Friday, February 27, 2004

Was Pannenberg confused?

The following is a summary of Wolfhart Pannenberg's view of ultimate truth in an article by Stanley Grenz in The Christian Century (September 13-21, 1998), pp. 795-798:
In contrast to the classical tradiiton, he [Pannenberg] declares that truth is not found in the unchanging essences lying behind the flow of time, but is essentially historical and ultimately eschatological. Until the eschaton, truth will remain provisional and truth claims contestable. Therefore, theology, like all human knowledge, is provisional. It simply cannot pack into formulas the truth of God. The future alone is the focal point of ultimate truth. As a result, all dogmatic statements are hypotheses to be tested for coherence with other knowledge. This, he claims, is in accordance with the Scriptures, which declare that only at the end of history is the deity of God unquestionably open to all-an event. However, that is anticipated in the present.
My immediate reaction upon reading this is disbelief that a man of Pannenberg's stature could be so confused. After all I've seen good things he's written. I feel constrained, then, to at least try and give him the benefit of a doubt. Still, I find this difficult.

Okay, it is true that from a human vantage point we do not have the omniscience of God. That is a given. It is also true that we do not have the fullness of what will be revealed when we see Him face-to-face, deo volente. But is it not true that "David the son of Jessie was King of Israel?" Do we not have the capacity, even with our puny finite minds, to know that? Is this not a fact for us as it is also for God? God may know it more fully--viz, in all of its exhaustive implications--but do we not also know, even if in some lesser sense, this same fact? There are no degrees of truth, though there are degrees of comprehension of the implications of a truth. But do we not know the same truth that God knows in this case?

Let me comment on Pannenberg:
In contrast to the classical tradiiton, he [Pannenberg] declares that truth is not found in the unchanging essences lying behind the flow of time, but is essentially historical and ultimately eschatological.
It seems to me that Pannenberg here confuses truth with knowledge of truth. Truth is immutable fact. God knows it exhaustively. OUR knowledge of truth is only partial because WE are immersed in the historical flow of time; and therefore it is accurate to say that FOR US our KNOWLEDGE of truth has an eschatologically anticipatory dimension, yes. But this doesn't mean that truth itself is in process, except in the equivocal sense that what we TAKE TO BE "truth" is only partial, perhaps.
Until the eschaton, truth will remain provisional and truth claims contestable.
I would rather put it thus: until the eschaton, our knowledge of truth will remain provisional and our truth claims contestable.
Therefore,theology, like all human knowledge, is provisional.
Depending on what one means by "theology." What Jesus tells us about God in the Gospels may be understandable by us only in a limited and provisional way, but I would not want to say that the truths He spoke in the Gospels is in any way provisional. There is nothing "provisional" about even the mundane truth that David was king of Israel.
It simply cannot pack into formulas the truth of God.
No? Come on: this is nonsense. "God is spirit." "God is one." "God made us." Call those "formulas," if you like. What's impossible about them? What's provisional about them? Nothing. My understanding of those propositions may be limited and provisional. But there's NOTHING provisional about the truths they express.
The future alone is the focal point of ultimate truth.
So is the past: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." (I Cor. 15:17) It may be true that the full implications of that are only known to the mind of God, and that we humans will only begin to grasp the fullness of its meaning in the eschaton. Yet I would be loath to think that this truth is unknown to me from St. Paul's epistle, or that there is anything provisional about the truth.
As a result, all dogmatic statements are hypotheses to be tested for coherence with other knowledge.
Well, of course, that's the Church's job, if one means that the Church refines and further defines our understanding of those dogmatic statements in response to challenges from skeptics, heretics, and, well, inquirers. But it would be absolutely wooly-minded to think that the Church's job is to suspend belief her own defined dogmas and treat them as tentative hypotheses. For example, it would be utter nonsense and heresy for a priest to tell his congregation: "Well now, we have always taught that God is personal and loving, but it may turn out 6.5 billion years from now, as the Church's understanding deepends, that we learn that God is more like an
impersonal force-field and that the notion of its having something like "love" for us was pure anthropomorphism. Sorry, folks!"
This, he claims, is in accordance with the Scriptures, which declare that only at the end of history is the deity of God unquestionably open to all-an event. However, that is anticipated in the present."
Again, I have no quarrel with the language of Scripture on these points, because Scripture never casts into doubt the assumption that our partial knowledge refers to unalterable truths of fact. Hence, the most charitable thing I can say here of this statement of Pannenberg, for whom I otherwise have considerable respect, is that it involves a careless confusion of truth with knowledge of truth.

Pannenberg's own discussion of truth can be found in his 2 volume Basic Questions in Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), under "Basic Questions," pp. 1-27.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Is "salvation by grace through faith" a LUTHERAN idea?

A good student of mine recently said that, for him, being Lutheran has always and will always mean being "saved by grace through faith." Protestant students, and especially good Lutherans, typically assume that the doctrine of "justification by faith" is the distinctive cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation. Luther, after all, declared it to be the doctrine "by which the Church stands or falls." Does this mean that Catholics don't accept this doctrine? Not exactly. But the reason a simple "yes" or "no" can't be given is that the Bible requires careful interpretation. After all, Luther thought James 2:24 couldn't be reconciled with Romans 3:28 and therefore excluded the Epistle of James from those books listed as canonical Scripture in his translatin of the Bible. We need to examine the Bible closely, if we wish to avoid the same kind of error.

The idea of "justification by faith," of course, requires some unpacking. Depending on what one means by "faith," a Catholic could easily affirm this too, as the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification of 1997 concluded. Even in the NT, "faith" means different things. For example, in 1 Cor. 13, St. Paul distinguishes "faith" from "hope" and "love," noting that having "faith as to move mountains" is "nothing" without love, which suggests that "faith" is perfected by hope, and, ultimately, by love. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas called "formed faith"-- faith that is perfected by love. But "faith" ALONE, in the sense here where Paul distinguishes it from "hope" and "love" isn't what St. Paul means in Romans where he speaks of our being justified through "faith" "apart from works of the law," where he seems to be using "faith" in a much richer sense. To highlight this, contrast what St. James says about "faith" in chapter 2 of his Epistle, where he says that even "demons" have faith in the sense of "believing in God," but then they "shudder" or "tremble." Obviously their "faith" doesn't save them. James 2:24 is the only place where the NT actually uses the words "faith alone," but then it says that that ISN'T what saves us, because we are saved by "works and not by faith alone." So what does St. Paul mean in Romans 3? Clearly he doesn't mean "faith" in this impoverished sense that even demons have, "faith" APART from "hope" and "love." So I take Paul to be using "faith" in a sense that is informed by the full trust and confidence of the disciple, who casts his life upon the Lord's grace in "hope" (of salvation) and "love" (of His gift of salvation). What does it mean, then, to say that the Christian is saved "apart from the works of the law (Torah)," as St. Paul suggests in Romans 3? If you read on, he immediately discusses circumcision and the works stipulated by the Torah under Moses, contrasting the Jew and the Greek, etc. It seems clear to me that St. Paul ISN'T saying that we're saved apart from a life of commitment and discipleship, but rather that Greeks (non-Jews) can be saved by "faith" apart from fulfilling the stipulations of the Old Covenant (circumcision, Sabbath observance, etc.). This is why, I think, St. Paul speaks frequently about the "obedience of faith" (as he does in Romans) or of "faith working through love" (as he does in Galatians). Could Bonhoeffer (one of my favorite Lutherans) have been more on target in writing a book entitled The Cost of Discipleship, and condemning what he called "cheap grace"? Surely, the grace of God is "free," but that hardly means that God asks nothing of us: He wants not just a piece of our lives and wills-- He wants EVERYTHING. And what else would the LOVER OF ALL LOVERS want from His beloved?!

For further discussion of this issue, click here.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Vatican CDF representative, Fr. Augustin DiNoia, speaks on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ

On p. 18 of the February 2004 issue of a Knights of Columbus publication, Columbia magazine, Fr. Augustin Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation fo the Doctrine of the Faith, is quoted (from a ZENIT interview) as saying that an "Intensely religious experience" awaits moviegoers who see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. More interestingly, Fr. Di Noia says the following:
Speaking as a Catholic theologian, I would be bound to condemn anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism in any recounting of the passion and death of Christ--and not just because of the terrible harm that has been done to Jewish people on these grounds, but also because, as I have already suggested, this represents a profound misunderstanding of the passion narratives.

But let me answer your question plainly:
There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish about Mel Gibson's film.

It is regrettable that people who had not seen the film, but only reviewed early versions of the script, gave rise to the charge that The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic. I am convinced that once the film is released and people get a chance to see it, the charge of anti-Semitism will simply evaporate."
For a full transcript of the ZENIT interview, click here.

FOLLOW-UP: After Dianne Sawyer's interview with Mel Gibson on ABC the weekend before Ash Wednesday, we received word from Chris Blosser's blog, Against the Grain, of the following magnificent post from "Dyspeptic Mutterings" which provides insight into what Gibson is going through in relation to his father. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 06, 2004

"What is the value of worship?"

One of my bright students recently posed the following, really good question for discussion:
What is the value of worship? How is that expressed (for good or ill) today?
My response was to say that worship, for a Catholic, means presenting oneself at the Sacrifice of Christ, participating in that Sacrifice, and receiving the sacrificial Victim--Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus, the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation. Obviously, one can hardly live without that: it's tied into what St. Peter says about becoming a "partaker in the divine nature" in 2 Pet. 1:4. Music, hymnody, sermon, prayers of the faithful, etc., are all secondary, when compared to that. Of course, these other things are an essential part of liturgy, and, as such, HOW they're involved is important; but more on that some other time.

By way of clarification, my student asked:
Would you say that liturgy then is the manner in which we present, participate, and recieve, or is it apart from these acts? I can see how it would be secondary either way (how is less important that what).
Again, my response was to say that liturgy--etymologically the "work of the people" in worship--is both a single collective act and yet an undertaking with many parts consisting of discrete, individual acts. Insofar as the work of the people is to "assist at Mass," as we would put it, we are assisting the priest in his work of performing the Great Sacrifice. That Sacrifice, which is one and the same Sacrifice as the once-for-all Sacrifice performed by Christ on Calvary, is the singular point of the liturgy and the one act in which the whole liturgy, as a single collective act, takes part.

The meaning of "liturgy," however, will vary from one tradition to another. Presbyterians, for example, make use of what they call a liturgy, but ritual sacrifice of any kind has no part in it. Even when they commemorate the Lord's Supper on occasion, it is only as a memorial, and so forth. Still, Presbyterians do make use of some elements that Catholics would recognize from their own liturgy. I have seen bulletins that mark the beginning of a Presbyterian liturgy with a sung "Introit," for example; and the sermon may be followed by a recitation of the Nicene or Apostles Creed; an offeratory, and general intercessions, may follow; and so forth. But these parts of the liturgy as understood by Presbyterians make up a collective act that is non-sacerdotal, non-sacrificial, and can only be described as having a very different nature that what is understood in a Catholic Mass, for example.

Ideally, no matter what the tradition, the different elements that make up the liturgy should contribute to a seamless, collective act of worship. The text we're using by Nicholas Wolterstorff in our Philosophy of Art course, Art in Action, has a very interesting Appendix in which he discusses the role of art and various aesthetic considerations in liturgy. Clearly music and ritual can assist and facilitate the act intended in the liturgy, or hinder. These questions can be of great interest, of course. What a great question for discussion!

One of the best Catholic discussions I've seen in the last year is an essay in Catholic Dossier by Joseph Fessio, S.J., entitled "The Mass of Vatican II," whose analysis of Vatican II's poistion on questions such as the role of Gregorian Chant in liturgy and whether the priest should say Mass "facing the people" may surprise some people. His paragraph on the origin of Gregorian Chant is simply amazing! But that's a topic for another day.

"Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry"?

Someone just forwarded to me this piece by NR Washington Editor, by Kate O'Beirne, attacking John Kerry's antiwar record. Apparently there is a group, Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry, who remember Kerry's wartime record differently from Kerry. For what it's worth, O'Beirne's full article is entitled: "Kate's Take: No Vet's Vet."

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

America magazine on the "New Apologetics"

In an article entitled "Do We Need a New(er) Apologetics?" in the February 2, 2004, issue of America, Richard A. Gaillardetz reviews the "so-called new apologetics" of figures like Scott Hahn, Gerry Matatics, Karl Keating, Mitch Pacwa, S.J., Peter Kreeft, and Patrick Madrid." He finds some strengths in their approach, as well as some weaknesses. For my review of Gaillaredetz' article, see my Scripture and Catholic Tradition blog entry for February 4, 2004.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Some suggestions for Church renewal

In a recent letter to members of Coming Home Network International, a Catholic organization for Protestant ministers at various stages of their journey "home" to the Catholic Church, as well as former Protestant ministers now serving in various lay capacities within the Catholic Church, Marcus Grodi, the head of the organization, solicited suggestions for Church renewal. For example, he asked for suggestions as to how the Catholic Church might improve what it's attempting in programs such as RCIA (Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults--ostensibly a program of catechetical instruction for those interested in possibly becoming Catholics), etc. Grodi's invitation to reflect on these issues got me thinking about my own experience in coming into the Church now over ten years ago. Here's what I wrote:


First, RCIA in our parish and many parishes, from what I understand, is close to disastrous. For whatever reason, parish priests are often reluctant to take the bull by the horns and impose a decent program. All too often, as in our parish, the program is placed into the hands of dissident nuns or ill-informed women (no chauvinism intended: it's usually women to whom priests entrust such programs) who are eager to contribute something but ill prepared to do so. We have had in charge of RCIA who suggested that responsible sex required contraception, that abortion was a personal matter of conscience, that the Bible is basically mythology, etc. The first suggestion, therefore, is that RCIA be placed in the competent hands of a leader who knows what the Church teaches and has a gift for teaching.

Second, most of the published manuals available for RCIA are rubbish. Our church has used many different such materials, and the ones I have seen are, at best, full of vapid banalities, and, at worst, flagrantly heretical. By contrast, a parish two hours away from us in Greensboro has a member of Opus Dei (a layman) running the RCIA program, and the only materials he uses are (1) the Bible and (2) the Catechism. Too many priests and catechists shy away from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), daunted by its size. They think of it as nothing more than a boring reference tool, whereas in fact it is a magnificently-written introduction to the Catholic Faith that could readily lend itself to inspirational devotional use. Also, using the Bible is helpful in showing Catholics and potential converts the biblical basis of the Catholic Faith. So my second suggestion is that the best materials to use in RCIA is the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Third, too often RCIA is left to degenerate into a kind of "socialization" of newcomers into the church community. The emphasis is on the horizontal, the vertical gets interpreted in light of the latest psychological fads about what constitutes healthy "spirituality," and controversial issues tend to be soft-pedaled or avoided altogether. This won't do. There's a place for social fellowship, but in RCIA it should be kept to a minimum. The objective is learning about the Faith. And a proper introduction to the "vertical" dimension should include an introduction to traditional Catholic devotions, such as the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, Liturgy of the Hours, and substantial books of Catholic prayers, like James Socias' Handbook of Prayers published by Scepter Publishers and used by Opus Dei members regularly. Also the tough issues must not be avoided, and in fact RCIA members are usually eager to learn these details. The aforementioned prayer book also addresses such issues in a tactful, straightforward manner.


There needs to be an ongoing catechesis of churched Catholics to supplement RCIA. First of all, such a catechesis needs to bring churched Catholics up to the level of most newcomers entering the Church who have undergone a proper introductory catechesis in RCIA. Second, it needs to take them beyond that introductory level by offering programs of study and enrichment that will further deepen (1) their knowledge of the Faith and (2) strengthen them in their journey of sanctification. There are a lot of good materials available, which I'm sure most readers are aware of in the first department, through good writers and speakers like Scott Hahn (with great video presentations through St. Joseph Communications, etc.; and Opus Dei, if you're familiar at all with its apostolate, has great resources to offer in the latter department. If you've ever gone to one of their evenings of recollection, circle meetings, or retreats, then you know that Opus Dei puts a big emphasis on growth in sanctity through growth in understanding and habituation of specific virtues. It offers very effective disciplines. See both the Writings of Josemaria Escriva and Scepter Publishers.

The need for such an ongoing catechesis is underlined by the fact that the priest's weekly homily of ten or fifteen minutes simply isn't getting the job done; and the proof is in the pudding: parishioners don't know much about their Faith. Here we can learn from folks like the Baptists here, who have set a wonderful example of traditions of adult Bible study in conjunction with their Sunday services that should be the envy of any Catholic parish.

Parish literature resources:

Parishes typically have some sort of tract rack or magazine rack, if not a bookstore usually filled with rosaries, books on Catholic piety, as well as a good deal of Catholic kitsch. Much of this needs improvement, not least of all the attention given to Catholic art in parishes. But here I wish to address parish literature resources. Too often parish tract and magazine racks are filled with relatively unedifying and worthless literature. In some cases, the literature reflects New Agey "spirituality," and in other cases it can reflect dissenting opinion. Our parish magazine rack regularly features magazines like US Catholic, for example, which are fundamentally problematic (see, for example, my critique of US Catholic). I have spoken with our priest about the downright dissident and heretical views in magazines like this, to no avail. But the point is: somebody needs to get a good grip on what sort of literature is permitted to be offered in the parish magazine rack, so as to avoid sending out conflicting messages about Church teaching. A parish bookstore can also be a great resource, provided a healthy sampling of substantial titles can be offered from publishers such as Ignatius Press, Sophia Institute Press, Scepter Publishers., TAN Publishers (though selectivity is required here), etc.

Retreat / Conference resources:

To anyone interested in the Catholic Faith, as well as to any Catholic interested in deepening his or her faith, I would recommend, as I'm sure many would, conferences such as those offered by Franciscan University, such as their "Defending the Faith" conference. For a list of conferences see 2004 Franciscan University Summer Conferences. Opus Dei also sponsors regional retreats for members and non-members several times a year (these are typically announced at area evenings of recollection offered monthly, which can be located, I think, by calling the Opus Dei's Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC: 202-783-2062).

Only once Catholics substantially understand their Faith and fall in love with the Lord through it, will they become effective in evangelization. The way in which the word "evangelization" has been used in most Catholic parishes, newsletters, and diocesan newspapers, would be almost laughable if it weren't also so sad. The things that are allowed to pass for "evangelization" are usually anything but what the Holy Father has been calling for, or what most Evangelicals understand. True "evangelization" is more than making sure newcomers feel "included" in the local parish "community." It is more than introducing parishioners to "Celtic Spirituality." It is certainly not introducing them to programs by groups like Call to Action or the so-called "Voice of the Faithful." Evangelization is sharing the Catholic Faith with those who don't know it, or, to borrow the words I once heard from an Evangelical minister, "one beggar telling another where to find bread" (the bread being, of course, the Bread of Life).

Parishes that have solid programs of catechesis, RCIA, etc., have exciting things happening. The Greensboro parish where the aforementioned RCIA program run by the member of Opus Dei brings in 40-50 well-catechized new converts into the Church every year. A diocese with such parishes typically is burgeoning with vocations to the priesthood and religious orders.