Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Historiography: Rights and Wrongs

I am a pastor, not a professional historian. I am however an amateur historian, and have written history for publication, so I know a bit about how you do history. Sadly the discipline of Church history is either ignored or misunderstood by many evangelicals today. Historical ignorance is corrected by the injunction to "go and read a book", but there are those who know something about history, but do not understand how history is done

That was one of the worst things about the White-Pinto debate last week, that Chris Pinto demonstrated a thoroughly false historiography that is too common in certain circles. The word historiography in this context refers to the study of how we "do" history, and Pinto displays the view that certain historians of the 19th century form a "canon" (small 'c', note), a rule by which all other historians are to be judged. This isn't an uncommon view in certain circles, as witness the fact that there are still people who hold to the "trail of blood" view of Baptist history. Now of course when young Christians set out reading history, they will tend to go with the older writers, those of a viewpoint they themselves hold, and there is nothing wrong with that; a biography by a sympathetic author is always a far better read than a biography by an unsympathetic one, after all, and a history written by an atheistic Marxist intent on imposing his ideas of how things ought to have happened upon the record is going to be a pretty irritating read unless you are an atheistic Marxist (and even then...). But we must beware taking those favourite authors and saying, "If anyone disagrees with them, then so much the worse for the one disagreeing." As Christians who believe in the reality and objectivity of truth, our first commitment must be to that same truth, to what really happened, as opposed to what we would like to have happened. I don't just refer to the interpretation of history, what certain events mean, what motives lay behind a person's action, for example, but the actual historical record itself, who did what and when.

When we go any distance into the past beyond about a hundred years, our knowledge of history is based upon records, sources. As the knowledge of sources changes, so too our knowledge of the past does; to give one example, open a 19th century biography of John Knox such as Thomas M'Crie's famous work and it will tell you that Knox was born in 1505. More recent works, including the biography by Henry Cowan published in 1905, give the date as between 1513 and 1515, up to a whole decade later. Why is this? Because between M'Crie's writing in 1811 and Cowan in 1905 further research had been done on Knox, following M'Crie's lead. No historian is to be regarded ipso facto as having given the last word on a subject. Cowan notes that the traditional date of Knox's birth rested almost entirely upon a historian writing about 50 years later, in other words on a secondary source, while the later date is based upon Theodore Beza, who knew Knox personally, and other contemporary sources. Now M'Crie's work is a classic, and yet it is wrong on the date of Knox's birth because later historians were able to uncover data unknown to M'Crie. That is how history works, being based upon sources, the judgement of historians is liable to alteration if new sources come to light. There are also people who create fraudulent sources, which creates all sorts of havoc for historians. In E.C. Pike The Story of the Anabaptists (London, 1904) he refers to Goadby's Byepaths of  Baptist History and its reference to the graveyard at Hill Cliffe Baptist chapel, near Warrington, mentioning a gravestone dated 1357. It is quite certain that the stone in question had been fraudulently altered, firstly because its style was not 14th century, and secondly because old records exist that show what the original date on the stone was. In the effort to claim the name of "oldest" people have stretched points and flat out made things up. The temptation to exaggerate can be strong.

This being so, to claim that any historians, however orthodox their theology, are the canon by which all others are to be judged is just a demonstration of appalling ignorance of how history works. The great 19th century Church historians are not honoured by being treated as the be all and end all of history, as the men who gave us the infallible facts and interpretation, but by our following in their footsteps, taking up the trails that they blazed, developing the country they explored, exploring still further. Just because a particular interpretation of history is seen as favouring a particular theological position does not mean that, should the evidence force us to that conclusion, it may not have to be abandoned, as for example the claim that the Cathars and Paulicians were in any meaningful sense "reformers before the Reformation". Nor should we read back the excesses of the late Middle Ages into the age of Anselm, far less the age of Augustine. The historian must go where the evidence leads, not cling to Hill Cliffe as pre-Reformation when all the evidence shows it is of 17th century origin.

And the reader must recall that history is not an exact science; the reconstruction of what happened in the past is often straightforward, but sometimes it is not. In days past people were not so exact at keeping records as we are today, the exact date of an event was not seen as important in the way we see it - the event itself was what mattered. Historians of the past were men like us, capable of error, of being misled or of drawing false conclusions; that J.A. Wylie's estimate of the Cathars was in error does not mean that we should cast out everything he ever wrote, far less that we should all become Roman Catholics or something like that. But we should remember this: those writers were not infallible, and their writings are not inspired. And for us to treat them as such would be to do them a great disservice, for it would be to treat Protestant historians as though they were, in the field of history, infallible popes.

Friday, December 13, 2013

There is no Canon of Historians

Last night I caught up with the debate between James R. White and Chris Pinto on Fighting for the Faith. The subject was the date and provenance of Codex Sinaiticus, whether it is a genuine 3rd century manuscript, or was produced in the 1840s by Constantin Simonides. As one cannot prove a point by a series of speculations, I remain unconvinced by Pinto's arguments, which amount to "Well, it might have been." But the debate speaks for itself.

More worrying for me, as a student of 19th century church history, was the fact that is rather swiftly became apparent that Pinto elevated certain Victorian speculations about Jesuits, and certain Victorian historians, to a status of practical infallibility.

A friend directed me to Mr. Pinto's post-debate analysis/declaration of victory, in which I was disturbed, but not overly surprised, to read this phrase:
" The historic oracles of the 19th century were rejected in favor of White’s revisionist ideas of Church history."
Now that worries me for this reason: who decided that Wylie et al were "oracles"? Who made them a sort of "canon". I do not use the term to indicate inspiration, but in its strict sense of a rule by which all else is to be tested, because make no mistake, that is what Pinto has made them. And that is the undoing of all of his theories. No historian, however orthodox his theology, however good his research, is to be set up as an "oracle". No church historian speaks that way. All history is to be subject to revision if more data emerges on the issues at stake. The reality is that while J.A. Wylie was a very able man, he died in 1890, and many documents that were unavailable to him and his contemporaries are now freely available.

Now, I do not know which historian(s) Pinto relies upon for his statement concerning the Oxford Movement, "...the Oxford Movement which was the aggressive effort of Rome to reclaim England for the Pope" I suspect that he is relying on works such as Walter Walsh's The Secret History of the Oxford Movement, first published in 1898. It was suggested in some of these works that whilst Newman openly converted to Rome in 1845, in fact he had secretly become a Roman Catholic over ten years earlier on a visit to Rome in 1833, and that from 1833 until 1845 he had been a secret Jesuit agent working in the University of Oxford. It is important to remember that in the 1830s Roman Catholicism in the United Kingdom was still subject to certain restrictions, and many people regarded it as a foreign aggressor that wanted to take control of the state and bring back the execution of Protestants.

It is also however vital to point out that since Newman's death in 1890 no evidence has been discovered that would indicate a secret allegiance to the Papacy dating back to 1833, much less secret membership of the Jesuit order. Newman, after crossing the Tiber, joined the Oratorians, an entirely different religious order, and for much of his career in the Roman church was sidelined. There is in fact no reason to doubt that Newman's own account of his religious opinions and their changes given in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua is generally accurate, and any errors in it are lapses of the writer's memory rather than deliberate deception.

Brought up an evangelical Anglican, at Oxford Newman first came into contact, not with men pointing back to Rome, but with liberals who denied that the Bible was intended to teach the fundamentals of Christianity. Accepting this position, he sought authority elsewhere and found it in the Church. At first he adopted a position that can be called historic High Anglicanism, but found that logically untenable, and eventually ended up at Rome, the logical end of his position. Despite speculation by certain Protestant writers in the Victorian era, there has never come to light any evidence to suggest that the Oxford Movement was anything other than what it appeared to be, a group of Anglicans, influenced on the one hand by Romanticism and its visions of Medieval England and on the other hand by a liberalism that was questioning the authority of the Bible and thus led men like John Henry Newman to seek an infallible authority elsewhere.

And there is the great irony of all this; Pinto has erected Wylie and other Protestant writers into just such an infallible authority in the matter of history, not only its telling but also its interpretation. He does not mean to do this, does not even apparently see that he has done it, but he has.

[Illustration: The interior of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, where John Henry Newman was ordained]

Addendum: I missed the point where Pinto links the Revised Version of 1881 with the Jesuits, a truly remarkable feat given that the Roman Catholics invited to participate in the work (including, interestingly, John Henry Newman) refused to do so. And this is where I must accuse Pinto of being a conspiracy theorist. One mark of the conspiracy theorist is the tendency to connect everything to the conspiracy, which tends to assume the most enormous dimensions. The conspiracy theorist can become unable to understand that there are forces at work apart from his conspiracy, and sadly that seems to have happened with Pinto.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Kennedy-Lincoln Parallels

I have just finished listening to Chris Rosebrough's conversation with Joseph Atwill, not an easy thing to do given Atwill's stream of logical fallacies. His final argument is one that I took particular notice of, not because it was any good, but because it is such a wonderful example of a logical fallacy. The argument was basically, "look at the parallels between Josephus' account of his three crucified friends and the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Christ." 

It happens that tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and that reminds me that there are startling similarities between the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. John F. Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946, Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Kennedy was elected President in 1960. Both men were shot on a Friday, both men were shot in the head. Both Lincoln and Kennedy were succeeded by Southerners called Johnson. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808, Lyndon B. Johnson was born in 1908. These are far more compelling parallels than those between the Josephus account and the Gospel crucifixion accounts, which basically come down to "both feature three blokes getting crucified, and one of them lives afterwards while the other two die." Now I have checked, and all of these are facts.

Other parallels between Lincoln and Kennedy have been made, often becoming more and more strained as one or other President's history is shoehorned into the other's to make the parallelism more complete, e.g. "Booth shot the President in a theatre and fled to a warehouse, Oswald shot the President in a warehouse and fled to a theatre", this fails because equivocation is required on a number of words, yes Oswald was in a warehouse when he shot Kennedy, but he did the shooting with a rifle at long range, while Booth shot Lincoln at close range with a pistol while both men were in the theatre. Lincoln was shot in a theatre of the type where they put on plays, Oswald fled to a movie theatre. But even the genuine parallels are completely without meaning, merely interesting coincidences. Some are less surprising than they appear, for example a man first elected to Congress a century after another is, if he is later elected President, very likely to be elected President about a century after the other fellow. there are only seven days in the week, so the probability of a President being assassinated on a Friday is one in seven, and perhaps given that Sunday was a day of rest the true probability is closer to one in six. Johnson is a very common name. Then a sitting man is more likely to be shot in the head than anywhere else by a man trying to kill him - it's the most obvious lethal target.

Of course the list above is a list of similarities, carefully chosen for that reason, and therefore it would be erroneous to base any argument whatsoever on the list. It would be especially foolish to base an argument on any sort of probability of such a chain of coincidences having happened, irrespective of eyewitness testimony. But that's what Atwill does with the New Testament and Josephus. Any list of parallels may be factually interesting, but is probably factually meaningless. To attempt to subject the whole to a sort of statistical analysis and present the resulting analysis as something meaningful is quite simply an abuse of mathematics, for maths was never intended to be a tool through which we analyse history, discarding what we find mathematically incredible.

The very real, often surprising, similarities between the lives of these two Presidents are merely accidents of history, and the very slight similarities between two accounts of crucifixions are the same thing.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

'Covert Messiah' and conspiracy thinking.

I have deliberately given no free publicity to the 'Covert Messiah' non-event that happened in London's Secularist cathedral, Conway Hall (our picture is the back door, and does not do justice to the building, but is the only one I have on file), on Saturday, quite simply because the "evidence" presented was nothing more than an alleged code "discovered" in a correspondence between the writings of Josephus and the Gospels, a code that, like Lowell's "canals on Mars", exists solely in the eyes of the beholder. But what interested me, particularly as I had been reading The United States of Paranoia recently, was the use of the language of the Conspiracy Theory.

Again and again in the 'Covert Messiah' promotional material, we hear comments about "government control" and state conspiracies. This is no accident, it is the deliberate us of such language to appeal to the zeitgeist (no pun intended). Distrust of governments and police is high on both the left and the right, and the appeal of conspiracy theories in the west is undeniable. It is of course simply a fact that governments have in recent times conspired in a variety of ways to exercise control over what they deemed "undesirable" groups; there is no denying this. During World War II, for example, the British Intelligent agency MI5 secretly took control of the entire German intelligence network in the UK and used it to systematically feed false information to German military intelligence. In a less obviously benign example, the FBI used moles within organisations deemed to be "un-American" to disrupt the groups. Thus the idea of the Roman Emperors creating a fake religion to control the Jewish people is appealing to those with little knowledge of history and minds receptive to conspiratorial thinking, something that describes a large proportion of the Western population.

Conspiracy sells. The X-Files sold for that reason, The da Vinci Code sold at the bookstores (but not so much at the cinema), and an alarmingly large number of people believe that Barack Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim plotting to make himself dictator of the United States (though admittedly any number of people believing that is alarming). Even holocaust denial sells. And in Christian circles, The Two Babylons sells, despite being not only arrant nonsense, but antiquated arrant nonsense at that. Which brings us to another point; conspiracies sell on left and right, though of course rarely the same conspiracies. Despite the best efforts of certain left-wingers to depict right-wingers as conspiracy nuts and themselves as the rational types, in fact belief in conspiracy theories is at least as common on the political left as the political right. For every right-wing conspiracy theory about Barack Obama, I can give you a leftist one about George W. Bush, and in many cases the same theory about Bush.

Of course conspiracies happen, and to suppose that governments are always above-board and honest with their people is naive. But at the same time we should always try the claims, not accept them because they happen to agree with out own particular political ideology, religious belief or our worldview. In particular we ought to be suspicious of claims of grand conspiracies, for such claims are usually disguised attacks against a disliked party that the claim's originator wishes to destroy. The claim that Barack Obama is seeking to enslave the US populace is far too similar to the claim eight years ago that George W. Bush was claiming to enslave the US populace for me NOT to think that the motivation is not so much evidence of Obama's evil plan as a simple dislike of the man's politics, and the claim that the Flavians created Christianity to control the Jews is far too similar to Jack Chick's claims that the Vatican created Islam to control the Arabs for me NOT to think that the motivation is in reality a mere dislike of Christianity. In all these cases the common element is a fear of the party at the centre of the conspiracy is going to destroy "our America", and since the normal methods have failed, extraordinary methods must be adopted against the foe. The danger of this train of thought should be instantly apparent.

The accusation of the vast conspiracy takes the place of actually engaging with the other side; it seeks to imitate the act of Alexander the Great with the Gordian Knot, rather than untying, it tries to cut. By painting Christianity (or Islam in the case of Jack Chick) as the deliberate fabrication of a cynical conspiracy, it says in effect, "I do not need to address the claims of the other, for the other is merely deceived by an ancient plot of which they are ignorant, but I know the truth". Convenient, but a dodge at best. The Conspiracy is a pseudo-history that takes the place of the actual history, and justifies unthinking hostility in the place of serious intellectual engagement. At worst it places the other in the position of a delusional mental patient who needs to be restrained for his own good, justifying in the mind of the one holding it the most oppressive measures.

What therefore we need to do is to challenge the conspiratorial mindset. Not the idea that there are such things as conspiracies (there are such things, and governments do engage in them), but rather the mindset that regards government conspiracy as the first port of call when there is a school shooting or a terrorist attack, as the default explanation, so to speak, for all troubling events (for example, when the Boston Marathon was bombed there were websites that declared it to be a "false flag attack" even before a "flag" was announced). And more than that, we must challenge the conspiracy narrative that looks to a grand conspiracy as the cause of these events, whether that grand conspiracy is the Roman Catholic Church, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, or the Knights Templar (and the Knights Templar are always involved somewhere in these things). Instead we must teach history, study history, respect history, and treat the grand conspiracy as pseudo-history. Why? Most notably because the Grand Conspiracy is historically unprovable, there is no evidence for it. And its advocates reply that if it existed we should expect to find no evidence. At which point my scientific side comes in and points out that a hypothesis that is unfalsifiable is to be regarded as false. Or in more historical terms, if all evidence against a theory is to be regarded as evidence for a theory, then the theory has become a presupposition, an axiom, and as such has passed from the realm of history to the realm of metaphysics. The conspiracy has become, to all intents and purposes, an article of faith. And that's not a good idea. For it makes those who claim to be sceptics entirely unsceptical of their own conspiracy theory.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Beloved, Let us Love

"Beloved", says the Apostle John, "let us love one another, for love is of God." The Christian is called to love even, one might say especially, his or her enemies (Matthew 5:44). Now that means we pray for them, however unpleasant or persecuting they may be. And note that Jesus says, "Pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you." He does not encourage our sinful hearts by saying "Pray against those who spitefully use you..." We need no encouragement to add the imprecatory Psalms to our daily devotions or to pray that our foes may come to a bad end, but we emphatically need encouragement to pray that our foes may cease to be our foes and become our friends.

Now, if we wish to understand what love is, where better to turn than 1 Corinthians 13:

"Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

Note that love involves the opposite of suspicion. Rather than putting the worst possible construction on a person's words where there is an ambiguity, love puts the best possible construction. Love does not lightly make accusations, but shies away from such accusations unless it is forced to think otherwise. Love does not take any but the best arguments as evidence of a person's guilt. Malice should be one of those attitudes that the Christian "puts off", as Paul argues in Colossians 3.

Now, love does not mean being willfully blind to a real fault, for the sinner is to be reclaimed, and to overlook actual sin is not loving, for as long as sin is not confessed there can be no repentance, and to encourage a sinner to remain impenitent is to encourage sin. But no doubtful accusation, no mere argument of words, should be accepted by a Christian against a brother in Christ - or against a complete pagan and a persecutor, for that matter.

Let us be slow to speak in condemnation of another, and swift to examine the accusation carefully. Much harm has been done by those who, however well-meaning, have been too swift to share accusations that are either untrue or undetermined. Brethren, these things ought not to be so.

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Series: 'The Craft of Dishonest Quotation'

Having tried to look up the series I did some years ago on Gail Riplinger's dishonest quotations in 'New Age Bible Versions', it occurred to me to link the whole thing in one post, hence this one.

The series, 'The Craft of Dishonest Quotation'. deals primarily with Mrs. Riplinger's lies about B.F. Westcott, and the word is not too strong, as documented below.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Was Westcott an Occultist? Appendix 1
Was Westcott a Communist? Appendix 2
Westcott and 1 John 2:2. Appendix 3
On the Use of Words. Appendix 4
Another Word on 'The Christ'. Appendix 5
'The Godhead's Gone' - Is that Bad? Appendix 6

Watch out for the comments on some of the posts, there is some serious mud-slinging going on.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Right to be Wrong: Why Pop-Postmodernism leads to tyranny

To the unreflective, the slogan of postmodernism that "all views are equally right" sounds wonderful. The suggestion (quite false, I am quick to add) is that this means an end to persecution. Well, no, not really. For you see on a popular level, this idea that no-one is wrong and all are right reduces to the idea that no-one is allowed to be wrong. And that idea finally ends in tyranny. For we all understand that there is such a thing as truth and error, and in everyday life we use such categories. That's a good thing, for if I wish to put fuel in my car it is important for me to put the right fuel in, or the car will not run on it!

And the same thing applies with ideologies and philosophies; all of these work on the basis that they are true and the others are false, even Postmodernism does that! And people will keep on acting in such a way, whether they know it or not, whether they are honest about it or not.

And that is why the spread of the leaven of pop-postmodernism is dangerous, because the application of the idea that all sincerely-held views are valid is quite simply that people assume views that dissent from theirs are not sincerely held. This conclusion is not based upon assessment of people, but upon an often unconscious misapplication of pop-postmodernism. Not that it is merely found in recent decades, for the forerunners of Postmodernism have often fallen into the same trap, as the early Unitarians who assumed that all Trinitarian clergymen and preachers had to be hypocrites because "no educated man could believe in the Trinity".

Now, I am not saying that the "right to be wrong" means I have a right not to be corrected, but it must mean I have a right not to have the state attempt to correct me by means of penal sanctions. That is the great basis of the 18th century idea of toleration, that the state gives us a right to be wrong within certain limits (I do not have the right to persecute), and within those limits a vigorous intellectual debate can take place. It means no state heresy trials, but preserves the rights of individual debate, and of churches and societies to hold their own views and enforce them internally (so the Communist Party has the right to eject members who cease to be Communists).

Deny the right to be sincerely mistaken, and you deny any meaningful sort of toleration, because you assume that intellectual dissent is always due to deliberate evil. Western culture is dangerously close to making such a denial a matter of statute law, and that should concern everyone. I want the right to be wrong.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Conspiracy Mania

As one who still recalls the frequent bomb attacks by the Provisional IRA that were so marked a  feature of my childhood (all the more so since we lived close to a military base, though mercifully one that was never targeted), I cannot help but be variously amused and disgusted by the fact that certain persons in the US seem incapable of hearing about a terrorist outrage without immediately declaring that it is a "false flag attack". This makes no sense, of course, when no "flag" has been shown at all! So why do it? Well, the cynic in me (whom I must be careful not to feed too often) suggests that this is in order to boost ratings, but the alternative suggestion arises that in fact it is because the people who make these suggestions have so entered into the conspiracy mindset that to them all things must be linked to their notional conspiracy, in other words that they presuppose the conspiracy. It cannot be that there are real terrorists setting off bombs, it must be the conspiracy, it cannot be that anyone really decides in a moment of mental derangement to go into a school with guns, but there must be the conspiracy there behind it all.

And so begins the search for anything at all to "verify" this, anything that (to a totally untrained eye, mind you!) seems "wrong". And here we hit another problem; the "reality" that is at the back of the mind in these cases is oftentimes not reality at all, but fiction. Based upon the way well-rehearsed actors backed with state of the art special effects portray a scene, the conspiracy theorist assesses what he sees. Now reality, it is important to say, does not look realistic by the standards of Hollywood, for effects in action movies are bigger and more spectacular than the real thing, explosions are less destructive (unless they are CGI) than the real thing, while they are at the same time flashier, and guns all too often have unlimited ammo, or at least clips with wildly varying numbers of rounds in them (which is odd, as even blanks have to be fired from real guns with real magazines).

And there is another point to consider; we must postulate, must we not, that the conspirators cannot at one and the same time be diabolical masterminds and total idiots, that doesn't even work in Get Smart, let alone real life. A conspiracy that manages to fool most of the world must be very, very good. That means they will not make stupid mistakes that any fool could spot; thus anything that appears unrealistic must be considered very carefully, for it may very well be, so far from a sign that something is fake, a sign that it is not.

Not that the conspiracy maniac ever considers that, of course, for he is looking for confirmation, not for anything that could destroy his theory. And that is why the most insane suggestions have been taken up enthusiastically by otherwise sensible human beings, as witness those who bought the Sandy Hook Actors Conspiracy theory, a theory that, if thought about only works if we assume that Sandy Hook Elementary School either never existed, or that at least for the last decade the school was being set up for the shooting. For you see, whilst the TV viewer in California (say), has never been there, New England exists, Sandy Hook exists - if it did not, people would have noticed, and we would have to question the reality of everything, which way leads to madness. That means that the fake families would have to be introduced to the school as real, and so on and so forth. In reality it would have to be done in such a way that the fake families resembled real ones in every way. The alternative is only credible to someone who has not actually thought about it, or who has let Conspiracy Mania addle the brain.

And that is the real tragedy of all this - people abandoning critical thinking in the name of critical thinking.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What has Jerusalem to do with Hollywood?

Perhaps one of the more laughable (if it were not so serious) trends in modern evangelicalism is the Movie Sermon. These are sermons delivered in churches where the 'Text' is not from the Bible, but is rather the latest blockbuster movie from Hollywood or wherever. While R.F. Horton in his Verbum Dei proposed that the preacher might find a "Word from the Lord" in the newspaper, that isn't what these sermons are all about; instead they tend to be of the bait and switch method, and usually resolve themselves into a preacher who is barely able to exegete a Bible passage and who is more at home delivering a ridiculous parody of a self-help message with a straight face, unaware of how utterly parodic it is, attempting to draw some inane moral lesson from a piece of Hollywood fiction, or, in the worst cases, trying to draw some relationship lessons from James Bond. In that particular case, as someone who has actually read Fleming's entire output, and the dreadful continuation novels by John Gardner (In which the greatest surprise is that a character is who they claim to be), and Raymond Benson's first couple of continuation novels (when Bond fails to spot that the villain blatantly faked his own death and that the femme fatale is... well, one of the most obvious in history, it's time to stop reading), I find the idea of getting relationship hints from James Bond utterly hilarious on a number of levels. I mean, "long term relationship" isn't in the man's vocabulary. In the films it's made all the more inappropriate by the fact that Bond's marriage (in the hugely underrated On Her Majesty's Secret Service) is followed not only by the death of his wife, but that in the very next film he reverts to being Sean Connery. But I digress, so back to the point. And that is that either we are reading out of the film something glaringly obvious to begin with, or we are reading into it something that we decided we wanted to talk about anyhow and are merely glad of the excuse.

Personally I do not watch films or television looking for moral lessons - it usually detracts from the enjoyment of the actual thing that I am watching. That's not to say that most things don't have a point that they are trying to get across, even if it's something as inane as "don't be nasty to people" - we already knew that was a bad idea, thank you for reminding us. But you see, the big problem with the film sermon is that it ends there; it basically preaches morality, and usually a rather weak, milk-and-water version of that too. It becomes a gigantic Aesop, a moral message, and not a Gospel message. Well, I think that we can leave the Aesop to the film-maker; if the film's meant to communicate it, then it probably does a better job of it than we can, and we may be in the awkward position of pointing out the glaringly obvious, which is never a good idea.

No, as Christians we are supposed to preach the Gospel, we are meant to be about Jesus Christ and him crucified. And that is something that Hollywood does not do, on the whole. So that means that if we look at popular fiction (and I see no reason not to, within sensible limits), we shall be looking at it in two ways; first of all as illustration, and secondly, and more rarely, for echoes of the Gospel of Grace.

Illustration is fairly self-evident; a story in a film, or a scene in a TV show, illustrates a Biblical point, so why not use it to a congregation or audience who will know what you are talking about? Or it illustrates the hopelessness of mankind without the Gospel, or without the Word of God. There's nothing wrong with that, provided that the illustration does its job - that it illustrates, in other words.

The question of echoes is rather more complex; basically it is when a piece of popular fiction, perhaps all unknowingly, points to Christ, or to a truth that is really only opened up in Scripture. The most obvious example to me is the character who, rather than exercise power to destroy, suffers pain, even death, to redeem. The trouble with this is of course that by its very nature this point is hard to illustrate, because the examples always constitute spoilers, and we do not like them. This would be something deep and thoughtful, like the protagonist who must embrace the evil without becoming evil, who must suffer without being tainted, all to redeem those who are under the sway of the evil. And I am thinking of a specific thing here. Let's just say one of the more surprising Christ-figures in popular entertainment.

And here we come upon a very interesting point - namely that very few movie sermons, if any, deal with such things. The thoughtful, the intelligent, the challenging, all those are things you will not hear from pulpits where films and TV are taken as texts. Because that would be far too challenging, of course, for those who come to hear how they should emulate Captain America and not the Red Skull, because if the Church did not tell them that they might be confused.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Tyranny of the Non-Expert

It is one of the ironies of our modern society that we are simultaneously far more reliant on experts than we have been in the past and far more distrustful of experts. Our technology is so complex that most people simply cannot understand it; we drive cars that we cannot fix ourselves and I am writing this using a computer the working of which are to me a deep mystery. So we rely upon the expert. On the other hand, resenting this, we do not trust the expert. This can be a good thing; sometimes the expert is a rogue as well as an expert, and sometimes he is only pretending.

The trouble comes when non-experts try to be experts. Since about 2005 I have followed with interest the conspiracy theories surrounding the terrorist atrocities of 9/11. I first came across them in that year, with people remarking on how things "looked wrong". Being me, I immediately asked "in what way?" What it came down to was people on the internet who are not air crash investigators drawing conclusions based upon what they thought the incidents should look like, without any actual understanding of what was going on; particularly painful to me was the remark, then common, that there were "pyroclastic flows" at the World Trade Centre collapse. A pyroclastic flow, for those interested, is a phenomenon associated with volcanoes and is basically a flow of hot gases and rock, so hot that it will incinerate any living thing it touches. Yet there were these conspiracy theorists using the term to mean simply a dust-cloud! The non-expert, the armchair detective, is hampered by the fact that he really does not know what he is doing, but believes that he has watched enough thrillers and read enough sensational fiction to know what a crime is like. He is mistaken.

The attempts to locate the Boston Bombers by internet non-experts followed precisely the same pattern that the majority of such efforts do; wild mass guesses and people following their own prejudices. Far more useful were the reports of actual eyewitnesses on the ground.

As we should really have come to expect since 2001, there were those who instantly wanted to suggest that it was a "false flag attack", never mind that no flag was really identified until yesterday! The great argument used was that certain images "felt wrong". Any terrorist attack, by definition is wrong; thankfully they are also quite rare in the West. It is a different story in other parts of the world. However, the very rareness of these events means that most people's understanding of how these things "should" look is based upon fiction. And here is the crowning irony; based on a comparison with fiction, non-experts are pronouncing images fake! All because reality does not look like Hollywood's version of it. At the same time people like Alex Jones, chief promoter of all things conspiratorial, have created a narrative of their own lives that reads like a Hollywood thriller, except of course that it is, like the Hollywood plot, fiction as well, and the forces of darkness they are fleeing from exist only in their own minds. Do you want proof? The fact that Alex Jones is still broadcasting is proof enough, for in the police state he believes he inhabits he would long ago have been arrested.

A non-medical person with no experience of dealing with major injuries simply does not know what such injuries really look like; he or she has no competence to comment one way or the other based on a single news photograph. But because that person does not think it looks right, or (more likely with people we tend to meet) a person they follow thinks so, again without medical experience or knowledge, they will pronounce a picture fake, and then look around for reasons why.

This is the tyranny of the non-expert; for the non-expert is so unwilling to defer to the expert that he or she cannot be shown to be wrong.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Unspoken Assumption that Needs to be Spoken

The gay marriage debate is one of the most acrimonious and unpleasant things around at the moment. One of the more amusing (to those with a warped sense of humour) aspects of it is the number of times that secularists say that religious arguments should not be brought to the table or given any weight. My response to this is, "why? I know that your argument is an excellent dodge to get your point of view passed without real debate or discussion, but why?"

You see, the argument begins by assuming that religious arguments are always invalid, which is a wonderful enlightenment dodge to make sure you never have to examine them, but which should not be allowed to itself go without examination. The secularist assumes that secularism, as a philosophy, is true, and therefore everyone else has to follow his rules. In a postmodern, plural society, that assumption cannot be allowed to stand, because it at one stroke destroys all real plurality of views. This is, incidentally, why Modernist pluralism is sheer humbug, but that is another matter.* Rather, modern Britain consists of people from a huge variety of backgrounds, in various religions and cultures. So why is it that not one religious person is allowed to come to the table as a religious person? Is that not deciding the outcome before the debate? Is it not as absurd, if not more so (for after all, in the Middle Ages the population of England was overwhelmingly Catholic) a Medieval friar declaring that a Lollard must affirm the faith of the Catholic Church that the Eucharistic elements are transubstantiated before they debate the Mass?

We must affirm the fact of pluralism without falling prey to a philosophy of pluralism. The fact is that Evangelical Christians are a small minority in this country, and we cannot realistically expect our views to be accepted by all. But it is an equal fact that the secularists are also a small minority, yet they expect without question or debate to be able to impose their views on everyone else. We cannot allow the Secularist to treat his worldview as the default position - rather there is no default position, and each may and must speak from his or her own position. That way at least we get honesty, and hopefully also clarity!

* Modernist pluralism is humbug because really (though usually unconsciously) it says that only modernism is true, and that a plurality of faiths are allowed only really insofar as each is moving towards a full acceptance of modernism, or allows itself to be regarded as completely irrelevant. Certainly only Modernists are allowed a seat at the table.

Where do Ethics Come From?

It was one of my regrets in Seminary that I missed the first lecture on Christian Ethics, and was  therefore unable to use the joke that I had memorised for the occasion, namely, "What is a lawyer's definition of ethics? The county immediately to the north of London". While the absence of the joke was undoubtedly appreciated, the subject is one that is of great importance - what is the distinction between right and wrong, and how can we know it?

Local pastors are usually, like General Practitioners in medicine, expected to know a little about everything, which means we are rarely masters of any one topic - which is probably a good thing, as specialists in one field are often supremely (and dare I say all too often invincibly) ignorant of others. Now, there are many good works on Christian ethics out there, and one blog post cannot hope to cover the field in anything like a comprehensive way, which rather conveniently exempts me from trying to do so. Rather, I want to ramble on about a topic that is of great importance in the moral debates of our day; namely, the source of our ethics.

The great moral debate of our day, at least in public, is that of same-sex marriage. It is not a debate so much because there of a prevalence of doubt on the matter, but because of two vehemently opposed certainties. On the one hand there is the certainty of the orthodox Churches, that it is entirely wrong, and on the other hand the certainty of the liberal social elite that it is entirely right, even a fundamental human right.

In debate, it seems that the two sides are often talking past each other - quite often because they are; they are trying to appeal to the undecided middle, knowing that the other side is quite unwilling to be convinced. But even when the debate is between two persons, there is often a complete inability to understand the other's argument. Now, when I say "understand", I do not mean "agree with". There is another problem entirely, the idea that one cannot understand another's position without affirming it to be correct, but I digress. The fact is that the reason why the differing parties cannot agree is, as the wit once said about the two fishmongers arguing across the street, "Because they are arguing from different premises."

The problem, as I see it, is one of authority; what is the source of our morality? Generalising enormously, but necessarily, we can identify three different views on the matter: The first is the view we may call the Transcendent, that morality is determined by an authority outside of man. The other two views are Immanentist, that morality is determined by man. The first of these is what we may call the Societal, morality is determined by society. The second is the Individualist, that morality is a matter of personal choice and values. Again, over-generalising to an almost criminal extent we may describe the first as pre-Modernist, the second as Modernist, and the third as Postmodernist. Before the Enlightenment most people held that morality was Transcendent, that God determined what was right and wrong. The primary example of this would be the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, "God spoke all these words..." The Enlightenment led to the idea of morality as a social construct, rules mutually agreed upon by a society. The Postmodern philosophers and their disciples, however, criticised this as an act of power, the dead hand of the past imposing itself upon the people of the present, or the social elite imposing its will upon the powerless.

Where we are today in the West is in fact somewhere between the two different Immanentist views of morality, and this is where the conflict lies. Despite the oft-repeated saw that "you cannot legislate morality", many of our laws are attempts to do just that, and they always have been. Most people do not object to efforts to legislate their own morality, just efforts to legislate moral ideas and ideologies they do not agree with. Now, if there is one area of morality that the semi-postmodern society regards as entirely beyond not only the reach of law but also of criticism, it is sexual morality. The problem is that marriage is precisely the state declaring that certain forms of sexual conduct are more favoured than others - which is why marriage has a particular form. The language of "Marriage Equality" has been adopted by some campaigners for same-sex marriage, quite ridiculously, given that they will vehemently deny that they wish polygamy and polyandry to be legal. If sexual morality is truly merely personal, then the state should have no concern in the matter at all apart from protecting the vulnerable from abuse. Marriage, in a consistently Postmodern view of sexual morality, should not be a concern of the state at all.

On the other hand the Christian argues from entirely different premises; that we do not get to decide what is right and good and what is, on the other hand, bad, but that we are the creatures of God, who has made us and who has made us in his own image. God's laws are not purely arbitrary, like the law that says you cannot exceed 70 mph on the motorway, they are the expression of God's character and of our nature. If I may put it reverently, God could not have given ten different commandments upon Mount Sinai. God stands above all of us, though he is also not far from any of us. He gets to decide what is right and good, we do not, no, not even if we are seated together in a place of worship and are elected representatives of the Christian people. The Church can neither condemn what God has approved, nor can it approve what God has condemned.

That is the state of the question. I would further argue that only from a Transcendent understanding of morality can we consistently critique others and ourselves (though not in that order). While the philosophers of the Enlightenment supposed that they were building their "rational moralities" on universal principles, we see far more clearly now that they were unconsciously reading Christian presuppositions into their analysis, and the idea of morality as decided by the society all too easily becomes morality decreed by an educated intellectual elite, which descends into nightmare in the Cambodia of Pol Pot. What is more, it cannot be consistently maintained, for a merely societal morality cannot critique a different society without assuming an unwarranted attitude of moral superiority. A purely personal understanding of morality is simply unworkable, as we all, however much we isolate ourselves, must live in society, and life together is impossible without a shared moral code, however rudimentary. But that is not my point here; rather that point is that until we realise that we are proceeding from radically different ideas about how we derive our morality, we shall never really be able to talk to those with whom we disagree.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Old and Eccentric Churches: 3. Broughton, Staffordshire

The phrase "old and eccentric" might have been invented for the Church of St. Peter, Broughton, Staffordshire. After the Reformation, English Church-building styles did not change overnight, so that writers have spoken of a "Gothic Survival" well into the 17th century. St. Peter's is a great example of that survival, built in 1630-34, it could have been constructed a century earlier. The reason for its odd shape is that this is not a Parish Church at all; it is rather a country house chapel intended to serve nearby Broughton Hall, and the servants and tenants of the Broughton family.

 This family Church was spared the ravages of the Civil War, and has developed since then. Owing to the old English custom of younger sons of landowners becoming clergymen, a number of incumbents have also been of the Broughton family. The size of the chancel suggests that the original builder was sympathetic to the ideas of Archbishop Laud. The interior, with its 18th century box pews, two-decker pulpit and various family monuments, is a gem. It is not normally open, but there is a number that you can call to summon a very knowledgeable and helpful Church Warden.
 Being a family Church, it has many family monuments. This one is to Lt. Col. Spencer Broughton, a well-travelled soldier who died at sea in 1702 - hence the warship at the bottom of the tablet. Most of the tablet describes his adventures in the service of the crown.
The font, at the back of the Church, is extremely odd - for one thing, it is so positioned as to be impossible for the majority of the congregation to see it, as it is placed in one of the piers of the tower arch. For another, it is clearly a re-purposed something else - namely a pre-Reformation holy water stoup. Tradition says that it came from a demolished monastic Church. It is quite convenient for small private baptisms, of course, which is what it was meant for!
As you can see, the font is completely invisible from the nave. And no, it is not an optical illusion, the tower arch is significantly out of true. This is one of the last Gothic Churches built in England in the 17th century, but the architect (if there was one) was not as proficient as his Medieval predecessors. Or maybe he was just cheap.
The stained glass of the east window is constructed out of bits of other windows re-used in a patchwork quilt effect. It is supposed to show the patron saints of England, Scotland and Wales, but the man who put it together had never heard of St. David, and so confused him with King David - as seen here. David's legs, head, body and crown are from at least three different stained glass figures, not all to the same scale, thus he looks comically deformed.
Finally, the pulpit and reading-desk are the focal point of the 18th-century furnishings of this 17th century private chapel that has since become a tiny Parish Church.
And so farewell to this eccentric little church, the chapel of the Broughtons of Broughton Hall.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Old and Eccentric Churches: 2. St. John's, Ashbourne

The Church of St. John, on the Buxton Road in Ashbourne, is a very different building from St. Mary, Mappleton, and yet the two are in some ways very similar. Most notably, they are Anglican buildings that are intended to be "Protestant", auditory spaces for the preaching of sermons rather than "Catholic" spaces for the drama of the Mass. While Mappleton was a new Church on an old site, built because of the decay of the old building, St. John's was built as the result of a disagreement in the Parish Church of All Saints in the 1860s. The Vicar, it would seem, was influenced by the ideas on theology and worship coming from Oxford and Cambridge, while one of the the leading local industrialists, Francis Wright, led a Protestant party. Eventually Wright and his friends left the Parish Church, but not the Church of England. They built a grand propriety chapel - a private church not connected to the Parish system - and paid for a minister for themselves

The chapel was of course St. John's. There is nothing terribly unusual in a wealthy man of the period building his own Church - it was done by people of all shades of Anglican theology, and there are also Nonconformist and Roman Catholic places of worship that deserve the title. These buildings, being largely the result of one man's piety, are sometimes very personal in their architecture, and can be theological statements in stone or brick. One example of the theology of St. John's architecture is the tymapnum over the west door, which is also the main entrance. It bears the words of Jesus from Matthew 18:20, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." This is the Protestant (and even Nonconformist!) idea of the "gathered Church" rather than the Parish model, the Church as the company of God's elect, the "little flock" in the midst of the world

There is however nothing little about St. John's. This is Protestantism on the grand scale, a great auditory space like Spurgeon's Tabernacle in London, taking advantage of modern technology - and not coincidentally Francis Wright's own ironworks - to create a huge open worship area.  Narrow columns of cast iron create the minimum interruption, and if the communion table is (as in our picture) occasionally obscured, the pulpit is not.

This is deliberate: The pulpit is the most important item in St. John's, where the Gospel is to be preached from. It would have originally also had a reading-desk beside it from which the service would have been read. By the 1870s the age of the three-decker pulpit was well and truly past, but still the simple woodwork of the pulpit looks back to an earlier age. Though the form of the building is Romanesque externally, even to the apse (which provides a conveniently shallow chancel), the interior is pure Victorian Protestantism. 
Looking west, the effect is even more pronounced. It could be a Nonconformist chapel, and the vicar at All Saints' who provoked the secession would no doubt have pronounced it as good as one. A Nonconformist chapel would, of course, have provided a deeper gallery than the one at St. John's, which seems to have been intended for singers and musicians, but that is all. The singing gallery was also a Protestant statement - the Anglo-Catholics had their robed choirs in stalls in the chancel or Choir of the Church.
The pews of St. John's are said to seat over 600. Tall windows with clear glass flood the wide preaching-Church with light in contrast to the "dim religious light" filtered through stained glass.
Cast-iron windows are another reminder that the man who paid for this was the owner of an ironworks. The style of tracery is one to be found in many Nonconformist places of worship - not coincidentally including Ashbourne's Wesleyan chapel! This is Victorian Anglican Protestant militancy in stone and iron - and a wonderful building it is too.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Old and Eccentric Churches: 1. St. Mary, Mappleton

The 18th Century has given us some of the most eccentric English Parish Churches. Before Sir Christopher Wren, the tendency of English Church architects was to continue in the Gothic style, though there were notable exceptions. Wren attempted to build Anglican Churches that were "properly Protestant", as we might say. He had his imitators and his followers, and until the rise of the Gothic Revival, these produced a number of neoclassical Church buildings.

One of the most fascinating of the post-Wren English Church architects is James Gibbs, who was a pupil of Wren. By far his most well-known Church is St. Martin-in-The-Fields, London. Probably his most obscure Church is the one that we are going to consider - St. Mary's, Mappleton, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, probably built at some time between 1710 and 1750.

Not much is known about what Gibbs had to work with at Mappleton, though it is known that there had been a previous building on the site since at least the reign of Edward. What this building was like is quite unknown, but the outline of Gibbs' Church is a very traditional English Church, a rectangular nave/chancel and a square tower. Does it reflect the form of the Medieval building? While his London Churches all include a steeple incorporated within the structure of the Church, at Mappleton the tower is a separate structural component, though it is still the location of the front door.

The tower is topped by a dome crowned with a lantern, and the windows are typical round-headed windows that would have originally been filled with clear glass. The whole thing is very reminiscent of Wren's smaller London Churches, though it is smaller than any of them. Of course, the first question that suggests itself to the visitor on finding this rather accomplished little building in the middle of no-where is, "What on earth was James Gibbs doing in Mappleton?" The answer seems to be that he was approached to design St. Mary's while in Derby, working on the rebuilding of All Saints' (now Derby Cathedral).

Internally very little of the original furnishings survive; pulpit and pews have been replaced long ago, the former by one discarded from Ashbourne Parish Church. The roof, which would originally have had a plaster ceiling (note the brackets that would have supported the ceiling beams) has been exposed, thus raising the height of the ceiling. Still, the effect is, like Wren's Churches, auditory - this is a Church primarily meant for hearing preaching rather than for the Medieval drama of the Mass. The pulpit, meant for a much larger building, is therefore actually appropriately dominant, though Gibbs would have provided a three-decker in approved Georgian style.

The organ, which intrudes so markedly into the oblong building, is of course also a later addition. The gallery would have housed the rustic choir and their equally rustic accompaniment, the exact nature of which would have been largely dependent on the varying musical talents of the villagers. A vestry has been created by the construction of a wooden box under the galley on the south side.

The font, which not original, is of a size appropriate to the building. Quite probably the Georgian rector (who was always the Vicar of Ashbourne as well) would have conduced his baptisms using a silver bowl on the communion table. A later Victorian rector is responsible for this miniature font with its incongruent Gothic detailing and Minton tile floor. Since 1974 Mappleton has been part of the United Benefice of Ashbourne. It is still a well-loved and used village Church, open at all reasonable times and very much worth a visit, if only to see a "Wrenaissance" village Church.

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: The Branch, Dewsbury

Christian bookshops, like all bookshops, come in many shapes and sizes. There are some that are large chain stores, corporate, sleek, predictable, and others are small, independent and quirky. As you have guessed, I like the quirky ones, large or small, whether independent, like the Christian Bookshop in Ossett, or not, like the magnificently eccentric Barbican Books in York, with its staircases many and rooms many. The Branch Christian Bookshop, Dewsbury (17 Halifax Road, Dewsbury WF13 2JH), certainly falls into the quirky category. Look at our illustration - surely it is a small book, you think. You would be wrong; like Doctor Who's TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside. You enter to find yourself in an Aladdin's Cave of second hand Christian books, all reasonably priced, and a staircase invites you "further up and further in" to where the new books are. It all makes sense when you realise that you have, quite unbeknownst to you if approaching from out of town (as I did), actually stumbled across the old Gospel Temperance Hall (now Dewsbury Gospel Church), a splendid 1930s building illustrated here. A good selection, comfy sofas to sit on while checking books you are interested in purchasing, friendly and helpful staff, this is a great place to go to - though make sure that, if possible, you combine your visit with one to the Christian Bookshop at Ossett, nearby. The best thing about these shops is that they actually sell books, even dog-eared, battered books over a century old. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Pope Resigns

Joseph Ratzinger was born in Bavaria in 1927. In 2005, following the death of John Paul II, he was elected to the Papacy, and took the name Benedict XVI. In a huge shock, on 11th February 2013 he announced that he would be resigning from office at the end of the month. I had to check to make sure he had not said that he would be resigning on the 29th February 2013, but no, he really meant it.

And yes, a Pope can do that. Celestine V established that in 1294, shortly before exercising the right, quite probably because the man who would succeed him as Boniface VIII was leaning rather heavily on him at the time (with good reason, we hasten to add, Celestine V was a hermit who could not handle the role). But it is a right that has been exercised very little. Now, as far as I am concerned the whole thing is a matter of very little importance. The nice thing about Benedict XVI is that you know where you are with him. He is a conservative Roman Catholic, and so he believes there is such a thing as absolute truth. That's the good part.

 But the trouble is, he's wrong about some rather important matters. The whole Roman Catholic system is the problem, and however good a man a pope may be, he is still holding an office that ought not to exist. Many years ago in a small village church by a river in Norfolk, I heard an old Anglican minister give a short sermon on the Papacy, and one thing that stuck was that good old man's insistence that there is really no such thing. There is a Bishop of Rome (that is, a chief Presbyter of the Church of Rome), but he has no right to the title of "Papa", that is, "Father", as his exclusive property. That has stuck with me, though the man who taught it to me is now in glory, where few great men in the eyes of the world go. There is no office of Pope in the Bible!

Back in 2005 I was at Seminary in London, and Rev. Graham Harrison, my systematic theology tutor, set us as an essay topic, "What happened to the Pope when he died?" Of course he meant us to think about the Bible's teaching about the end of a person's life. What it finally comes down to is this: what or who are you trusting in? And I am very much afraid that the Roman Catholic Church encourages people to put their trust in the wrong place; in the Roman Catholic Church, not in Jesus Christ. It represents itself as the channel of God's grace (coincidentally it was Boniface VIII, who persuaded Celestine V to resign, who promulgated the Bull Unam Sanctum, which officially stated that outside the Roman Catholic Church there is no salvation), though liberals have modified this in recent years.

More than that, it has a fundamentally false idea of grace, that it is in the nature of a substance that you may have more or less of; and the whole sacramental system of Rome is a massive and elaborate method of getting and keeping this "stuff" that centres upon what the believer does, and upon the priestly system. While the Bible tells us that there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, Rome says in effect "yes, but you need mediators with the mediator". In effect it lost the humanity of Christ through emphasising his kingship, for it made him a Medieval king, approached through his courtiers (the saints) and his mother, and not the one we may go to directly.

The Council of Trent is still the touchstone of Roman Catholic theology. Of course Rome teaches that grace is necessary for salvation - but not that it is sufficient for salvation. Rome still teaches that we must co-operate with the Holy Spirit in salvation, and have the free will to do so or to refuse; that salvation is not after all, "All of grace". However many liberal Roman Catholics explain it away, Transubstantiation is still taught, Purgatory is still dogma, and the Mass is still said to be a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ. Alphonsus Ligouri's Glories of Mary is still very much representative of Roman Catholic thought, however horrific (and yes, I have read it, at Seminary, back when we had that essay!) it may appear to Protestants.

There will be those who will point to the scandals of child abuse by Roman Catholic priests - and that is a terrible thing. But there have been Protestant pastors who have done the same thing, and Protestant Church members too. No, the problem with a Roman Catholic priest is not that he is a wicked man, but that he is a sacrificing priest! The problem with monasteries is not that they are sinks of iniquity - it is that they are monasteries. Protestants and Roman Catholics all agree that child abuse is wrong - the priest abusing a child is being a bad Roman Catholic. But even if he is a good Roman Catholic, he is in error! At the time of the Reformation there were many who, like Desiderius Erasmus, criticised the abuses of the papacy, but it took a Luther to see that the real problem was not the abuses, but that false doctrine about salvation had crept into the Church.

A number of leading Protestant scholars have said many nice things about Ratzinger - and a lot of those things are true, so far as they go. But at this time what Protestants need to do is to point out, as that faithful old man in the Norfolk Church did, that Ratzinger occupies an unbiblical office, and however many good things he has said, however many good books he has written, facts are facts, and he is not our Pope - because we have no pope. And also we must say that, whatever his excellencies (and they are many), there is one fatal flaw - the fatal flaw of the Roman system of salvation by grace plus. The Gospel is more important than anything; we must speak the truth in love - and remember that we dare omit neither the love nor the truth!