unearthing the hatchet

It would appear that I am out of step with contemporary scholarship. So much of what is being written today focuses on where Catholicism and Protestantism find agreement, such as this recent agreement reached by the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Methodist Council. Benedict even appraised it as “full visible unity.”

Meanwhile, I am digging into the Sixteenth Century disputory history between the English Catholic Richard Smyth, Thomas Cranmer and the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli during his time at Oxford. Smyth had a bone to pick with PMV — Cranmer removed him from his Oxford lectureship to make room for PMV to come to England and help further the Reformed cause in England. PMV was happy to oblige.

I am presently wading through three homilies on justification by Cranmer and will shortly write a comparison with the locus on justification by PMV. PMV really goes to town on Smyth in his justification locus, so more investigation is needed there as well.

For all that is being done today to bury the hatchets, I find that history is much more interesting when we unearth them. In the name of scholarship, of course.

A quite helpful book along these lines is Anthony N. S. Lane’s Justification by Faith in Roman Catholic – Protestant Dialogue (London: T&T Clark, 2002). Interesting biographies of Catholic spirituali prior to Trent include Elizabeth Gleason’s Gasparo Contarini: Venice, Rome, and Reform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) and Thomas Mayer’s Reginald Pole: Prince and Prophet (Cambridge University Press, 2000), although the latter concludes that the secrecy of Pole and the rest of the spirituali is because they were really just gay.
Any insights?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Eagle Eye says:

    Good word here. I think that it is important to consider various descriptions of justification from a chronological perspective as well. This presents an interesting dilemma for informed reformed theologians. On the one hand, we decry the confusion of justification with sancitifcation and the very idea of something like condign merit. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that forensic justification was in many regards a theological novum in the early sixteenth century (contra Buchanan and modern day followers like Gerstner – see “Aquinas was a Protestant,” Tabletalk, May, 1994). What we need, in my opinion, is a perspective on the doctrines pertaining to soteriology and ecclesiology that maintains a high value on both. And to do so impure churches and imperfect doctrinal formulations both need to be accomodated on this side of heaven. A key systematic question might be: what features of a doctrine of justification are essential to orthodoxy? And with regard to the historical problem, If there is a different standard for orthodoxy through history (e.g. Thomas Aquinas was an orthodox Christian but folks who believe what he did today are not), upon what scriptural basis do we use a different standard to measure dead Christians or theologians than we do to measure live ones? And somehow we need to think these things through without supposing that either doctrine is irrelevant or irreverent (I know folks who would say it was!) past a lowest common denominator. All of which suggests that the theologian, if he is worth a plug nickel must be exceedingly humble and careful. Since this is a ‘locus’ my two cents will conclude with a bit from another great sixteenth century loci communes – that of Luther’s successor Martin Chemnitz (On Justification):

    “We have made the point regarding the reading of the history of the church so that we might consider how the ancient writers [referring to the Fathers]… failed to deal with the doctrine of justification carefully and circumspectly. For often, when they were occupied with something else, they made many unfortunate statements that later on gave occassion for a gradual and serious departure from the purity of this article. There are extant a great many imprecise, inadequate, and injudicious statements regarding this article in all of the writers, so that it would be an easy matter to put together a long list. But it is not our purpose to be like Ham, who uncovered his father’s shame. Thus we shall not deal with the lapses of those by whose labors we have been aided and whose gray hairs we ought to honor, but we will refer to them only as warnings so that we may be cautioned by their examples to be more careful and dilgent in preserving the purity of this doctrine…”

    Here is modeled a “gracious” theology of grace that challenges me. I am ready and able to examine hatchets in this manner and to this end! But the ecclesiological question still remains…

  2. Paul says:

    Bob, thanks for the insightful comments. There does indeed seem to be a separate standard for levying judgment on the doctrinal perspectives of those who have come before us versus their posterity. But that is where it is easy for us to hide behind the label of “historian.” Is it possible for us to maintain one judgment as an historian and another as a theologian? Are we being hypocritical when we write from only one perspective to the neglect of the other?

    The question I am coming to is this: is it possible to be a gracious historian of people and their doctrine without occasionally “being like Ham” and uncovering our fathers’ shame?
    I would like to think that our Christian responsibility trumps our freedom as historians, thus necessitating a gracious and respectful treatment of those who came before us and with a recognition of the universal fault of inconsistency. But does this mean that I should be more given to researching those whose views were more in line with my own so that I do not face the tempation to be uncharitable?

    I love the way Chemnitz phrased that last bit. I must admit that I have a better understanding of justification because of my investigation into those whose errant theology would today be harshly condemned. May the Lord find that my treatment has been gracious.

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