Monday, November 15, 2004

The Quirky Theology of the "reformed Catholics"

One of the catch phrases of the “movement” that calls itself “Reformed Catholicism”—bah, who are they kidding anyway? It’s not a movement. It’s a website—is “We need to grab them by their baptism.” They are referring, of course, to Roman Catholics. We have been accused of misunderstanding that phrase. I have personally been told (and it has been confirmed in public arenas) that the phrase doesn’t imply Roman Catholics are saved; only that we can appeal to their baptism as a basis for confronting them regarding their false beliefs and their obligation to return to the stipulations of the covenant.

If that were all that was meant by the phrase, we might be able to let it go. The problem is, they tend to contradict this explanation in their further “clarifications” about what it means to be reformed Catholic. One glaring example of this is their emphasis on the notion that baptism is the “normal instrument” of justification. Obviously, on that view, all baptized Roman Catholics are justified. Hence, “grab them by their baptism” must mean more than some mere appeal to covenantal stipulations.

Another disturbing trend among those who style themselves "reformed Catholics" is their view of Mary. In a recent blog entry, one rC writer, Kevin D. Johnson (who recently made a rather "impressive" entry on my blog's comments section, prompting me to turn off the comments section due to abuse), in an article titled “How's Catholicity in Your Church,” has this to say:

One clear barometer in any Reformed environment regarding catholicity is how a church talks about--or deals with--the subject of Mary. Here are some questions to ask around at your church to see just where you are in terms of catholicity:

Before getting into his litmus tests for catholicity, it needs to be said at the outset that one’s view of Mary is hardly the test for orthodoxy—reformed or historic—unless that view errors on the side of exaggerating her role. Almost nothing is said about Mary in the New Testament regarding the significance of her place in salvation history; but what is said is quite telling. I don’t have the time or space to reproduce my entire Ph.D. dissertation in this forum, but I will offer a critique of Johnson’s points below:

1) When was the last time your pastor or elders gave a sermon exclusively devoted to Mary?
The assumed “correct” answer to this question seems to be that sermons on Mary should occur often. But then we need to ask the further question, Why? Why should a pastor give “a sermon exclusively devoted to Mary”? What would be the point? What would be the content of such a sermon? I have already noted that Mary shows up only rarely in the pages of the New Testament to begin with, and then never in particularly flattering circumstances. Do we find any sermons about Mary in the many sermons of the New Testament? No. Do we find any doctrinal teaching about Mary in the many doctrinal treatises of the New Testament? No. Was there any emphasis on Mary in the minds of the New Testament writers, leaving aside the context of the birth narratives (which emphasis is clearly on Christ, not on Mary)? No. She shows up in the adult ministry of Jesus primarily so that Jesus can make a point about the obsolescence of biological relationships in the kingdom. She is portrayed by the New Testament writers as someone who at times presumes upon Jesus, at times misunderstands his mission, at times actively opposes his ministry, and does not reach the status of certain disciple until his death. After that, she quietly fades into obscurity.

2) In your version of the Creed (hymnal or otherwise), is the word "virgin" capitalized or not (ie. "virgin Mary" or "Virgin Mary")?
Again, what is the point? Is the goal of capitalizing the word “virgin” to afford Mary a place of honor she did not have in the New Testament? If so, what real value is there in that?

3) Has your church ever done a historical summary of Reformed thought on the subject of Mary?
I know mine has, since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the subject—though I somehow doubt this will prompt Johnson to concede that I should be placed into his idiosyncratic definition of “Reformed.”

4) Is your pastor aware--or has he taught on--the significance of and the fact that the phrase "Mother of God" is in more than one of the early ecumenical creeds and thereby considered fundamental to an understanding of Christianity?
Yes, and he's also aware that the phrase didn’t exist until the fourth-fifth centuries. And he is also aware that the significance of the phrase was not an honorific title for Mary but rather an affirmation that Jesus was God even in the womb. And he is also aware that the phrase, in its 21st-century Roman Catholic apologetic context, ends up suggesting in the mind of the listener something about Mary’s status rather than something about Jesus, and rightfully questions the usefulness of that phrase today.

5) Has your church ever used Mary as a role model when discussing the role of single people in the church?
Why would Mary be the model for single people? When we are introduced to her, she is just a few short months away from being married. Wouldn’t Paul be a better role model? After all, he was single the entire length of his Christian life. Mary was not only married, she had several children to boot. To say that this “test” is odd is to engage in an understatement.

6) Has your church ever spoken about the practical and theological importance of Mary both historically and theologically to your own congregation as well as to the wider Body of Christ?
There are many “historically important” teachings that Johnson would dismiss on the grounds that they were rejected by the Reformers. Since Mary is not theologically important in any biblical sense, there is little reason to speak about her theological importance in the medieval sense.

7) Has your church ever taught about Mary separate from Advent (or Christmas) and apart from treating the errors of Roman Catholicism?
Outside the Advent, the most we know about the historical Mary is in her ill-timed statements that Jesus ends up rebuffing. I wonder, just what would Johnson have us “teach” about Mary, apart from the birth narratives, that would be in her favor?

Johnson includes two bonus questions in his litmus test:

8) Has your pastor or elders ever presented you with the idea that modern translators know better than Jerome how to translate the words "full of grace" in the New Testament?
Let me just state the obvious about this. It’s not just modern “translators.” It’s major New Testament scholars and grammarians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, including the likes of Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker, Louw and Nida, Zerwick, Raymond Brown and J. A. Fitzmyer. How interesting that we are the ones who are constantly characterized by this group as “backwoods fundamentalists,” while they generally ignore Greek grammar and find themselves on the fringes of New Testament scholarly opinion. Remind me; Who are the sectarians again?

9) Do your fellow church members go into shock when you start to talk about the need to return to a more catholic understanding and emphasis upon Mary?
Does Johnson include the New Testament writers and nearly all scholars of the past century in this “catholic” church? If so, then how does a return to the 4th-century understanding of this issue suddenly make us “catholic”? The better question is, Does Johnson’s own church go into shock when talking about the need to return to a more biblical understanding of Mary?

Johnson concludes his entry by stating the following:
If you answered "yes" to any of the above seven initial questions, you and your church are well on the way to catholicity. If you answered "yes" to either of the bonus questions, you've got lots of work to do. :)
Do we now? I wonder just who has the most work to do. What was the goal of the Reformation? Indeed, what is—should be—the goal of reformation in any instance? Is it not to return to fidelity toward the apostolic deposit in the form of the word of God? Is that not what the Reformers’ words ad fontes and sola scriptura imply? Apparently for Johnson and his ilk, what really matters is ad Luther and ad Calvin.

And lest anyone think he may safely disregard my work on the subject of Mary, here is what Douglas Wilson himself had to say about my book Who Is My Mother? when he agreed to write a commendation for it:

Eric Svendsen has given us a capable treatment of the Protestant view of Mary, the mother of Our Lord. Avoiding the extremes of adoration and hostility, he articulates a careful biblical Mariology, and yes, there is such a thing.

I suppose Johnson’s “catholicity” will now have to exclude Wilson as well.