Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Church History: Save Ferris!

Oh, history. History, history, history. It’s the question that Dread Pirate Crusty loves to hate, as a quick look at DPC’s 2016 GOE Question Evisceration…. Er, review… will show. Last year GBEC asked test takers to write a historically defensible summation in about 500 words on the English Civil War, and the accompanying changes in Anglicanism at the time. Fun topic, historically intriguing, great for a doctoral dissertation, a stinking pile of you-know-what for a GOE examinee to write
Not all tigers are fierce.  Wait, what is Snagglepuss?
within the confines of a word limit and 3.5 hours. Dread Pirate Crusty awaited the history question this year with bated breath… and sharpened knives. The tiger was ready to pounce. Here it comes… Can you feel it? Time to feast…

Christian doctrines are often not formally articulated until challenged during times of stress, both civil and ecclesiastical.

Part A (about 700 words)
Choose one of the following documents. Identify an important Christian doctrine articulated in it, and explain the circumstances in Church and society at the time that resulted in the articulation of that doctrine.
The Nicene Creed (325; revised 381)
The Augsburg Confession (1530)
The Thirty-Nine Articles (1563)
Pastor aeternus of Vatican I (1870)
The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1888)

Part B (about 300 words)
Explain how the chosen document and its implications are still important and possibly controversial today, especially in times of stress in the interaction between Christianity and civil society.


So Dread Pirate Crusty is bitterly disappointed. The knives are back into the drawer after reading the question. GBEC has a solid core question here, one that I can’t take much argument with. (Fear not, dear reader, DPC will have plenty of peccadillos on which to prognosticate.)

Church doctrine has always been in a unique relationship with the world around it - both civil and ecclesiastical. And as GBEC’s prompt notes, times of conflict are generally the points where doctrinal development accelerates. When everyone agrees with the status quo, there’s no reason to anathematize anybody, develop lengthy treatises and articulations defending theological thought, nobody to persuade. But when there’s conflict, suddenly, the need to articulate and define becomes far more present. (Interestingly, this phenomenon plays out not only in history, but in biology as well. Evolution tends to accelerate under stress, and slow down in times of plenty. It’s a phenomenon that crosses disciplines.)

GBEC has narrowed in on a repeating Church History phenomenon - and, especially in this day and age where the church’s relationship with itself and the world is rapidly evolving - one that is also superbly relevant. As that great historian, Ferris Bueller, once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you
Dr Bueller hard at work on his dissertation.
don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” Dr. Bueller is correct, and GBEC has studied in his class. As things move quickly, so do the theological developments that support them. Blink, and you could miss it.

The question examinees to use one of five source documents, and explain how this phenomenon presents itself in that document’s time and place. Solid core. But DPC finds the choices of documents… intriguing.

Let’s be honest: if DPC were a gambler, DPC would put money on the bet that 80%+ of the test takers will write on the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed is an easy one to include in this list, and in writing a response, it’s easy to sketch out the ecclesiastical conflicts, since going line-by-line through the creed points to the series of Christological disputes that gave rise to the text. The Edict of Milan, by which Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, led to a rapid proliferation of doctrinal disputes. Within 67 years, under the leadership of Theodosius, Nicene Christianity was established as the preferred the state religion of Rome. The first articulation of what we now call the “Nicene Creed” was then drafted in 325 at the Council of Nicaea; the Council of Constantinople polished the Creed to its present form in 381. You can’t talk about the creeds without talking about both theological developments, and the civil society of the day. It’s a great working document.

The two reformation sources - The 39 Articles of Religion and the Augsburg Confession - are probably even easier documents with which to respond to both civil and ecclesiastical turmoil. In the case of The 39 Articles, the English Reformation and Elizabethan Settlement are textbook examples of the interweaving of political and religious concerns. The Reformation under Henry took on a particular shape due to power politics between Henry VIII, Charles V, and Rome. It is easy to trace the interweaving of civil and ecclesiastical concerns straight through the reigns of Edward VI (with the swing toward Continental Protestantism), Mary I (with the attempted Restoration of Roman Catholicism), and Elizabeth (in the Elizabethan Settlement). Indeed, after Elizabeth, those threads continue to develop during the reigns (and depositions) of the Stuart monarchs.

The Augsburg Confession was forged in the crucible of the changing of the politics of the Holy Roman Empire in the face of a Turkish invasion of Europe in the 16th century along with continued religious unrest in the Holy Roman Empire. Phillipp Melanchthon viewed the document as the basis of any potential reconciliation of Protestant reformers in Germany with Rome; but without the heavy hand of politics in the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V, it likely wouldn’t have been created.
Schmalkaldic would be a Scrabble mic drop.
And, of course, a direct line can be drawn from the drafting of the Augsburg Confession to the later formation of the military alliance that would be come the Schmalkaldic League. Each allows the examinee to link doctrinal development with civil turmoil. These are good sources.

But DPC most confess to being stumped, however, to the inclusion of the Vatican I document Pastor aeternus, which laid out the doctrine of papal infallibility. The First Vatican Council was indeed a confluence of civil and religious changes - most notably the rise of political liberalism in the 19th century, and the continuing decline of the secular power and authority of to the Roman Church and to the Papacy. DPC doesn’t deny that examinees should be taught about the landmark changes that occur in Europe in the 19th Century. DPC doesn’t deny that, being well informed about the Revolutions of 1848, examinees should then be able to draw a link between Vatican I - with its doubling down on the authority to be accorded to the pontiff and the magisterium. These things should be doable. But alas, DPC recalls DPC’s own seminary history classes, in which we spoke not a whiff of European Politics and after The Episcopal Church became its own entity. We certainly didn’t discuss Vatican I. This, to be sure, isn’t GBEC’s problem; it’s a problem of our seminary curricula and local formation programs. DPC lauds GBEC’s inclusion of non-Anglican sources. After all, we’re talking about Church History, not Anglican History. But Vatican I, while being important - especially to Roman Catholic and Old Catholic thought - may not be where GBEC should want to draw its sourcing for this question.

If we are looking for a Roman Catholic doctrinal document in response to changes in both the civil and ecclesiastical order, nothing screams for inclusion louder than the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII famously convoked the council to “open the windows and let in some fresh air” - for the Church to respond and develop in concert with, and not solely opposed to, the modern world. Vatican II had a profound impact across Christianity, not only within the Roman Church. Lumen gentium recognized, for the first time, that elements of sanctification and truth could exist outside of Catholic Church. Sacrosanctum concilium gave institutional imprimatur to the liturgical movement, sparking liturgical reform not only in the Roman Church, but brought it into conversation with broader movements.  DPC would have loved to have seen GBEC ask students to engage with the Second Vatican Council, rather than the First. Its impact across all of Christianity, quite arguably, was far greater than the First Vatican Council’s. So why not include this as an option?

Perhaps the desire to touch on both ecumenical impact is the reason for the inclusion of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Beginning with William Reed Huntington’s The Church Idea, his thoughts were on the basis for “home reunion” with Rome and Orthodoxy; in time, they were adopted by the House of Bishops as the basis of ecumenism in the Episcopal Church. But in a time at which the British Empire at its height, it is unsurprising that its influence spread to the 1888 Lambeth Conference, where it provided a meaningful basis not only for the relationship of Anglicanism to the broader church, but also, of Anglicans to each other. It could be argued the value of the Quadrilateral, much like that of a fine wine, increased with time, especially in the period of decolonization. But much like the other documents, its civil context threads together with its doctrinal formulations.


Back to the bones: this is a solid question at its core. It lands for DPC right on the verge between being deemed Axios!, while having a few qualities that make it worthy of Meh-dom. DPC is, quite obviously, less than enamored with the inclusion of Vatican I’s Pastor aeternus, seemingly at the expense of a Vatican II document, which, quite arguably, would have had more impact. That choice - because of the sheer weight of the ecumenical historical impact of Vatican II - does drive this to a tipping point. The question gets a Meh rating, but with a secondary citation for “most improved” when considering last year’s train wreck of a History question. GBEC, if you’re reading, you’re on the right track. But don’t overthink it too much.

1 comment:

  1. I was just in a long and fascinating conversation with a priest from the Old Catholic Tradition who is trying to become a priest in the Episcopal Church about Vatican 1. You are right, it is a very big deal to them, but I had never given it one single thought. I was fascinated by how this remains a problem to this day...

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