Monday, February 11, 2013

A Question about Christian Theology

I've been thinking fairly seriously about the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism for some time now -- the topic has occupied rather a lot of my attention over the last two years. I've been meaning to post the following question for a while, and with today's big news being the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, this seems like as good a day as any. Here goes.

Every thoughtful Christian has to deal with theological questions at two distinct levels. There are first-order questions about theology per se; and second-order questions about the relative importance of particular theological issues, the way one ought to relate to those with whom one disagrees about theology, etc. The problem isn't as esoteric or abstract as that description may make it sound. As a Christian, I may ask questions about who Jesus really is, what "saving faith" looks like, how to understand the doctrine of hell, and a host of other issues. Those are all first-order questions. I may also ask whether it really matters if someone rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, or whether I can truly have Christian fellowship with someone who understands justification differently than I do. Those are second-order questions.

Got it? Okay.

What's on my mind is a second-order question about the division(s) between Catholics and Protestants. 
A friend with whom I was discussing this issue referred me to the following comment made by a fairly well-known Christian author. (I am not providing a citation here, because I don't want the author's name to affect anyone's assessment of what he or she wrote. If you know who the author is, please keep that information to yourself.) It has been claimed that:
"The process whereby ‘faith and works’ became a stock gag for the commercial theatre [in the sixteenth century] is characteristic of that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation. The theological questions really at issue have no significance except on a certain level, a high level, of the spiritual life; they could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure. Under those conditions formulae might possibly have been found which did justice to the Protestant—I had almost said the Pauline—assertions without compromising other elements of the Christian faith. In fact, however, these questions were raised at a moment when they immediately became embittered and entangled with a whole complex of matters theologically irrelevant, and therefore attracted the fatal attention of both government and the mob. When once this had happened, Europe’s chance to come through unscathed was lost. It was as if men were set to conduct a metaphysical argument at a fair, in competition or (worse still) forced collaboration with the cheapjacks or the round-abouts, under the eyes of an armed and vigilant police force who routinely changed sides. Each party increasingly misunderstood the other and triumphed in refuting positions which their opponents did not hold: Protestants misrepresenting Romans as Pelagians or Romans misrepresenting Protestants as Antinomians."
The italics here are mine, and it is the italicized sentence which interests me. What do you think?

All relevant comments from interested parties are welcome; please be gracious. I don't promise to chime in, my ownself, and I don't promise not to.

1 comment:

Bob said...

The church in 1517 was telling people they could pay money to get into heaven. And doing many other things. It's good that they reformed themselves in response to the rise of the Reformation, but to suggest that the theological questions at stake had no significance strikes me as the most extremely cynical form of sophistry--intellectually dishonest bullshit that is better suited to the political realm than any serious discussion of ideas.