Black Friday, Subjectivism, And Christian Liberty

black-fridayOn 24 November, the Roman Bishop, Francis, issued a document, Evangelium Gaudii which the Vatican classifies as an “Apostolic Exhortation.” It’s a book, a really long (217 pages) sermon. Rome is a complicated creature with seemingly endless categories of offices, canons, decrees, laws, and instructions. Darryl Hart has a helpful summary of the various types of communications issued by the Vatican. Suffice it to say that the papacy does not issue mere advice. In this case it appears that Francis took it upon himself to go beyond more that a synod on the “new evangelization” had concluded in 2012. He can do that. He’s the pope. This exhortation has provoked a range of reaction. Romanist Socio-economic conservatives (i.e., capitalists) have even remonstrated with the Pope over his economic theory. Naturally, we Protestants may be excused for being a little puzzled. After all, what is the point of naming the Bishop of Rome as the Vicar of Christ, if one may dissent. How exactly does one dissent from the “Head of the Church”? Such fissures between the ostensible head and his putative body—which, in biological terms, would seem to be fatal!—reveal the degree to which the Roman communion simply MSU (makes stuff up). When scholars find and note blatant contradictions between councils, she appeals to the theory of “development” that didn’t exist until after G. F. W. Hegel (1770–1831) made it possible for John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801–90) to make them go away. History and facts simply erased at will. The past becomes what Rome says it was, even if it wasn’t. Meanwhile, confessional Protestants may be excused for wondering exactly what is wrong with what the Westminster Divines confessed in 1648 when they said,

There is no other Head of the Church, but the Lord Jesus Christ; Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that Man of Sin, and Son of Perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church, against Christ, and all that is called God” (25.6).

The American Presbyterians revised this article by omitting the everything after the semicolon. Other Presbyterian communions, however, continue to confess the unrevised version of this article. Perhaps there are good reasons for the revision (e.g., not limiting the identification of the Antichrist to the papacy) and perhaps it is better to think that the claims made by the Roman bishop are just one example of the spirit of Antichrist. It is easy, however, to understand how the divines would have viewed the religious and civil pretensions of the papacy as the fulfillment of the biblical warnings.

Gaudium Evangelii is Latin for “The Joy of the Gospel.” It begins in a way that might warm the hearts of some evangelicals insofar as it begins with the language of personal “encounter” (§1) with Jesus. According to Papa Francesco (@Pontifex on Twitter!) the gospel means salvation ” from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness….” (§1). What is the enemy of these blessings? “[C]onsumerism” (§2). What is the remedy for the evils of consumerism? A “renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them….How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost!” (§3) He even holds out the potential of existence on a “higher plane” (§10). He credits the synod of Bishops with being “attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit…” (§14) The same sort of language is prominent in chapter 1 (beginning in §19) This language could have emerged just as easily from the evangelical (social) left as from anywhere else. The first several sections of Evangelium Gaudii are arguably more focused on the subjective, psycho-emotional affects of the gospel than the objective. This emphasis on the subjective, affective effects of the gospel have become more prominent since Vatican II. It has been prominent in the Evangelicals And Catholics Together documents. These appeals to the subjective proved to be quite persuasive to evangelicals, who had already become accustomed to thinking about the gospel as much in affective terms as about the objective accomplishment of redemptive and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinners received through faith alone (sola fide). Even so, the fundamental differences between Rome and confessional Protestants, remain.

EG is also an anti-capitalist screed. There are some caveats. We may be thankful that Francis recognizes some limits to the authority of the papacy. He writes, “[t] is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality…” (§51). Unfortunately, he does not recognize his limits well enough. Beginning in §53 he aims his papal sights at the evils of the free market. This passage is typical:

some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world (§54)

Over the years on the HB I’ve been critical of notion than an idea may be said to be Christian because it is held by Christians. The logic just doesn’t hold up.

  1. I am a Christian
  2. I think x
  3. Ergo x is Christian

One cannot transfer the authority implicit in the adjective Christian in the major premise to the idea proposed in the second premise. One may think any number of things that may or may not be consistent with or implied by Scripture.

Where on earth does Scripture authorize an ecclesiastical officer to make such pronouncements, in his office, and to bind other believers to agree with and submit to, economic theories and analyses? Where does Scripture teach an economic theory either explicitly or implicitly? To be sure, I think there is at least some implied assumption of the existence of private property. Our Lord seems to imply in Mark 12 that the κυριος  (Lord; ESV has “owner”) of the vineyard (v. 9) has a right to do what he will with his property. Is it the intent of the parable to teach economics? No, but we should observe assumptions that are taken for granted. The same is true in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 19:15. The owner of the vineyard can pay his workers what he will! In these places Jesus sounds a lot more like Hayek than he does Lenin.

Prior to the formation of the papacy as we know it (from the 7th century AD), where do we see church officers speaking to economics this way? One does not find the Apostolic Fathers or the second-century apologists doing so. This is not ancient Christianity.

The readers of the HB don’t need me to criticize the economic theory of the Bishop of Rome. That is being done well enough from lay Romanists and others. Here I sit in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. No nation has ever seen wealth achieved so widely or had such economic and social mobility in the history of the world and it happened through private property, freedom (defined as the relative absence of government restraint), free markets, and yes, capitalism.

EG is a good reminder to Protestants to remember the limits of ecclesiastical authority and competence. The Bishop of Rome obviously isn’t an economist and more importantly he doesn’t have the authority he arrogates to himself to pontificate (pun intended) about economics. Yes, there is a dark side to capitalism but there’s a darker side to binding the consciences of Christians on matters to which neither the Scriptures nor creeds speak unambiguously.

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  1. I always get strange looks when asked about any exceptions I held to for the Westminster Standards. I always say: “The only exception is I treat that ‘that’ as an ‘an’ in 25.6.” I could probably phrase it differently, but where would be the fun in that.

    Of note… PCA elders tend to look at me more strangely than OPC elders do. However, they all agree that I am Strange. 😉

    • @John Bugay, My only issue is that the statement, as I read it, implies a singular anti-christ, either historically or temporally and I see there being multiple at any given time.

      As with most things where I once disagreed with the giants upon whose shoulders I view from, I would not be surprised to find I am simply misreading things however.

    • @John That presumes a structure I do not see present. I do see the Papacy as a substantial and influential anti-christ. I really am unwilling to say it is numero uno though.

      1 John 2:18 says there are many then and I understand, to come.
      1 John 2:22 defines a broad swath of antichrists
      1 John 4:3 even more
      2 John 1:7 seems to define the definitive and while I see many issues in Rome, I have yet to see the Papacy actually declare that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh

      Resultantly: I am bound to give the Papacy an ‘an antichrist’ but not a ‘the Antichrist’ or ‘that antichrist’ [capitalization intentional]

      I am certainly not going to hold it against someone to take the definitive view though as opposed to simply a declarative. [that likely needs better phrasing].

      Normally, even strict subscriptionists remind me that the section in question is supernumerary anyway.

      • Hi R.K., you are right, but I was just joking about the “hierarchy” — using Rome’s own paradigm (taken from the neoplatonic thought that helped to ruin “Roman” “Catholicism”). Although as the RCC moves in the direction that this pope is taking it, there certainly is some possibility that they will be denying Christ in the flesh before it’s over with.

        • @John Bugay
          I hope you are wrong about the near point of Rome denying the incarnation. Much of the American christian mindset these days tends to force a Liberal vs Conservative set of lenses on things with broad swipes of German Higher Criticism vs Fundamentalism. The Papacy has a different lens and colour pallet altogether which seems to include medievalism and Jesuit humanism. Lately I keep expecting A or B and am presented with ká or eñe.

          With regards to the humour, no problem. I apologize my humour metre has been on the blink for years now and finally fell off the cliff this summer. I should have picked up on it.

  2. R.K., I would like for your hope to be a valid one, but I am beyond any notion that Rome will ever “do the right thing” again. If they deny the Incarnation, it will be in the same fashion that “no salvation outside the church” was turned to mean precisely its opposite while retaining the exact same meaning it has always had.

    To say this is not mere “anti-Catholicism” on my part. This phenomenon was described by Ratzinger in his recently re-worked 1966 work “Theological Highlights of Vatican II”. In it, he wrote that the council sought to create such a situation in the text that “for every statement advanced in one direction the text offers one supporting the other side, and this restores the balance, leaving interpretations open in both directions.”

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