Sunday, April 27, 2008

The King's Dominion

I've been reading a bit on predestination, specifically St. Thomas Aquinas' view on the matter. It is truly puzzling and marvelous to consider Divine Predilection and Grace. As part of that reading, I've been reflecting on the nature of God's will, whether there is one will with varying efficaciousness (e.g., "thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven"), two wills (e.g., an antecedent and a consequent will), or some other thing vastly beyond me.

That got me wondering about the extent to which God's will prevails in His Kingdom. As I think of the word Kingdom (from my legalistic angle), I imagine it to be the realm within which the King reigns, to reign meaning that his will is his law, which is upheld as supreme. The dictionary does not seem to disagree: "A political or territorial unit ruled by a sovereign" or "A realm or sphere in which one thing is dominant" (American Heritage).

Jesus is the King of this Kingdom. Luke 1: 31-33, from the Annunciation, tells us, "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end. (RSV)"

What is this Kingdom of Christ's? What precisely was He given? Is it Heaven, that is, all entirely on the other side of the Spiritual divide (cf. John 3:5, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God")? Is it something to which we can hope to cling here on Earth, while running the race set before us (cf. Col. 1:13, "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins")?

Let me imagine that, at least at some level, the Kingdom of Heaven is upon us as much as it is to be anticipated. If so, and if I've defined Kingdom correctly, where ever it is, the Lord's will is His law and it reigns supreme.

If it is here and now, where is it? I am disposed to consider the Kingdom as a notional sphere of people who strive to obey Christ's Law. It is easy for me to imagine the Kingdom as the collection of "True Believers" spread through the world. But then it is hard to see how the Lord's will, which is His law, reigns supreme in this sphere. Christians are not able to reach consensus on what that will and law are (or, is, since they may be a singular). Does he promulgate it poorly, or have a shabby Sheriff? Is this notional sphere of a Kingdom gerrymandered to exclude that which is contrary to the King's will and include that which is in conformity with it?

In strong language, blogger Bryan Cross analogized man-led efforts at visible Christian unity to the Tower of Babel ("bottom up"). The City of God, which I understand to be this Kingdom, has to be God-led ("top down"), he says. I am inclined to agree. But where, visibly, is the King's will sovereign and efficacious? Where is the Kingdom?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

PCA Elder on Church as Family

I happened upon this post at "Butterfly House" from a few months ago, which touches on some issues recently discussed here, like church visible, election, infants in the family of God, and the like. It is written by a PCA (Reformed) ruling elder.

Here's a taste:

"In the New Covenant, the promised Holy Spirit helps to better define the boundaries of the Church, but He has not (apparently) chosen to make those boundaries crystal clear. Our knowledge of the Church, as with many things, is "through a glass, darkly.""

Would that the Lord could help me see how He has constituted His Church!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Elect Infants

A recent discussion turned to election, and the state of those who die while still in their infancy. This post results from a curiosity about the Reformed view of the matter. This topic seems horribly controversial, and I am no theologian. I warmly invite correction where I inevitably err.

A. Five Reformed Propositions on the Disposition of Dead Infants.

One seemingly wise Reformed blogger delineates no fewer than five alternative Reformed theories for the ultimate state of those who die in their infancy. I will note my own understanding, and some tensions I see surfacing in this area, below.
(Hat tip: Triabloque).

1. Death in infancy is a sign of election, so that all infants who die are saved.

2. We cannot know whether infants who die were elect, because there was no opportunity for them to manifest (or not) their election through faith. As with adults, some would be of the elect, and others not, so hope is appropriate for grieving parents.

3. All children of true believers are saved, but all who die as children of unbelievers are certainly lost. This is just because of their guilt of Original Sin (as that term of art is formulated by Calvin).

4. All children of true believers are saved according to God’s promise to their parents, but some of those who die as children of unbelievers are of the unelect.

5. All children of true believers are saved, and we have no grounds for drawing inferences about the ultimate disposition of those who die as children of unbelievers.

B. Tension with the Church Visible / Church Invisible Distinction.

The Reformed view the “church” as being composed of a “church visible” and a “church invisible”. These are like two concentric circles; while there is no salvation outside the church visible (the outer circle), only members of the church invisible (the inner) are elect, so saved. The church visible can be identified by other humans using our sense, but the composition of the church invisible is only known to God.

Here are some sources that I believe show this same understanding as being the normative “Reformed” teaching:

Antonius Walaeus was a Dutch Reformer who died in 1639. He wrote in his contriubution to Synopsis Purioris:

The visible Church is not strictly a different Church than the invisible Church, but it is only considered in a different way… For in the visible Church that invisible Church[ ] is being collected and formed. The invisible inheres and is contained in the visible.

The Westminster Confession seems to contain this teaching as well. It says of the church invisible, "The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect… (ch. XXV, sec. 1)” And regarding the church visible, it "consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children… out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (Ibid., Sec. 2)"

Finally, Robert Shaw, in his excellent exposition of the Westminster Confession, says of this portion:

This Church is said to be invisible, because it cannot be discovered by the eye. It is not separated from the world in respect of place, but of state. It lies hidden in the visible Church, from which it cannot be certainly distinguished. The qualifications of its members are internal, their faith and love are not the objects of sense…

The visible Church, according to our Confession, consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children.… It is distinguishable, like any other society; and we can say, Here is the Church of Christ; but there is the Church of the Jews or of the Mohammedans. Nothing more is necessary to discover it than the use of our senses. Having learned, by the perusal of the Scriptures, what are the discriminating characters of the Church, wherever we perceive a society whose creed and observances are, upon the whole, conformable to this pattern, we are authorised to say, This is the Church, or rather, a part of the Church.

When we speak of the visible and invisible Church, this is not to be understood as if there were two Churches, or as if one part of the Church were visible and another invisible. The former includes the latter, but they are not co-extensive; the same individuals who constitute the Church considered as invisible, belong also to the Church considered as visible; but many who belong to the visible, are not comprehended in the invisible Church. (internal quotations omitted)"

C. Tensions with Reformed Original Sin & Paedobaptism.

The Reformed baptize their infants. They believe that their children are members of the Church, whereas the Baptists believe their children are sinners still in need of coming to saving faith (they call themselves “credo-Baptists” as opposed to the Reformed “paedo-Baptists”). Since infants who die to heathen homes are outside the church visible, it seems the Reformed position excludes the possibility that they are elect (though, as the above five views shows, my conclusion has not been common to Reformed thinkers). I do not know how the Reformed position would view the children of Baptists of who die young, who the Baptists themselves do not consider to be part of the church, but I imagine many would formulate some kind of equitable view that can be saved by God’s grace if it is His will (perhaps something akin to the Catholic “baptism by desire” idea).

Are they elect who have been Baptized? Baptism is, after all, the entrance right into the church visible (see WCOF, ch. XVIII, sec. 1, "Baptism is… the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church”), and for believers and their children (see ibid., sec. 4, “Not only those that do actually profess faith [ ] but also the infants of [ ] believing parents, are to be baptized."). Not so, says the Confession. Baptism does not have such efficacy: “Although it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it: or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (WCOF, ch. XVIII, sec. 5)." The principle here is telling, in a broader context. Form is not to be prerequisite in the Reformed system to God’s achieving what is in accordance with His sovereign Will. This fits well with a monergistic understanding of how God unfolds creation.

D. Tensions with Works-Righteous.

Does a “true believer” receive Salvation as a reward for his faith (and if so, are infants out of luck for not having the ability to possess such faith)? Or contrarily, do infants receive Salvation because of their innocence and absence of actual sin?

The Reformed position is that those whom God has elected to Salvation from before all time are, through the unfailingly efficacious Grace of the Holy Spirit, brought to True Faith. By that Faith, the Elect enjoy Christ’s righteousness at the day of judgment because he takes our sins upon Himself (cf. WCOF, ch. XI, secs. 2 and 3). In any understanding of faith, though, it cannot be equated with a work. The Reformed do not see that the one work (or duty) of believing has replaced all the works of the Old Covenant. Faith is a sign of election bearing fruit within the believer.

So what of those who are unable to attain such Faith? “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word. (ch. X, sec. 3)” This section does not explain which dying infants are elect, but I understand this to be an intentional omission to match what Scripture has (in the eyes of the Westminster Divines) also omitted.

The late Reformed Rev. Boettner quotes approvingly Dr. R.A. Webb to show that Calvin never explicitly stated that a dead infant may have been damned (here):

Calvin teaches that all the reprobate 'procure'—(that is his own word)—'procure' their own destruction; and they procure their destruction by their own personal and conscious acts of 'impiety,' 'wickedness,' and 'rebellion.' Now reprobate infants, though guilty of original sin and under condemnation, cannot, while they are infants, thus 'procure' their own destruction by their personal acts of impiety, wickedness, and rebellion. They must, therefore, live to the years of moral responsibility in order to perpetrate the acts of impiety, wickedness and rebellion which Calvin defines as the mode through which they procure their destruction.

This quote fascinates me, and stands certain “Calvinist” understandings I had on their head. Boettner and Webb suggest that Calvin believed all “reprobate” infants will live until an age of discrimination so that they can procure their own destruction through actual sin. This seems flawed in that it detracts from the Reformed belief in the justice of damning people on account of their Original Sin (the Reformed version of Original Sin, that is) alone. It also seems to lead to a skewed view upon the death of a child: would we congratulate mourning parents for the validating sign of the child’s election that also just took him away?

E. Conclusion.

I remain confused on the matter, and that’s okay.

The formulation of church visible / church invisible coupled with the Reformed views on Predestination and sola Fide, seems to exclude the possibility of salvation for infants who die outside the church (for they are outside the outer of the two concentric circles), and may or may not leave open the possibility of salvation for infants inside the church, depending on how one views the “faith” requirement. Since faith like a child is presented by Christ as an archetype, I believe that the infant could, at some level, have the preeminent faith in Christ and love for Him. Therefore, my Reformed synapses believe that Christian infants are saved.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Having Another One?

My wife and I have had five children. We have not formally practiced NFP, but have been opposed to the Birth Control Pill since we learned of its abortifacient properties part-way through our first year of marriage. We are richly blessed.

Over the last two or three pregnancies, I have noticed an odd phenomenon. People in our society, family, and particularly in our church, are strikingly comfortable asking us, "Are you going to have another one after this?" Rephrased, they ask "Are you going to be sterilized now, or at least religiously remain on the Pill until menopause?"

I think they mean this with innocent curiousity about whether my family has reached its intended size or not. But the curiousity can only come to being in a society where people are able to have strict control over the outcome of the coital act. Since the methods of obtaining such strict control are contrary to our conscience(s), the question puts us in an odd spot. I don't get preachy, but do usually say something like, "we'll see what God does".

I imagine an ideal world (or even just an ideal church) where people's consciences agree with ours, that sterilizing our fecundity, or using abortifacient methods of contraception, are contrary to the Will of God. In this ideal place, people don't ask "Are you going to have another one?", because they know the answer to that question ultimately lies in God's Will and not our own (which is not to say that God does not have us participate). In this ideal place, people feel more sympathy for the tired parents of several blessings. In reality, instead, people just wonder why we choose or will to keep doing this to ourselves. They are not sympathetic, because we have chosen or willed to do this to ourselves in every sense of choice or will. In the church, this does make me feel sad, and alone.

[I add, though it's not been my own experience, that in this ideal place, couples without children would receive more sympathy as well. Instead, we seem to presume that they have made the "choice" not to get pregnant. This is unfair to them on several levels.]

Thursday, April 10, 2008

False Ecumenical Advertising

I'm a fan of the Catholic cable channel EWTN, so don't get me wrong when I say that it is not always, for me, the Cat's Meow.

I found myself a little miffed last night at the discongruity between one program, and that program's description as provided by my "Info" button. The show was called "Micah Project: Tearing Down the Walls that Separate Christians", but the show was in fact more of a "why Michael Cumbi thinks Protestants should become Catholic."

Now, if Catholicism is correct in its assertion that it is the one true Holy Apostolic Church, then its approach to Protestantism should certainly be one of "convert now!". But if that is the Church's position, I don't care for conversion efforts veiled as ecumenical wall-tearing-down. I tuned in hoping to hear how we Protestants and Catholics can better come to terms with one another, and better understand each other's positions. Instead I heard a former fundamentalist talk about why Catholicism is superior (which it may be, but that's beside the point).

As far as conversion stories go, the further a convert's "before" position is from my own, the less I relate to his reasons for conversion. So this wouldn't have been my choice of programming on the conversion front. And it didn't live up to my expectations on the ecumenical front either.

The Micah Project website says the following:

"When the Nation of Israel became a divided kingdom (much like the Church today, Protestant and Catholic) there were certain prophets that gave God’s message to the Northern Kingdom and prophets who spoke for God to the Southern Kingdom. There was one prophet, however, who had a message from God for both kingdoms, that was the prophet Micah."

I don't want to nit-pick, and I really do hope God blesses my brother Mr. Cumbie in his efforts at reconciling Christians together. I'm concerned though that the Judah-Israel : Catholic-Protestant analogy does not align with the Catholic position on Protestantism. In fact, I'm pretty certain that the saying "the Church today, Protestant and Catholic" will grate on a few of my Catholic friends' nerves. They would say that I am outside of "the Church today" precisely because I am Protestant. Also, I was hoping that Mr. Cumbie had a message for "both kingdoms", but instead thought he was a 'Judean' with a message for the 'other Kingdom'...

I'll leave my criticism at that. If anyone else saw the show and felt otherwise, I'd enjoy being put in my place.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Atonement and Penal Substitution

Kim asks, "What is your understanding of the differences between Catholics and Reformed Protestants on Christ's atonement coming from a Reformed background like me?"

The answer is: I do not really understand the differences, and would love to hear from others who do. I will share a few things I've read as I've considered this question, but please don't think these thoughts (and sources) are meant to be my attempt at laying out the differences. The differences may be much deeper, or there may be virtually no difference other than in the window dressing (I'm inclined to think the former, though my wife says I'm making much ado about nothing).

Article 21 of the Belgic Confession (a Reformed confession) states that "We believe that Jesus Christ is a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek-- made such by an oath-- and that he presented himself in our name before his Father, to appease his wrath with full satisfaction by offering himself on the tree of the cross and pouring out his precious blood for the cleansing of our sins, as the prophets had predicted. " In other words, Christ satisfied the Father's wrath against us by offering Himself.

This is supported with various Scripture, to wit: ""the chastisement of our peace" was placed on the Son of God and... "we are healed by his wounds." He was "led to death as a lamb"; he was "numbered among sinners" [citing Isa. 53:4-12]... and he suffered-- the "just for the unjust," [citing 1 Pet. 3:18 ] in both his body and his soul".

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section that starts with "CHRIST OFFERED HIMSELF TO HIS FATHER FOR OUR SINS" (before para. 606).

Paragraph 615 says, "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous."(Rom 5:19) By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who "makes himself an offering for sin", when "he bore the sin of many", and who "shall make many to be accounted righteous", for "he shall bear their iniquities".(Isa 53:10-12) Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.(Cf. Council of Trent (1547); DS 1529)"

So right off the comparative bat, both do use language to the effect that Christ's death atoned for our sins. If there's a difference, then, it seems it would be in the "how" of how that atonement was accomplished. One difference I can see, which may be one of emphasis only, is this: in the Reformed articulation, God's wrath demanded our punishment, or Christ's as the substitution for that penalty; in the Catholic articulation, satisfaction of God's judgment was made by the imputation of Christ's obedience onto the believer. In other words, one emphasis is on imputation of our sins onto Christ, another emphasis is on imputation of Christ's obedient righteousness onto sinners.

I can think of a related belief that is clearly different between Reformed and Catholic understandings. I wrote here that Calvin, the Father of Reformed thought, taught this: "If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual (Institutes, Book II, Ch. 16, Sect. 10)" and later, "surely, unless his soul shared in the punishment, he would have been the Redeemer of bodies alone. (ibid., Sect. 12)" The Catholics and Orthodox, of course, believe that when Christ "descended into Hell", it was to preach to those in Abraham's Bosom, not to suffer damnation.

So if the Reformed 'penal substitution' view involves the belief that God's wrath demands his penalized victim to be damned, then that view would seem to have a dramatically different understanding of "atonement" than the Catholic view.

I find it ironic that the atonement's details are so foreign to me, as I've relied upon it all my life. I have personally been reflecting on the Old Testament signs of the scapegoat and the blood-marked door posts of the passover. If each of these prefigures Christ's atonement, they tell me that the atonement is complex, that there are several facets to the way in which Christ's blood cleanses. But this topic is for the scholars. For me, in my own discernment, I am mostly struck by all that I noted in that previous post, that the notion of Christ enduring a suffering damnation to be an effective atonement, was novel to the Middle Ages. Beware of novelties.

Baptismal Regeneration Revisited

I posted previously on Baptismal Regeneration here, noting the tension in the Reformed view between recognizing Baptism as a sign and seal of the believer's entrance into the Body of Christ and forgiveness of sins, and denying its inherent regenerative power.

When defending paedobaptism (i.e., infant baptism) to those of an anti-paedobaptist bent, the Reformed are accused of retaining the Catholic-like belief that the act of sprinkling water can regenerate, can make a damned baby right with God (i.e., justified). The Reformed do not believe that the infant has his debt from Adam wiped clean at the Baptismal font by that mechanical act. But we do say that the act is a sign and seal of regeneration (WCOF 28.1). The Heidelberg Catechism makes clear that the external baptism washes no sins at all, but is to assure us that as water washes exterior filth, so Christ's blood washes the interior (see Q&A 72 and 73).

I wonder if different understandings of original sin badly widen the gulf in the disparate beliefs on baptism (as acutely seen when discussing infant baptism) held by Reformed and Catholic Christians.

A Reformed expression of the doctrine of original sin stresses the complete depravity it works in its victims (which is all of us), "It is a corruption of all nature-- an inherited depravity which even infects small infants in their mother's womb, and the root which produces in man every sort of sin. It is therefore so vile and enormous in God's sight that it is enough to condemn the human race, and it is not abolished or wholly uprooted even by baptism, seeing that sin constantly boils forth as though from a contaminated spring." (Belgic Confession, Art. 15, emphasis added).

The Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church contrarily maintains that "It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence". Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle" (at para. 406, emphasis added and internal citations omitted).

My wife and I chose years ago not to go to a Reformed Anglican denomination because they believed in baptismal regeneration. To us, this position was untenable because we knew that those baptized retained a "corrupt nature". But the Catholic position (and probably that of this Anglican group as well) says that the corrupt nature is not what is washed away, but rather our deprivation of original holiness and justice.

Baptismal regeneration v1.0 and v2.0 will not reconcile so long as they each use the language "original sin" in two mutually exclusive ways.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Quiet Lately.

It's been a long time since I've done any real writing for this blog, and a long time since I've shared with others my thoughts as I try to discern whether to convert to the Catholic Church. If any of my old contributors are still around, please know that this sabbatical was at first unintentional, and that I would like to soon return to regularly sharing my thoughts for discussion.

My absence was instigated primarily by one particularly tiring debate that followed a substantive post. More generally though, it was instigated by a growing sense that coming to agreement on terms of the Christian faith for any two people is a seemingly uphill battle. I was tired.

I drank in deeply an accusation that I didn't know what a particular ecclesial body 'really' taught in its true or pure form. Having been raised in that tradition by a man ordained to its ministry, and having studied it intently to find its refutations of certain Catholic and Orthodox critiques, I was deeply offended at the suggestion of my own ignorance. But I knew that if I replied with my own religious qualifications to speak, I would not be speaking in charity.

So it was easier to walk away from the whole frustrating debacle. Where this was weak of me, I apologize to my interlocutor and anyone benefiting from the discussion. Where it was my effort at a restrained, temperate reaction (which is contrary to my nature), I have no regrets.

I hope in future discussions to be more bold, and yet more gentle. If a fellow Christian tells me I don't understand "Reformed teaching", "Lutheran teaching" or the like, I will invite them to explain the correct position. Where one's explanation seems to inconsistent with a mainstream source describing that tradition, or seems to state as settled something that mainstream sources continue to debate, I will merely point out what I see to be an inconsistency, and then discuss the view as my fellow Christian presents it. I will not, however, accept that any one individual view is a qualified characterization of an entire ecclesial body, unless it appears to present a consensus view.

I think for the sake of Truth, we must be cognizant that no two views are truly alike. When I characterize Reformed theology, it is really "Reformed theology as Thos. understands it" that I present. Peace in Christ.