08 June 2011

Texts without Contexts

I mentioned yesterday how I have huge difficulty understanding Evangelical thinking, but how I've been given a few pointers that I think will help me in the long run.

Well, I want to get one of these pointers down here now, while it's fresh and relevant to something I've been reading.

In Essentials, John Stott comments on Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, noting how nuanced and ambiguous it is in terms of what it says about how those who do not know or for whatever reason cannot hear the Gospel may yet be saved. However, he observes, there's no such ambiguity to be seen in Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II's first Papal encyclical, in which he said:
'Man -- every man without any exception whatever -- has been redeemed by Christ, and ... with man -- with each man without any exception whatever -- Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it'
That kind of unconditional universalism, says Stott, must, however, be firmly rejected by those who look to Scripture for authoritative guidance.

I blinked a bit when I read that. JPII a universalist? Really? This was news to me, so I went and had a read of Redemptor Hominis, and rather quickly came to the conclusion that John Paul had been talking about our redemption as distinct from our salvation. That is, he was saying we've all been redeemed; he was not saying we'll all be saved. Insofar as as he said we're all united in Christ he didn't say anything that was in any sense outside the Christian mainstream. We need only look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, for instance, where the Lutheran martyr said:
'The death of Jesus is the manifestation of God's righteousness, it is the place where God has given gracious proof of his own righteousness, the place where alone the righteousness of God will dwell. By sharing in this death we too become partakers of that righteousness. For it was our flesh Christ took upon him, and our sins which he bore in his body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24). What happened there to him happened to us all.'
How could so eminent a Christian teacher as John Stott, someone famed for his erudition and charitable spirit, have so misrepresented John Paul II? He may not see any difference between redemption and salvation, but surely he must realise that Catholic teaching carefully distinguishes between the two. He couldn't just be prooftexting, could he? Mining Catholic writings to take passages out of context and misinterpreing them in line with his own preconceptions?

The thing is, I've seen this happen before, and again in the case of someone who's admired as an Evangelical academic and pastor, that being Don Carson, he who's so famous for declaring that 'a text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof text'. I went to a talk he gave some months ago, and was far from impressed by it, for a few reasons, and a couple of Protestant friends of mine who were there too were even less taken with what he said than I'd been -- they've hardly been back to that church since -- and this left me wondering why people think so much of him. I glanced about online to try to find out more about him, and I came across an article he'd written about marriage, in which he said the following:
'But it is important to see that, strictly speaking, marriage (despite the Roman Catholic Church), is not a sacrament to be reserved for Christians. It is a creation ordinance — that is, it is part of the plan of creation itself, something that God has ordained for man/woman pairs everywhere, not something that flows out of the life of the church and that belongs only to Christians.'
This astounded me. Carson is quite highly regarded, and apparently very well-read, supposedly reading 500 books a year, although he admits many of them he barely skims. And despite all his learning, he thinks that the Church says that marriage is a sacrament and is reserved for Christians. The Church says nothing of the sort. Sure, it says Christian marriage is a sacrament, and that Christian marriage is reserved for Christians, but it doesn't dispute for a moment the reality, the validity, or the legitimacy of other marriages. It's not as if this is an obscure point, either. It's openly explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and indeed is pretty clear even in the first paragraph of the section on marriage.

This isn't his only mention of the Church in the article, though, as he later says that there's no need for a marriage to take place in a religious context or in the presence of a religious minister:
'There does not have to be a minister in order to be “done” properly. We have no interest in preserving the vestiges of medieval Catholic theology of marriage.'
Again, this is utter nonsense. I did an essay on medieval marriage when I was an undergraduate history student, and -- for what it's worth -- an atheist, and one thing I learned was that to be deemed sacramental or even valid, medieval marriages didn't need to be public affairs, conducted in the presence of a priest or any other religious minister. No, despite numerous attempts to regularise the situation -- attempts dating right back to Ignatius of Antioch around 107 AD -- so-called 'clandestine' marriages without what we might describe as priestly supervision were very common, as medieval annulment and divorce records make clear; indeed, they were only definitively abolished under the 1563 Tametsi decree of the Council of Trent. They were abolished for pragmatic and pastoral reasons, not theological ones. To this day the Church retains its ancient theology of marriage, remaining utterly adamant that in Christian marriage, it is the spouses who are the ministers of Christ's grace, mutually conferring upon each other the sacrament of matrimony. Again, it's in the Catechism, and it's not all that obscure a point either, as when I was talking about this over coffee after Mass the other week, several of the ladies there pointed out that this had been clearly explained to them decades ago by the nuns who had taught them at school.

So what's going on? How can people as highly regarded and apparently as decent and as competent as Don Carson and John Stott get the Catholic Church so egregiously wrong? I don't believe they're stupid, dishonest, or lazy, and I don't believe they don't care about truth, so what's behind this?

Time and time again over recent years I've been astounded to be told things about the Catholic Church by Protestant friends, things which I either knew to be false, or subsequently looked into and discovered to be false. That's not to say that there weren't elements of truth in what they'd said, but what truth there was in them was invariably misunderstood and distorted, mingled with outright falsehood and magnified to a point where I occasionally am tempted to wonder whether there's a Giant Bumper Book of Protestant Myths about the Catholic Church out there. I could reel off examples, but I'd be here all day, and, well, my lunch break is only so long.

Still, I think I was given a clue to this some weeks ago. I'd had a few chats, and exhanged a few emails, with one of my newer Evangelical friends, with us talking about the Reformation period in sixteenth-century England, and I'd contested some  myths about the period. In replying he admitted that he had a predisposition to prefer the reformers because of what he knew of them, and the Protestant narrative as a whole, because of what he knew of the Catholic Church -- apparently oblivious to the fact that what he's heard of the reformers and the Church he's heard within the Protestant tradition. He conceded that this wasn't an academically rigorous approach, but said that this could hardly be helped as he didn't have the time to study history to a high level.

I can understand that approach up to a point at my friend's level, though even then it leaves me uneasy -- my instinct is always to find out why the other guy thinks what he does, and to do so by asking him and listening to him, rather than by listening to his opponents -- but I wonder if this mindset is in play at higher levels too. 

Is it simply that the likes of Carson have long made up their minds about what the Catholic Church teaches, having been taught a simplistic and largely false version of it long ago by people they trust, so that nowadays they think it has nothing of value to say, nothing worth engaging with? Is it that they've read books written by people who believe these myths, and that they simply trust them, without going to the sources? Is it that they'll read the odd passage from Church documents of one sort or another, and -- without understanding their context in the document and in the broader Church tradition -- will reach conclusions about them that they simply couldn't reach if they actually engaged with them in a meaningful way?

I don't know if that is the case, but I'm having trouble coming up with a more charitable explanation for their spreading falsehoods about the Church. And if it is true, I rather wish they'd try reading some proper grown-up Catholic books, and reading them slowly, not to find fault, just to understand.  We live in a world full of caricatures, and sometimes we should stop and listen to people on their own terms.

1 comment:

russ said...

Yes there is a "Giant Bumper Book of Protestant Myths about the Catholic Church " It was written by Calvinist Dr.Lorraine Bottner in 1962 and has been the Anti- Catholic Bible for the past 50 years. Though it has been proven to be an extremely shoddy piece of work disguised as scholastic theology, it has provided the majority of mythology that continues to poison the protestants who fail to find out what the Church says about her self.