Relics of the Amorites?

When (if) we read about the controversies over vestments that inaugurated the English Puritan movement, we’re probably tempted to wonder how people got quite so worked up about this.  Were a mere robe, surplice, and cap really the “relics of the Amorites”? “filthy rags culled from the popish dunghill”?  Was it really worth abandoning the ministry rather than agreeing to wear such vestments, vestments that after all were simply the uniform that the clergy had always worn?  So what if the papists wore them–hadn’t the papists worshipped in the same church buildings too?  And no one was saying that these should be simply abandoned and torn down.

But on second thought, this mania, bizarre as it seems to be, appears relatively explicable when one considers the fact that there are apparently still a great many Protestants who recoil in horror and revulsion from the the idea of distinctive clerical garb.  It’s one of those things I grew up around so much that I never stopped to reflect just how bizarre it was.  Just what is the objection?

In his magisterial The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, Patrick Collinson offers some hint as to why the vestments proved so polarizing, which puts the Puritan protest in a more sympathetic light (but renders modern objections all the more inexplicable).  

It was not, he said, so much that the non-conformist clergy were themselves unable to stomach the thought of clerical garb, or even of clerical garb that was similar to that the papists had worn.  Many would have preferred to do without it, for a variety of reasons, but would not have gotten up in arms about it on their own account.  For most, their objection was founded on an honest conscientious concern for their more simple-minded parishioners:

“However much they might detest the old ceremonial, men of learning could preserve a measure of detachment toward the more incidental trappings of popish worship, distinguishing between the thing itself and its superstitious use….But for ‘simple gospellers’ (as the London ministers describe them) the symbols themselves were a concrete, visible offence.  Their emotional reaction reminds Dr. T.M. Parker of the attitude of the revolutionary sans-culottes to the knee-breeches of the ancien regime, and even of the artorial principles of the first Socialist Cabinet ministers of 1924.  The comparison is not strained, for Elizabethan protestants regarded the surplice and the square cap as the uniform of an oppressive class.  Unlike the new bishops and many of the preachers, they were witnesses of the Marian burnings, and they were well aware that many hangers-on of these cruel proceedings continued to hold office in the Elizabethan Church, and that it was for them that the English ministry was still saddled with some portions of ‘the pope’s attire.’”   

In other words, for many of the ordinary folks in the pew, it felt as it might have felt to a German in 1950 if all their policemen were going around in Gestapo uniforms and swastikas.  The vestments in themselves have nothing to do with the errors of the Roman church, and certainly nothing to do with the murderous persecution under Mary, but one can certainly understand your average Joe in the pew for honing in on such visible symbols, and having trouble abstracting them from the context he had originally encountered them.  If this was how many parishioners felt, one can begin to understand the conscientious scruples of some of their ministers.


But of course, this sharpens the question–Why is it that so many Protestants today maintain this phobia for vestments?  The closest thing to a sensible answer I’ve heard seems to be that in the apostolic church such things would not have been worn, but all things would have been done with simplicity.  But this shaky skeleton of an argument (which was boldly asserted by many of the Elizabethan Puritans) invites a host of objections: how do we even know that?  It is entirely an argument from silence.  Even if it were so, on what basis is that normative, any more than the fact that back then, they met in houses rather than church buildings for worship?  And the simplicity that is so often extolled when it comes to ceremonies and such was of course not simply a feature of apostolic worship (if it was that–again, this is mainly an argument from silence), but was clearly a feature of the whole lifestyle of the early Church, in which all things were held to be common and luxury was eschewed.  Until Protestants are ready to return to that kind of simplicity across the board, it’s hard to see what force a call for such simplicity in clerical vestments could have.

It seems to me, then, that the main impetus for the objection today is not all that dissimilar from the phobia that Collinson identifies above.  Then, it was understandable…but now?  How many modern Protestants have had friends burned at the stake by Catholic zealots?  How many have witnessed an oppressive economy of indulgences and works-righteousness?  Indeed, given that vestments have now been honored with hundreds of years of use by fine Protestant clergymen, one can scarcely complain that they carry the inescapable association with “popery.”  What is it with the seemingly unshakeable phobia of all things Catholic that still dominates large sections of American Protestantism at any rate?  Are we fated always to be a religion of reaction?  Can Protestantism ever grow up and stop defining itself in merely negative terms, desperate to prove above all that “We’re not Catholics” (and now, more recently, “We’re not liberals”)?  

Anglicanism gets a bad rap for being a lukewarm middle way, with no positive contribution, but in many ways, it seems better positioned to demonstrate what a positive Protestantism looks like than so many Reformed and evangelical churches, which remain trapped in a perpetual reaction to imaginary foes.  

Was Calvin OK with Women Preaching?

Well, to be honest, probably not in practice.  But remarkably, he seems to be in principle.  As I was researching Calvin’s doctrine of Christian liberty, I came across a curious couple of little passages.

In Book IV, chapter 10, having finished his attack on human traditions in the Church, he turns in sections 27 and 28 to argue that this is not to do away with any human constitutions in the Church–only those which try to bind the conscience before God.  Of course rules of ceremonies and of good order must be established, and should be respected.  Such rules are by nature changeable according to circumstances–as over against things in the realm of conscience, which concern the unchangeable fundamentals of the faith.  Here, in other words, we find Calvin occupying similar ground as Hooker.  

He proceeds in section 29 to delineate two types of such lawful constitutions–those that conduce to reverence in ceremonies, and those that conduce to order in discipline.  Of the former kind are things like women’s head-coverings and postures in prayer.  Of the latter kind, he says, “are the hours set for public prayers, sermons and sacraments.  At sermons there are quiet and silence, appointed places, the singing together of hymns, fixed days for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the fact that Paul forbids women to teach in the Church [1 Cor. 14:34], and the like.”  Hm, now that’s curious.  Most of the items on this list are clearly matters of flexibility and discretion, matters in which the Church has to make some rules, but in which it doesn’t matter so much what the particular rules are.  

He confirms that these are matters of some flexibility in section 31: “Similarly, the days themselves, the hours, the structure of the places of worship, what psalms are to be sung on what days, are matters of no importance.  But it is convenient to have definite days and stated hours, and a place suitable to receive all, if there is any concern for the preservation of peace.”  

Therefore, even when such rules are present, individual believers are free to dispense with them where circumstances dictate and good order is not thereby destroyed: “Does religion consist in a woman’s shawl, so that it is unlawful for her to go out with a bare head?  Is that decree of Paul’s concerning silence [of women in the churches] so holy that it cannot be broken without great offense?  Is there in bending the knee…any holy rite that cannot be neglected without offense?  Not at all.  For if a woman needs such haste to help a neighbor that she cannot stop to cover her head, she does not offend if she runs to her with head uncovered.  And there is a place where it is no less proper for her to speak [in the church] than elsewhere to remain silent.  Also, nothing prohibits a man who cannot bend his knees because of disease from standing to pray.”

In short, a restriction on women preaching seems for Calvin not to have been a rule of essential faith and worship, but a rule of good order introduced by Paul for his context (and no doubt one that Calvin would’ve wanted to retain for his own context as well).


(Needless to say, I’m not making any argument of my own here…I merely found Calvin’s position striking.  And if I have misunderstood it, please correct me.)


**Edit** When I found this in Calvin, I thought I remembered seeing it somewhere else, but couldn’t remember where.  Now I just found it again–the same assumption is made by the pastors of Hamburg, Germany, in a letter they wrote (“De Rebus Adiaphoris”) to Melanchthon at the height of the Adiaphora Controversy (more on this controversy in a forthcoming post).  Under the heading of “real Adiaphora, that is to say, those observances, which God has neither commanded nor forbidden, but left free to the Church for its own edification, according to the condition and convenience of places, times and persons” they include such things as ” that men should pray with their heads uncovered, the women with theirs veiled; that men should teach in the Church, not women; that prayers, teaching, chaunting should be on stated days and at fixed hours; that the people should assemble for divine service at the sound of the bell…”

That is even more explicit than Calvin about the relativity and changeability of such an ordinance.  If this is what the Reformers thought, then when did it change?  Was it all part of the legalism of the regulative principle that the Puritans smuggled in?  Curious indeed. **End edit**

Reminded of our Mortality

Byron Smith has just linked to a post on Ash Wednesday and Lent which expresses, much more fully and eloquently, a lot of what I was groping towards in my post last week “Remembering that We are But Dust”.  The author admits that Lent can be an occasion for dualistic asceticism, but rightly understood, it is a rebuke to everything of that sort, a call to live in the body, not to indulge in pretensions of being anything more than we are.  

It is the occasion for an affirmation of who we are, not, ultimately, a plea to transcend our mortal condition. We can live in our bodies, in this world, seeing ourselves more compassionately and thereby are moved to perform works of love, without conditions or demands, for our fellow-sufferers. The first day of Lent is an occasion not for a form of world-denial, but loving acceptance of flawed reality, of imperfection. It is a rebuke to all separatism, escapism, and self-hatred. And of course, as it points us to the Christ-event, Lent ends, as it beings, with an affirmation of our creaturely existence: as Christ rose from the dead, so will our bodies, to live in a New Jerusalem – not an ethereal “heaven.” 

Let the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of our mortality; let our repentance be the occasion for a reprieve from neurosis and anxiety; and let us patiently hope for the vindication of creation of which Christ’s resurrection was the first fruits. Let us live in the world. 

A fantastic and beautiful meditation, well worth reading as we enter the second week of Lent.

Remembering that We are But Dust (or, Why Academics Need Lent)

Many evangelical and Reformed folks today are wont to turn up their noses at the practice of Lenten fasting.  There seems to be something unhealthily ascetic about it, with the notion that somehow we draw nearer to God by mortifying our flesh and thereby becoming more spiritual.  There seems to be a trace of Gnosticism, a sense that the body is a bad thing and we must beat it down, cast off its desires and its needs, to be truly spiritual.  And there is also a sense that this practice must lead to pride, to the notion that because one has overcome one’s bodily desires to become more spiritual, one may take pride in this superior spirituality and self-discipline.  

And so there has been a tendency to try to re-cast Lenten fasting–we are exhorted to choose something that we are too attached to, and to “give it up” for Lent so that we can become more cognizant of our warped desires, our idolatries of worldly things, and be more single-minded in our devotion to God.  If you care too much about chocolate, give up chocolate for Lent, acknowledging that God is more important than chocolate, etc.  Or it needn’t even be food.  Perhaps you watch too many movies–why don’t you give that up, so as to put God back at the center?  We’re afraid that Lent not be construed as an unhealthy mortification of the body, so we recast it as an opportunity to refocus our desires and devotions on God alone.  

There’s certainly nothing wrong with such a refocusing, and indeed that ought to be part of a healthy Lenten practice, but it seems that something crucial is left out in this approach.  And this, I think, is because the standard discomforts about Lent–it leads to Gnosticism and pride–have got it precisely backward.  Rightly understood, Lent is about purging us of spiritual pride by reminding us of our bodily condition, of snatching us away from lofty heavenly speculations and putting us firmly back in our tabernacles of skin, bones, and appetites.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” the priest tells us as he administers the ashes.  Remember that you live in the body.  And being in the body means being a dependent being, a being that depends upon God’s animate and inanimate creation, in its manifold forms, to continue living, functioning, thinking.  (My friend Byron has highlighted this nicely in a Lenten reflection he’s just posted.)  How does Lenten fasting do this?  Well, it’s really quite simple.

Usually, we don’t know how much we need something, until we don’t have it.  Indeed, we might start to imagine ourselves as self-sufficient, as “self-made men,” because we have become so accustomed to the prerequisites of our existence, that we forget that we’re even there.  If you’ve spent your whole life going to a fantastic church, you might start to imagine that your rich spirituality has something to do with your own excellence of soul, and only when you have to move away into a spiritual wasteland do you realize how dependent you were on the spirituality of others.  Likewise, as long as we have all the food and drink that we need, we forget that we even need it.  We forget that our ability to function, to do anything–to walk and run, to think and write clearly–depends first on the nourishment of our bodies by things outside us.  For academics like me, this temptation is all the more powerful.  The athlete is aware at all times of his bodily needs, but the academic can start to imagine that all he needs is his mind, and his mind is his own, his private domain, the accomplishments of which he can take full credit for.  He may eat three square meals a day so as not to feel a stomach-ache, but he doesn’t really need them to do what he does, right? 

Until he doesn’t have them.  Try skipping a couple meals, and then try to carry on an intellectual debate.  Try to write a paper.  How ’bout just reading a book with comprehension?  It doesn’t take long at all without food before mental function starts to get cloudy, until the conceptual leaps one might ordinarily make with effortless facility become slow and arduous tasks.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  We are not independent minds or spirits, communing with God and thinking deep thoughts all on our own.  We are embodied minds, minds that cannot so much as follow a syllogism without a regular supply of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  This is easy enough to forget as long as you have that regular supply, but by taking that away, Lenten fasting provides us a rude awakening–it brings us face-to-face with our own frailty, our humanity, our dependence.  

Lenten fasting, then, does not try to liberate us from the body, but reminds us that we are chained to it.  It does not encourage spiritual pride–on the contrary, it mocks the very notion, by reminding us that we cannot take credit for any of our accomplishments–we’re hardly able to even think spiritual thoughts without the aid of dead plants and animals filling our stomachs multiple times a day.  Lent is not an ascetic exercise to take us away from earth on lofty flights into the third heaven; no, Lent brings us back down to earth, the earth of which we are inescapably a part.  Lent reminds us that we are creatures, dependent at all times on other creatures, and on God the creator of all.  

“Eat and Live”–A Tribute to Richard Hooker

Just yesterday I finally concluded a glorious two-month journey through the 1400 pages of Richard Hooker’s incomparable Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, as much a life-changing experience as any [human] book can provide.  Although I have been scattering testimonies to Hooker’s brilliance through this blog all along the way, thought it appropriate to mark the occasion by posting a beautiful testimony to Hooker’s eloquence and irenicism, an excerpt from his stunning section on the Eucharist, where he pleads for us to glory in the mystery of the Real Presence, rather than disputing endlessly of its mechanism:

“Hee which hath said of the one sacrament Wash and be cleane, hath said concerninge the other likewise Eat and live.  If therefore without any such particular and solemne warrant as this is, that poor distressed woman comminge unto Christ for health could so constantlie resolve hir selfe, May I but touch the skirt of his garment I shalbe whole, what moveth us to argue of the maner how life should come by bread, our dutie being here but to take what is offered, and most assuredly to rest perswaded of this, that can wee but eate wee are safe?  When I behold with mine eyes some smale and scarce discerneable graine or seed whereof nature maketh promise that a tree shall come; and when afterwards of that tree any skillfull artificer undertaketh to frame some exquisite and curious worke, I looke for the event, I move no question about performance either of the one or of the other.  Shall I simplie credit nature in thinges naturall, shall I in thinges artificiall relie my selfe on art, never offeringe to make doubt, and in that which is above both arte and nature refuse to believe the author of both, except he acquaint me with his waies, and lay the secret of his skill before me?

….Let it therefore be sufficient for me presentinge my selfe at the Lordes table to knowe what there I receive from him, without searchinge or inquiring of the maner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enimies to pietie, abatementes of true devotion and hitherto in this cause but over patientlie heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharp witted men beat theire heades about what questions them selves will, the verie letter of the worde of Christ giveth plaine securitie that these mysteries doe as nailes fasten us to his verie crosse, that by them wee draw out, as touchinge efficacie force and vertue, even the blood of his goared side, in the woundes of our redeemer wee there dip our tongues, wee are died redd both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched…this bread hath in it more then the substance of our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with sollemne benediction availeth to the endles life and wellfare both of soule and bodie…what these elementes are in them selves it skilleth [matters] not, it is enough to me which take them they are the bodie and blood of Christ, his promise in witnes hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish, why should any cogitation possesse the mind of a faithfull communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my soule thou art happie?”