Friday, May 13, 2011

The Dead Faith of the Living

We couldn't help but chuckle when we saw Mark Chavez, of WordAlone, identified in the press as a "traditionalist Lutheran pastor." Really? Does that mean he is partial to the copes and maniples that are usually associated with "traditionalism" in a Christian context? Or to a specifically Lutheran version, which we suppose might involve talars, ruffs and and extensive reliance on the chorale service? (If so, Mark, call us. We're sort of interested.)

Probably not. Chavez is a graduate of "Luther" Northwestern Seminary, which in our experience seems to produce pastors of a low-church bent. And of course, he is best known for his association with WordAlone, which has its roots in the opposition to the ELCA's ecumenical agreements and has since found new purpose in its support for pastors who divorce and remarry, so long as they aren't gay.

When Roman Catholics talk about "traditionalism," they have something reasonably concrete to which they can point: the Lefebvrist reaction to Vatican II. Even there, of course, it is possible to nitpick. Are sedevacantists also "traditionalists," or are they "ultra-traddies," or are they simply nuts? And what about the Old Catholics who reacted the same way to Vatican I?

When Anglicans talk about "traditionalism," things get a but murkier. For pushing 200 years, one school has staked its claim on aping Rome, with such vehemence that it has eventually just joined up. Another has looked toward Laud or the "Caroline Divines" (or, more rarely, the Celts) for a sort of purely English Christianity that was still identifiably big-T Traditional. But of course, this approach implies that Tradition does not presuppose communion with Rome, nor celibacy, nor latterly an all-male clergy.

We Lutherans don't often use "traditionalist" to describe ourselves. Perhaps, despite the very conservative direction of our earliest liturgical reforms and our near obsession with history, we are too conditioned by the popular image of our Reformation as a clean break with Rome, as well as with contempt for the decadent Roman religion of the 15th and 16th centuries. "If that is tradition," we seem to say, "then we will distance ourselves from it."

Of course, there are specifically Lutheran traditions, and we don't simply mean ruffs and talars. There are the confessions of faith, which describe a confidence in God's power to save us as a gift offered for Christ's sake, and which base this confidence in a confident (if sometimes idiosyncratic) reading of the Bible. Chavez and his colleagues do make the specific claim that the ELCA has not maintained these traditions; but of course, we in the ELCA maintain with equal vigor that Chavez is mistaken. So any newspaper that calls him a traditionalist, based upon his own claim, would logically want to call Mark Hanson one as well.

Look, if traditio still referred primarily to the handing on of the creed when a candidate was prepared for baptism, most of us would qualify. But as Christianity has developed, it has become ever more difficult to distinguish a single Great Tradition. Poor old Vincent of Lerins, with his nonsensical ab omnibus (offered as part of a passionate defense of semi-Pelagianism) was barking up the wrong tree as early as the fifth century. There is precious little of the Christian faith to which there have not been principled objections from within the family, often made consistently through history.

The essentials, such as they are, seem to us to include an assertion that the history of salvation described by the Bible is true both historically and, especially, theologically; that sin and salvation are real, and that the latter is assured by the cross and empty tomb; that baptism and the Eucharist are effective mediators of this salvation; that the vision of God as Trinity is spelled out clearly enough in Scripture to justify its normative role in subsequent theology.

A more expansive vision of Tradition can also be proposed. It would include, for example, specific liturgical practices, especially around the sacraments, but also those used to signify the relationship of Christians and Christian churches to one another -- we are thinking of ordination and confirmation.

What is most difficult to fit into any comprehensive Tradition are detailed ethical or hermenuetical propositions. In how many senses can the Bible, or any portion thereof, be read? How shall we enact the prescriptions of the Sermon on the Mount? These are exceedingly dark areas, contested continuously through history, and often by saints of great wisdom. They are surpassed in obscurity only by the questions of free will and predestination. And yet is upon just these difficult and contested loci that WordAlone (and the NALC, and ACNA, and whatever) stake their putative claims to "traditionalism". Color us unconvinced.

We're not quite sure what to make of it, but we suspect that "traditionalist," like "conservative," "liberal," "evangelical" and "fundamentalist," is on its way to becoming one of those words which doesn't mean very much anymore. (All to be joined shortly by "catholic," "orthodox" and "protestant."


Mark C. Christianson said...

You have an interesting exploration of various ways the term "traditionalist" is and can be applied. But these days it's a bit of a dog whistle. Without specified modifiers, topics, or constrictions, it generally comes down to meaning "we don't cotton on to any of that gay stuff, oh, and probably not much of that feminist stuff, either." These two things seem to be deeply linked, too, and there are probably inferences one can draw therefrom. Or, to broaden it a bit, it could generally mean people who approach the Bible in a restrictive, often moralistic way; an approach that pretty much turns the whole thing into law/rules.

Father Anonymous said...

Yup. Wish I'd said it that briefly.

Anonymous said...

I'm given to using scare quotes when referring to those who wish to call themselves "traditionalists" and/or "orthodox." The fact of that matter is that they are neither traditional nor orthodox, yet they won't see it that way. What really amuses me is when you get ordained women who don the label "traditionalist."

The question is, though, "What should these people call themselves if they aren't 'traditionalist?'" And going a step further, "Are these people willing to call themselves the more appropriate term if in fact they really are?" Hence the erroneous yet self-aggrandizing "traditionalist" and "orthodox." It sounds better and makes us look less like meanies.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Pardon my ignorance. What is a talar? (I've tried googling but had no luck.)

Father Anonymous said...

It's that black robe that the Germans (and Hungarians) wear instead of proper church vestments. Drives me a little crazy, but it makes them feel like good Protestants.