Ecclesiology: A Guide for the Perplexed

The following was presented as a lecture for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” course of the Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

Ecclesiology, or the study of the church, is perhaps one of the most difficult and elusive areas of theology, despite the fact that its content seems so empirically obvious.  With soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, we are dealing with things that happen largely invisibly within us, and in some vague future judgment.  With eschatology, the doctrine of “the last things,” we are dealing with things entirely future, and largely hidden from our perception.  But the object of ecclesiology, “the church,” is right in front of us, all around us, right?  We see numerous churches as part of our normal experience, and “the church” can simply be described as the totality of these, the whole body of those who call on the name of the Lord—right?

This apparently simple description, however, becomes more complicated when we try to relate the rather messy empirical reality of churches as we find them to the rather exalted language that Scripture often uses in speaking of the Church.  And indeed, given the importance of the church, Scripture is remarkably elusive in how it speaks of this fundamental Christian reality, resorting almost entirely to a rich array of metaphors which seem to bear little obvious relation to one another.  I borrow the following catalogue from Herman Bavinck:

the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the sheepfold of Christ who gives his life for the sheep and is known by them, the building, the temple, the house of God, built up out of living stones on Christ as the cornerstone, and on the foundation of apostles and prophets, the people, the possession, the Israel of God.  The members of the church are called branches of the vine, living stones, the elect, the called, believers, beloved, brothers and sisters, children of God and so forth. (Reformed Dogmatics IV.298)  

What are we to make of all this?  We might seek to gain some illumination from the Old Testament, seeing, as Christian theology has frequently done, the church as the New Israel, the continuation or rather fulfillment of the people that God called out of Egypt, and who worshipped him in the centuries before Christ.  But the discontinuities between the church and Israel seem to loom as large as the continuities: Israel was at the same time a political state, whereas the church makes no such pretensions, but lives amidst, though distinct from, the political states of the world, even when such states confess Christ; Israel had at the center of her identity one geographical location, whereas the church is called to be spread over all the world; Israel had detailed and specific laws governing her worship and religious identity, whereas the church does not.  These discontinuities mean that although important to helping us construct a doctrine of the church, the Old Testament will hardly relieve our difficulties in that task.   Read More


Are You Alone Wise? Reading Notes on Susan Schreiner

There are two kinds of historians in the world—or let us rather say, two ideal types, since most historians blend some of each.  There is the historian as avid collector, enthusiastically rummaging around in the attic of the history of ideas, carting down boxes full of interesting primary source material (as well as a few boxes of secondary source material), dumping them out on the living room floor, sorting them into little piles, and then setting out some of the choicest items on display tables for other historians to come ooh and ahh at.  Then there is the historian as story-teller or debater, mining through the data, finding nuggets that will prove a point or fill a blank in a narrative, carefully organizing them, and then telling you his story, or making his argument, pulling them out and holding them up for demonstration at the appropriate point in his story or argument.  Susan Schreiner’s acclaimed new book Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era is clearly an example of the first type.  

In it she offers five hundred pages worth of heavily-laden display tables full of primary source material, with relatively little attempt at synthesis or commentary.  The sheer number of footnotes (averaging over 200 per chapter) and volume of quotation (easily over half the total word count) are testament to this, and it can get a bit tiresome.  Since her strategy in each chapter is usually to pick three or four figures that illustrate the particular phenomenon under discussion, and then to camp out in a couple of their primary texts, she sometimes seems to fall into the trap of simply patiently regurgitating the argument of those texts, including bits that really don’t seem particularly relevant to the question at hand.  Or, if they are relevant, the relevance is not always shown.  

But the lack of a firm interpretive hand is most keenly felt not within the argument of each chapter, as in the interstices between them.  What we clearly have before us in the six main chapters of this book (the first being largely introductory) are six distinct display tables, addressing, respectively: (1) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (2) Epistemological/interpretative certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (3) Epistemological/interpretative certainty among Counter-Reformation Catholics, (4) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (5) The struggle to discern divine from demonic certainty, (6) Late 16th-century comings-to-terms with the problem of uncertainty.   Quite clearly, these could all be strung together into a very fascinating narrative.  But they remain each rather separate; six separate inquiries fused together into one book.  In particular, there is no attempt to put into conversation with one another the Protestant and Catholic treatments of epistemological/interpretive certainty; we meet the arguments of counter-Reformation writers, but never hear how various Protestant writers might have attempted to meet these objections.  Nor is there much attempt to analyze or evaluate the differences between Protestant and Catholic searches for existential/experiential certainty.  We wait eagerly for a conclusion in which the preceding threads will be synthesized or evaluated, but when it comes, it is only 3 pages long.  Alas.  

 

Rather than attempting to summarize her elaborate investigations, then, I’ll just offer, in a musing rather than conclusive way, a couple of the sort of reflections I’d have loved to see her offer.   

First, long-time readers may recall my post here, a year and a half or so back, “Why I Won’t Convert,” summarizing why I remained, and intended to remain, quite Protestant, and found the seductions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy decidedly un-seductive.  A big part of my argument there was to oppose as an idolatrous illusion the quest for complete epistemological certainty.  For many today, the appeal of Catholicism or Orthodoxy is that they offer, it seems, an objective, verifiable, unchanging, and clear testimony as to what the truth is; they provide, in short, a sure defensive bulwark and a sharp offensive weapon against the tide of liberalism and postmodernism which seeks to throw everything into doubt.  Protestantism, on the other hand, looks hopelessly stuck in the subjectivism of individual interpretation, incapable of providing a clear or unified answer to the skeptical attacks of postmodernity.  To all this, I said, 

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them.”

In short, then, I argued that the quest for certainty is a misguided one, and one that Protestants should not attempt.  Ironically, according to Schreiner, the very opposite seems to have been the perception in the Reformation.  It was the Catholics who denied that the troubled soul could ever find certainty in this life, could know that it would inherit the kingdom, whereas Luther proclaimed, as the glory of the Gospel, that faith meant knowing, with absolute certainty, that one had God’s favor and would attain eternal salvation.  Assurance of salvation, then, was not merely ancillary to faith, but was for the early Reformers part and parcel of justifying faith, since faith that doubted, that wondered whether it was worthy, was a faith still preoccupied with itself and its own works, rather than anchored on Christ.  Of course, later on, Protestants realized that this route led to something of a dead-end; the insistence that true faith have absolute assurance proved to be an extra burden, rather than a salve, to Christian consciences, who, as soon as they found themselves doubting, could conclude that this was proof they were not saved at all.  Unfortunately, Schreiner does not tell this tale of how Protestants came to reconsider the doctrine of assurance, and to find ways of describing justifying faith without laying such a burden on subjective certainty.

In any case, though, this is clearly a somewhat different matter from what I was referring to above.  This “existential” certainty, a certainty of salvation, seems in principle distinct from the “epistemological” certainty, a certain knowledge of true doctrine.  Indeed, it would seem, perhaps, that the former certainty ought to discourage us from seeking too much the latter.  After all, if “faith” is understood not primarily in cognitive terms, but as a clinging to Christ, who alone is sure, then why should we seek or expect to be able to anchor our certainty anywhere else—on precise doctrinal formulations, particularly on secondary matters?  However, as a matter of fact, as Schreiner shows, for the early Reformers, certainty of one’s own salvation went hand-in-hand with certainty that one possessed absolute doctrinal truth, gained directly from Scripture.  It was on this score that Catholic apologists sought to beat Protestants at their own game.  Although they were uninterested in attempting to provide the conscience with certainty of salvation, the Catholic writers did claim to be able to provide certainty of doctrinal truth, of which the collective testimony and authority of the Church was a much surer guide than the individual conscience.  It is this section of Schreiner’s book that sounds most familiar to our ears, for the arguments of Catholic apologists today on this score have changed little from those five hundred years ago.  In the meantime, however, the counter-apologetic strategy of Protestants has changed considerably, from insisting that Scripture alone could supply the desired certainty, to admitting that no human interpreter, whether the individual reader of Scripture or the magisterium, could provide the certainty we crave; accordingly, we must beware either claiming it for ourselves, or seeking it idolatrously in human authorities.

The question I have, then, is how Protestants have been able to so considerably revise their stance, and attenuate their quest for certainty, while remaining true to their original teachings, teachings which according to Schreiner rested so much weight on the need for, and possibility of, certainty.  Have they been able to?  As a good Protestant, I certainly hope (and think) the answer is yes, but it does need further thought and attention.

 

As a good starting point, I suggest (surprise surprise) that we might look at the thought of Richard Hooker.  In fact, it is remarkable to me that Schreiner does not do so.  He is clearly thoroughly absorbed in the issues surrounding the quest for certainty, addressing a number of the themes that Schreiner describes in her book.  In particular, he would have fit very nicely in the final chapter (alongside his contemporary Shakespeare) since, more than any of the figures identified in that chapter, he not only diagnoses the failures of the quest for certainty, but seeks to provide a way forward, one based not on a complete capitulation to uncertainty, but by a turn to probability.  

This, in fact, is a central pillar of his response to the Puritans, or the “precisianists,” as I have called them in a recent post.  These, unable to deal with the uncertainty that the vague and variable category of “adiaphora” left them with, insisted that Scripture must provide strict and precise legal guidance for the moral and political questions with which the Christian was daily faced.  Because certainty was so highly prized, Cartwright could declare, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as possible within the discretion of the judge.”  

I hope to explore in depth in future (perhaps in a formal article) how Hooker constructs his argument in the Lawes as a response to this false idea of certainty, and indeed as a response to the whole problem of the sixteenth-century quest for certainty that Schreiner traces, but for now, as a teaser, I shall just offer an extended quotation from Hooker where he squarely addresses the issue:

“The truth is, that the mind of man desireth evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield. The greatest assurance generally with all men is that which we have by plain aspect and intuitive beholding. Where we cannot attain unto this, there what appeareth to be true by strong and invincible demonstration, such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereunto the mind doth necessarily assent, neither is it in the choice thereof to do otherwise. And in case these both do fail, then which way greatest probability leadeth, thither the mind doth evermore incline. Scripture with Christian men being received as the Word of God; that for which we have probable, yea, that which we have necessary reason for, yea, that which we see with our eyes, is not thought so sure as that which the Scripture of God teacheth; because we hold that his speech revealeth there what himself seeth, and therefore the strongest proof of all, and the most necessarily assented unto by us (which do thus receive the Scripture) is the Scripture. Now it is not required or can be exacted at our hands, that we should yield unto any thing other assent, than such as doth answer the evidence which is to be had of that we assent unto. For which cause even in matters divine, concerning some things we may lawfully doubt and suspend our judgment, inclining neither to one side nor other; as namely touching the time of the fall both of man and angels: of some things we may very well retain an opinion that they are probable and not unlikely to be true, as when we hold that men have their souls rather by creation than propagation, or that the Mother of our Lord lived always in the state of virginity as well after his birth as before (for of these two the one, her virginity before, is a thing which of necessity we must believe; the other, her continuance in the same state always, hath more likelihood of truth than the contrary); finally in all things then are our consciences best resolved, and in most agreeable sort unto God and nature settled, when they are so far persuaded as those grounds of persuasion which are to be had will bear.

Which thing I do so much the rather set down, for that I see how a number of souls are for want of right information in this point oftentimes grievously vexed. When bare and unbuilded conclusions are put into their minds, they finding not themselves to have thereof any great certainty, imagine that this proceedeth only from lack of faith, and that the Spirit of God doth not work in them as it doth in true believers; by this means their hearts are much troubled, they fall into anguish and perplexity: whereas the truth is, that how bold and confident soever we may be in words, when it cometh to the point of trial, such as the evidence is which the truth hath either in itself or through proof, such is the heart’s assent thereunto; neither can it be stronger, being grounded as it should be.

I grant that proof derived from the authority of man’s judgment is not able to work that assurance which doth grow by a stronger proof; and therefore although ten thousand general councils would set down one and the same definitive sentence concerning any point of religion whatsoever, yet one demonstrative reason alleged, or one manifest testimony cited from the mouth of God himself to the contrary, could not choose but overweigh them all; inasmuch as for them to have been deceived it is not impossible; it is, that demonstrative reason or testimony divine should deceive. Howbeit in defect of proof infallible, because the mind doth rather follow probable persuasions than approve the things that have in them no likelihood of truth at all; surely if a question concerning matter of doctrine were proposed, and on the one side no kind of proof appearing, there should on the other be alleged and shewed that so a number of the learnedest divines in the world have ever thought; although it did not appear what reason or what Scripture led them to be of that judgment, yet to their very bare judgment somewhat a reasonable man would attribute, notwithstanding the common imbecilities which are incident into our nature.” (LEP Bk. II, ch. 7)


One Small Step to Rome

Jason Stellman’s announcement on Sunday that he was resigning from the Presbyterian Church in America and headed toward Rome has struck the narrow Reformed world like a bombshell, setting heads and tongues wagging over the past couple days.  As a noted representative of the most arch-conservative Confessionalist wing of the PCA, priding itself on its staunch adherence to Reformed standards, and as lead prosecutor for several years against Peter J. Leithart (largely on the basis that Leithart’s theology tended toward Rome), Stellman’s volte-face is so layered with irony that it would be richly amusing if not so sad.  

In his resignation letter, Stellman cites (not untypically for converts) his loss of confidence in sola Scriptura and sola fide.  A number of excellent responses have already gone up—from Doug Wilson, from Peter Leithart, and from Steven and Peter at TCI.  I have little to add to these excellent thoughts, so I’d like to just highlight a couple of the key points and add perhaps one significant point omitted.  

Wilson argues that Stellman has, as is usual, caricatured both sola Scriptura and sola fide in his rejection of them, and goes on to suggest that it may have been the PCA’s disciplinary failure (in his eyes) to condemn Leithart that led to his disillusionment with Protestant disciplinarianism and turn toward someone wielding a bigger ecclesiastical stick.  Leithart, in his post, hones in on the sola Scriptura issue, suggesting that here, at any rate, the transition of hyper-Reformed confessionalism to Rome has perhaps been a comparatively smooth one for Stellman.  Stellman’s brand of confessionalism, shared by many within conservative Reformed denominations, and most notably by “Escondido theologians” Scott Clark, Darryl Hart, David VanDrunen and (more temperately) Michael Horton, attributes a level of regulative authority to the Westminster Confession and other Reformed standards that functionally denies sola Scriptura, although continuing to do lip service to it.  Among many Reformed confessionalists, the confessional standards, and the ongoing teaching authority of the ministerium that follows these standards, wield an authority that is almost beyond appeal and is not dissimilar to that claimed by Catholics for the magisterium.  This suggests Stellman was not so much reacting away from a hyper-Protestant individualism, as Wilson suggests, but rather that he never had a real Protestant sense of the authority of the individual believer’s conscience before Scripture to begin with.  

 

This is a point that Escalante and Wedgeworth develop at considerable length in their response, arguing that Stellman’s recent move confirms what they (and I) have been arguing for some time about the inner unity between de jure divino Presbyterian two-kingdoms theory and Catholicism.  Stellman, unsurprisingly, has been one of the most vocal exponents of VanDrunen-style two-kingdoms theology, writing a book on the subject, Dual Citizens, in 2009.  By equating the spiritual kingdom of Christ with a juridical model of the visible church, its boundaries rigorously policed by ordained authorities, these men undermine the Protestant teaching of the priesthood of all believers, substituting a heteronomous visible authority to mediate between the believer and God.  As they put it in their post, “Its disciplinarian center cannot accept a mere political and prudential submission to recognized authority for the sake of external order, or a voluntary submission to moral and intellectual authority in wisdom and charity.  Instead it demands that the mechanism of church polity serve as a rule of faith and the precondition for pious exegesis and faithful church membership.”  Their post goes on to sketch the outlines of what the alternative—Reformed irenicism—looks like, with a properly-defined role for Scripture, authority, and individual reason.    

 

To all this, I want to merely briefly add a thought on the second concern Stellman voices, that of the incoherence of sola fide.  Wedgeworth and Escalante say that the answer to that “question is actually predetermined by Mr. Stellman’s heteronomy,” and I suppose I just want to make more explicit here what is implicit in their post.  Here again, Wilson has suggested that Stellman is perhaps simply reacting against an aberrant nuda fide version of the doctrine, and that perhaps he just needs to be acquainted with a more robust, meaty concept of faith.  Perhaps there is something to this; I have frequently heard the accusation that the Escondido theology is antinomian.  But my own impression of the disciplinarian confessionalist wing of Reformed theology (within which I grew up) is quite the contrary—namely, that it has little real grasp of the spirit of sola fide to begin with.  Here again, then, I would suggest (without knowing Stellman, his work, or his background in any detail) that perhaps the transition to Catholicism is a surprisingly smooth one, a change more in letter than in spirit.  If discipline is of the esse of the Church, then participation in the life of the grace is dependent upon adherence to moral rules tightly policed by “spiritual rulers,” and the freedom of a conscience justified by faith alone is replaced by either a nervous or an arrogant legalism.  Of course, there are plenty of Protestant legalisms besides presbyterian ones, no doubt about that.  But it would be foolish to deny that institutionalizing the moralistic impulse, in the form of the consistory, tends to intensify it.  In any case, the solas hang together.  The disciplinarian abandonment of the priesthood of all believers entails an abandonment also of the freedom of all believers.  And those moves having been made, the most consistent ideological resting place is Rome.  (Richard Hooker understood this all four hundred years ago, of course.)


Why I Won’t Convert

In the wake of my post “Honouring Mary as Protestants,” I found myself drawn into an amicable Reformed-Orthodox dialogue of sorts on Orthodox-Reformed Bridge.  In the discussion, I was challenged to explain my rejection of the idea that any tradition preserved intact and entire the timeless essence of true Christianity–did this not make me postmodernist, rejecting the objectivity of truth?  Was this not just an excuse for Protestant subjectivism, picking and choosing my own little mix of traditions as I saw fit?  In my replies, I summarized my view on the relationship of Protestantism and tradition, and why I see the call to “submit” to “the Church” as a cop-out, fuelled by a desire for easy solutions to doctrinal corruption and division.  The following is adapted from those comments: 

I am not a “postmodernist”–I do not think that all we have are “fragments of the Gospel.” I believe that the Gospel once delivered to the saints is a rock upon which the Church is built, and from which it can never depart. I believe that the heart of that faith remains constant over the millennia, but as history moves forward, the Church grows (and occasionally backslides) in its understanding of that faith, and that, so profound is the truth to which we are called to witness that no single formulation of it can claim to have captured it fully; on the contrary, all we can claim is to have testified to an aspect of it, and must be ready to consider that other Christians, or other eras of the Church, may have testified to another aspect, which we should not immediately rule out simply because it doesn’t line up exactly with our own. I also believe that under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church is advancing, and that we can be confident that on the whole, our grasp of the truth of God in Christ will grow rather than shrink.

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

 

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them. 

It’s hard to see how this can be dismissed as “convenient selectivity.” To my mind, this posture is a far more difficult and uncomfortable one than that which seeks the comfort of some ossified and de-historicized tradition that will decide in advance all questions, so that we can simply rest on, say, the determinations of the first 700 years of the Church (or some idealised compendium of them), without having to wrestle with the Scriptures ourselves.

The critic may respond that this makes us each into our own popes, listening to no authority but ourselves. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it requires us to listen to authority even more. Instead of simply taking one set of authorities from one period of the Church, we have to take seriously the authority of Augustine, of Athanasius, of Gregory Nazianzen, of Anselm, of Gregory Palamas, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Hooker, of Newman, of Schmemann, of John Paul II, of our own parents and pastors and all those that God has put into our lives. We have to do our best to listen respectfully to all these voices, instead of just one or two, and to submit our own judgments to their greater wisdom, seeking to find harmony when they disagree with one another, and when we cannot harmonise, making painful decisions about who to follow. And let me tell you, this is a hard thing to do. It cannot, in any case, be rightly done in an individualist, me-and-my-Bible way, but only in constant dialogue with other Christians, waiting patiently for the Spirit to guide us through the wisdom of our communities.

I should add, moreover, that this should always be done from a standpoint of submission to a particular tradition in which one has been called, using the language and categories of that tradition as one’s starting point and interpretive grid. For me, that’s the Reformed tradition. I have all kinds of problems with that tradition, but that’s where God has put me, and I believe therefore that I am called to, as much as possible, critique and revise that tradition where necessary from within itself (while listening attentively, as I have said above, to other voices from Church history), not by constructing a personal postmodern smorgasbord that contains pieces of all traditions but the heart of none.



Honouring Mary as Protestants

Today was the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  I probably would never have noticed the fact except that we happened to attend the local Anglo-Catholic church yesterday, and they were keen to make the most of the occasion.  Ironically, we had attended the same church precisely two years ago for the first time, venturing through its doors on the Feast of the Assumption in 2009, and finding ourselves rather alarmed when, at the end of the service, everyone turned toward us (we happened to be seated right by the statue of the Virgin) and began reciting the Ave Maria.  The experience prompted me to reflect a bit on the practice of praying to saints generally, and the precise nature of the Protestant objection thereto.* 

This time, I wanted to reflect more specifically on the practice of Marian devotion (not, though, on the dogma of the Assumption specifically), and how Protestants ought to approach it.  We Protestants certainly have a problem when it comes to Mary–so allergic are we to any sign of Marian devotion that we flip out and run the other way at any sign of it, including thoroughly orthodox phrases like “Mother of God” and “Hail Mary, full of grace.”  

The first phrase is of course part of the touchstone of orthodoxy the Definition of Chalcedon, and is the proper translation of Theotokos–the preferred Protestant version (for those who even bother to recite it) is “God-bearer,” but this unfortunately names not the orthodox doctrine, but the heresy of Nestorius that Theotokos was coined to contest. (Note that I do not count myself an expert in 5th-century Christological controversies, but this is my understanding based on what I have read on the subject; feel free to shed light on this if you have any.)  To call Mary the “Mother of God” was a truth that many Christians actually gave their blood and their lives to defend, and yet we Protestants have casually tossed it aside because it sounds icky and Catholic.   

Likewise, the first part of the Ave Maria is of course straight from the Gospel of Luke: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  And yet I found that the words caught in my throat during the service, as if I was saying something idolatrous.  I daresay most Protestants could not even imagine reciting these words, unless they happened upon them while reading aloud Luke ch. 1.

 

In this, as in so many other such things, there are two warring impulses that it is hard to reconcile–the call to purity and the call to unity.  On the one hand, we might be inclined to say that even those sorts of Marian devotion that are not in themselves idolatrous nevertheless are so prone to become so, and so often have, that we must lean in the opposite direction, and steer clear of the whole notion of honouring Mary, lest we should thereby dishonour God.  Therefore we must be on guard even against forms of devotion that on paper seem legitimate, lest there lurk within them an idolatrous spirit.  On the other hand, we might say that we are supposed to seek unity with Christian brothers and sisters in everything that we possibly can do, in everything that is not in itself wrong, and that includes seeking unity with the Church of past generations.  For almost as long as the Church has existed, it has held Mary in a place of special honour, and seen fit to show that honour liturgically.  No doubt Marian devotion has taken many harmful forms, but should we not defer to the consensus of many centuries of Christians that some kind of Marian devotion is appropriate and desirable?  Therefore we should seek to engage, together with Catholics, Orthodox, Anglo-Catholics, and long centuries of Christian practice, in whatever forms of Marian devotion that are not necessarily heretical, idolatrous, or what have you, and try to assume the best of forms that seem dubious or ambiguous.  

Having been so long exposed to the dominance of the first impulse, which on so many issues has had such a destructive Gnosticizing effect on Protestant churches, I am naturally inclined to try to give freer rein to the second impulse, but of course, balance is necessary.  So I wanted to think through a little more specifically what it is that might trouble us in a service like the one I attended on Sunday.  What forms of honouring Mary might prove to be idolatrous or heretical, etc., and as for the ones that don’t, is there any reason not to participate in them? 

 

First, though, let’s ask what the point should be of honouring Mary at all.  What do we mean by this notion?  Protestants are likely to react against the entire idea, for to honour Mary–a creature–seems like it must necessarily be a way of dishonouring God.  God only should be honoured, and no mere creature!  But this is a product of that Puritan impulse that I have recently been harping upon, the impulse which insists that grace is a zero-sum game**, that God can only be honoured at human expense; that mankind must be correspondingly humbled as God is exalted.  But of course, this is not what Scripture celebrates.  Scripture celebrates the fact that God has condescended to us, and lifted us up to share in his glory.  To celebrate the glories of an Abraham or a David or a Mary, or, most of all, the Church of which Mary has always been understood to be a symbol, is not to honour them for what they are in themselves, but to honour them as sites of God’s redemptive grace, as testaments to the incredible goodness of God that has seen fit to bestow honour on his creatures, to work in and through them as instruments of his purpose, and to raise them up to share with him in heavenly glory.  Rightly understood, then, this is what honouring Mary should be all about. 

 For where else do we find such a stupendous display of the mystery of grace?  In Mary, God took a lowly maiden who had done nothing at all but show faith in his promises, and not only made her the means for the redemption of the whole world, but actually came and made his home within her!  As such, she is a symbol of God’s grace toward all of us, the Church, which God has, through no merit of our own, made the agent of his redemptive purposes toward the world, and in whom he mysteriously dwells in the person of his Son.  In celebrating Mary, and her role in the history of redemption, we are not detracting from God, but rather celebrating the stupendousness of his grace; in honouring her, we are of course honouring Him.  After all, to call Mary “blessed” is of course to make the statement that she has been blessed–by God–and that we are in awe of the bounty of His blessings.

This is, of course, a rather Protestant way of describing it all.  No doubt a great many Catholics could agree with a great deal of what I just said, but certainly dogmas like the Immaculate Conception, the language of Co-mediatrix, and such teachings tend to obscure this notion that Mary is not honoured for anything special she did or anything special she was in herself, but for God’s grace exhibited to her and through her.  The Protestant suspicion that to honour Mary is not to honour her as a creaturely object of God’s benevolence, but as a quasi-transcendent subject somehow alongside God, is certainly not unfounded, having a basis not merely in bastardised Catholic practice but also in Catholic dogmatics.  

But if we are following the second impulse–the impulse of unity–then perhaps we will, even while holding such problematic notions and forms of devotion at arm’s length, heartily embrace formulations and practices that celebrate Mary as object and instrument of grace, Mary as a symbol of God’s grace toward all of us, Mary as the locus of the mystery of the Incarnation.

 

In that case, we should have no problem with hymns like this (which I sang on Sunday): 

Virgin-born, we bow before thee:
blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
blessed was she in her Child.
Blessed was the breast that fed thee;
blessed was the hand that led thee;
blessed was the parent’s eye
that watched thy slumbering infancy. 

Blessed she by all creation,
who brought forth the world’s salvation,
and blessed they, for ever blest,
who love thee most and serve thee best.
Virgin-born, we bow before thee;
blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
blessed was she in her Child.

Or even with hymns like:

Sing we of the blessed Mother who received the angel’s word, 
And obedient to the summons bore in love the infant Lord; 
Sing we of the joys of Mary at whose breast the child was fed 
Who is Son of God eternal and the everlasting Bread. 

[it continues in this vein for three more verses]

Or should we?  I expect most of us still would be super-nervous about these, especially the second. For to honour Mary theologically in the way I described might seem like one thing; to honour her liturgically quite another.  Indeed, Protestants have often made this sort of distinction.  We claim to have a high doctrine of creation, but many Protestants–at least Reformed Presbyterians, don’t like creation to play much of a role in worship, purging our churches of any kind of imagery.  While of course part of this might be legitimate avoidance of idolatry, more of it seems to be part of the same old Puritan fear that to honour God through his creations is to dishonour him.  More theologically sound, I think, is the kind of worship that a hymn like “All Creatures of Our God and King” displays–praising God through praising his works.   

And if we can worship him by praising his inanimate works like the sun and the moon, then why can’t we praise his infinitely greater works like the Virgin Mary and her story?  Again, perhaps it seems legitimate in principle, but we are liable to be suspicious that such worship will quickly have the effect of making the Virgin an object, not an avenue, of worship.  Certainly in some Catholic churches, where even devotion that might be prima facie legitimate is part of worship on a daily or weekly basis, this is a serious cause for concern. (Of course, I should add that based on my limited experience, most ordinary Catholic worship services do not feature displays of Marian devotion.)  But I’m not sure that this would be a fair objection for a church that merely sings such hymns a couple times a year on stipulated feast days, like the one where I was worshipping.  

 

Okay, so maybe we could justify all this thus far, and thus, for the sake of unity, and of respect for the historic Church, we should be happy to participate in this kind of worship.  But what about singing or praying to Mary?  After all, while it might’ve been fine for the angel to say “Hail Mary” or Elizabeth to say “Blessed are you among women,” they were looking at Mary when they said it.  We aren’t.  So why should we be addressing her in the second person singular in worship?  Isn’t that something we only do to God?  This seems quite a natural concern to have, and it does feel like you’ve crossed over some barrier when you go from saying “Sing we of the blessed Mother” to actually singing to the blessed Mother.  On the other hand, it is not true that our hymns are exclusively addressed to God.  A great many hymns are worded so that they are addressing one another, the communion of saints (e.g., off the top of my head, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”), or even addressing ourselves (“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”).  In fact, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” mentioned above, goes so far as to address the inanimate creation directly, calling on “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” to praise God, and praising God for them.  This being the case, we may reasonably ask what is wrong with singing 

“Praise, O Mary, praise the Father, Praise thy Saviour and thy Son, 
Praise the everlasting Spirit, who hath made thee ark and throne;
O’er all creatures high exalted, lowly praise the Three in One.” (At least, assuming–the poetry is ambiguous–that it is the Three in One that is “o’er all creatures high exalted,” not Mary herself.)

In a context like this, the second-person singular can be understood as a poetic invocation no more polytheistic than the invocation of “Brother Sun.”  But of course, it often goes further than this.  Most Marian devotion is not merely poetically invoking her, but genuinely praying to her–or, at any rate, asking her to pray for us.  Of course, as I wrote two years ago, there is not necessarily any idolatry or heresy in the notion that we could call upon some deceased saint and ask them to pray for us, though we Protestants might well doubt whether there was any way they could hear us, and suppose that the practice, imputing to the dead in Christ godlike powers of prayer-hearing, would certainly lend itself to idolatry. So, while not wanting to consider all such “prayers” ipso facto idolatry, I would tend to personally draw the line here, and stop short of joining the congregation in “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

And then, of course, even beyond this are prayers or hymns to Mary that speak of her as someone not just with power to pray for us, but with power that sounds like it should be Christ’s alone–as in one anthem that the choir sang, which was mercifully in Latin: “Honour her that she may free thee from thy many sins.  Call on her, lest the storm of sins overtake thee.”  

 

When such genuinely idolatrous language is present in the service, it is of course reasonable to ask whether we ought not just to steer as clear as possible from the whole shady business, instead of going along as far as conscience permits.  On the other hand, it certainly seems that Protestants have impoverished their faith by completely excising from it any real consideration of Mary, and the disregard this shows for the faith of the early Church does not boost our credibility when we claim to be recovering that faith.  Finding the appropriate balance is sure to prove a difficult task, but continuing to neglect that task is not a responsible option.  

 

*You can read my post on prayers to the saints (though as what I say here suggests, I have retreated a bit fromt the ground I tried to stake out then) here.  

** For more on “the Puritan impulse” see here.