragic loss to be mourned? Did Luther and Calvin tear the sacred Tapestry of the Enchanted Medieval world? Did Sola Scriptura really split the Church? What should we make of history and causation? In other words, how much impact did Luther really have, or should we be blaming Ford’s Model-T for the modern fragmentation instead?

I have to say, this is hands-down a top 5 favorite episode for me, so I hope you enjoy.

And if you do, please do leave us a review on iTunes. We are also available on Google Play.

If you’re interested in supporting the show financially, you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: Confessions, Book 3

Mere FiThis week Alastair, Matt, and I take up and read Book 3 of Augustine’s Confessions. If you’d like to read along–which we encourage you to do–Henry Chadwick’s translation is available widely at a reasonable price. Otherwise, we really have been having a blast with these conversations. Some of the best we’ve done really. We hope you enjoy and are edified by them.

If you like the show, please do leave us a review on iTunes. We are also available on Google Play.

If you’re interested in supporting the show financially, you can check out our Patreon here.

Soli Deo Gloria

On Still Being a Protestant ‘From a Protestant Point of View’: Contra Hauerwas

Today is a special Reformation Day. On this day, Protestants everywhere celebrate the 500th anniversary of the “beginning” of the Reformation—Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. Or at least some of us do. Others seem to have trouble remembering what the whole thing was about.

hauerwasTake Stanley Hauerwas. Last week he wrote up something of a rambling rehash of his ambivalence over the whole affair, and a defense (of sorts) for why he remains a Protestant despite the fact he doesn’t, “see the gulf between us and our Catholic brothers and sisters as particularly pronounced.” He has reasons. Like the fact that his wife is ordained, and that he thinks his position as a Protestant allows him to keep Rome honest about its claim to be the “one true Catholic Church.” On his telling, though, most of the reforms the Reformers wanted were acted on and we don’t have much to “protest” anymore.  It’s sort of odd, then, that we haven’t all returned to “Mother Church,” since “from a Protestant point of view” it’s hard to understand why Protestantism still exists.

Now, I can appreciate a few of the points he makes. I’m happy to confess the Church didn’t wink into existence at the beginning of the Reformation after centuries of absence. Protestants ought to be happy to appreciate pre-Reformation theologians such as Aquinas and Anselm as part of our common, Christian inheritance. There are plenty of contemporary and post-Vatican II theologians I think are worth time learning from and engaging (Matthew Levering, Robert Sokolowski, Von Balthasar, etc.). It’s a good thing to think in “Mere Christian” terms much of the time, and in an increasingly secular, post-Christian West, an “ecumenism of the trenches” makes a healthy sort of sense.

All the same, Hauerwas’ piece is wrongheaded and misleading at a basic level.

In honor of the polemics that made the Reformation possible, then, I thought I’d pick at it a bit and try to offer a bit of a counter-explanation for why, 500 years on, there’s more reason for being Protestant from a “Protestant point of view” than this putatively Protestant theologian can recall.

First, let me quote what seems to be the most important paragraph, and we can roll from there. Here is Hauerwas’ summary view of the current situation:

Five hundred years after its inception, we are witnessing the end of the Reformation. The very name “Protestant” suggests a protest movement aimed at the reform of a church that now bears the name of Roman Catholicism. But the reality is that the Reformation worked. Most of the reforms Protestants wanted Catholics to make (indulgences are no longer sold, for instance) have been made. A few Protestant denominations might still be anti-Catholic (consider evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress’s claim, recently publicized, that Catholicism has Satanic origins ), but the original idea that Catholics adhere to a legalistic perversion of Christianity that does not admit the free grace of God is seldom seen, these days, as the Protestant difference from Catholicism. Over time, historians have helped us see that there was no one thing the Reformation was about, but that if there was a single characteristic at the heart of the Reformation, it was the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world. That emphasis turned out to be the overriding insight that shaped the work of Vatican II, meaning Catholics have overcome the major thrust of the Reformation.

This is a ball of yarn so tangled it’s hard to know where to begin.

Let’s try the meaning of the word “Protestant.” The term does not, in the first instance, mean “protestor”, but “confessor, or witness.” To be a Protestant in the Reformation was to be one who gave voice or testified to key truths. Indeed, originally they were simply called “evangelicals”, since their concern was to give witness to key truths about the Gospel they saw being denied. The “protest movement” that followed flowed from that basic instinct.

It’s true, then, that it was not primarily about being “anti-Catholic”, but rather reforming the catholic church’s Roman deviations and sectarian traditions. (Indeed, many called themselves “Reformed Catholicks.”) Sadly, though, the Roman church resisted much of that witness and formally condemned it in the canons of Trent, which still function as part of the authoritative dogma of the Church, no matter how much Vatican II “developed” the doctrines therein.

So what claims did they confess against the Roman, Magisterial hierarchy and the Popes? Hauerwas rightly says historians have shown there were many, not just one. But after shoving grace to the side as a possible area of dispute, he manages to reduce it back to the one main thing in order to suggest there isn’t a big problem, claiming it was “the recovery of the centrality of Christ for making sense of why Christians are not at home in this world.” And since Vatican II fixed that, what’s the problem? (Incidentally, Cardinal Müller recently described the Reformation as a “revolution against the Holy Spirit,” so I’m not sure he got the memo about the meaning of Vatican II.)

Now, this take might work if he were solely describing the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists. But it’s idiosyncratic to the point of dishonesty if that’s supposed to cover the various claims of Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, or the majority of the Reformers who led the Reformation.

Let’s concede for the sake of the argument the idea that the issue of the nature of grace or justification by faith wasn’t still a major issue of dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Are there not still significant issues at stake for those claiming any sort of continuity with the concerns of the original Reformers?

For instance, one might have thought the pattern of interpretive authority and the status of Scripture to be central. Does the Church create and authorize the Scripture (“creature of the Church”)? Or do the Scriptures authorize and create the Church (Luther’s “creature of the Word”)? Can the Spirit speaking in Scripture ever correct or trump the Roman Magisterium and Papal pronouncements ex cathedra, or does the final authority over matters of faith and doctrine lie in the Teaching Office of the institutional church?

Because unless Protestants have just ceded Sola Scriptura, then I’m not sure the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics have been smoothed over. As recently as 1950, Pius XII infallibly declared the Assumption of Mary a de fide dogma in Munificentissimus Deus despite its paper-tissue thin support in Scripture. On the Roman view, denial of it on the authority of God’s Word is now a condemnable heresy incurring “the wrath of almighty God.” For a Protestant who actually takes a Protestant view of the domain of Christ’s Lordship through the Word, this is still an outrageous overreach on the part of the institutional church to bind human consciences beyond God’s Word.

Incidentally, this also brings up the encroachment on Christ’s sole mediation by the entire practice of praying to and through the entire panoply of saints or venerating Mary as “Queen of Heaven.” If you’re still basically unconvinced by appeals to the distinction between latria and dulia, then the fact that this is still on the books (and a regular feature of parish life across the world) might ruffle your Protestant feathers.

Or again, what do we make of the priesthood of all believers? It’s true the concept has suffered degradation and drift in some quarters of Evangelicalism. All the same, the basic claim of the teaching remains at issue no matter how many times the Roman church attempts to engage the laity. If you actually hold to Protestant teaching here (instead of merely claiming Protestant lineage), the changes are basically window-dressing since the underlying ecclesiology and polity—the structure and mediatorial power of the priesthood, the sacraments, etc.—haven’t been reformed in that way. Romanism without the Medieval abuses is still Romanism.

Finally, you might also have thought the nature of the Mass and communion to have been a central dispute. It certainly was among the Reformers themselves, which tells you how important it was to them. And even there, despite their differences, all of them stood opposed to the doctrine of transubstantiation whereby there is change “of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood” (Trent). They had faith God could use ordinary matter to communicate grace, without God needing to destroy its nature by turning it into something else.

Disputes about the agency of Christ’s real presence aside, neither Luther, Calvin, or the rest of the Reformers thought the bread and wine had to become something else to convey the promises of God. But transubstantiation is still Roman doctrine and most Protestants still can’t stomach it, for many of the same, Biblical reasons. That seems like a big deal. And it’s still unresolved.

I could keep going here, and notice again that I haven’t even touched on justification by faith, which, no surprise, I think (and many with me) is still at issue. Especially since the dispute in the Reformation wasn’t whether God showed grace in salvation, but how he did so, whether it involved human merit, whether a Christian could have assurance of that grace in Christ…but again, I’ll leave it to the side for now.

In sum, if you hold to Protestant theology, there are still good reasons to be Protestant and to celebrate the Reformation’s reminder of these catholic Christian truths. Which brings me to one of the oddest paragraphs in the whole piece:

But I am still a Protestant, even though I remain unsure I know what I am saying when I say I am a Protestant. I can think of my life only as a living ecumenical movement — raised Methodist, taught for Lutherans (Augustana College), overwhelmed by the Catholic world, deeply influenced by the Mennonites and finally back with the Methodists at Duke. All of which, of course, means I have ended up worshiping at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, N.C. That I am a theologian more defined by where I went to graduate school than by any ecclesial tradition mirrors changes in the Protestant world — in particular, that the gulfs between the denominations seem only to feel smaller and smaller. And so does the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism.

It’s one thing to grow in your appreciation of a deeper unity between the various branches of Christianity as you see a fundamental overlap in the gospel, the confession of Christ, etc. But it is precisely as you grow in that appreciation that Rome’s wildly sectarian claim to the “one true Catholic Church” widens the gulf between Catholicism and Protestantism. Ironically, the entire logic of this paragraph ought to have made Hauerwas’s reasons for confessing the name Protestant all the stronger and clearer.

As Fred Sanders notes, “We are Protestant specifically to be more catholic, to avoid the constriction and reduction that Rome requires.” Or Kevin Vanhoozer puts it this way: “the real conflict is not between Scripture and tradition but between catholicism and one particular tradition (Romanism).” If he wasn’t so interested in sighing his ambivalence and sounding more ecumenical-than-thou, Hauerwas might have been able to give testimony to that.

Remaining Protestant is not, then, a matter of being “anti-Catholic”, or keeping Catholics honest when they claim to be the one true Catholic Church (because if they actually are the true church, you’re just being spiritually disobedient and, as my Catholic friends say, you should “repent and submit to the Pope.”) Instead, it’s about giving testimony that the catholicity of the Church extends far beyond Rome to all of God’s people who worship their Lord according to his Word.

At least, from a “Protestant point of view.”

Soli Deo Gloria