Monday, March 02, 2009

Defining the terms

Update: My move to Chapel Hill, N.C. has been delayed two days by the snow storm

It may be apparent by now that one of the great hindrances to clear thinking and teaching is a combination of simplistic and reactionary thought mixed with nominalism. In all of the recent posts on this blog about the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, drawing on Hooker who drew on Cranmer, I hope that I have demonstrated that true Catholic teaching on sacramental grace is far more flexible and mysterious than modern interlocutors, mainly Roman Catholics on one hand and modern nouveau "Anglican" Evangelicals on the other, are wont to admit. They have, in their simplistic approach, created false contrasts. One of these is a false contrast between Catholic belief concerning the charismatic reality of Christ's Body and Blood in the sacrament and what they loosely, indeed inaccurately, term "Receptionism." We have demonstrated that the Anglican emphasis on Receiving the sacrament was due to a very real faith that this is a sign and more than a sign, an effectual sign and means of grace. They strongly rejected any concept of a "bare sign empty of Christ," or as Hooker spelled it out:

For we take not baptism nor the eucharist for bare resemblances or memorials of things absent, neither for naked signs and testimonies assuring us of grace received before, but (as they are indeed and in verity) for means effectual whereby God when we take the sacraments delivereth into our hands that grace available unto eternal life, which grace the sacraments represent or signify. V.57.5

False contrasts create a Babel where before we could engage in thoughtful communication, learning from one another and establishing, we may hope, unity in the Church. For, this false gulf stands between us and Rome in its official error concerning the validity of Anglican Orders, charging that our fathers rejected Eucharistic sacrifice, and truly Catholic faith concerning the sacrament (as if that alone could have canceled out validity). Having been forced by better history and scholarship to abandon all arguments for their position but one (rather, they yet claim to have one) they must continually misinform themselves and their own people about Anglican sacramental theology, while their boldest and most daring polemicists attempt to misinform our people too. Meanwhile, the nouveau Evangelicals echo Rome's factual errors, but try to say that it really does not matter.

Of course, real theologians cannot live with the simplistic and reactionary nominalism that eradicates honest inquiry and thought. For this reason, my brothers and I (one a Roman Catholic priest, the other an Orthodox theologian well-known) never manage to argue or debate each other about theology, but rather have very enjoyable discussions. We talk about the explosive subject of religion because God himself is at the center of our lives; we are all Christians, and respect each other. Our discussions avoid the traps others fall into when keywords become red flags, behind which stand misinformation, simplistic reactions and nominalism.

Also, for the sake of genuine thought and discussion we have, on this blog, looked at how the current pope himself has redefined "Transubstantiation" in a manner acceptable to Anglicans. Though I cannot retroactively credit the Church of Rome with his wholesome point of view, his teaching on the subject bridges a gap because Joseph Ratzinger himself (even had he never been elevated) approached the subject with respect for the Patristic period, the antiquity of the Tradition, and the need that every doctrine be built on the foundation of revelation from Scripture.

Nonetheless, many Anglicans these days have suffered a blow because they have never been grounded in the writings of their own fathers, and have never realized how thoroughly those English Reformers believed and taught the true Catholic Faith of antiquity, understanding the Scriptures in a way that could not be corrupted by innovations from any contemporary source. They held their ground to find the middle way of truth between many opposing extremes: They were not Calvinists, Lutherans, Papists, Anabaptists, etc. Their language overlapped some of these because they kept alive the kind of thinking and writing that had been acceptable in the Holy Catholic Church since the beginning, that allowed for honest questions, and that limited the source of final determination in every question to what could be shown to come from Scripture as understood by the Church Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.

The unfortunate remark of an Anglican bishop who called his own patrimony a failed 450-year old experiment, demonstrates that knee-jerk nominalism has created a new kind of "Anglo-Papalism." This is not the original kind that sought for the reunification of the Church, and saw the pope as the logical choice for Western Patriarch, seeing even the doctrine of papal infallibility as potentially acceptable if Rome would define it as the last stage of the conciliar process. Indeed, the key to understanding the old Anglo-Papalism well enough to distinguish it from the new kind, is seeing that the old kind required an orthodox definition from Rome on this and other related matters as necessary to organic unity. Instead, the nouveau Anglo-Papalist lets others define all the terms, allows others to teach him the theology of his own patrimony, and so gives ground to all interlocutors and polemicists, waving the white flag of an inferiority complex. And, if only they knew better, they would see that their inferiority complex is undeserved, and that it misrepresents the rest of us. (This is very sad, because when they leap into the Tiber due to false contrasts and simplistic definitions, they throw away the baby with the bathwater, generally becoming miserable, that is, over time quite unhappy with their decision.)

So, in those recent posts, I hope that I have demonstrated, to those most in need of the lesson, that the mysteries are deep. True theology is both complex and flexible enough to allow us to abide by the terms established in antiquity, rather than feeling the pressure to swallow late, modern and very modern, philosophically dubious, legalistic definitions that shake the conscience for no good reason. For example, on this one matter of Eucharistic theology, we ought to set the terms of any debate ourselves, seeing our own patrimony in light of the Scriptures and the Tradition in which we have received them. If our own people will learn this, they will bring forth from their treasures things both old and new.


Canon Tallis said...

Personally, I think you have done very well, Father Hart, and I profoundly wish that those who call themselves Anglicans but who have failed to read the earliest Fathers so that they would know just how much that our Anglican Fathers depended upon them in a time the rediscovery of the original New Testament, i.e., the Greek and not the Latin, was making mincemeat of theology that depended upon the differences in meaning between the two versions.

It seems to me very instructive that Keble's Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology focused upon the works of those who were authentically Anglican primarily because of their knowledge, use and acceptance of Scripture as interpreted by the Fathers, the Creeds and the Councils. I think Keble believed that we should all know Cramner, Jewel and Hooker and wanted to assure that it would be easier to know the others. The big problem was that Pusey was more right that he knew and that when the Anglo-Catholic name was hijacked by those who - as Gore pointed out - learned such theology as they knew from the penny pamphlets at Westminster Cathedral, the Church was swamped by those who had no defense against the continued march of secularism. (Actually I have come to think of it as secular anti-humanism as there is no respect for anything really human in it.) Now we must begin from the foundation again, but that means really reading the texts until we know what they say and not what we or someone else would like to twist them into saying. We must, as Lewis said in his introduction to that piece of St Athanasius so elegantly translated by Sister Penelope let the wind of the ages blow through our minds.

You and the responders to this blog are a wonderful aid to making that real.

Voyagis+ said...

The Western Church has been too keen to see the Eucharist in terms of "contingency" rather than source - the ontological essence of the Trinity as understood by the Greek Fathers. The typical Western preoccupation with instrumentality/modality, and the privatization of religious experience has sundered the ecclessial community whose proper nature is described in I Corinthians.

A fuller understanding of current Eastern Orthodox thought on the Eucharist may very well serve to bind the factions of conservative Anglicanism together. The writings of theologians such as Zizioulas and Schmemann are excellent in this respect.

The reunion of all Christendom is a goal to be prayed for and earnestly sought, however, not until greater cohesion occurs within the various communions (the Prots included) can an "ecumenical" solution be found.