July 2, 2010

Comprehension Requires Contention

Saint Paul observed, in an almost Hegelian way, that controversy and party-spirit, however deplorable in themselves, were almost necessary to the discernment of truth (1 Cor 11:19) There is nothing new in seeking, or at least pining after, an end to all controversy. I would suggest that the current press for an Anglican Covenant stems in part from this desire.

That this should happen within Anglicanism is natural, but to be regarded with some suspicion, as a desire for an end to contentions may merely conceal a desire for the peace of the world rather than the peace of God, which is not achieved by compromise but comprehension. I was perusing the pages of the work of the eminent Mr. Trollope the other day, and came upon a relevant passage. Here the Anglo-Catholic Mr. Arabin discourses with the Widow Bold on the subject of contention in the church, chiefly the Church of England, and dissuades from the easy solution of a governing head to put an end to controversy.

“Do not such contentions bring scandal on the church?”

“More scandal would fall on the church if there were no such contentions. We have but one way to avoid them—by that of acknowledging a common head of our church, whose word on all points of doctrine shall be authoritative. Such a termination of our difficulties is alluring enough. It has charms which are irresistible to many, and all but irresistible, I own, to me.”

“You speak now of the Church of Rome?” said Eleanor.

“No,” said he, “not necessarily of the Church of Rome; but of a church with a head. Had it pleased God to vouchsafe to us such a church our path would have been easy. But easy paths have not been thought good for us.” He paused and stood silent for awhile, thinking of the time when he had so nearly sacrificed all he had, his powers of mind, his free agency, the fresh running waters of his mind’s fountain, his very inner self, for an easy path in which no fighting would be needed; and then he continued: “What you say is partly true: our contentions do bring on us some scandal. The outer world, though it constantly reviles us for our human infirmities and throws in our teeth the fact that being clergymen we are still no more than men, demands of us that we should do our work with godlike perfection. There is nothing god-like about us: we differ from each other with the acerbity common to man; we triumph over each other with human frailty; we allow differences on subjects of divine origin to produce among us antipathies and enmities which are anything but divine. This is all true. But what would you have in place of it? There is no infallible head for a church on earth. This dream of believing man has been tried, and we see in Italy and in Spain what has come of it. Grant that there are and have been no bickerings within the pale of the Pope’s Church. Such an assumption would be utterly untrue, but let us grant it, and then let us say which church has incurred the heavier scandals.”

Barchester Towers, Chapter 21

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


George Clifford said...

Good point: progress toward the truth, which humans are generally unable to know fully, is always iterative and godly contention can aid the discernment process. The important limitation on that process, however, is that the contention proceed in a Christlike manner.

Paul said...

I have seen my share of loud, contentious debates at scientific conferences. The animosity isn't pleasant, but ultimately the disagreement moves the field forward. The worst mistake would be to end the discussion prematurely.

R said...

Is there something to be said for a Christology in which Christ embodies our contentions with one another and with God and therefore comprehends all in his redeeming act of death and resurrection?

June Butler said...

What a wonderfully apt quote for the churches today. Astonishingly apt, really. Trollope, the Timeless.

4 May 1535+ said...

If memory serves, The Rev. Dr. Rowan A. Greer, III, assigned this as the final paper question in his class on Anglicanism at Yale/Berkeley in ages past. A wise man, he.

Anonymous said...

I always did LOVE Trollope! Such a wonderful (and grossly underrated) writer!

rick allen said...

On whether the Covenant proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury should be adopted, I of course have no opinion.

And though I love Trollope dearly, the idea that there is, or might not be, any "bickering" in the Catholic Church is surely wishful thinking--there is demonstrably as much there (here) as anywhere.

What the Catholic Church has, of course, is a means of eventually resolving contentions, once and for all. That doesn't stop disputes and it doesn't stop schisms. But it does present the assurance that disputes can and will be settled, at least as quickly as the mind of man can generate new ones. And to the extent that the Anglicans accept as settled the decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils, even there there is no longer any real concern that there will be new outbreaks of Arianism, Nestorianism, iconoclasm, etc.

(And if the absence of scandal is our great criterion, I suppose we must all become Unitarians.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the comments.

George, charity is crucial in all our contentions. When they become bitter rather than strong they lose the savor of Christ.

Paul, clearly the churches are not the only place where debate rages! And sadly, not always free of animosity.

R., I do think Christ embodies our contentions -- I'll be preaching in a few weeks on Paul's comment about bearing the marks of Chris, and him crucified.

G.M., apt indeed!

Carthusian, what a wonderful exam question to set!

Bookguy, he is delightful, insightful and amusing. Just prior to the section I quoted there is a passage that could serve as a commentary on blogging!

Rick, you appear to misunderstand Trollope. Arabin does not in fact deny that bickering exists in Rome, he merely posits an "even if" situation as a rhetorical device. The point is not about the avoidance of contention, but its proper use. One of those uses is in fact upweeding those periodic outbreaks of the heresies, which blossom wherever the church has planted seed. Contention in Anglicanism serves the same function as Curialism for Rome, but with more flexibility and participation by all concerned, and greater hope for self-correction.

IT said...

Scientists and by extension academics argue because argument (fierce and vicious at times) is the standard currency of the academy. And it is not always in service of the high-minded ideals or moving the field forward. In fact at times it does the field disservice by devolving into bullying that pushes down novel ideas until "the right people" express them.

In this I suspect professors show their common roots with our clerical brethren.

rick allen said...

Tobias, please forgive the long quotation, from the last chapter of Newman's Apologia. It's offered, not as an argument for the superiority of one or the other system, but simply as an articulation of how the existence of even an infallible authority serves as a spur to a healthy contention, not a damper:

"The energy of the human intellect "does from opposition grow;" it thrives and is joyous, with a tough elastic strength, under the terrible blows of the divinely-fashioned weapon, and is never so much itself as when it has lately been overthrown. It is the custom with Protestant writers to consider that, whereas there are two great principles in action in the history of religion, Authority and Private Judgment, they have all the Private Judgment to themselves, and we have the full inheritance and the superincumbent oppression of Authority. But this is not so; it is the vast Catholic body itself, and it only, which affords an arena for both combatants in that awful, never-dying duel. It is necessary for the very life of religion, viewed in its large operations and its history, that the warfare should be incessantly carried on. Every exercise of Infallibility is brought out into act by an intense and varied operation of the Reason, both as its ally and as its opponent, and provokes again, when it has done its work, a re-action of Reason against it; and, as in a civil polity the State exists and endures by means of the rivalry and collision, the encroachments and defeats of its constituent parts, so in like manner Catholic Christendom is no simple exhibition of religious absolutism, but presents a continuous picture of Authority and Private Judgment alternately advancing and retreating as the ebb and flow of the tide;—it is a vast assemblage of human beings with wilful intellects and wild passions, brought together into one by the beauty and the Majesty of a Superhuman Power....

"St. Paul says in one place that his Apostolical power is given him to edification, and not to destruction. There can be no better account of the Infallibility of the Church. It is a supply for a need, and it does not go beyond that need. Its object is, and its effect also, not to enfeeble the freedom or vigour of human thought in religious speculation, but to resist and control its extravagance. What have been its great works? All of them in the distinct province of theology:—to put down Arianism, Eutychianism, Pelagianism, Manich√¶ism, Lutheranism, Jansenism. Such is the broad result of its action in the past;—and now as to the securities which are given us that so it ever will act in time to come."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, Trollope was familiar with Newman, of course, and refers to Mr. Arabin as one who had sat at his feet in Oxford. I am also familiar with his work.

As Trollope contends, an "infallible head" does not actually put an end to contention, except in its final exercise of authority, the ultimate censure. This has been displayed of late in the current official position on the ordination of women: "no more discussion, the matter is settled." Thus is opposition "put down" and contention controlled -- for a time.

Newman's petitio principii, of course, is hardly persuasive to those who see the errors of the supposedly "infallible" made manifest. Those who cannot or will not see the errors, indeed the heresies, which Rome has embraced, will continue to be awed by what they perceive to be "the Majesty of a Superhuman Power."

rick allen said...

Tobias, I am not sure why my comment from yesterday only showed up after I tried it again. I did not mean to emulate the Kierkegaardian professor who thought his point was made stronger by pounding the table and saying, "I repeat it." Feel free to delete the repetition, and this note, as you wish.

JCF said...

What the Catholic Church has, of course, is a means of eventually resolving contentions, once and for all.

ROFL, tell us another one, rick!

No, what the Vatican had in the Bad Old Days (which one HOPES are gone for good?) was a way of silencing, "once and for all", certain of the contenders (the silencing flame), not the contentions themselves (though via book-burnings that, too, was attempted).

[Needless to say, Prots and Anglicans played the "silence the contenders" game as well. Lord have mercy.]

No, contentions will ever abide in The Church (however one defines "The Church") "while the Lord tarry..."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, there appears to have been a general glitch in the Blogger system yesterday that delayed all comment, moderated or not, from appearing for several hours.

JCF, you have well articulated some of the difficulties inherent in reaching any decision: as much as folks like Newman might deplore "private judgment" and characterize it as "protestant" -- as Anglicans long recognized (39 Articles, Hooker, etc.) even joint decisions are really the collective judgments of individuals -- private judgment writ large, and just as prone to error!

rick allen said...

JCF, given what I understand is your firm adherence to the creed of Nicea and Constantinople, I don't see why the assertion that the Church has the authority to finally resolve a dispute leaves you rolling on the floor laughing.

Why did the Church then have the authority to settle a matter such as the Arian heresy decisively, but now cannot do so with contemporary disputes?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Rick, I will give my answer to your question, though JCF is free to do so as well.

It has nothing to do with authority, but with consensus. The Arians went on believing what they had believed before Nicea -- they just were "officially" no longer part of the body that defined what it meant to be a "catholic." This is not unlike the definition of the "church" in Roman thinking, as "subsisting" in the organization led by the papacy.

For myself, I accept the creed not because it was issued by authority, but because I find it reasonable and consistent, and a sufficient statement of things I believe to be true.

This perhaps represents the difference in approach between our two communions. For Rome things are believed to be true because they are taught, for Anglicans things are taught because they are believed to be true. The former relies on a magisterium, the latter on the perceptions and reasoning of the faithful. "Final decisions" are reached not by imposition of authority but by an emerging consensus.

Let me add that I do not think these are two hermetically isolated modes of operation. I know from the record that Rome works as much by consensus as any other human assembly -- it just has an incorporated mechanism through which that consensus is officially articulated -- and which often lags behind the faithful by several generations, if it ever catches up.

rick allen said...

Tobias, I think I would qualify your observations with two points.

I think there is consensus that the resolution of conflict in the Church is the work of the Holy Spirit. Power to decide does not follow from a pointy hat or a transient majority. If the bishops have authority, it is by virtue of their guidance by the Holy Spirit as the successors of the apostles. If the faithful as a whole have that authority, it is from the same source, not based on the republican political principle that the majority rules.

The question of consulting the faithful presents interesting problems. Everyone agrees that it should be done. Not everyone agrees how.

If the faithful are to be consulted, it requires, preliminarily, an ability to identify who exactly the faithful are. And direct consultation is practically impossible, whether we are talking two million or a billion faithful. So we rely on the representative principle.

As I think you know, I was raised Presbyterian and still have much affection for and gratitude toward that church. It's polity is rigorously democratic. But an interesting phenomenon has emerged from their recent controversies about sexuality and marriage.

I don't know exactly how it works, but my understanding is that, for certain kinds of change in the Presbyterian Church, there must be action on the denominational level, the General Assymbly, and then ratification at the local level, the Presbytery (roughly, the equivalent of the diocese in episcopal polities). What I understand has happened in past years is that the General Assembly has tended to approve progressive changes, but the Presbyteries have refused to ratify them. In other words, there have been a series of consistently different actions from entities that represent the exact same body of the faithful. Somehow two different forms of representation produce different results. It simply keys up the need to think about that "how," even given agreement that consultation of the faithful by church officeholders is universally praised.

June Butler said...

Rick, I hope you understand that all I say of this method or that method of reaching consensus implies the work of the Holy Spirit.

The account you give of the process in the Presbyterian Church is just that - a process to reach consensus. Would the PC be better off if one person imposed a solution from on high, rather than continuing the process? I can't see it that way, but, of course, you know much more about the PC than I.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Rick. For me the issue is not so much either authority or the Holy Spirit. I HOPE that the H.S. is involved in the decisions -- however taken -- but I also realize they may be mistaken or bad decisions, for which I cannot blame God!

As to the consultation of the faithful, I am happiest with the Anglican (particularly the US Episcopalian) model, which lies in the middle way between the top-down approach of Rome and the bottom up approach of the congregationalists. The Presbies, from your description, sound a bit this side of the strictly congregational approach.

However, ultimately -- as all such the churches are voluntary entities in these latter days -- the ultimate "consultation" consists in the "swinging door" or the exercise of private judgment. One example of this in the present life of the church of Rome in the US is the wide disregard for the official teaching on birth control. While Fr Michael may sneer at supposed individual departures from the Creed within TEC, surely this is the same kind of phenomenon, and there is little one can do to control it, as the temporal power once at the behest of many churches has abated. Which I actually see as a good thing.

Some are troubled by the messiness of the Anglican way, especially its provisionality. They desire a greater assurance of finality. To such, I wish them well, and there are places where they can find such assurances.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, I was writing as you were posting. Good point and good question. Again, those who want uniformity, authority, etc., have ways of finding it. Mr. Arabin's point is that in the end they don't actually work any better than the more open approach. Imposed authority that is not assented to will soon find itself ignored however it is arrived at.

JCF said...

For myself, I accept the creed not because it was issued by authority, but because I find it reasonable and consistent, and a sufficient statement of things I believe to be true.

Wot Tobias said.

And direct consultation is practically impossible, whether we are talking two million or a billion faithful.

Good googly-moogly, we believe a man was raised from the dead (you do, don't you, rick?), and you're talking "direct consultation is practically impossible"??? :-0

[Though I believe TEC's representative democracy is perfectly functional. Until we come up w/ something better...]

MarkBrunson said...


I feel ashamed because it suddenly hit me, today, that I had been extremely uncompassionate. In the same way that we suffered here in the winter with strangely low temperatures, you guys have been hit with heat that we are used to this time of year but is a real shock to you.

Are you well, staying hydrated, reducing activity? I do hope humidity's been low - it really does make a huge comfort difference! - but, low humidity means stay in more and drink more water.