Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Word "Catholic"

I'm going to start a new thread on biblical hermeneutics (principles of interpretation). I've got a lot of things on my mind in that area, and I hope that, in unburdening myself, I can also bring help and understanding to others.

Today's "Hermeneutics" seminar is on the word "catholic." This is an important word, not only to Roman Catholics, but to all creedal Christians, since we confess "one holy catholic and apostolic church" (Nicene Creed); though the word "catholic" is sometimes replaced with "Christian." In the same clause of the Apostles' Creed, where we confess "the holy Christian Church," the original word there is also "catholic." And in the Athanasian Creed, which many Lutherans confess aloud on Trinity Sunday, we repeatedly mention "the catholic faith," without bothering to bowdlerize it.

I think the Athanasian Creed's use of the word "catholic" is key to understanding what this word means. But before I spill the beans, I'm going to point out a common misunderstanding which has become intensely irritating to me, if not downright offensive. I do not speak of the misconception that only Papists have any business identifying themselves as "catholic" Christians. Nor am I going to entertain silly quibbles about whether it's "catholic" with a "small c" or "Catholic" with a "large C." I am speaking of a view expressed in an essay I recently tore apart, namely, that the word "catholic" in the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds could be replaced with "universal."

I encountered an even clearer example of this misconception some months ago, while talking over lunch with a fellow LCMS pastor. He kept praising Missouri's new Lutheran Service Book for its "catholicity." By this he apparently meant LSB's selection of hymns from a variety of ethnic and denominational backgrounds. So, in order to bring the meaning of "catholicity" into sharper focus, let's distinguish it from what it doesn't mean. "Catholicity" doesn't mean "cultural diversity" or "ecumenism." It isn't a synonym of "ecumenical" (as in "ecumenical creeds"); it does not mean "universal, worldwide, general," etc. So what does "catholic" mean? The Athanasian Creed holds an important clue.

The Athanasian Creed, or Quicunque vult ("Whoever would be saved..."), encompasses all that the other two ecumenical creeds teach and confess. It strengthens faith by banishing harmful misconceptions and by repeating, in capsule form, the teachings of God's powerful and living Word. It draws very clear, essential distinctions between the saving, Christian faith and dangerous, poisonous false doctrine. Because it firmly identifies these distinctions with the one, saving, "catholic faith," anyone who can subscribe to the Athanasian Creed has a right to regard himself as "catholic," or as a "Catholic," regardless of whether he submits to the Pope's authority. In fact, as it flirts with strange Marian dogmas, the "catholicity" of the Roman Church is increasingly in jeopardy. "Catholic" Christians are those who confess the Trinity and the divine-human Person of Christ.

You might note that I speak of "catholicity," not "Catholicism." Or don't. It's not such a brilliant distinction, in my opinion. The point the Quicunque vult hits on is this: "catholicity" or "catholicism" is our manner of believing, the matter that we believe. The word "catholic" describes the doctrine on our minds, hearts, and lips. Its nearest equivalent is not "ecumenical" but "orthodox." It is not a reference to how widespread this faith is geographically, historically, ethnically, or denominationally. It is the very rationale for our confession: this is the gospel that is in accord with the "whole counsel of God," that agrees with and submits to the totality of Scripture. Our teaching does not ransack Scripture for a few select quotes by which to rationalize itself; it checks itself against the whole of God's Word.

A theologian I regard very highly describes this as a "balanced view of Scripture," but I would go farther than that. For the "catholic religion" is not simply a matter of steering between Scylla on the one hand and Charybdis on the other, charting a middle course or making a sensible compromise between two fanatical extremes. The "catholic religion" is a commitment to the full, albeit incomprehensible, truth of God's Word. It embraces both/ands. It enunciates not/buts. It accepts as an axiom that "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). Rather than offering correction to the Bible, it takes correction from it. There can be no profitable study of Scripture without that "catholic religion," or what Luther called "the analogy of faith." Which is to say, we interpret every dogmatic assertion and textual gloss by analogy to the doctrine laid down throughout Scripture. We do not rest our case until every biblical witness has spoken.

My diatribe against the unnamed "Church of Christ" columnist is only "about infant Baptism" to the extent that it uses an editorial on infant Baptism as an example. My main purpose was to show how to apply the "analogy of faith" - and the result of using Scripture without it. I never used the phrase "analogy of faith" in that essay, but my one-sentence thesis could have been stated: "Anyone who quotes Scripture to argue against infant Baptism is operating without the analogy of faith." Similarly, the framers of the Quicunque vult could have summarized their position by saying: "The analogy of faith compels us to teach that God is Three in One and that Christ is God and Man in one Person. To teach or believe otherwise is perilous because 'the Scripture cannot be broken.'"

1 comment:

Marie N. said...

This promises to be a good series. I look forward to reading more.