Monday, 28 January 2013

Corpus Traditum

This post is in honour of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose memorial we celebrate today.

Some time ago I was struck by the following text:

Without tradition, the Scripture of the New Covenant too would remain Old-Testamentic; it would have the character of law and promise, and would not be the Word-body of him who necessarily also, as eucharistic Life-body (which did not exist in the Old Testament), lives and works in his Church.
(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Verbum Caro, p. 19)

This, so casually tossed out, seemed to me to merit closer examination. In its context, Von Balthasar also claims that the denial of the sacrificial character of the Eucharist is consistent with the generally eschatological character of Protestantism. The general drift of both statements seems to be that Protestantism is a form of Christianity that looks forward to the definitive coming of the Messiah, but does not experience the same Presence of the Anointed in their midst.

Scripture in Protestantism, according to Von Balthasar, is approached as in the Old Covenant: it lays down moral commandments and guidelines to make people wise, and it promises a new heaven and a new earth, in which the just(ified) will dwell. It is law and promise. But it is not Word-body (Wortleib), existing in conjunction with Life-body (Lebensleib). Why is tradition necessary to make a Body out of Scripture? And what does ‘Body’ mean, if it can be applied to Scripture?

The fundamental sense of the phrase ‘body of Christ’ is simply the historical body which Jesus received from Mary, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. With this body Jesus founded the Church, the mystical body of Christ, which incorporates humanity into the historical body (we are crucified with Him!). To demonstrate the strict unity of the historical and the mystical body, there are ‘two intermediate forms of corporeity’. They make the Logos, origin and measure of things, into the Way in which we can be incorporated into God; the Eucharist as Life, Scripture as Truth.

Scripture is not merely a universal human word or abstract wisdom; it transmits to us the word and spirit of Christ. It reaches out universally, without losing its concreteness; the same could be said about the Eucharist. But it is always reflects the revelation of the God-Man, the definitive Word which no Scripture can exhaust. To say (as I once heard a Reformed presuppositionalist do) that Scripture is as close a reflection of the mind of God as possible, is false; such an idea sees the Incarnation as serving Scripture, not the other way around.

The words which God spoke in the Old Covenant did have some sort of absolute quality; they could only be passed on, but not elaborated. Any tradition that grew up around them was not the expression of the fullness of the spoken word, nothing that would become an object of faith.

In the fullness of time, however, the fullness of divinity has appeared bodily; God does not merely speak from Heaven, but gives himself over (tradiert sich). In the same way as the self-gift on the Cross (which is also the gift of the Spirit to the Church), Christ gives Himself under the two corporeal forms of Scripture and Eucharist. These carry within themselves ever-new surprises. Because the Revelation infinitely surpasses Scripture, it gives a vitality to the Church which receives it (or rather, Him in it). Scripture is tradition: it is Christ’s self-tradition, it arises from tradition, and its authority could never be established without tradition. It is a ‘divine mirror of the divine revelation’, and certifies that the Truth is preached in the Church.

According to Von Balthasar, the handing-over and preaching of the truth in the Church would be made impossible without this security – as holiness would be without the Eucharist. This is certainly an interesting comparison.

In short, Scripture and Tradition mutually attest to each other and to the plenitude and faithfulness of God’s Christ.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Sitting in Judgment

When I was younger, I used to wonder vaguely what would happen if I were visited by my older self. Now that has been reversed: every now and then, I wonder vaguely what my younger self would say and do if he could see me now (the third person feels appropriate). I’m not sure when, or why, the change occurred. But at least I am not alone in the experience, for Wordsworth had it too:

                        …so wide appears
The vacancy between me and those days,
Which yet have such self-presence in my mind
That, sometimes, when I think of them, I seem
Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself
And of some other Being.
(Prelude, II.28-33)

The child dreams of himself as full-grown because he knows he is expanding; but at some point, one discovers that even the fullest growth is still severely limited. Even the eminent Cardinal Newman said that he who would know much must make up his mind to be ignorant of much. One coalesces into a particular shape, in the interplay of circumstance, self-determination, apollonic callings and apollyonic whisperings. And one’s wide-eyed young self still has many wide-open potentialities one no longer has.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, I)

Thus one’s self at a different stage serves as some sort of yardstick, a measure against which to size up oneself, partly because it suggests a different possible way of life. Perhaps this is one good reason to have and raise children: to have an unromanticised, unpredictable younger self, who still has all the energy no longer possessed by the one whose very memory of childhood has aged with him. And to see what course he runs.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Dominus Sabaoth

Any church-going or merely Bible-reading Christian will be familiar with the phrase ‘LORD of hosts’. It occurs repeatedly in the books of the prophets, and its Latin form Dominus Deus Sabaoth has made its way into the Catholic liturgy. It is clearly a stock phrase, for sabaoth, like amen and alleluia, is a modified Hebrew word.

In Hebrew, ‘LORD of hosts’ reads JHWH tsva’ot. I always assumed that these ‘hosts’ were the heavenly hosts of angels. However, yesterday I was reading Exodus and came across the phrase ‘the hosts of the LORD’. It set off a bell somewhere, and indeed, the words are basically the same – before Scripture calls God JHWH tsva’ot, it speaks of the tsiv’ot JHWH. They are the tribes of Israel, celebrating the great first Passover: ‘And at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day, all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.’ (Ex. 12:41)

It is the chapter in which God gives directions for the first time on how to celebrate the feast(s) of Passover and of the Unleavened Bread, in which the people are protected from the destroyer by the Blood of the Lamb, and in which they set out from the land of slavery.

We are the hosts of the LORD.

And the LORD and his hosts celebrate the same Passover, for so the story continues: ‘It was a night of watching by the LORD, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the LORD by all the people of Israel throughout their generations.’

So we hold our vigils.

My soul looks for the Lord
more than sentinels for daybreak.
More than sentinels for daybreak,
let Israel look for the LORD,
For with the LORD is kindness,
with him is full redemption,
And God will redeem Israel
from all their sins.
(Psalm 130:6-8)

Friday, 4 January 2013

Reports from the Fringe

Well, I spent enjoyable days at home, and now I have returned to the Tiltenberg to study for my exams. My first exam is Ecclesiology, on the 11th.

While at home, I attended one Reformed church service to witness the baptism of my cousin’s son. There were good things about it, such as my cousin and her husband (especially), the faithful attendance, the psalm-singing, and even the traditional Reformed formula read in the baptismal liturgy, which speaks of Baptism as God’s pledge that He makes an eternal covenant of grace with us. (Although the words ‘of grace’ were tacitly omitted by the minister.) Apparently the older Reformed tradition had a more robust view on Baptism.

And the Baptism itself, of course, you say! I think so, but I will come back to that.

Mostly, however, the service was rather disappointing. The minister introduced the sacrament by saying that we should look carefully, for God had given as this sign as a ‘visible sermon’, and therefore he would scoop his hand full of water, not just a few droplets. This sermon would remind us of our own Baptism (so far so good), a sign that we all stand in need of washing because we are all filthy. (St. Paul writes: ‘Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’)

The minister did scoop his hand full of water, but let it fall before it reached the baby’s head, then applying what moisture remained. Visible sermon indeed: God has much power to purify, but it is so cautiously applied that no impurity is taken away… But that is a low-blow polemic worthy of the sixteenth century. More fundamental are the implications for the validity of the sacrament: can we speak of a true Baptism when the water does not flow over the person, when he is neither immersed, nor partly immersed, nor sprinkled with water? According to the Encyclopedia, such a Baptism is at least doubtful.

The sermon (and I speak what I remember, with apology for inaccuracy) was about Zechariah and Elizabeth naming their child John. It was a kind of Reformed midrash, a colouring of the outlines of the Biblical story (with some details added), an exposition on the spiritual attitude of the characters. This is intended to reveal what the story leaves unspoken, but usually reveals something about the interpreter as well.

Zechariah, for one, was painted as a man who had laboured for nine months in the throes of conscience, after he had failed to believe the angel’s word. Deaf and mute, he had been locked in a small world of his own, to learn how to listen to God. The possibility that he might have been glad of the word’s fulfilment, of his fatherhood even in old age, was briefly mentioned, but called a bright spot against the dark background of his unbelief. When the time came for Zechariah to confirm the name that his wife had given to the child, he bent very low over his writing tablet and slowly spelled out the name John.

The minister spoke words in this vein: ‘Perhaps you will say: but how do you know that he bent very low over his writing tablet? Scripture does not say that, does it? But his spirit was moved!’

Then once the name has been written, the bonds of his spirit are loosed and he writes the name fast, looking up to God in joy because His word has come true. The name of the child is John, not Zechariah like his father’s, because ‘everything of Zechariah has to disappear’.

The people of Hebron – the neighbours – were present as well. They had been chatting amongst themselves and had already decided that the child’s name was to be Zechariah. When lonely Elizabeth lifted up her voice and declared the child to be John, she felt all their ‘piercing stares’ on her. Thus the world ever looks at the handmaid of the Lord, I suppose: with hostile incomprehension.

After the child had been named, the neighbours talked much about what had happened. Although they saw the strangeness and divine origin of these events, apparently their reflections did not reach their hearts, for ‘six months later, none of the people of Hebron were at the manger in Bethlehem’.

In the flow of his sermon, the minister also mentioned that no one was worth anything, and that there could not be grace without prior guilt. When I left the building, I felt that in the experiential-Reformed picture, God’s dealings with men are almost restricted to an endless cycle of forgiveness, the merely human dimension of life (like becoming a father!) is inconsequential, and true joy is incommunicable. This is seen as religious earnestness; a more positive valuation of the common activities of the nature God deigned to adopt is quickly discarded as spiritual immaturity.

Thus far the first report. Second report: Rev. Kort from the Old Reformed Congregations in the Netherlands, formerly from the Dutch Reformed Church (before it merged into the Protestant Church in the Netherlands), has stridden to a theological border, seeking a skirmish. His beef is with what he calls the ‘embryo theology’, according to which sinners can be regenerate without conscious faith in Christ (i.e. the belief that Christ has forgiven their sins), merely yearning after God, mourning over sin and hungering for salvation. Against this he argues that a personal knowledge of Christ as Mediator is indispensable.

The ‘embryo theology’, popularised by the 18th-century minister Alexander Comrie, makes unscriptural, Aristotelian-Scholastic distinctions between the ‘act’ of faith and the ‘habit’ of faith, which could be given by God before the act of conscious faith is exercised. According to Rev. Kort and his supporters, this leaves people satisfied with an apparent, probable, untrue and presumed rebirth, rather than a true conversion and union with Christ.

As I was checking my sources, I came across a rather acerbic publication in support of Rev. Kort, which exclaims:

...many professors [of faith] and leaders engage in hostile outbursts against the separating, liberating doctrine of the Gospel of the Cross, because they, through the teaching of Christ and the experience of faith that necessarily goes with it, see their imagined conversion go up in smoke! Christian persecution within the Refo-ranks has thus been in full swing for many years and I would like to say to Rev. Kort: welcome to the battle!

Meanwhile I, in my hammock (so to speak), have been reading Verbum Caro by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. It contains interesting ideas, like the following (p. 66, translation mine):

And so, the fruitfulness of [Mary’s] faith unites itself with the fruitfulness of her womb and her entire human nature. At this place, Luther’s interpretation of the act of faith has undergone a certain narrowing in respect to the old Germanic-Christian interpretation, in which the moment of surrender, of the faithfulness of the follower, thus of the human, was much more prominent than in the Reformed sin-grace dialectic. Where that human dimension does not appear to be implied in the Church’s holiness, the chargedness of a ‘naked’ soteriological dialectic all too easily changes into professorial abstractions.