Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Blessings and Curses, Part 2

The first question that was posed by what I am calling the "Bless Your Heart" hate mail letter involved, "...and where do you find St. Francis of Assisi patron saint of animals? I've read the King James Version through and have never read this."

I am going to endeavor to not be too cheeky in my answer to this one. The answer to this one is quite simple. Francis of Assisi lived from circa AD 1181 to October 3rd, 1226, hence the feast day (and usually the annual blessing of the animals in commemoration of Saint Francis is still held on or around October 3rd.

All writings in what we call the canon of Scripture, commonly referred to as the Bible, were largely completed by AD 100 to AD 120. The later dates are contingent on how you date some of the Johannine literature (i.e. the Gospel of John, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John, and Revelation) Many modern scholars tend to posit them as the last New Testament texts written. Ironically, the earliest fragments of the New Testament that are still in existence are from the Johannine books, so that late dating period is debatable in my opinion. I won't go into that for purposes of this blog entry.

So, Francis did not live until almost 1000 years after the books in the Bible were written, so it would be just as impossible for Francis to have been referenced anywhere in the Bible as it would be for there to have been a reference to George Washington or Desmond Tutu. The term for this is anachronism. Francis simply did not exist yet.

Most people who have any grasp of Church history would likely have known this. Even the writer of the letter might have been facetious in asking this, although with the odd reference to the King James Version, one never knows. Historical knowledge is not something modern Americans are known to possess in great abundance.

I bring up this issue because I think it does illustrate a point that I will likely elaborate on more in coming posts because it will be at play in my responses to these questions. This point is that many Protestants are historically myopic. One of the major cries of the Reformation was, "We need to get back to the way the Early Church did things!" The thinking was that the abuses and reforms that needed to be made were a result of the Catholic church's getting away from the "Early Church." If somehow the Reformers could just jettison the tradition (with a lower case T) baggage that the Catholic church had allowed to come in and corrupt the Church and simply carbon copy the way the Early Church did things, all of Christianity's problems would be solved.

This, of course, never panned out as the Protestants had hoped (though many will not admit that to this day). The fallout from this line of thinking was to create in many Protestant minds what I call a "dark space" in the timeline of Church History. There were the New Testament Church and then maybe the Post-apostolic church of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries (maybe up to the Nicene Council era of the 4th Century.) Then, after that, it was as if for 1000 years God stopped being at work in the Church until the Protestant reformers came onto the scene in the 1500's.

As such, many Protestants, and I would guess my friend of the Bless Your Heart hate mail, cannot accept that maybe the Catholic church with people like Aquinas and Francis actually had some stuff right, that God was at work in them and through the Church even in the Middle Ages. Since the Catholic Church is apparently the Great Satan (I say that sarcastically, as the booklet I was sent said that, as did Reformers like Martin Luther later in life), no theology such as a Blessing of the Animals can be Christian if if came from the Catholic church Tradition.  I completely disagree with these Protestant notions, but some Protestants do, even well mannered ones.

This leads to a Rhetorical divide among Christians in the West. There are those who believe only Sola Scriptura (By Scripture Alone) to justify any Church teaching or practice; there are those who believe that Church Tradition (Capital T) is fine as long as it does not clearly contradict Scripture; and there are those who put Church Tradition on Par with Scripture as the co-means of Christian Revelation. I probably fall fairly close into the 3rd Camp as I believe Holy Tradition is a continuing means through which God was at work after the Canon of Scripture was closed. While the Bible is the unique Word of God that contains all things necessary for salvation, and yet God was still speaking, and people were still listening even after the Book of Acts. God does speak to us through the Nicene Creed, which is a part of Church Tradition not found in the Bible. God has clearly revealed himself as the Trinity, even though the term Trinity is found nowhere in the New Testament.  

At the very least, it was Church tradition that itself gave us the Bible. The 1st Century Christians did not just wake up one morning and find a completed King James Bible under a rock that was pointed out by a angel. What books and letters went into the "canon" of scripture was a long process of debate and prayer and discernment of the early Church well into the 3rd Century. So, we have to rely on Tradition to tell us what the Bible actually is. Thus, Sola Scriptura is actually a mirage. We simply cannot know what the Bible is without relying on Tradition.

For example, how is it that the Letters of Paul are God's Word and not, say, the Epistle of Barnabas or  the Gospel of Thomas? Only Tradition with a Capital T tells us this for certain. Once you chuck tradition, everything is up for grabs. Martin Luther for most of his career wanted to rip the Epistle of James out of the Bible, but finally backed off on that assertion, as it dawned on him that if you start ripping out books from the Bible that you don't like, you set a very dangerous precedent for your theological descendants. Before long, you end up like Marcion.

So, yes, Francis is not in the Bible. He lived 1000 years too late. Francis blessed Animals as part of God's creation. (I will touch on this again in another blog entry.) While you might not like the idea as a machination of the evil Catholic church, I pose one thought for consideration: If the writer ever used a Nativity Scene at Christmas time, Francis of Assisi came up with that. And, by the by, Christmas does mean Christ Mass. Both of which are of Catholic origin. So, if you condemn the Blessing of the Animals simply because it's Catholic, you need to eliminate a whole lot of other stuff as well.

1 comment:

The Underground Pewster said...

That is a good way of looking at "Tradition."