Daily Archives: November 10, 2008

A Retraction? Of sorts?

Me thinks not.

Fr Dresser’s “Letter of Apology” published on Cathnews seems just to dig the whole deeper. Of course he is sorry for the pain which he caused, but it is hard to see how to square his statements in this letter with his statements in the original document and in his radio interview.

He writes:

At the outset I want to reaffirm my belief in the Divinity of Jesus, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus. This affirmation is entirely unsolicited and comes from the heart of a person who has cherished his Catholic religion from childhood and has no reason to repudiate or disparage its core tenets.

That is well and good, but the problem is that we no longer trust what he means when he says he believes in these three core doctrines.

On the divinity of Jesus:

“This whole matter regarding Jesus being God … not only does violence to my own intelligence, but must be a sticking point for millions of people trying to make some kind of sense of the Christian religion … No human being can ever be God, and Jesus was a human being. It is as simple as that.” (God is Big. Real Big)

On the Virgin Birth:

“I have no problems with the, with the virgin birth, provided we understand exactly how this concept came about and why it had to come about… what happened, of course, was that in the Council of Nicea it was basically brought about because of a political situation which developed. It came about at the Council of Nicea that Jesus was defined as being a divine person with a human and a divine nature. …And, in order to explain the fact that he was a divine person, something had to be done regarding his birth. …he had to have some sort of divine intervention in his birth, so there arrived, or there, there came about this doctrine of the virgin birth.” (Livenews interview)

I think you can forgive the interviewer for translating this as “they tabloided it up”.

On the Resurrection:

“I think resurrection goes far beyond any kind of bodily resuscitation kind of idea. And I think this is born out in the New Testament. I think that Resurrection means that Jesus was alive and well in the minds and in the community, of his followers. I think that’s what resurrection means.”

(Livenews interview). And so, just to clarify, Father, could you tell us whether you believe the tomb was empty on Easter Sunday or not? Might I suggest that Fr Dresser just have a peek at the Holy Father’s most recent General Audience on the subject?

It is all very well to feel saddened about offending people’s simple faith, but what do you expect when you start publically saying things that are quite obviously not the full deal when it comes to Catholic orthodoxy? As I said in a combox below, sometimes even popular Catholicism gets it more right than the theologians.

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Simul Justus et Peccator – et Semper Penitens?

I have just started reading a little book by Andre Louf called “Tuning into Grace” (1992). In the first chapter he makes the obvious point that in Christ we meet not only God’s grace, but initially and very concretely God’s wrath (Matt 3:7, Rom 1:18 etc.). The point at which the experience of wrath becomes the experience of grace is the point of repentance, of conversion (Matt 3:2).

He goes on to speak of the way in which, throughout our life as baptised people of faith and in our daily encounter with Christ, we occupy a space between sin and grace. That place is the place of conversion, which must be a daily experience, and can never be “once and for all”. He cites one of the desert fathers who wept on his death bed because he had “only just begun” the journey of conversion.

Now, as a Lutheran in communion with the bishop of Rome, I live within two Christian traditions, and am forever seeking the points of contact and contrast between the two. I could not fail to recognise how close what Louf was saying was to what Luther himself proclaimed, especially in the spirituality of “simul justus et peccator” (at the same time both saint and sinner). While that spirituality describes a real experience for the Christian, it has always had the problem of never leading anywhere. Or rather, where it leads is to the old saying “Sin boldly, yet even more boldly believe in Christ.” It takes grace too much for granted. “As long as I have faith, I don’t need to fear my sin”, sort of thing. There is no advancement in holiness – in fact, since holiness is taken as a “given” attribute of the Christian, it isn’t even seen as something to which we are “called”.

I’m not saying that that is what Luther meant, but he has certainly been interpreted in that way, and that is how it often pans out in the lives of faithful Lutherans.

Now it is very interesting to read the passage from the Large Catechism of Dr Luther which my friend Fraser dug up recently in discussion with Pastor Paul McCain:

‘Meanwhile, however, while sanctification has begun and is growing daily, …we are only half pure and holy, so that the Holy Ghost has ever to continue His work in us through the Word, and daily to dispense forgiveness, until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people, full of godliness and righteousness, removed and free from sin, death, and all evil, in a new, immortal, and glorified body.’ (Creed, Third Article, 57-58)

That is a little different from the “total sinner/total saint” approach more common in Lutheranism. It suggests a journey, a goal, which takes place in this life even if it is only completed in the next. In the middle is what Luther calls the work of the Holy Ghost thorugh the word in dispensing forgiveness. That points to something he more clearly stated eleven years earlier in the very first of his 95 theses:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

And that fits better with what Louf said.

So, to sum up: In our encounter with Christ as sinners we encounter the wrath of God (what Lutherans classically call “the Law”). He leads us to know and receive God’s forgiving grace (again, what Lutheran’s classically call “the Gospel”). However, what is so often missed out in Lutheran preaching and teaching (I mean in practice here; they would never deny it in theory) is Luther’s original emphasis (still evident in his Catechisms) of daily repentance and conversion. And I would assert that it is in this daily repentance and conversion that one actively answers the universal vocation to holiness of which our beloved John Paul II taught so much.

One last point, I wonder if this emphasis on simul justus et peccator without the corresponding emphasis on semper penitens might be behind the disappearance of the practice of private confession in the Lutheran churches? (See Fraser’s comments here).

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