Jon Pardi - California Sunrise

This has been a good year so far.

There is a lot of junk on country radio, but there are significant bright spots as well. Chris Stapleton continues his unprecedented dominance — routinely topping the country album charts and receiving almost every award in which he is qualified to receive, whether from the Country Music Association (CMA) or the Academy of Country Music (ACM). He is sweeping them all! Thank you, Jesus!

In the list below, you will hear some of my favorite songs right now. We have two representatives of the great state of California: Jon Pardi and Sam Outlaw. I love both, but I am especially fond of Sam Outlaw. Texas native, Maren Morris, is a strong female vocalist with a fine sense of what’s good and how to make it even more good. Tim McGraw reminds us how to mature as an artist, with incredible dignity and grace. I love the guy. Chris Stapleton releases his first music video, “Fire Away,” about bipolar disorder and suicide. Craig Campbell has released his new single, “Outskirts of Heaven,” which is remarkably similar to Kip Moore’s “Dirt Road.” Both songs are about how heaven is not clouds and white walls. Instead, heaven is a lot like Dixie (with an implicit shout-out to Hank Jr.).

Granger Smith has released his first #1 single, “Backroad Song,” which somehow manages to elevate itself above the bro-country landscape. On a more serious side, Dan + Shay’s “From the Ground Up” is a heartwarming look at life-long fidelity between a husband and wife. This is a surprisingly mature theme from the young duo, even if the song is perhaps overly sentimental. Finally, Frankie Ballard has released his best single to country radio: “It All Started with a Beer.”

I hope you enjoy. With each video, I have provided some of the lyrics.

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“Head Over Boots,” Jon Pardi

The way you sparkle like a diamond ring

Maybe one day we can make it a thing

Test time and grow old together

Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather, yeah

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“My Church,” Maren Morris

When Hank brings the sermon / And Cash leads the choir

It gets my cold, cold heart burnin’ / Hotter than a ring of fire

When this wonderful world gets heavy / And I need to find my escape

I just keep the wheels rollin’, radio scrollin’ / ‘Til my sins wash away

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“Angeleno,” Sam Outlaw

She didn’t marry for money / A cowboy’s always broke

She didn’t marry for comfort / A cowboy’s never home

But when she looked in his eyes / She saw his soul

Stretchin’ out like a desert / Angeleno

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“Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw

Let yourself feel the pride but / Always stay humble and kind

Don’t expect a free ride from no one

Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why

Bitterness keeps you from flyin’ / Always stay humble and kind

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“Fire Away,” Chris Stapleton

Honey, load up your questions

And pick up your sticks and your stones

And pretend I’m a shelter for heartaches that don’t have a home

Choose the words that cut like a razor

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“Outskirts of Heaven,” Craig Campbell

Lord when I die / I wanna live on the outskirts of Heaven

Where there’s dirt roads for miles / Hay in the fields and fish in the river

Where there’s dogwood trees and honey bees / And blue skies and green grass forever

Lord when I die / I wanna live on the outskirts of Heaven

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“Backroad Song,” Granger Smith

Barbed wire fence carving out a hillside

Cutting holes in the midday sun

Like a postcard framed in a windshield

Covered in dust

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“From the Ground Up,” Dan + Shay

Grandma and grandpa painted a picture

Of 65 years and one little house

More than a memory, more than saying I do

Kiss you goodnight’s and I love you’s

Me and you baby, walk in the footsteps

Build our own family, one day at a time

Ten little toes, a painted pink room

Our beautiful baby looks just like you

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“It All Started with a Beer,” Frankie Ballard

Cursed the devil and prayed to heaven

Lost it all and we rolled some sevens

Been more smiles than there’s been tears

Been more good than bad years

Ain’t it crazy baby how we got here

Oh, it all started with a beer

Calvinism and Art

April 18, 2016

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

“Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality.”

— Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism

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Kuyper’s defense of Calvinism in relation to art is rather bold. I strongly disagree with him. Nonetheless, it is stimulating.

Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is something of a classic in Reformed literature. Delivered as the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in October of 1898, they were published the following year jointly by Höveker & Wormser in Amsterdam, T&T Clark in Edinburgh, and Fleming H. Revell in New York. I will be following the pagination of that edition, freely available.

Kuyper's Calvinism

The fifth lecture is dedicated to art. As with each lecture, Kuyper is committed to showing how Calvinism is superior to all other belief systems, whether that of Rome on the one hand or Liberalism, both Protestant and secular, on the other hand. As Kuyper sees it, Rome’s sacerdotalism replaces God with the Church, and Liberalism’s pantheism replaces God with nature and man’s spirit. Calvinism is, you guessed it, the only consistent system that allows God to be God. The lectures are highly rhetorical.

Calvinism did not develop an art style of its own, and that is a good thing according to Kuyper. Instead, Calvinism liberated art to follow its own principles. That is the gist of Kuyper’s argument. I am not convinced that he succeeds, but it is a fairly sophisticated argument. I will do my best to present it, along with a generous amount of quotations.

Calvinism’s “Maturity”

His argument follows a historical analysis of civilization’s progress. In the lower stage of man’s development, art and religion were inextricably woven together. “Scarcely a single art-style can be mentioned which did not arise from the center of divine worship and which did not seek the realization of its ideals in the sumptuous structure for that worship” (195). This a noble thing, according to Kuyper. Nonetheless, “If, however, it can be shown that this alliance of religion and art represents a lower stage of religious, and in general of human development, then it is plain, that in this very want of a special architectural style, Calvinism finds an even higher recommendation” (195). That is what Kuyper aims to prove for the rest of the lecture.

What is most remarkable is that Kuyper locates the greatest artistic achievements, specifically architectural, in this “lower stage.” This includes the Pantheon in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica, Cologne Cathedral, et al. I have to admit that it takes some guts to relegate these to a “lower stage”! All of these edifices represent a time when art was beholden to religion. For Kuyper, that is the primitive alliance from which Calvinism set us free. He weaves his discussion of artistic liberation with political liberation:

First then the aesthetic development of divine worship carried to those ideal heights of which the Parthenon and the Pantheon, the Saint Sophia and Saint Peter are the stone-embroidered witnesses, is only possible at that lower stage, in which the same form of religion is imposed upon a whole nation, both by prince and priest. In that case every difference of spiritual expression fuses into one mode of symbolical worship, and this union of the masses, under the leadership of the magistrate and the clergy, furnishes the possibility of defraying the immense expense of such colossal structures, and of ornamenting and decorating them. In the case, however, of a progressive development of the nations, when individual character-traits split the unity of the masses, Religion also rises to that higher plain where it graduates from the symbolical into the clearly-conscious life, and thereby necessitates both the division of worship into many forms, and the emancipation of matured religion from all sacerdotal and political guardianship. (196)

More than Lutheranism, as Kuyper continues, it is Calvinism that fully freed us from this “sacerdotal and political guardianship.” It is striking to me how much weight Kuyper places upon this matter of “guardianship,” whether civil or ecclesiastic. It is integral to his conception of Calvinism’s greatest value — freedom — including in the realm of art. Perhaps Kuyper’s disciples will disagree with me that “freedom” is Calvinism’s greatest value, but it is on nearly every page of this volume! It is at the heart of his rhetorical strategy.

For Kuyper, we have moved from a primitive to a mature stage in human development. It is in the primitive stage that symbolic forms are necessary, not at the mature stage. As he summarizes his account of our emancipation:

As a result of this, [Calvinism] abandoned the symbolical form of worship, and refused, at the demand of art, to embody its religious spirit in monuments of splendor. (196-197)

The symbolic is superfluous for the mature believer. It is not necessary. This is even demonstrated in the Bible, where the symbolic worship in Israel is but “the ministry of shadows,” and, moreover, part of a “state-religion, which is one and the same for the entire people.” It is a religion “under sacerdotal leadership” (197). So, Israel represents a lower stage, as with the Church of Rome, insofar as both maintain a certain symbolic primitiveness and guardianship. Christ does away with all of this, bringing forth a free and mature people. His priesthood is spiritual and eternal. “The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical” (197).

Enter Hegel (Not Surprisingly)

Kuyper then appeals to Hegel and Von Hartmann. As non-Calvinists and philosophers, they are not partisans. Kuyper writes:

Hegel says that art, which, at a lower stage of development, imparts to a still sensual religion its highest expression, finally helps it by these very means to cast off the fetters of sensuality; for though it must be granted that at a lower level it is only the aesthetical worship that liberates the spirit, nevertheless, he concludes, “beautiful art is not its highest emancipation”, for that is only found in the realm of the invisible and spiritual. And Von Hartmann even more emphatically declares that: Originally Divine worship appeared inseparably united to art, because, at the lower stage, Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form. At that period, all the arts, he says, engage in the service of the cult, not merely music, painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the dance, mimicry and the drama. The more, on the other hand, Religion develops into spiritual maturity, the more it will extricate itself from art’s bandages, because art always remains incapable of expressing the very essence of Religion. (198)

So you can see how Hegel and Von Hartmann are representing Kuyper’s perspective, assuming that Kuyper is presenting them accurately. Beautiful art is “not the highest emancipation.” This union of art and religion represents a lower stage where “Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form.” Kuyper quotes Von Hartmann as saying, “Religion, when fully matured, will rather entirely abstain from the stimulant by which aesthetic pseudo-emotion intoxicated it, in order to concentrate itself wholly and exclusively upon the quickening of these emotions which are purely religious” (198). Wow! We have the opposition of “aesthetic pseudo-emotion” and the “purely religious.” The frozen chosen must not get too excited and emotional!

Kuyper continues with his theme that our maturity requires a separation of religion and art. He is always clear: “And so, arrived at their highest development, both Religion and Art demand an independent existence, and the two stems which at first were intertwined and seemed to belong to the same plant, now appear to spring from a root of their own” (199). Once again, Kuyper reiterates that this is a more advanced stage, akin to Aaron versus Christ and “Romanism” versus Calvinism. Once again, Kuyper must be quoted in full:

Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality. (199)

Kuyper is very fond of describing Calvinism as “vigorous” and other manly attributes. Therefore, he laments that “the pulse-beat of the religious life in our times is so much fainter than it was in the days of our martyrs,” by which he means the Calvinist martyrs and the liberation of Holland from Spain. That was the golden age for which Kuyper longs. It was a time when Calvinism made men to be men! “The man who fears God, and whose faculties remain clear and unimpaired, does not on the brink of age return to the playthings of his infancy” (200). Thus, it is not surprising that he would appeal to Hegel. They have far more in common than Kuyper would probably like to admit. Both occupied similar terrain in defending a progressivist and emancipation-oriented history of man, conveniently locating their own ideas at the pinnacle of this progress.

Kuyper sees Calvinism as a supremely sober and manly religion. By contrast, Roman Catholics are weak-minded and their spirituality is effeminate, as evidenced by their dependence upon aesthetic symbols.

You can read the rest of the lecture on your own time. Kuyper further explains what he means by the liberation of art, which does not mean that he is advocating for a purely secular art. Rather, his understanding of “common grace” means that even non-religious or non-cultic art is still properly understood in its orientation toward God.

I am not convinced that Kuyper’s “common grace” is helpful, at least not in this lecture. The damage is already done. It is hard for me to imagine anyone, other than the most ardent Neo-Calvinist, who finds Kuyper’s presentation to be compelling. This is probably the most ingenious way to defend Calvinism vis-à-vis art, but it is almost comical. If Chartres and Hagia Sophia are examples of a primitive and lower stage in man’s development, then I will take the “lower stage.” Of course, Kuyper mentions Dutch painters of the 17th century (see p. 223). Rembrandt is great, but if that is the “liberation” that Calvinism offers and little else — forgive my incredulity. This is a stimulating lecture, but I am far from convinced.

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Image: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

 

Barcelona Cathedral, August 2015 - photograph by Kevin Anthony Davis

Barcelona Cathedral

The Cathedral of Barcelona, known in Catalan as Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia. Photograph is mine.

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What made the Church’s art distinctive in the West during the Middle Ages?

Joseph Ratzinger gives an answer in his The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press). It is not a long answer, covering only a few pages, but I think it is worth sharing. The following quotes and excerpts can be found on pp. 126-128.

The Narrative of the Cross

According to Ratzinger, the West distinguishes itself from the Eastern Church, and its shared patrimony with the East, in the art that we know as the Gothic. It is in the Gothic that “the central image becomes different.” How? The risen and victorious Lord, who brings harmony and rest, is “superseded by the image of the crucified Lord in the agony of his passion and death.” This is the distinctive narrative that dominates the Gothic, and moreover the focus on narrative and history is what is most distinctive. As Ratzinger continues:

The story is told of the historical events of the Passion, but the Resurrection is not made visible. The historical and narrative aspect of art comes to the fore. It has been said that the mysterial image has been replaced by the devotional image.

We will soon see what this means, namely the contrast between “mysterial” and “devotional.”

From Plato to Aristotle

With the help of Paul Evdokimov, Ratzinger explains one important factor that contributes to this change in the West. Evdokimov was a Russian-French Orthodox theologian and professor in Paris. According to Evdokimov, we must look at the shift from Platonism to Aristotelianism. Here is how Ratzinger summarizes it:

Platonism sees sensible things as shadows of the eternal archetypes. In the sensible we can and should know the archetypes and rise up through the former to the latter. Aristotelianism rejects the doctrine of Ideas. The thing, composed of matter and form, exists in its own right. Through abstraction I discern the species to which it belongs. …The relationship of the spiritual and the material has changed and with it man’s attitude to reality as it appears to him. For Plato, the category of the beautiful had been definitive. The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful, to the Good in itself.

This Platonist understanding is seen in the iconography of the East and the theology that supports it, though Ratzinger highlights the Church’s transformation of Platonism “by the light of Tabor” and ultimately by the Incarnate God — whereby “the material order as such has been given a new dignity and a new value.” But in the medieval West, this Christian Platonism “largely disappears,” according to Evdokimov by way of Ratzinger. That is probably putting it too strongly, but here is how Ratzinger explains it:

…now the art of painting strives first and foremost to depict events that have taken place. Salvation history is seen less as a sacrament than as a narrative unfolded in time. Thus the relationship to the liturgy also changes. It is seen as a kind of symbolic reproduction of the event of the Cross. Piety responds by turning chiefly to meditation on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. Art finds its inspiration less in the liturgy than in popular piety, and popular piety is in turn nourished by the historical images in which it can contemplate the way to Christ, the way of Jesus himself and its continuation in the saints. …A devotion to the Cross of a more historicizing kind replaces orientation to the Oriens, to the risen Lord who has gone ahead of us.

Ratzinger then cautions us not to “exaggerate the differences” that have developed in the West. “True, the depiction of Christ dying in pain on the Cross is something new, but it still depicts him who bore our pains, by whose stripes we are healed.” There is still a mystery into which we must enter.

The Consolation of the Cross

The example of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, which Ratzinger uses to illustrate, is familiar to every student of Karl Barth. Ratzinger uses it to illustrate his point that the Gothic allowed for a deeper sense of our sharing in the mystery of Christ’s redemption:

Though Grünewald’s altarpiece takes the realism of the Passion to a radical extreme, the fact remains that it was an image of consolation. It enabled the plague victims cared for by the Antonians to recognize that God identified with them in their fate, to see that he had descended into their suffering and that their suffering lay hidden in his. There is a decisive turn to what is human, historical, in Christ, but it is animated by a sense that these human afflictions of his belong to the mystery. The images are consoling, because they make visible the overcoming of our anguish in the incarnate God’s sharing of our suffering, and so they bear within them the message of the Resurrection.

You can see how Ratzinger is bringing together the realism characteristic of the West and the mystery characteristic of the East. As he puts it, “The mystery is unfolded in an extremity of concreteness, and popular piety is enabled thereby to reach the heart of the liturgy in a new way” (emphasis mine). These images “come from prayer, from interior meditation on the way of Christ.” Indeed, the point of Western realism in its Gothic form is not to draw attention to the phenomenal reality alone, in a sort of reductive or positivist way. As Ratzinger explains, the images “do not show just the ‘surface of the skin’, the external sensible world; they, too, are intended to lead us through mere outward appearance and open our eyes to the heart of God.” He continues:

What we are suggesting here about the images of the Cross applies also to all the rest of the “narrative” art of the Gothic style. What power of inward devotion lies in the images of the Mother of God! They manifest the new humanity of the faith. Such images are an invitation to prayer, because they are permeated with prayer from within. They show us the true image of man as planned by the Creator and renewed by Christ.

There is a lot to ponder.

In this brief account of Gothic art, Ratzinger emphasizes the Cross, which was made an emphasis in the West by the Aristotelian turn toward history and narrative. I am sure that specialists can quibble with this account, but that’s why people don’t like specialists.

The striking thing for me is this emphasis on the Cross. If Ratzinger is correct, Gothic art is not “triumphalist” or expressing “a theology of glory” (vs. “a theology of the cross”) as some Protestant polemics would have it. There is grandeur to be sure, and vanity was probably of greater weight than humility for most of the bishops who were patrons of the artists and artisans. But the narrative and devotional aspect of a cruciform piety is striking indeed, and that is evident for anyone who has toured the great medieval works of France, Spain, England, etc., whether the stained glass or the paintings or the architecture.

Rome - St Peter's Basilica - photo by Kevin A. Davis

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

I am reading the long-anticipated “apostolic exhortation” finally issued by the Vatican. The title is “Amoris Laetitia,” or, “The Joy of Love.” I am enjoying it for the most part.

It is exceptionally long at around 260 pages. I have read enough of it now to get a good sense of the whole, and I do not see the value in releasing an exhortation this long. Much of the material is simply quotes from the final document produced by the Synod on the Family and already published. Why not distill and summarize this material? Why not simply refer to it in the footnotes? “The Joy of Love” is overly laborious.

That’s a small complaint, perhaps, but it makes a difference in whether it will get widely read, even among priests and theologians. This means that nearly everyone will rely upon journalists and reporters to give us the important stuff. That is not normally a good thing. For example…

Same-sex Unions?

I heard on NPR this afternoon an interview with an “expert” discussing the document. When the NPR host asked him directly about what “The Joy of Love” says about same-sex unions, the “expert” said that it leaves the matter open to the conscience of the individual in dialog with his priest. Sorry to disappoint this “expert,” but that is most definitely not what the document says about same-sex unions.

There is actually not much that pertains directly to same-sex unions, which is not surprising. The point of the synod and the point of the exhortation is to strengthen marriage (which same-sex unions are not and cannot be) in the midst of the unique challenges that face this institution and sacrament in the 21st century. But, of course, everyone is curious what it does say about same-sex unions, which is this:

There is a failure to realize that only the exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman has a plenary role to play in society as a stable commitment that bears fruit in new life. We need to acknowledge the great variety of family situations that can offer a certain stability, but de facto or same-sex unions, for example, may not simply be equated with marriage. No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society. (52)

In various countries, legislation facilitates a growing variety of alternatives to marriage, with the result that marriage, with its characteristics of exclusivity, indissolubility and openness to life, comes to appear as an old-fashioned and outdated option. Many countries are witnessing a legal deconstruction of the family, tending to adopt models based almost exclusively on the autonomy of the individual will. (53)

In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family”. It is unacceptable “that local Churches should be subjected to pressure in this matter and that international bodies should make financial aid to poor countries dependent on the introduction of laws to establish ‘marriage’ between persons of the same sex.” (251)

Moreover, there is an important section, featuring the theology of John Paul II, near the beginning of the document. Herein, the male-female, husband-wife union in love is an icon of the Trinity, imaging and revealing the inner life of God, indeed his own “very being” (see 10-11). Rome is still standing athwart the West’s sexual revolution and gender revolution. The difficulty is the pastoral care of individuals, especially innocent victims in a failed marriage. There is much more happening in this lengthy document, but understandably our attention is on these issues.

And as for gender, there is this:

Yet another challenge is posed by the various forms of an ideology of gender that “denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family. This ideology leads to educational programmes and legislative enactments that promote a personal identity and emotional intimacy radically separated from the biological difference between male and female. Consequently, human identity becomes the choice of the individual, one which can also change over time”. It is a source of concern that some ideologies of this sort, which seek to respond to what are at times understandable aspirations, manage to assert themselves as absolute and unquestionable, even dictating how children should be raised. It needs to be emphasized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated.” (56)

I do not expect this paragraph to be widely quoted among Francis’ admirers in the media.

Against Individualism

In the second chapter, there is an important quote from a Spanish Bishops’ Conference document, Matrimonio y familia, from 1979:

…equal consideration needs to be given to the growing danger represented by an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds and ends up considering each member of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute. (33)

As we all know, the belief that one’s personality is “shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute” is the rallying cry of our day — regardless of one’s sexual orientation. As a result, the family is only convenient or expedient in how it may service the desires of the individual. A little later we read:

As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them. (35)

In this effort to present a positive and attractive vision of marriage, the pope then cautions about “the way we present our Christian beliefs and treat other people.” He writes, “We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation” (36). As a result, there has been an “excessive idealization” that has contributed to an insensitivity toward the particular circumstances and struggles of couples. Unfortunately, the pope is not entirely clear on how the conscience is to be evaluated:

We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them. (37)

This can be interpreted in a way consistent with the Catholic Church’s longstanding teaching that the conscience must be formed properly by right doctrine and practice. Formed properly, the moral agency of the individual is truly free and not controlled or coerced from without. However, it would not be hard for someone to interpret this passage as giving the conscience a certain autonomy and intrinsic justification.

All in all, the pope is warning us about how we center ourselves around our desires, obsessed with cultivating ourselves, our independence. “We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop” (39). The social teachings of the Church on justice and fairness are frequent throughout the document. For example, “The lack of dignified or affordable housing often leads to the postponement of formal relationships” (44). “The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union” (54). Many more examples could be given.

Gospel First

The overall thrust is that the pope firmly believes that grace and joy, not law and condemnation, is far more effective in achieving the Church’s moral goals in the lives of individuals. For example, “…we have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness” (38).

The pope is not necessarily pitting grace against law, though that has surely been the impression of many casual observers of Pope Francis. I would rather say that (like Karl Barth?) he is reversing the traditional law-gospel order and presentation to a gospel-law order and presentation. This aspect of Francis’ ministry deserves a whole other article.

Communion for Divorced-and-Remarried?

The major headline for both the synod and now for the apostolic exhortation has been about the divorced and remarried. I will wait until I have studied the eighth chapter before I talk about it in any detail. The issue concerns those Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried. As such, their previous marriage is valid — unless it has been annulled and therefore declared an invalid marriage from the beginning — and therefore their subsequent civil marriage is invalid. Their current civil marriage is objectively immoral and a scandal.

But what to do when such a person is now wholly penitent and in fact may even have been the innocent victim in the separation from his or her spouse? How is mercy applied in this case? How is mercy applied without effectively undermining the indissolubility of marriage?

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Image: Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. The photograph is mine.

 

The Unity of the Church

April 4, 2016

st-ignatius-of-antioch

I recently re-read St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters. These are among the earliest extant writings that we have from the church outside of the New Testament.

There are seven letters, including a letter to St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Ignatius and Polycarp have similar histories. Both were bishops, both were martyrs, and both are believed to be disciples of an apostle: St. John the Evangelist. Not too shabby. These letters were written while Ignatius was en route to Rome, where he was fed to wild beasts in the Colosseum. Ignatius died in c. 108, so these letters are from the first decade of the second century. And as bishop of Antioch, he was bishop of a very important city for the apostolic mission and burgeoning church — and, eventually, an honored patriarchate in the Orthodox Church.

Like Irenaeus in the subsequent generation, Ignatius is concerned with heresy, such as a docetic christology. It is actually quite astonishing, the intensity of Ignatius’ concern with heresy, all the while being led to his glorious death (as he assures us in exuberant language). The concern is evidently much to do with the unity of the church. This is a prominent characteristic of his letters. Importantly, Ignatius’ appeal for church unity and the rejection of false teachers is directly and explicitly tied to the authority of the bishops.

Bishops are a big deal for Ignatius. Sure, he’s a bishop himself, but he can hardly be accused of personal aggrandizement. I will not discuss the extensive scholarly commentary on ἐπίσκοπος (episkopos) and πρεσβύτερος (presbuteros/presbyter) in the NT. Others can draw-out any relevant points.

I provide some excerpts below — with ellipses omitted for the most part — and my thoughts afterwards.

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Letter to Ephesus

—I hasten to urge you to harmonize your actions with God’s mind. For Jesus Christ – that life from which we can’t be torn – is the Father’s mind, as the bishops too, appointed the world over, reflect the mind of Jesus Christ. Hence you should act in accord with the bishop’s mind, as you surely do.

—It is written, moreover, ‘God resists the proud.’ Let us, then, heartily avoid resisting the bishop so that we may be subject to God.

—It is clear, then, that we should regard the bishop as the Lord himself.

Letter to Magnesia

—Now, it is not right to presume on the youthfulness of your bishop. You ought to respect him as fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.

—Hence I urge you to aim to do everything in godly agreement. Let the bishop preside in God’s place, and the presbyters take the place of the apostolic council….

—As, then, the Lord did nothing without the Father…because he was at one with him, so you must not do anything without the bishop and presbyters.

Letter to Philadelphia

—As many as are God’s and Jesus Christ’s, they are on the bishop’s side; and as many as repent and enter the unity of the church, they shall be God’s, and thus they shall live in Jesus Christ’s way. Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic he will not inherit God’s Kingdom.

Letter to Smyrna

—Flee from schism as the source of mischief. You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. …Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval. …Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

—He who pays the bishop honor has been honored by God. But he who acts without the bishop’s knowledge is in the devil’s service.

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In the letter to Smyrna, we have the first instance of “Catholic Church,” and it is connected with the authority of the bishop. I could have provided many more excerpts, from these letters alone, pertaining to the authority of bishops.

And it should be striking how strongly this authority is expressed. We are instructed to “regard the bishop as the Lord himself.” The respect that you owe the bishop is “fully as you respect the authority of God the Father.” “Let the bishop preside in God’s place…,” and on and on.

You can read these letters in Cyril Richardson’s Early Christian Fathers, which you can download from CCEL. Richardson’s edition was originally published in 1953 as a part of the still widely-used Library of Christian Classics series from Westminster Press, now WJK Press.

It is true that Ignatius does not articulate an explicit doctrine of apostolic succession, as Irenaeus does (not long afterwards). But it is hard to not see an implicit doctrine of apostolic succession. At the least, it is easy to see how Irenaeus (et al.) would make this explicit in his teaching on episcopal authority. For these fathers, the unity of the church and its orthodoxy were inextricably connected with the authority of bishops, especially in the apostolic sees like Antioch. Of course, this becomes a bit more complicated when you have Arian bishops in the 4th century, but nonetheless the basic principles for unity and authority were well established — and, unless you were a Cathar in Southern France, continued well into the middle ages.

It was only fundamentally disrupted, in many principalities, with the Protestant Reformation. The result is well known. Unity can only ever be a pneumatological reality in Protestantism, certainly not a visible, episcopal reality.