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John Chrysostom’s Interpretation of Romans 1:1-7 :: The Fathers of the Church

I have summarized highlights of John Chrysostom’s interpretation of the introduction to the book of Romans.  I believe they foreshadow much of his interpretation of the rest of the book.  Wanting my citations to be easily traceable but using an online version of the text (which does not supply the page numbers of the original), I have cited his homilies on Romans this way: § 1.1:1 = Chrysostom, “Homilies on Romans,” Homily 1, comments on Romans chapter 1, verse 1.  Where no citations appear after quotations, you can see from the biblical text where I am pulling the commentary from Chrysostom: I have used the RSV in my English translation.

John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Romans,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,First Series, Vol. 11, translated by J. Walker, J. Sheppard and H. Browne, and revised by George B. Stevens; edited by Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889); revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/210203.htm (accessed 11.10.12).

Romans 1:1-7

(1) Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God 

The fact that Paul (unlike Matthew, John, Mark, and Luke) attaches his own name to his letters becomes a textual irritant that requires explanation—a twofold irritant, since Hebrews was thought at that time to have been written by Paul but did not bear his name as in his other letters (§ 1.1:1).  Chrysostom argues that it would’ve been superfluous for Moses or the gospel writers to attach their names to their writings because they were writing for people “who were present” and therefore already knew the author, whereas Paul was writing for people far away.  As for Hebrews, Paul left off his name because he didn’t want to prejudice his hearers, since some of the target audience was “prejudiced against him,” thus leaving the work anonymous “subtly won their attention by concealing the name.”

God changed Saul’s name to Paul’s so that he could acquire the same preeminence of the other apostles.

Paul calls his message “gospel” because unlike the prophets who bore messages primarily of judgment, Paul’s message is primarily of the “countless treasures.”

(2) which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 

Paul emphasizes that his message has been prophesied “expressly” and in “temper” already in the Old Testament because some have accused him of novelty (§ 1.1:2).  God announces beforehand his great deeds “to practise [sic] men’s hearing for the reception of them when they come.”

(3) the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 

Paul mentions that Jesus was born “according to the flesh” before referring to his divine origin “according to the Spirit” because “he who would lead men by the hand to Heaven, must needs lead them upwards from below”—which is the same reason Jesus was first revealed as a man, then later as God; for the same reason also Matthew, Luke, and Mark began from “below” as well with their genealogies in their gospel accounts.

(4) and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,

This passage is “made obscure by the close-folding of the words” (§ 1.1:4).

It is made plain that the person of Jesus was also the Son of God by way of his generation: 1) the testimony of the prophets, 2) the way of his generation (“he broke the rule of nature” [in being born of a virgin?]), 3) by his miracles which revealed power, 4) “from the Spirit which He gave to them that believe upon Him, and through which He made them all holy, wherefore he says, ‘according to the Spirit of holiness.’ For it was of God only to grant such gifts,” 5) from the resurrection.

Chrysostom appears to take the Greek word horízô in the sense of “declared” (cf. KJV, NRS, NASB, NIV, ESV) rather than in the sense of “designated” (cf. RSV, CEB).

(5) through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 

Paul “calls the things of the Spirit, the Son’s, and the things of the Son, the Spirit’s” (§ 1.1:5).

That grace is what causes the apostleship that brings about faith shows

… it was not the Apostles that achieved it, but grace that paved the way before them.  As also Luke says, that “He open their heart” Acts 16:14; and again, To whom it was given to hear the word of God.  “To obedience” he says not, to questioning and parade of argument but “to obedience.”  For we were not sent, he means, to argue, but to give those things which we had trusted to our hands. (§ 1.1:5)

Here Chrysostom emphasizes that the word of God is only to be received by the apostles as opposed to handled “curiously” by adding to it or making an “argument” for it.  The apostles were sent out to preach so that “we for our part should believe.”

Not that we should be curious about the essence, but that we should believe in the Name; for this it was which also wrought the miracles.  … And this too requires faith, neither can one grasp anything of these things by reasoning…(§ 1.1:5)

Here we can see Chrysostom developing a dichotomization between argument, reason and novelty on the one hand, and what the role of the apostles were on the other: they were only to receive the revelation and then deliver it.  Likewise, those who receive the revelation in faith are not to be “curious about the essence” because it cannot be grasped by human reason.

Chrysostom takes Paul’s claim to have received apostleship “among all nations” as an irritant that requires explanation since Paul did not literally travel and preach to all nations.

What?  Did Paul preach then to all the nations?  Now that he ran through the whole space from Jerusalem to Illyricum, and from thence again went forth to the very ends of the earth, is plain from what he writes to the Romans; but even if he did not come to all, yet still what he says is not false, for he speaks not of himself alone, but of the twelve Apostles, and all who declared the word after them.  And in another sense, one would not see any fault to find with the phrase, if about himself, when one considers his ready mind, and how that after death he ceases not to preach in all parts of the world. (§ 1.1:5).

Paul “attaches no more to [the Romans] than to the other nations” even though they were at the top of the world so to speak, but numbers them among the Scythians and Thracians “and this he does to take down their high spirit and to prostrate the swelling vanity of their minds, and to teach them to honor others alike to themselves.”

(6) including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ; 

Paul continues to humble the Romans with the use of the word “called” here which emphasizes: “you did not come over of yourselves” (§ 1.1:6).

(7) To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul continually uses the word “called” to humble the Romans since it was likely that among them were high ranking people alongside common and poor people.  Thus, Paul is “casting aside the inequality of ranks” by writing to them “under one appellation” (§ 1.1:7). In verses 5-7 of Paul’s introduction, then, Chrysostom already sees the development of a Pauline tact to humble certain Roman Christians, which implies that Chrysostom thought that at least part of Paul’s motivation in writing the letter was his pastoral concern to humble certain high-minded Roman believers.

Chrysostom interpreted the close arrangement of these two thoughts of being both beloved and called as a sign that the one flows from the other; hence “love presented us with grace.”  That those who are called in Rome are beloved “shows whence the sanctification was.  Whence then was the sanctification?  From Love.  For after saying, ‘beloved,’ then he proceeds, ‘called to be saints,’ showing that it is from this that the found of all blessings is.  But saints he calls all the faithful.  ‘Grace unto you and peace’.”

Chrysostom takes the chain of causation further and argues that love causes grace and grace causes peace.  Peace he understands in terms of happiness, joy, pleasure, and delight—and all of which he understands to come in this life (not exclusively reserved for the life to come).  His rational for understanding grace as causing peace shows that his primary understanding of grace is not forensic, but transformative.  He argues that peace only comes when we keep “an exact watch” on our holiness so as to have “spiritual success and a good conscience.”  The implication is that grace is what causes us to persevere and grow in holiness.

For he that holds on in the adoption, and keeps an exact watch upon his holiness, is much brighter and more happy even than he that is arrayed with the diadem itself, and has the purple; and has the delight of abundant peace in the present life and is nurtured up with goodly hopes, and has no ground for worry and disturbance, but enjoys constant pleasure; for as for good spirits and joy, it is not greatness of power, not abundance of wealth, not pomp of authority, not strength of body, not sumptuousness of the table, not adorning of dresses, nor any other of the things in man’s reach that ordinarily produces them, but spiritual success, and a good conscience alone. … If then we wish to enjoy pleasure, above all things else let us shun wickedness, and follow after virtue; since it is not in the nature of things for one to have a share thereof on any other terms, even if we were mounted upon the king’s throne itself (§ 1.1:7)

The key link in grace leading to peace is holiness.  Grace leads to peace through holiness, which produces spiritual success and a good conscience.  This common apostolic greeting “grace and peace” is thus interpreted in a way that centralizes holiness as the product of grace and the necessary condition of peace and happiness.  He also interprets Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” in these terms, citing Galatians 5:22 which includes among them love, joy, and peace as the first three.  He closes his first homily by encouraging his hearers to grow in this fruit “that we may be in the fruition of joy here, and may obtain the kingdom to come, by the grace and love toward man of our Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom and with Whom, be glory to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, now and always, even unto all ages.  Amen.”

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A Criticism of Scholastic Theology from an Eastern Orthodox Believer

Remember Francis Shaeffer?  The great evangelical apologist who, for example, helped galvanize evangelicals over the issue of abortion?  I ran across an old video of Francis Shaeffer’s son (much less known to evangelicals): Frank Shaeffer.  He turned out to be an author, screenwriter and film director.  He was a very adamant believer from a young age, but he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and wrote a book Dancing Alone about his reasons for this development in his spiritual life.

I found an old video where he talks about this conversion and his reasons for it with a Reformed Evangelical host on the Calvin Forum.  It was a very interesting interview, and I would recommend evangelicals especially listen to his story to try to grasp why conversions like this take place.  (Note: Catholics will likely take issue with his comment that the pope had no special role in church government from earliest times).  However, the most interesting part of the interview (for me) begins at 39:00 where he raises the question I’ve been struggling with for some time now about Protestantism: the problem of fragmentation.  It’s something most Protestants simply take for granted and admit is a shame, but accept it as an unfortunate reality of sola scriptura (letting people interpret the Bible for themselves without being told how they should be interpreting it).  Frank raises the question “Is this what Martin Luther or John Calvin had in mind?” with great eloquence and sincerity, and I think it’s worth a listen.

One of the reasons I’ve never been all that attracted to Orthodoxy is because it seems to shave off so much interesting doctrinal development that has taken place since the ecumenical councils.  I find scholastic theology incredibly interesting, but he blames the Western schisms in the church (especially in Protestantism) on scholastic methodology and offers an acceptance of mystery as the solution.  I think his critique may have more merit than I would like to admit.

The Unitarian Universalist Church: A Personal Encounter

Who Are the Unitarian Universalists?

It was a customary scene I have been familiar with since my own childhood: first-time visitor parking, greeters at the door with smiles and a word of welcome, double-doors leading into a Sanctuary where the morning bulletin is handed to me.  People are talking to their kids, young and old alike share warm greetings, others are sitting down drinking coffee, but the room is filled with people who are rustling like leaves in the Fall wind, filling the room with the sounds of life.  I take a seat in the very back trying not to be noticed, but already my new face has caught the eyes of those more familiar with the regular congregants.  Hymnals are placed under every chair, a classy black piano sits in the front where choir members are taking their seats.  At the sound of a chime a holy silence seems to fall over the room as the worshipers face the front and a young man begins to eloquently strike the keys.  In due time the music stops, and a man stands up at the pulpit and welcomes everyone before making his announcements.  A time of greeting gives me a chance to talk to the woman next to me—Barbara—a tall thin middle-aged woman with short dark hair, a warm smile and welcoming spirit.  When the time of greeting is over, my eyes are fixed toward the front of the room as the pastor lights a large chalice-shaped candle.  The room needs no electric lights, for the transparent windows above our heads outline the room while light floods the corporate space through a transparent spherical globe-like window that dominates the aesthetic of the room.  Through it I can see the trees and the grass that compliment the paper-bag colored walls and forest green carpet inside.  The transparent windows outlining the room are sprinkled with leaf-art giving the entire room the feel of nature.

Even the sermon topic was an exhortation hardly unusual to my church going ears.  The pastor urges the congregation to consider the scary statistics of traditional-styled churches becoming churches of the past faced with the reality of sharp decline and the threat of extinction.  He urges the congregants to be open to change even as the service (unknown to me) is uniquely sequenced to gently throw the regular attendees for a liturgical loop.  As the minister is waxing eloquent, I cannot help but notice the unusually robust wooden pulpit from which his oration emanates, and his humble position in the back corner rather than front-and-center.  Nor could I help from staring at the multicolored cloth draped down the middle of the massive pulpit.  As I take it all in, I hear the pastor himself begin his scrutiny of the room as he lamented the stark and “Quaker-like” worship space of the churches typical of his denomination.  He attempts to help his people untangle the stigma of contemporary worship music from the musical style itself.  “We tend to associate contemporary worship with those churches we don’t want to be like,” he suggests, “But if you think about it … objectively … what we don’t want to be like is not a music style, but a certain theology.”  He even mentions the technological revolution unfolding at the beginning of the 21st century, and how it has swiftly changed the landscape of communications.

Reverend Bill Gupton did not pick his topic capriciously, but his prophetic plea was a timely execution as the church continues to have “building conversation meetings” open to everyone.  As the service progresses, a time of testimony and candle lighting finally breaks my own acquaintance with the service dynamics and my eyes behold a scene hard to forget.  Before I even realized it, each side of the room was lined with congregants.  I looked around to estimate how few of us were still in our seats.  One by one, the congregants take their turn coming up to the microphone, offering spontaneous words of praise, mourning, humor, remembrance, joy, and gratitude, lighting a small but symbolic candle for each spoken gesture and placing it around the larger chalice-candle in the center of a table at the front of the sanctuary between the pulpit and the choir.  It was then that I was reminded of just what kind of church I had walked into that morning, and how different it was from anything I knew, for as the people spoke their words and lit their candles around the chalice, I noticed a certain linguistic discipline.  Those with concern either for themselves or others, rather than asking for prayer, were beseeching their fellow religionists to send “positive [or good] thoughts [or energy]” to the person of concern.

Toward the end of the service, we all stood for the recital of what I would otherwise identify as a creed had I not later learned the church strives to be non-creedal.  Although they call it a church covenant rather than a creed, the way the congregation recited it reminded me of how the Apostles Creed was routinely recited aloud at the United Methodist Church my parents often brought me to as a child.  Their covenant, though not a creed, is read just as powerfully as any church’s creed nonetheless:

Love is the spirit of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.  To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humankind in fellowship—to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine—Thus do we covenant with each other, and with God.[1]

Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church, although initially established in downtown Cincinnati in 1827 as a Universalist Society, merged with the Unitarians (as did all Universalist Churches in 1961) and later relocated to the eastside of the city in 1985.[2]  A rainbow flag hangs in the entry room; bold colors send a bold message of tolerance.  The UU Church has come to be an advocate of and supporter of social outcast groups such as the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people).  For Hollie Johnson, the Director of Religious Education at Heritage UU, the UU Church is primarily a “safe place” where people on diverse spiritual paths can pursue their spiritual journey unhindered with exposure and knowledge to a range of religions and religious beliefs.  Here people do not have to worry or fear what someone else might think of their beliefs or worry about being excluded for “unorthodox” views.  In this pluralistic community of tolerance, unconditional love takes on new meaning.

For congregants like Barbara Rohrer, Heritage UU has become like a family she wound up with when her own spiritual journey became at last honest.  She could no longer bear the boredom of Catholic Mass, the continual anthropological pessimism that seemed to reduce the value of her spiritual status down to that of a “sinner,” and the teaching that Jesus had to die a cruel death because of her sins.  “No, I reject that,” she said finally with her actions when she, in a dramatic turning point in her own spiritual journey, simply and literally walked out of the Catholic Church.[3]  For Barbara, the Universalist faith has mainly to do with a rejection of the doctrine of hell—a refusal to believe that God is a vindictive deity who would torture some sector of damned humanity forever.  After church shopping in her 20’s she finally landed at Heritage UU.  “What I really like about Heritage is the fact that we all have so many different beliefs,” she told me over coffee in the Anderson Town Center close to the church.  “I see my church as trying to live out on a micro-level what I think the world needs to live out on a macro-level.” Barbara emphasized tolerance and acceptance in a society of religious pluralism, but put more broadly this simply means “accepting other people’s differences.”[4]  Here in Barbara’s words I found the simple link between theological pluralism and advocacy of the LGBT.  If the UU Church is going to accept people’s varied religious beliefs, no matter how distant or contrary they are from their own, why should they hold a double standard with people’s sexual orientations, which may fit perfectly with religious intuitions about human flourishing?

Finding out that Barbara used anything but the language of material naturalism, and listening to her oft repeated refrain—“I am a Universalist.  I believe we all came from God, and we all will return to God,”—my theological mind began to race over just what salvation might mean if it applies to everybody.[5]  She acknowledged that she did not believe salvation was to be understood as something applying to an afterlife per se (if there even is such a thing), but had to do with basic human needs being met: food, clothing, shelter, affection, etc.  I tried to conjure up a mental picture for Barbara of the injustices and hardships some orphaned children in the world are born into before they die of malnutrition or hunger, and asked how she could see salvation as applying to these most unfortunate people.  If even they are saved, my mind is at a loss to comprehend what this salvation would consist in if not an afterlife.

But Barbara relentlessly brought the focus back to what ought to be rather than what actually is—that is, her response emphasized human culpability: “I think it’s up to us to make changes,” she said with a tone of urgency.[6]  She believes a great deal of the suffering and injustice in the world is owing to human agency, and it is up to human agency to set it right.  But when I pressed the question persistently she articulated a view of salvation as “in the here and now” and as a gift of “grace” if we choose to accept the “spiritual path,” which for Barbara is exemplified in the life of Jesus.[7]  Eventually I concluded that although Barbara says she has a belief in universal salvation (that everyone is or is going to be saved), her embrace of this had more to do with an embrace of universal human dignity and human responsibility than with any traditional notion of salvation for which I had ready-made categories.  Barbara’s well articulated and passionately spoken views on injustice, human culpability, and the practice of compassion, along with her contrasting hesitancy, puzzlement, and inconclusive answers to my theological quandary spoke volumes of what was central to her own spiritual journey.  Listening to Barbara, I got the feeling that for her, formulating exacting creeds about how to define salvation will do virtually nothing for those in need of it, nor necessarily give the creedal adherent any major salvific advantage.  Her insistence on social action and ethical concerns, coupled with her uncertainties about doctrinal definition (such as figuring out how to articulate a theology of universal salvation) make her an instructive example of why many UU folks are proud to be part of a non-creedal religion.  The virtue of good deeds outweighs the virtue of formal creeds.

While Heritage offers a “Build Your Own Theology Class” where congregants are given the tools for doing theology and encouraged to discover their theology for themselves, what is most important here is the method rather than its results—people are not indoctrinated, but empowered to think for themselves.  Hollie Johnson’s educational ministry at Heritage UU, according to congregant Jenny Hamerstadt who gave me a tour of the building, is bringing more and more young families to the church along with their small children.  “The Children’s education has grown tremendously!” she exclaimed in an appreciative tone.[8]  It was Jenny that explained to me why the atheists at their church are not offended by God-talk: they have come to an understanding that “God means very different things to different people.”[9]  The tolerance practiced by UU atheists make militant atheists like Richard Dawkins look like arrogant, narrow-minded fundamentalists.

Hollie remembers being told by a Catholic priest when she was very young that she would probably not get as good of a job if she went to a secular school instead of a Catholic one.  Knowing this was not true, her young mind quickly learned to question religious authority.  In her late 20s as she searched for the truth on her spiritual path, Hollie began to identify with paganism and felt drawn to pay attention to the seasons, but she had to learn to overcome her fear of what her parents or others might think of this.  “What we do [at UU] is support your path,” she explains, “so everybody might come to a different creed or belief.”[10]  I wondered, however, if a UU fundamentalist might be an oxy-moron, so I asked whether fundamentalist evangelicals or Islamic extremists would be welcomed also and treated as equal at Heritage UU.  Hollie answered slowly only after a long pause, talking as if her words were coming out before she were sure of them: “I believe that everyone will be accepted at our church, but people who want to come to our church are going to believe what we believe in.”[11]

Given the UU Church’s pride in such a non-creedal identity, I asked Reverend Bill Gupton why the pamphlet I swiped from the table peppered with free UU summation literature in the open church foyer read so much like a creed, as it proclaimed:

We believe that personal experience, conscience, and reason should be the final authorities in religion.  In the end religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves. … We believe that religious wisdom is ever changing. … Revelation is continuous.  We affirm the worth of all women and men.[12]

His answer was representative of what the members also told me.  “Well you don’t have to agree with everything … in order to be a member of this church.  You don’t have to stand up and affirm those things.”[13]  He also made the point that even the seven principles of UU—which were adopted by democratic vote at a UU Convention in 1985—could be amended at any time and may not represent all UU churches.  He would prefer the pamphlet used language that better reflected the state of affairs by reading “’We tend to believe…’ or ‘Most of us believe…’.”[14]  As I laughed and told him how ironic it was to pick up a pamphlet that read “We believe … we believe … we believe,” when one of these statements says “We will not be bound by a statement of belief,”[15] he began to talk about his handout on “creedless creed-making.”[16]  “Groups feel the need to define themselves,” Gupton replied after laughing along, “and when defining themselves to outsiders, they tend to speak in generalizations” that can sound “creed-like.”[17]

Gupton himself was attracted to the UU from a non-religious position when he discovered UU churches did not preach or teach things he could not “rationally believe in,” and emphasized in no uncertain terms the role Enlightenment thinking played in shaping these two denominations that now form the UU.

We would not exist without the Enlightenment.  Every important figure in early Universalism and Unitarianism in North America was an intellectual product of the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment totally goes hand-in-hand with Unitarian Universalism. … We were a group of people who embraced the Enlightenment and all its implications early on.[18]

Given that western religion has been so caught up with belief in the supernatural—especially a supernatural deity who intervenes in history and in people’s lives—I asked Reverend Bill why he should not just give up the religious identity and become a lecture society instead.  His response was unhesitatingly sanguine.  “Not being interested particularly in the supernatural does not necessarily mean that you are not very interested in something greater than yourself; something greater than we can touch and see and taste.”[19]  One of Reverend Bill’s recent sermon’s was focused entirely on newly developing science, for example, about electromagneticism, quantum consciousness and quantum entanglement.  The point of course, was that the scientists are now arguing for counter-intuitive ways of understanding reality and are saying that maybe the universe is one giant quantum entanglement—which is to say, it is all somehow interconnected in ways we never before thought possible.  I already knew the UU faith was more open-minded than conservative churches, but Gupton helped me to see how it represents a spirituality that is also “open ended.”[20]

Although UU has minority leaders currently working to help UU become more diverse, UU churches have a tendency to be on the higher end of the socio-economic latter.  In general American churches tend to minister to a certain niche of society rather than a wide range of people from various socio-economic, ethnic, and racial identities.  Gupton knows other UU churches in Cincinnati more racially diverse than his own, for example, and admits his congregation is mostly a representation of the immediate surrounding community of a highly educated white middleclass; it does not represent the broader community in the city as a whole.  Educated or not, Gupton had no problem using excessive redundancy to make a point when conveying his own disappointments of the failed efforts to create more diversity in the UU, which efforts have been “at best ever so moderately tiny slightly successful.”[21]  Thus while diversity of thought is achieved in most UU churches, social diversity is not necessarily characteristic of their churches.  This high level of education results in the danger of a dry intellectualism, and thus the UU movement has had its own tradition of charismatic prophets, as it were (men like Ralf Waldo Emerson), rise up to pull the denomination in a more spiritual direction.

The Flaming Chalice

If Rev. Bill Gupton was attracted to the UU by his pleasant surprise at its full accommodation to modernity and the Enlightenment critique, and Barbara Rohrer was drawn largely through a rejection of Catholic doctrines of sin, atonement and hell, the UU church in Hollie’s words seems to pull all these stories together and highlight a common theme—as Hollie says, in the most simple terms the UU Church is a “safe place” where one will be unconditionally accepted regardless of their beliefs, race, religious background, sexual orientation, or social status.  When I asked her to also interpret the UU emblem for me—a flaming chalice—she resorted to this same language: it symbolizes for her the safe place in which each person can follow his or her own path without trepidation of creedal restraint, exclusion from fellowship, unequal treatment, suppressed inquiry, or anything other than encouragement.

The Flaming Chalice, although depicted in a range of branding styles, is the official religious symbol of the UU church.  It was originally created for the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) in Portugal by an Austrian musician and artist Hans Deutsch in 1941.  Deutsch was a refugee from Paris who, having contributed political satire against the Nazi regime by drawing critical cartoons, was forced to flee Paris and eventually landed in Portugal and ended up being so impressed by the work of USC for refugees, wound up joining the movement and working for USC.  Although depicted in many forms, this symbol was “made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom” and the burning oil was meant to stand for helpfulness and sacrifice—“a lifetime of service.”[22]  The interpretation of the symbol since its creation typifies the UU approach to religion: “no one meaning or interpretation is official.  The flaming chalice, like our faith, stands open to receive new truths that pass the tests of reason, justice, and compassion.”[23]  The interpretations suggested by Hotchkiss for the chalice related it to Jan Hus’s proposal that the communion chalice used in worship be shared with the laity. Charles Joy (executive director of the USC at the time of Deutsch’s service and knew Deutsch personally) was nevertheless quick to emphasize something of great importance: “the fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in the mind of the artist, but to me this also has its merit.”[24]  Deutsch actually did not believe in anything he considered characteristically religious, but found himself an enthusiastic supporter of UU as he understood it to demystify religion into a confession of “practical philosophy” and “useful social work.”[25]

Context and Evaluation

The UU church is honest about its Christian roots but more proud of its liberal identity.  The Universalist Unitarian Church (UUC) is the result of a merger between two liberal branches of Protestant Christianity—the Universalists and the Unitarians—who, although having started off taking the authority of the Bible for granted and basing their arguments rigidly therein, came to rely more on reason and intuition along a very similar trajectory as the American experiment itself as it progressed to increasingly tolerant laws concerning religion and social mores.  Although the Universalists and Unitarians started off from different places with different theological emphases historically, their liberal identity has at last brought them together and relativized any historical or theological differences.  As mentioned above, Heritage UU was founded in 1827 in America as a Universalist Church initially, so it has kept its Universalism first in the Church’s name even though this causes confusion because the denomination has these names the other way around—the UU denomination is the Unitarian Universalist Church, but Heritage is a Universalist Unitarian church.

Alister McGrath’s focus on the authority question in Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution (New York: HarperOne, 2007) helps us to see that the variety of beliefs within a given UU church (including atheism) are a natural outworking of the movement’s multiple sources of “final authority”—personal experience, conscience, and reason.[26]  In addition to the seven principles, this church also appears to have many other doctrinal beliefs: certain views on ultimate religious authority, ecclesial agency, and social justice. For example, that revelation is continuous and religious wisdom is “ever changing,” that the church should act as a “moral force” in the world, that “ethical living” is the “supreme witness of religion,” that each “church” (read: local congregation) should be free and autonomously governed, etc.[27] The UU brand of “social justice” includes acceptance and public advocacy for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people).

If one thing is blaringly obvious from my own experience and analysis it is this—the non-creedal identity of the UU church has more to do with its insistence against traditional Christian dogma and its creedal tolerance and flexibility than anything else.  They may be self-branded as non-creedal, but they most certainly have a creed that creates the climate and boundaries in which free inquiry and theological pluralism is practiced.  Their routine recital of the “covenant,” the famous “seven principles” adopted by the denomination,[28] the parts of their pamphlet literature that read like a creed and the particular theological and ethical stances taken therein, Hollie’s comment about those who “believe what we believe,” Reverend Gupton’s comments about their embracing of the Enlightenment “and all its implications,” all indicate strongly that the non-creedal identity can be very misleading.  Perhaps, as Gupton pointed out, the official statements can be revised at any time, but so can the Southern Baptist Message and Faith.  Whether it is likely is another question.

My rich experience and conversations have left several additional impressions on me concerning the UU Church.  First, Heritage’s strong Universalist history means there are many congregants like Barbara who still use God-talk and even quote Scripture, borrow traditional Christian language (like “grace” and “salvation”) and talk about Jesus.  Christians are a minority in UU churches, so Heritage is unique in its strong representation of Christian linguistic residuals.  Yet when asked if Christians were persecuted in any way as the UU attempts to rid itself of the baggage of Christian particulars, he laughed.  “To use the word persecution, he said, would be a distortion of terms if ever there was one.  Now feeling persecuted—that’s a different story.”[29]  Second, the church’s move to a better part of town in 1985 also localizes the continuing trend away from non-theological diversities.  Finally, with the decline in numbers abroad and locally, along with Rev. Bill’s prophetic “change or die” sermon, I have reason to be skeptical of whether the UU denomination has the potential to continue to thrive the American jungle, stomping grounds of the 900 pound Gorilla in U.S. religion.

I am alluding, of course, to the explosive Protestant evangelicalism that has recently exploded yet again in the U.S. in the form of Pentecostalism in recent history expanding its reach of influence into the global South.  As long as this massive Gorilla keeps a tight grip on the popular level of American religion across class, race, political, and denominational divides, the UU church will be swimming upstream against a constant smear campaign in which UU churches are seen as ecclesial duds, lacking any firm theological basis for aggressive expansion.  It certainly appears that all King Kong has to do is say the word “liberal” and all the stigma of a unbelieving, scripture twisting, relativist with no objective standard of ethics is immediately foisted upon the perceptions of Americas religious majority.  So long as America continues to be a land of openly competing ideologies, the religious landscape will be determined by who has the competitive edge, and minority groups like the UU might do well to come full circle and seek to learn a little something about evangelical fervor, the strength of easy-to-grab ready-made commitment demanding doctrines that provide a totalizing worldview capable of pervading the religious adherents entire way of life, missions mobilization, traditions of apologetics for intellectual engagement, and the list could perhaps go on, but you get the point.  Whatever else the UU might say about evangelicals, they have a history of explosive expansion and institutional strength.


[1] Church bulletin for December 4, 2011 at Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church.

[2] Unitarian Universalism and Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church (founded 1827), anonymously printed pamphlet.  For a brief historical overview of both denominations, see “Appendix 1.”

[3] Interview with Barbara Rohrer, congregant at Heritage Universal Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio: 2011.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Interview with Jenny Hamerstadt, congregant at Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio: 2011.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Interview with Hollie Johnson, Director of Religious Education at Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio: 2011.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Marta Flanagan, We Are Unitarian Universalists (UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication, 1999).

[13] Interview with Bill Gupton, minister of Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio: 2011.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Marta Flanagan, We Are Unitarian Universalists.

[16] Interview with Bill Gupton.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Dan Hotchkiss, The Flaming Chalice (Boston, MA: UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication, 1993).

[23] Hotchkiss, The Flaming Chalice.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Marta Flanagan, We Are Unitarian Universalists (Boston, MA: UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication, 1999).

[27] Ibid..

[28] “We affirm: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.  Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.  The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.  Respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part.” Unitarian Universalism and Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church (founded 1827).

[29] Interview with Bill Gupton.

John Hick (1922-2012): John Hick’s Philosophical Advocacy for Religious Pluralism

**UPDATE: My research article has fluctuated from 3% to 6% in the top viewed trophies at Academia.edu.


Famous British theologian and philosopher John Hick passed away earlier this year (see Birmingham Post, see Francis X. Clooney’s respectful tribute in America Magazine, see Prosblogion’s Memoriam,).  At the time of his passing, I was coincidentally working on a research paper on his advocacy for religious pluralism.  Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with his controversial pluralist beliefs, he was one of the most important thinkers of the latter half of the 20th century.  Although his pluralist manifesto was An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2004), almost everything he published contributed in one way or another to advancing the pluralist hypothesis laid out most carefully in that book.

An Interpretation of Religion: John Hick's Magnum Opus or Manifesto

There are many available summaries of his case for pluralism found in either book-long critiques too polemical to be trusted or chapter-long engagements with too specific a focus to give a quality overview of his pluralist hypothesis.  Other summaries are too brief to be very useful as a scholarly introduction.  My contribution is intended to fill this need, and to help establish the proper impression about the full weight of his case for pluralism.

Rather than offer my own evaluation, I have chosen to write something that will be more useful both to exponents and critics of pluralism: to spell out Hick’s view in his own words and to summarize his responses to the most important criticisms of his position.  It is irresponsible for professional theologians and philosophers to criticize Hick’s views on pluralism without fully engaging the responses or counter-critiques he offered to similar criticisms while he was still alive.  As I point out in the research, a great number of critiques of his pluralist hypothesis failed to accurately capture the sophisticated nuances of his case.  The facile approach of building a straw man when his responses and clarifications were so well published should not be an option for any response that dignifies itself as a critical one.  It is my hope that this contribution will aid those aiming for a more credible engagement with the work of John Hick (1922-2012).

I have now created a link to my article on my PDF catalogue for those who want to read the treatment in its entirety, but this post only includes the introduction.

Hick’s Philosophical Advocacy for Pluralism

Introduction

Although British theologian and analytic philosopher John Hick has contributed to several theological and philosophical disciplines, his pluralist hypothesis has been his most enduring and provocative contribution to the discourses of Christian theology and analytic philosophy.[1]  His rigorous case for philosophical pluralism establishes him as one of the most important thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century.  He has arguably sustained what could be considered “the most compelling philosophical advocacy for religious pluralism ever written.”[2]  His work is already treated as the “classic of its type,” [3] and is a pioneering effort that has produced a mountain of response literature—polemical, critical and laudatory.  Few are the theologians and philosophers who have entire books dedicated to their writings; even fewer still while they remain alive.  Hick’s arguments for philosophical pluralism were so persuasive and provocative that many books were published in response entirely dedicated to further exploring the merits (or demerits) of his case during his lifetime.[4]  Although Hick saw himself as “only one of a number of theologians and philosophers who have independently developed a broadly pluralistic point of view,” the “sheer mass of literature that has already accumulated” around the issues he raises (not to mention the level of argumentative sophistication and wide reaching influence of his writings) testifies to his work’s role as the vanguard of “the rapidly developing pluralist perspective.”[5]  If nothing else, John Hick is the best-known pluralist proponent.

Hick’s pluralist hypothesis is both a modern and a religious outlook that establishes credibility by appropriating a wide range of philosophical and theological resources in a way that also fits the empirical phenomenology of religion and accommodates modern sensibilities.[6]  This paper will first offer a selective sketch of Hick’s position with special attention to clarifications he has made in light of his critics.  An equally selective overview of Hick’s critics will draw further attention to different ways Hick’s pluralism was misunderstood, but without failing to also notice several of the most important critiques of his position.  Our overview will end by underscoring what his pluralist hypothesis contributes to a theology of religions.

(Click Here for PDF version of full article: John Hick’s Philosophical Advocacy for Pluralism)


[1] For brief summaries of his views, see Paul Hedges, Controversies in Interreligious Dialogue and the Theology of Religions (London, UK: SCM Press, 2010), 113-114; Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 282-293; Eugene Thomas Long, Twentieth-Century Western Philosophy of Religion 1900-2000, Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion series, vol. 1 (Norwell, Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), 400-404.

[2] Yandall Woodfin’s blurb for John Hick’s magnum opus, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2004).

[3] Terrence W. Tilley’s blurb, ibid.

[4] Countless articles in academic journals and over fifty unpublished Ph.D. dissertations have been written on Hick’s work, but some examples of entire books dedicated to his work include Terry Richard Mathis, Against John Hick: An Examination of His Philosophy of Religion (Lanham: New York: London: University of America Press, 1985); Chester Gills, A Question of Final Belief: John Hick’s Pluralistic Theory of Salvation (London: Macmillan and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989);  Gregory H. Carruthers, The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the Theocentric Model of the Christian Theology of World Religions: An Elaboration and Evaluation of the Position of John Hick (New York and London: University Press of America, 1990);  Harold Hewitt, ed., Problems in the Philosophy of Religion: Critical Studies of the Work of John Hick (London: Macmillan and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991);  Arvind Sharma, ed., God, Truth, and Reality: Essays in Honour of John Hick (London: Macmillan and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993);  Chris Sinkinson, John Hick: Introduction and Assessment (Leicester: UCCF/RTSF, 1995);  Hiromasa Mase and Hisakazu Inagaki, eds., Explorations in Religious Pluralism: John Hick Studies (Tokyo: Teimeido, 1995); Christopher Sinkinson, The Universe of Faiths: A Critical Study of John Hick’s Religious Pluralism (Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster Press, 2001); Paul Rhodes Eddy, John Hick’s Pluralist Philosophy of World Religions (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002).

[5] John Hick, The Rainbow of Faiths: A Christian Theology of Religions (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster Knox Press, 1995), 149.  Eddy, John Hick’s Pluralist Philosophy of World Religions, xi. Indeed, some critics have made a name for themselves arguably by becoming Hick’s most outspoken critics.  Here I especially have in mind former student (and faithful friend) of John Hick, Gavin D’Costa.  That is not to say that D’Costa would not have become a recognized theologian in his own right, but starting off his career as Hick’s most outspoken critic certainly boosted his visibility in the growing literature surrounding the controversy.  Gavin D’Costa, John Hick’s Theology of Religions: A Critical Examination (New York and London: University Press of America, 1987); ed., Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1990); The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2000); Christianity and World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions (Malden, Massachusets: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); ed., The Catholic Church and the World Religions: A Theological and Phenomenological Account (New York: T&T Clark, 2011).

[6] I do not mean by “modern sensibilities” mere political correctness.  “Modern sensibilities” here refers to the authoritative role given to science and the critical disciplines that methodologically preclude confessional commitments of a religious nature a priori as a means to make inquiries about truth more objective.

A u d i o p o s t :: A Wake Up Call :: The Continuation of Human Slavery

For those of us who tend to think of slavery as merely a historical evil (that is, an evil only to be studied from our past) abolished years ago with the abolitionist movement: it’s time for a wake up call.  Human Trafficking is arguably the fastest growing and most profitable organized criminal activity (expected to surpass even drug smuggling profits within the next decade).

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of Kevin Bales’ book Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves (Berkley, California: University of California Press, 2007), 1-2.

[audio https://theophilogue.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/a-wake-up-call__the-reality-of-human-trafficking.mp3]

A u d i o p o s t :: The Great Questions

The following audio is a book reading about “The Great Questions” from William Portier’s Tradition and Incarnation: Foundations of Christian Theology (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press 1994), 9-16.

[audio https://theophilogue.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/reading_portier_incarnationtradition.mp3]

The Great Questions

Do Catholics Practice Open Communion? :: The Case of Frère Roger

Do Catholics practice open communion?  In the past, I would’ve answered this with a simple: No.  And perhaps on the local level for many Protestants this is the case.  However, John Armstrong of ACT3 (author of Your Church is Too Small who also recently had an unprecedented ecumenical dialogue with the Archbishop of Chicago which can now be viewed here) has recently written two posts that make the picture more complicated.  

He points to the example of Frère Roger of the Taizé Community, a Protestant until the day of his death who was nevertheless communed by the highest authorities in the Catholic Church for a long time.  I have taken a few excerpts from these posts to give a summary.  The first excerpt comes from his post entitled: “Chicago Taizé: An Event You Should Know About.”

The Taizé Community was begun after World War II by a young Reformed minister by the name of Frère Roger, or Brother Roger as we know his name in English. Roger Louis Schütz-Marsauche (1915-2005) was the ninth and youngest child of Karl Ulrich Schütz, a Reformed pastor from Bachs in the Swiss Lowlands. His mother was Amélie Henriette, a French Protestant from Burgundy (France).

From 1937 to 1940, Roger studied Reformed theology in Strasbourg and Lausanne. He was a leader in the Swiss Student Christian Movement, part of the World Student Christian Federation.

… Today the community has become one of the world’s most important sites of Christian pilgrimage. Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year for prayer, Bible study, sharing, and communal work. Through the community’s ecumenical outlook, they are encouraged to live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation. Some of you know about Taizé because of hymns and simple songs that you use in worship or you have attended a unique Taizé service.

In his following post, “The Life and Witness of Brother Roger: An Icon of Love and Unity,” Armstrong points out something that both surprised and delighted me when I first discovered it.

I wrote in my book, Your Church Is Too Small, of Cardinal Ratzinger serving the Eucharist to Brother Roger at the funeral Mass of John Paul II. I have had a number of responses to this statement, many claiming that Cardinal Ratzinger was “caught off guard” when Brother Roger was wheeled forward to the altar areaafter the service had already begun. With him very near the bishops there was a sense that they had to serve him the Eucharist rather than create offense. I have asked members of the Taizé community about the facts of this case and I am persuaded that I now know the truth.

The answer as follows. Brother Roger went to Rome for the funeral but did not plan to go when the day of the service came because he had arisen that morning so weak and tired. He was even late in arriving. Because he was so widely known and loved he was wheeled forward to a place where the cardinals were near to the altar. When the time came to distribute the sacred meal it is true that there was little choice but to serve Brother Roger. But what those who insist that a Protestant minister could not be communed fail to realize is that this was gladly done because it had been done for many yearsbefore this Mass seen by millions of viewers the world over. Brother Roger did not force anyone’s hand in the matter. He did not create a problem. He was placed there, by Catholic leaders, out of love. He would not have been there in the first place had others not have taken him there. But the simple fact is that he acknowledged the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, remained a Protestant minister his entire life and was routinely communed by Catholic priests, including the last two Popes.

In an unusual way Brother Roger was an icon and Taizé remains an iconic community of love and unity. This is one of the many reasons I encourage you to learn more about this remarkable mission. It is also why I encourage you, if you are between 18-35 years of age, to attend the Memorial Day Taizé conference at DePaul University.

Book Review: Symbol & Sacrament: A Contemporary Sacramental Theology by Michael G. Lawler

Lawler, G. Michael.  Symbol and Sacrament: A Contemporary Sacramental Theology.  Omaha, Nebraska: Creighton University Press, 1995.  293 pp.

Two foundational principles guide our author in his exploration of sacramental theology in his book Symbol and Sacrament.  First, Lawler has a practical edge faithful to the ancient maxim that Sacramentum propter hominem (sacraments are for people).  This helps inform his approach to the subject matter with insights from the anthropological investigation of ritual (which involves a synthesis of psychology, sociology and semiotics).  Second, the author encapsulates the richness of his synthetic approach with his categorization of sacraments as prophetic symbols, successfully recontextualizing relevant findings of the modern science within a thoroughly Catholic framework.  Lawler first grounds his sacramental theory solidly on both a sophisticated knowledge of semiotics (that challenges modern assumptions about what is “real”) and a historically sensitive theological framework, he then addresses each sacrament individually with a view to practical concerns without shying away from controversy.

On the basis of contemporary symbolic analysis, Lawler claims that every genuine human symbol goes beyond a mere one-to-one signification (as with simple signs) to actually concretize the reality they signify, or “make concretely present what they symbolize” (22).[1]  Lawler makes the following transition: If this is true of human symbols in general, it is also true of prophetic symbols in particular, which are meant to be provocative—that is, to effect a change or response of the whole person (not just the intellect).  In fact, “the most clear-cut result” of symbols is that they move people to “action and reaction” (13).

A symbol and its meaning are related correlatively and are so organically connected that they “coexist for a human interpreter, or neither really exists at all” (17).  Symbols do not convey their meaning in a simplistic way, however, and this is the case for at least two reasons.  First, the meaning of symbols, unlike simple signs, is multivalent.  There is a certain effervescent ambiguity in the meaning of symbols; their meaning is at the same time mysterious and yet revealed in a concrete way through the symbol.  These meanings are related to the symbols “only through the thoughts, the feelings, the actions and the reactions of [people]” (16).  Science disinterestedly asks and answers only questions of so-called “facts” (which really turn out to be theory-laden rather than bear facts); symbols, on the other hand, ask and answer questions about meaning that can be expected to excite not only the intellect, but “arouse desires and feelings,” powerfully speaking to the whole human (intellect, will, emotions, imagination, etc.)—not merely a person’s intellect (18).

The author warns that this “subjective dynamism” by no means necessitates that true knowledge cannot be mediated through symbols (19).  In fact, the author argues that “these subjective elements vitiate the objectivity of the meaning” (27).  In a courageous polemic against the dominance of Western epistemological reductionism, Lawler defends symbol as “a way of knowing” that may be counter-intuitive to the indoctrinated Western mind that is prejudiced against any form of knowledge that is not Cartesian (i.e. clear, objective, scientific, etc.).  “If such a personal approach to knowledge seems strange,” writes Lawler with wit, “it is only because the dominant Western scientific paradigm of knowledge has judged rational, clear, and distinct, objective knowledge to be all there is to knowledge” (19).  He borrows Maeterlinck’s contrast between the brain’s “Western lobe, the seat of reason and science,” and the brain’s “Eastern lobe, the seat of intuition and symbol” (20).  The goal of the Western-lobe is a meager one: to increase knowledge; the goal of the Eastern-lobe is more ambitious: “to deepen the personality of the knower” (26).  Symbols do lead to abstract conceptions and determinate ideas—meanings that clustering around the “ideological” pole of meaning—but they are grasped “personally and socially” through meanings that cluster around the oretic pole (15, 22).  This starts the book’s eloquent presentation off with an epistemological bite that immediately both overcomes the “classical dichotomy” between objective knowledge and religious symbols while challenging the presumptions of Western prejudice.  This makes the treatment more appealing and relevant to the book’s Western audience.

The author makes many other distinctions concerning symbols before moving on to sacraments: symbol is a subunit of the larger category of ritual (which is a symbolic act); religious symbols are public symbols whose meaning “belongs” primarily to communities and secondarily to individuals; religious symbols only mediate powerful realities to those who “live into” them and thus have “the necessary disposition” to make them effective, etc. (25).  In the end, symbol gets defined as a verb rather than a noun: “Symboling is a specifically human process in which meanings and realities, intellectual, emotional and personal, are proclaimed, made explicit and celebrated in representation in a sensible reality within a specific perspective” (16).

Sacraments are religious symbolic rituals.  The author approaches the biblical witness with an admirable realism by not trying to eisegetically “find” the full Catholic teaching on the sacraments (or even the designation of them) in Scripture.  After surveying the patristic witness (especially Augustine’s major contribution of defining sacraments as a “sacred signs” that are efficacious), our author believes the quest for a normative definition ended with Peter Lombard who defined a sacrament as “a sign of the grace of God and the form of invisible grace in such a way that it is its image and its cause” (33).  In an attempt to exonerate the scholastic views of the sacraments from the mechanistic caricature, the author points out that the scholastics did not view the sacraments as efficacious in themselves even if they effected sanctification by virtue of the reality they signified—personal acts of God in Christ (34).  On the one hand, Trent clearly viewed the sacraments’ efficacy as depending upon the one’s receiving the sacrament so as to not “place an obstacle” to its efficacy (which for an adult included personal intent), yet on the other hand the author laments that “the role of personal faith in its efficacy suffered detriment” in a reaction against the Reformation (37).  The Council of Florence, however, balances this with a more positive affirmation that demands for the recipient of a sacrament to have a “disposition of self-surrendering faith” (40).

Our author clarifies the nature of causality in the sacraments with regard to grace: the sacraments contain God’s presence (uncreated grace) and thus as a byproduct, they result in the transformation of the worthy participant (created grace).  After defining the grace of sacraments as primarily nothing other than God himself (and only secondarily in terms of created grace) the author complains that “it is no longer possible adequately to describe grace in impersonal terms like create quality, accident, habitus” (56). (This appears to be a cheap shot against scholastic theology, but why should it not be appropriate to have descriptors for both kinds of grace rather than just one?)  The author’s concern is to steer us away from a mechanical understanding of causality in the sacraments and toward a deeply personal understanding of the sacraments so that we end up concluding that to relate to God through sacraments means, more or less, to relate to God personally.

After providing such a well-argued foundation for understanding the sacraments, our author proceeds to treat each sacrament with a similar command of his sources and practical sensitivity.  He gives a concise and satisfying overview of certain relevant Scriptural passages along with the patristic witnesses (especially Augustine), scholastic contributions (especially Aquinas), and more recent insights from theologians such as Rahner and Schillebeeckx.  These overviews have the practical intent to help the reader better understand the sacraments so that she can enjoy them more fully.  The strength of his presentation lies in his command of sources (his ability to so concisely review historical developments and incorporate modern insights), his bold challenge to modern assumptions about “knowing,” his facing controversial questions with gusto,[2] and his practical considerations.  Lawler’s contribution, although written almost two decades ago, is still a very helpful and stimulating introduction to Sacramental theology.


[1] For example, a man may have deep love for a woman without her even being aware of it, but when he writes her love letters, holds her hand and whispers in her ear “I love you,” or unites his body to hers in the act of sexual union, his love is not merely symbolized in and through such actions, for in some sense his love for her consists in these symbolic acts.  Thus, although his love is not exhausted by such symbolic acts, these love rituals are his love for her in concrete form. The author also speaks of symbols as “participating” in the reality to which they point (23).

[2] For example, I found particularly enlightening his scuffle with French Dominican Paul Laurent Carle over whether the word transubstantiation is indispensible for expressing the Catholic perspective of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (122 ff.).

The Catholic Theology of Religions: A Genuine Doctrinal Development

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Many Catholics can perhaps still remember a time when the explanation from Catholic bishops and popes about the Catholic Church’s stance on salvation outside the church was little more than a reaffirmation of the traditional and literal understanding of the ancient Cyprian formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus [outside the Church there is no salvation].  Until the official progressive view endorsed by Vatican II, the traditional understanding of this ancient phrase was fairly straightforward—if you are not visibly a member of the Catholic Church you were excluded from salvation.[1]  Cyprian’s analogy was of Noah’s ark—just like Noah’s contemporaries had to be inside the Ark to be saved from the flood, so one has to be “inside” the Catholic Church to be saved.

This interpretation of the Cyprian formula, however, in spite of its historical pedigree and centrality in the Catholic Tradition in per-modern history, was reinterpreted at Vatican II.  Any genuine doctrinal development that takes place on the official level in the Catholic Church is preceded by progressive views.  To understand this development, however, we must first understand not only the Cyprianic formula, but the theological rationale behind it.  It was argued early on (most notably by Augustine) that since Jesus and the Apostles taught that saving grace came through the sacraments (Mk 16:16; Jn 6:53; Acts 2:38), the Church is therefore necessary for salvation, for she administers the sacraments as Jesus instructed.  Thus the formula was tied initially to a sacerdotal soteriology.  If the progressive view was going to reshape traditional Catholic beliefs about adherents of other religions, this sacerdotal logic had to be addressed.

Vatican II[2] still dogmatically echoes the tradition that salvation comes through Jesus Christ and that this salvation is mediated through the Church. For example:

Basing itself on scripture and tradition, [this holy Council] teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church.  He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door.[3]

The analogy used here is also similar to the traditional analogy of Noah’s Ark—baptism is the “door” one must go through to be saved.  Nevertheless, whereas the Cyprianic formula was intended to be interpreted as meaning that visible membership in the Catholic Church was necessary for salvation, Vatican II only requires this as a precondition for the fullness of salvation, not salvation itself.  In the Vatican II documents, different levels of incorporation into salvation are tied specifically to different ways non-Catholics can be incorporated into the Catholic Church without their knowing it.

Fully incorporated into the Church are those who … [are] joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. …

Catechumens who, moved by the Holy Spirit, desire with an explicit intention to be incorporated into the Church, are by that very intention joined to her. …

The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter. … these Christians are indeed in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit for, by his gifts and graces, his sanctifying power is also active in them…

Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.  There is, first, that people to which the covenants and promises were made [Jews] … But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems [sic] … Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men life and breath and all things (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Savior wills all [people] to be saved (cf. 1 Tim 2:4).  Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. [4]

Since Baptism is necessary for salvation, all persons saved without a Christian baptism are considered incorporated into the Catholic Church by a baptismo implicitum (an implicit baptism).  This way, the Catholic Church still holds to the wording of the Cyprianic formula without requiring the traditional literal interpretation, thus yielding the original formula dangerously misleading for Catholics unfamiliar with the developments of Vatican II.

This new inclusivist framework still holds that salvation is only through Christ and the Church, and views whatever goodness or truth inherent within other religions and their adherents as finding their true fulfillment in Christ.[5]  In this sense, other religions can be seen as preparatio evangelica [a preparation for the fullness of the gospel].[6]  Although whatever good found in other religions is “preserved … purified, raised up, and perfected” by the Catholic faith, the Church still “snatches them from the slavery of error” when she incorporates them more fully into Christ and “each disciple of Christ has the obligation of spreading the faith to the best of his ability.”[7]  Gaudium et Spes nevertheless adds a comforting qualifier about the necessity of evangelism by teaching that “the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every [person] the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.”[8]

Popes and Catholic theologians have given various assessments of Vatican II’s theology of religions.  Karl Rahner’s theology of “anonymous Christianity” had a major influence on the question of whether other religions can have salvific potency.  He believed Vatican II left the question “open” and does not finally resolve all ambiguity.[9]  Kärkkäinen says Paul Knitter represents “one extreme” that sees mainstream Catholicism as implicitly affirming a pluralist position.[10]  The majority of post-Conciliar developments, however, “usually hold the more restrictive view according to which followers of other religions may be saved but other religions as such do not have salvific structure.”[11]  Theologians like Gavin D’Costa have become outspoken critics of the pluralist interpretation of Knitter and others.[12]  Later encyclicals such as Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) and John Paul II’s Redemptoris Missio (1990) can be seen as pastoral correctives against a de-emphasis on Christ and “the church’s central role in the history of salvation” and “practices of interreligious dialogue that stressed the commonalities among religions rather than Christian uniqueness.”[13]

In sum, the mainline Catholic interpretation of Vatican II can be recapped this way: “Followers of other religions can find salvation, but such salvation is found finally and fully in Christ and his church.”[14]  In this manner, Catholics believe that because salvation comes through Jesus Christ via the Church, Catholics have an obligation and duty to proclaim the Christian faith and seek converts.  On the other hand, because God desires the salvation of all people, his grace is at work outside the Church, leading people who remain in other religions to be nevertheless “incorporated” into the Church in various ways.

Bradley R. Cochran


[1] There were certain exceptions to this that one might easily anticipate.  For example, if you had accepted the Church, embraced her, and were being prepared for baptism, then suddenly died before you were actually baptized, you were considered as baptized anyway (by a “baptism of desire”).  Or if you had accepted the Catholic message but died a martyr’s death before you happened to be baptized, you could still be considered as baptized (by a “baptism of blood”).  But these exceptions were for those who had explicitly accepted Catholicism or the message of Catholics but who were not yet baptized, not for people who followed other religions.  There was a stronger precedent, however, for the doctrinal development that took place at Vatican II.  Kärkkäinen, for example, notes that “as late as 1943, the highly acclaimed papal encyclical entitled Mystici Corporis (“the Mystical Body”) by Pius XII still held to the view that only ‘true’ Catholics are saved,” but he admits also that this same encyclical leaves open the door of salvation for those who have no access to the gospel.  Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 111-12.  Mystici Corporis taught that people who have no access to the gospel can “by a certain unconscious desire and longing” be “ordained to the mystical Body of the Redeemer.”  Though initially applied only to those who have no access to the gospel, Vatican II would adopt and refine the logic used in this document in order to explain how people who remain as adherents of other religions might also still achieve eternal salvation.

[2] Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, new revised edition, ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, New York: Costello Publishing, 1975, fifth printing 2004).  The documents most relevant to the Catholic theology of religions are: Nostra Aetate (NA), Ad Gentes (AG), Gaudium et Spes (GS), and Lumen Gentium (LG).

[3] Lumen Gentium (LG) 14.

[4] LG 14-16.

[5] This is generally known as a “fulfillment theory” of religions.  “That is to say, other religions are ‘fulfilled’ (find their completion and perfection) in Christianity.”  Paul Hedges, Controversies in Interreligious Dialogue and the Theology of Religions (London, UK: SCM Press, 2010), 23.

[6] Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Theology of Religions, 117.

[7] LG 17.

[8] Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Theology of Religions, 115.

[9] Ibid., 118.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 117.

[12] Gavin D’Costa, ed. Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1990).

[13] Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Theology of Religions, 120.

[14] Ibid., 120.

Bart D. Erhman: Misquoting Jesus (Stanford Lecture Series)

Bart D. Erhman, Misquoting Jesus: Scribes who Altered Scripture and Readers Who May Never Know (Heyns Lecture Series, Stanford University’s Office for Religious Life, 2007).

For those who don’t have time to read Bart D. Erhman’s book, I found a helpful summary of his ideas in this lecture.  As you may already know, Erhman used to be an evangelical, but after a rigorous scholarly study of Scripture came to be one of the most outspoken critics against evangelical views of Scripture and lost his Christian faith.  I have also posted another video from Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley below, in which Erhman interacts with a more conservative scholar, Mike Licona, who went through a similar experience of doubt during his scholarly study of Scriptures and appears to have let go of his former views of Scripture, but without loosing his Christian faith.  They show the deepest respect for one another, but each brings different philosophical presuppositions that determine what can and cannot be concluded based on the historical evidence.

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Bart D. Erhman and Mike Licona on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley

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