Friday, September 10, 2010

Ron Henzel on Green Baggins

Stumbled on a discussion over on the Green Baggins blog. I noticed a guy named Ron Henzel made a few thoughtful comments after all the Catholics had left. I thought I would respond belatedly.
Having been raised Roman Catholic, I understand the sincerity and reverence with which Catholics hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation. To most of the Catholics I know, denying transubstantiation sounds just as absurd as the affirmation of it sounds to most Protestants. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “This is my body”?
It is not quite this simple. The strongest evidence for the real presence is in John 6 and 1 Cor 11. Without those texts the words of Jesus at the Last Supper could easily be interpreted as symbolic. So the Catholics you know don't have a good grasp of the relevant scripture. Sadly that is not so surprising.
I took it very seriously a second-grader preparing for my first holy communion. But frankly discussions about substance and accidents—and the nuns did try to help our little eight-year-old brains to comprehend this Aristotelian reasoning—went straight over my head and out the window. I was more able to grasp the argument based on the Lord’s simple words of institution. This is, after all, the basis for the entire theological construct: the assumption that Jesus meant for His apostles to understand that the piece of bread He held in His hand was just as much “His body” as the body they could see holding it, and the wine they could see in the cup He was holding was just as much “His blood” as the blood they knew was actually flowing through His veins.
It is good to recognize that the Catholicism you remember was 8 year old Catholicism. You probably played with toy trucks back then too. That is all good. But just like you outgrew the trucks you have outgrown what you learned about the Catholic faith. But the concept is for Catholics to outgrow that too. Some don't but that is another issue.

The crucifixion is a historical event but it is also a timeless event. That is why it does not need to be repeated. It can be made present for us so we can apply it to our lives. It is something supernatural. So we should expect  some difficulty understanding it.

Now, when I stop for a moment and think about it that way—they they could actually see His body in front of them—it begins to give me pause about the notion that He meant to inform them and expected them to understand that He was actually performing an “invisible miracle” before their eyes. And that, of course, is the second thing that gives me pause. An invisible miracle? Jesus performed many miracles, many of them not apparently even recorded in Scripture, according to John, but all of them for the purpose of bringing us to faith in Christ. And the reason it was assumed that they served that purpose is almost too obvious to mention: they were visible. Witnesses saw them happen. What witness saw the bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Jesus?
Are all God's miracles visible?  When Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary was that visible? In Mark 2:9 Jesus asks, "Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'?" The miracle of forgiving sins is harder but it is invisible. The miracle of restoring paralyzed legs is easier but visible. Jesus did both.

The next thing that gives me pause is a question I thought of, I believe on my own (although it may have been inspired by the argument Zwingli threw at Luther, even though I’m not a Zwinglian). Before I present this question, let me first say that I am not trying to mock transubstantiation with it, much less the people who believe in it. Again, I understand how seriously it is taken by Catholics. Nevertheless, I believe my question is valid and has important ramifications for the discussion.

I’ll present the question as part of a hypothetical scenario. Suppose one of the apostles was unfamiliar with the layout of Jerusalem. He knew they would be going to the Garden of Gethsemane next, but was afraid he might get lost. And suppose Jesus pulled out a map to show him the route, and holding it up so the apostle could see it, He said, “This is Jerusalem.” And suppose this episode was actually part of one of the gospels. Would any reasonable person ever conclude that at that point in time, Jesus had miraculously transformed the map into the city of Jerusalem? Would anyone be tempted to think, even during the High Middle Ages, that the accidents of the map remained the same, but its substance had changed?
Well, would they?
Again, you don't understand the scriptures involved. The simple words "This is my body" could be symbolic. We know that they aren't because other scriptures clarify that for us. Even in John 6 when Jesus says:
48I am the bread of life. 49Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. 50But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."
 52Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
Up to this point Jesus could still be talking symbolically.  Now verse 52 brings the matter to a head. The Jews have clearly indicated they are taking His words literally. If Jesus is talking symbolically He will correct that mistake. So what does He say?
53Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." 
So he confirms what they said in verse 52. He goes on to do the same for two more groups of people. The disciples who leave him over this issue and the disciples who stay. He expects them to be offended. He expects some to leave. So no, the church didn't develop the doctrine of transubstantiation simply out of the words "This is my body".

Oh, and I really hope Bryan identifies the specific content of the “unwritten Apostolic Tradition” for me.
You can't really identify this because it is not just a set of facts. It is more a leadership style. The apostles stayed with Jesus 3 years. They learned how he spoke. The learned how he dealt with political problems. They learned how he felt about liturgy and worship. How he interacted with the poor. Most of these cannot be fully described in written form. But a lot more of it can be passed on through mentoring. When Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna spend time with the apostle John they learned much of this. Then they passed it on to others.
Even if Bryan cannot identify the specific content of the supposed “unwritten Apostolic tradition,” I hope he at least tries. It seems to me that post-Reformation Catholic conciliar formulations on this point have been deliberately equivocal in defining this unwritten tradition, and more recently betray confusion on this point. All one need do is read the footnotes of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation to see what I mean.
On of the problems I have with the term “unwritten tradition” is that I have yet to see one that has not been written down. And once it is, especially in an official document of a church which has already declared said tradition’s authority to be equal to that of the Bible, I contend that such a claim results in de facto additions to the canon of Scripture on the part of Roman Catholicism.
 It boils down to trust. Some have said the hardest infallible statement to ascent to is the next one. It is precisely because you don't know what that statement will say. You just trust that God is leading His church and whatever it says it will be true. If you limit what God can say to what is in the bible then it is a lot more comfortable. Catholicism involves a deeper surrender to Jesus because you are not told in advance what Jesus will say though His church.
I totally understand the passion you bring to this subject, given your background. Mine is perhaps somewhat different. I was raised during the period when the wake of Vatican II was rocking the boats of everyone in the church, to the point that many were thrown either into the water or into other boats, mostly evangelical ones.
The council was announced two months before I was born, was convened when I was 3, and was closed when I was 6. I have a dim memory of the transition from the Latin mass, but more vivid recollections of the unveiling of women, the promulgation of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, the controversial revision of the Calendarium Romanum (among other things it excluded St. Christopher and implied that the central miracle of his life was a myth), the transition to nuns who neither wore habits nor assumed a saint’s name, and other changes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the crisis of authority that both prompted the council and resulted from it caused people to begin leaving Catholicism in unprecedented numbers.
It comes down to what matters and what does not in terms of a church. Do you need to agree with everything the church does? Should we follow our leaders even when they make some decisions we feel are mistakes or should we trust that God will guide His church? Lots of big changes happened around the time of Vatican II. Not all of them were good. But what should be the most important things about the church did not change. It is still the body of Christ. If you think the pope and your bishop have lost their minds you needs to ask whether you are in the Catholic church because the leaders were smart or if there is a deeper reason.

At the risk of over-generalizing, conservative Catholics I knew suffered from widespread disorientation and sometimes even depression over the changes. Meanwhile, liberal Catholics grabbed the football they thought was being passed to them and tried to run it into an endzone that featured married priests practicing birth control while reading Barth and K√ľng.
Many liberal Catholics declared victory after Vatican II and many conservatives accepted that. But that is not the way to see the church. The church has to grow. For some it is always too much too soon. For others it is never enough. Neither camp ended up happy. It was never about making one faction of the church happy. At the end of the day we end up amazed that such a poorly run church can survive. I know God guarantees it but the Red Sea thing must have been child's play compared to the miracles God works keeping churchman from destroying His church.
Vatican II was spurred by the belief that significant concessions to modernity were required to ensure the long term survival of Catholicism. I think it became as obvious to insiders as it is to historians that as soon as it convened a power struggle between a pastorally-minded episcopacy and a traditionally-minded bureaucracy over the very question of whether was any reform needed was inevitable. It was a struggle both sides lost, and which exposed major faultlines that continue to jolt the church to this day. I think it also in no small way contributed to my descent into agnosticism as I entered my teen years.
I think there is a natural way of looking at any council and a supernatural way of looking at the same council. If the people around you focused on the natural and ignored the supernatural then it might lead you into agnosticism. That is sad. But it is a product of a poor understanding of the church. 
I think one of the final straws for me (and there were many) was during one of our legendary “guitar masses” of the ’70s the musical ensemble broke out into George Harrison’s Hare Krishna-inspired song “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” during the liturgy. Interpretations of Vatican II by parish priests were both diverse and confusing. One priest even told me that the council decided it was improper to evangelize people who already had their own religion. Did the Catholic church have anything distinctive to offer anymore?
Sometime you need  to go beyond what the local priests says. The church will always have local guys who go off script. We can even have widespread movements that are quite misguided. But we needed to learn those things the hard way.

I certainly never heard anything close to what I would call a clear presentation of the gospel, as I indicate in an article I recently wrote that contains some autobiographical references. Neither would I have heard it had I remained in the church for the John Paul II/Benedict XVI backlash against Vatican II’s excesses that began nearly three years after I became an evangelical and was already at a Bible College.
Asking for a clear presentation of the gospel kind of begs the question of what the gospel is. I'll give you a hint. The penal substitution you talk about in that post isn't it. But sadly there has been an attempt to sugar coat the gospel. It is much less common than it used to be. We do need to talk about life transforming grace. We also need to talk about mortal sin. Yes, that means making clear that hell is real and that you need to worry about ending up there.
I think there’s a lesson to be learned for all denominations from the legacy of Vatican II: relevance is not a viable substitute for reality. If you offer something that is real, you will hold people over the long haul. If you offer something that is merely relevant, people will leave when you are no longer able to credibly adjust to the next fad in relevance. Relevance is fleeting; reality is final.
Very well said. I am not sure relevance and reality is the choice. I think we can and should have both. But if we have to choose I would choose reality. Relevance comes from people living in the culture they live in. If they meet God they will bring that experience to the culture. But we need to be sure they meet God. How do we do that? I would say protestant churches that I have been connected with have gone further to try and be relevant than even the most Catholic parishes I know. Granted I didn't go to a Catholic mass before 1990 but they have always struck me as very liturgical.
Evangelicalism began borrowing pages out of Vatican II’s book in the late ’70s when it started transitioning to a generation of church planters who borrowed their techniques on youth ministry (think Bill Hybels, et. al.). Relevance is the meat and drink of youth ministry, but it defines it in terms of questions people ask before they’re old enough to reliably identify what is real. Now that the latest crop of youth ministers that has started to plant churches has thrown its lot in with postmodernism so as to not miss out on its share in the “Emerging Church,” we have an “evangelicalism” that questions everything from the authority of Scripture to the nature of the atonement to sinfulness of homosexuality to anything that was not nailed down during the Seeker-Sensitive movement.
I agree. I do find Catholicism is reverting back to it's traditions. When protestants go off the deep end they rarely come back. Individuals do but churches just drift into greater and greater extremes. To me it shows something very good about the Catholic church structure. The pope and the bishops tend to hold the church on course. Yes, God did send us John Paul II when secular thinking would have led one to assume a more liberal pope would be selected. But even Eastern Orthodox churches have stayed pretty solid. Having older bishops run the church rather than pastors in their 30's and 40's makes a lot of difference. But a real apostolic succession matters too.
It’s little wonder that the Coming Home Network thinks it has so much to gloat about. I believe that the pendulum will swing the other way, of course, as it always has. Eventually a new John XXIII will assume the chair in Rome, one who will not remember John Paul II or Benedict XVI. And one day (probably sooner than they think) the Emerging Church will be absorbed into the great amorphous world of the WCC and never be heard from again. But until we stop entrusting our leadership to image makers and trend setters (which will be harder and harder to do as our culture becomes more media saturated), we will continue to mistake relevance for reality, and continue to set ourselves up for the next fall.
 I think you have a very simplistic view of Pope John XXIII. It is easy to blame one man for a tough time. The reality is the modern age is very complicated. The church was going to hit some rough seas no matter what. But the church is ultimately protected by God. We are not guaranteed there won't be bad popes. We know that has happened and might again. But the church Jesus founded will never disappear. It has not for 2000 years and will not in the future. She will continue to make mistakes and continue to overcome by the sheer grace of God.

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