164. From the Mary of the Bible to the Mary of Manifold Devotions

This review of Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven, CT; London, UK: Yale University Press, 2016) pp. 289, was published in “Credo Magazine”, Volume 9, Issue 2 (June 10, 2019).

At the end of September 2018, in the midst of the Annus Horribilis of the Roman Catholic Church (with the explosion of sexual abuse cases and the growing spiral of inner conflicts within the curia), Pope Francis called his people to devote themselves to praying to Mary to ask for her protection.[1] He asked the faithful to conclude the Rosary with the ancient invocation Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy patronage”). The full Marian invocation is recited as follows:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer contains references to attributes and prerogatives that in the Bible are clearly and exclusively relegated to God, e.g. His protection, His acceptance of our petitions, His ability to deliver, and Him being both glorious and blessed. And yet, this Marian prayer ascribes all of these functions to Mary and her protective mantle. Where does this prayer come from? And why is it part of the liturgical and devotional life of the Roman Catholic Church now? 

The Growth of Mariology
A well-documented and scholarly answer comes from the book Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (Yale University Press) by Stephen J. Shoemaker. Shoemaker traces the complex historical process that saw the Mary of the Bible become the Mary of manifold devotions in the first five centuries of the Christian era. The book maps out the growth of Mariology well beyond the “laconic” (62) portrait of Mary that is presented in the New Testament. Even stretching the focus to the second century, Mary certainly becomes the “new Eve” for Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, thus seeing her role expanded to a useful corroboration of the Pauline parallel between Adam and Christ (the new Adam). However, there is no indication of any devotions attached to her. For these Fathers, “Mary seems to be a figure primarily of dogmatic rather than devotional concern” (47). Moreover, Shoemaker helpfully makes reference to a later Father like Tertullian who has a “lower esteem” for the mother of Jesus than other contemporary orthodox writers (65).

While “there is practically no evidence of any Christian devotion to Mary prior to 150 CE” (3), a first boost to the process came from the Protoevangelium of James, a late second century biography of Mary. Here she becomes “the epitome of sacred purity, as perfect holiness embodied in a human being” (60). Particular stress is put on her virginity that is “an emblem of her own sacred purity” (62) rather than a sign of the divine origin of the Son. Mary’s holiness becomes a dominating feature that attracts devotional attention on herself as an exceptional person. In a telling comment, Shoemaker argues that the Protoevangelium – therefore an apocryphal gospel – laid “crucial foundations for future devotions to the Virgin Mary” (53). For evangelicals wanting to ground spirituality on the canonical Scriptures, this in an important point to underline. Historically speaking, Marian devotions were fueled by writings that were never considered to be inspired, and yet have played a formidable role in generating the Marian cult. 

A Heterodox Backdrop
This is the background out of which the Sub tuum presidium prayer comes from. According to Shoemaker, this 3rd century Egyptian papyrus suggests, “Marian piety initially emerged within a more popular and less culturally elite context” (70). Moreover, the fact that the prayer does not mention the Father or the Son may indicate that it may have been linked with “heterodox groups within early Christianity” (72). The spurious lex orandi negatively influenced the subsequent development of the lex credendi. The fact that the highest Roman Catholic authority still uses this prayer shows how deep the impact has been.

The central chapters of the book are dedicated to a fascinating analysis of an important source such as The Book of Mary’s Repose, which opens the tradition of the Dormition narratives. Here, Mary is revered for “her knowledge of the cosmic mysteries and her influence with her son” (128) and capable of receiving intercessions, performing wonders, and making apparitions. The heterodox backdrop of the tradition depicts Jesus as the Great Cherub of Light, a typically gnostic title. The Six Books Dormition Apocryphon reinforce this insurgent tendency of making Mary the center of a proper cult.

Shoemaker also sheds light on the additions of roles given to Mary (e.g. the “ascetic model” strongly supported by Ambrose) and the liturgical evidence for the cult of the Virgin in terms of feast days, festivals, and hymnography. Here again, the lex orandi of ancient Christianity was “a bit ahead of its lex credendi” (194).

The lex credendi did arrive with the dogmatic pronouncement of Mary as the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus, a “major turning point” in the history of Marian piety (205). The final chapter contains a fascinating examination of the Mariological elements undergirding the historical context, the theological debates, and the ecclesiastical outcomes of the Council of Ephesus. The point convincingly made by Shoemaker is that Marian piety was already present and strong before the Council and was one of the principal reasons why Nestorius was rejected by the party lead by Cyril on the theological side and by Pulcheria on the devotional side. The series of sermons by Cyril that followed the conclusion of the Council “went well beyond mere Christological concerns in its exalted praises to Mary” (225). Nestorius’ Christology was certainly in need of further refinement, but he was at least right in foreseeing the explosion of devotion to the Virgin that would follow the proclamation of her as the Mother of God.

Mariology: An Evangelical Analysis
The historical and literary evidence persuasively presented by Shoemaker shows that Mariological devotions originated in heterodox (read: gnostic) milieux and were later theologized and integrated into the corpus of the Mariological doctrine of the Church (6). The book stops at a careful historical analysis, but the evangelical theologian wants to go further in saying something more that is backed up by historical evidence. Contrary to the idealized Roman Catholic view of the development of doctrine as an organic unfolding of the truth (from J.H. Newman onward), Mariological ideas and practices were added from the outside and allowed to penetrate the faith of the people. While Church Fathers like Irenaeus were painstakingly fighting against the heresies of Gnosticism in order to protect the integrity of the Christian faith, other sectors of the church were being infiltrated by gnostic deviations through Marian devotions. Gnostic influences that were thrown out of the door of theology re-entered through the window of devotions, without the church as a whole exercising enough biblical discernment to understand what was happening. Unfortunately, the lex orandi (in this case soaked in Gnosticism) eventually affected the lex credendi (which did not have enough biblical antibodies to reject them).

Back to Pope Francis. When he called his people to pray the Sub tuum praesidium Marian invocation, he referred to an ancient tradition that the Roman Catholic Church has assimilated and made its own. As has been the case from the late second century onward, “Marian devotion and doctrine continue to be driven largely by popular piety, to which the hierarchs and theologians largely respond” (239).


[1] Holy See Press Office Communiqué, 29.09.2018

163. Five Principles for Interpreting the Church Fathers

June 1st, 2019

This article is an excerpt from my Letture patristiche (II-III secolo), “Studi di teologia” N. 54 (2015), pp. 139-141.

Recent decades have seen Evangelical theology express a renewed interest in the Church Fathers. This is all well and good. Rooted in the Bible, Evangelicalism at its best has always thought of itself in continuity with the apostolic gospel as it was proclaimed and taught in the early church, the medieval period, the Protestant Reformation, and Evangelical revivals up to the present day. In this positive retrieval, there is also the danger of an idealization of the Fathers (as if they were always right and always working with pure motives) and a wholesale and unwarranted appreciation of “tradition” (as if it was a monolithic body that is organically related to Scripture). In order to both affirm the Evangelical interest in the Fathers and suggest some caveats in practising it, here are five principles that can be useful to bear in mind.

1)  In reading the Church Fathers, practice the Sola Scriptura principle (the Bible alone is the inspired written Word of God and the ultimate authority), the tota Scriptura principle (the whole Bible is inspired and needs to be received as a whole), and the Scriptura sui ipsius interpres principle (the Bible is its own interpreter). As Protestant theologians, always remember that Scripture is the norma normans non normata (i.e. the norm of norms which cannot be normed). The Fathers are important, but not decisive; the Fathers are useful, but not definitive; the Fathers can be enriching, but to the extent that they are faithful to Scripture. In the words of John Calvin, “we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ”.[1]

2) Cherish a theologically sober and realistic view of tradition. The Fathers are the cornerstone of church tradition. As the Protestant Reformation taught us, one can and must hold the Word of God over every theological elaboration of the past while, at the same time, treasuring the inheritance that generations of believers have consigned to subsequent ones. In J.I. Packer’s words, “Tradition, after all, is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it”.[2] The 17th century Huguenot pastor Jean Daillé (1594-1670) wrote in his work Du vrai emploi des Pères (On the Right Use of the Fathers, 1631): “Who does not know that a dwarf, mounting on the shoulders of a giant, sees higher and further away of the giant himself? We stand on the shoulders of this great and sublime Antiquity: we owe this position of advantage to it”.[3]

3) Deconstruct the rhetoric of the consensum patrum, the idea that says there is a unanimity of the Fathers and that the patristic body of writings is a homogeneous monolith. This reading of the Fathers is short-sighted and ideological. The Fathers must be evaluated one by one, work by work, section by section, thought by thought, always relating their specific writings to the whole of their work and the general context in which they wrote. It is not legitimate to assign to the Fathers a dogmatic consensus and a simplistic doctrinal continuity with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Take note of what the Puritan theologian John Owen (1611-1683) wrote:  “The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest to do so. No man of ingenuity, who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretence. For it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others, who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely, in the latter they really differ, and that frequently”.[4]

4) Exercise theological discernment in assessing the historical dynamics in which the Fathers wrote. In general, their Christological and Trinitarian reflection is reliable in the ante-Nicene, post-Nicene, and Chalcedonian phases, although it is subject to a progressive infiltration of the devotional practices that eventually undermined it. After the “Constantinian shift” at the beginning of the 4th century, which transformed the self-understanding of the church into that of a religious and hierarchical empire, the ecclesiological, sacramental, and Mariological reflection of many patristic writings is vitiated by “imperial”, sacramental, and matriarchal categories. These areas are abundantly polluted by pagan parameters that have taken over from biblical teaching. The study of the Fathers therefore urges us to have a theologically responsible view of the “development” and “progress” of dogma (i.e. doctrinal elaboration after the closing of the biblical canon), away from naively simplistic accounts of it.[5]

5) Develop an awareness of systemic issues with important repercussions on the contemporary Christian identity. The Fathers are a field of study much sought after by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant theologies. In studying them, an exegetical and historical expertise is required, but it is not sufficient. There must be a systematic and ecumenical awareness of the issues involved because the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches both claim the Fathers as “theirs”, just as the Reformers felt they had inherited from the Fathers the rediscovery of the biblical gospel. In dealing with present-day readings of the Fathers, we have to deal with the Catholic and Eastern rhetoric of the “undivided church of the first millennium”, as if the way forward towards unity is a “return to the Fathers”. Behind these widespread expressions, there are hidden assumptions that are in danger of abusing the Fathers. The Evangelical study of the Fathers cannot be theologically naive or superficial with respect to the “ecumenical” game that is played on this field. The way forward to unity is a return to the biblical gospel.

In conclusion, John Calvin’s wisdom well summarizes the above mentioned five principles:

“While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in somethings it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin, Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves”.[6]

We must be neither “patrophobic” (i.e. fearing the study of the Fathers) nor “patrolaters” (i.e. elevating them as absolutes). Evangelical theology needs to pursue a realistic reading of the Fathers under the supreme authority of Scripture and at the service of the cause of the gospel.


[1] John Calvin’s Letter to Sadoleto (1539). Notice the reversed Roman Catholic argument presented by John H. Newman (1801-1890): talking about the Fathers he argues that “They do not say, ‘This is true, because we see it in Scripture’—about which there might be differences of judgment—but, ‘this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times, without interruption, ever since the Apostles’”:Discussions and Arguments, II.1 (London: Longmans, 1891) p.46.

[2]J.I. Packer, Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society” 25 (1992) p. 414.

[3] Quoted by G. Peters, I Padri della Chiesa, vol. 1 (Roma: Borla, 20073) p. 20.

[4]John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein (1678) in Works, vol. 4, ch. 9.2, ed. W.H. Goold, 1850-1853 (reprint: Carlisle, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967) pp. 117-234.

[5]See R.A. Finlayson, The Story of Theology(Cambridge, UK: The Tyndale House, 1967): “By saying ‘development of doctrine’ we mean that the doctrine of the New Testament was gradually discovered and formulated as the human mind approached the material provided by divine revelation”. See also J. Orr, The Progress of Dogma (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).

[6] John Calvin “Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French”, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536).

162. Deciphering Vatican II: A New Book Especially Helpful for Evangelicals

May 1st, 2019

Reading Vatican II has often been a daunting experience for evangelicals. While navigating Vatican II, evangelicals are puzzled to find the restatement of traditional Roman Catholic teaching together with something that appears to contradict it. The chief example of the evangelical puzzlement is David Wells’ book Revolution in Rome (1972) where he attempts to make sense of the nuanced, juxtaposing, and cumulative way of the theologizing of Vatican II. After carefully reading its documents, Wells concludes that Vatican II on some strategic points (e.g. authority, ecumenism, religious freedom, the presence of the church in the world) seems to endorse “mutually incompatible theologies”, one conservative, the other progressive; one restating tradition, the other pushing beyond tradition. “How do we interpret this?” is the question that reflects the evangelical perplexity in coming to terms with the complexity of the Roman Catholic mindset as it is presented at Vatican II.

Scores of books have been written on Vatican II, the discussions behind its texts, the documents that were produced, and the controversial attempts to implement it. Its legacy is still a fiercely disputed matter in Catholic circles as well. This is to say that each new addition to the Vatican II library is a welcomed attempt at trying to navigate the deep waters of the Council. The recent book by Thomas G. Guarino, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II. Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018) is particularly helpful for evangelicals for at least two reasons: First, since 2009 the author has been co-chairing the US-based “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative and therefore is used to dialogue with evangelicals. Second, while never quoting David Wells, some of the evangelical perplexities contained in his book are discussed by Guarino with the intention of suggesting a Roman Catholic way to handle them.

Vatican II as “Profectus Fidei”?
The church has always been confronted with the issue of change in her understanding of the truth and her accounting of it in teaching, preaching, evangelizing, etc. This is why Guarino looks back to the 5th century at Vincent of Lérins’ distinction between change as profectus (i.e. the development of doctrine that preserves the core) and change as permutatio (i.e. a mutation that alters the core). Without denying the significant changes in language, style and tone that are evident at the Council, Guarino argues that “Vatican II was in the main a homogenous profectus of the earlier tradition” (21), i.e. an advancement and expansion of previous tradition that nonetheless maintained its fundamental landmarks.

The main thesis of the book is that “Vatican II is in clear congruence with the prior Catholic tradition – even while homogeneously developing it on certain points” (10). Each word here is important: “congruence” means compatibility with the past, but no mere repetition of it. “Development” means organic growth, even with points of relative distancing from previous formulations, while remaining faithful to the doctrinal whole. The elastic yet firm combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels is what characterizes Guarino’s appraisal of Vatican II. In borrowing Benedict XVI’s terms, instead of a “hermeneutic of rupture” one needs to come to terms with the meaning of Vatican II by using a “hermeneutic of reform” (21). The Council witnessed an “organic, homogeneous, architectonic growth” (5): a kind of change that occurred within the parameters of a coherent development that did not betray the well-established heritage of the church.

This reading of the Council is fascinating and in line with a typical Catholic et-et (both-and) hermeneutical approach. However, its overall plausibility is difficult to accept wholesale when, for example, one analyzes the evidence as far as the issue of religious freedom is concerned. After centuries of strong opposition to religious freedom and freedom of conscience by Roman Catholic magisterial authorities, after multiple papal encyclicals consistently condemning it (which Guarino fairly makes reference to on pp. 184-188), how is it possible to see in Vatican II’s approval of it an “organic” change that simply “developed” what had been previously taught? Why not simply say that Rome was wrong when it condemned religious freedom and then came to change its mind at Vatican II? Is it because the institutional church is believed to be indefectible (i.e. not erring nor making mistakes)? The fact that the Roman Catholic Church made a U-turn on religious freedom is a clear example that the willingness to preserve Rome’s continuity goes against the factual evidence. Guarino’s overall interpretation of Vatican II as simple “perfectus fidei” seems to squeeze the dynamics of the Roman Church into a one-fits-all type of approach, instead of accounting for its complexity. Is it not too simplistic and a way to protect the unsustainable claims of indefectibility within the Roman Church?

Three Key Words
Back to the central thesis of the book, there are three key words that one needs to become acquainted with. They are “development”, “ressourcement”, and “aggiornamento”. They form the vocabulary that is needed to try to make sense of Vatican II from within. Here is the way in which Guarino helps to clarify their meaning.

Development. Recalling J.H. Newman’s famous book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1894) Guarino acknowledges its profound influence on Vatican II. Development means “an unfolding of something that is already present implicitly or in germ” (57). According to Newman and Guarino, doctrine is inherently involved in an organic process of growth. The problem with this Roman Catholic view of development is always the same: what are the biblical boundaries of such a “development”? For example, can the Church develop its Mariology to the point of elevating two Marian dogmas (like the 1854 dogma on Mary’s immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption) without any biblical support? In other words, “development” without the biblical principle of Sola Scriptura (i.e. the Bible as the supreme authority for the church) safeguarding and guiding it can become a self-referential principle at the service of the institutional church. If the church can “develop” her own traditions even outside of the perimeter of the written Word of God, is it not a questionable development?

Ressourcement. The French word is another key term to enter the theological universe of Vatican II. It means “taking account of the entire theological tradition of the church” (59), be it the apostles, the fathers, the councils, the liturgy, and the witness of the Christian people. Vatican II is known for having paid more attention to the biblical sources of the faith as well as to patristic and liturgical sources. The “ressourcement” principle is important provided that the examination of the sources and their “weight” is put under the authority of the Word of God as the supreme source. Vatican II contained more biblical references than previous catholic documents, but it also stood in continuity with previous magisterial texts that had few Scriptural references and were primarily based on other sources (e.g. as it is the case with the Marian dogmas). Vatican II’s ressourcement added sources but did not subtract any even when Rome had developed its theology and practice outside of the Bible. It expanded the ability of the Roman Church to absorb new emphases without purifying it from spurious ones which had been previously embraced.

Aggiornamento. The final word that Guarino expounds comes from the Italian language and was used by Pope John XXIII. “Aggiornamento” means “bringing up to date” (66) the communication of the church by means of appropriating a different style and tone and making it more attuned with the modern mindset. “Aggiornamento” can give the impression that at Vatican II Rome really and substantially changed but it is closer to reality to say that the Roman Church went through a season of up-dating her language and attitude without relinquishing any of what was previously believed and pronounced. For example, the “anathemas” (i.e. curses) of the Council of Trent against the Protestants have been “updated” at Vatican II with a friendly and brotherly language but never renounced (and this means that they can be resuscitated any moment). The previous layer has been updated without being removed.

Guarino’s book does an admirable service to the evangelical reader in explaining the Vatican II vocabulary of “change”. Too often, evangelicals may have a superficial view of the Roman Catholic “change”. They can be impressed by the emphasis on Biblical passages that they find in post-Vatican II documents without properly understanding the fact that these biblical sources supplement rather than change the already established Roman Catholic sources which have shaped its teaching. It’s also possible that evangelicals might rightly appreciate the friendly tone of present-day Catholic theological language without necessarily knowing that “aggiornamento” adds a new style on top of what Rome has said and done in the past without cutting off its roots. In other words, the vocabulary of Vatican II should not be taken as implying that Rome is now open to a biblical reformation: it simply means that the Catholic Church, as Guarino argues, “was in continuity with the prior doctrinal landmarks” (read: the Council of Trent, the Marian dogmas, the dogma of papal infallibility) undoubtedly together with “true development” (199) that makes it more palatable to outsiders. The past is never renounced. It can be updated but remains untouched and continues to remain at the core of what the Roman Church is and believes.

A Paradigm Change
Beyond the already mentioned contributions of Guarino’s book to the understanding of Vatican II, this work has another strength, perhaps its most important one. In order to assess the theology of Vatican II, its “theological principles” need to be grappled with and the book helpfully summarizes them. Yes, the “style” of the Council is important (as suggested by J. O’Malley); yes, the keywords of the Council are foundational (“development”, “ressourcement”, “aggiornamento”); but what about its theological vision? From where did Vatican II derive its principles? And what were they?

Guarino’s contention is that “analogical and participatory thinking are crucial, though generally overlooked, themes at Vatican II” (25). In his view, analogical and participatory categories form the backbone of the Council. Analogical thinking means that similarities are stressed (rather than differences); everything is analogous to something else and therefore close, similar, next to it. Participatory category means that everything participates in one way or another to everything else; therefore, mutual indwelling and inter-relationships are underlined (rather than distance and separation). If pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism operated with a “univocal” approach (i.e. defining reality in one way only) followed by dialectical thinking (i.e. distancing itself from what was not aligned with its univocal definition), at Vatican II Rome learns to reframe its whole theological vision according to what is in common with everything else and what unites it with the rest of the world. “Dialectical difference was not the style of the Council – analogical similarity was” (73). Antinomies were replaced by analogies (75).

It is true that Vatican II does not use the traditional terms such as “primary and secondary analogates and intrinsic and extrinsic attribution” (27) but analogical and participatory thinking undergirds whatever Vatican II says. The Church of Rome is never called the “primary analogate” and the non-Catholic churches are never addressed as the “secondary analogates”; yet it is clear that Vatican II stresses what is in common between the two because they are analogous to each other. The same is true as far as participatory categories are concerned. When Vatican II speaks of the modern world in friendly terms, wanting to affirm and to embrace it, it does so assuming that “all human beings participate in the same created human nature, the ultimate ground of similarity among people” (26-27). The notion of a “diversified participation in a perfection” (80) undergirds modern Roman Catholic thought.

The is the theological background that allows Vatican II to talk about mutuality, friendship, partnership and cooperation with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, peoples of other religions, people of good will, the whole world. The Council promotes a “conciliatory approach – emphasizing unity with, rather than difference from, all others” (26). Again, in Guarino’s words, “the ‘others’ formally participate in the unique attributes of Catholicism and are therefore intensively related to it” (28). This is not the fruit of a generic kindness, but the result of a particular theological project based on analogical and participatory categories. This does not mean that the traditional claims of Rome being the only church, the perfect society, etc. are obliterated. They are no longer seen in exclusive and oppositional forms, but in analogous and participatory ways. It is no longer a matter of being “in” or “out”, inside or outside, but it is a matter of participating at various degrees to the same reality. “Without losing Catholic exceptionalism … the conciliar accent was placed on Catholicism’s similarity” (29) with other faiths. They are now considered as “partially similar to the Catholic faith and analogically related to it” (201). Elsewhere Guarino argues that “Catholicism did not change its self-understanding – but it did stress its close proximity to others” (131). Vatican II presents the view whereby Rome has the fullness of grace, but those who do not belong to it still participate in it at various levels of intensity. According to Guarino, all this happened and is happening “without betraying the material continuity of the faith” (44, i.e. the Roman Catholic faith). We are back to the Catholic dynamics of “development”, “ressourcement”, and “aggiornamento”, i.e. change without alteration, renewal without reformation, addition without purification.

Not Away From Thomism but Deeper into It
In pointing to the importance of this “paradigm change” (31) in the present-day Roman Catholic Church, Guarino stands on the shoulders of giants of 20th century Catholic theology such as Gérard Philips, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar and Joseph Ratzinger (30-31). His is not an isolated, fancy interpretation of Vatican II, but the mainstream reading of the theological principles at work in the Roman Catholic Church since the last Council.

Following Congar, Guarino further argues that the real theological mind behind Vatican II is not a modern theologian but Thomas Aquinas himself. It was Aquinas who “furnished the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the bases and structure (les assises et la structure) of their thought (25, 74, 200). Thomas’ doctrine of analogy and his reinterpretation of the neo-platonic doctrine of participation form the foundational axes of the theology of Vatican II. While the Council avoided “the language of scholasticism” it did make use of seminal “scholastic ideas” (74); again, “while Thomistic language was absent at Vatican II, Thomist ideas were in plain sight” (201). While Vatican II practiced an eclectic type of “ressourcement” it was Thomas Aquinas who was the main source behind it. A modernized form of Thomism, perhaps away from the rigidity of 19th century Neo-Thomism, but always within the same tradition expanded in the dialogue with the modern world, was and is the framework that provides “the bases and the structure” of Rome.

Three provisional implications
What are the implications of such “paradigm changes” that occurred at Vatican II for evangelicals? They are Massive! Here are three tentative implications.

1) For the time being, Rome will not have an “oppositional” posture in relating to the non-Catholics but will always try to find commonalities, to underline unity, to stress fellowship, and to embrace evangelicals as much as possible. Evangelicals need to be aware that if they want to be faithful to the gospel they need to be “counter-cultural” and talk about gospel distinctives, biblical separation, covenantal allegiance to the Triune God that rejects idols and idolatry. Biblical truth always needs to confront and to refute error even if it comes from a traditional institution like the Roman Catholic Church.

2) Even after Vatican II, Rome is not committed to the biblical gospel but is dedicated to the all-embracing gospel of “analogy” and “participation” that has translated into Rome’s ecumenism, mariology, ecclesiology, inter-religious dialogue, mission, etc. Pope Francis may not even use the language of “analogy” and “participation”, but his message of “unity” and “mercy” is steeped into it. Evangelicals need to become more acquainted with the ground motives of present-day Roman Catholicism if they want to understand where Rome stands. The words used may be the same (gospel, grace, faith, conversion, etc.), but their meaning is different because Rome uses them within the theological framework of Thomistic “analogy” and “participation”.

3) When Rome changes, it does so according to its own pattern of change. This change implies degrees of renewal that are always in the context of substantial continuity with its well-established self-understanding. Evangelicals need to learn to understand the Roman Catholic dynamics of change if they want to account for both continuity and discontinuity in present-day Rome. The Catholic Church may even talk about the need for a “reformation”, but it will always be below the standards of biblical reformation and always in a way that self-protects the institution.

For all these reasons, Guarino’s book on Vatican II is particularly helpful for evangelical readers.

161. Are there two Popes of the Roman Catholic Church?

April 19th, 2019

Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus) has spoken, and his voice is loud in the confusion that reigns in the Roman Catholic Church. His 5,000 word text, which is entitled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”, was released on April 11th, taking Vatican officials and the outside world by surprise. Although he writes that he had informed Pope Francis and the Secretary of the Vatican State beforehand, the procedure was totally unconventional, bypassing institutional channels and distributing the text through a minor German magazine (Klerusblatt). It soon appeared on websites that are often vocally critical of Pope Francis.

When Pope Francis was elected to office in March 2013, Benedict XVI, who had abruptly resigned from office, pledged to remain publicly silent for the rest of his life, dedicating his time to prayer and indicating a willingness not to interfere in the affairs of the Roman Church. With the publication of this long article, this silence is broken. The Pope Emeritus certainly prays, but he also speaks out and does so loudly. The topic of his article is hot in that it deals with the sexual abuses that are ruining the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and causing internal debates in this “annus horribilis” (terrible year).

“A Post-Retirement Encyclical”?
Commenting on the text, the New York Times has labeled it “a post-retirement encyclical”, as if the Pope Emeritus had resumed his ordinary teaching in this turbulent time. Perhaps this is an overstatement. Content-wise, the article is more of a historical, theological, and autobiographical reflection on the present-day crisis. It is written in the style of a personal testimony coming from a life-long prominent theologian, influential Cardinal, and lately the retired Pontiff of the Roman Church.

Ratzinger traces the present-day sexual abuse scandal back to the sexual revolution of the Sixties (particularly the year 1968), the “collapse” of Catholic doctrine and morality between the 1960s and 1980s, the downfall of the distinction between good and evil and between truth and lies, the proliferation of tolerated “homosexual clubs” in Catholic seminaries, and the imposition of a “so-called due process” that rendered untouchable those who justified these novelties, including pedophilia itself. In the final analysis, Ratzinger points to the ultimate reason for the crisis being a departure from God in society as a whole and in the Church as well. He then calls his Church to recover the mystery of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as the way to let God become central again.

In a sense there is nothing new under the sun in what Benedict writes now. These broad historical and theological assessments have already been presented in his 1985 Ratzinger Report, a book interview on the state of the world and the church published when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in his “Letter to the Catholics in Ireland”, written in 2010 when he was Pope, which dealt with the abuses there. This new article breaks no fresh ground regarding Ratzinger’s views on the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution on the world and how it has impacted the Roman Church at all levels.

The Unsettled Legacy of Vatican II
What is significant about the article is the difference in analysis and tone from what the reigning Pope has been saying about the abuses. Unlike Ratzinger, Francis has been quick to blame “clericalism” (i.e. the abuse of clerical power) as the root of the scandals. He has never touched on the relaxation of the Church’s moral standards on sexuality and the gradual acceptance of the presence of homosexuals amongst the clergy. For Francis, homosexuality seems to be a non-issue in the overall explanation of what has gone wrong, i.e. a topic that cannot be dealt with publicly and honestly. The other main difference is that, unlike Ratzinger, who severely criticizes the philosophical trajectory and moral results of Western relativism both within and outside of the Church, Francis speaks more of the political allures of careerism within the Church, which has resulted in unscrupulous people making prey of vulnerable subjects. The difference between the two is evident.

There is something deeper, though. The main thesis of the article is that the Sixties were the decade of the sexual revolution and the Roman Church was devastated by it. So far so good. But the Sixties were also the decade of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which updated Rome’s posture, gesture, and language to make it more friendly to the modern world. Indirectly, Ratzinger underlines the fact that in the Sixties (therefore after Vatican II), Roman Catholic moral theology ceased to argue from the objective basis of “natural law” and began to play with the idea that “morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action”, making therefore all judgements “relative”. The Pope Emeritus denounces a “new, modern Catholicity” that overturned the traditional moral fabric of Catholic theology and opened the door to the justification of homosexuality and other sexual promiscuities in seminaries and among the clergy. Without Ratzinger saying it explicitly, it was as if Vatican II lowered the bar and relaxed the standards of Roman Catholic theology and ethics to the point of eroding the moral consistency of the Church from within.

While Francis often uses Vatican II to bang conservatives on their heads, Ratzinger’s analysis of the effects of the Council is much more nuanced, if not critical. It is as if Francis stresses the genius of the “catholicity” of Vatican II (i.e. openness, renewal, inclusion, accommodation), whereas the old Ratzinger sees problematic outcomes that have plagued the Church. The tension between the “catholic” and the “roman” elements of the Roman Catholic Church is now embodied in the dialectic between the two Popes. Francis tends to the “catholic” Pope in line with the elasticity of Vatican II whereas Benedicit looks like more of the “roman” Pope calling his Church to its doctrinal identity shaped around its sacramental system. Beyond the different opinions on the current crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, the legacy of Vatican II is also a disputed matter between the two Popes!

One Pope, Two Popes?
There are other standing questions on the whole initiative by the Pope Emeritus. The paper wanted to be a contribution to the summit on the protection of minors that was held in the Vatican in February 2019, but instead it has been made public two months after. Why? Is it because Benedict was not happy with the rather poor and inconsequential results of the meeting? Why did he decide to break his vow of silent prayer now, and on this issue?

After six years of co-habitation between a reigning Pope and the Pope Emeritus (an unusual situation for the Roman Church!), what prompted the latter to speak out on this controversial issue? Why did he feel the need to regain a public voice, outside of institutional Vatican channels? Roman Catholic conservative circles – the same circles that have become very critical of Pope Francis – have always referred to Benedict XVI as the “real” and “true” Pope over and against the troublesome and confusing activity of today’s Pontiff. This article gives them evidence that their criticism has reached Ratzinger’s ears. The Pope Emeritus continues to pray, but is also willing to speak again. He is Emeritus, but he is still Pope.

The article may not be a “post-retirement encyclical”, but it is a stone thrown into Rome’s pond. Its waves will continue to question how is it possible for a pyramidical structure to have two Popes with very different opinions on what happened to a Church marred by horrific sexual scandals and on what needs to be done to recover from the damage caused by them.

160. Is the Nicene Faith the Basis for Ecumenism?

April 1st, 2019

This article is adapted from La fede nicena è la base teologica dell’ecumenismo?, “Studi di teologia” 61 (2019) pp. 65-69.

The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) is often studied by church historians who are interested in coming to terms with the affirmation of orthodox Christology founded on the consubstantiality between the Father and the Son (i.e. the Son having the same divine nature as the Father). Not just a historical event, Nicaea evokes a doctrinal symbol, hinged on the Trinitarian faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Its explicitly trinitarian framework has become the normative reference point for orthodox Christianity.

Nicene Christianity
The terms “Nicene faith” or “Nicene Christianity” are considered synonyms of Christianity. They are sufficiently defined in the essentials, but still free from the subsequent confessional incrustations that “divided” Christianity between the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century and the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in the 16th century.

Wanting to commend the plausibility of the Christian faith, in 1952 the British intellectual C.S. Lewis coined the expression “mere Christianity.” He did so precisely to indicate those essential contours of the Christian faith that are enucleated in the Nicene creed, which all Christians, whatever tradition they belong to (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc.), make their own. In contemporary ecumenical theology, the “Nicene faith”, often referred to as the “Great Tradition”, is considered the theological platform on which all traditional Christian families must recognize each other since they all stem from the historical tree of Nicene Christianity. In this perspective, Nicaea is a symbol of the undivided past that becomes the hope of a unity to be rediscovered[1].

The Appeal to Nicene Christianity in Evangelicalism
The strong appeal to the “Nicene faith” goes beyond ecumenical circles. Wanting to overcome the fundamentalist tendency that has downplayed the historical heritage of the faith, important sectors of the evangelical world have loudly called on evangelicalism to “reclaim” the apostolic testimony that finds its dogmatic symbol par excellence in the Nicene faith[2]. This pressing invitation has set in motion a certain dynamism in the study of the Church Fathers in the last few decades, even among evangelical scholars[3].  The idea has gained popularity amongst evangelicals that the Nicene faith (centered on the profession of the Trinity and on an orthodox Christology) is the common ground between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, while differences would lie in doctrines such as soteriology, ecclesiology, Mariology, etc[4]. The Nicene faith apparently shared by all is the common basis that would reflect “a deeper agreement” between all the expressions of Christianity, “despite profound disagreements” between them that have occurred later[5].  In the words of Craig Carter, “The Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy begins with the Old and New Testaments, crystalizes in the fourth-century trinitarian debates, and then continues through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the leading Protestant Reformers, post-Reformation scholasticism, and contemporary conservative Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant confessional theology”[6]. Here is the “Nicene” ecumenism of the great tradition: a transversal front that embraces the conservatives of all the families of Christendom and that incorporates all those who refer to Nicaea as their theological platform.

The question to ask is whether or not the Nicene faith can play the role that is assigned to it. One needs to verify the plausibility of the idea that contemporary ecumenism can find in Nicaea a meeting point that historically precedes the confessional controversies, theologically welcomes all the confessions developed after Nicaea, and provides an ecumenical common basis for rebuilding the lost unity.

So, is the Nicene faith (or can it be) the theological basis for contemporary ecumenism? The answer is negative for at least three reasons. Let’s look at them in order.

Three Objections to the Ecumenical Use of the Nicene Faith
First, the vocabulary of Nicaea to which all confessions refer is the same: God the Father, Jesus Christ, salvation, Holy Spirit, virgin Mary, church, a holy apostolic catholic church, baptism, remission of sins. But while the signifiers are the same, inasmuch as the same sounds combine to form the same words linked together in the same order, the same cannot be said of the theological meaning of the words used. When a Roman Catholic refers to the “virgin Mary”, to “salvation”, to “the church”, etc., does he mean the same thing as an evangelical, an orthodox, or a liberal Protestant would mean when using the same words? Of course not. Think of the word “salvation”: a Roman Catholic would understand it as a sacramental journey under the authority of the church and with the help of the intercessions of Mary and the saints; an evangelical understands salvation as being grounded solely on Jesus Christ and received by faith alone; a liberal would tend to understand it as the attempt to be a better person who lives in a better society. The word is the same but the meaning is substantially different. How can the reference to Nicaea bridge the gap? Think of the word “church”: the Roman Catholic has a view of the church as a hierarchical society whose absolute leader is the Pope, who is given the title of vicar of Christ; evangelicals understand the church largely as a fellowship of believers who bear witness to the gospel but who do not prolong the incarnation of Jesus Christ and therefore do not reclaim his prerogatives. The “Great Tradition” speaks of the “church”, but do we believe the same “church”? Examples could be easily multiplied.

There is an area of overlap and an area of differentiation that makes the use of the same terms equivocal. In fact, the words of the Nicene creed are marked by theologically different understandings. In the common recitation, the impression is that they all say the same thing; this is true on a phonetic level, but not at the semantic level. Calling the Nicene faith the common basis can be an emotional appeal, but it is not a responsible action because, while the impression is given that we say the same things, the reality is that we are saying different things.

Second, Nicaea is not a point of arrival, but a step in the history of the church. For example, Nicaea was followed by Ephesus (431 AD), which dogmatized the Marian title of “mother of God”; the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which defined justification as a synergistic process within a sacramental system; the Marian dogmas of the immaculate conception (1854) and bodily assumption (1950); the First Vatican Council (1870) with the dogma of papal infallibility; and by Vatican II (1962-1965) with its inclusive catholicity. The theology of the various traditions is today characterized by a doctrinal and spiritual stratification that is irreversible and no longer that of Nicaea. For example, Roman Catholicism has given dogmatic status to its Mariology and Papacy. These Marian and papal dogmas impinge on Christology, the doctrine of the Spirit, ecclesiology, and salvation. When Nicaea refers to Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the church, present-day Roman Catholicism also reads Mary into the background. When Nicaea refers to salvation and the forgiveness of sins, Roman Catholicism after Trent reads the sacraments and indulgences. It is not possible to put the clock back as if 1700 years of history had not happened. It is simplistic, as well as antihistoric, to think that the common profession of Nicaea can be extracted from the important additions, which have become the Roman Catholic interpretative keys of creedal Christianity. Nicaea can’t bring people together because Evangelicals and Catholics have developed different dogmas and practices in their histories in all key areas of the Christian faith.

Third and finally, the Nicene faith cannot be the basis of contemporary ecumenism because of the different role that the different Christian traditions ascribe to the profession of a creed. What does it mean to “profess” a creed like that of Nicaea? To learn it by heart and recite it? To believe in the affirmations it contains? To identify oneself in the worldview to which it gives voice? To perform a conventional act linked to a traditional religious practice? To mechanically repeat a “jingle” that evokes our childhood? The range of possibilities for the appropriation of Nicaea is wide. For example, how many liberal Christians (who would have no problem saying that Nicaea is important) believe that God is truly the Creator of the heavens and the earth? How convinced are they that Jesus was really born of the virgin Mary, or that He bodily rose from the dead? If we have even a little acquaintance with contemporary theology, we will realize how many interpretations there are of these and other cornerstones of the Christian faith. So what does it mean to profess the united faith in a united way if, despite reciting the same words, we believe substantially different doctrines?  In addition, for how many nominal Christians does the recitation of the creed make a difference in their life? What does it mean to say “I believe …” for many people who, despite having been baptized and occasionally attending religious services, are not regenerated, and therefore are not believers? Of course they can recite the Nicene creed, but this profession is very often a rhetorical exercise with almost no spiritual value. Reciting it together does not in and of itself bring unity.

Referring to Nicaea as the common basis of ecumenism is wishful thinking rather than theologically responsible hope. In light of these three reasons, among Christian confessions and traditions there is a deeper disagreement, despite some areas of apparent and formal agreement. The way of unity always passes by the biblical truth that the Council of Nicaea tried to honor, even in the complexities of history. In itself, Nicaea is necessary. But it is not sufficient to express the biblical unity for which the Lord Jesus prayed and gave His life in order to achieve.

 


[1] See for example C. Steitz (ed.), Nicene Christianity. The Future of a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).

[2] T. George (ed.), Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith. Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).

[3] For a survey see K. Stewart, Evangelicalism and Patristic Chrisitianity: 1517 to the present, “The Evangelical Quarterly” 80.4 (2008) pp. 307-321.

[4] This is the approach taken by the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative since 1994. A collection of all the ECT documents can be found in T. George – T.G. Guarino (edd.), Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015).

[5] As it is argued by K. Collins – J. Walls, Roman but not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (Grand Rapids: MI, Baker, 2017) p. 78.

[6] C.A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Pre-modern Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018) p. xi.