Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Church Fathers DON'T Need Your Help

It is no secret that I read blogs of people with whom I disagree, even vehemently. One of those persons with whom I have regularly sparred with (full disclosure: we do not like one another. Harsh words have passed from both his lips and mine towards each other) is Paul McCain, an ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and also director (not sure if that's hist title) of Concordia Publishing House, the publishing arm of the LCMS.

McCain regularly uses his blog (which is his right) to talk about Christian freedom and how uses of incense and icons and bells and vestments, etc. can all be used to distort the Gospel. Roman Catholics and Orthodox and even very confessional Lutherans are his favorite targets. He's especially fond to call out those of us who have departed Wittenberg and "swum the Bosphorus" as traitors and as something less than Christian. It's even worse if you happened to be a pastor in the LCMS who has left and then McCain really lets loose. Still, despite that, I regularly read what he writes or posts simply because there's some good material. It may not be right, but it's still good reading.

Lutherans quote the church fathers for their own purposes. I find it ironic that a church that prides itself so much on the (incorrect) doctrine of sola scriptura cannot argue support for that doctrine from Scripture itself. Instead they rely on the fathers. Actually, they tend to rely on excerpts from the fathers while ignoring greater context. So, whenever Protestants, but particularly Lutherans quote the fathers to defend their doctrine or praxis, you must be very weary.

What I love even more is when Lutherans get upset when the fathers don't say what they want them to say. Lutherans will often say that great saints like John Chrysostom or Augustine or John Damascene would be Lutheran if they were alive today, but then have to go through their respective works and treatises with a scalpel or with a paste function to make their sayings fit the Lutheran mold.

Take for example the following. Yesterday, on his blog, McCain was talking about fasting and then quoted from St. Ephraim the Syrian's Spiritual Psalter. Ephraim is one of our greatest hymn writers and his Spiritual Psalter is a must for anyone who wishes to really get into the depths of one's own soul and how it cries for repentance and its dependence on the Lord. Here is the excerpt:

Before Thy glory, O Christ my Savior, I will announce all my misconduct
and confess the infinitude of Thy mercies, which Thou pourest out upon
me according to Thy kindness.

From my mother’s womb I began to grieve Thee, and utterly have I
disregarded Thy grace, for I have neglected my soul. Thou, O my Master,
according to the multitude of Thy mercies, hast regarded all my
wickedness with patience and kindess. Thy grace has lifted up my head,
but daily it is brought low by my sins.

Bad habits entangle me like snares, and I rejoice at being thus bound.
I sink to the very depths of evil, and this delights me. Daily the
enemy gives me new shackles, for he sees how this variety of bonds
pleases me.

The fact that I am bound by my own desires should provoke weeping and
lamentation, shame and disgrace. And yet more terrible is the fact that
I bind myself with the shackles that the enemy places upon me, and I
slay myself with the passions that give him pleasure.

Although I know how dreadful these shackles are, I hide behind a noble
appearance from all who might see. I appear to be robed in the
beautiful clothes of reverence, but my soul is entagled with shameful
thoughts. Before all who might see, I am reverent, but inside I am
filled with all manner of indecency.

My conscience accuses me of all this, and I act as if I wish to be
freed of my shackles, yet I ever remain bound by the same snares.

How pitiful I am; and how pitiful is my daily repentance, for it has no
foundation. Every day I lay a foundation for the building, and again
with my own hands I demolish it.

My repentance has not even made a good beginning as yet; yet there is
no end to my wicked negligence. I have become a slave to passions and
to the evil will of the enemy who destroys me.

Who will give the water to my head, and the founts to my eyes for
tears, so that I may ever weep before Thee, O merciful God, that Thou
mightest send Thy grace and draw me, a sinner, out of the sea, furious
with the waves of sin, that hourly convulses my soul? For my desires
are worse than wounds that cannot be bandaged.

I wait hoping for repentance and deceive myself with this vain promise
until my death. Ever do I say, “I will repent,” but never do I repent.
My words give the appearance of heartfelt repentance, but in deed I am
always far from repentance.

What will happen to me in the day of the trial, when God unveils all
things at His court! Certainly I shall be sentenced to torment, if here
I have not moved Thee to mercy, O my Judge, by my tears.

Beautiful, isn't it? I can only imagine the beauty of it in the original Syriac. The themes of sin and the need for repentance are ever present here, but for McCain, it's simply not good enough. It needs to be "corrected" so McCain inserts his own words:

I hope on Thy mercies, O Lord; I fall at Thy feet and beseech Thee:
Grant me the spirit of repentance and lead my soul out of the dungeon
of iniquity! May a ray of light shine in my mind before I go to the
terrible judgment which awaits me, where there is no opportunity to
repent of one’s wicked deeds.

Anyone who has read St. Eprhaim's Spiritual Psalter knows that man's hope on the mercies and compassions of God is also an ever present theme. But, McCain feels the need to add to this one section. What St. Ephraim wrote was not wrong, theologically or otherwise, so why the insertion? My honest opinion is that people today make the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers say what they want them to say. Gay marriage or unions? No women priests? No abortion? No fasting? No liturgy? No monasticism? That was then, this is now. And we moderns are always right, right?

What McCain did is a microcosm of the war that is being waged against the church fathers and Scriptures from both without and within the various Christian communities. The rallying cry is that "we know better." How could anyone living 2000 years ago with cable, without internet, without ultrasounds, without cars, without MP3s, without HVACs, without indoor plumbing know "anything?" They don't hence the need to "update" their theology. Because no one could possibly know God without having the enlightenment of today.

Rather than let the Fathers and the Scriptures speak, we rehabilitate and redefine what is said. It is relativism where all viewpoints, except for traditional ones, are valid. Nothing is certain except for the certainty that things will change again depending on one's mood.

If Christ is the same yesterday, today and until the end of ages, then this constant rehabilitation to the witnesses of His Incarnation (i.e. Scriptures and the Fathers, amidst other things) mocks His Incarnation. It mocks our salvation in him. And it makes our egos our Lord and Master, rather than Christ.


  1. He's a dime a dozen heretic. Here's a thought, how would they judge him and everyone like him?

  2. Now Christopher, I think it very safe to say that every single communion of Christians "corrects" the fathers on various points - where we disagree is the points on which they need correction. The East has a rather strong tendency to try to correct St. Augustine, and is none too happy with some of St. John Chrysostoms statements about the utter worthlessness of any righteousness achieved by our own efforts...

  3. Is he misguided in his theology? Absolutely. Is he a jerk? No question. Does he hold clearly heterodox doctrines? Yes. Is he a heretic? I'm not willing to go that far simply because I think it's thrown around a lot. McCain isn't inventing any new doctrines, just going off of what he has received so I won't fault him for that.

    Your second point is interesting. It is of course easier to make judgments on those who preceded us simply because they're not around to defend themselves. At the same time, I would think that the humility of such people would win out and say and judge nothing.

    1. Fr. Weedon,

      If you read my post more clearly you would have seen this: What McCain did is a microcosm of the war that is being waged against the church fathers and Scriptures from both without and within the various Christian communities. The rallying cry is that "we know better." I was including the EO communion in here as well. See below for my comments on Augustine.

      With regards to your claims, the East doesn't correct Augustine. It condemns rightly what is wrong and praises what is correct, though there are some haters of Augustine who have clearly never read Augsutine like the late Fr.Romanides and the Rev. Dr. Azkoul. Even Augustine, in his Retractations, did a good portion of correcting for us. With regards to St. John Chrysostom, I've read his homilies on Romans (from which I assume you make the claim that you do) and I don't read the same thing as you do. He clearly says that our efforts are still clearly needed, but that does not translate 1:1 into modern Lutheran theology about how works are meaningless. You know as well as I do that the Fathers were sinners as well and got things wrong. If a church Father is wrong, the church does not include that opinion in the consensus patruum.

      One more thing, please do not call me Christopher.