Unjustified Justifications

On FB I am forever seeing disputes breaking out over various theological points, disputes between Catholics and Protestants of course, but also between Tridentine and Vatican II Catholics and between various schools of Protestant thought (Lutheran, Calvinist, Pre-millennialist).
I wonder how useful theological abstraction is to a Christian life. As an atheist who became Episcopalian and Lutheran and eventually accepted the Roman Church, I am dismayed by the disputes over words the various parties are constantly engaged in. A word like "justification", which seems rather literally simple in the NT becomes a shibboleth in the hands of all parties and is used as justification for helling and damning those they disagree with, generally on questions they do not understand, if only because they do not have a sound and thorough knowledge of Greek.
On the endless argument over Faith versus Works, the first thing I observed was the widespread confusion over the term works, which can mean works of charity, which we are called upon to perform, and the works dictated by the Old Law, which were the delight of the Pharisees--what to eat and when, etc. Lumping the two together, as is so often done, leads to confusion and animosity. John Henry Newman's last Anglican sermons includes one in which he goes point by point over passages showing the parallelism of phrasing and thought that makes faith and works almost identical. I used to use the example of a drowning man. You swim to rescue him and offer your hand, but he pushes you away. "Don't you trust me?" you ask, and he screams, "I trust you. I have faith," but he refuses to take your hand. Truly in that case, faith without works is dead.
I am just a little tired of Catholics and Protestants who seem so Hell-bent on sending each other to perdition. There is a decree of the early Church--I am too lazy to look it up and I am a thousand miles away from my library--in which it was decided that Arian heretics who died for refusing to deny Christ were Christian martyrs. So, an Arian who did not have his head straight on the Trinity could go to Heaven because he died for love of Christ?
The older I get the more I sympathize with generous Christians like the dissenter Richard Baxter and the Baptist John Bunyan, who refused to condemn sincere Christians who, as they believed, cleaved to false opinions. If it take intelligence and study to understand and accept a complex doctrine such as predestination or transubstantiation there is small hope for any of us, and none for the Greekless pontificators on the New Testament.
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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Frank DeRienzo says:

    In this past Sunday’s epistle lesson, the longest reading of the year, (2 Corinthians 11), the Apostle Paul offers some sarcastic advice on this topic.

  2. Michael Strenk says:

    From what I’ve read in the Church Fathers, if one has real faith one cannot but perform works and it is these works, rather than those performed, as with the Pharisees, out of obligation, that are righteous in the eyes of God, although the obligatory ones are not ignored either.

    I came away from reading Runciman with the impression that the Eastern Romans were not in the habit of executing heretical communities. Instead, they would exile them to the hinterlands of Anatolia or north of the Rhodope mountains while, when the crusaders came through, they habitually annihilated entire towns of these people because they were heretics. Many, of course, would die en route to exile like the decidedly not heretical St. John Chrysostom or the horribly mutilated non-heretic St. Maximus the Confessor, who died soon after arriving.

    St. Nikolai Velimirovich goes so far as to bless the memories of Lao-tse, Buddha and Zoroaster in one of his Prayers by the Lake and Velimirovich is a hard man. Reading his writings was a sure way to find out how short I am of the Kingdom.

  3. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you Michael for mentioning St Velimirovich. I am always amazed at the sufferings and almost always their devotion to the Mother of God, from those type of men.

  4. Roger McGrath says:

    I don’t know of the debates on Facebook but it’s been my impression that most Americans today not only don’t debate fine points of theology they don’t know the theology of their own Christian denominations let alone differences with other denominations. It must be about 30 years ago that I was talking to a mother of a daughter who played with my daughter. The mother had a Scandinavian surname and her maiden surname was also Scandinavian. I thought she must be Lutheran but soon learned she attended a Presbyterian church. She said when she moved to our area she and her husband went “church shopping” and found a particular Presbyterian church to their liking. It had child care, convenient parking, a young, articulate pastor, a youth group, and nice landscaping. I asked her several theological questions that seemed to me would have caused a problem for a Lutheran becoming a Presbyterian. She knew nothing of what I was talking about and I could see such questions meant nothing to her. Since then I’ve become aware that she and her husband are more typical than not. The arguments I heard in the 1950s are relics of the past and mean little or nothing to most today. Perhaps, it’s good we don’t have the deep divisions we once had in Christian denominations but I suspect that’s more a consequence of an appalling ignorance of one’s own religion and a lack of faith rather than a new era of magnanimous tolerance.

  5. Vince Cornell says:

    When I first began taking my Faith seriously as an adult, my first foray landed me square in the middle of the Catholic Lay Apologists battlegrounds. I would be lying if I said I did not learn much from that experience, but that is mostly due to me knowing so little to begin with. I can hear Dr. Fleming’s eyes rolling all the way from South Carolina at some of the Greek “translations” they offered in some of their books. It became obvious to me relatively quickly, amidst all the debating and counter-debating and counter-counter-debating sometimes with Protestant opponents and often times with each other, that this was fundamentally no different than listening to my ROTC college roommates argue about how much they could bench press. It was just another ego fight with proof texts of Scripture and snippets from writings of the Church Fathers used as cudgels and charity being delivered with as much force and attitude as was possible.

    It made me wonder if laymen have any right at all to make their living by publicly trading on the Christian Faith.

    That being said, I’m very grateful for the resources that have helped me find my way into the Latin Mass and continue to help me find places to attend the Latin Mass, especially now with the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. Growing up as a cradle Catholic, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a Latin Mass, and that liturgy did more for me in a year than 20 years of banal modern English liturgies.

    But we’re such a broken people today, how can anyone have anything but patience with those of good will? Let all Christians of good will make a pact that we’re going to try to survive with our respective faiths intact for the next 50 to 75 years or so, and after we’ve finally put the atheist, globalist, corporatist jackboots in their place we can go back to infighting.

  6. Frank DeRienzo says:

    Roger, That is my experience as well. Those seeking a third way between the 30 years war and religious indifferent-ism are rare in today’s anti-theological climate of relativism. It seems the logic of Westphalia eventually degraded through the enlightenment to the secularized searches for amiable social clubs that you describe in your “Presbyterian” example.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Roger is certainly correct about the sheep in the pews, and they seem to have been that way as long as I have been alive, but the people Vince C describes are the ones who go on websites to assert their half-digested prejudices. Their theories are like armbands and bumper stickers–a means of self-identification and self-glorification.

    Paul had their number, and so did Peter, who in I Peter gives the very sound advice advice: ” Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” By the way, I have seen discussion of this passage among the unlearned where they think conversation refers to talking with people, when in fact it means something like associations. (The English word has changed its meaning.) In the same epistle, Peter tells us that Christians who have Gentile spouses should act in such a way that those who have not read the Scriptures may still be saved, having learned from our example.

    There are only two types of Christian whose opinions–as opposed to the examples they set–are worth considering: clergymen and, for want of a better word, scholars, which includes students of philosophy.

    I used to know John Lofton, a fiery Republican journalist and a Rushdoonyite Calvinist. Whenever I talked with him on the phone–he often butted in on a conversation I’d be having with Sam Francis, when he worked at the Washington Times–he would say, “Why do you quote Aristotle more often than the Scriptures?” I would always answer, provocatively, “John, until you learn Greek, you can’t read the Scriptures but only what someone else thinks they mean.” I never made a dent on poor Lofton, who got himself banned from the Giant Foods chain for handing out leaflets and proselytizing on their premises. He was actually quite brilliant, entirely sincere, and yet nuts. That is where the odium theologicum leads.