It is easy to look to the great era of English Evangelical hymnody — the 18th and 19th centuries — and extol the sublimity and reverence of the classic hymns, in contradistinction to contemporary worship, but we forget that these hymns are “classic” because they survived the long process of natural selection, ecclesially-speaking, wherein the bad are weeded-out simply because the people, eventually recognizing their inferiority, stop wanting to sing them. So, we now have the great hymns remaining to consult, such as Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Charitie Bancroft’s “Before the Throne of God Above,”  Charles Wesley’s “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and the lesser-known Dora Greenwell’s “I Am Not Skilled to Understand.” I think the situation is much the same today. While I don’t know of any single Watts or Wesley current, there are some promising artists appropriating to the great tradition of gospel-witness in song, such as David Crowder, Charlie Hall, Leeland Mooring, Vicky Beeching, and Chris Tomlin. These songwriters should give heart to those who recognize the value and importance of faithful hymnody (or “praise and worship” as it is now called). For one example, here is Jeremy Riddle’s “Sweetly Broken”:

From Full Attention (Vineyard Music/Varietal Records 2007)

To the cross I look, to the cross I cling
Of its suffering I do drink
Of its work I do sing
For on it my Savior both bruised and crushed
Showed that God is love
And God is just

Chorus:
At the cross You beckon me
You draw me gently to my knees, and I am
Lost for words, so lost in love,
I’m sweetly broken, wholly surrendered

What a priceless gift, undeserved life
Have I been given
Through Christ crucified
You’ve called me out of death
You’ve called me into life
And I was under Your wrath
Now through the cross I’m reconciled

Chorus

In awe of the cross I must confess
How wondrous Your redeeming love and
How great is Your faithfulness

The way of God to man

May 20, 2008

St. Peter's Basilica_Photo by Kevin Davis

Here is an interesting quote from Louis Bouyer in effect summing-up the thesis of his book, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. Unfortunately, we have to say he gets Barth wrong (at least, the Barth of the Church Dogmatics, if not prior), which means he ultimately gets Protestantism wrong since he argues that Barth is the proper fulfillment of Reformation principles. In short, Protestantism errs because it is founded upon nominalist (late medieval, Occamist) philosophy, while Catholicism succeeds because it is founded upon realist (high medieval, Thomist) philosophy. The former negates the world and the human even under the reign of Christ who remains wholly extrinsic and alone in value; i.e., the creature is left to suffer condemnation of all his or her values and attainments until this life and world pass away. Of course, this is not Barth’s understanding, unless you only consider one half of his dialectical “No” and “Yes” in Christ’s judgment on humanity. So, yes, humanity qua humanity is dead though it lives, but humanity qua Christ is alive though it is dead. If that makes no sense to you, you’ll just have to read some Barth (or read John Webster’s Barth for a quality introduction). Here’s a typical quote from Barth: “We can meet God only within the limits of humanity determined by Him. But in these limits we may meet Him. He does not reject the human! Quite the contrary! We must hold fast to this” (The Humanity of God, p. 54). Here’s Bouyer’s understanding, which does have great value as a criticism of much Protestant soteriology:

“It was apparently impossible for Protestant theology to agree that God could put something in man that became in fact his own, and that at the same time the gift remained the possession of the giver. Or else, what comes to the same thing, that even after the intervention of grace man could ever belong to God; it would seem as if man could only belong to him in ceasing to have a distinct existence, in being annihilated. That amounts to saying there can be no real relation between God and man. Barth repeats that according to the Gospel there is no way that leads from man to God. The Catholic theologian, contrary to expectation, finds it easy to agree with him in this. His objection to Barth, and to the whole of Protestantism as represented by him, is that he in fact disallows that God can himself come to man. It may be granted that there is no way from man to God that is not illusory. But the Gospel is the way of God to man; and the charge against Protestantism, as a system directed against Catholicism, is that, whatever its intention, it does in fact bar this way. If the grace of God is such, only on condition that it gives nothing real; if man who believes, by saving faith, is in no way changed from what he was before believing; if justification by faith has to empty of all supernatural reality the Church, her sacraments, her dogmas; if God can only be affirmed by silencing his creature, if he acts only in annihilating it, if his very Word is doomed to be never really heard — what is condemned is not man’s presumptuous way to God, but God’s way of mercy to man.”
The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (London: Harvill Press, 1956), pp. 151-152.

Biographical note: Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) was a French Lutheran convert to the Catholic Church. He was a theological advisor at the Second Vatican Council and a co-founder (with Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, et al.) of the theological journal, Communio.

Here is a 10 minute clip from a fine documentary on Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, filmed before his election to the papacy.

Leaving Church

May 14, 2008

"Reading Young Man" by Ignat Bednarik

InsideCatholic recently did an interesting survey of the reasons Catholics (and, for that matter, Christians in general) leave the Church by asking several prominent Catholics (bishops, professors, lay authors, etc.) for their opinion on the reasons and solutions. I think the bishop of Baker, Oregon, Robert Vasa, gives us the most acute explanation:

“We, as Americans, tend to look for rational reasons for action or for failure to act. There is inherent in the question a search for ‘reason,’ but perhaps it is reason itself, cut off from faith, that is precisely the cause of the abdication of the Catholic Faith. Have we not, after all, made the concept of assent to the truths and teachings of the Catholic Faith much more a matter of reason than faith? Phrases like ‘I just cannot believe that’ manifest a great confusion between reason and faith. What we believe as Catholics is certainly reasonable, but raw reason, without any input from Faith, would of necessity reject a vast majority of what the Church believes and teaches. Modern man finds faith unreasonable and therefore unbelievable.

In America there is a very strong notion that what we believe must make perfect sense to us, and that we are somehow automatically absolved from believing that which does not seem to be rational.”

Billy Graham

For those who know Emil Brunner’s admiration for the American free church model (and evangelical personalism), then you will find this very amusing:

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth once stood in the rain to hear Graham preach in Basel. When he told Graham that the sermon from John 3:3 was good but should not have stressed the must in ‘you must be born again,’ Graham begged to differ (and was soon gratified to hear another great theologian, Emil Brunner, affirm his position). But then Graham closes this account concerning Barth with these words: “In spite of our theological differences, we remained good friends.”

[Mark Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction, Blackwell 2001, p. 47]

Another important theologian, Helmut Thielicke, also attended a Billy Graham crusade, but with certain preconceived notions which put Thielicke in an ill disposition toward the popular preacher. However, after coming under the preaching of Graham, Thielicke experienced an awakening of a sort. He explained in a letter to Graham:

The evening was a profound “penance” experience (poenitentia) for me. … When I have been asked now and again about your preaching, I have certainly not been too modest to make one or two theological observations. My evening with you made clear to me (and the Holy Spirit will have helped in doing so!) that the question should be asked in the reverse form: What is lacking in me and in my colleagues in the pulpit and at the university lectern, that makes Billy Graham so necessary?

In Thielicke’s autobiography, Notes from a Wayfarer, he recounts the situation:

My meeting with Billy Graham, who was at that time holding his huge evangelization crusades in Los Angeles stadium, was of great importance to me. I at first had reservations about accepting his invitation to sit next to him on the balustrade.

When I then did indeed do so on the insistence of my friends, I kept my eyes wide open critically. As the people came forward in their thousands to confess their faith, however, I was aware only of calm meditation on the part of his crew and detected no expressions of triumph. His message was good solid stuff. His warmhearted, unpretentious humanity made a great impression on me.

Afterwards I wrote him a thank you letter in which I confessed that whenever I had previously been asked for my opinion of him I had said that I felt that many essential elements were lacking in his proclamation of the Gospel; he advocated an individualistic doctrine of salvation, and even this took place only in relation to the initial stages of faith. Although I had now personally experienced his message, I did not feel compelled to revise the objective side of this criticism, but I had resolved to modify the question in which I raised my criticism; it now ran: “What is lacking in my and the conventional Christian proclamation of the Gospel that makes Billy Graham necessary?”

I found the answer he gave me extremely significant. I was, he said, completely right in my criticism. What he was doing was certainly the most dubious form of evangelization. But what other alternative did he have if the flocks that had no shepherds would not otherwise be served? This answer gave him credibility in my eyes and convinced me of his spiritual substance.

Graham would take Thielicke’s constructive criticism to heart, as exhibited in his later emphasis on continuing discipleship and the importance of the local church, the latter which caused him much criticism (from fundamentalists) as he worked with local mainline Protestant churches and Roman Catholics whenever his crusade would come to a town.

parish church

“Christ, with the demand for saving obedience, arouses antagonism in the human heart. And so will the Church that is faithful to Him. You hear people saying, If only the Church had been true to Christ’s message it would have done wonders for the world. If only Christ were preached and practised in all His simplicity to the world, how fast Christianity would spread. Would it? Do you really find that the deeper you get into Christ and the meaning of His demands Christianity spreads faster in your heart? Is it not very much the other way? When it comes to close quarters you have actually to be got down and broken, that the old man may be pulverised and the new man created from the dust. Therefore when we hear people abusing the Church and its history the first thing we have to say is, Yes, there is a great deal too much truth in what you say, but there is also a greater truth which you are not allowing for, and it is this. One reason why the Church has been so slow in its progress in mankind and its effect on human history is because it has been so faithful to Christ, so faithful to His Cross. You have to subdue the most intractable, difficult, and slow thing in the world — man’s self-will. You cannot expect rapid successes if you truly preach the Cross whereon Christ died, and which He surmounted not simply by leaving it behind but by rising again, and converting the very Cross into a power and glory.

Christ arouses antagonism in the human heart and heroism does not. Everybody welcomes a hero. The minority welcome Christ.”

P. T. Forsyth
The Work of Christ (1910)
Wipf & Stock, 1996, pp. 20-21