Archive for August 2012

William Lane Craig on the Eucharist

August 9, 2012

The second major topic of the Defenders podcast’s “Doctrine of the Church” is the Lord’s supper or the Eucharist. Again I enjoyed hearing a theological case for the ordinance view. After presenting the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist views Craig settles for the Baptist view according to which Christ is present at the Lord’s supper spiritually in his divine nature as he is everywhere else, but not in his human nature, in which he is in heaven.

Craig’s main arguments against the sacramentalist view are again rather philosophical in nature. First, how could the bread at the Last Supper be Christ’s body, since Christ’s body was right there in front of the apostles? Obviously he didn’t mean the words of institution to be taken literally. Second, the sacramentalist view doesn’t take Christ’s resurrection body seriously enough: he has a concrete risen body, and clearly we’re not eating parts of that body in church.

Craig also pointed out that insisting on the words “this is” like Luther did fails to take into account the metaphorical use of language and that John 6 comes before the Last supper and thus the bread of life discourse is not plausibly about the Eucharist. He also said that there was some diversity in the early Church and in medieval times about this doctrine, and so there is room for differing theological opinions.

During the Q&A session there was a Catholic who gave the usual popular Catholic apologetics arguments from John 6, “this is” and the consensus of the early Church fathers. Craig didn’t have time to respond to everything but said that we should simply agree to disagree. To another question about the necessity of orthodoxy in this issue for salvation, Craig answered with an emphatic negative. Finally, I liked Craig’s point that symbols are not unimportant (like wedding rings), even if the Lord’s supper is merely a symbol, it can still be sacred and it can still be a sacrilege to take it lightly.

Some Thoughts in Response

As with baptism, here too Craig seems to elevate philosophy and human reasoning above the sources of faith. Craig said that one’s theology will depend largely on one’s interpretation of 1 Cor 11, but he didn’t give any explanation as to why Paul calls the Eucharistic elements the “body and blood of the Lord” if it is only Jesus’ divine nature that is present at the Eucharist. Even more astonishigly he totally left out 1 Cor 10, where Paul presents a rich theology of the Eucharist as spiritual food and drink, a sacrifice (comparing it to Jewish and pagan sacrificial meals) and communion (the very thing that makes the Church the Body of Christ).

Craig also tried to get around the teaching of Ignatius of Antioch the same way James White did, by making reference to the anti-docetic context of the words. But that context simply strengthens the point that the earliest followers of the apostles believed Christ’s humanity was present in the Eucharist. Craig said Cyprian and Augustine favored a spiritual view of the Eucharist but cited no texts.

In fact Augustine said that Christ carried himself in his own hands, contradicting Craig’s main argument against the real presence. The argument might appeal to common sense, but Jesus was a miracle worker after all. I have no idea how Padre Pio could bilocate, but with God everything is possible, and similarly I guess Jesus’ body and blood can somehow be present in the Eucharist although Jesus in his resurrected body is exalted in heaven.

The Really Interesting Issue

The really interesting and decisive question here is, however, not the interpretation of this or that scriptural or patristic text. What is more important is the question about unity and heresy. I think Craig is right to point out that there was diversity in both patristic and medieval times – transubstantiation should not be absolutized. Second, I think Craig is right to say that one does not need to have the correct doctrine of the Eucharist in order to be saved. I think Vatican II affirms this by granting that the Holy Spirit works salvifically in Protestant communities, even though these communities don’t hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation.

But the problem here of course is that historically speaking the medieval Church did dogmatize transubstantiation, and Trent anathematized Protestants who rejected its teaching on the Eucharist. The larger picture is this: there are many doctrines over which both sides of the divide anathemized and condemned each other originally, but which now are dismissed as secondary. Craig himself lists only a few doctrines that a person must believe to be a Christian: the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ…

The problem is that Craig’s list is simply an opinion of Craig’s, and it sounds a lot like – surprise surprise – a compilation of the main points of interest in Craig’s own apologetics. By contrast take James White for whom “the gospel” is almost equivalent to Reformed soteriology and excludes from salvation a much larger group of people than does Craig’s thin list of “dogmas”. The problem in Protestantism is that there is no objective way to tell the difference between theological opinion, doctrine and dogma.

Not that present-day Catholicism solves the problem, either. For the Catholic Church the problem is at least as acute – what on earth are we to make of preconciliar anti-Protestant “dogmas” after Vatican II and postconciliar ecumenism? If Protestants who still deny Trent but affirm the Joint Declaration, or who don’t care about any official documents but simply live the Christian life to the full, do in fact possess the Holy Spirit and are expected to get to heaven, then how are any of the medieval and modern preconciliar Catholic “dogmas” dogmas in the technical sense?

It seems to me that they are not. If we look at how the Church officially treats Protestants since Vatican II, if we look at what the recent Popes have thought and taught about Protestants, we cannot really avoid the conclusion that what used to constitute heresy does not do so any more. In other words, the Church has been too harsh, too blind to its own fallibility, it has made secondary issues and developments dogmatic in an unjustified way. The task for Catholic theology now is to figure out the mess and look for credible and tenable criteria for orthodoxy and unity.

William Lane Craig on Baptism

August 9, 2012

William Lane Craig is one of the best Christian apologists in the world, and I’ve learned a lot from his books, debates, articles and podcasts. I also had the opportunity to see him in Finland not so long ago, and it was a very cordial and inspiring meeting. Having listened to all of his Reasonable Faith podcasts, I finally started listening to Craig’s Defenders podcast, which is really where finally touches on my area of specialty, that is, dogmatic theology.

Dogmatic theology is not Craig’s own area of specialty, he is more at home in philosophy of religion, the resurrection of Jesus and various scientific issues. I feel rather unqualified to comment on most of Craig’s work, in those areas I am just happy to be able to learn from him. But when it comes to dogmatic theology, I feel I can make a contribution, and so I’d like to post a series of articles in response to William Lane Craig’s Defenders lectures, starting from the Doctrine of the Church.

Sacraments and ordinances

I was a little disappointed when I realized that the lectures are not really on ecclesiology as such but simply on the two ordinances of the Church, baptism and Lord’s supper. What about the nature and unity of the Church, the local and the universal Church, the visible and the invisible, the authority of the Church and its leadership, etc? These to me are questions of primary interest, and I think that Craig’s reflections ultimately must lead to them. For the masses of people that read and listen to Craig, I think it would be very useful to give some food for thought concerning these issues.

Craig does a good job in structuring his lectures: first he presents the biblical material on the topic in question, then he explains the various theological positions and gives arguments for them, and finally he explains why he prefers the view that he personally takes on the issue. He tries to be fair to the various positions, and he often gives the listeners a chance to ask questions. This is definitely the kind of doctrinal formation Christians are in need of.

In the first lecture Craig defines the terms and explains the difference between sacrament and ordinance: if you are a sacramentalist, you think sacraments are means of grace, whereas on the ordinance view (which Craig as a Baptist takes) we are dealing with confessional acts, signs or symbols that are of special importance for the Church.

Although Craig mostly does a good job in defining the terms, he makes a couple of basic mistakes in presenting the Roman Catholic view. First he confuses the doctrine of penance with the sacrament of penance (i.e. the sacrament of reconciliation or confession), and then he says that the sacrament of ordination is about religious orders, which is not the case at all (it is only about being consecrated as deacon, priest or bishop).

Baptism

Craig does a fairly good job in presenting the biblical material, although he (understandably, as a Baptist) omits a lot of the indirectly baptismal passages that sacramentalists read sacramentally (a lot could be said about Ephesians, for example, and about OT prophecies).  It was interesting to note that the force of the baptismal passages and the sacramentalist case made Craig appeal to the audience to get baptized if they hadn’t yet – Craig seems to respect the sacramentalist view here as a viable option, although he rejects it in the end.

I enjoyed hearing a systematic argument for the ordinance view as well, and it does seem like a good case can be made for it. 1) There is the explicit Pauline teaching that grace has been given in Christ through faith, which puts a question mark to the teaching that the sacraments should be means of grace. 2) There are several cases in Acts where baptism occurs at a different point than the reception of the Holy Spirit. 3) Baptismal regeneration is contrary to Christian experience – many have experienced the transforming power of the Holy Spirit before baptism, and it is implausible to think these believers were still unregenerate enemies of God up to the time of their baptism.

I think I and Craig could agree that a good case can be made for both positions. But how then are we to decide what to believe? Here we come to the central problem, which I think Craig dismisses all to easily. As a Protestant he tries to find the answer in “what the Scripture teaches”. But it is left up to the individual to decide which arguments are the most compelling, and here Christians are devided. But 1 Cor 1 and other texts should make it clear that we shouldn’t allow for such division.

God didn’t drop the Bible down from heaven and say, ‘now figure out what Scripture teaches on this or that’. Rather, Jesus sent the apostles to baptize and to teach, and we want to know what those apostles believed and taught. Now of course the primary sources are the NT documents, but if and since they alone do not force us to a unanimous conclusion, we must look at the communities those apostles started and their faith, the faith of their followers.

When the issue of the Church fathers was raised, Craig said that their opinion is interesting but still a matter of indifference, because if they taught something contrary to Scripture, then they simply erred and we should go with Scripture instead.

But as we’ve seen it is not that clear what Scripture teaches here, arguments go both ways, and God started a historical Christianity, he did not give a textbook in year X to his chosen people to figure out how the Church works. Rather, the Scriptures were born in the community of believers, and that community passed its faith along by mouth to the heirs of that community, the next Christian generations.

Now the astonishing fact is that there is a very early, very widespread unanimity on baptismal regeneration in post-apostolic times. The Shepherd of Hermas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, just to stay in the first two centuries. Is it plausible that Irenaeus, the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of John, would have lost the apostolic teaching on baptism? Sure, Irenaeus said some weird things, too, but there you won’t find him confirmed by the Church fathers before and after him in both East and West, as you do with baptism.

The same goes for infant baptism. Craig is clearly uninformed about the history of infant baptism, claiming that it became common only with Augustine and his doctrine of original sin. In fact it was the other way around, Augustine argued for original sin based on the already existing liturgical practice of baptizing infants “for the forgiveness of sins”. Cyprian, Hippolytus and Origen testify to infant baptism in the 3rd century, and Irenaeus in the 2nd, again, a disciple of a disciple of John the Apostle.

Craig’s arguments

What about Craig’s arguments against sacramentalism and for the Baptist view? First I think we should accept the argument that faith in Christ itself is salvific and that the Holy Spirit can be received apart from Baptism. An honest reading of the New Testament requires this. This means that faith cannot be reduced to a mere “preparation” or precondition to justification (as at Trent), God really does justify by faith (as the Joint Declaration teaches), giving us the Holy Spirit to call and equip us to good works.

But now does this have to mean that we should abandon the testimony of the sources of faith to the rich theological significance of baptism? Not at all! The Lutheran-Catholic solution is to keep both, and I think Craig helps us out by pointing out that we can apply the gifts of God both to faith and to baptism because of their close link. In fact it is all Christ, faith and baptism communicate the same Christ to us. There will always be some tension left because of the unsystematic nature of the NT treatment, but the way out is definitely not to empty baptism of its power.

I might join James White in criticizing Craig for elevating philosophical reasoning above the sources of faith. Here, for example, Craig argues from 1 Pet 3:21 and Acts 2:38 that baptism is a human work (an appeal to God for a good conscience) and that it follows repentance, and that therefore it cannot be administered to children. But why should we think we can draw such generalizations from these passages? I see no good reason.

In Acts adult Jews ask what they should do, and Peter tells them to repent and to be baptized. Peter is not giving a systematic treatment on baptism but preaching about its salvific value. He doesn’t teach that baptism must follow repentance, he just tells these Jews who had Christ’s death on their consciences to turn around and get baptized, to join the Church. 1 Pet 3:21 doesn’t force us to see baptism as a human work to the exclusion of its being a divine work, in fact it says baptism “saves you”, which Craig simply passes over without any commentary.

Craig goes on to say that what is “really fatal” is the combination of sacramentalism and infant baptism, because it leaves us with a Church full of nominal Christians who think they will be saved by their baptism although they have never really come to a saving personal conversion. My first reaction is to ask why the sovereign Lord would let his Church take just that view from the very first centuries on. This is the practice and belief of the vast majority of Christendom: Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Lutherans and Anglicans.

Now I admit the problem of nominal Christians, coming from such a country myself, but I can also tell that these nominal Christians don’t usually think they will be saved by their baptism. Either they don’t know what they think about the afterlife, or if they think they’ll be saved, it’s usually based on a vague concept of God’s love.

Nominal, baptized but untransformed Christians definitely constitute an experiential problem for the sacramentalist paedobaptist. But the solution is not to abandon the Christian tradition, rather, the necessity of personal faith and conversion must be emphasized. I should like to add, however, that the experiential problem actually goes both ways.

What about children who grow up in good Christian families? In these countries there are many who have always believed, and it would be flatly contrary to their experience to tell them that if they are really Christians, there must have been a moment in their conscious life when they came to believe in Christ and received the Holy Spirit and turned from enemies of God to children of God. No, they became God’s children in their baptism and received the grace to believe even before they can even remember. This is much more in line with their experience.