Pope Benedict, a “reappraiser”?

Centrists / Religion

People (chiefly Canon Kendall Harmon), attempting to make sense of the controversy in the Anglican Communion right now, have claimed it helpful to describe the two competing views of how the Church should use the Gospel to understand and speak to culture as being either “reasserting” or “reappraising”. (Reasserters seem to be understood as those arguing that the Gospel is a timeless truth that transcends any momentary culture and that the task of the Church is reassert the timeless truths to the society of their day. Reappraisers conversely seem to be those arguing that the teaching of the Gospel needs to be heard in conversation with the best of modern learning and that given new information and insight, the Gospel message might need to be reappraised should earlier cultures have misunderstood its meaning.) My own discomfort with the language of dichotomy has been what has urged me to try to find a third term, a via media that would be able to comprehend both poles and those who did not find that they fit into either category. Christopher Evans blogging now at “Thanksgiving in All Things” has done a very good job of trying to develop what that this sort of comprehension might best be described as.

I came across an essay by John Becker, a former deputy to General Convention, which was posted online today. One of the things that I learned as a physicist was, when encountering a series of assertions, to not try to pick each one apart, but rather to look to see if the underlying axioms were valid or not.

John has this early on in his essay:

The central heresy of the Episcopal Church has been the idea first put forward by Jack Spong, and apparently accepted by the Episcopal establishment, that all the traditional truths of the Christian faith are negotiable. There are no doctrines governing personal behavior, or articles of religion which are applicable at all times, in all eras, for all peoples.

The revisionists believe that because of Man’s supposed increase in knowledge and wisdom, we should adapt our faith to the times in which we live; and since the times in which we live are decadent times, we should accept and assist in the process of decadence. This is precisely what we are doing.

John is using the pejorative term “revisionist” here rather than the more intentionally anodyne term “reappraiser” but I think he means this to be a critique of reappraisers and their work as well. John’s point seems to be that any claim that modern people might have a better understanding of the Gospel or, because of additional texts or uncovered knowledge a more accurate reading of the biblical teaching is to put it bluntly, “horse-feathers”.

Later on today I came across the following quote by Pope Benedict XVI in his most recent publication Jesus of Nazareth:

[Unity] with the will of God the Father through communion with Jesus, whose “food” is to do the Fathers’ will (cf. Jn 4:34), now gives us a new perspective on the individual regulations of the Torah as well. The Torah did indeed have the task of of giving a concrete juridical and social order to this particular people, Israel. But while Israel is on one hand a definite nation, whose members are bound together by birth and the succession of generations, on the other hand it has been from the beginning and is by its very nature the bearer of a universal promise. In Jesus’ new family, which will later be “The Church,” these individual juridical and social regulations no longer apply universally in their literal historical form. This was precisely the issue at the beginning of the “Church of the Gentiles,” and it was the bone of contention between Paul and the so-called Judaizers. A literal application of Israel’s social order to the people of all nations would have been tantamount to a denial of the universality of growing community of God. Paul saw this with perfect clarity. The Torah of the Messiah could not be like that. Nor is it, as the Sermon on the Mount shows – and likewise the whole dialogue with Rabbi Neusner, a believing Jew and a truly attentive listener.

That said, what is happening here is an extremely important process whose full scope was not grasped until modern times, even though the moderns at first understood it in a one-sided and false way. Concrete juridical and social forms and political arrangements are no longer treated as a sacred law that is fixed ad litteram for all times and so for all peoples. (emphasis added) The decisive thing is the underlying communion of will with God given by Jesus. It frees men and nations to discover what aspects of political and social order accord with this communion of will and so to work out their own juridical arrangements. The absence of the whole social dimension in Jesus’ preaching, which Neusner discerningly critiques from a a Jewish perspective, includes, but also conceals, an epoch-making event in worked history that has not occurred as such in any other culture: The concrete political and social order is released from the directly sacred realm, from theocratic legislations, and is transferred to the freedom of man, whom Jesus has established in God’s will and taught thereby to see the right and the good.

(cf. Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday 2007 p. 117-118)

That reads like a reappraising argument to me.

We have new insights into the teachings of St. Paul and into the relationship between the Jews of Jesus’ day and the early Church. These new insights have helped us to see something we’ve not seen before. This is not to say that Pope Benedict would in any way claim that the Bible supports the full inclusion of Gay and Lebian Christians, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. My point here is that Pope Benedict is describing a situation in which new information has allowed the Church to revisit its sacred texts and reevaluate its understanding of them given these new insights. (This is exactly what’s going on in little and big ways with the new-perspective-on-Paul that I blogged about earlier today).

I want to argue that any attempt to claim that there is no place for the Church to revisit its sacred texts to gain new insights because of recent knowledge is wrong. This is but a simple example of how it fruitfully does happen. I do not believe that one can make a claim that reappraisal is warranted in all cases or even in most. But I think that once we admit the such reappraising is a logical possibility we have to agree that dismissing arguments out of hand because they are deemed to be “reappraising” is not terribly helpful to our common enterprise of following Jesus as his disciples.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. There is a very simple example available: Nostra Aetate (http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html), the RCC document written in 1965 that reversed centuries of anti-Semitism either actively taught or tacitly encouraged by the Church. It also made statements about the relationship of Christianity to other faiths that were clear departures from past harsh policies and statements.
    It did this on the basis of experience and nothing else. The document was written because of the Holocaust, and it has totally transformed the Church’s relationship with Jewish people. I very well remember the days of deep Jewish suspicion of the Church and of Christian anti-semitism; this has completely evaporated. (The Church used to pray, on Good Friday, for the “perfidious Jews,” a discussion that came up again prior to the recent “Motu Proprio.” The Orthodox Church still has anti-Semitic prayers in its own liturgy, something that a few brave priests are attempting to address at present. A change will occur there as well, as well it should.)
    So please: let’s not pretend anymore that the Church hasn’t changed its point of view and its approach to Scripture in the past 2,000 years.
    (As to the article you linked above: I’ve learned that when people resort to linking adult gay partnerships with pedophilia and bestiality, there’s really nothing we can do to convince them of anything. A lost cause from the start.)

  2. Another example, from James Alison (http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng15.html):
    “According to the official teaching body of the Catholic Church, Catholic readers of the Scripture have a positive duty to avoid certain sorts of what the authorities call “actualization” of the texts, by which they mean reading ancient texts as referring in a straightforward way to modern realities. I will read you what they say, and please remember that this is rather more than an opinion. This is the official teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, at the very least an authorized Catholic source of guidance for how to read the Scriptures, in their 1993 Document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”:
    “Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at
    actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical
    justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the
    Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or
    sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular
    attention is necessary… to avoid absolutely any
    actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which
    could provoke or reinforce unfavourable attitudes to the
    Jewish people”. (The Interpretation of the Bible in the
    Church, IV.3)
    Again: surely a reaction to previous readings of Scripture that contributed to the atmosphere that culminated in the Holocaust – and a decision based solely in experience.

  3. The problem with the model you commend is that it is still want to make ourselves the middle. I have heard repeatedly that centrist thinking is not political, and yet at every turn, it looks quite as political as the “two extremes”. Frankly, we cannot help but be political and none of our agendae are pure no matter how laudable. Recognizing that our want for unity may have mixed motives is a first step toward recognizing we are willing to sacrifice someone else to maintain a unity that we think coinheres in ourselves, rather than recognize we are all under judgment by the Community: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As it is, I put little stock in the church community in its heterosexual members at this time treating my kind with the same dignity by which you would like to be treated. I turn to the Community that turns it all upside down and decenters those who think they’re doing the including.
    The fourth model was an attempt to de-center all of us because Christ is the center and circumference and to recognize that there are middles in our different national churches that may be very little like one another and cannot be so easily coalesced into a singular Anglican center. One self-identified centrist a couple of weeks back went on in a comment about “taking what’s ours back” etc. There is as much want for control among centrists as anyone and just as much possibility of being quite political and failing to recognize this reality. I want us all off kilter, and that’s exactly what the Gospel, Jesus Christ, who is in the midst of and above all this, the one Objective by whom we are judged who comes to us in the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.

  4. What it seems many are failing to do is distinguish the eternal Gospel, Jesus Christ, from a conflation of all of Scripture to equally proclaiming that Word. And failing to recognize how reception (Fr. Haller’s term) or appropriation or the working out of Jesus Christ ina particular life is separate from the matter of our salvation which has already been accomplished once for all. The doctrine of Justification seems gravely in danger here, and shows up constantly in questions to gays about justifying ourselves even as we strive to live out the implications of Christ for our lives. I turn the question back on straights, justify the vicious violence we often experience at your hands or at the failure of your speaking up. See bls’ latest postings. You see, it isn’t simply that our attitudes, behaviors, etc. are under question at this time, so are all of ths heterosexual members of the church. Decentering is vital to recognize that God is doing his work among us rather than thinking we can save ourselves, unify ourselves, etc.

Comments are closed.