Thursday, November 03, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

Revenge of the Sith arrived in the mail a day ago. Yes, I know, it’s the sort of movie you’re supposed to see on the big screen with surround sound and all, but I’m not that much of a purist. Sorry!

I saw the first installment of the Star Wars sextet when it first came out, and I was 17 or 18. That was a good age to see it. I’ve now been around for long enough to see the final installment.

Let me say at the outset that this is easily the best installment since The Empire Strikes Back. It has a real plot and a lot of drive. It’s a great movie to look at.

The basic problem with the Star Wars saga is the standard of reference. How are we supposed to judge it? Are we supposed to compare it with serious cinematic art, treat it like popcorn movie fare, or something in-between?

Lucas has certain artistic pretensions, and whenever he takes his work too seriously it instantly sinks under its own dead weight--like a gold-plated fortune-cookie.

One can never tell the target audience Lucas has in mind. At what age level is he pitching his stuff? Much of it is frankly childish, and it’s hard for a reasonably intelligent viewer to assume a consistent point of view.

The general quality of acting has been a typical weakness in a Star Wars movie, and it’s more damaging in Revenge of the Sith because the theme of this film is the tragic downfall of a decent, well-meaning man. Beginning with the best of intentions, he gradually passes the point of no return.

The problem here is that such a theme requires fine acting on the part of the lead to chart the inner turmoil and transformation. He also needs a strong supporting cast to play off against. In this film, Palpatine is the only character (played by McDiarmid) with the thespian resources to do his part.

Christensen was cast for his looks, not his talent. What we get is a mix of adolescent angst and a white boy pretending to be a gangsta rapper.

McGregor is too younthful to be a convincing mentor, and he also lacks the kindliness and gentle touch which Alec Guinness brought to the part.

In addition, Christensen and Portman (as Padmé) have all the spark of two wet dogs in a downpour.

On a related note, the actors and characters are just not as likable as the original trilogy. This leaves the film with a dead-centered deadness.

There are other irritants. Lucas has a magnificent eye for imaginary landscapes and cityscapes. But he’s so itchy to show off his digital effects that he constantly litters the panorama with a swarm of gnat-like little shuttlecraft.

Yoda began life as a Muppet, and the spectacle of a digitized Yoda in a swordfight with the Emperor is just a computerized Punch & Judy show—or should I say Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog?

The willing suspension of belief is an act of trust between moviemaker and moviegoer. It cannot be abused too often without fostering a certain level of resentment.

The idea that Palpatine is a Sith Lord in disguise has definite dramatic potential. Great cinematic villains achieve their villainy through sheer acting ability alone. Unfortunately, Lucas doesn’t trust actors and acting to get the message across. Instead, he has to dress up the villain in a Halloween costume and make him spit out his words in a reptilian tone of voice just in case the audience is too obtuse to get the point.

However, the most revealing failure is a moral failing—the lack of a consistent moral vision.

For Lucas, presumably, the heroes are the republicans and the Jedi knights. But what’s so great about the old republic, anyway? Lucas’ idea of representative government is modeled, not on the American experiment, but Athenian democracy, the Roman senate, and the House of Lords. These are aristocrats and royalty. Padmé dresses like an empress and lives in a palace that makes Versailles look like the slave quarters.

And despite Yoda’s Dalai Lama rhetoric, the Jedi are strikingly like the Samurai. It makes you wonder what, exactly, is Lucas’ political ideal. The Shogunate?

This makes for a great costume drama, complete with the tabloid lives of the rich and famous. But it certainly blurs the line between the bright side and the dark side of the force.

Then you have the Buddhist solution to the problem of evil. Anakin seeks the advice of Yoda about premonitions of his wife dying in childbirth. And what is Yoda’s counsel? “Death is a natural part of life. Mourn then, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

Can you really blame Anakin for changing sides? Lucas, with his post-Christian vision, leaves the character with a choice between one inhuman philosophy and another inhuman philosophy.

The massacre of the “younglings” is Anakin’s formal rite of initiation into the dark side. Yet it’s Obi-Wan who admonishes him that “only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Well, if that’s the case, then what’s so bad about the slaughter of the “younglings” or the betrayal of his Jedi brethren and mentors?

Actually, slaughtering the offspring of one’s political rivals is customary in warrior cultures. Such atrocities were part of the honor-code. The problem with Lucas is that he retains the remnants of a Christian conscience. This is in direct tension with his chic, ersatz Buddhism.

And without a moral or emotional center, the epic special effects become mere eye-candy. They signify nothing. Compare that with Dante or Bunyan, where the landscape is a moral landscape. Where every stick and stone serve as spiritual similes—like a two-way mirror between two worlds.

On the other hand, some liberal reviewers savaged the film with the viciousness of a custody battle. Such is the bitter disillusionment of the worldling—whose heart is larger than his creed.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

As the fur flies

According to the Church of Jerusalem, the Savior had shoulder-length hair and dreadlocks. Due, however, to the increasing hostility between the church and the synagogue, the true knowledge of our Redeemer’s flocculent features quickly became encrusted in the barnacles of hoary tradition and the evil tincture of vain philosophy.

According to the Occidental Church of the Bewhiskered Saints, our Redeemer had a full beard and shoulder-length hair. They claimed to trace this tradition all the way back to St. Periwig the Stalagmite, who was, in turn, said to be a direct disciple of Papias, according to the Lost Gospel of the Bearded One.

But according to the Roman Church of the Short-Haired Savior, our Redeemer was clean-shaven with a pageboy haircut. At the Second Council of Toupee, anyone who presumed to say that our Savior had dreadlocks was forever excommunicate from the one true body of the Savior, otherwise known as the Roman Church of the Short-Haired Savior.

This was in addition to a number of schismatic groups, such as the Holy White Hairians, who traced their church back to St. John the Revelator (Rev 1:14); the Dromedary Hairians, who traced their church back to John the Baptist (Mt 3:4); and the Purple Pate Hairians, who traced their church back to King Solomon (Cant. 7:5).

But things only got worse after the Reformation as splinter groups multiplied without number. There were the Radical Nappists, who said that our Redeemer had short kinky hair (their creed was: "no 'fro, no bro!"); the Shaggadelics, who went around unshaven, claiming that our Savior had ankle-length locks; and the Predestihairians who, due to an unfortunate misprint their Authorized Version of Rom 8:29, were of the firm opinion that all balding men were presumptive reprobates.

This, in turn, precipitated a breakaway sect, known as the Reorganized Predestihairians, who practiced hair-replacement for the dead.

In our own time, feminist theologians rebelled against “misogynistic” depictions of the Savior. They chose to observe a more inclusive liturgy in which the Savior had pigtails. However, the Anti-Defamation League filed a formal complain on the grounds that this porcine hairdo was anti-Semitic according to the kosher laws.

Maneline denominations tried, as always, to split the difference, proposing a Savior with hip-length hair, but the Church of the Holy He-Man depicted him with a buzz-cut.

This is before we ever get to seeker-sensitive churches who adapt their Christology to the Punk, Gothic, and Skinhead subcultures.

The sound of one hand clapping


[A note for some of our readers: It goes without saying that the thoughts I express below are my own. They do not necessarily in every detail reflect the opinions of every contributor to this website. Some tender consciences appear to have been offended by my calling into question one specific aspect of atonement theory which is popular in Evangelical circles. What some people fail to understand is that, around here, we do theology like grown ups. We are not afraid of being spanked should we call into question some cherished theological opinion or tradition, so long as we do not step outside the undivided Faith of the Catholic Church. You see, around here we think theological reflection should allow room for calling human traditions into question. We want to create space for each other, to allow serious dialogue and debate to take place without living in mortal fear of being branded a heretic by some over-zealous Doctrinal Guard Dog.

Unfortunately, some, held captive by their theological traditions, are apparently not mature enough to listen patiently while different theological opinions are expressed. And make no mistake about it, the penal substitution model, though it is now dominant in Protestant orthodoxy, is an opinion, not an explicit teaching of Holy Scripture. The Church Universal has never given a sancrosanct status to any particular theory as to the logic and mechanism of the atonement, beyond the fact that Christ “was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.” Beyond that, grown up theologians can feel free to call into question any human tradition regarding the details of the atonement. We trust that some of our readers are mature enough to understand that.]



A note to our readers: It goes without saying that I’m pretty full of myself. What all the little people fail to understand, since they’re not near as smart as yours truly, is that, around here, we do theology like grown-ups. Whenever anyone dares to offer an intellectual critique of our position, we impute emotional motives to him since that’s how to have an adult conversation about theology.

We’re not afraid of patting ourselves on the back because, if we don’t do it, who else will? I pat Kevin on the back, and Kevin pats Tim on the back, and Tim pats me on the back in one great big back-slapping, head-patting orgy of mutual admiration and self-congratulation cuz we’re all just so dog-gone wonderful.

It’s hard for folks who aren’t half as wonderful as we are to imagine how unbearably wonderful it is to be so wonderfully wonderful. Sometimes I can hardly contain myself. In fact, I have my right arm in a sling right now after I broke it in three different places by patting myself so hard on the back. Now Tim and I take turns.

We are not afraid of tootin’ our own horn. We even wear earplugs so's we don’t go deaf at the decibel level of our self-horn tootin’.

You see, around here we think theological reflection should allow room to pose as Presbyterians whenever we want to attack Baptists, while allowing more room to attack Presbyterians for not being crypto-Catholics like us. We want to create space for each other—preferably lots and lots of empty space up in the cranial region—to allow serious monologue to take place without living in mortal fear of being branded as a heretic by some over-zealous Doctrinal Guard Dog.

Of course, we reserve the exclusive right to brand a Baptist a heretic for not being more Mormon, and brand a Presbyterian a heretic for not being more Papistical.

And we also reserve the right to wallow in crybaby rhetoric whenever anyone subjects our public drivel to rational scrutiny--cuz that’s how grown-up theologians react to rational scrutiny.

Unfortunately, some, held captive by their theological traditions, are apparently not mature enough to roll over and play dead while we take pot-shots.

Of course, we reserve the exclusive right to make a highly selective and purely opportunistic appeal to tradition whenever it happens to serve our own provincial purpose since we’re so all-fired special. Mr Rogers said we’re special, and he was talking about us’ns, not about you’ins!

Every year we hold a contest with Dave Armstrong to see who’s the extra-specialest and most wonderfulest blogger in the whole wide world.

And let there be no mistake--today it’s penal substitution, but tomorrow it may be inerrancy or hell or the virgin birth or the deity of Christ, cuz it’s all about giving each other his/her own space, dude. We trust that some of our readers—all five of ‘em, including Tim’s Mom and Kevin’s Aunt Bessie and Jeremy (Jeremy’s my cousin twice-removed)—are mature enough to understand that.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005



Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror
by Richard Miniter

* 1.77 metric tons of enriched uranium

* 1,500 gallons of chemical weapons agents

* 17 chemical warheads containing cyclosarin (a nerve agent five times more deadly than sarin gas)

* Over 1,000 radioactive materials in powdered form meant for dispersal over populated areas

* Roadside bombs loaded with mustard and "conventional" sarin gas, assembled in binary chemical projectiles for maximum potency

This is only a PARTIAL LIST of the horrific weapons verified to have been recovered in Iraq to date. Yet Americans overwhelmingly believe U.S. and coalition forces have found NO weapons of mass destruction.

In Disinformation Richard Miniter reveals:

* Three common myths about the Bush Administration that have been spread widely by Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11

* The 9/11 hijackers used box-cutters to take control of the four planes they hijacked, right? Wrong -- and how this popular myth got started

* How bin Laden declared war on America five separate times and pursued his jihad war against the United States throughout the 1990s -- contrary to liberal media claims that no one had heard of him before 9/11

* Bush knew? No -- as is clear from this close examination of the CIA memo that supposedly warned him about possible hijackings before 9/11

* Are U.S. troops in Iraq to make the world safe for Halliburton? No -- in fact, Halliburton has not made a fortune in Iraq, and is even trying to sell its division that runs Iraqi operations

* A war for oil? Why the U.S. is not fighting one in Iraq or anywhere else

* Clear, uncontested, proven links between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Al Qaeda

Why so many people are so eager to believe these War on Terror myths, no matter how outlandish they are

Miniter marshals the evidence -- all the evidence -- that shoots down this dangerous disinformation and refutes the legions of shallow media talking heads who mindlessly repeat it. If you want the real truth about the War on Terror and what we must do in order to win it, Disinformation is the indispensable starting point.


Jesu Screed

Over at Jesu Screed, Scot McKnight has chosen to attack the traditional doctrine of hell. There is nothing novel in his routine objections to hell.

The only reason this is worth remarking upon is because it illustrates the mainstreaming of annihilationism among “Evangelical” academics.


Why? Because we have read much on this and we know that many fine Christians who love the Lord and the Bible have taught other things — including such things as conditional immortality and annihilationism. (I do not speak here for universalists, for that I’m not.) Maybe they are wrong, but they deserve to be listened to.


Assuming, for the sake of argument, that those who subscribe to annihilationism or conditional immortality qualify as “fine Christians,” how is that the least bit relevant to where the truth lies?

Apart from divine revelation, we know next to nothing about the afterlife. At most, ghosts and OBEs would furnish some evidence for the existence of an afterlife. Arguments for the incorporeal soul might also support that contention.

But a detailed knowledge of what happens to someone after he dies is dependent on revelation alone. Whether there’s a heaven or hell, and the fixity or duration of each—these are matters of which Christians, however sterling their character, have absolutely no independent knowledge. This is not an argument from experience, but authority—the authority of God’s word.


Why? Because we think the logic of an eternal punishment for a finite sin and a finite human seems inconsistent — and we believe with many that humans simply cannot — in space and time — commit infinite sin and that finite sins against an infinite God are still not infinite sins.


i) This is one of the primary objections to hell. Suppose we feel the same way about it as Dr. McKnight? Does a weak intuition regarding the disproportion between crime and punishment justify a denial of revealed truth?

ii) Do our intuitions point in just one direction? Don’t we also feel that some crimes are so heinous that it’s hard to imagine any adequate punishment?

How much time is enough time for a man who tortures little children? Would McKnight care to put a number on that?

Or what about a ne’er-do-well son who cheats his aged mother out of her life-savings, sticks her in a state-run nursing home, and absconds to Rio with the loot?

Or, to take another example, one limitation of the death penalty is that a mass murderer can kill many times, but you can only kill him one time.

These are extreme examples, but they’re the sort of limiting-cases which expose the fallibility of our moral intuitions.

iii) For that matter, the only reason a sinner commits a finite number of sins in this life is because he only gets to live for a finite amount of time before he dies. If he never died, he’d continue to sin. If he lived longer, nothing would change.

So it’s rather artificial to pretend that God should limit his sentence to the historical accident of death.

Take the case of a suicide bomber who prematurely explodes before he gets a chance to take anyone else with him.

Should God mete out a lesser sentence because the suicide bomber bungled the job? Should he be treated more leniently because he accidentally killed himself before he deliberately killed anyone else? Intuitively speaking, wouldn’t a just God take his homicidal intent into account, even if he didn’t live long enough to carry out his murderous designs? And how is that different than any other sinner?

iv) This brings us to McKnight’s shallow grasp of sin and judgment. God is not judging our sins. God is judging sinners. A sinner is a sinner no matter how long or short his lifespan. McKnight’s atomistic and quantitative analysis of sin misses the fundamental point. At issue is not the guilt of the action, but the guilt of the actor.

v) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the traditional doctrine is inconsistent, isn’t annihilationism equally inconsistent?

On McKnight’s own view, the damned suffer permanent loss. Their finite sins have unending consequences. For they are deprived of their very existence, forever and ever. Isn’t that incommensurate with whatever they did during their finite lifespan?

And even if you throw in postmortem evangelism, that is still a finite second-chance. If he blows his postmortem opportunity, he’s zapped out of existence.

vi) For that matter, isn’t everlasting bliss in glory an incommensurate reward for whatever was done before a Christian died?

Perhaps McKnight would say that’s different: we’re saved by grace, we didn’t earn it.

Ah, but according his own loose standards, there are many “fine Christians” who do introduce an element of personal merit into the scheme of salvation.

vii) And while we’re on the subject, I’d hasten to add that universalism is also incommensurate with anything done in this life.

So every position you take on the afterlife is vulnerable to this charge. As such, it either proves too much or too little.

However, as I argued under (ii)-(iv), this objection, as an objection to hell, is riddled with fallacies.


Why? Because we cannot bear the thought of humans we love or know or speak with or have known or know about will spend Eternity in such graphic pain and misery. Those who love their neighbors, at least as much as themselves, cannot look with glee or triumphalism or joy and vindictiveness on Dark Places. We can imagine the horror and it terrifies.


i) Hell is supposed to be horrific and terrifying.

ii) We can be triumphant, not in ourselves, but in the justice of God.

iii) It’s easy to speak in facile terms about neighbor-love and presume to speak on behalf of everyone else, but everyone doesn’t feel that way by a long shot.

Take a guy who makes his living cheating little old women out of their nest-egg. Now, his own mother may still love him because she’s his mother. Mother-love often has that all-forgiving quality.

But what about someone else’s mother? What about the son of the mother who was cheated out of her nest-egg by the ne’re-do-well? It’s precisely because he loves his own mother that he hates anyone who would cheat his mom out of her life-savings. Is the prospect unbearable to a devoted son that a man will burn in hell for cheating little old women out of their life savings?

A theological liberal is just like a political liberal. They feel for the abusers more than for the abused. They presume to forgive the abusers at the expense of the abused. This is their idea of love. They are large-hearted towards the abusers and heartless towards the abused.

Speaking for myself, I prefer my hard-hearted doctrine of hell over McKnight’s soft-hearted alternative.


Why? Because we know the grandeur of God’s embracing grace, we know the glory of that grace, and we wonder if maybe, somehow, God might even turn hell inside out and upside down — even though we do not understand it or comprehend how it might be just or know how it would be good. We are among those who fell [sic.] the pull of God’s final grace — the way Paul feels its glorious pull in Romans 5.


Is this an argument for annihilationism or universalism? Hadn’t McKnight just told us that he denies universalism?

It is certainly unclear how annihilationism has any higher claim on the grace of God than the traditional doctrine of hell.

And one of problems with universalism is that mercy ceases to be mercy if God must be merciful to everyone. Grace is no longer grace, but obligation.


Why? Because we know the ground of reality is the perichoresis, God’s interpenetrating love and mutual indwelling of the Trinity in love — which has been a consistent theme from Gregory of Nyssa to Jonathan Edwards to Miroslav Volf, and we wonder if God’s Love might be able to turn human sinfulness into divine grace and glory. And we want that Love to hold our hearts in its embracing grace.


Jonathan Edwards, for one, wouldn’t deny that God is able to turn our sinfulness to his own glory. But many things are possible which are never actual. God is equally able to damn everyone.


Why? Because we know that the Old Testament does not speak of hell, because we know that what many say about hell is rooted in passages that are about God’s historical judgments — in time, in space, on earth, judgments against his people’s unfaithfulness, and because we know that many people today think Jesus was speaking about 70 AD in Mark 13 (parallels) and that the parables attached to that chapter might be speaking of that in-time, in-space, in-history judgment against Jerusalem and because we know that we could be wrong about this interpretation too (but maybe not), and because there is not as much in the New Testament about hell as there is about historical judgment, and because the one book that seems to talk so much about it — Revelation — is front to back apocalyptic and metaphor and imagery and symbolism and we just wonder, if maybe even judgment imagery ought not to be taken too literally.


Now the problems begin to pile up like an accident on the LA freeway:

i) Actually, the OT has a fair amount to say about the afterlife, including hell. Just read Shades of Sheol by Philip Johnson or Hell Under Fire edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson.

ii) One problem with preterizing the hellish language of Scripture is that, by the very same token, you can just as well preterize the heavenly language of Scripture. The price for doing away with hell is to do with heaven. What McKnight has just given us is a synthesis of annihilationism and universalism in the form of universal annihilationism. How does that square with the love and the grace of God?


Why? Because we know that even when Jesus speaks about hell he uses graphic physical imagery and we know that human bodies can’t go on burning for ever and ever because they will be incinerated, and because we know that “fire” is an image and a metaphor quite often in the Bible for judgment and for purgation and maybe isn’t literal. And that therefore we wonder what it might be an image about — and we wonder and we hope and we do this because we believe in the Bible and hope that it might refer to something as simple as separation (as Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce).


i) A metaphor is not a blank slate.

ii) Yes, fire can stand for spiritual refinement, but that isn’t based on the mere usage of fiery imagery, but on a larger context in which purification is clearly in view.

iii) There is also the matter of temporal markers (“eternal,” “everlasting”).

iv) And there is also the matter of divergent destinies.


Why? Because we believe God is Sovereign, and that it is his judgment (not ours), and that what he wants to do will be Goodness itself, Beauty itself, and it will always be consistent with his glorious person. We want what he wants.


i) Does McKnight really believe that God is sovereign? Since he denies universalism, McKnight must either believe that God is able, but unwilling to save everyone--or else that God is willing, but unable to save everyone. If the former, then his position is no more loving than the traditional view; if the latter, then he denies the sovereignty of God.

ii) Does he want what God wants? Or does he want God to want what he wants?


Why? Because we might be wrong, and we’d like to be wrong because it pains us to hear our brothers and sisters talk the way they do about hell and final judgment as if it doesn’t matter and as if humans are dispensable and as if these brothers and sisters have got things so right and that they know they are on the right side — when the whole Bible points its fingers at attitudes like that.


It is the annihilationist who, be definition, regards some human beings as dispensable, not the traditionalist. We’re not the ones who say that God is zapping people out of existence.


These are some thoughts — and I am speaking for my own heart and the heart of others when I say these things, and I know what the Bible says and I believe what it says, but I’m with a lot of brothers and sisters who know that what it says is not that clear and that we ought to be more humble about it all and that we ought to spend our time loving our neighbors and not assigning who to where. I know what I think the Bible says but I hope that what I think is not what will happen — why? Because it is unbearable, friends, unbearable.


i) Notice the false antithesis. How is it unloving to forewarn men and women of impending danger? Of extreme danger?

ii) Many “unbearable” things are true. Unbearable things happen all the time. That should serve as a cautionary omen of things to come and things to avoid.

Monday, October 31, 2005

There goes the neighborhood


Rioting by youths in a Paris suburb has highlighted the discontent among sections of France's immigrant population.

The BBC News website's Henri Astier explores the sense of alienation felt by many French Muslims.

Like many others, Nadir Dendoune's suburb has turned into a ghetto

When Nadir Dendoune was growing up in the 1980s, his home town of L'Ile Saint-Denis, north of Paris, was a fairly diverse place.

"We were all poor, but there were French people, East Europeans, as well as blacks and Arabs," says Mr Dendoune, 33, an author and something of a celebrity in his estate.

Two decades on, the complexion of the place has changed.

"On my class photos more than half the kids were white," he says. "On today's pictures only one or two are."

L'Ile St-Denis is among the "suburbs" around French cities where immigrants, notably from former North African colonies, have been housed since the 1960s.

Blighted by bad schools and endemic unemployment, the suburbs are hard to escape.

The immigrants' children and grandchildren are still stuck there - an angry underclass that is increasingly identified through religion.

Ten years ago these youths were seen as French "Arabs".

Now most are commonly referred to, and define themselves, as "Muslims".

Many countries have ethnic and religious enclaves. But in France they cause particular alarm, for three reasons.

First, they are not supposed to exist in a nation that views itself as indivisible, and able to assimilate its diverse components.

Separatism, the French are told, is a plague afflicting the Anglo-Saxon multicultural model.

The government bans official statistics based on ethnicity or religion. As a result, no one knows exactly how many Muslims live in the country - at least five million is the best guess.

Second largest religion
Five million Muslims (estimate)
35% Algerian origin (estimate)
25% Moroccan origin (estimate)
10% Tunisian origin (estimate)
Concentrated in poor suburbs of Paris, Lille, Lyon, Marseille and other cities

Ghettos also threaten another tenet of French identity - secularism.

As the country celebrates the centenary of the separation of Church and State, Islam is seen as the biggest challenge to the country's secular model in the past 100 years.

Thirdly, the worldwide rise of Islamic militancy strikes fear in the heart of a country that is home to Europe's biggest Muslim community.

French police know that there is no shortage of potential jihadis in the country.

The assertiveness of French Islam is seen as a threat not just to the values of the republic, but to its very security.


Apostolic digression

Benedict XVI is one of the few pontiffs with the brainpower to make a case for his own job. Let’s see how he does:


That the primacy of Peter is recognizable in all the major strands of the New Testament is incontestable.


“Primacy” is a loaded word. Peter was a natural, albeit wavering, leader. These are personal qualities, not official qualities. His character traits are hardly transferable to an ecclesiastical office. To do so would be to personify an office, which is a category mistake.

And although Peter was a leader of the early church, he was not the only leader. He was not even the leader of the mother church in Jerusalem.


The real difficulty arises when we come to the second question: Can the idea of a Petrine succession be justified? Even more difficult is the third question that is bound up with it: Can the Petrine succession of Rome be credibly substantiated?

Concerning the first question, we must first of all note that there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament. This is not surprising, since neither the Gospels nor the chief Pauline epistles address the problem of a postapostolic Church—which, by the way, must be mentioned as a sign of the Gospels' fidelity to tradition.


They don’t address the problem of a postapostolic church? The very fact that you have a NT, that the Apostles bequeathed to the church a permanent written record of the Christ-Event and its theological significance in the Gospels and Pauline epistles and other NT documents is nothing if not a preparation for the postapostolic church.

In addition, the NT does set up a rudimentary form of church office to carry on the work of the Apostles. And it’s rudimentary because that’s all that’s needed in the life of the church. No elaborate bureaucracy is required.

Ratzinger is begging the question in his own favor by assuming that the NT left the problem unresolved. Why presume that NT teaching is incomplete in this respect? Why presume that the Apostolate left the job half-finished? Why not credit the NT authors with having said what needed to be said?


Indirectly, however, this problem can be detected in the Gospels once we admit the principle of form critical method according to which only what was considered in the respective spheres of tradition as somehow meaningful for the present was preserved in writing as such.


i) What about what was meaningful for the future as well as the present?

ii) This form-critical axiom will also be relevant to the question of dating. If, as the form critics would have it, the gospels were written late, as etiologies, to historicize preexisting dogma; if, that is to say, the gospel writers make up stories to illustrate the doctrine and practice of the post-70 AD church, so that the post-70 AD church supplies the sitz-em-leben of the Gospels, then why, on his own accounting, do the Gospels fail to address the problem of the postapostolic church if they were written in the postapostolic era? His position is self-refuting.


In those writings of the New Testament that stand on the cusp of the second generation or else already belong to it-especially in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Pastoral Letters—the principle of succession does in fact take on concrete shape.


Notice that Ratzinger is implicitly treating the Pastorals as deutero-Pauline. This is a euphemism for forgery.


The Protestant notion that the "succession" consists solely in the word as such, but not in any "structures", is proved to be anachronistic in light of what in actual fact is the form of tradition in the New Testament. The word is tied to the witness, who guarantees it an unambiguous sense, which it does not possess as a mere word floating in isolation. But the witness is not an individual who stands independently on his own. He is no more a wit ness by virtue of himself and of his own powers of memory than Peter can be the rock by his own strength. He is not a witness as "flesh and blood" but as one who is linked to the Pneuma, the Paraclete who authenticates the truth and opens up the memory and, in his turn, binds the witness to Christ. For the Paraclete does not speak of himself, but he takes from "what is his" (that is, from what is Christ's: (Jn 16: 13).


i) This is a straw man argument. Except for say, the Plymouth Brethren, most Protestants do not deny that you have church office in the NT. There is a “structure” in place.

The real issue is whether the high churchman is entitled to go beyond the NT church to mandate all manner of unscriptural accretions.

ii) How is the appeal to the Holy Spirit relevant to his case? Evangelicals do not deny that the Apostles and other NT writers were inspired. So how does the “pneumatic” criterion distinguish the Catholic position from the Protestant position?


This binding of the witness to the Pneuma and to his mode of being-"not of himself, but what he hears" -is called "sacrament" in the language of the Church. Sacrament designates a threefold knot-word, witness, Holy Spirit and Christ-which describes the essential structure of succession in the New Testament. We can infer with certainty from the testimony of the Pastoral Letters and of the Acts of the Apostles that the apostolic generation already gave to this interconnection of person and word in the believed presence of the Spirit and of Christ the form of the laying on of hands.


i) Notice the leap of logic. How does the category of “sacrament” emerge from what he just said? It doesn’t. He’s laid no foundation for this momentous inference. It just pops in out of the blue. This is, indeed, a key step in his argument, but he didn’t arrive at that juncture by stepwise logic. Rather, he’s skipping over many preliminary steps to get there. Observe the anachronistic equation of holy orders with the imposition of hands. There’s no logical transition from point A to point Z.


In opposition to the New Testament pattern of succession described above, which withdraws the word from human manipulation precisely by binding witnesses into its service, there arose very early on an intellectual and anti-institutional model known historically by the name of Gnosis, which made the free interpretation and speculative development of the word its principle. Before long the appeal to individual witnesses no longer sufficed to counter the intellectual claim advanced by this tendency. It became necessary to have fixed points by which to orient the testimony itself, and these were found in the so-called apostolic sees, that is, in those where the apostles had been active. The apostolic sees became the reference point of true communio.


i) The Gnostics didn’t merely reinterpret the Bible. They wrote their own apocryphal “scriptures.”

ii) Why is it necessary to counter an intellectual claim by an anti-intellectual appeal to tradition? Why not counter an intellectual claim on its own grounds? Why not point out that the Gnostics were guilty of Scripture-twisting?

iii) Tradition is also subject to interpretation.

iv) Restricting the interpretation of the Bible to the sole jurisdiction of the “Church” does not withdraw the Bible from human manipulation, but merely relocates the arena of manipulation. If the Gnostics can manipulate the Scriptures, so can the bishops.


But among these sees there was in turn–quite clearly in Irenaeus of Lyons–a decisive criterion that recapitulated all others: the Church of Rome, where Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom. It was with this Church that every community had to agree; Rome was the standard of the authentic apostolic tradition as a whole.

Moreover, Eusebius of Caesarea organized the first version of his ecclesiastical history in accord with the same principle. It was to be a written record of the continuity of apostolic succession, which was concentrated in the three Petrine sees Rome, Antioch and Alexandria-among which Rome, as the site of Peter's martyrdom, was in turn preeminent and truly normative. [2]


This may well be an accurate description of what took place, but what Ratzinger is describing is a polemical short-cut. Instead of out-arguing the heretics, appeal is made to tradition on the assumption that the teaching of a then-current apostolic see is identical with the teaching of the apostles. But this assumption is quite tendentious. For example, the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev 2-3) were apostolic sees, founded by the Apostle John. Yet some of them were already on the brink of apostasy.


This leads us to a very fundamental observation. [3] The Roman primacy, or, rather, the acknowledgement of Rome as the criterion of the right apostolic faith, is older than the canon of the New Testament, than "Scripture".

We must be on our guard here against an almost inevitable illusion. "Scripture" is more recent than "the scriptures" of which it is composed. It was still a long time before the existence of the individual writings resulted in the "New Testament" as Scripture, as the Bible. The assembling of the writings into a single Scripture is more properly speaking the work of tradition, a work that began in the second century but came to a kind of conclusion only in the fourth or fifth century. Harnack, a witness who cannot be suspected of pro-Roman bias, has remarked in this regard that it was only at the end of the second century, in Rome, that a canon of the "books of the New Testament" won recognition by the criterion of apostolicity-catholicity, a criterion to which the other Churches also gradually subscribed "for the sake of its intrinsic value and on the strength of the authority of the Roman Church".

We can therefore say that Scripture became Scripture through the tradition, which precisely in this process included the potentior principalitas–the preeminent original authority–of the Roman see as a constitutive element.

Two points emerge clearly from what has just been First, the principle of tradition in its sacramental form-apostolic succession—played a constitutive role in the existence and continuance of the Church. Without this principle, it is impossible to conceive of a New Testament at all, so that we are caught in a contradiction when we affirm the one while wanting to deny the other.


This is hardly a new argument. It’s a stock objection to the Protestant rule of faith. By way of reply:

i) The incomplete state of the canon is irrelevant to the authority of Scripture in relation to the institutional church.

To take a comparison, the OT canon was far from complete when the preexilic prophets were called up to denounce a decadent religious establishment. The Levitical priesthood preexisted the exilic and postexilic books of the Bible. That did not prevent the prophets from denouncing a corrupt religious establishment.

Just imagine an apostate high priest using Ratzinger’s argument on Isaiah or Jeremiah: “Now look here, Jeremiah: the priesthood is older that the canon of the OT. The canonization of the OT is more properly speaking the traditional work of Ezra. So don’t you go quoting the Mosaic Covenant to me! Without the primacy of the priesthood, it is impossible to conceive of an OT at all, so that you are caught in a contradiction when you affirm the one while wanting to deny the other!”

ii) Since the books of the NT were written at different times and places, it naturally took a while to collate them all. But that is a mere formality. Unless the NT documents are of canonical quality, they cannot be included in the canon--and if they are of canonical quality, they cannot be excluded from the canon.

iii) Just as the NT writings originally existed in geographical isolation, the NT church consisted of house-churches scattered hither and yon. So the state of the NT church is analogous to the state of the NT corpus. Just as the NT canon was instantiated in different times and places, the NT church was instantiated in different times and places. Some NT books were written before some NT churches were founded. Just as the NT writings weren’t written or collated all at once, the apostolic churches (or “sees”) weren’t planted all at once.

And if you want to extend the process of canonization into the 5C, you can just as well extend the process of Roman primacy into the 5C and beyond. So the argument from chronological priority is a double-edged sword.

iv) We aren’t bound by the criterion of Eusebius or Irenaeus. Ratzinger is confounding a historical process with a process of verification. We can have different criteria to justify the same historical outcome.

v) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the NT does bear witness to the "primacy" of Peter, why is Ratzinger appealing to the NT to validate the papacy? If he's going to argue that Roman primacy is the criterion for the NT canon, then how can he turn around and invoke the NT to legitimate the papacy? See the circular reasoning?


We can add that Rome and Antioch were conscious of succeeding to the mission of Peter and that early on Alexandria was admitted into the circle of Petrine sees as the city where Peter's disciple Mark had been active.


Were “conscious” of succeeding Peter. Wow, how’s that for proof postive! Have you ever noticed that every heretic and cult-leader is privy to this sense of consciousness as well?


Having said all that, the site of Peter's martyrdom nonetheless appears clearly as the chief bearer of his supreme authority and plays a preeminent role in the formation of tradition which is constitutive of the Church-and thus in the genesis of the New Testament as Bible; Rome is one of the indispensable internal and external- conditions of its possibility. It would be exciting to trace the influence on this process of the idea that the mission of Jerusalem had passed over to Rome, which explains why at first Jerusalem was not only not a "patriarchal see" but not even a metropolis: Jerusalem was now located in Rome, and since Peter's departure from that city, its primacy had been transferred to the capital of the pagan world. [4]


This geographical criterion is a non-sequitur. The logical form of the argument would be that whomever Peter ordained (through the imposition of hands) was Peter’s successor. Of course, in his far-flung ministry, Peter would have had occasion to lay hands on any number of individuals in different parts of the Roman Empire, such as the see of Antioch. And they, in turn, would ordain successors, such as the see of Alexandria.

So Ratzinger’s argument either proves too much or too little. And Ratzinger is about as capable as they come.