It’s hard to believe it, but the Catholic journal First Things is almost enough to persuade this hard-nosed Protestant from Belfast to convert to Roman Catholicism. Well, in my public theology at least, not my personal theology .
Now let me say first up, it’s not that hard to convert from Northern Irish Protestantism, in fact I already have. My son is called Declan for two reasons: one we liked the name, and two, no Protestant in their right mind in Northern Ireland would call their kid Declan because it’s a Catholic name. When we decided on that name it was me cocking a snoot at a cultural iceberg that had sunk so many others in the past. Conversion stage one completed.
Now First Things provides the best public theology discourse in the Western setting bar none. Along with its editor, R.R (Rusty) Reno, its contributors pick the eyes out of the hardening secular culture, exposing its hypocrisies, its pride and the sheer folly of its supposed wisdom in areas of ethics and politics. Every regular contributor would be a dinner party guest (except, ironically, perhaps for Presbyterian contributor Carl Trueman, who is closest to me in theology, but the grumpiest of the lot!).
One of the regular targets of First Things is the blight of meritocracy afflicting the Western landscape, in which liberal and political elites have sealed off themselves hermetically from any critique, and who seek to impose, top down, a view of the world, and a set of practices within it, that only those with money, time and power could possibly see as sustainable.
These views and practices are underpinned by the elites’ commitment to meritocracy, a perspective which in his latest book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Reno pulls apart with statements such as this:
I’m not a prophet, but I sense we are leaving behind the democratic era and heading towards a meritocratic one. A meritocracy justifies the wealth and power of its elite on the grounds of their competence and achievements rather than on popular assent….
…meritocracy encourages us to believe that we’ve earned our success. If things go badly for others, they’re probably getting what they deserve.
As readers of First Things will know, its writers pour scorn on this notion, showing how it leaves the most vulnerable in society exposed, and how it justifies the sneering attitude of elites towards the less educated, socially conservative working class and underclass of the culture.
So far so good. Yet here’s where I, and to be honest where First Things should come apart with Roman Catholicism: the sheer naked meritocracy displayed in the conferring of sainthoods, the most recent being Mother – or now – Saint Teresa of Calcutta. As far as I am concerned, sainthood ain’t good, at least in the way the Roman Catholic Church understands it.
Leaving aside the hatchet job done on her by the likes of secularists such as the late great atheist saint, Christopher Hitchens, the huge weight behind the push to sanctify Mother Teresa affirms that meritocracy, spiritual meritocracy at least, still occupies centre place in Roman Catholic salvation theology.
It’s not a dig at the woman herself, nor is it an issue with whether or not she was a a fraud, as many secular writers angle to say. It’s a dig at the meritocratic theological framework that justifies the onerous task of exploring whether she is good enough to be declared a saint. And I’ll be interested to see how First Things justifies it to be honest, because in their eagerness to maintain the unity of the church they will attempt to.
For me, that clear division between the saints in the Roman Catholic church and who the Bible declares to be saints strikes at the heart of the theological matter. I am an ad fontes man, back to the source. Yes I know reason and tradition count, but only when they allow themselves to be critiqued by Scripture, and in this instance the Roman Church does not.
The clear and overwhelming force of Scripture, both Old and New testaments, states that God declares you a saint because of what has been done for and to you, while Roman Catholic theology states the Church declares you a saint because of what has been done by you and through you. Sad to say, it’s the age old watershed of gospel versus works.
St Paul begins 1 Corinthians with these radical words:
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.
By rights he should start with these words:
Dear horny, proud, divisive ratbags, get sorted and maybe God will save you!
Paul’s call itself is by God’s will. On that Damascus road he wasn’t on the merit pathway with Jesus was he? The church in Corinth was sanctified (set apart) by Christ before they had done anything good, in fact Paul is writing to them because of how much bad they are doing! His pastoral call will be for them to live up to what they already are: saints set apart for God.
Paul’s opening lines are at on and the same time a humbling, equalising perspective, and a gloriously freeing call to become in Christ what you already have been declared to be.
That’s the gospel! That’s the gospel that says even our good deeds are filthy rags before a holy God if there is even the whiff of meritocracy about them.
And I have found that when telling Catholic friends that this is how we view sainthood they are genuinely surprised. Now of course many Catholic people get this, and understand the gospel of grace. But the detritus of the Roman Catholic Church additional teaching in this area does not encourage a grace-alone perspective.
And why do I think that’s a game-changer? Why do I want a Roman Catholic public theology and not a Roman Catholic personal theology? Because I – as a tick-all-the-boxes Protestant – am at heart a proud man in love with meritocracy – my meritocracy. And I need something that pulls the brakes and brings me to a screeching halt. And only the gospel of grace alone can do that.
A meritocracy that I can justify to myself regardless of how far I fall. For no matter how far I fall I can lower the bar in order to jump it.
That’s the condition of the fallen human heart It takes a lot to root it out. In fact it takes everything to root it out – nothing less in fact than the all-sufficient death of Christ on my behalf for my sin, and the transference of his righteousness standing before God to me.
And everyday it still takes a lot to root meritocracy out of my heart. It still lives there, beating just out of kilter enough to wound me, and just in time enough to seduce me.
And when a struggling, godly friend wrote to me last night and lamented that after doing the rounds of Protestant social media he’s “tired of being told off so much”, it confirmed that evangelical Protestantism is as much part of the problem despite the fact that it is holding the solution in its hot little hand.
In these hardening secular times there is much that creedal Christianity – both Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy – can affirm together, and there are any number of public square discourses in which we can stand together.
But not on sainthood. the Roman understanding of sainthood ain’t good. Sainthood is God’s gift to bad people that empowers them to be good beyond their wildest imaginations. And it’s available for us all.
Maybe Carl Trueman can join me and Rusty Reno for dinner and we can talk about that. (They can drink single malt, I’ll stick to my saintly soda water.)
1. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther opposed theological corruption in medieval Catholicism. He was right to do so, but his counter contained a mistake. This mistake has only recently discovered in the “new perspective on Paul.” Luther saw the meritocratic practices, such as selling indulgences, and viewed them as “works”—human efforts intending to attain self-righteousness. When he read Paul in Romans and Galatians, Luther assumed Paul meant by “works” just what he did. Thus, Paul’s opponents (the Judaizers) were thought to be of a stripe with the Catholics of Luther’s day—self-righteous legalists earning their way to heaven, heedless of the sacrifice of Christ.
2. Luther was wrong, and his error persists in “old perspective” theology to this day, even though it has been exposed and the proper theology recovered. Those in Luther’s shadow see great evil in any human efforts toward God, insisting on converts of unsullied passivity before the sovereignty of God. As though salvation were a tug-o-war to see who gets to save us—God or ourselves? The trouble is, Biblical expectations look for active converts and relationally active Christians. Those efforts count.
3. Btw, Paul understood “works” as “works of the Law”—obediences to a now obsolete covenant (the Old Covenant, the legislation of which was binding on the Jews, but not on the Gentile Christian converts of Paul).
4. There is thus a huge difference between old and new perspectives. The “relational dynamics” in old perspective are rather one-sided–God does everything, for humans are forbidden “works” of any kind. In new perspective, salvation involves two active partners–neither of which “earns” the favor of the other.
I guess a lot of this depends on which side of the NP position you land on. I happen to disagree that Paul understood “works of the law” merely as the covenantal boundary markers. So for me the “old” perspective is actually the constantly “new” one as it’s the one that humans always, by nature and by intellect seek to move away from. I love a lot of Wright et al, but Wright gets it wrong!
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