Sunday, 13 July 2008

The Scandal of the Incarnation

I read some time ago a statement made on the Sydney Anglicans website, in which Peter Jensen justified his largescale rejection of classical and traditional church music because it led to, among other things, "the folly of sacramentalism".

As much as I have in common with Peter Jensen (and I have his evangelical regime and culture, with its ministry through the Sydney Uni Evangelical Union, to thank for much of my Christian formation and for preparing me to be reconciled with the Catholic Church), I distrust in the most extreme terms the Christian credentials, and particularly Christology, of anybody who can refer to sacramentalism as "folly".

Someone who can talk like that does not really believe in the Incarnation. Though they may sign a creed or statement of belief including it, the doctrine has not penetrated any further than the intellect, if indeed even that far. It is no more than a statement to which one subscribes. The doctrine has not entered such a person's bones and begun to inform the way they look at the world. In a Christian, I, for one, find that disturbing.

Indeed, it is this fundamentally, more than any other thing, that I believe is the essence of the divide between the Catholic and the Protestant Evangelical. When I was on my way to being reconciled with the Church, I remember with some clarity the time when the connecting thread between all the Catholic doctrines I had formerly rejected became clear to me- and that thread was the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is this fact- that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, one prosopon in two hypostases- that informs all of Catholic doctrine and practice. It undergirds Catholic ecclesiology (which includes the papacy, apostolic succession, the communion of saints, confession and indulgences), the doctrine of the sacraments (and indeed the very idea of sacraments), justification, Mary and everything else. Not least, it informs the doctrine of Scripture.

Which brings me to a series of articles I found recently from a Professor at a Presbyterian seminary here. Prof. Enns has apparently come under fire in recent days for a book he wrote called "Inspiration and Incarnation" in which he argues that recognising the human element in Scripture does not subtract from its inspiration or inerrancy, nor from its divine origin or authority. For this he has been suspended from his position and is awaiting a hearing to decide his professional fate.

He defends himself on his blog in these words: "Where some have stumbled, I feel, is in thinking that an emphasis on Scripture’s humanity seems to represent an irrevocable “methodological” failure to give due weight to Scripture’s divinity, indeed to the supremacy of the divine element of Scripture. As some have asserted, the book is to be faulted for failing to recognize that Scripture, like Jesus himself, is “essentially” divine while only “contingently” human.

Frankly, I am a bit perplexed, even concerned (theologically), about this criticism. If we understand the word “essential” to mean “a property without which something ceases being what it is,” Christ ceases being who he is if either element is subordinated. It is essential that Jesus of Nazareth, our Savior, be both divine and human. So, too, Scripture is not simply “contingently human”(precisely what that means is not clear to me at any rate) but essentially so, i.e., there is no Scripture apart from the human—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—words that the Spirit inspired biblical writers to write. To put it another way, we are not required to consider how to place one over the other, but to accept that they co-exist (if I may speak this way for sake of discussion) by God’s wise and gracious decree....

Ironically, perhaps, when we focus on the humanity of Scripture, we are not somehow showing disrespect for Scripture’s divine origin, nor are we in danger of running our faith aground. The truth, I feel, is precisely the opposite. By focusing on Scripture’s humanity, which is unfortunately often misunderstood as the purview of critical scholarship alone, we begin to see more clearly who this God is who has walked and talked with his people, and still does. Scripture’s humiliation is not an affront or an obstacle to be overcome in order to highlight its authority. Like Christ, it is the very means by which we behold God’s glory."

All of which is a perfectly orthodox and Christian approach to Scripture.

As Dei Verbum was at pains to point out, the doctrine of Scripture flows naturally from our Christology. The outcry that has accompanied Prof. Enns' work is symptomatic, I fear, of a far deeper problem within Protestantism in general and Protestant Evangelicalism in particular- a deep-seated discomfort with the Incarnation. Evangelicals don't want God to come too close, become too human. They are, at heart, afraid He might get dirty, that human-ness might corrupt Him somehow. So God must remain spiritual, as must our worship of Him and everything else we believe.

The ultimate danger of this is that it leads to the faith of the Cathars. But a far more immediate danger is a faith that becomes divorced from reality. I see this possibility played out, for example, in the minds of people (and I have met several) who, when told that Peter was crucified, say, "Oh, but that's not in the Bible.", as much as to say that if it were true it would be recorded there somewhere, as though Peter inhabits some kind of biblical fantasy-land separated from actual history (strangely such folk never demand that Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon be mentioned in the Bible, though both events are probably historically verifiable to roughly the same degree). In this view, God didn't really enter into history. God inhabits "Bible history". "History", by contrast, is a different realm from which God is largely absent.

An understanding like this is not conducive to evangelism in the end, because it bars God from public, objective reality, confining Him to a more subjective arena available only to the believer, thereby making secular and sacred two categories which have nothing to do with each other. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, breaks into the secular world and throws things around. He goes to where mankind is. He saves us by becoming one of us, being born in our flesh, dying and rising in it so as to redeem us and keeping it for all eternity. He has created a visible institution to preach His Name, whose members comprise both living and dead, which administers physical rites through which He transmits His grace and divine life, and He will glorify us in our flesh at the end of days. That is what was once called Christian orthodoxy. In the final analysis, the "folly of sacramentalism" is ultimately the folly of the Gospel.

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