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So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.—2 Thessalonians 2:15

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Presbyterians à la mode-a-lism | Poor choice of words or heresy or both?

What are we saying to each other?

In this day and age, Christian ecumenical dialogue is made all the more difficult by rather vague statements of faith that, because certain groups bend over backwards to be inclusive and tolerant to the point of virtually becoming unitarian, require a great deal of patience to unpack in order to determine what certain communities actually mean by their choice of words. Even then, after all the unpacking is done, one is left with the sense that, because those same groups have virtually emptied language of meaning and thus reduced their creedal statements to that of the theological equivalent of carob (... it's just not chocolate!), the various partners in dialogue will never arrive at common ground because, frankly speaking, there is none. The common ground is merely shifting sand.

The website of the Presbyterian Church of Canada (PCC) refers to the protestant Westminster Confession which states:
III. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. (Italics added. They haven't forgotten their Catholic theological formulations!)
Ok, fine and well. The same website also presents the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, though the Nicene Creed has been modified to make it PC. Politically correct, that is, not Presbyterian Church. Neutering aside for the moment, there is this awkward bit in the section entitled ‘What We Believe’ under the 'God is Triune' tab at the PCC website:
Belief in the Trinity — God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is central to the faith (shouldn't that be a capital "F", as in the Christian Faith?). God is the Father to whom we come, the Son through whom we come, and the Spirit by whom we come.

The doctrine of the Trinity teaches belief in one God who exists as three “persons” with the word “person” having a different meaning from common usage today. The word comes from the Latin “persona” meaning the mask through which actors spoke in Greek plays; and this word was derived from the Latin words “per” and “sonare” meaning to speak or sound through. The original meaning of the word shows we are concerned not with a mask that hides, but with a medium that reveals. The one God comes to us in three modes. (Yikes!!)

The doctrine of the Trinity arises from all that the Bible tells us about God as the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. The New Testament writers portray Jesus through his words and actions as divine and the Son of God. (See John 1:1-3,14; Colossians 2:9, and Hebrews 1:1-3.)

Adapted from Being a Presbyterian in Canada Today by Stephen A. Hayes, pp. 5-9. (1978)
"The one God comes to us in three modes."
Monarchians
from New Advent/Catholic Encyclopedia 
The Monarchians properly so-called (Modalists) exaggerated the oneness of the Father and the Son so as to make them but one Person; thus the distinctions in the Holy Trinity are energies or modes, not Persons: God the Father appears on earth as Son; hence it seemed to their opponents that Monarchians made the Father suffer and die. In the West they were called Patripassians, whereas in the East they are usually called Sabellians.
So, are the Presbyterians serving up an old heretical chestnut, or is the statement culled from the PCC website merely a careless expression among the ancient orthodox Christian theological statements? Because the section in question is situated among the orthodox creeds, one might be inclined to grant the PCC a little slack and limit criticism to the lesser charge that the expression contained in the "faith statement" is a careless expression not intended by the author, at least, intended as an affirmation of a damnable heresy. That said, careless expressions can and do lead to serious misunderstandings. Presbyterians could easily read that statement and conclude the obvious: the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely different ways or modes in which the one God exists. In other words, the Holy Trinity isn't really a trinity of Persons (subsistent relations/hypostases). It's best to root out careless expressions, especially those which tend to reek of heresy. Mind you, I'll leave that work to a trained theologian. It's enough for me to point out an issue that could affect the way your average Catholic and Calvinist might chat about something as important as, say, the very nature of God.

Neutering the Trinity

The confusion created by the poor choice of the word mode(s) is compounded by the use of the generic terms Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Those same terms that could be used as nouns indicating distinct Persons in the Blessed Trinity have been applied as adjectives and used to reduce the Three Divine Persons of the Trinitarian Godhead to mere descriptions of the three ways or modes in which the One God operates. There, again, the PCC statement of faith is open to a charge of promoting modalism. The use of that one little word 'as'—God as Creator... as Redeemer... as Sanctifier, or Jesus as divine—is a careless application of that little word, too. Jesus is divine, He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. It is somewhat irksome to read doctrinal statements that carelessly obliterate nuance and ignore the need for precision where and when dialogue merits the use of precise language to avoid misunderstandings.

To quote an image:


Just to be clear, the Catholic Church has proscribed the use of Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier in place of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Baptism, going so far as to say that people who are "baptized" using the Creator/Redeemer/Sanctifier terminology are not baptized.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) answered the following questions on Feb. 1, 2008: 
First question: Whether the Baptism conferred with the formulas «I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier» and «I baptize you in the name of the Creator, and of the Liberator, and of the Sustainer» is valid? 
Second question: Whether the persons baptized with those formulas have to be baptized in forma absoluta
RESPONSES
To the first question: Negative.
To the second question: Affirmative.
The technical expression "in forma absoluta" is in contrast with conditional baptism. In other words, there is no doubt as to the invalidity of baptism using the above-mentioned formulas.
It should be noted that
(i)n 1975, the Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholic and United Churches in Canada announced that they had reached an agreement in which each Church does recognize as valid, baptisms conferred according to the established norms of the others. Unless there is evidence that a church’s established norms were not followed, these baptisms are presumed to be valid.—Pastoral Notes for Sacramental Sharing with other Christians in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, August 22, 2008.
Almost four decades have passed and most mainline protestant communities have ventured farther away from the Apostolic Faith. The PCC statement of faith has been modified since 1975, which begs the question: Has there been an attempt to address the modifications or additions to the PCC platform since the original forums took place, and do we accept that the PCC still possesses valid baptism, a baptism that is contingent upon the orthodox teaching concerning the Holy Trinity? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2013 signed with the "Reformed Christians" (which includes the Presbyterian Church — USA) an agreement that reads in part:
The Common Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Baptism, approved by our (USCCB) Episcopal Conference and ratified by the highest authoritative bodies of the Presbyterian Church – USA, The Reformed Church in America, The Christian Reformed Church, and the United Church of Christ, affirms for Catholics that “there is no reason for doubting the validity of... baptism conferred in...[these] ecclesial Communities unless, in a particular case, an examination clearly shows that a serious reason exists for having a doubt about one of the following: the matter and form and words used in the conferral of baptism, the intention of an adult baptized or the minister of the baptism.” (Directory, no. 99 c.) It recommends to all Reformed congregations and their pastors the issuance of a baptismal certificate at the time of the baptism that attests to the use of baptismal washing and the baptismal formula(e) that the Catholic Church will accept as valid.
So, everything seems pretty tickety-boo. Except that, as noted in the USCCB accompanying document cited above, there are reasons to doubt the validity of baptism in "a particular case (when) an examination clearly shows that a serious reason exists for having a doubt about one of the following":
  1. the matter and form and words used in the conferral of baptism;
  2. the intention of an adult baptized or the minister of the baptism.
One wonders then whether the words used by Canadian Presbyterians, taken from a book published three years after the initial agreement set forth in 1975, may present "a serious reason for having a doubt". Given that most mainline protestant denominations permit considerable latitude with regards to doctrinal conformity or lack thereof among their ministers, particularly in the United Church of Canada, there is no guarantee that the ministers of these denominations will have the correct intention when baptizing. The USCCB qualifies the issue of validity by including that necessary caveat in its document accompanying the Common Agreement.

One final note. Holy Mother Church has made herself clear when Catholic priests have gone astray with regards to the baptism ritual. A renegade priest at St. Mary's parish South Brisbane, Australia, practiced a form of baptism that can only be described as bizarre and a blatant abuse.
(A video) clip shows resident priest Terry Fitzpatrick baptising a young child with the words, "We baptise you in the name of the creator, sustainer and liberator of life", adding "who is also father, son and spirit".

The priest then added: "That's good, nice and cool" and invited "everyone to put water on him".
Fr. Z. also weighed in on the antics of Peter Kennedy who was also committing abuses of the sacraments. The Archbishop of Brisbane had plenty to say, and rightly so, about two priests and a parish that was Catholic-in-name-only.

—The blog author makes no claim to being a professional theologian. Comments are more than welcome to help further clarify the issues raised. That said, lest anyone think this post is making a mountain out of a molehill, bear in mind that the early Church—laity and hierarchs—took very seriously the difference that even one letter made to a very important discussion. I am, of course, speaking about the difference between homoousios and homoiousios. The iota (i) makes a great deal of difference. The former term, homoousios, is orthodox, and the latter is Arian, i.e., heretical. The Arian heresy infected the churches of the east and did a great deal of damage before the orthodox Faith was restored among the Byzantines and others.

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We are not just material beings, but spiritual persons with a need for meaning, purpose, and fulfillment that transcends the visible confines of this world. This longing for transcendence is a longing for truth, goodness, and beauty. Truth, goodness, and beauty are called the transcendentals of being, because they are aspects of being. Everything in existence has these transcendentals to some extent. God, of course, as the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty, has these transcendentals to an infinite degree. Oftentimes, He draws us to Himself primarily through one of these transcendentals. St. Augustine, who was drawn to beauty in all its creaturely forms, found the ultimate beauty he was seeking in God, his creator, the beauty “ever ancient, ever new.”―Sister Gabriella Yi, O.P.