Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Michigan Master of Contemporary Christmas Carols: Alfred S. Burt

By Dave Armstrong (11-29-05)

Michigan (particularly Detroit, where I grew up -- I still live just outside of it and go to church near downtown), is known for its many glorious musical traditions and artists: Motown, Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Anita Baker, gospel music; it is even a current world center of electronic music.

But I'd venture to guess that few people are aware of the name of the greatest 20th century composer of Christmas carols, or where he came from. That man is Alfred S. Burt (1920-1954), who died tragically of lung cancer at age 33. He was born -- the son of an Episcopalian minister -- in Marquette, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior, and grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, which is about 20 miles north of Detroit (neighboring Auburn Hills hosts the Detroit Pistons).

His most famous composition is Caroling, Caroling (included on the famous Nat King Cole Christmas album). Some other fairly well-known Burt carols are Some Children See Him, The Star Carol, and O Hearken Ye. He wrote fifteen beautiful, haunting, spiritual carols altogether, in a span of just twelve years.

I don't know how it was elsewhere in the country during the late 60s and early 70s, when my sister and I were in junior high and high school and both involved in the music programs. But in Michigan (as would be expected) we frequently performed many of these songs in concert, either sung by choirs or in band arrangements. I played a medley of them in junior high band (on either trombone or baritone).

Alfred's father (according to the Alfred Burt Carols Website, maintained by the family), the Rev. Bates Gilbert Burt, pastor of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan from 1922 till shortly before his death in 1948, started a tradition of including a new Christmas carol every year in Christmas cards. He did this from 1922 to 1941. Then his son Alfred continued this delightful custom from 1942 to 1954 (his father was the lyricist for five of the fifteen carols). The church organist, Wihla Hutson, who lived in Detroit and studied music at Wayne State University in the city (my alma mater), wrote the lyrics for eight of the Burt carols.

Alfred Burt took up the trumpet and later played in the Alvino Rey Orchestra. He majored in music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (about 30 miles west of Detroit), and after his marriage to Anne Shortt in 1945, later settled in California. Several of his most famous carols were written in the last few months of his life when he knew he was dying. The beautiful Star Carol was, in fact, completed the day before he died (6 February 1954). He is buried in Marquette, Michigan, where he was born.


The Fifteen Carols

(dates, lyricists, lyrics, audio MP3 music samples, audio comments from Anne Burt, various recordings, Burt Christmas cards)

[the annual Burt Christmas cards are shown on the lyrics page for each carol with an asterisk in the listing of the lyricist]

[audio samples from the Burt website are from This is Christmas – The Carols of Alfred S. Burt: originally recorded in Hollywood in 1963 and digitally remastered in 1998; performances by The Voices of Jimmy Joyce of the original arrangements]

Christmas Cometh Caroling 1942 (lyrics by Fr. Andrew: an English Catholic priest) / Burt website music sample


Jesu Parvule ("Poor little Jesus") 1943 (lyrics by Bates G. Burt*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians


What Are the Signs 1944 (lyrics by Bates G. Burt) / Burt website music sample


Ah, Bleak and Chill the Wintry Wind 1945 (lyrics by Bates G. Burt*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample


All on A Christmas Morning 1946 (lyrics by Bates G. Burt*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus / Bing Crosby / Kenneth Jewell Chorale


Nigh Bethlehem 1947 (lyrics by Bates G. Burt*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus


Christ in the Stranger's Guise 1948 (lyrics: An Old English Rune of Hospitality*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample


Sleep Baby Mine 1949 (lyrics by Wihla Huston*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample


This Is Christmas (aka Bright, Bright the Holly Berries) 1950 (lyrics by Wihla Huston*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: Julie Andrews with The London Symphony, John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Bing Crosby. Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians


Some Children See Him 1951 (lyrics by Wihla Huston*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: Jack Jones, Kenny Loggins, Branford Marsalis/Harry Connick Jr., Andy Williams, John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Bing Crosby, Ed Ames, Evie, Don Ho, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, James Taylor, Mannheim Steamroller


Come, Dear Children 1952 (lyrics by Wihla Huston*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: Bing Crosby / Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians


O, Hearken Ye 1953 (lyrics by Wihla Huston*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: Nat King Cole, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians


Caroling, Caroling 1954 (lyrics by Wihla Huston) / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole, Manhattan Transfer, Johnny Mathis, John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Kenneth Jewel Chorale, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians


We'll Dress the House 1954 (lyrics by Wihla Huston) / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Kenneth Jewel Chorale


The Star Carol 1954 (lyrics by Wihla Huston*) / Anne Burt's comments / Burt website music sample

Recorded by: Aaron Neville, Simon and Garfunkel, Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Williams/Boston Pops/Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians


Burt website listing (presumably complete) of artists who have recorded each carol (+ most recent recordings).

The Albert Burt Christmas Carols Golden Anniversary Collection


A Fictional Dialogue on Penance

By Dave Armstrong (1995)

Calvin: You know, Joe, you Catholics ought to get rid of penance - punishing yourself to please God. Don't you know God has already forgiven you?

Joe: We would, Calvin, if the Bible allowed us to, but it teaches that there is a penalty to pay for sin in this life, too. For instance, David had to suffer terribly even though God had forgiven his sin (2 Sam 12:13-14).

Calvin: That's in the Old Testament, so it doesn't apply anymore. God is only merciful now.

Joe: That's just wishful thinking. In Malachi 3:3 God purifies His people "as gold and silver" to make them righteous. He hasn't changed His mind. In Hebrews 12:6-8 He still "chastens" and "scourges" his "sons." Jesus commands us to "take up a cross" if we want to follow Him (Mt 10:38, 16:24), and St. Paul wants us to compassionately suffer with fellow Christians (1 Cor 12:26).

Calvin: Well, God can discipline us since that is His prerogative, but the Catholic Church acts like it can give out penalties. Isn't that an abuse of love and Scripture?

Joe: No, not at all, since the Lord Himself gave St. Peter and the disciples the power and authority to "bind and loose" (Mt 16:19, 18:17-18). St. Paul imposes a penance for the well-being of a straying Christian (1 Cor 5:3-5). Later on, he issues an indulgence by lessening the temporal penance for sin of this same brother (2 Cor 2:6-11). This is all that the word "indulgence" means, despite all the rhetoric against it from Luther and Protestants ever since, absurdly implying that it winks at, or "indulges" sin!

Calvin: But Jesus suffered for us so we wouldn't have to, as it says in Isaiah 53:4-5.

Joe: He took away the penalty of eternal hellfire for those who obey His will and accept His work as our Redeemer, but not all suffering. That's a candy-coated gospel. In fact, in a sense, we even
participate in this Redemption, by our intercessory prayers and penitential acts and suffering. St. Paul repeatedly speaks of suffering with Christ, almost in a literal fashion (Rom 8:17, 2 Cor 4:10, Phil 3:10, and especially Col 1:24; cf. 1 Pet 4:1,13). He even considers himself an "offering" (2 Tim 4:6; cf. Ex 32:30-32).


Calvin: Man, you sure quote Scripture like a "Bible-thumping" Protestant! I've never seen a Catholic do that! I thought that all your doctrines were gullibly accepted on unquestioned authority and blind faith alone, from the nuns!

Joe: Well, I've gotten to know the biblical evidences for my beliefs because I've studied the Bible, Catholic catechisms and Catholic apologetic works, which give a biblical defense of Catholic doctrine, along with logical reasons and the history of Christian teaching on any given doctrine. Unfortunately, many Catholics settle for their childhood instruction in the faith and never progress or grow any further by reading and pursuing theological truth on their own.

Calvin: That's for sure, and many Protestants do the same. But on our subject, I still don't understand the purpose of penance. Why can't God just forgive and be done with it?

Joe: He could, but penance is for our benefit, due to our stubbornness and rebelliousness. Sin causes a disorder in the universe, and Justice requires that it be punished. You know, Calvin, even your own life is an illustration of this spiritual principle. You're in this jail, and have a broken arm and suspended driver's license due to the sin of drunk driving. This is your "penance," in a legal, secular sense.

Calvin: But I'm very sorry and the judge believes I'm sincere and will reform my behavior.

Joe: That's the whole point. You have "repented," but still a penalty must be paid for your own good and society's. Even though the judge likes you, he is bound by law to jail you for a time. That's how it is with God and sin, since He is perfectly holy. Purgatory continues the process after death, until finally we enter into Heaven, for which all our sufferings have prepared us (Rom 8:18, Heb 12:14, Rev 21:4).

Calvin: I still have trouble with this whole idea because it seems to me to be perverting the grace of God and making us do works in order to be saved (Eph 2:8-9). That's a losing battle because none of us can be good enough (Ps 53:3).

Joe: You're constructing a false dichotomy: Because God is perfectly good, therefore we cannot be good at all. But the Bible teaches that we can cooperate with God in our salvation, even though all grace and good always comes from Him (Eph 2:10, 1 Cor 3:9, Phil 2:13). Grace is entirely God's work, but that doesn't make us mere puppets or robots. The Council of Trent declared that:

Neither is this satisfaction so our own as not to be through Jesus Christ. For we can do nothing of ourselves; He cooperating strengthens us (Phil 4:13) . . . No Catholic ever thought that, by this kind of satisfactions on our parts, the efficacy of the merit and of the satisfaction of our Lord Jesus Christ is either obscured or in any way lessened.

(On the Sacrament of Penance, chap. 8, session 14, November 25, 1551)

A Fictional Dialogue on Purgatory

By Dave Armstrong (1995)

Paul the Presbyterian: Hey Dante! What is this nonsense about purgatory [spoken with a grimace] that you Catholics teach? Haven't you read that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8)?

Dante the Catholic: First of all, you're misreading that verse. Paul is saying only that he would rather be present with God in spirit than here in his body. Secondly, your interpretation wouldn't apply to those who are damned to hell, since they are not "with the Lord." Thirdly, why would you assume that to be in purgatory is to not be with God?

Paul: Well, I'm impressed. But still, you can't show me a single verse in the Bible which refers to a state in the afterlife other than heaven or hell.

Dante: Really? I hate to contradict you [smiles], but what about the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16:19-31)? This is the Hebrew Sheol (Greek, Hades) since it includes both good and bad men. Heaven can't have sinners in it (Rev 21:27) and hell wouldn't have saved persons in it.

Paul: Ah, but this is just a parable. You can't construct a doctrine out of a story! You'll have to do better than that.

Dante: I disagree. Jesus wouldn't tell a falsehood about spiritual matters, even within a parable. This would be misleading. Besides, we're told that Christ preached to (apparently damned) "spirits in prison" after His death (1 Pet 3:19-20) and took the righteous dead with Him to heaven (Eph 4:8-10). This indicates a divided Sheol or Hades, with the righteous and the wicked: a third place or state.

Paul: Well . . . alright, you got me on that one. But no one could go to heaven until after Jesus' Resurrection, and then there were only two destinations after death.

Dante: No: Elijah went straight to heaven (2 Ki 2:11), and most Christians believe the same about Enoch (Gen 5:24). So there were two possibilities for the righteous then: Sheol or heaven, just as there are two today: purgatory or heaven, as Jesus strongly hints (Mt 5:25-26, Lk 12:58-59).

Paul: Okay, but what other verse can you come up with?

Dante: Well, Paul accepts prayers for the dead, which presupposes a purgatory, where dead men can still be assisted.


Paul: Come on! Now you're really off the deep end. Where?

Dante: In 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul refers to people being "baptized for the dead." And he appears to pray for a dead man, Onesiphorus, in 2 Timothy 1:16-18.

Paul: What do you think he means by "baptisms for the dead?"

Dante: We think he is referring to acts of penance and prayers for the dead. "Baptism" is often a metaphor for suffering (Mk 10:38-39, Lk 3:16, 12:50), and Paul seems to have 2 Maccabees 12:44 in mind - a very similar verse which explicitly teaches the propriety of prayers for the dead.

Paul: But that's in the Apocrypha. We don't accept that.

Dante: I know, but if Paul is indeed referring to it, that's beside the point, and you still have to interpret Paul somehow. But there's more: Jesus speaks of sins being forgiven in the "world to come" (Mt 12:32), and three levels of judgment (Mt 5:22). These must be references to purgatory. Scripture often mentions a "fire" and a purging, cleansing process by which we become holy (Ex 19:18, Is 4:4, 6:7, Mal 3:1-4, 2 Cor 7:1, 1 Thess 4:3,7, 1 Jn 3:2-3, Heb 12:29).

Paul: But why would God want to torment us like that? What's the point? Why wouldn't He just forgive us and be done with it, since Jesus already bore all our penalties (Is 53:4-6)?

Dante: God is holy and perfect as well as loving, and this process is simply the way we must enter into His presence. Besides, it's much more merciful to allow people to be purged of their remaining sins after death as a prelude to heaven, than to condemn them to hell. Whatever the reason, God has revealed purgatory to us in the Bible. Paul talks about the "judgment seat of Christ" (1 Cor 3:11-15, 2 Cor 5:10), where our works will be "tested," after which some will be saved "only as through fire." In all essentials, this is precisely what Catholics mean by purgatory. Don't you believe in the "judgment seat of Christ," and that holiness is required to see God (Heb 12:14-15,23, Eph 5:5)?

Paul: Well sure, but it takes place quickly at the Judgment.

Dante: Okay, suppose I grant you that. Now we're only arguing about duration, a mere quantitative rather than qualitative dispute. Why quibble over details? We're not far apart.

Paul: Yes, but we don't think that this judgment goes on for thousands of years, with the sufferers losing all hope.

Dante: No one knows how long the process will take for any individual. Paul makes no indication. But all these suffering souls know they are saved and will go to heaven eventually. Purgatory is the vestibule to heaven, not hell. You believe we'll be zapped, and I think it'll take a bit longer. But there is agreement that some purging takes place.

Paul: Wow! I never thought of it in that way. But if the Bible teaches this, I can't disagree with it. Thanks, Dante!

A Fictional Dialogue on Infant Baptism

By Dave Armstrong (1995)

Zeke the "Jesus Freak": Hey Cathy, why do Catholics baptize babies? It's pointless since they don't know what's going on and can't repent, according to Acts 2:38 and Mark 6:16.

Cathy the Catholic: But where in the Bible does it specifically prohibit the baptism of babies?

Zeke: Well . . . I guess it never says that. But . . .

Cathy: But don't you only follow what's plainly taught in the pages of Scripture?

Zeke: It's a conclusion that follows from ideas that are clearly in Scripture. It's still a biblical doctrine.

Cathy: Ah! That's a big difference. Now we're both in the same boat, since the Bible doesn't explicitly teach about baptism of infants. We must make inferences. Catholics maintain that there are many strong indications of our view.

Zeke: Where? I've never seen any in 17 years of being saved.

Cathy: In Acts 16:15,33, 18:8 (cf. 11:14), and 1 Corinthians 1:16 it is stated that an individual and his "whole household" were baptized. It would be hard to say this involved no small children. Paul in Colossians 2:11-13 makes a connection between baptism and circumcision. Israel was the church before Christ (Acts 7:38, Romans 9:4). Circumcision, given to 8-day old boys, was the seal of the covenant God made with Abraham, which applies to us also (Galatians 3:14,29). It was a sign of repentance and future faith (Romans 4:11). Infants were just as much a part of the covenant as adults (Genesis 17:7, Deuteronomy 29:10-12, cf. Matthew 19:14). Likewise, baptism is the seal of the New Covenant in Christ. It signifies cleansing from sin, just as circumcision did (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, 9:25, Romans 2:28-9, Philippians 3:3). Infants are wholly saved by God's grace just as adults are, only apart from their rational and willful consent. Their parents act in their behalf.

Zeke: That's not possible. You have to repent and be born again in order to receive salvation, as John 3:5 says.

Cathy: It doesn't exactly say that. It says that one must be "born of water and the Spirit." Catholics, along with the Church Fathers such as St. Augustine and many Protestants (for example, Lutherans and Anglicans), interpret this as a reference to baptism, and a proof of the necessity of infant baptism.

Zeke: That doesn't make sense. Water here refers to the amniotic sac when a baby is born. Babies can't be born again. Jesus is contrasting natural with spiritual birth.

Cathy: Are you saying then that a baby can't be saved, and will go to hell if it dies before the "age of reason"?

Zeke: No, no, I would never say that. God is too merciful to let that happen to an innocent little baby.


Cathy: But you believe in original sin (1 Corinthians 15:22), inherited by all people from the Fall of Adam and Eve, right?

Zeke: Well, yeah. What are you getting at?

Cathy: Once you say that a baby can be saved, then clearly there is a justification for baptizing infants, since there are factors other than their own consent which enter into the question of their salvation. Thus, you have arrived at a more communal, covenantal view of salvation (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 7:14, 12:13), rather than the individualistic notion that many evangelicals have. The reality of original sin makes baptism desirable as soon as possible, since it removes the punishment and guilt due to sin and infuses sanctifying grace. This is why most Protestants through history, including Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Reformed, and Presbyterians, have baptized infants.

Zeke: Now wait a minute. Surely you don't believe that baptism actually does anything, do you? It's only a symbol.

Cathy: You evangelicals always seem to deny that matter can be a conveyor of grace, and too often frown on the idea of sacraments, which are physical, visible means whereby grace is conferred.

Zeke: We don't believe in those things because they're unbiblical. The Bible talks about the Spirit giving grace (John 6:63, Romans 8:1-10), not matter. Catholics are always getting weird about things such as statues, relics, rosary beads, the wafer of communion, and holy water. This usually degenerates into idolatry.

Cathy: I disagree. God Himself took on flesh in Christ. Paul's handkerchiefs healed the sick (Acts 19:12), as did even Peter's shadow (Acts 5:15)! Likewise, baptism is said to regenerate sinners. Acts 2:38 speaks of being baptized "for the forgiveness of your sins." 1 Peter 3:21 says "baptism . . . now saves you" (cf. Mark 16:16, Romans 6:3-4). Paul recalls how Ananias told him to be "baptized, and wash away your sins" (Acts 22:16). In 1 Corinthians 6:11 Paul sure seems to imply an organic connection between baptism (washed), sanctification and justification, whereas evangelicals separate all three. Titus 3:5 says that "he saved us, . . . by the washing of regeneration." What more biblical proof is needed? Is this all to be explained as "symbolic"?

Zeke: I gotta run. I have some questions for my pastor . . .

A Fictional Dialogue on the Real Presence in the Eucharist

 By Dave Armstrong (1995)

Thomas [Protestant]: Hey Joe, how can you Catholics believe that the communion wafer actually turns into the Body and Blood of Christ? Do you expect me to accept that?!

Joe [Catholic]: Because in this case, we are the ones who insist on taking the Bible literally. There is much to suggest the miracle we call Transubstantiation. For instance, in John 6:51-56, Jesus states five times that "whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life" (v.54).

Thomas: That's obviously symbolism. Jesus usually taught in parables, and He was often misunderstood, like when He said He would rebuild the Temple in three days (Jn 2:18-21).

Joe: Yes, Thomas, but when the Jews (v.52) and "many" of His disciples (v.60) objected, Christ merely restated His words forcefully, rather than assure them He wasn't speaking literally. He was so firm that many left Him (v.66). He could have easily prevented their confusion.

Thomas: One exception to the rule doesn't prove much.

Joe: It's not an exception. Jesus took great care to correct wrong impressions, when the hearers were open to receiving His words, such as in John 3:1-15, where Nicodemus didn't comprehend being "born again," and Matthew 16:5-12, concerning the "leaven of the Pharisees."

Thomas: Hmmm. That's interesting. Do you know of any other examples where Jesus simply repeated an unpopular teaching?

Joe: Sure, like when Jesus talked about His power to forgive sins (Mt 9:2-7), and His eternal existence (Jn 8:56-8). These are cases where He was talking with hostile listeners such as the Pharisees. Since Jesus knew everything, He knew who would reject His words and who would accept them, and acted accordingly. In John 6, then, it looks like the hearers understood full well what He was saying, but didn't want to accept it, rather than accepting it while misunderstanding that it was symbolic, as many Protestants maintain.


Thomas: But why should we just accept something without explanation? Isn't that expecting too much? Why does the Catholic Church make people believe stuff without giving the reasons for them - often things that seem unreasonable in the first place? I don't want to be gullible.

Joe: You and many other former Catholics may have had some bad and ineffective teaching along the way, but this doesn't prove that the doctrines of the Catholic Church are false. Reasons have been given for all its doctrines, and theologians have worked on and developed these for centuries. With a little effort, you could have found books on this subject and others which would have provided you with very good reasoning. I've talked to many people like you who have never read a single book defending Catholicism. But on the other hand reason can only go so far. After all, there is a thing called faith, too. You need to stop doubting, Thomas [Jn 20:24-31]! Jesus performed enough miracles to be trusted for the difficult things He said, such as "This is My body" (Lk 22:19). The Real Presence is no less believable than the Resurrection, Virgin Birth, walking on water, or the Second Coming - all supernatural physical events.

Thomas: You make some good points, but what about Paul? He doesn't talk about trans . . sub . . . What is it?

Joe: Transubstantiation. That's a 50 cent word which means, simply, "change of substance." I have to disagree about St. Paul. He sure seems to refer to some sort of Real Presence in 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 11:27, where he states that those taking communion ". . . unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord." Is a man guilty of someone's "body and blood" if he desecrates a photograph (symbol) of them? The early Church concurred. All the Fathers, such as St. Ignatius (d.c. 110), St. Justin Martyr (d.c. 165), and St. Irenaeus (d.c. 202), strongly affirm the Real Presence. In fact, non-Lutheran and non-Anglican Protestants in the 16th century were the first Christian groups of any historical and lasting importance to think differently. Martin Luther himself believed in the Real Presence and read others who differed with him on this out of the Church.

Thomas: But a piece of bread is really Christ!? What sense does that make? Isn't that going a little bit too far!

Joe: We believe the substance of the bread has changed, while the appearance ("accidents") of bread remains. There are some partial parallels: That glass in your hand has H2O in two forms or accidents - ice and water, but both have the same substance. The food we're eating changes both substance and accidents when it is digested. Transubstantiation is hard to imagine, but nothing is impossible with God.

Thomas: Well, I guess I do need to read and study further. I'm not yet convinced, but if so many Christians, as you say, have believed this way, I can't simply dismiss it as nonsense. That would be kind of arrogant. I'll have to think about it - you've really challenged me. See ya later, Joe!


A Fictional Dialogue on Justification and Salvation

By Dave Armstrong (1995)

* * * * * 

Martin [Protestant]: It baffles me, Joe, how you Catholics can believe you're saved by works, when the Bible says "whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (Jn 3:16).

Joe [Catholic]: We don't. Let me explain. First of all, belief in Christ means also to obey Him. This is shown in passages where the opposite of belief is disobedience, such as in 1 Pet 2:7 and Jn 3:36, where "believeth not" (KJV) is often translated "does not obey." *

* e.g., NASB, RSV, NEB

Martin: But Paul says "by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works . . ." (Eph 2:8-9).

Joe: We Catholics agree that salvation is completely the result of God's grace. We condemned the heresy Pelagianism, which denied this, way back in in the 6th century.* However, the Bible doesn't separate the "works of faith" (Gal 5:6, 1 Thess 1:3, 2 Thess 1:11), preceded and caused by grace, from salvation. It only condemns self-righteous "works" done apart from grace and faith.

* 2nd Council of Orange, 529 A.D.

Martin: Aw, come on! You can't prove that from the Bible!

Joe: Quite the contrary, Martin! The Bible clearly teaches that "by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (Jas 2:24; cf. 1:21-27, 2:14-26). St. Paul tells us to "work out your own salvation . . . for it is God which worketh in you . . ." (Phil 2:12-13; cf. 1 Cor 3:8-9, 15:10). We will be judged after death based on our merit and works, which will determine our reward (Mt 16:27, Rom 2:5-13). But all our works derive their merit from Jesus' work on our behalf. Martin Luther introduced "faith alone," which is foreign to St. Paul and the Bible.

Martin: God merely declares us righteous, even though we're still sinners, since our righteousness is like "filthy rags" (Is 64:6). We can do nothing whatsoever to help save ourselves. Only Jesus' blood covering up our sin (Rom 5:9) accounts for anything in God's eyes.


Joe: Again, that's Luther's novel interpretation, because he denied our free will altogether. Our good works aren't worthless because they are derived, and flow from Jesus' work for us. Man didn't become a worm in God's eyes because of the Fall of Adam and Eve. This is another falsehood begun by Luther: that is, because God is absolutely holy, therefore man must be utterly evil. This is contrary to the biblical teaching that man was created in God's image (Gen 1:26-7). The Bible's whole thrust is that God makes us holy when we freely follow Him. When referring to God's removal of our sin, it uses words such as "cleansed" (1 Jn 1:7,9), purged" (Heb 1:3), "blotted out" (Acts 3:19), "wash away" (Acts 22:16), and "new creature" (2 Cor 5:17).

Martin: That's sanctification, not justification. Now you're mixing apples and oranges. Protestants strongly urge doing good works, but these cannot and do not have anything to do with salvation.

Joe: So works are sort of like "Brownie points" with God?

Martin: [laughs] Well, I think the Catholic view is much more like "Brownie points" than ours! We think that good works will get you more rewards in heaven, but they can't help you get to heaven.

Joe: I think St. Paul would disagree with that. He doesn't set up this false dichotomy between faith and works which Protestantism created. He says that Christians are simultaneously "washed, sanctified, and justified" (1 Cor 6:11; cf. 1:30), and that the "doers of the law shall be justified" (Rom 2:13). In Romans 5:18-19, he says that "justification" is being "made righteous," just as through Adam's disobedience, we were "made sinners." Since sin is actual, so is righteousness. Justification is not merely an external and legal declaration, but a real change. Luther was wrong.

Martin: But don't Catholics ever know that they've been saved (1 Jn 5:13)? Isn't that being in constant bondage?

Joe: The only assurance in Scripture is that of obedience (Mt 25:31-46, 7:16-27). There are many warnings against falling away from salvation (Gal 4:9, Col 1:23, 1 Tim 1:19, 4:1, Heb 3:12-14, 12:14-15, 2 Pet 2:20-21, Rev 2:4-5). For St. Paul, salvation is like a marathon (1 Cor 9:24-27). One must be disciplined and trained, lest he be disqualified and become a castaway on the Last Day. So salvation is a lifelong process, not just a matter of one-time repentance. St. Paul stresses this again and again.

Martin: Well, I must admit you've given me a lot of Scripture verses to ponder. I always thought that Catholics couldn't come up with any biblical support for their views, especially concerning salvation. If you guys don't believe in salvation by works, maybe we're not as different as it is made out, and are indeed brothers in Christ. That's really good news! Thanks for sharing this information with me.

Fictional Dialogue on Sola Scriptura

By Dave Armstrong (mid-1990s)

* * * * * 

Catholics accept Church authority and a reliable, divinely-protected Tradition, whereas Protestants "pick and choose" which traditions are to their own particular denominational taste. This is arbitrary in two ways:

1) There is really no cogent, non-arbitrary method for Protestants to determine which tradition is true (e.g., NT Canon) and which is false (e.g., Marian doctrines);

2) The notion of "authority," where present at all in Protestant ecclesiology, is inadequate for the task of proclaiming "authoritatively" which tradition is true, and the grounds will be circular in any event:
Protestant (P): X is a true, biblical doctrine because it is biblical.

Catholic (C): According to which denominational tradition?

P: Ours.

C: How do you know your tradition is true, while others which contradict it are false?

P: Because we are the most biblical.

C: How do you know yours is the most biblical?

P: Because our exegesis is the most all-encompassing and consistent, and true to the clear teaching of Scripture.

C: But the other Protestant traditions claim the same superiority . . .

P: I must say in love that they are wrong.

C: How do you know they are wrong? I thought that Protestants were supposed to be tolerant of each other's "distinctives," especially in "secondary" issues, yet you are calling fellow brothers in Christ "wrong."

P: I am compelled to because they have a faulty hermeneutic and exegesis, and I must stand firm for biblical truth.C: How do you know they have a faulty method of interpretation?

P: By Scripture and linguistic study, and the consensus of scholarly commentaries, and because R.C. Sproul said so [ :-) ]

C: But again, the others claim the same prerogative and abilities.

P: Then if they are wrong, they must be blinded by their presuppositional biases, or else by sin.C: How do you know that?

P: Because they come to the wrong conclusions about the perspicuous biblical data.C: Frankly, I would say that that is circular reasoning. But, even granting your contention for the sake of argument, how does an uneducated seeker of Christian truth choose which denomination is true to the Bible?

P: The one which is most biblical . . .

C: Now, don't start that again [smiling]. They all claim that.


P: Well, then, the one which is apostolic and has roots in the early Church.

C: Then the Fathers must be studied in order to determine who has the early Church, "apostolic" tradition?

P: Yes, I suppose so [frowning].

C: But what if it is found that the great majority of Fathers have an opinion on doctrine X contrary to yours?

P: Then they are wrong on that point.C: How do you know that?

P: By studying Scripture.

C: So when all is said and done it is irrelevant what the early Church, or the Fathers, or the Church from 500 to 1500 believed?

P: Not totally, but I must judge their beliefs from Scripture.C: Therefore you are - in the final analysis - the ultimate arbiter of true Christian Tradition?

P: Well, if you must put it in those blunt terms, yes.

C: Isn't that a bit arrogant?

P: Not as much as the pope and a bunch of celibate old men in red hats and dresses telling me what I should believe [scowling].

C: You make yourself the arbiter of all true Christian doctrine, down to the smallest particular, yet you object to a pope who makes an infallible pronouncement about every hundred years or so!!!! Most remarkable and ironic! I say you are obviously a Super-Pope, then.

P: You can say that if you like. We call it the primacy of the individual conscience.C: So you think that your own individual opinion and "conscience" is superior to the combined consensus of hundreds of years of Church history, papal pronouncements, apostolic Tradition, Councils, etc.?

P: Yes, because if a doctrine is biblical, I must denounce any tradition of men that is otherwise.

C: For that matter, how do you know what the Bible is?

P: Well, I'll quote from John Calvin:

Scripture is indeed self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning . . . Illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else's judgment that Scripture is from God . . . We seek no proofs, . . . Such, then, is a conviction that requires no reasons . . . I speak of nothing other than what each believer experiences within himself.

[Institutes, Book I, chapter 7, section 5 / vol. 1, pp. 80-81 in Battles/McNeill edition]
C: That seems intrinsically unreasonable, by Calvin's own stated criteria. Yet you've attempted to give me reasons and logic throughout this whole conversation!

P: Faith requires no reasons. The Holy Spirit makes it clear.C: Well, that's a whole 'nother ball of wax. But I would say that you would not know what NT Scripture was for sure, if not for the Catholic Church. Calvin's criteria is essentially no different than the Mormons' "burning in the bosom" as a justification for their beliefs. Besides, on what grounds do you trust Calvin, when he contradicts earlier Church Tradition? Scripture is not self-authenticating, in the sense of its determining the extent and parameters of itself. This is clearly shown in the divergences in the early Church on the question of the NT Canon.

P: There was a broad consensus among the Fathers.C: I'll grant you that . . . very broad. But there is more than enough difference to require an authoritative decree by the Church to put the matter to rest.

P: But God guided those Christians specifically because His Word was at stake.

C: Oh? First of all, I'm glad to hear that you acknowledge the 4th century Church as "Christians." Many Calvinists and other Protestants think the Church was already off the rails by then!

P: Well, that's silly, because Chalcedon was a good Council, and that was held in 451. So was Ephesus in 431.

C: Good. So you agree that God guided the early Church. But not in all matters?

P: No, not when they talked about the papacy, Mary, bishops, the Real Presence, communion of saints, penance, purgatory, infused justification, baptismal regeneration, confession, absolution, apostolic Tradition, apostolic succession, and many other erroneous doctrines.

C: How do you know that?

P: Because those doctrines clearly aren't biblical.

C: According to which "clear" denominational tradition?

P: Ours . . .

C: [smacks forehead, then throws hands up and gazes toward the heavens, wincing in despair]


And so on and so forth. Yet Protestants claim we are the ones with an epistemological problem!

Monday, November 21, 2005

My Respect for Protestants, Part II

By Dave Armstrong (2001, with an addendum from 8 January 2003)


Some people, after reading my apologetic writings, particularly in debate with Protestants, have concluded that perhaps I don't respect Protestants or consider them sincere. Nothing could be further from the truth. To acknowledge these very characteristics is exactly what ecumenism is about - what it presupposes right from the outset. I am careful throughout my writings to assert my great love and respect for my Protestant brethren. Even if I don’t state this where I could do so, I assure readers that it is always my assumption and opinion and state of mind.

Just because I may criticize (at times even excoriate) Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Protestant Reformation, or Protestant theology in general or in particulars, does not mean that I have negatively judged any individual person. That doesn't follow at all. I can't know a person's heart. How I view them individually as a Christian and disciple of Jesus is a quite different matter than disagreements as to theology.

I conducted an ecumenical discussion group at my house for four years. Near the end of that time, I did a survey, in which none of the Protestants or Orthodox (when asked) said that they had been offended in all that time. I think this speaks volumes, and I am very gratified by it. Certainly if I had been anti-Protestant, it would have come out in that survey.

Likewise, an evangelical Protestant who has since become a Catholic, read my conversion story in Surprised by Truth and picked me out of the eleven whose stories were included, to call on the phone, because (as she told me) she sensed I was not anti-Protestant at all (and this, in a story which recounts how I converted from Protestantism to Catholicism!). That indicates, I think, how highly I regard ecumenism and respectful fellowship, charity, and unity among Christians (based on John 17 and many other biblical exhortations).

Any impression that I am “anti-Protestant” in any way, shape, or form, concerns me very much, and I want to make sure this issue is cleared up. Criticism of ideas and certain beliefs is not intended at all to be personal or “hostile” criticism. I try my utmost to refrain from judging persons and hearts. I have had mine wrongly judged on several occasions and know first-hand how painful that is. I always strive to judge ideas but not people, sins but not the sinners. I'm sure I've failed at times like we all do, but that is my constant goal nonetheless.

I greatly admire and respect conservative, orthodox Protestantism. I once was an evangelical Protestant, and praise God for that experience, which was exceedingly beneficial to my spiritual advancement and theological education. I now consider myself an evangelical Catholic. None of my writings are intended as an attack on the personal integrity of any individual. I do strongly criticize the ideas of the Protestant Founders, however, because they were public figures who made momentous claims, so that they ought to be held accountable for their actions and effect on Christianity. I take pains to carefully distinguish between the person and their ideas.

Catholics can benefit greatly from much of Protestantism. I hope to show that the converse is also true. My goal is to build bridges of understanding among Christians of all stripes, who are brothers in Christ (John 17:20-23). Catholics believe that the fullness of apostolic Christianity resides in their Church, but this does not at all mean that great, profound amounts of truth and goodness are not to be found in other Christian communions as well. All validly baptized Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and ought to be accorded the proper amount of respect befitting that status, as well as charity at all times.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time at my extensive website, Biblical Evidence for Catholicism can easily, readily observe, I believe, my respect for Protestantism, by perusing the hundreds of Protestant links I provide. I think it is commonly understood online that a link (like a standard reference citation in a book) does not necessarily imply across-the-board agreement. I choose my links according to a substantial commonality with Catholic doctrine, on whatever subject the link is categorized under.

For example, a Protestant apologist or theologian defending the Trinity or the Resurrection of Christ, or presenting philosophical arguments for the existence of God or angels or the devil or heaven and hell (i.e., an evangelical Protestant who upholds traditional Christian teaching in these areas), will offer virtually nothing a Catholic would disagree with.

So why shouldn’t a Catholic utilize sites where we have common ground with our separated brethren, over against our secular, pagan culture? As Catholics, we are called upon to be ecumenical. We have no choice. Evangelicals have been doing a great job in the last generation, in the area of general Christian apologetics. Catholics are just now getting into that again. So I cherish and am thankful and grateful for all the excellent, helpful, worthwhile non-Catholic efforts which agree with Catholic and Christian theology and orthodoxy.

Many Catholic converts wrote excellent books and articles before they converted, which are used by Catholics all the time, because they are orthodox and eloquent: Newman, Chesterton, Thomas Howard, and Malcolm Muggeridge come to mind immediately. Other lifelong Protestants, like C.S. Lewis, and (to some extent) John Wesley, are very close to Catholicism in spirit and doctrine. In a strict, non-ecumenical point of view, on the other hand, a John Henry Newman sermon from 1839, no matter how brilliant and orthodox, would be considered "unorthodox," as would a Lewis essay on miracles, etc. Very few Catholic apologists (and I know scores of them) would agree with that approach. Truth is truth, wherever it is found, and our Protestant and Orthodox brethren have a lot of it, despite their many errors.


We need to stand with fellow Christians wherever we find common ground, so that we can affect our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not be defeated by a "divide and conquer" strategy. Whether it's trinitarianism, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration of the Bible, or an opposition to homosexual acts, radical “unisex” feminism, pornography, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, or whatever, we have much in common, and we are called to rejoice in the truths that bind us.

Much truth can be found in, for instance, C.S. Lewis's writing (he remains my own favorite author), as in the writing of many Protestant (not to mention Orthodox) writers, clergymen, and apologists. Catholics are free to acknowledge, and rejoice in, truth. We are sharp enough (or should be) to discern the errors.

Should a Catholic refuse to read Cardinal Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine? After all, it was written in 1845 when the Venerable Cardinal was still an Anglican. Or should we look down our noses at the even earlier Parochial and Plain Sermons, from the 1830s - widely considered the most elegant sermons in the English language? Of course not. A hundred times no . . .

[present note: originally, I was making these responses due to the unecumenical sentiments of a well-known Catholic "traditionalist" who objected to my love of C.S. Lewis and other Protestant. He has now gone too far in the opposite direction to a sort of Catholic leftism, and chides me for being supposedly "unecumenical" because I do apologetics: the same old ridiculous false dichotomy that we often hear. Also part of this was a reply to a site which ranked Catholic websites for "orthodoxy" and which would lower one's rating due to links to Protestant materials. I wrote some letters to the latter webmaster and apparently convinced him, because my rating was restored to the highest level]

Most Catholics love and appreciate G. K. Chesterton. But should they eschew his classic work Orthodoxy, simply because it was written in 1908, some 14 years before Chesterton became a Catholic? No. Likewise, Malcolm Muggeridge was only a Catholic for the last eight years of his life (from 1982 to 1990)! Chesterton was only formally Catholic for the last fourteen years of his life (I’ve already been a member of the Catholic Church more than ten years myself!).

Muggeridge himself rejoiced in truth wherever he found it. In one of his last books, written as a Catholic, about his conversion, Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, he cites approvingly many non-Catholics (as he had always done in his writing), such as: William Blake (pp. 17, 45, 49, 69), Thomas Traherne (p. 20), John Milton (p. 35), John Donne (pp. 45, 145), Simone Weil (pp. 44, 51-52), George Herbert (pp. 74, 103-104), Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- one of his great heroes (pp. 75, 116-117), Nicholas Berdyaev (p. 88), Fyodor Dostoevsky (p. 98), Jonathan Swift (p. 145), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (p. 146), and Dr. Johnson (p. 148).

Concerning C.S. Lewis, what possible objection (apart from perhaps minor disagreements) would a Catholic have to works such as The Chronicles of Narnia or, say, The Problem of Pain, or Miracles, or The Screwtape Letters, or The Four Loves? Lewis had many Catholic friends in his inner circle - such as J.R.R. Tolkien (the author of Lord of the Rings). Many other Catholics are Lewis scholars and experts (Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, Walter Hooper).

Would any educated Catholic who knew their faith argue that Hilaire Belloc shouldn't have been best friends with G.K. Chesterton, or cite him as an influence, until the latter converted? Or that this friendship and admiration somehow proves his lack of orthodoxy? I trust that readers can see the sheer silliness of this "guilt-by-association" sort of "reasoning." It breaks down almost immediately upon examination.

It is true that C.S. Lewis rejected Catholicism, and even had (so it seems) a stubborn prejudice against it (one explanation advanced for that is his having been raised in Belfast – J.R.R. Tolkien has stated that Lewis actually admitted this prejudice to him in a private conversation). This doesn't mean, however, that he didn't accept many beliefs which we hold (indeed, this was in fact the case), or that his work is worthless. Lewis was highly influenced by Chesterton (he cited The Everlasting Man as perhaps the most influential book he ever read). Chesterton was arguably the preeminent Christian popular apologist in the first third of the century, right before Lewis hit the scene.

No properly-catechized Catholic denies that a non-Catholic will have error mixed in with his views. It is a matter of degree. Yet such a person might express himself on particular matters in an orthodox sense, and more eloquently than a Catholic. I think - again – of Newman's Anglican sermons in particular. John Wesley preached many sermons which would be of great benefit to Catholics, as he possessed almost identical beliefs with regard to things like sanctification, regenerative baptism, the perpetual virginity of Mary, Christology, etc.

Even anti-Catholic preachers like Charles Spurgeon or (today) John MacArthur, have many fine and beneficial insights to offer, for the discerning and careful Catholic reader or radio listener. Truth remains truth, even if it is surrounded by erroneous propositions and statements. We have reason to believe, for example, that the early Church was influenced by Jewish liturgics and sacred architecture. Does that mean that the early Church was therefore Jewish, or compromised, because it was influenced by a non-Christian religious group?

This applies to the New Testament also. It was clearly profoundly influenced by the Old Testament and "Jewishness" (just look at all the quotations), yet no one in their right mind claims that this is a compromise, or improper, because it is recognized that influences can be developed further, with some elements retained, and others rejected.

Likewise with C.S. Lewis's influence on myself. Could Lewis somehow cease to remain an influence on my thinking simply because I took a different ecclesiological path than he did? The entire argument is silly and insubstantial, and works only for someone who has presupposed an anti-ecumenical, quasi-Feeneyite mindset in the first place.

Ecumenism is a great emphasis in the Catholic Church today, especially with Pope John Paul II, and one stressed by Vatican II and the last several popes. What is ecumenism if not attempting to find common ground with our non-Catholic Christian brethren? Internet links are a very concrete way to do that, where there is commonality and agreement. My perspective is completely orthodox and proper within a Catholic framework.

There is far more good in conservative, traditional Protestant writings than bad. We are in the world; we ought to learn to interact with our theological opponents - not avoid them like the plague or pretend they are not there. We can't do an end run around the Church's desire for ecumenism and cooperation where possible. Error is all around us; we are told, that 70% of Catholics disbelieve in the Real Presence, and that 70-80% contracept. These are matters of infallibly defined dogmas and objective mortal sin. So the error is in our midst as well - though not on the level of official teaching, of course.

I have been accused, in particular, of “bashing” or “disliking” or even “hating” Calvinist, or Reformed Protestants. This occurs because I have written quite vigorously (as part of what I would describe as my “apologetic duty”) in response to virulently anti-Catholic factions within Calvinism. But this, too, is an inaccurate appraisal of my beliefs.

Actually, I have a rather high view of Calvinism and many Calvinists. I state this in several places on my website. I intensely dislike certain beliefs or strands of Calvinism (particularly supralapsarianism) - as I oppose all error -, but other aspects I highly admire: the scholarly approach, the more historically-oriented view, the retention of sacramentalism, the appreciation for Covenant theology, a superior ecclesiology to many evangelicals, a concern for self-consistency, a high view of the majesty and Providence of God, an exceptional and praiseworthy interest in theology and apologetics, the Lordship salvation view, emphasis on cultural and political aspects of Christianity and Jesus as Lord of all of life, etc., etc.

Francis Schaeffer was and is a huge influence on me, as were Charles Colson, J.I. Packer, G.C. Berkouwer and many other Calvinists. I often listen to R.C. Sproul on the radio and receive much benefit from him (I think he is a wonderful teacher). I have Internet acquaintances who attend John Piper's church. I visited a Calvinist pastor and his wife in another state in 1997. I have other Calvinist pastor friends. Many cordial debates with Calvinists are posted on my site. I could go on and on.

It is quite possible to seek to understand something better even if one largely disagrees with it (at least in the sense that it is not superior to Catholicism). Otherwise I couldn't have ever converted to Catholicism. I used to think it was much inferior to evangelicalism (though I never hated Catholicism either), but I actually took the time to learn more about it, and I was persuaded.

That is my attitude towards Protestantism in general. I continue to admire it, and believe that Catholics can learn much from it, for the simple reason that it possesses much Christian and biblical truth, and because individual Protestants (or even denominations) often excel (especially in practice) at particular aspects of the Christian life or theology (e.g., Bible study, prayer, outreach, teen ministry, fellowship) in a way that puts Catholics to shame.

I hasten to add that all of the foregoing would also apply in a general way to my view towards the Orthodox Church, in fact, even more so, as there is much more substantial agreement between Orthodoxy and Catholicism than between Protestantism and Catholicism. I presuppose this at all times, even while issuing strong critiques on individual issues on my website and in my conventional published writings.

The Christian apologist (of whatever stripe), by nature, writes about disagreements; he critiques, and defends and expounds upon what he sincerely and deeply believes are the “superior” views of his own party. But it is incorrect and improper to conclude from this obvious fact, that any given apologist totally lacks all humility, or “hates” or wishes to “bash” personally someone of a different persuasion, or an entire group.

There is a right way to disagree and a wrong way. We are to love at all times, but there are also occasions when we must disagree, in principle. The latter is not exclusive of the former, and indeed, it ought to always incorporate it, if we are to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of a disciple of Jesus Christ. We all fall frequently, of course, but the biblical guidelines for handling disagreements (doctrinal or otherwise) are clear and straightforward.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, who is Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.

(Ephesians 4:15-16 – RSV)

Addendum (8 January 2003)

Examples on my website of my respect for, and agreement with various aspects of Protestant apologetics and theology are endless, and found at every turn, from my General Apologetics Page, devoted mostly to Protestants, to hundreds of Protestant links throughout, to the numerous Protestant links about the cosmological and teleological arguments (e.g., William Lane Craig, whom I am quite fond of), to my C.S. Lewis page (the 2nd or 3rd largest on the Internet, and very highly-regarded, judging by letters received - the evangelical magazine Christianity Today regularly recommends it when they have an article about Lewis), to Wesley links, the Anglicanism page, the Romantic and Imaginative Theology Page, to my Ecumenism page, the Heresies and Occult Page, which includes many links to Protestant cult-fighters (a class I used to be part of myself in the early 80s), to pro-life links, lots of Protestant links on the Bible, articles on the Trinity, Protestant links against theological liberalism; many many positive letters received from Protestants, recorded on my site; two books of generic Christian apologetics (utilizing mostly Protestant references): Mere Christian Apologetics and Christian Worldview vs. Postmodernism. I even have links to Calvin's Institutes and Luther's works and Reformed, Lutheran, and other Protestant evangelical websites and blogs (see the sidebar on the right). I've spent literally many hundreds of hours on these parts of my website, and in promotion of ecumenism.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Anglican Anti-Traditional Principles of "Development" and the "Cult of Uncertainty" (vs. Dr. Edwin Tait)

By Dave Armstrong (11-14-05)

Former title: "Could the Church Catholic Ever Sanction Homosexual 'Relationships' as a Legitimate Development of Moral Theology?"

I was replying to one question on my blog when by sheer coincidence I stumbled into something else which perfectly illustrated the point I had just made. Jeff asked on my blog:

"Someone (I forget who) wrote: "May I toss a fantasy at you: If (God forbid) a future Pope were to teach that contraception is good, would you accuse that Pope of an abuse of power, and publicly reprove him?"

And you wrote:

"Yes, and beyond that, I would leave the Church, unless he was removed due to insanity."

Do you still stand behind that? I'd say, first, it IS impossible; but second, if it SOMEHOW DID happen then I must have misunderstood something about the doctrine. I mean, where else is there to go?

I replied:

Of course I do. I believe it is theoretically possible; but by faith I think it is impossible that the Holy Spirit would ever allow His Church to declare mortal sin to be fine and dandy.

I suppose I would then seek out a small Protestant denomination that preserved traditional Christian morality. That would be the only place to go on those grounds, since even the Orthodox allow divorce and increasingly tolerate or sanction contraception.

Gladly, I don't anticipate ever being in such a situation. Praise God for His Catholic Church, where apostolic Christianity is preserved to this day without compromise!


Lo and behold, immediately after I wrote this, I surfed over to my esteemed Anglican friend Edwin Tait's blog Ithilien, to see what was going on. And I found him making the following rather astounding remarks in his post of 11-13-05: "In defence of Rowan Williams" [the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican communion] :

. . . Just a few weeks ago, a poster on another blog denied that ++Williams was a Christian because of his speculation regarding the possible legitimacy of same sex relationships.

. . . Williams says (rightly) that neither the Church of England, nor the Anglican Communion, nor the Christian Church as a whole today, nor the historic tradition of the Church supports the validity of same-sex (erotic) relationships.

. . . Bishops do not have the authority to invent their own faith. Their responsibility is rather to lead God's people in discerning the mind of Christ on the basis of Scripture, interpreting Scripture through the lens of the Church's traditions but always remaining open to the possibility that Scripture may correct tradition.

This, it seems to me, is exactly the understanding of the Church that lies behind Williams' remarks at Cairo. . . . As a theologian, Williams has challenged Christians to think more carefully about many issues, including same-sex relationships. But as a bishop, he no longer has the freedom to voice his own views but rather those of the entire body of Anglican believers (with respectful attention to the broader community of believers throughout time and space) engaged in the common task of discerning the mind of Christ.


. . . I don't deny that it is possible for a moral issue to appear to the conscience with such clarity that one can no longer defer even to the consensus of the Church. . . . clearly Williams does not see the legitimacy of sexual relationships between members of the same sex as a matter of such complete moral clarity.

. . . there are many other issues on which the Church's position has developed or even changed significantly. In this process, the Church needs prophets who are willing to be condemned as heretics in order to lead us to a fuller understanding of the truth. But we also need bishops--that is to say, we need shepherds who keep us from following every tempting bypath suggested by the cultural norms of our particular place and time.

. . . If the Church as a whole does, some day, come to a new understanding of the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, the principled moderation of Williams will be one of the major factors in that change. He points the way toward a liberalism that does not simply put the stamp on the spirit of the age, and an orthodoxy that does not accept blindly the cultural assumptions of other ages. Somewhere in this radical balance, I believe, lies the true mind of Christ, and we the people of God must seek it together.


This demonstrates - possibly as clearly as anything could - why Edwin is an Anglican and I am a Catholic. From the Catholic perspective, such a radical change occurring and being sanctioned by the Church simply could not and will not happen. We believe in faith that it is impossible, because of the non-contradictory nature of God, the unchangeable moral law grounded in God's character and nature, the very ontology of sexuality and gender difference and function, and the protection of the Holy Spirit, sufficient to prevent the Church from declaring good that which has previously been regarded as a grave sin, over the entire course of the history of Christianity.

But Edwin not only denies that; he actually grants that such a thing is entirely possible (not merely the remotest hypothetical, as in my example above). For Edwin, this is the kind of "development" that he regards as legitimate. Thus, our clashing in recent posts about the nature of true, genuine developments and corruptions . . .

THIS is clearly an example of what the Catholic Church has long since condemned as "evolution of dogma": where something can evolve into something else entirely different: in fact, the very opposite and antithesis of what came before (Hegelian synthesis). And the Catholic Church condemned it during Cardinal Newman's lifetime, thus making a definite demarcation between this heretical "evolution of dogma" and Newman's development of doctrine, whereby no reversals take place, and all developments unfold the essential core or kernel of a belief which was there all along, from the time of the apostolic deposit, in fact.

But for the Catholic liberals in 1968, Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical from Pope Paul VI which reaffirmed the Church's prohibition of artificial contraception (already infallible in the ordinary magisterium as constant teaching), was a dead letter because it was supposedly outmoded and out of touch with the zeitgeist and fads and fashions of the world at the height of the frenzy of the "freedom" of the sexual revolution.

For them, the notion of contraception being for 1900 years a grave sin, and then evolving into a harmless, morally neutral piece of technology which enables a fuller human freedom and liberation of women from the shackles and slavery of imposed motherhood and from being (gasp!!!) ontologically (not just anatomically) different from men, was about as humdrum as changing the color of one's living room, or choosing a different cereal.

Likewise, for Edwin, many of today's Anglicans and those who think in such terms, it is entirely possible that the Church could one day overturn this overwhelming historical consensus against same-sex sexual relationships, and that this would be a development and new understanding that all "catholics" (in the sense of the little-c Protestant understanding) ought to yield to as a fruit of the Mind of the Church, fully in tune with the supposed Mind of God.

This can happen, in his opinion, because it has already happened with regard to other issues (he gives as one somewhat analogous example, women's ordination). The latter is still at present a minority view, but as it gains in force and approval, it, too, can become a new understanding or "development" of the Church to the point where the apostolic Tradition will be overturned and forgotten, for all practical purposes.

I could go on and on about this, but I trust that the reader can grasp the vast difference between the two viewpoints. Moral theology and the rock-solid record and beliefs of the Catholic Church in that respect were fundamental in my decision to convert. Recent trends and scandalous developments in the various non-Catholic denominations have only greatly confirmed my decision.

I will be reminded, no doubt, by someone (or at least some will inevitably think it), that the Catholic Church has had its own terrible sexual scandal. Yes it has, and it is unutterably tragic and alarming, but notice that we are not going around saying that homosexual activity between priests and little boys is merely an alternate sexual lifestyle. We have sinners in our midst like anyone else, but we do not change our doctrines to call evil good.

Episcopalianism in the United States, on the other hand, has recently prided itself for ordaining a practicing homosexual as a bishop (because now the bishop's sexual practices - formerly regarded as gravely disordered by all Christians, including Anglicans - is no issue at all). See the difference?

I didn't become a Catholic because of a silly utopian, Puritan-influenced notion that it was a sin-free paradise of human goodness in the vast majority of its membership, but rather, because the Catholic Church taught that which (through long analysis and reflection as an evangelical Protestant, and eventually, much study of the history of Christianity, I came to realize) has always been held by Christians throughout history, with regard to moral theology.

Anglicanism no longer does this. In fact, it often practices the very opposite of this steadfast adherence to traditional morality. Not even Orthodoxy has proven itself capable of entirely resisting the decadence of postmodernity, and has increasingly compromised itself with regard to contraception and (long since) the indissolubility of a valid sacramental marriage.

I want to go where apostolic Christian teaching is to be found, untainted, uncompromised, consistently developed while remaining essentially the same, not watered-down, not rationalized away, not explained as a supposed "development" when it is a corruption and reversal and overturning of what always was before. This is a Church worthy to defend! And as an apologist whose task is to defend His Church and the teachings it holds, needless to say it is a joy to be able to contend in favor of such a Church, which has resisted all the moral and philosophical nonsense of postmodernity, rampant, mindless secularism, and the sexual selfishness of our increasingly narcissistic and barren age.

Since it is equally obvious that man on his own could not resist all that on such a wide ecclesiological scale (since no Christian body but one has in fact resisted all of it), it is apparent that God must be specially protecting the Catholic Church, which to me is one of many strong evidences that this Church is precisely what it claims to be: the One True Church, established by our Lord Jesus Christ, historically continuous, led by popes, and protected by the Holy Spirit in order to be the unique Guardian of the fullness of apostolic Christianity.

Other Christians are imperfectly part of this Church by virtue of baptism and other graces and truths, but the fullness resides here, and I will spend the rest of my life proclaiming this and defending it, so that men and women can better know and serve Jesus Christ, overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil, and achieve a transformed life and eschatological salvation.


I have to disagree with your [another commenter's] equation of the blessing of (monogamous) same-sex relationships with the revocation of Nicea. And I have to disagree because I know people (some of them homosexuals themselves, most of them not) who clearly believe in Jesus as I do but who differ from me with regard to homosexuality. I cannot accept the view of many conservative Anglicans that those who embrace the validity same-sex unions have rejected Christianity at its core and adopted some form of Gnosticism. Some of them, no doubt, have done so. But many have not, and they are the ones I'm concerned with. They accept the basic truths of Christian orthodoxy (Trinity and Incarnation), and they accept the moral essentials of Christian sexual morality (i.e., the call for faithful, monogamous unions that show forth the love of God sacramentally). They believe that the blessing of same-sex unions is an expression of these basic truths. I disagree with them profoundly. But I cannot rule them out or dismiss them or say that I am totally closed to their point of view, as long as I discern that they hold with me to faith in Jesus Christ. I must be open to the possibility that they are right and I am wrong.

And yes, this is why I remain, with doubts and fears, an Anglican.

. . . Also bear in mind that I was bending over backwards to do justice to the liberal perspective and express as much openness as I could. I don't think it's likely that an orthodox case for same-sex (sexual) relationships will ever be made. Indeed, the implications of the Christian faith as I understand them would exclude such a thing. But yes, I do have to say that I could be wrong here, and that I'm unwilling to say that those who differ with me (while maintaining their faith in Jesus Christ as God Incarnate) have totally abandoned the Christian Faith.

[Note: I haven't made the latter claim - perhaps others in this thread have, or believe that -; I only argued that certain proposals are heretical and intrinsically inconsistent with Christianity]

. . . You can find ways to defend the infallibility of the Catholic Church, if you really need to. But it takes a lot of work, which raises the question of whether it is indeed necessary. I would not leave the Roman Communion if I were already in it. Indeed, I believe firmly (much like Dave, in fact) that the steadiness of the See of Peter in the midst of doctrinal and moral turbulence is a great gift of God to the Church. But perhaps the existence of Protestant churches who are more open to less traditional understandings is also a different kind of gift. I know this sounds mushy, but I keep finding myself pushed toward this conclusion by the reality I encounter in the world around me.

. . . I would humbly suggest that the position I'm defending does not make Scripture and Tradition captive to the zeitgeist, because (as the Archbishop said) any change in the Church's teaching must come on the basis of an overwhelming consensus. I think the position I'm defending allows the "zeitgeist" (less pejoratively described as the cultural attitudes of one particular era) a fitting role in the development of Christian doctrine, without giving it a free hand (as more liberal positions do). . . . Neither past nor present are necessarily inferior, and neither should be dismissed automatically.

I asked Edwin in the comments:

What are the doctrines and moral teachings that you cannot imagine ever being overturned? I am curious at what point you start to allow scenarios in which the Church could possibly "develop" in ways which reverse Tradition.

Is, e.g., fornication outside of marriage a possibility for something that will one day be considered upright and moral? How about polygamy (or polyandry)? Or euthanasia and infanticide?

As for theology, is process theology such a potential true development in the future? Or the denial of original sin? Or maybe reincarnation?

The best way to answer your questions with another question: Why is it important to make such a list?

1) In order to examine one's thinking, to be sure that it is morally consistent.

2) In order to avoid the common human tendency of the slippery slope.

3) In order to see whether one's thinking might be subject to a reductio ad absurdum.

4) In order to see if your thinking has an overall rationale which governs it and properly established premises.

So now I'll ask you a question, too: do you agree that such reasons are good enough to justify my question?

In response to your questions, I don't see any possibility that Christians could ever approve of any of the items on your first list. (I could see simple fornication perhaps being redefined as venial sin, but I don't see how it could possibly be seen as good and holy).

That's strange. St. Thomas Aquinas taught, I believe, that polygamy was not intrinsically evil. Indeed it could hardly be since kings and others in the Old Testament had many wives and concubines (without, apparently, an absolute prohibition from God or in the Mosaic Law). Yet you can't imagine the Church ever sanctioning this at all, whereas you can imagine it doing so for homosexual "marriage" (given the crystal-clear prohibition of sodomy in the OT, etc.)?

Cohabitation is quite popular these days. I can easily imagine much of Christendom caving on that, seeing that virtually all of it other than Catholics have already caved on contraception (another immoral sexual practice).

All of the mainline denominations have caved on abortion, too, yet you can't see any possibility that euthanasia and infanticide would be sanctioned (but you can conceive that homosexual practice might be one day)?

I could see this if one includes Catholics in the equation, because we will never condone any of these things. But of course you define the "Church" in the usual Anglican fashion. And you defend this Anglican ecclesiology over against Catholic ecclesiology. And this ecclesiology entails things like the ordination of a practicing homosexual as a bishop . . .

>In response to the second list, I'm less sure, because there are important questions of definition to ask. I'd put reincarnation in roughly the same category as same-sex unions, I suppose--I think it's unlikely that it will eventually be found to be compatible with Christian orthodoxy, but I wouldn't rule it out (for instance, some people have suggested that those who haven't heard the Gospel are reincarnated until they make a final decision one way or the other. I think this is unlikely, but not totally impossible).

You astonish me, Edwin. You actually think there is leeway enough in Christianity, so that you wouldn't "rule out" reincarnation as a possible development???!!! It looks like you are engaging in auto-demolition of your own viewpoint on development of doctrine, by envisioning moral and doctrinal absurdities such as these. You make my work in our ongoing debate on that topic very easy . . .

I'd actually consider reincarnation a lot more likely than same-sex unions, but basically in the same category--things that are incompatible with the implications of the Christian faith as I (in keeping with the consensus of the Church) understand it, but do not self-evidently and directly contradict the basic affirmations of the Faith.

I find this absolutely amazing (and quite surprising, coming from you). Now you entertain possibilities of things that are not only contrary to Catholic teaching and Tradition, but that of all traditional Christianity whatsoever (Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike).

Just to clarify for you and anyone else who may misunderstand me: I know that you don't hold these things yourself, but to me, even allowing any possibility that they could one day conceivably be considered "orthodox" is utterly untenable, because they cannot be squared with Christianity in any way, shape, or form.

Claiming that they can be (even of remote possibility), is, in my opinion, a very dangerous slippery slope and a sea change in outlook which might be quite harmful indeed in the long run to orthodoxy, if the principle is followed through to any greater extent than you have already allowed it to be.

I don't understand process theology well enough to answer there. It sounds heretical, but I'm unwilling to make a judgment . . .

I'll save you the trouble: it's absolutely heretical; again by the doctrinal standards of theology proper of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Yet you won't judge it. I truly see now why you have decided to remain Anglican.

A certain branch of Anglicanism loves such "open-mindedness" and "broad-mindedness." Where else can one remain essentially "traditional" in most respects, yet entertain [even if only in terms of abstract "theory" or future potentialities only] such heretical thoughts?

As for original sin, that can be defined in so many ways that the question is almost unanswerable. No, I see no possibility at all that we will ever abandon the concept of the Fall, because that's clearly in Scripture. On the other hand, I don't believe in original sin exactly as Augustine taught it anyway.

I'm happy that you "held the line" with regard to original sin.

I'm not trying to be evasive. I'm trying to be accurate. The broader issue is that I don't think drawing up such a list is very important (we're back to the broader issues of certainty about which I've written a lot already).

Well, you wouldn't, given your viewpoint itself. Obviously, such possible deviations from previous norm do not alarm you (or else you would deny them absolutely, as I do). I think it is supremely important, for the reasons given.

All major heresies begin with a deviation on one point and move on from there. By allowing this "loophole" you open yourself up to that sort of dangerous influence. You have opened a crack in the door of the Church Catholic and have allowed the stormy, destructive elements of "heretical weather" to enter in. The more you open it, the worse it'll be.

It's almost as if there is a "cult of uncertainty" today (I considered writing a paper on that very thing a few days ago). It is fashionable and tolerant (and all the other buzzwords) to be uncertain, so that one is not perceived as "triumphalistic" and closed-minded and (what was Tim Enloe's phrase the other day?), "rigidly orthodox" or "fundamentalist." Many folks seem to have a hard time with any claims of religious certainty.

I don't know for sure why that is (but I have many suspicions and theories about it). Why is it that religious truths are placed (more and more today) in a category of radical uncertainty? This is itself not a traditional Christian outlook. It is, at bottom (in my hopefully humble opinion) , a post-Enlightenment skeptical, hyper-rationalistic viewpoint.

And so those of this bent view folks who claim more certainty (people like me: the apologist-types, or more "doctrinaire" believers, of very firm faith) as somehow (to more or less degrees) psychologically troubled; faced with an unbalanced, abnormal need for certainty which cannot be attained in this world.

Forgive me for making yet another analogy, but this really reminds me of a famous atheist retort to all of Christianity: the "psychological crutch" and infantile need for a father figure and truth spoon-fed to one, in order to face the day and the world with an illusory framework of (supposedly) objective truth to fall back on.

That's what many atheists think about all or virtually all of us Christians, yet now I see this same kind of mentality applied by Christians who feel less certain about doctrine to those of us who claim relatively greater certainty in faith. Now fellow Christians are making analyses that only atheists would have made, for the most part, say, 100 years ago. I find that equal parts fascinating and tragic.

What matters for a Christian is believing in Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Son of God. Whatever turns out to be compatible with that is Christian orthodoxy. Whatever doesn't isn't.

Some things, alas, "turn out" to be intrinsically incompatible, so that it is not possible to entertain the slightest possibility that they might one day be brought into the fold of orthodoxy.

Now you sound like this very low church, "Jesus Freak" type of pastor I know. I asked him once if he had any creed in his Church that people would have to adhere to in order to be a member. He said, "as long as they believe in Jesus." I pressed him a bit along these same lines, but it was clear that he thinks as you do: he was only minimally concerned, at best, about heresy, even Christological heresy.

Your broad view would easily allow a Sabellian heretic to be "orthodox." This heresy, or "modal monarchianism," or "oneness theology," as it is also called, holds that all of God was in Jesus. He was the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It denies the Trinity, but not the Incarnation.

Nestorianism and Monophysitism and Monotheletism are all also examples of Christological heresy; in their cases trinitarian, and also fully adhering to the Incarnation. So now you believe that as long as one accepts the Incarnation, all else in heretical Christology (as historically defined) is now permissible as "orthodox"?

It isn't my responsibility (thank God) to draw up a list of what might or might not be compatible with faith in Christ. That's beyond the powers of any human being.

I see. So now the very notion of orthodoxy itself becomes impossible, since many "lists" and creeds and confessions have been drawn up by men throughout Church history. How could that be, since it was "beyond the powers of any human being"? Was that all mere arrogant human folly?

What matters is that, at each step along the way, we make sure that we are in fact following the mind of Christ and not, as Diane would say, the zeitgeist. And that's why the consensus of the Church (past and present) is so important.

Absolutely. But you make this mind of Christ and consensus so potentially variable that it could easily (in this scenario) come around in many particulars to the same doctrinal and moral nonsense espoused by many "atomistic individuals," not in touch at all with this consensus. You have adopted very dangerous principles.

And THAT is why I am pursuing this. I am trying to warn you of this danger, and others who read this. If that makes me an arrogant, "triumphalistic" cuss, so be it. I think you're dead wrong on this. You think I am wrong. That's what adults do in conversation, so no one need be alarmed on either side.