Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Pope's Critique of Protestantism

Proto-Protestant Dunce
(Image from Wikipedia)

The Pope's Regensburg lecture has received a great deal of attention for the Byzantine quote about Muhammad bringing nothing new except for things "evil and inhuman" (or: "bad and inhumane"), but less noted has been the Pope's criticisms of Protestantism -- namely, that it sunders the Christian synthesis of faith and reason -- which took up far more of his talk.

Let's take a look at this critique, which begins with an admission about some Medieval Catholic theology:

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm [i.e., "that God is not bound even by his own word, ... that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us," and that "we would even have to practise idolatry" if God so willed] and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which -- as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated -- unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul -- "λογικηλατρεία", worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).

Note that the Pope asserts the crucial significance of the "real analogy" between God and us, which is ultimately based (though unmentioned here) upon the scriptural statement that human beings are made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27) and which is interpreted (and explicitly thematized here) in Greek terms as a shared rationality between God and individuals.

The Pope, then, would affirm the analogia entis (analogy of being) over such concepts as the analogia fidei (analogy of faith) emphasized by the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth -- and would perhaps accuse Barth of holding to a variant of fideism, i.e., faith unsupported by, and even against, reason.

The Pope would see Barth's position as a consequence stemming from the dehellenization of Christianity that began with the Protestant Reformation, a point that the Pope begins to make here:
The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity -- a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.
The Pope then expounds at some length on these three stages, but I will excise portions to summarize in his own words:
Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.
The Pope's concern here touches on an unmentioned point, namely, that the principle of sola scriptura entails a rejection of the Catholic Church's authority to speak as the true Church in interpreting scripture. His rehabilitation of reason -- of Greek thought -- for modern Christianity would entail a reassertion of Catholic authority over Protestants. Why so? Because the Greek-Christian synthesis was achieved by the early Church Fathers, and to accept the Church Fathers is already to reject the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. If the Pope can persuade Protestants that they tend in their theology toward the dangerous concept of a capricious God, then he might be able to draw them back to the mother church.

That's the subtext, anyway, that I'm reading here.

Be that as it may, the Pope doesn't stop at this point. There are yet stages two and three to treat. Here's stage two:

The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative .... Harnack's central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. Fundamentally, Harnack's goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university.
This was the liberal theology most characteristic of 19th-century Christianity, which tended to subordinate Christianity to culture, understood as Western culture but not so much in terms of tradition as in terms of moral progress. This grounding of Christianity in culture left it without an independent position from which to critique that culture. Recovering that independence, the Pope implies, would require returning to the concept of a rational God who made human beings in his own image and rejecting the liberal Christian view that made Christianity -- and therefore the Christian God -- in the image of culture.

Interestingly, one of the most powerful Protestant rejections of liberal theology comes to us in the work of the already-mentioned Karl Barth, whose reaction to the horrors of the First World War led him to articulate a system of neo-orthodoxy through his powerful commentary on Paul's letter to the Romans. From the Pope's perspective, Barth's reaction to WWI -- which led him to reject the validity of all human perspectives in the presence of the unfathomable otherness of God -- would be simply to reoccupy the position articulated by the early Protestant Reformers and thus would not solve the problem engendered by the dehellenization of Christianity.

The Pope doesn't mention all this, but it's on his mind.

But let's turn from our reading of the Pope's mind to a reading of his words concerning the third stage:

I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.
This -- the Pope implies -- would compound the errors of the first two stages by appropriating a sort of sola scriptura even while subordinating Christianity to culture ... or, rather, cultures.

The Pope is especially concerned about this third stage, for it threatens even the Catholic synthesis because as Church growth occurs outside of the West, such that non-Western Catholics begin to outnumber Western ones, even Catholic voices have been raised in favor of the indigenization of theology -- effectively a dehellenization of the sort feared by the Pope.

Some of the Pope's criticism thus takes aim at Catholic developments, but he uses much more of his ammunition on Protestantism ... if my reading is correct.

Therefore, against these insults to our divinely inspired reformed church, I call upon all of my Protestant brothers and sisters to rise up in violent protests (we are "Protestants," after all!) and breathe out threatenings and slaughter (cf. prooftext Acts 9:1: "empneo apeile kai phonos") against Catholics, the Catholic Church, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Nah ... just kidding. I call for further reasonable dialogue on these fascinating issues and hope that I am contributing something.

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At 10:49 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...


At 11:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Of course, CIV, I could be wrong.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:23 AM, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Excellent and very interesting commentary, Jeffery.

I wish I knew more about Karl Barth, by the way. Do you particularly recommend any of his books?

At 12:58 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Have you seen the row that has broken out in the UK over Catholicism and its silent attitude towards sexual abuse? There hasn't been much RATIONAL dialogue here by the Vatican--and a distint perversion of the "Greek spirit" of Platonic love. Your analysis is thought-provoking, as always.

At 3:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, I've tried to read Barth's theological works and found myself stymied because I didn't know enough theology -- hardcore theology -- to follow him.

I've gleaned most of my knowledge from second-hand sources, especially from intellectual historians like William Bouwsma and Martin Jay, both of whose courses I attended at Berkeley.

I think that Jay has even written some articles on Barth, who is, in many ways, an admirable figure.

Anyway, I have read Barth's Commentary on Romans and can recommend it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:48 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, I haven't noticed the row in the UK, but the one in the US has gotten a lot of attention.

The reflexive tendency of the Catholic Church -- as an institution -- to protect its clergy when it needs to be investigating them is a dark stain indeed.

Richard John Neuhaus expressed his displeasure that Cardinal Law presided at the mass in St. Peter's last year during the papal conclave that selected Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI:

First Things

April 12: The Great Pause

This is the week of the great pause before the Conclave begins next Monday. A pause must be filled, and people are not too particular about the quality of the filling. Yesterday the distraction was Bernard Cardinal Law presiding in St Peter's at the Mass of the second day of mourning. Yes, the protocol is that the pastors (arch-priests) of the Roman basilicas preside at these first Masses, and he is pastor of St. Mary Major, but he could have declined the honor, and should have. Nobody needed during these solemn days the reopening of wounds from the sex abuse scandal in the U.S. Although SNAP, the "survivor network," managed to get only one protestor here, the media made the most of it.

In truth, Law has paid a price for his gross negligence in Boston, being demoted from archbishop of a major see to pastor of a church in Rome, albeit a very distinguished church. But he continues to serve on seven major congregations here, including those dealing with clergy and the appointment of bishops. And that galls many in the United States, who think he should be on bread and water in a remote hermitage. That sentiment may be vindictive, but it is also the case that authorities here, including Cardinal Law, seem not to appreciate the intensity of disgust and outrage with the scandals in the United States. The brouhaha over his presiding at the Mass will likely not last through the next news cycle, but it was a sour note that easily could have been avoided.

So, there are voices of dissent being heard -- and the Catholic Church needs to institute a policy that deals with this problem better.

Perhaps it already has. I don't know much about what it's been doing on this issue. The Catholic Church as an institution is a bureaucratic hierarchy and tends to move slowly.

Perhaps KM knows more about this.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:47 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

GOOD GRAVY. Did I tell you that I bow at your feet? I am humbly grateful for your sharing this with us and I'm sending out this marvellous link to everyone who is a christian scholar and theologian in my circle.

At 4:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Saur, I'm embarrassed. Don't humble yourself at all. But I'm glad that you found it worth reading and sharing.

Just remember ... I could be wrong.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:24 AM, Blogger Dymphna said...

Hey, Gypsy Scholar--

I'll meet you in the alley with a cudgel. We'll have us a dialogue. Loser buys the beer and converts.

Of course, my problem is I can't decide whether to desert the Episcopal Church and revert to R. Catholicism or not. I'm waiting for a sign, preferably the kind that Groucho Marx used to have on his show -- the one where the duck came down on a string with the word in his mouth. Being dense I don't do subtlety.

Couldn't find your email so what I *really* came over to tell you is that the Baron translated a German essay --he doesn't speak or read German, but he patched something together with babelfish, his German dictionary and his love of etymology.

I'm under the impression that *you* speak the language so I thought you'd be interested in grading his effort!

The German and European Self-Image

If you have the time, that is.

BTW, I find Barth dense also. I'd rather read a secondary source, being the lazy scholar I am.

At 6:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dymphna, I've given it a shot. If you don't like it, you can just step outside and settle it with me there!

And you might as well start buying those beers right now...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting stuff here. I really appreciate your devotion to your beliefs. Keep sharing :)

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Freudian Slip, but I'm not expressing my own beliefs so much as analyzing the Pope's speech.

I'm glad that you found it interesting.

Jeffery Hodges

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