The Sacrifice of Ecumenism

Window of Saint Tikhon in the Chapel at Nashotah House Seminary. (Photo by author, please ask before reproducing.)

Window of Saint Tikhon in the Chapel at Nashotah House Seminary. (Photo by author, please ask before reproducing.)

Whether I agree or disagree with him, Fr. Stephen Freeman’s writing is always brilliant. His recent posts under the label “Un-Ecumenism” are no exception (found here, here, and here). Freeman argues that one of the effects of modernity is a watering down of classical Christian ecclesiology. He makes a number of valid points about the rise of the nation state as a replacement for the Church and the absurdity of the notion of an invisible Church in which people who are bound through no tangible, sacramental union are still supposed to pretend that an abstract union based on good sentiment exists. Nonetheless, Freeman’s analysis begins to fall flat when he adds ecumenism into the mix.

The main thrust of Freeman’s critique seems to be that ecumenism by its very nature assumes an equivocation about where the boundaries of the Church are to be found. The closest he comes to a direct description of this problem is when he describes what he believes to be Roman Catholicism’s moment of surrender to modernity:

The pressure of ecumenism (which is not about unity but about diminishing the ecclesiology of the faith) has been felt deeply within Roman Catholicism. The document Lumen Gentium in Vatican II, declares that the Mystical Body of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church, thus no longer saying that the two are one and the same. It seemed a gesture of generosity, but it was a capitulation to the centuries-old demands of modernity.

I will return to Lumen Gentium in a moment, but first it is necessary to ask whether Freeman’s basic description of ecumenism is correct. Is it true that ecumenism exists to promote a false unity at the expense of a genuine ecclesiology?

Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

“The success of modernity has been to reduce The Church into an idea, a concept,” says Freeman. He cites as examples everything from the general drift of denominationalism to the movement towards things like the misleadingly named “open Communion.” I would not deny for a second that such things are outgrowths of a long post-enlightenment drift towards more and more individualism mixed with less and less of a sense that tradition has a voice worth hearing. In many ways, what Freeman criticizes here is not much different from what I have criticized elsewhere as the distinctly American (and post-enlightenment) development of generic Protestantism, an idea that would have flummoxed even the Protestant Reformers.

Still, it seems a stretch to say that ecumenism is identical with all of this drift. Freeman writes from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, yet he does not acknowledge just how deeply indebted to the contributions of Orthodoxy is the Ecumenical Movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While the Roman Catholic Church has never been an official member of the World Council of Churches, for instance, most of the Orthodox Churches have been members right from the organization’s founding in 1948. The most immediate predecessor to the current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, was at one time a delegate to the WCC and a member of the organization’s Central Committee. Likewise, many people attribute the 1920 Encyclical “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere” by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as being the starting point for the Ecumenical Movement’s development.

Anglicans and Orthodox

Window of Charles Chapman Grafton in the Chapel at Nashotah House Seminary. (Photo by author, please ask before reproducing.)

Window of Charles Chapman Grafton in the Chapel at Nashotah House Seminary. (Photo by author, please ask before reproducing.)

We can see the contributions to ecumenism by the Orthodox far earlier by examining the relationship between Anglicans and Orthodox. While there had been exchanges with the Orthodox going back even to the Non-Jurors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Catholic revival in nineteenth century Anglicanism became a major catalyst for the development of relationships between Anglicans and the Orthodox. The great ritualist John Mason Neale revered Orthodoxy. He wrote a history of the Orthodox Churches that remains influential even today and he traveled to Russia to establish some of the first ecumenical ties. In 1864, the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association was founded to encourage mutual dialog. Later, through the efforts and friendship of Episcopal Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton and Russian Orthodox Bishop (and later Patriarch and canonized saint) Tikhon, the groundwork was laid for a flourishing relationship.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, many Orthodox found themselves as refugees living in the west where they encountered other forms of Christianity for the first time. In 1927, a young Russian refugee in England named Nicolas Zernov helped to found a series of conferences in which Orthodox and Anglicans were able to learn more about one another. It was through these conferences that the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius was born. From the beginning, the goal of the Fellowship was not merely education but sobornost, a Russian word meaning a deep spiritual cooperation between peoples in which individualism is given up and a striving for common faith is carried out. The goal of the Fellowship, in other words, was communion, not through some facile ignoring of differences, but through the hard work of sacrifice and love out of which true unity is born. That this communion has yet to be fully realized does not invalidate the work that has been done towards its end.

Ecumenism as Death to Self

This is where the heart of ecumenism lies and where it differs dramatically from what Freeman describes. True ecumenism acknowledges the differences that divide us, but it also names that division for the sin that it is. True ecumenism does not begin with me saying to you, “What will you do to be worthy of me,” but rather begins with each of us saying, “Let us understand one another better, in order that we may learn to serve each other more fully.”

In his most recent post in the series, Freeman takes a fair number of pot shots at Anglicanism, complaining that Thomas Cranmer was more “political” than “spiritual” and that the Book of Common Prayer helped to enshrine a Protestant sense that the unity of the Church need not lie in concrete realities:

But with Cranmer, and the other reformers, something new was set forth. There simply was no longer an expectation of the One Church. There were no particular efforts to form a single Protestant or Reformed Church. Something fundamentally new came into the world.

In addition to being uncharitable, there are a blistering number of historical inaccuracies in just these few lines. First, the Church of England understood herself as the same church after the Reformation as before, the Catholic Church of the English nation, reformed but not destroyed and rebuilt. Second, Cranmer and others did seek out ties of unity within the One Church, an effort that did not meet with immediate success but which bore fruit in later centuries as I have shown above. Third, there were many efforts amongst Protestant churches to find unity with one another for the sake of the one Church, all of which have been well documented. That Freeman would not know these things, especially as a former Episcopalian himself, is baffling, but it only serves to underline the need for more ecumenism rather than its abolition. We cannot even begin to sacrifice for each other if we do not know each other, including knowing each other’s history, and in recent years there has been a tendency amongst Christians of many traditions for us to crawl back into our holes and defend our turf rather than to remain in difficult and sometimes painful relationships for the sake of the Gospel.

Us and Them

The difficulty for Orthodox Christians is in squaring the circle of how to make sense of Christian gifts of grace existing outside of the canonical bounds of the Orthodox Church. Many centuries of persecution, division, and the lack of any means of communication made it possible for the Orthodox not to have to deal with the question of what to do with the rest of us, but now that the world has become smaller and more interconnected than ever, it is something that Orthodoxy must face, just as we all must.

Freeman regards Lumen Gentium as the Catholic Church giving up on the notion that she is the One Church, but in fact Lumen Gentium is a bold and brilliant attempt to deal with this reality of God’s abounding, lavish gifts of grace. In the document’s own words, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of [the Church’s] visible structure” and “these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” The approach of Vatican II is to no longer ignore the graces that God is granting to other Christian communities, but instead to say that the signs of vibrant Christian faith and life seen outside of the Church have been given by God for the benefit of the Church herself, which is why the Church must always be striving to bring into communion those who have become separated. The compelling reason for engaging in ecumenism is not only for those who are not yet a part of the Church, but also for the enriching of the Church herself.

Of course, Anglicans will balk at pieces of that definition, but the point is that it is possible to engage deeply with what God is doing in the life of other Christian communities without losing the essential claims of your own tradition. Lumen Gentium may not be perfect, but it opened a door that has allowed for a moving closer among Christians in the last half century, a casting off of old prejudices and a willingness for us to find our way to the union that God calls us into in the One Church. What Lumen Gentium has shown is that it is possible to acknowledge the need for ecumenism without either letting go of the claim of the oneness of the Church or the visible, tangible reality of the Church. The only way to find fault with that is if we believe that there are no graces at all being given to Christians different from ourselves, which seems a claim so self-evidently false as to be unworthy of reply.

It requires neither a capitulation to modernity nor a degree in biblical theology to say that Our Lord would rather that all those who call upon His name be united in the One Church and that all the gifts that He gives are for the benefit of that Church. Ecumenism is not a call to individualism and abstraction. It is a call to the hard work of sacrifice in which we give ourselves for each other, to each other, for the sake of each other. It is the call for us to look away from ourselves and towards Our Lord who set the example for us by carrying the cross. He offers us that same cross, not as a burden but as a gift, that we might learn to share with each other what we share already in Him, forgiveness and a washing clean so that we may be presented as a spotless bride.

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Ask An Anglican: Are Crucifixes and Icons Idolatrous?


Grace and Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Fr. Jonathan. Please ask permission before reproducing.)

Marshall writes:

I used to go to a Reformed Presbyterian Church. They were adamantly against any sort of iconography and would not sing anything other than Psalms. They used various passages in Scripture to justify this position, including but not limited to Eph. 5:19 and  Exodus 20:4. How would a liturgical Anglican respond to someone saying, as my reformed and evangelical friends often do, that Crucifixes, Liturgies, and the like are idols?

Believe it or not, the most avid of the sixteenth century reformers in the Church of England would have agreed with the assessment of Marshall’s Presbyterian friends. For instance, Nicholas Ridley, who served as Bishop of London during the primacy of Thomas Cranmer, wrote A Treatise on the Worship of Images which urged the forbidding of crucifixes, icons, statues, and other such things in the Church. On the other hand, Ridley unknowingly sowed some of the first seeds in Anglicanism that would lead to the recovery of the very things he spoke against. In what has come to be known as the Vestments Controversy, a Puritan named John Hooper, who had spent some time in Zurich under the influence of the churches of Zwingli, was selected to become Bishop of Gloucester by King Edward VI. Hooper refused to accept the office on the grounds that the Ordinal required him to vest in a surplice and cope for his consecration. The king’s Privy Council ruled that vestments were adiaphora, something indifferent to the true heart of the faith, and therefore gave permission for Hooper to be consecrated without them. Bishop Ridley was supposed to be the chief consecrator but he refused. Ridley agreed that vestments were adiaphora, but he argued passionately that even indifferent things could be required of us by the Church if they are not things that controvert the Gospel. Hooper eventually relented.

Lift High the Cross

Despite rampant iconoclasm in the sixteenth century,  over the course of the following century, much that had been lost was brought back. At the turn of the seventeenth century, Lancelot Andrewes preached, in a series of Good Friday sermons, about the great blessing that comes from looking upon the crucifix:

Surely, the more steadily and more often we shall fix our eye upon it, the more we shall be inured; and being inured, the more desire to do it. For at every looking some new sight will offer itself, which will offer unto us occasion, either of godly sorrow, true repentance, sound comfort, or some other reflection, issuing from the beams of this heavenly mirror.

For Andrewes, it is clear that the crucifix does the very opposite of what an idol does. An idol spurs one to worship something other than the true God. A crucifix increases our devotion to Jesus Christ.

The Ritualist (R)Evolution

There have been controversies over ritual devotions in Anglican Churches for as long as there have been Anglican Churches. Arguably, though, the height of that controversy was reached in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The early Anglo-Catholics had not been concerned with vestments and images. Their objective had been to remind Anglicans that they participated already in the life of the Catholic Church by virtue of the apostolic succession and therefore they could revel in the riches of the Sacraments. But in the 1850s, a new breed of Anglo-Catholics began to emerge, often referred to derogatorily as “Ritualists.” The Ritualists took to heart the teaching of the Oxford Movement and realized that if it was true then further evolution was necessary. If the Sacraments administered in Anglican Churches are truly channels of grace, then it follows that the manner of celebrating the Sacraments ought to match the seriousness of what is taking place.

This relatively simple idea led to pandemonium. Anglo-Catholic clergy were arrested for placing candles on the altar or preaching in their surplices. People in the pews would hoot and holler in protest during Mass, sometimes even urinating in the aisles, because the choir came out in vestments. Yet the Ritualists stuck to their guns. Under the influence of towering figures like Fr. John Mason Neale, they drank deeply of the idea that the medieval period was the height of good churchmanship and comported themselves accordingly. This led to a fair amount of silliness and eccentricity, but it also eventually opened the doors wide to liturgical renewal from which we continue to benefit today. Even in many Evangelical Anglican parishes today, the Mass is the principle liturgy on a Sunday, vestments are worn, images and sometimes icons are displayed, and you may even encounter the occasional crucifix. Blessed John Mason Neale, who once had to scale a wall during a funeral to escape an angry mob of iconoclasts, would scarcely believe how much things have changed since his day.

In the thick of the Ritualist controversy in the American Episcopal Church, a canon was offered at the 1874 General Convention to ban “ceremonies or practices during the celebration of the Holy Communion, not ordained or authorized in the Book of Common Prayer, and setting forth or symbolizing erroneous or doubtful doctrines” including “The placing, or carrying, or retaining a Crucifix in any part of the place of public worship.” In a long and politically savvy speech against the canon, Fr. James De Koven said this:

…I must say that I do not think the iconoclasm goes quite far enough; for when, in St. Thomas’ Church only yesterday morning, I witnessed the great statues of the Apostles standing all around, I am free to say that, had I not been as much of a Protestant as I am, as I bent and bowed, I might have been led into the Roman error of worshipping images or something of that kind. [Laughter.] I do not think that thing goes quite far enough. Cut out the crucifix from the stained windows, put it out of your prayer-books, forbid pictures as well as images, if it be necessary; but do not let us believe, in this day, that the mere looking at the image of the human nature of our Divine Redeemer, and exciting our emotions by his thorn-crowned brow and his bleeding head and pierced hands, can possibly be said to symbolize false doctrine!


Triumph of Faith over Idolatry, by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (French, 1646–1713). Church of the Gesù, Rome, Italy.

Our Hearts Against Us

Idolatry is a sin of the heart, not of the hands. The error of iconoclasts, both today and in ages past, has always been their failure to understand this. Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). None of those are things that come from outside of us. They are things that bubble up from our sinful hearts. Can a crucifix or an icon become an idol? Certainly. For that matter, so can the Bible, but that does not make them bad things. Perhaps the most tempting idol of all is to make the idea of God we have in our heads into something we worship rather than the true God who is constantly showing us that we have neither heads nor hearts big enough to contain Him.

The Church rightly teaches us from the Scriptures that we should avoid idolatry of every kind. But the Church also teaches us from those same Scriptures that we should “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2 and 96:9). Crucifixes, icons, incense, bowing, and all the rest contribute to this beauty by pointing us towards the reality of the holiness of God.

Picture This

When I set up my office at the church where I serve, one of the first things I did was to put up pictures of my family. I have three employees with offices who have all done the same thing, adorning their desks with pictures of spouses and children. Do we do this because we are confused and believe that these pictures are our loved ones? Do we pour our affection out upon these images instead of saving it for the people they represent? Hardly. The pictures remind us of the people we love and keep the thought of them ever present for us. They help us to be more loving towards our families even when they are not standing right in front of us. Images of Christ and the saints in worship serve the same purpose, giving us a focus for our devotions so that we may remain centered on the worship of God and not lost in our own thoughts. They are the very opposite of idols because instead of drawing us away from the worship of the true God, they bring us closer to Him.

The One Thing That Matters

In the end, there is only one place where the Puritanical/Reformed objection of idolatry can be taken seriously and that is in the worship of Christ present in the Eucharist itself. No Catholic Christian worships the crucifix or the icon, but all worship Christ present in the Mystery of His Body and Blood. If that is called idolatry, then so be it. If the Puritan is right and the consecrated elements are still merely bread and wine, then I am an awful idolater of the worst kind and I ought to heed every biblical injunction against false worship. On the other hand, if it is true that in the Holy Eucharist Jesus Christ is really, truly, substantially present, then not to worship Him there would be a terrible sin and a great tragedy. Thus, I will give Fr. De Koven the last words:

 You may take away from us, if you will, every external ceremony; you may take away altars, and super-altars, and lights, and incense, and vestments; you may take away, if you will, the eastward position; you may takeaway every possible ceremony; and you may command us to celebrate at the altar without any external symbolism whatsoever; you may give us the most barren of all observances, and we will submit to you. If this Church commands us to have no ceremonies, we will obey. But, gentlemen, the very moment any one says we shall not adore our Lord present in the Eucharist, then from a thousand hearts will come the answer, as of those bidden to go into exile, “Let me die in my own country and be buried by the grave of my father and my mother!” To adore Christ’s person in His Sacrament is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart. How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies which we do it, are utterly, utterly indifferent; the thing itself is what we plead for, and I know I should not plead to unkind or unfeeling hearts.

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The Good Wall


“Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in his 1908 book Orthodoxy. “Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism.” Countercultural as Chesterton’s observations often are, perhaps none would be so quickly and derisively dismissed by the modern western world as this one. Western people today know almost nothing about Christianity. This is especially true amongst the privileged classes who have spent time in the university and have been taught to believe that they are too smart to fall for anything as daft as the idea that a man rose from the dead. If we modern westerners know anything, we know for sure that Christianity is a killjoy. Christianity exists to stamp out pleasure wherever pleasure can be found, whether in the bedroom, the classroom, or the barroom.

My Way or the Highway

Behind this false understanding of Christianity lies an unspoken view of the human person that says that what makes us truly human is absolute freedom to pursue maximum pleasure. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as the deist Thomas Jefferson wrote in the American Declaration of Independence. These are all we require to be fully actualized human beings. We need the freedom to live in peace so that we may explore what makes us happy, completely unfettered by other concerns. Once this understanding of what it means to be human is established, it is but a hop, skip, and a jump to concluding that religious doctrine is one of the greatest threats to human flourishing.

Doctrine is limiting by nature. Whenever we accept any particular doctrine, we have to let go of others. To accept that two plus two equals four means excluding the belief that it can equal five or three. We have no problem doing this with certain kinds of doctrine. We do not see the doctrines of mathematics or evolutionary biology as enemies of human progress, even though they apply the same level of restraint upon us as religious doctrines require. What concerns us is not the limitation of our freedom in any way but only the limitation of our freedom regarding our pursuit of pleasure. It makes not a whit of difference to our efforts to gratify our desires if we evolved from monkeys rather than goats or if we cannot evenly divide prime numbers. We are happy to accept those limitations. What we cannot endure is the idea that a teaching might affect how we spend our money, who we sleep with, how much we consume, what we seek out to entertain ourselves, or how we think about our responsibilities to other people. That kind of doctrine–and only that kind–is insufferable.

The Joy of Limits

And yet, Chesterton argues, it is the very limitation of our freedom offered by Christian doctrine that makes it possible for us to enjoy ourselves most fully:

We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

Chesterton imagines Christian doctrine not as a set of shackles, but as a wall. It protects us from things that would destroy us by keeping those things on the outside so that we are free to play and frolic on the inside. As Christians, we can drink far more deeply from the great pleasures of life precisely because we have this wall around them that excludes those things which would kill us. We can afford to be less cautious inside the wall than we would be if we were stuck on the outside, never knowing which step would be our last.

Like any good wall, the wall of Catholic doctrine has more than one layer. It is built on a sure foundation, that of Christ Himself. He is the cornerstone. The doctrines of the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Trinity make up the strong base upon which all else is built. From there we get the middle stones, so crucial for maintaining structure. These are things like the doctrines of the Church and the Sacraments. It is only when we get to the very top that we find the stones that really seem to worry people, the doctrines about marriage and family, about temperament and sobriety, about responsibility and mercy. These are the stones that we would like to see crushed or tossed aside so that new pleasures may be allowed in. Some of us try to remove only these top stones but leave the rest, wanting to have it all, the stability of the wall and the enjoyment of unrestricted pleasure-seeking, but the piecemeal approach does not work. The stones all lock together. They form a whole. Even though these stones are at the top of the wall rather than the bottom, they cannot be removed without cracking the wall down to its foundation. Many people are starting to get this. That is why it is more common now than ever before for people to take a sledgehammer to the base in order to shake the top stones loose. If the Atonement and the Resurrection must fall in order for us to get what we want, so be it. Nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of progress.

How the Original Wall Fell

This is not a new problem. In fact, it is a very old one. God created a world of infinite delights and unimaginable pleasures. His restrictions were minimal. Only the two trees at the center of the garden were off limits. This is what Eve repeats back to the serpent when the serpent seems shocked that God would fence in their pleasure-seeking. The woman tells the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die'” (Genesis 3:2-3). The serpent assures her that this is not the case, that in fact they will become like God if they eat from the tree. The serpent’s coaxing justifies and reassures Eve, but it’s not why she eats. She eats because she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). She eats because she sees a pleasure she does not currently have and she wants it. The wall that God built with His Word kept all the other pleasures of life safe by excluding only one. Eve reaches for that one excluded pleasure and loses all other pleasures in the process.

The Freedom of Good Doctrine

Doctrine can be oppressive if it is misapplied and wielded as a weapon. And if it is not true, doctrine is downright poisonous. But the true doctrine that comes to us from God through His Word given to His Church is not oppressive, even though it cuts down our options. Knowing that two plus two can only equal four also cuts down our options, but that narrowing does not oppress us. It sets us free by showing us that we can trust two plus two always to equal four, which allows us to build bridges, sew clothing, administer medicine, and calibrate our television remotes, all with accurate measurements. Similarly, the good wall of Catholic Christian doctrine sets us free, both in its stones at the bottom and its stones at the top, because it allows us to let go of paths that lead only to confusion and destruction. It allows us to discover the good life that is a needle in the haystack of human experience. It shows us that the good life is given to us as a gift in Christ. It protects us from the grasp of all destructive forces, even death, so that we can joyfully cultivate peace and hope. Every bite of chocolate, every dance with a pretty girl or handsome guy, and every rich and beautiful song becomes that much sweeter because the good wall is in place.

Photo above is by and (c) 2007 Derek Ramsey. It is being used here, unaltered, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License version 1.2. For more info about this photo, please see its Wikimedia Commons page here.

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Ask an Anglican: Why trust the Fathers?

trust-me-im-the-doctor-royal-brosIan, who writes from Australia, says that he has a lot of difficulty talking to other young Christians about why the historic teaching of the Church ought to carry any weight. Here’s part of his letter:

…If I make the point that something is what the Church for over 1,500 years universally taught, their immediate response without the slightest degree of hesitation is usually, “they could have been [and probably were] wrong”, and, “we simply have to figure out things ourselves as best we can”.  And what I find perhaps most intolerable is that I can’t use The Book of Common Prayer to prove things to people either because their immediate response is, “but what does the Bible say?”, followed by, “the Prayer Book must be wrong”, or, “we’re not interested in what the Prayer Book says, only in what the Bible says”… Another question relating to this that I’m not sure how to answer is why our appeal should be to Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers and the Primitive Church, as this is a point I sometimes make but then aren’t sure how to respond when I’m asked why?…

One question worth posing to anyone who says that they trust the Scriptures but not the teaching of the Church is to ask them on what grounds they trust the Scriptures. They may give a vague answer like, I just believe they are God’s Word, which is a nice way of saying they have no basis at all for trusting in them. Or they may point to something like Paul’s admonition in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But that is simply circular. Saying that we trust Scripture because Scripture says to trust Scripture is a tautology. Besides which, when Paul made that statement in 2 Timothy, most of the New Testament had yet to be written. He was talking about the Old Testament. So why believe that Paul’s letters are anything special? Or the Gospels? Why trust any of it at all?

Why We Should Trust the Bible

The reason to believe in the books of the Old Testament is because Jesus believed in them, quoted from them, and taught from them. After He rose from the dead, the Lord Jesus came to His apostles and taught them to understand how the Scriptures pointed to Him and His work. Prior to that time, though the Old Testament was held to be God’s Word, the people did not understand the great mystery to which it was pointing:

[Jesus] said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-48)

Jesus teaches His apostles what the Scriptures mean and then He sends them out to be His witnesses to the world. As part of that witness, they began to write letters, histories, and other documents that were meant to let the world know who Jesus is and what He did for us. Local churches in various places revered these words from the apostles because they knew that such words carried the teaching of Jesus. Over time, the Church as a whole authenticated certain writings as being truly apostolic in origin and excluded others as not. This became the New Testament. This is why we should trust it, because the Church authenticated it, because it is apostolic in origin.

My Bible Can Beat Up Your Bible

So we trust the Scriptures because they come from the apostles. If we want to know whether something is a part of the apostolic faith or not, we can look to the Scriptures to guide us. But what happens when both sides in a given argument claim the Scriptures support their point of view? “There are no controversies of faith but what are grounded upon the Scriptures,” wrote the seventeenth century bishop William Beveridge in his Ecclesia Anglicana Ecclesia Catholica. Beveridge says that when Christians disagree, they always point to the Scripture to make their case:

 The Scripture itself cannot decide the controversy, for the controversy is concerning itself: the parties engaged in the controversy cannot decide it, for either of them thinks his own opinion to be grounded upon Scripture. Now how can this question be decided better or other ways, than by the whole Church’s exposition of the Scripture, which side of the controversy it is for, and which side it is against?

In making the case for the Church’s role in determining controversies, Beveridge turns to Acts 15. There we see the early Church dealing with the controversy of whether or not Gentile converts must be circumcised in order to become Christians. Beveridge points out that the method they employed to decide the question was to gather all the living “apostles and elders (presbyters),” with the apostles taking precedence as those sent and taught by Christ Himself. They invoked the Scriptures, but they also invoked their personal knowledge of Christ (See especially Peter’s speech in verses 7 through 11). In the end, they reached a decision and appointed others to carry that decision to the far reaches of the Church. We trust the decisions of the apostles for the same reason that we trust the Scriptures, because the apostles were taught by Jesus and given the Holy Spirit so that they could protect and hand on the faith. Their successors are who we today call bishops. They have been sealed by the same Holy Spirit and given the same teaching to protect, proclaim, and preserve. The decrees of councils must be received by the whole Church, including the laity, in order to truly be binding. There have been councils led by bishops that have come up with things that have not stuck once they reached the people. Yet bishops are the ones who lead councils and who make the decisions therein because of their apostolic calling.

The Formularies and the Fathers Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Chocolate

So the bishops, as the successors of the apostles, are chiefly given the responsibility for deciding controversies of faith, and yet in our own time there are many different Christian leaders who claim for themselves the authority of bishops and who claim to teach nothing but what is contained in Holy Scripture, yet who teach things that differ dramatically from one another. Moreover, there have been competing councils. Christ wants us to be united as one Church, and yet for the moment we are divided, so how are those of us who are not bishops to know whose teaching we can actually trust?

According to Beveridge, “Whatsoever doctrine you find to be clearly propounded, asserted, or suggested, either in our Articles or Common-Prayer Book, you may and ought to rest fully satisfied in your minds that that is the true doctrine of the Apostles, which you ought to continue firm and steadfast in.” He says this because the prayer book and the articles are founded upon the Scripture, not just as one person or one group has read it, but as “the Church of Christ in all ages hath believed to be consonant with [the apostles’] writings.” The standard that Beveridge reaches for here is the same as found in the fourth century maxim of Saint Vincent of Lerins who said that what we ought to believe as the true apostolic doctrine of the Church is that which “has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells us that He is building His Church upon the faith of Peter “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If what Jesus said is true then there is a true Church which has endured in every age, even when false churches and pretenders that have crowded up around her. So if the Church we are a part of is the true one, it must be grounded in a teaching from the Scriptures that has consistently existed, going all the way back to the beginning. The Early Church Fathers are our most reliable witnesses then for helping us to know how to truly understand the Scriptures as the apostles taught. The earliest of the Fathers were taught by the apostles themselves. If what we are teaching in our age as being from the Scriptures was unknown to the Fathers or contradicts them, then we contradict Jesus by suggesting that there is somehow a gap between His giving of the apostolic teaching, which He promised that the Father would send the Holy Spirit to protect, and our own more enlightened time.

That does not make the Fathers infallible. They were sinners just like us and they were shaped by their own eras just as we have been shaped by ours. Plus, the Fathers did not always agree with one another. Yet there are a surprising number of things which they agree on quite consistently. These things are not over and above Scripture but flow from it. When we read Scripture with the Fathers, we are far less likely to innovate and far more likely to understand the apostles on their own terms. This is why the bishops of the true Church in every age have looked back to the Fathers to guide their understanding of the Scripture. It is why, as Beveridge says, we can trust in the Anglican formularies, because they not only reflect back to us the teaching of Scripture but the teaching of Scripture as it has been consistently received in the Church throughout the centuries. It is why, when we are trying to discern which Church is true and which is false, we ought to ask which Church the Fathers would be able to recognize as their own. Saint Athanasius may not have worshipped from a Book of Common Prayer, but he would recognize in our liturgy the same faith that he defended against the Arians in the fourth century (who also claimed the Scriptures for their own); the same faith handed on by Peter, James, John, and the other apostles; the same faith which was given by Jesus Himself.

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Lenten Hiatus

Friends, this is just my yearly post to remind you all that I’ll be fasting from much of my usual computer usage during Lent, including this blog. I will have an article going up on Covenant on Thursday, and God and Comics will continue as scheduled, but otherwise you won’t hear from me until after Easter. I hope each and every one of you has a blessed and holy Lent!

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God and Comics has arrived


Hello friends, just a quick post today to point you towards a new podcast that I am appearing on called God and ComicsIn each episode, I’ll be joined by two other priests, Fr. Matt Stromberg and Fr. Kyle Tomlin, as we talk about our love of comic books and discuss the many things that the medium of comics brings to us: art, humor, drama; stories of love and sacrifice; storytelling that pushes boundaries and opens new ways of thinking and seeing the world. If you love comics too, then you’ll love the show, but even if you’re not a comic book reader, we think you’ll enjoy what the show has to offer.

The first episode is up now. You can download it here. Or, you can download it from iTunes where you can also subscribe to automatically download future episodes. If you like what you hear, we would be grateful if you could give us a good rating on our iTunes page and maybe even a short review. The more of those we get, the more people will be able to find the show in the future.

Thanks for your support! You guys are radder than rad.

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Biblical Catholicism: On Being a 39 Articles Catholic

39The phrase “Prayer Book Catholic” has come to characterize those Anglo-Catholics who not only use the Book of Common Prayer but believe it to be the liturgy par excellence for Catholic worship and teaching the Catholic faith. This is opposed to those Anglo-Catholics who only ever use the prayer book out of necessity but see it as at best incomplete and feel the need to gussy it up with affectations from the liturgies of Rome, the East, or wherever. Prayer Book Catholics believe that Anglicanism is Catholic by its very nature. In that respect, they are the inheritors of the old High Churchman tradition which stressed fidelity to the prayer book as a matter of faith, not simply discipline.

Prayer Book Catholics strenuously defend the catholicity of the prayer book liturgies, but what about the 39 Articles of Religion that are appended to the back of the book? Is it possible for Catholics to defend the Articles or are they simply a relic of the Church of England’s Protestant past that is better off discarded?

The Articles are Arti-Cool

For the Anglican reformers and early divines, the Articles were essential, not as a comprehensive confession of faith but as a clear articulation of the ways in which the post-Reformation Anglican Church sought to keep the Catholic faith from being poisoned by outside influences. Sixteenth century figures like John Jewel and Richard Hooker upheld the Articles as a clear expression of Anglican theology, but in the early decades of the seventeenth century there arose a concerted effort on the part of some disgruntled members of the Church of England to muddle their meaning, so much so that in 1628 King Charles I had a note appended to the Book of Common Prayer that the Articles were always to be understood in their “plain and grammatical sense.” Peter Heylyn explains why in a treatise from 1660:

Each of the parties in those curious points in which the present differences do most consist conceive the Articles of the Church to speak for them, exclusive wholly of the other, but with a notable difference in the application. The Calvinists, by which name they love to be called, endeavor to captivate the sense of the Article and bring it to the bent of their own understanding; but the true English Protestants (whom for distinction sake we may call Confessionists) accommodate, though they do not captivate, their own sense to the sense of the Church, according to the plain and full meaning of the Articles in the points disputed.

Like many seventeenth century divines, Heylyn was attempting to advocate a position of fidelity to the theological principles of Anglicanism that came prior to any other distinctions. Of course, his particularly strong critique of the Calvinist interpretation of the Articles may or may not be correct, but his fundamental point was that the Articles ought to be able to set the terms of theological debate, not Calvinism or any other foreign school of theology or philosophy. He went on to imply that we ought to read the Articles the same way we read the Scriptures, by seeking their meaning in the context of the historical teaching of the Church and plain reason. This follows the position of many of the best and brightest minds in the Church of England in the seventeenth century, including William Beveridge whose brilliant Ecclessia Anglicana Ecclesia Catholica systematically explained each of the 39 Articles using just such an approach.

Tract 90 Blows Up the World

Such an appeal to the primitive Church is consonant with Anglo-Catholic ideals as well, and yet the Articles are thoroughly rejected by many if not most Anglo-Catholics today who have come to accept the same Calvinist interpretation of the Articles that Heylyn attempted to debunk so many centuries ago. Historically, it is not hard to see how such a disregard and even disdain for the Articles developed. In 1841, John Henry Newman’s Tract 90 attempted to convince people of a Catholic interpretation of the Articles, but instead it set off such a firestorm within the Church and English society that Newman never quite recovered from the shock. It became the catalyst for his eventual conversion to Rome.

Admittedly, Tract 90 is a flawed document that sometimes works exactly the kind of magic upon the Articles that Heylyn accused the Calvinists in his day of supplying. Rather than starting with the plain sense of the Articles themselves, the tract starts with a desire to show that the Articles are not quite as unreceptive to Catholic ideas as they might appear. For this reason, both Newman’s supporters and critics have often conceded far too quickly that Newman did not really believe in the Articles, that he was simply trying to make them workable for his already established position. This, however, fails to account not only for Newman’s surprise and despair upon seeing how others reacted to his tract, but also his longstanding defense of the Articles prior to the tract’s writing. In 1834, when Dr. Renn Hampden began arguing that Oxford University ought to do away with its requirement that students subscribe to the 39 Articles, Newman wrote an excoriating fifty page essay called Elucidations in which he defended subscription to the Articles as a good and necessary part of living under the Church’s authority. Many other early Anglo-Catholics followed suit.

Pusey to the Rescue

After the controversy over Tract 90 had begun in earnest, Edward Bouverie Pusey wrote an extensive defense of the tract called The Articles Treated On in Tract 90 Reconsidered and Their Interpretation Vindicated. Despite the title, Pusey’s work does far more than simply defend Newman. In over two hundred pages, Pusey carefully and painstakingly goes through the same subset of the Articles that Newman treated, showing how a Catholic interpretation roots the Articles in both the Scriptures and the mind of the early Church. While Newman’s tract can be accused of working too hard at trying to harmonize the Articles with Roman Catholic teaching, even going so far as to suggest that there is no essential difference between the teaching of the Articles and the teaching of the Council of Trent, Pusey explicitly denies that the Articles have any “Romanism” within them and happily points out the various ways in which they are “anti-Romanist.” He insists, rather, that the Articles are to be understood in light of the universal witness of the early Church to the meaning of Holy Scripture. “This view,” wrote Pusey, “so far from relaxing the meaning of the Articles, gives them greater stringency, and lays us under a deeper obligation ; since now we are bound to receive them not only on the authority of our immediate mother, but of her, ‘the Jerusalem from above,’ who is the common ‘mother of us all.'” In other words, we do well to remember that whatever we teach in our small Anglican corner of the Catholic Church only has meaning if it is consonant with what the Church as a whole has always taught. Since the Articles reflect that very ancient teaching, Pusey believes they need to be not only upheld but given a full-throated proclamation.

The Articles and a Catholic Future

Alas, for far too many Anglo-Catholics today, Pusey’s words are forgotten. But for Pusey, Newman, F.D. Maurice, and many others in the early days of the Oxford Movement, the catholicity of the 39 Articles meant that upholding them was a non-negotiable. Just as we have Prayer Book Catholics today, it would surely be to the Church’s benefit if we also had 39 Articles Catholics today who do not assume that the discussion on how to interpret the Articles properly ended in 1841. Likewise, it would be good if Anglicans of all stripes today would begin to celebrate the place of the Articles within our tradition, not by figuring out how to bend them to our whims, but by approaching them on their own terms as a distillation of the teaching of the historic Catholic Church.

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Finding the One True Authority

30665661I woke to a very interesting article in my feed this morning by an Eastern Orthodox Christian named Mark Meador. It is long, but it is well worth the read, and I applaud Mr. Meador for it. Meador is trying to engage with a very difficult set of challenges about how we are to understand the authority of the Church. I hope he will see what follows as friendly engagement and not as a rejection of what is quite valuable in what he has said. He does a particularly fine job in the first two thirds of the article of detailing the problems of hyper rationalism which lead us in circles when, as Christians, we start asking questions like, “Who or what authority should I place myself under?”

You Can’t Know (Except Apparently You Can)

However, about two thirds of the way in, he changes course rather dramatically and tries to show why Eastern Orthodoxy’s claim to authority is the best and only option for someone who wants to reason his or her way into the One True Church. Albeit, he does so with the enormous caveat that the only way to really and truly ascertain the Church’s authority is to live within the Church and come to know Christ there. Nevertheless, Meador believes that a kind of rational answer to the question “Where is the one true Church” can be found. He suggests that there are two premises upon which to find the answer (the links are his):

The first is that the Apostolic Faith is unchanged. Jesus Christ is the Truth and He “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The True Church must hold the same faith today that the Apostles preached at Pentecost. Second, the Apostolic Faith must have been continuously preserved without interruption. Christ promised the Church that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth” and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” God has not and will not ever abandon the Church, Christ’s own Body, and this includes not letting her fall into error. While individual Christians, whether lay or clerical, may teach heresy, the Church catholic will never espouse false doctrine.

Thus, in order to be considered to possess the Apostolic Faith, the church we are looking for must hold the same faith as the Apostles and must have continuously done so since Pentecost.

There is a certain inescapable irony in that Meador grounds both of his premises, without caveat or further explanation, upon two isolated verses of Scripture (using the NIV no less!). Given that his argument against Protestantism in general–which, as I’ve recently argued, is not actually a thing–is based on the notion that blanket appeals to Scripture do not hold up to scrutiny because they rely so strongly on the interpretive whims of individuals, why then should anyone trust his claim that these two verses do what he says they do?

Anglicanism vs. Eastern Orthodoxy: Old Church Smackdown!

Having offered a set of premises that he believes lead inevitably to Orthodoxy, he proceeds to knock down the straw man by showing how only the Eastern Orthodox Church can satisfy these two requirements. His brief paragraph on Anglicanism is fairly gracious in its assessment of why he believes we fail to meet the mark:

I don’t consider Anglicans to be Protestants, properly speaking. They have a plausible claim to tactile Apostolic Succession, being able to trace their ordinations back to the early church through the Roman Catholic Church. However, since the Reformation any claims to Apostolicity on their part have been undercut by a doctrinal and liturgical diversity that was unknown to the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the early church. Even for those remnants of Anglicanism that hold to a faith closely resembling that of the early church, they still part ways when it comes to ecclesiology. They embrace an “invisible church” theology that was unthinkable to the Apostles and the early church.

Certainly, not all Eastern Orthodox apologists would be willing to grant that Anglicans have a legitimate claim to tactile succession, so I appreciate the gesture. And there is a part of his critique here that I think is totally valid. The “doctrinal and liturgical diversity” that he speaks of is a major flaw in the way that modern Anglican churches have been living out their faith. But Meador suggests that this is a problem that goes back to the Reformation, as if it is an inherent flaw in Anglicanism, when in fact it is a modern problem borne of Anglican churches ignoring classical Anglicanism, particularly when it comes to authorized liturgy, which has only begun to become increasingly diverse in the last forty years. (For an interesting recent reflection on some of how that came to be, see this article by Fr. Matthew Olver.) Yet, despite the liturgical diversity, by and large, the Anglican Communion still abides under a form of liturgy very much the same as it received in the Reformation, and even the sometimes dreaded 1979 Book of Common Prayer in America does not take us so far off the beaten path as to be utterly lost to any notion of connection with the early Church. In fact, the prayer book tradition as a whole is what has kept Anglicanism as a whole from losing touch with the doctrine and practices of the apostles, despite the rather severely disturbing eccentric practices and teachings that have sprung up in some places.

Moreover, Anglicanism has never had an “invisible church” theology. It is one of the great points of contention between Anglicans and many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who we have great agreement with in other areas. We explicitly confess a visible Church. “The visible Church of Christ,” says Article XIX of the 39 Articles, “is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same,” which includes, among other things, the proper elements, proper order, bishops and priests properly ordained, and a  liturgical action that is grounded in an ongoing community of faith. Everyone, of course, acknowledges the invisibility of how faith is at work in the heart of the individual believer, but Anglicans agree with the Eastern Orthodox that the Church is visible, tangible, and grounded in the Sacraments, in the ongoing life of the community, and in history. There is no such thing as invisible communion. Anglicans confidently affirm the teaching of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

And Then There Were Two

So does that mean that Anglicanism should be considered a viable source of authority under the premises that Meador establishes? Well, it depends a bit on how one understands those premises, which is the problem with such an exercise in the first place, but at least by our own self-understanding, Anglicans would not have a problem meeting the bar he sets. At the time of the Reformation, the Church of England held and kept the faith once delivered to the saints. The Reformation removed some false teachings that had crept into the life of the Church and dusted off some old teachings that had become obscured because of those same false teachings. Nevertheless, the reformers and early Anglican divines were not attempting to establish a new, purer Church in England because the old one had disappeared but rather to rehabilitate the Church that was already there, to cure the sick not raise the dead.

Splitting Hair(esies)

biggestObviously, we have to admit that there were problems in the Church of England at the time of the Reformation because otherwise no reformation would have been necessary, but does the existence of problems and course corrections really indicate that there is no continuity in the life of the Church? If that is so, then Eastern Orthodoxy would fail to meet these standards just as surely as Anglicanism would. Why ROCOR? Why the Old Calendarists versus the new? Why the Chalcedonian split which many Orthodox today perceive to be a matter that need not divide the Church any longer going forward? Of course, one could simply say that in each of these cases, the matter under discussion is not about the heart of the faith, but rather about something of a lesser order, but nevertheless, these divisions were and are important enough that Orthodox Christians were willing to divide over them. Plus, saying that these divisions are less or more important than the types of division that have happened in the west forces us to wade once again into the waters of determining what is and what is not a true authority based on little more than our own personal beliefs.

Unquestionably, the Anglican Communion has an authority problem. A major authority problem. We acknowledge this and own it for all its sinfulness, just as many Orthodox are willing to acknowledge and own the sinfulness of the divided state of Orthodox jurisdictions in America and western Europe. And there are many ways in which Eastern Orthodoxy has been better able to preserve traditional Christian faith than Anglicanism has, in part because Orthodoxy has better structures of maintaining community than we do and in part because, for various historical reasons, Eastern Orthodoxy is only just now starting to face the same kind of secularism that western Christianity has come up against since the enlightenment. That being said, as I argued a few years ago, the Eastern Orthodox apologetic is weakened rather than strengthened by the notion that nothing ever changes in Orthodoxy and therefore the Church has never needed to reform. The premises that Meador offers for seeking out the authority of the One True Church are good premises, as far as they go, but they are incomplete in the way that he explains them. Yes, the faith has been once delivered to the saints and may not be added to or subtracted from. Yes, there must be continuity between the Church of the apostles and the Church of today if the Church of today is to claim to be the early Church’s legitimate heir. But there is no such thing as a church that never has to reform. That can only be achieved if we live in a vacuum, or if the Church becomes populated by something other than sinners. Scripture, reason, and the teaching of the Church over time are things that keep the Church grounded, but they also correct us over time when we go off course. The Eastern Orthodox Churches are not immune from this, and there are some things in their practice, even now, that a return to the sources of authority would help to correct. The Anglican Churches can and must do the same.

Ancient Authority vs. Postmodern Apologetics

So where is true Christian authority to be found? Not in any particular apologetic tactic, but in the Scripture first where God speaks plainly, then in the teaching of the Church about how Scripture is to be read and received, then in plain reason about how both Scripture and the natural world point unmistakably to the glory of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ. People come up with all sorts of strange things when they go off on their own with their Bibles, but that does not negate the fact that the Bible is a beacon of truth through which God speaks with a clear authority. Not because the Bible is magic, but because it contains the apostolic witness which lived in the earliest Christian communities even before the New Testament was written down. Yes, the community of faith is necessary to receive God’s Word and hear it properly, in its fulness, but that Word speaks to the Church, not the other way around.

There is something strangely postmodern about the notion that words on a page do not have real meaning, or that it is impossible for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through them. Yet both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists seem to resort to this sort of postmodern critique over and over again in order to try to persuade Christians that another authority is necessary. As an Anglican, I do believe that another authority is necessary, but not because the Scripture is incomplete or incapable of holding that prime place of authority all on its own. Rather, it is because the Scripture itself directs us to the Church as the means by which the Holy Spirit comes to us, and the great saints of both the east and the west have always been willing to look to the Bible as their primary authority, even and especially when controversies have been tearing the Church apart. The Anglican critique of WeAreTheOneTrueChurchism ™ is not that the true Church is invisible and only in our hearts, but that the true Church is visible and visibly broken despite the oneness that Scripture assures us has been given to us by the Holy Spirit. And every minute we spend trying to convince the world that we are the One True Church in her entirety, rather than trying to reconcile the broken pieces of the Church into the one body that Jesus commands us to be, is a minute spent in sin rather than in building up the Body of Christ for the sake of the world.

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Jesus Wants You to Eat Him

San_Leocadio_Christ_with_the_HostAs someone who likes to eat–and someone who has developed stomach problems over the years which limit what I can eat–I find it fascinating the way in which both the fall of man and our salvation are wrapped up in eating. Mysterious as parts of the creation account may be, there is something completely, blatantly obvious about the idea that the world was plunged into sin and darkness by the eating of forbidden fruit. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden, which was fine with our first human parents, right up until the moment that the serpent convinced Eve that if she ate that fruit she would be like God. That must have been the same line she used on Adam, who seemed to think that eating was a much better idea than obeying. They wanted to be like God, so they ate something which they thought would give them a piece of God’s power. They ate the fruit because they wanted to become God. They wanted to take God into themselves, to have His knowledge, to steal His mojo.

In many ways, this is still how we approach the world. In our day and age, we no longer believe in the One True God, or even in the idea that there could be a One True God, but we have many gods to take His place — gods of entertainment, power, politics, sex, you name it. We worship them because we want to be them. We attempt to consume them, to take them into ourselves so that we might have what they have so that we can then be done with them. This consumption takes many forms, of course, not all of them literal. We consume ideas and products just as adeptly as we consume pastries and pasta. We get outraged at the stuff we’re supposed to get outraged at, depending on which set of gods we wish to ingest that day. We buy whatever has been endorsed by our favorite celebrities, because if we use his toothpaste or her lip gloss, we might just become the gods we’ve always aspired to be.

And then the One True God comes along and spoils the fun by becoming incarnate of the flesh of the Virgin Mary. While we are busy consuming in order to become gods, God is busy self-emptying in order to become us. All this time, we’ve been trying to eat our way to the top, and then Jesus stands before us, God in human flesh, and offers us Himself to eat, His own flesh and blood. And we don’t want to eat Him. We turn our noses up like children presented with vegetables.

Jesus fed the multitudes bread that they could consume. When He did that, they followed Him because they wanted to see what else they could get out of Him. But He rejected their consumerism. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” says Jesus (John 6:26). The kind of eating that we want to do and the kind that Jesus wants to give us are totally different. We want to have Him as a possession, to keep Him handy like a genie in a bottle, to use Him and then spit Him out. We want Him to do whatever it is we need Him to do–to comfort us, to make us happy, to entertain us, to give us a “spiritual charge,” to give us a sense of identity, to tell us that we’re just fine the way we are–and then we want Him to be gone until we need Him again. We want Him to be our comfort food, totally filling, totally designed to make us feel good, totally disposable and forgettable. We want to rot our teeth on Him, but that is not what He is offering. He wants us to eat Him, but in a totally different way and for a totally different purpose:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. (John 6:53-57)

Eating is not simply consuming. It is also joining. We are what we eat. We become what we eat, and what we eat becomes us. The consuming of food does not just fulfill a desire for us, it actually transforms us and builds us into who we are. If we eat good food, our bodies become healthy and whole. If we eat junk, we become junk. Either way, eating is never just a utilitarian exercise. It is what makes us human, what binds us to the earth. We do not simply take possession of that which we eat. We merge with it. And when we eat God, we merge with Him. When we eat the very source of life, we become life. We do not possess God, nor do we possess life. We become it. Jesus gives Himself up, even to death, so that we may eat Him and thereby become a part of Him, just as He thereby becomes a part of us. Every Holy Communion is salvation in miniature.

In our modern quest for spiritual awakening, it is popular for pastors and new age hipsters alike to say, “Do whatever feeds you.” While this is a dangerous prescription for many reasons, it does reveal an important truth. Whatever we feed will grow. Whatever we starve will die. If you go blindly searching for something that tastes good, you will eat a lot of bad meals and feed a lot of bad appetites until they grow out of control and swallow you whole. But Jesus wants you to eat Him. The Lord kept the fruit away from you in the garden not because He wanted to deprive you but because it would not have been good for you to have it. Jesus wants you to eat Him because He wants you to grow. He wants you to eat Him because He wants you to live.

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There is No Such Thing as Protestantism


From the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois. Photo by Robert Lawton.

Death is still segregated in American society. You may be surrounded by diversity in your school or your workplace, but when you die, you stick with your own. There are black and white funeral homes, Jewish funeral homes, Irish and Italian funeral homes, etc. It may not be like that all over the country, but it is certainly that way in the three states that I have lived in. And the biggest divide amongst the funeral homes is not racial or ethnic or even inter-faith but inter-Christian. There are Catholic funeral homes and there are Protestant funeral homes. Which means, though you may define yourself however you want–call yourself an Evangelical, or a Lutheran, or a Reformed Calvinist, or a Baptist, or a Quaker, or even an Anglo-Catholic–but at the end of the day, you will die a Protestant. That is your only option, and for America, that is considered good enough.

Generic Protestantism

It is considered good enough because America is a Protestant nation. This is more deeply true for us than it has ever been true that Sweden is Lutheran or that England is Anglican. I daresay it may be more true than it is that Ireland is Catholic or that Greece is Orthodox. For Americans, Protestantism is in our bones. It is in our DNA. Jefferson and Adams and Washington were not exactly Christians, but they were most certainly Protestants. We live and breathe Protestantism. By that, I mean that we are so completely attuned to the idea that Christianity is something we choose how to live for ourselves, based on our personal criteria about what seems right, that we never question that assumption. That is simply what Christianity is: personal, free, and uninhibited by tradition. This is not the classical or historical definition of Protestantism, but it is the one that American Protestants have adopted over time. Even those Americans who choose highly traditional forms of Christianity like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are operating out of a kind of Protestantism. The tradition we choose for ourselves is no tradition at all, and yet we affirm our right to choose it all the same.

And we are never more Protestant then when we are using the word Protestant as a substitute for the word generic. This is where the idea of the Protestant funeral home becomes particularly absurd. What is it that makes a funeral home Protestant? They do not seem to have statements of belief, nor any particular practices in caring for the dead that make them any different from their Catholic counterparts. What makes them Protestant is that they exist to serve those who have subscribed to any variety of Christian faith, no matter how passionate or nominal, so long as it is not Roman Catholic. They exist to affirm your right to choose your own Christianity by blending all forms of Christianity together into a thin soup of platitudes.


Choose Your Own Adventure

There are so many layers of irony to the American Protestant experience that it is difficult to peal them all back at once. The American Protestant chooses his Christianity because he believes that Christianity can only be chosen, yet he inherits that belief as a kind of tradition from those who came before him and he believes it almost subconsciously, without really questioning where it came from. He believes it every bit as blindly as the uneducated Roman Catholic who thinks that holy water and saint medals are magic and that you will only be able to sell your house if you bury a statue of Saint Joseph in the back yard. Nevertheless, the more strongly the American Protestant believes that each person must choose his own Christianity, the more generic his options become. Try going to a “Protestant” service some time at a campground or a private school function, anywhere in which all Protestants are supposed to be Protestant together. Suddenly, there is no difference at all between Methodists and Mennonites, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Baptists. We shave off the hard edges for the sake of momentary unity. We give up our distinctions and distinctiveness for the sake of upholding what we have in common. And once all manner of diversity of thought and practice has been sanitized away, all we are left with in common is our choice to be Protestant in the first place. We are unified by our disunity that we have freely chosen for ourselves together. (Try saying that three times fast.)

Autonomous Prime

But the greatest irony of all is that there never really was a thing called Protestantism to begin with. To be sure, there are many Protestantisms. There are many Christian traditions that have evolved separately from one another since the Reformation. And there are things that these traditions hold in common with one another, though the areas of overlap vary drastically depending on which two groups of Reformation Christians you are trying to compare. But the differences are real and they are important. I have a great deal in common with my Baptist friends and neighbors, indeed much more than I have in common with those who do not profess the Christian faith at all. But my Baptist friends and neighbors, regardless of which Baptist confession they affirm, believe that Baptism is something we do for God, not something that God does for us, and so it can only be validly entered into by an adult or at least by a child past a certain age of maturity. On the other hand, I believe that Baptism is God’s work, not ours, that it is the application of His promise of salvation, and that to refuse to baptize infants is not only wrong but a grave sin that denies the children in question real grace. That is not a small difference. That is, quite literally, everything. But in the American conception of Protestantism, the heart of our faith is not unity in essentials but unity for unity’s sake. To point out the truth that Baptists and Anglicans are not yet unified in Christ is to be intolerant of our individual right to have Christianity our own way. It is to commit the cardinal sin of American Protestantism, to suggest that truth is more important than autonomy.

Protestantism vs. the Reformation

None of this is meant to be an affront to the Reformation or our inheritance of its riches as Anglicans. Indeed, one of the great gifts of Anglicanism is that we are permitted to receive and consider the great lights of all Christian traditions. We need not read only Anglican reformers or Anglican thinkers (though it would do us some good on the whole if more of us would include at least a few early Anglican thinkers in our repertoire). I am grateful to the Reformation for the recovery of the doctrines of grace and sola fide. Moreover, I do not think there is anything wrong with using the term Protestant as a descriptive in certain instances. I have no trouble, for instance, with the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” because Protestant Episcopal is a way of describing our church as being in the historic apostolic succession but not through the Roman hierarchy. I am also aware, though somewhat skeptical, of the claim that Protestant as a term is less about protesting against Rome than it is about protesting in the older sense of the word, which means to confess and bear witness. If that is how you want to use the term, fine. But what are we confessing? Why do we have multiple “denominations” from which we confess if not for the fact that the confessions themselves are divergent? I have heard many people argue that the advent of multiple denominations is merely about giving Christians different flavors of Christianity from which to choose. Nothing could possibly be more American than that.

Reformational Christianity is quite real and quite rich. And we who are inheritors of the Reformation, in our various traditions, are much in need of serious ecumenical work so that we may, as divided Christians, repent of the sin of our divisions and seek together unity in the truth of the Gospel. But Protestantism is an invention. Calling ourselves Protestants as a way of ignoring our differences only serves to hang our faith on something less real and less solid than the cross. Generic Protestantism is a darkened room built to keep us from looking in the mirror and really seeing ourselves or our brothers and sisters in Christ. The sooner we dispense with the fiction that we are already unified through our affirmation of personal choice, the sooner the real quest for Christian unity can actually begin.

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