Sunday, January 12, 2014

Those dang literalists!

Literalist!  Fundamentalist!  These are the charges laid against the "conservatives" who take Scripture at its word.  Why that could not possible be true!  This is their charge against every apparent contradiction, every seeming conflict within the Word of God.  Those of us who, like Missouri, say the Word is true are charged with redefining otherwise clear passages to explain away, erase away, eradicate away the apparent conflicts and contradictions.

It would seem this now applies to creeds and confessions as well.  This could not possible mean what it says and it if means what it says, we must reject it for the sake of the Gospel!  At least that is the position of some on the liberal end of things.  In this case it was a discussion about the opening words to the Athanasian Creed.  On another forum a debate has arisen over how we hear and understand the words of the Athanasian Creed and how we subscribe to those words.  In the past, this would have hardly begun a testy exchange but this one has proven to have some fireworks.  I do not wish to rehash the whole thing here but to use this to illustrate what happens when one begins with the skeptical mind as opposed to what happens when one begins with the confident mind of faith.

It is said that one cannot subscribe to the actual words of this creedal statement because of this beginning and its ending.  Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally....At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.  Why, to do so would surely be Pelagianism!  So therefore one subscribes to the dogma, particularly the Trinitarian and Christological doctrine within the Athanasian Creed but not the creed per se.

Never mind that these words accord with St. Paul, the grand expositor of justification by grace through faith: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others..." 2 Cor. 5:10,11

Never mind that these words accord with Jesus, the Savior whose suffering and death have purchased and won this salvation so that we might be declared righteous and just before the throne of God:  John 5:28-29 "Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment."


Matthew 25 (the whole chapter not printed out here).

Never mind that the fathers of the Church have understood this easily enough.  "Holy Scripture should be interpreted in a way which is in complete agreement with those who understood it and not in a way which seems to be inconsistent to those who are least familiar with it. Paul said that a man is justified through faith without the works of the law, but not without those works of which James speaks." (Augustine, FC 16:36)

"That Abraham believed God deep in his heart is a matter of faith alone, but that he took his son to sacrifice him … is not just a great act of faith but a great work as well." (Augustine, WSA 3/1:181)

"On the one hand, the blessed James says that Abraham was justified by works when he bound Isaac his son on the altar, but on the other hand Paul says that he was justified by faith, which appears to be contradictory. However, this is to be understood as meaning that Abraham believed before he had Isaac and that Isaac was given to him as a reward for his faith. Likewise, when he bound Isaac to the altar, he did not merely do the work which was required of him, but he did it with the faith that in Isaac his seed would be as numberless as the stars of heaven, believing that God could raise him from the dead." (Cyril of Alexandria, CEC 17)

"Just as faith without works is dead, so the reverse is also true. Therefore let integrity in faith shine forth along with the glories of upright living." (Cyril of Alexandria, FC 77:15)

"Although the apostle Paul preached that we are justified by faith without works, those who understand by this that it does not matter whether they live evil lives or do wicked and terrible things, as long as they believe in Christ, because salvation is through faith, have made a great mistake. James here expounds how Paul’s words ought to be understood. This is why he uses the example of Abraham, whom Paul also used as an example of faith, to show that the patriarch also performed good works in the light of his faith. It is therefore wrong to interpret Paul in such a way as to suggest that it did not matter whether Abraham put his faith into practice or not. What Paul meant was that no one obtains the gift of justification on the basis of merit derived from works performed beforehand, because the gift of justification comes only from faith." (Bede, PL 93:22)

Never mind that the Lutheran Confessions affirm not merely the Trinitarian and Christological content of the Athanasian Creed, but also its received wording, which is the confession of the Church, the faithful confession of the Church.  "Likewise, we reject and condemn it both when some Antitrinitarians reject and condemn the ancient, time-tested Creeds, the Nicene and Athanasian, both in their intention and their actual wording, and when they teach that there is not a single, eternal, divine essence..." (FC SD XII:37; K/W 659)

The liberal perspective, always skeptical and even willing to be a literalist or fundamentalist with respect to a text in order to question its veracity, refuses to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture or to use the whole of the content of the creeds and confessions of the church to illuminate specific passages.  This, it is claimed, is cheating.  The only fair way is the skeptical way -- pick a passage out of its context, refuse to allow the other clearer passages to shed light upon this one, and then reject it because it does not conform to your predisposed notions.  The claim is always laid at the door of orthodoxy that in order to get there from here, you must use "special exegesis" because any fair reading of the text renders such orthodoxy impossible.

The only question here is who can do the good of which these passages speak and the Athanasian Creed speaks?  Here Scripture is clear again.  The good is done by those whom the Lord has declared good and in whom the Holy Spirit has worked faith in the heart to receive and believe this gift of alien righteousness.  So it is not difficult to reconcile James and Jesus or Paul and Jesus or Jesus, James and Paul with the Athanasian Creed.  It takes no effort whatsoever -- except for the skeptics who will use any tool, even seeming literalism, to betray the text, rough it up, and then discard it.  It cannot say what it says, it cannot mean what it says, therefore it cannot be faithful and true.  Simply by extension of this principle, one can nearly eradicate every word of the New Testament until one is left with merely a golden rule that offers little real gold and a few other pious moralisms, none of which can save you, if, indeed, you need saving.

While it may seem that the great liberal divide is a matter of texts and interpretation, the reality is that the starting point is the real issue.  Do we begin with the joyful affirmation of Scripture and its own claims about itself, the creeds formed by the Church in faithfulness to the Word, and our confessions having their source and content from the Word of God... OR must we constantly review, redress, and re-interpret Scripture, creed, and confession as our own rational mind leads, seeming archeological evidence might show, and historical interpretation change?  In the first view the faith is static -- it is yesterday, today, and forever the same -- even in the midst of a changing world.  In the skeptical view nothing is ever static and even the truth of God is constantly under scrutiny and redefinition.  Some may go further and others in this, but, once you have begun down this slippery slope there is nothing to stop the slide into complete relativism.


Mr. Mcgranor said...

Fundamentalists' are near extinct, or else you would be anti-Catholic and anti-Judaic. When is the last time that you declared Supersessionism?

P.S. Where are your bishops?

Janis Williams said...

I fear the liberals' damage to the Church. It is ongoing. There is, however another side which scares me more. The Liberals (and conservative Calvinists at times) explain away difficulties in Holy Scripture with reason: "It CAN'T mean that...-the Calvinist's add, "because....") What scares me more are the people who use SCRIPTURE against SCRIPTURE. PauL says this, but James says this. Jesus says this, but Paul changes it to this.... I think it's in Scripture that a "house divided against itself cannot stand."

David Gray said...


I think both Lutherans and Reformed are prone to overly rely on reason in terms of explaining scripture or reconciling what appears to the finite human mind to be a difficulty. They just tend to do it on different issues and both need to be aware of the temptation.