“Stirred Up Unto Reverence”: Worship as the Key to Hooker’s Theology

The two most compelling portraits of Richard Hooker’s theology have been offered by the great scholars Peter Lake, in Anglicans and Puritans? (1988), and Torrance Kirby, in a series of publications over the last twenty years.  Both are brilliant and insightful.  The only problem is that they appear, at least at first glance, to contradict.  Lake identifies Hooker as the “founder of Anglicanism,” whereas Kirby eschews that term entirely as anachronistic and misleading.  Kirby sees Hooker as articulating a strict Protestant distinct between the two kingdoms, between visible and invisible Church, treating the former as part of the civil kingdom, whereas Lake emphasizes the continuity between the two and argues that for Hooker, outward forms of worship serve as the means of inward grace.  Can these two be convincingly bridged?  I had despaired of it, but as of today, I think they can be.  

The key idea on which Lake builds his case is Hooker’s concept of edification, a concept central to the debate between Puritans and conformists, and integral to his defence of the Elizabethan church establishment.  Whereas the Puritans demanded that church orders and ceremonies dynamically enrich and build up the body of Christ, rooting out sin and training in godliness, most conformist apologists were content to rest their case on the “edification” that uniformity, decorum, and civil peace engendered.  Hooker was willing to meet the Puritans on their own turf, as Lake argues, and yet, as Kirby argues, he had to do so without confusing the two kingdoms distinction as the Puritans had.  How?

At the outset of Book IV, Hooker states his general theory of edification:

“The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the church.  Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their harts are moved with any affection suteable therunto, when their minds are in any sorte stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention and due regard, which in those cases semeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible meanes besides have alwaies bene thought necessary, and especially those meanes which being object to the eye, the liveliest and the most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deepe and a strong impression.” 

Peter Lake thinks we can scarcely overstate the significance of this claim, a move which marks Hooker out, Lake thinks, as the founder of Anglicanism: “This was little short of the reclamation of the whole realm of symbolic action and ritual practice from the status of popish superstition to that of a necessary, indeed essential, means of communication and edification; a means, moreover, in many ways more effective than the unvarnished word.  The ceremonies, Hooker claimed, must have religious meanings.  That was what they were for.”  Lake goes on to explain how, for Hooker “the observances of the church, if suitably well chosen and decorous, could, through a series of correspondences, use the external realm of outward performance and ritual practice to affect the internal realm of men’s minds and characters.”  But if all this is so, how does it not represent a repudiation of that very two-kingdoms distinction upon which the conformist case, and indeed all of Protestantism, so depended?  Perhaps we should not in fact expect to find perfect consistency in Hooker, any more indeed than in any other Protestant thinker who tried to articulate the dialectical relationship between the visible and invisible Church.  However, by carefully attending to Hooker’s argument here, we may discover the nuances of how he understands these two kingdoms.

Of course, one cannot overemphasize that these two are not distinguished in terms of things “sacred” and “secular” in our modern sense.  For Hooker especially, God is revealed and encountered in all the arenas of mundane civil existence; and conversely, sacred business cannot take place without using the trappings of external social and political forms.  So it is that after having made the above declaration, Hooker appeals to nature and to the common practice of all ages in “publique actions which are of waight whether they be civil and temporall or els spiritual and sacred.”  In other words, the outward means of moving of our hearts to awe and devotion in worship and of moving our hearts to awe and devotion in other settings, such as art or politics, are not fundamentally different.  Puritans old and new will no doubt balk at this, but Hooker is a realist.  We are creatures of sense, and for any great occasion or purpose, our senses need to be impressed if our hearts and minds are to be.  Nor is this merely incidental; it is part and parcel of Hooker’s neo-Platonist cosmology.  Having provided examples of the necessary use of sensible ceremonies in affairs both civil and religious, he quotes Pseudo-Dionysius, “The sensible things which Religion hath hallowed, are resemblances framed according to things spiritually understood, whereunto they serve as a hand to lead and a guide to direct.”  But again, we must ask, as Cartwright objected to Whitgift with far less provocation—is this not “to institute newe sacraments?”  

Hooker thinks that this objection has misunderstood the key function of a sacrament.  This is not to serve as a visible sign of invisible things—for such signs are everywhere in human affairs—or even as a visible sign of specifically spiritual things—for Hooker believes that every creature serves as such a sign of God’s presence, manifesting the law of his being through its own law-like operations.  Instead, “sacraments are those which are signes and tokens of some generall promised grace, which allwaies really descendeth from God unto the soul that duly receiveth them.”  With sacraments, in short, there is a necessary link between the outward and inward, and one that establishes a direct relationship between the soul and God; not so with signifying ceremonies.  


We find this theology of sign and edification elaborated in the introductory chapters of Book V.  Here Hooker is considerably more careful to maintain the two kingdoms distinction, rightly understood, than is Lake. 

“There is an inward reasonable, and there is a solemn outward serviceable worship belonging unto God.  Of the former kind are all manner virtuous duties that each man in reason and conscience to God-ward oweth.  Solemn and serviceable worship we name for distinction’s sake, whatsoever belongeth to the Church or public society of God by way of external adoration.  Of the former kinde are all manner vertuous duties that each man in reason and conscience to Godward oweth.  Sollemne and serviceable worship we name, for distinction sake, whatsoever belongeth to the Church or publique societie of God by way of externall adoration.  It is the later of these two whereupon our present question groweth.” 

Here Hooker shows himself a faithful follower of Calvin, simultaneously maintaining the importance of outward worship while distinguishing it clearly from the inward forum of the conscience.  Between these two, there should be close correspondence and congruity, but never confusion.  Hooker explains this relationship of correspondence with great care two chapters later, in a crucial passage: 

“if we affect him not farre above and before all thinges, our religion hath not that inward perfection which it should have, neither doe we indeed worship him as our God.  That which inwardlie each man should be, the Church outwardlie ought to testifie.  And therefore the duties of our religion which are seene must be such as that affection which is unseen ought to be.  Signes must resemble the thinges they signifie.  If religion beare the greatest swaie in our hartes, our outward religious duties must show it, as farre as the Church hath outward habilitie.  Duties of religion performed by whole societies of men, ought to have in them accordinge to our power a sensible excellencie, correspondent to the majestie of him whom we worship.  Yea then are the publique duties of religion best ordered, when the militant Church doth resemble by sensible meanes, as it maie in such cases, the hidden dignitie and glorie wherewith the Church triumphant in heaven is bewtified. . . . Let our first demand be therefore, that in the external form of religion such things as are apparently, or can be sufficiently proved, effectual and generally fit to set forward godliness, either as betokening the greatness of God, or as beseeming the dignity of religion, or as concurring with celestial impressions in the minds of men, may be reverently thought of.”

It is easy to see here why Torrance Kirby considers Hooker’s Christology to serve as the template for his understanding of the Church in its two realms of existence, with a “communication of attributes” establishing correspondence between the inward and outward realms, conjoined as they are, but without confusion, in the act of worship.  The worship and order of the visible Church is a public religious duty, which is not to be confused with the true religion of the heart, but which must never be separated from it.  Through this worship, the inward reality, the “hidden dignitie and glory” of the Church in the presence of God, is imperfectly imaged by sensible means.  These sensible ceremonies “testify” to the truth, “signify” spiritual realities, “betoken” the greatness of God, and hence serve to “set forward godliness.”  In short, we might say, they serve toward sanctification, enlightening our hearts with better understanding of the truth and forming our affections in the virtues of holiness.  For Hooker, it appears, what may not be said about ceremonies is that they serve to convey any justifying grace, improving our standing in the eyes of God or giving special pleasure to him.  Indeed, it is significant that Hooker always speaks of the beneficial effects of the ceremonies towards us, and never as rites in themselves pleasing to God.  If this distinction is correct then Hooker would seem, in the midst of this reclamation of ritual, to have maintained the essential Protestant protest against Rome, which revolved around the relationship of justifying and sanctifying grace, and condemned the proliferation of outward rites that were necessary to endear us to God.        

Thus, Lake is largely correct but insufficiently nuanced in asserting,

“This reappropriation of symbolic action from the papists was in turn based upon those graded hierarchies of desire, experience and law (outlined in book I) which led man Godwards and held the realms of reason and grace, nature and upernature firmly together.  By exploiting and mirroring the correspondences and links between these two realms, symbol and ritual were able to play a central role in that process whereby the church led the believer toward union with God.” 

This neo-Platonic logic of mediated ascent to God does represent a significant thread in Hooker’s theology, but as Torrance Kirby has repeatedly and persuasively argued, it is also cut across by an Augustinian sense of hypostatic disjunction between the two realms.  Thus Hooker, while enthusiastic about the rich possibilities of the liturgy, never loses sight of its fundamentally adiaphorous, changeable character; only its legal imposition, not its intrinsic merits, gives it any character of necessity.

 

Hooker’s concept of liturgy and ceremony, then, despite being charged with spiritual significance, remains fundamentally within the domain of nature, a domain that remains fundamentally shot through with God’s presence, or “drenched with deity,” in the words of C.S. Lewis.  Hence Hooker’s comfortability with arguing from natural law, historical consensus, and civil analogues for the value of many of the disputed ceremonies.  So, when it comes to vestments, Hooker will both take the traditional line, emphasizing their essentially civil function (“To solemne actions of roialtie and justice theire suteable ornamentes are a bewtie.  Are they onlie in religion a staine?”) and yet also pointing to a spiritual correspondence (“it suteth so fitlie with that lightsome affection of joye, wherein God delighteth when his Sainctes praise him; and so livelie resembleth the glorie of the Sainctes in heaven, together with the bewtie wherin Angels have appeared unto men . . . [fitting for] they which are to appear fore men in the presence of God as Angels.”).  

The train of thought which ties together Hooker’s understanding of natural utility and spiritual edification appears perhaps most clearly in his treatment of music.  He first eulogizes music as “A thinge which delighteth all ages and beseemeth all states; a thinge as seasonable in griefe as in joy; as decent beinge added unto actions of greatest waight and solemnitie, as beinge used when men most sequester them selves from action.”  It is useful for all human affairs, but not merely as ornament; so deeply does music affect us that it can contribute to our moral formation: “In harmonie the verie image and character even of vertue and vice is perceieved, the minde delighted with theire resemblances and brought by havinge them often iterated into a love of the thinges them selves.”  This being the case, what could be more suitable to aid our worship?  “The verie harmonie of sounds beinge framed in due sorte and carryed from the eare to the spirituall faculties of our soules is by a native puissance and efficacie greatlie availeable to bringe to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled. . . . In which considerations the Church of Christ doth likewise at this present daie reteine it as an ornament to Gods service, and an helpe to our own devotion.” 

Equally fascinating is Hooker’s treatment of festival days.  Whereas Whitgift had confined himself to insisting “The magistrate hath power and authority over his subjects in all external matters, and bodily affairs; wherefore he may call them from bodily labour or compel them unto it, as shall be thought to him most convenient,” Hooker justifies them via an elaborate disquisition on the nature of time, and the rhythms of rest and action appropriate to all created beings.  All nature, and even heathen peoples, therefore testifies “that festivall solemnities are a parte of the publique exercise of religion,” and besides, he adds, working his way through the Church year holiday by holiday, they are of great importance to “keepe us in perpetuall remembrance” of God’s redeeming work.  Therefore, “the verie law of nature it selfe which all men confess to be Godes law requireth in generall no lesse the sanctification of times then of places persons and thinges unto Godes honor.”

For Hooker, then, the ceremonies of the Church are simultaneously civil, natural, and spiritual—there is no need to categorize them as simply one or the other.  As civil institutions concerned with outward order, they take their force from the command of the magistrate, who has lawful authority over such matters.  As institutions fitting according to the order of nature, they can be determined by reason, which serves to identify their value and to make them useful in their particular times and places.  And as institutions tending toward the cultivation of spiritual virtue and reverence, they serve not merely to preserve public order, but for the dynamic upbuilding of the people of God that the Puritans had demanded.  Hooker, it seems, has succeeded in cutting the Gordian knot that bedevilled his predecessors.


The Appearance of the Ecclesial Body

Graham Ward’s name has long been inextricably associated with Radical Orthodoxy, and Radical Orthodoxy has generally been associated with fairly politicized concepts of the Church, having an affinity in this regard with Hauerwas and his school.  The church-as-polis concept, critics will point out, can have the tendency to cast too much weight on the institutional form of the Church, implying that as institution, the Church takes a political form to rival that of the State.  Certainly, given the fact that so many of the Radical Orthodox were Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, or crypto-Catholic, it is not surprising to find this tendency in their ecclesiology, and critics have found reason to suspect that all the fancy new post-Vatican II language is only a thin veneer concealing what is at root an arrogant, legalist, and rigid neo-papalist political theology.  Or else, if this is not what is behind the veneer, the critic suzpects that in fact nothing is behind the veneer except an idealistic reification of some perfect community, transcending space and time, and yet somehow concrete enough to constitute a political presence.

The Church, the Protestant will want to contend, can only be a polis by a vague analogy, for whereas a fixed institutional form is of the essence of a political body, it is not for the Church.  The Church is the communio fidelium, a congregation of believers which has a political presence only in the dynamic action of Christian people through whom Christ takes form in the world and challenges the injustice of the powers that be.  The Protestant critic, then, will be excited to find a rich, dynamic, congregation-centered ecclesiology articulated at the heart of Graham Ward’s recent The Politics of Discipleship, simultaneously effusive about the potentiality of the Church and yet honest about its fragile actuality.  I can’t help but quote in full this striking passage from the key chapter, “The City and the Struggle for Its Soul” (italics are mine):

“The church, then, as a body of Christians, is constantly active; it is a network of actors reaching into many different parts of city and rural life.  It is not only this collection of hymn-singing people, listening to the exposition of the Word and receiving that Word in the sacrament, but also a multidimensional, multigendered activity living continually beyond its means, transcending by grace all its physical, cultural, and historical limitations, bieng in relation, productive of relation, being in communion, productive of communion across both space and time.  The church is this body of action, this body in action that is both temporal and eternal, material and spiritual.  There is no body without this activity, for it is the body of Christ only in and through this continuous operation.  This great extensive Catholic body is not in the world or entirely of the world, but it is engaged in creating the world anew, reassembling the social.  A case could be made that the study of the church should not be called ecclesiology because this word suggests that there is an objective entity out there.  When we think about ecclesiology in this way, we reiterate the child’s mistake of thinking that the cathedral, the basilica, the minster is the church.  The object of studying the church is, rather, ecclesiality, in the same way the study of society is always the study of sociality.   Indeed, ecclesiality is only another form of sociality.  Neither the church nor society is there as such, as some uniform and foundational stuff.  The church is only what this body of Christians do.  Even the church as an institution is not there as such, as an object to be observed.  The institution is ‘made to appear’ through a series of social acts by various institutional agents: architects, stonemasons, carpenters, glassmakers, weavers of cloth, bankers, and bishops.  No one encounters the church as an institution.  We encounter this space, this use of land, this person or that, this artifact or that, this order of service or that, all caught up in a circulation of social activity, a circulation that is perpetually in motion and therefore perpetually subject to change.  The church—like the social, as the social—is achieved in the interactions of various agents (including objects such as a Communion wafer, a prayer book, and a parish newsletter).”  

This, I would submit, is already a pretty good start, but Ward goes on to sound even more like a good Protestant, emphasizing the disjunction between the church’s invisible identity and visible form, the relativization of the clergy, as ecclesiality is constituted by the actions of all believers, and the fundamental vulnerability of the visible Church: 

“This renders any notion of the church complex in several senses.  First, its boundaries are porous not simply because it is irreducible to insitutional frameworks but because there is only one panopticon position from which a judgment can be made concerning who is inside or outside this church, who is or is not acting in and as Christ in any particular situation.  And this panopticon position belongs to God alone.  Second, the church is characterized by being excessive with respect to both place and the evaluation of any act that occurs in that place. . . . Third, it is vulnerable because so much of what it does cannot be controlled by the church as an institution.  The gospel being preached in practices of piety cannot be patrolled—though it can be informed—by a catechism, by preaching, exposition, or admonition from those with spiritual authority and spiritual oversight.  The radical submission to Christ—not Protestant individualism . . . but submission to Christ in communion with other Christians living sacramentally governed lives, experiencing through suffering the disciplining of their desires by Christ—is exercised so far beyond the precincts of the parish and the priesthood that it is open wide to making mistakes, making compromises, being blemished.  This is the risk the church runs in being the church, but then, that is the risk of faith.  Even the church cannot save itself, and the operations of grace are not limited to the ecclesia.  Its vulnerability means that forever there will be need for confession, correction, repentance, and reconciliation.  This is what the kenotic life of being the church and what political discipleship entail.” 

How then does this porous, dynamic, non- or supra-institutional church become political?

“Only as the ecclesial body, so conceived, engages in civic sociality does it negotiate power relations and the flow of objects that maintain and create the circulations of the social.  It cannot prevent such an engagement, for it is itself a sociality.  It is only in this engagement that the transcendent values of the body of Christ—love, justice, beauty, reconciliation, worship, forgiveness, and so forth—are produced and promulgated.  In acting as the ecclesial body, it works to undo, forestall, and correct other activities not conducive to the transcendent values: injustices, inequalities, alienations, prostitutions, hatreds, envyings, idolatries, dominations, and so forth.”

 

Perhaps Luther and Radical Orthodoxy have found a meeting-point after all. . . .


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.



Some Ramblings on Sola Scriptura

In a blog post a week and a half ago, Peter Leithart addressed the issue of Sola Scriptura in relation to Christian Smith’s recent book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.  His defence there of sola Scriptura rightly understood was solid stuff, emphasising the importance of distinguishing between Scripture as sole authority and sole final authority.  Tradition may be a very important authority, may even be a guide to the interpretation of Scripture, but when the chips are down, tradition must always be revisable by Scripture, in a way that cannot be vice versa.  This line of argument is a reasonably familiar one, and yet it seems to me that there are really two distinct issues that have to be addressed when we are talking about sola Scriptura–the “intensive” question and the “extensive” question.  

The first concerns the “strength” of the sola–just how alone is Scripture, and how much is it aided by tradition?  What respective roles do the two play in establishing the rule of belief, and how much can each one do taken by itself?  The second concerns the scope of the sola–just how broadly does it reach?  On just how many issues are we claiming Scripture’s authority?  Is Scripture the authority over, say, mathematics?  This is the sort of idea that gets R2Kers all worked up.  Leithart’s notion of “final authority” is of course of some help here, for this allows that other authorities can command our respect in this field as much as they want, so long as they do not contradict Scripture, which, given how little Scripture has to say on the subject of mathematics, will be pretty rarely, if ever.  

This was of course how the Reformers explained the doctrine, according to their distinction between “things necessary for salvation” and “things indifferent.”  In things necessary, Scripture is the only authority; in things indifferent, it is the final authority.  Which means that, if Scripture is silent on a subject, you can believe whatever you want to, so long as you don’t say that it is necessary for anyone to believe thusly.  (At least, in theory that was the doctrine; pretty soon Protestants were saying that it was necessary not to believe in or do any number of things about which Scripture was silent.)  

This qualification also applied to the Reformation’s notion of the “perspicuity of Scripture,” a concept that has been much misunderstood and misused today.  The perspicuity of Scripture meant that God did not leave us so little guidance in His Word about the path of salvation that we needed other authorities and other information to repent and believe and be saved.  All the essentials, the bare necessities, were there in Scripture clear enough for the lowliest peasant to comprehend and act upon.  Of course, there were many matters in Scripture not so clear, and open to dispute; but the fact that they were so, according to the doctrine of perspicuity, was conclusive evidence that these were not matters necessary and essential.  

 

This, I take it, is the point on which Protestantism (or the varieties of it with which I am familiar), has veered so dangerously off-track, inciting a reaction away from its fractious dogmatism that often takes the form of a rejection of sola Scriptura altogether.  For, if one applies the doctrine of perspicuity too broadly, then potentially any doctrine can become the article of a standing or falling faith, potentially any doctrine can be a legitimate occasion for schism, since “it’s a matter of the authority of Scripture.”  If, for instance, I am convinced of Calvinism, and I am convinced it is demonstrated in Scripture, and I am convinced that Scripture is perspicuous, then if you reject Calvinism, this must be a rejection of the authority of Scripture.  It couldn’t be a difference of interpretation or application, since Scripture is clear.  Therefore, it must be because you refuse to accept Scripture’s authority.  Therefore, you have abandoned the material principle of the faith, and are on the brink of apostasy.  So the argument could run (although I’m not sure that’s how it has generally run in the case of church splits over Calvinism, which have usually proceeded on even more dubious theological logic).  

It is this theological breakdown that has contributed to the vitriol of recent debates between “liberals” and “conservatives,” and that distinguishes such recent debates from their counterparts a century ago.  Back when Machen left the PCUSA, it was, ostensibly at least, because the deity, resurrection and exclusivity of Christ were being rejected or at least quietly abandoned.  Nowadays, our great church splits and controversies occur over issues like Young Earth (or even Six-Day) Creation, women’s ordination, and homosexuality.  Now clearly none of these issues concern in themselves the essentials, the Gospel (although if one is Catholic, women’s ordination raises extremely serious issues about the apostolic succession, validity of the priesthood, and therefore ability to receive the means of grace–and so, presumably, affects salvation; and on the Creation issue, one can argue that the evolutionary narrative would have domino effects on key Christian doctrines that would ultimately undermine the Gospel).  And yet in many quarters, one, two, or all of these are considered make-or-break issues?  Why?

The rhetoric is clear enough most of the time–“It’s a matter of the authority of Scripture!”  Perhaps these “liberals” don’t reject the deity or resurrection of Christ, but they’re rejecting the Bible, and these other doctrines are thus sure to fall by the wayside soon.  Scripture, we are told, is clear on these points, and therefore, there is no way to deviate on these points without openly flaunting Scripture.  By this means, each of these issues, and potentially any number of others, can become automatically just cause for a breaking of fellowship.  

 

But of course, we can’t be so quick to dismiss this as a failure to distinguish between things necessary and things secondary.  Because that distinction does not map straightforwardly on to “things clear in Scripture” vs. “things not clear in Scripture” (as Hooker sometimes seems to imply). Obviously, there are plenty of secondary, indeed, plenty of completely unimportant things that are quite clear in Scripture.  For instance, that Paul spent three years in Ephesus.  Does it matter?  Well, not really.  But since Scripture seems clear on the subject, then how do we respond if someone were inclined to deny this fact?  Presumably this denial (or pick your own crystal-clear example) would be a matter of great concern.

So then, I suppose, what this distinction forces us to do is ask again whether the matters debated really are so crystal clear that to reject them is to reject Scripture, instead of simply assuming that they are.

 

Of course, it is also worth noting that some issues currently under debate, particularly the Creation issue, also pertain to what I have called the intensive authority of Scripture, and perhaps raise similar questions to those of the relationship of Scripture and tradition that proved so crucial at the Reformation.  For what we are now forced to ask is whether Scripture can stand on its own, or whether we need to listen to the testimony of Scripture and science (or, Scripture and historical studies) together in order to find truth, whether science must function as the interpreter of Scripture on certain points in the way that tradition once claimed to.  For many, yielding an inch to science to science seems like a rejection of sola Scriptura.  But could we apply Leithart’s same logic here–science may exercise authority over our interpretations, so long as Scripture remains the final authority, in light of which, if push comes to shove, science must be revised and not vice versa?

 

All of these are but musings, thinking aloud, so to speak.  How they all fit together, and cash out in practice, I’m not at all sure, and I’d welcome any input.



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.