In Defense Of The Pope

I am a Protestant.  Not only a Protestant, but an evangelical.  And not only an evangelical, but a Calvinist.  In short, I have no love for the Papacy.  I do not believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, nor is he in any meaningful sense the successor of the Apostle Peter.  When it comes to Christian doctrine, especially the gospel, the Papacy obscures rather than illuminating the truth of Scripture.

Having established my Reformation bona fides, however, I do believe the Pope serves a different kind of role in modern Western culture, an important role that he is uniquely suited for.

Due to all the papal fervor in the news after Benedict XVI’s resignation I started reading one of his many books, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures.  In it, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger carefully lays out a cultural and philosophical critique of the Enlightenment and her children, modernity and secularism.  He makes a persuasive case for Christianity as both a philosophical grounding for science and ethics and a cultural powerhouse, enabling creativity and promoting a freedom that is not self-destructive.

This is the sort of apologetics that many Christians, especially evangelicals, are becoming accustomed to.  Events and programs geared toward “defending the faith” are on the rise, spearheaded by institutions such as Biola.  The difficulty that such programs are encountering today is that fewer people are listening.  Increasingly people inhabit niche entertainment bubbles that are difficult to break through.  Between Netflix and RSS feeds, daily media consumption is made to order.  Major news outlets such as the New York Times or NBC, which still have some residual power to cut into these bubbles, are not likely to cover the latest William Lane Craig debate.  And yet one thing these same outlets cannot seem to get enough of is the Roman Catholic church.  This isn’t surprising.  Left leaning news organizations love to hate Christianity, and Catholics provide the easiest target.  The Catholic church is the largest and most visible single organization that claims to represent Christianity.  Moreover they are monolithic, such that a reporter can reasonably expect to get “the Catholic answer” to some question.  In contrast, you can speak to 100 different Protestant pastors and reasonably expect 100 different answers.

In short, the unique standing of Roman Catholicism on the world stage provides its leader, the Pope, with a unique platform;  the true bully pulpit.

Again, I would not actively promote Catholic dogma, but when the Pope is addressing the entire world, especially non-Christians, he tends to speak more broadly and philosophically, and not dogmatically.  In Crisis of Cultures, Ratzinger does not address at length the bodily assumption of Mary, as that would be counter productive.  He instead focuses on the common heritage of the West against modern secularism and Islam, which includes some ancient Greek and Roman thought as well as “Judeo-Christianity.”

And this is what I have in mind for the Pope’s unique role.  Rather than the actual head of the Christian church, which he is not, I view the Pope as a kind of figurehead of Western civilization.  The bar for this position is set decidedly lower than for the head of the church.  Just as I don’t worry too much about the specific doctrinal beliefs of the US President, It doesn’t matter much whether the “Head of Western Civilization” is a Calvinist or Arminian, Paedobaptist or Credobaptist.  Basically, he only needs to be a Trinitarian and a Platonist (to some extent) in the vein of Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, or C. S. Lewis.  Even the Trinity is not strictly necessary, since the broader Western tradition includes Jews and some of the ancients as well as Christians, but I would argue that it was Christianity specifically that produced the art, science and political thought of the modern Western world.  Popes also tend to have the benefits of first rate intellects and educations, else they aren’t likely to be elevated to such high positions.

All of this, then, gives us a man who has a solid grounding in the best philosophical aspects of the Western heritage, combined with social and moral teachings that all traditional Christians and Jews agree with, and he has the largest and most visible platform of any public figure in the world.  There are obvious drawbacks to a monolithic organization like the Catholic church, as the recent sex abuse scandals make clear.  Such problems can be overcome, however, and the moral and intellectual authority of the Pope does not rest on any supposed claim to perfection.  Instead, this authority rests upon the power and persuasiveness of the ideas to which the Pope appeals and seeks to defend.  The ideas of the West.

Thus, when we consider the cultural battle lines being drawn between the heritage of the West and the forces of postmodern secularism, atheism, radical feminism, etc, I think evangelicals can recognize the important role of the Pope on a cultural and sometimes political level without giving into the error of trying to erase all doctrinal distinctinves (or pretending that they do not matter), undoing the important work of the Reformation.  We can join hapily in the public square with Roman Catholics on issues like abortion, just as we would with Orthodox Jews or Muslims, without pretending that we are all one church with an identical gospel.  And we do so recognizing that the Pope provides us all with a powerful voice;  one that Western culture desperately needs.

The Story of Civilization: A One Stop Shop for Western History

In 2012, I started working my way through The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It’s an eleven-tome series on the history of Western civilization, going from Eastern influences on the West in volume one and Greek civilization to Napoleon in volumes two through eleven. I got through the first six volumes of this series last year, and this year I will try for the remaining five. This series is one that I have wanted to read for a long time, and I am very pleased to have read what I could. Continue reading The Story of Civilization: A One Stop Shop for Western History

On Evangelicals Practicing Lent

The Gospel Coalition argued this week that Lent is primarily about Jesus, and so can (and perhaps even should) be practiced by those of us who aren’t in denominations that currently practice it (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglican churches, if my counting is accurate). Personally, I stand in a place where I’m open to and eager to learn from practices like Lent, the liturgy (of which I suspect Lent is functionally an extension), church history, and the church calendar, regardless of my status as a staunch protestant evangelical. Perhaps it was my education–reading believers throughout history, particularly before the reformation, will lead anyone to be a little more open to thought that used to sound rather Catholic to my ears–or perhaps it is something in my disposition, but I think that it is likely that many of us could learn a thing or two from certain ancient practices.

My reasons for this are more complex than what I’ll offer here, but briefly, here is an outline: our lives are such that we think and pray differently depending on our posture (and I don’t mean posture simply as ‘how we sit,’ though that is a part of it; I also mean the sorts of things we do with our bodies and minds daily), and so it follows that sometimes we should seek to change our posture to encourage us to think and pray better. Christians have sought to do this for a couple thousand years now, and some of our practices are directly Scriptural (communion, or the Eucharist, comes to mind, as does fasting itself, and baptism), while others are perhaps more cultural, rather than strictly Biblical (reading your Bible daily, for instance, is probably cultural: not everyone could read in history).

My point is simply this: if protestants want to practice Lent, at least to some degree, I’m certainly not one to stand in the way. The Gospel Coalition agrees, even if the Lenten model they suggest is one that makes a few odd moves (I’m not so sure I want to advocate using Lent in the same way that people use the New Year, as a way to list things they desire to stop, and then fight them for a period of time. Likewise, suggesting that we “Do not worry about whether or not our sacrifice is a good one” strikes me as missing the point, as well). But for the most part, when done with prayer and reflection, Lent can be a reminder for us of the time Christ spent in the wilderness, suffering temptation as we do. Beyond that, participating in Lent during this season puts us in fellowship with millions of other believers, acting in ways that we believe will help us worship and glorify our God all the more. There’s something to be said for recognizing that you are not alone in this world, and that something is that fellowship is encouraging.

But many disagree with the practice of Lent for the Protestant. The comments suggest as such, saying things like “If Catholics can’t perfect themselves via Lent, why should we follow it?” and the more cheeky:

What does it matter if you use the word “lent”–words matter– they mean something and you don’t get to make up your own definition and call it “redeemed”. What’s next a devotional on redeeming Monkery? I know, I know it is probably already out there. Really, do you need Lent to get you to turn the TV off?

Where is Jenny Geddes when you need her?

As for me and my house we will be serving up a large platter of sausages.

There are good thoughts here, and I wouldn’t dare deny it. Of course, I hope we are capable of turning off our televisions and praying, even if I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with watching television. I won’t comment directly on the practices of monks, because I’m afraid of digging too deep a hole for one day.

But some go further: one pastor called the post “destructive” and suggested that TGC should offer an apology for it. His complaints, at least the ones that he voiced, are twofold: first, he argues that taking John the Baptist’s ministry leading up to the declaration of the Messiah and turning it into something we can practice is problematic, theologically, hermeneutically, and practically. The second complaint is the comparison of fasting during Lenten season to Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness, particularly the language of “…entering into the Wilderness with Jesus.”

On the first, I think too much is being made of the comparison. Of course, we all know that John’s mission was fulfilled, Jesus came in fulfillment of Isaiah, and we do not need to do so again. We also know that Jesus died and rose again, but we still celebrate those yearly on Good Friday and Easter, respectively. Preaching the cross and the resurrection may be a different sort of celebration than a Lenten fast, but I don’t think the comparison is all that far fetched. Much like we need the reminder of the Gospel, so do we sometimes need to prepare our hearts–which often look more like a desert than a garden–and perhaps Lent can function as a regular time of renewal.

On the second, my response is similar. Of course we do not need to enter into the Wilderness, in that we do not need to suffer that we may be saved, for Jesus already fulfilled that for us. But our fasting is, among other things, a denial for the sake of the glory of God. Fasting functions as a a time to set aside what would normally comfort us to pray, and so remind us where our ultimate comfort lies. In fact, we should probably partake in fasting far more often than we do, and following Lent is just one way that believers have attempted to keep the reminder in their lives.

I’m not convinced Lent is a requirement for all believers (this alone probably solidifies me as an Evangelical), but to dismiss it outright seems to ignore the way Evangelicals tend to use Lent: as a reminder during a set time of year that we rely on Christ for everything, even in times of plenty. If we can remember Jesus’ birth during Christmas and the resurrection at Easter, I have trouble seeing the problem with suggesting Christians partake in Lent.

Denominational Litmus Test

Yesterday, Mackenzie Mulligan addressed Progressive Christianity. He expressed a number of good thoughts, so I’ll let them stand on their own. There is one point I’d like to push forward, however. Near the end of his post, Mackenzie writes:

If Jesus had been a Progressive Christian, he wouldn’t have been crucified. Continue reading Denominational Litmus Test

Jesus: Not Progressive Enough?

I first heard about Progressive Christianity as a “thing” about a week ago, and I had a strong reaction to it. I did some more research and stumbled upon this: a series of affirmations, or doctrines. I want to engage with these ideas for a bit. Some of them are extremely attractive, on an emotional level, on what some would call a “spiritual” level. However, I think that many of them fall apart under scrutiny. Continue reading Jesus: Not Progressive Enough?

A Few Thoughts on Noah

I went to visit my cousin and his wife this last weekend, which meant I got to visit their church. I always enjoy visiting a different local community of believers, if only to experience a different portion of the body of Christ. The sermon was on the Genesis account of Noah and the flood, and the preacher (he was not their normal pastor) brought up a few points I had never considered. I thought they deserved some more thought. Continue reading A Few Thoughts on Noah

Is the Bible Really Enough?

Sometimes people say that the Bible is the only book we need to fulfill the Christian life. Ultimately it must be said that even less than the Bible is enough, which is really to say that something more than the Bible is enough: God himself. If God is not present here and now, if we cannot reliably consult God in all matters of life or ministry, and if God is not trustworthy in even the lowest practicalities of our existence, then 67 books of the Bible will be as equally worthless as 66. Continue reading Is the Bible Really Enough?

“Christian” Music? Try Theological Hip-Hop

Yesterday, Christian hip-hop artist Shai Linne released a much-awaited album called The Attributes of God. The album can be purchased on its own (either via iTunes or Lampmode Recording’s website) or, at least during the pre-order period, alongside A.W. Pink’s book of the same name. Continue reading “Christian” Music? Try Theological Hip-Hop

Earthen Vessels: Matt Anderson, Meet Bob.

A friend of mine once named his own body. He called it Bob, joking that, as it was separate from his soul, it deserved a name of its own. If he didn’t want to do something, he could ‘tell Bob to do it’ for him.

This may have helped him clean his apartment more regularly, and it surely gave his friends a few laughs. But it didn’t help him understand what the relationship between body and soul is actually like—in fact, it revealed that he didn’t understand his own makeup very well.

It’s no wonder. We in the twenty-first century, despite our unprecedented medical knowledge, understand the interactions between body and soul little better than our oldest ancestors did. While many of us have benefitted from Pope John Paul II’s invaluable Theology of the Body, and while philosophers like J.P. Moreland have written on the state and nature of the soul, Protestants have done relatively little to work out just how the soul relates to the physical body. Matt Anderson tries to unpack such interactions in his new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith.

Moderns, argues Anderson, tend to envision the body as a sort of soul-filled machine—an image that may be traced back, to among other things, a misreading of Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, a misunderstanding of some of the Apostle Paul’s teaching, and the unfortunate Gnostic leanings of some strains of Evangelicalism. Though the machine image leaves much to be desired, Protestants in particular have done little to refine and replace it with a more accurate understanding of the way body and soul work together.

Worse, some have actually described the body as a prison for the soul—John Calvin, for instance, uses the unfortunate description several times in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, though his overall teachings about the body are quite orthodox.

Such images are particularly unhelpful to the physically handicapped, especially those people whose bodily limitations have dramatically shaped the way they think about, experience, and react to the world around them. Anderson uses his own grandfather as an example of this—though childhood disease left the man with the use of only one of his arms, he learned to approach the world with a strength and determination not easily found among the untested. “What the body is”—argues Anderson—“shapes what the body does.” And as the body does, the person does:

As human persons, we live, communicate, and move in the flesh and bones that we indwell. Our bodies are not instruments for us to operate, as though we were driving them about like captains of a ship. They are not tools for us to communicate with others, or pieces of property to dispose of as we wish.

Sometimes, Anderson points out, God changes a person by working directly with his soul. Those whose sins Jesus forgave in the Biblical accounts fit in this category. Other times, Jesus chose to reach the soul by means of the body:

The same God who forgives sins shapes and reshapes human bodies. In Matthew 9, Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic, and the scribes and Pharisees grumble. In response, Jesus reveals the fullness of authority: “ ‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home’” (v. 6). Jesus does not associate paralysis with sinning, nor should we. But his authority to forgive sins in connected to his authority over our human bodies.

Anderson’s book is necessarily limited. At 255 pages, Earthen Vessels is an all-too-brief introduction to the problem at hand, and Anderson raises more questions than he answers. That’s not a bad thing. The questions raised in this book would take scores of volumes to answer. Anderson makes it clear that, rather than offering a definitive treatment of the issue himself, he hopes to draw others into a conversation about the proper role of the body in life, in worship, and in culture.

He means that literally. If you’d like to join the conversation yourself, ask Matt Anderson to join your reading group–but hurry, his time is limited.

It’s a conversation worth joining—just ask my friend Bob.

 

Did John Write the Fourth Gospel? (Or, Should We Ask These Questions?)

Over at The Two Cities, John Dunne has written an interesting little article on whether or not John wrote the fourth gospel (the one we now call “John”). He posits, based on just a few pieces of evidence, that it was perhaps (and he does emphasize the word perhaps) Lazarus who wrote the gospel. Perhaps Lazarus was overseen by John, but it was he himself who may have penned the non-synoptic gospel. Continue reading Did John Write the Fourth Gospel? (Or, Should We Ask These Questions?)