The Other Francis

June 24, 2015



The imaging and messaging of the media portrait of Pope Francis is perhaps not unlike the 19th century quest for the historical Jesus: you see what you want to see. 

Famously, that was Albert Schweitzer’s indictment of the “first quest” for the historical Jesus. The strange, supernatural, other-worldly, apocalyptic Jesus is not suitable for the progressive 19th century man. The kingdom of love, however, is perfectly suitable, so long as it does not require a whole lot of personal sacrifice — nor the most offensive of all concepts: the miraculous.

As others have observed, the current Pontiff is deeply rooted in Latin American piety, with all of its strangeness and vivid sense of the supernatural. He is also a profoundly “modern” man. This is a contradiction for our cultural elites, who energetically resolve the contradiction. The result is a highly selective portrait of Pope Francis. It is a portrait that they have painted for our consumption. We are, indeed, eager and insatiable consumers.

As I have complained before, Pope Francis is widely misunderstood and misreported. He embodies a Catholic social ethic that is incommensurate with the dominant ideologies of the West. This social ethic is, at turns, liberal and conservative. It is, at turns, comforting and discomforting to both liberals and conservatives. The recent encyclical, Laudato Si, is an excellent case in point.

The liberal adulation is predictable, as is the conservative repudiation. The latter has been duly criticized by others, so I am more interested in the former. Sandro Magister, the Italian journalist at L’Espresso, has been highlighting this problem of liberal selectivity since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate, and he steadfastly continues to do the same in regard to the recent encyclical:

If one reads “Laudato si’” with patience, in fact, one passage that coincides with the ideas of Gotti Tedeschi [on sin and the loss of God] is there, in paragraph 50:

“Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’… To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

But this passage has been ignored by almost all the world’s media.

And the same neglect has fallen upon other passages of the encyclical in which Pope Francis condemns abortion, in paragraph 120, experimentation on embryos, in paragraph 136, the cancellation of sexual differences, in paragraph 155.

It must be said, however, that the almost universal disregard of these passages cannot be imputed to their slight prominence in the overflowing totality of “Laudato Si’.”

[“The Other Francis: The One Who Preaches Chastity Before Marriage”]

In addition to Sandro Magister, I expected to read competent and insightful observations from Father Robert Barron. I was not disappointed. I have previously praised Fr. Barron — here and here and here.

Fr. Barron released a brief video in response to the encyclical:

And today, Fr. Barron published an informative article: “‘Laudato Si’ and Romano Guardini.”

Rachel Lu, writing for The Federalist, has a similar take: “Pope Francis’s New Encyclical is Not What You Think.” On the other side of the debate, The Federalist has also posted a number of critical responses. You can read Peter Johnson’s “Pope Francis’s Incoherent Economics” and Maureen Mullarkey’s “Where Did Pope Francis’s Extravagant Rant Come From?” The Acton Institute has also released some video responses to the encyclical, such as Jay Richards’ thoughts.

I am not competent enough to know the merits to these criticisms. All I know is that I like how Pope Francis upsets everyone.

Don’t worry, this is still a theology blog. I am working through Paul Molnar’s super-fantastic new book, for which I will post a review soon.


In the meantime, I would like to authoritatively declare this to be the best song of the 90’s:

“Hunger Strike,” Temple of the Dog

Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder are trading vocals, so how could this not be epic? For the uninformed, Temple of the Dog was a tribute band/album with members from Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Mother Love Bone, dedicated to the memory of Mother Love Bone’s lead singer, Andrew Wood, who died from a drug overdose in 1990.

To make matters confusing, Stone Gossard on rhythm guitar and Jeff Ament on bass guitar were members of Mother Love Bone and then became two of the founding members of Pearl Jam after Wood’s death. They are still members of Pearl Jam. The drummer is Matt Cameron, who was then the drummer for Soundgarden, but he is now the drummer for Pearl Jam (since 1998). Currently, he is also the drummer for the regrouped Soundgarden since 2010. These are all, of course, citizens of that sleepy, depressing township known as Seattle.

Temple of the Dog

Temple of the Dog

Now if you are ever on Jeopardy and select the “90’s grunge” category, you can thank me.

For the record, the greatest 90’s grunge album is not from either Pearl Jam or Soundgarden. It is Alice in Chain’s Jar of FliesNow you know.

Pray for Joey Feek

June 14, 2015

Joey Feek and daughter, Indiana

Joey Feek and daughter, Indiana Feek

I recently posted a performance of “Are You Washed in the Blood?” by the husband-wife country duo, Joey and Rory. They are much beloved by traditional country fans. Their joyful and warm Christian piety is infectious.

Joey gave birth last year for the first time, to a daughter with Down Syndrome. Ken Morton has a lovely story about how Joey and Rory gave an unsolicited show for special needs children at the Golf & Guitars charity event in 2013. Soon thereafter, they learned that Joey was pregnant, and she gave birth about nine months after the charity event. As Ken puts it, “Little Indiana was born with Down Syndrome and I can’t help but think that their performance for a few dozen of our own California Eagles kids wasn’t some sort of audition for them to be parents to a beautiful little special needs girl in front of the heavens.”

Just a few months after giving birth, Joey learned that she had cervical cancer. She scheduled for surgery, which was successful in removing the cancer. But this morning, her husband (Rory) announced that the cancer has returned. You can read the announcement on Rory’s blog. This is so heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking for anyone — but especially for a young mother with a special needs daughter. And it is heartbreaking for all of us who know how special, how beautiful this couple is. They are the salt of the earth.

Rory expresses their faith:

Here’s what Joey and I know…

God has a plan, and His plan is our plan.  Each day that we’re given is a beautiful gift from Him to us.  And while we will pray each day for a miracle, we’re gonna live each day as if it’s a miracle.  And it is.

“Lord, as believers… we trust you completely and pray for your will to be done.  Not ours.

But as flesh and bone, husband and wife… we pray for complete and total healing in Joey’s body, so we can grow old together, holding hands in rockers on our front porch watching the sun go down.

So that our sweet little baby Indiana can not miss one precious moment with her mama.

Amen.  Amen.  Amen.”

Pray for Joey and her husband. And after you pray, you can enjoy this beautiful performance of “A Bible and a Belt”:


Simone Weil

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death.

[“The Love of God and Affliction,” in Waiting for God, p. 68.]

As some of you know, I did my undergraduate thesis in Religious Studies on the French mystic-philosopher, Simone Weil. At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, I was introduced to Simone Weil by one of the philosophy professors, who described herself as a Platonist Anglican. For those of us fortunate to take her classes, she also assigned the Platonist novelist, Iris Murdoch, not surprisingly.

I was enraptured by Weil. I hated her and loved her with equal passion. She demands nothing less.

Simone Weil was a Gnostic. I resisted the “Gnostic” identification for Weil for a long time, even though it is common in Weil studies. I resisted it because Weil is far more interesting, far more important than the libel associated with Gnosticism. “Anti-matter”? “Anti-creation?” Superficially, yes, because our profound suffering requires a love that supersedes all principalities and powers. But alongside suffering, she believed that beauty was the surest path to God, and she believed this with the utmost seriousness and an integrity that should put us all to shame.

Simone Weil is an anomaly. She makes other anomalies appear tame by comparison. Pascal and Kierkegaard are her immediate forebears, at least in general qualifications and applications. This is why she is homeless. Feminists do not know what to do with her. Christians are equally perplexed.

Weil is a heretic, but she is a noble heretic. She is a heretic that the church needs in order to survive and thrive.

In the marriage feast of the new creation, I will drink wine with Simone Weil. I will wipe her tears, and she will kiss mine.


Monty Python explains:

Be aware: adult content.

“That’s what being a Protestant is all about.” Hilarious!

Jamie Lin Wilson

Jamie Lin Wilson

This is an impressive list, if I do say so myself. The quality here is enough to incline listeners of any genre, assuming that you are not an adolescent. I label these artists as “alt-country” in the literal sense: alternative to mainstream country radio.


Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

In 2013, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern was probably the most acclaimed and talked-about release from a country/Americana artist outside of Nashville’s mainstream. Next month, his follow-up album will be released: Something More Than Free. The expectations are high, not normally a good thing for an artist. But I am hopeful. Isbell has the maturity to make significant, long-term contributions to the genre. Below is a recent performance on Letterman, who frequently showcased authentic country on his show. Jason is accompanied by his very lovely and very pregnant wife, Amanda Shires:


Logan Brill, Shuteye

At 24 years old, Logan Brill is wise beyond her years — mature songwriting, thoughtful lyrics, and a good sense for what makes a song special. Her debut album was released two years ago, recognized by That Nashville Sound as one of the best albums of the year. Her sophomore release, Shuteye, is even better. It was released this week, and you can stream it on Spotify. Each song is unique in regard to what influences she brings to the table. Overall, she reminds me of Holly Williams, my favorite singer-songwriter of the last ten years. Here is the third track from Shuteye, “The Woman On Your Mind” (with David Nail):


Sam Outlaw, Angeleno

Sam Outlaw is 32 years old and part of the Southern California country scene. His debut album is due next Tuesday, June 9. The A&E section of The Wall Street Journal has the “exclusive premier” of the album. It’s good — very, very good — with some great diversity and intelligent musicianship. The best song title: “Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar).” Oh, yes! Here is the video for the lead track:

You should also watch “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink (And Fall in Love),” from his EP last year. It’s adorable.


Jamie Lin Wilson, Holidays & Wedding Rings

The review at Saving Country Music says it well: “This is a songwriter’s album in the traditional Texas sense, meaning the music and approach first and foremost focuses on exposing the truth of the lyric. Everything else falls into place behind that. It’s a country record, but one that doesn’t go out of its way to justify it country-ness; it worries more about telling the story.” Her solo debut, Holidays & Wedding Rings, was released a couple weeks ago. Here is “Just Like Heartache”:


Chris Stapleton, Traveller

This will be on the “best of 2015″ lists for many music critics. I guarantee it. What Sturgill Simpson did in 2014, Chris Stapleton will do in 2015. He has already established an impressive reputation in Nashville, writing songs for mainstream artists who are not worthy of his talent. His debut album, Traveller, was released last month. As if his lyrics and musicianship were not enough, he also has an incredible voice. Here is his performance on Letterman:

His wife, Morgan, frequently accompanies him on stage.


Will Hoge, Small Town Dreams

Released in April, Small Town Dreams is Will Hoge’s ninth album and his second for Cumberland Records, an indie label in Nashville. Hoge is a native Tennessean, and he has spent years in Nashville — writing for other artists and for his own records. I saw him in concert here in Charlotte a couple months ago, and he is fantastic. His style is very similar to the thriving Texas music scene, which is basically a continuation of 90’s country. Here is the lead single, “Middle of America”:

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.


The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.


The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, unlike Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.


What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.


Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.


Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.


Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.

On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.

Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.

An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”

Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.

The Christian Doctrine of GodThe Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.


The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.

Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.

Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.

Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.

Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.


Notable Mentions

Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.

The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.

Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!


Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk


Pope Benedict XVI in Luanda, Angola

Joseph Ratzinger:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.

[Faith and the Future (Ignatius Press, 2009), p. 116]

Yes. This is perfectly expressed. Ratzinger published this book, Glaub und Zukunft, in 1970! For many at this time, the hegemony of Christianity would continue into the long future. Sure, there was the sexual revolution and the student riots and much else, but the only thing necessary was an updating of the church. Aggiornamento. This was confidently mapped by Hans Küng at Tübingen, Richard McBrien at Notre Dame, and other darlings of the Western intelligentsia and privileged elites.

Of course, the aggiornamento theologians are still waiting for their update. That’s not likely to happen when Africa has millions of more practicing Catholics than Europe. The future of Christianity is not being hammered out in the Parisian cafés but, rather, in the four metropolitan sees of Uganda or in the archdiocese of Kinshasa, Congo, which is vastly more important than Paris.

As for the the global North, Ratzinger is right. “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” Yep. “She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.” It is not beyond the realm of possibility to see the cathedrals of Our Lady in Reims or Paris suffer the same fate as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. “As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges.” Preach it, brother Ratzinger! “In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society.” Welcome to the free church!


Cardinal Ratzinger

Cardinal Ratzinger


Image above: Pope Benedict XVI greeting Catholics during his visit to Luanda, Angola on March 21, 2009. (source)

Evangelical Ecclesiology

The discussion elicited by the Pew study continues unabated. I offered one response, “What Baptists do right,” which is not at all contingent on the Pew study. It is what I have thought since college, basically with no substantial variation since then.

A couple days ago, Leah Libresco wrote an article for FiveThirtyEight: “Evangelical Protestants Are The Biggest Winners When People Change Faiths,” based upon some code that she wrote for processing the data. Leah Libresco is perhaps known to some of you as an atheist-to-Catholic convert blogger at Patheos. Her article is very interesting and worth reading, looking at the data for both religious transfers and the demographics of child-rearing. As Mary Eberstadt has argued, the decline of the family is a reliable indicator of a soon decline in religion.

Rod Dreher follows-up with his own reflections and questions: “The Evangelical Advantage.”

Ecclesiology in Evangelical Perspective

I would like to offer a further response, as indicated by the title of this blog post. Evangelical ecclesiology? Is there such a thing? That is in fact the central question for an edited volume by John Stackhouse, Jr., Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (Baker Academic, 2003). As my faithful readers know, I have recently been looking hard at weaknesses in Protestant theology, especially ecclesiology. This is also nothing new, as I’ve been doing this off-and-on for several years now. But I am, hopefully, also capable of recognizing and commending the strengths of Protestantism and evangelicalism in particular. I am, after all, an evangelical.

The volume from Stackhouse has a variety of opinions, of mixed quality. Among those that I enjoyed the most is the chapter from Paul F. M. Zahl. For those of you who are evangelical Anglicans, Zahl needs no introduction. He has been a tireless defender of basic orthodoxy and evangelical clarity within The Episcopal Church for decades, though with few tangible results, as he would be the first to admit. His chapter is entitled, “Low-Church and Proud.” Oh yes, you know it’s gonna be good! Zahl begins:

As an evangelical and Protestant Episcopalian, I wonder about the attraction that high-church ecclesiologies have for many of my evangelical sisters and brothers on the free church side. [p. 213]

In fact, Zahl finds it “disturbing” when he witnesses evangelicals “fall for” the aesthetics and hierarchy of high-church bodies. “It seems like a reaction to something that was missing or kinked in childhood, a compensation to make up for an earlier loss.” And he continues, “I am just a little too skeptical of forms and (endlessly revised) prayer books and bishops and words such as unity and semper.” It is “form without substance, Schein without Sein” (ibid.).

Most intriguingly — for an Anglican no less! — Zahl even poses a contrast, an either/or, between Protestant and Catholic. He questions why his evangelical friends who are “compulsively attracted” to high-church form do not go all the way. “Pull a Cardinal Newman. Be consistent”:

For myself, both a systematic theologian by training and an Episcopal cathedral dean by day, I cannot be both. I cannot be Protestant and Catholic. I cannot be evangelical and ecclesiologically “high.” A house divided cannot stand. It has to fall. It always does. [p. 214]

He’s not holding back. You can tell that this is the voice of someone frustrated, with wisdom to share from battles hard fought. Agree or disagree, I like that. He commends Roger Olson’s essay in the same volume, where Olson subordinates ecclesiology to the gospel as a personally directed message of forgiveness and “new being in Christ.” As Zahl comments, “No one hears collectively. It just doesn’t happen. As a parish minister for thirty years, I have never met a person who actually hears collectively.” Naturally, in their “growing integration” of heart, mind, and will, Christians will “often come to appreciate social and political notes in the sound.” Rightly so. “But,” he continues, “given the pain and losses and crimes of the heart, people hear the Word as a word to them individually” (ibid.).

Evangelical Protestants should be proud of their low ecclesiology. “Ecclesiology is important, yes, It is certainly interesting. But it is not saving. If you think ecclesiology is saving, then become a Roman Catholic” (p. 215). This low ecclesiology is “consistent Protestantism,” quoting Olson. By contrast, now turning to the mainline, Zahl sees The Episcopal Church (and, I would add, most of mainline Protestantism) as trying to construct a “liberal catholicism” that “rarely satisfies, because it is a construct for people to have their cake and eat it too. Liberal views of authority and Scripture and cultural rapprochement do not finally cohere with a historic, catholic view of the church. …Bible-anchored evangelicals are bound to be disappointed. I can almost guarantee that” (p. 216).

Evangelicals Understand Community

Lastly, it is important to notice the comments to Rod Dreher’s post, “The Evangelical Advantage.” The comments are very mixed, as you would expect, but I was struck at the number of people who mentioned the friendliness of evangelicals — welcoming and inviting, literally. Evangelicals love to invite: neighbors to church, visitors to lunch, sinners to repentance. It’s what we do. Moreover, we actually foster community in our midst. I have been to a lot of Catholic masses, at several different parishes. It is striking that I have never been invited to lunch or to join a Bible study or to even come back! What planet are Catholics living on? Seriously, this is not hard stuff.

In closing, I will quote Dreher:

In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it.

If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people.

Evangelicals are routinely the butt of jokes, no less from other Christians. It is refreshing to see otherwise.


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