Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

23 March 2012

The church: Locke and the Heidelberg Catechism

North American denominationalism seems to owe much to John Locke's definition of church in his Letter Concerning Toleration:
A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.

I say it is a free and voluntary society. Nobody is born a member of any church; otherwise the religion of parents would descend unto children by the same right of inheritance as their temporal estates, and everyone would hold his faith by the same tenure he does his lands, than which nothing can be imagined more absurd. Thus, therefore, that matter stands. No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but everyone joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God.

Contrast the Lockean view to that of the Heidelberg Catechism (Q & A 54):
Q. What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?

A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

Historic liberalism is predicated on the assumption that all communities can be reduced to mere voluntary associations of sovereign individuals uniting with each other for specific self-chosen purposes amendable at their own discretion. This is behind the contractarian vision of the state, and it also obviously has relevance for the institutional (or not so institutional) church. Is it mere coincidence that North America, whose culture has been deeply influenced by Locke, is disproportionately populated by churches with voluntaristic polities and a commitment to what has been called "decisional regeneration"?

What if we were to take seriously St. Peter's words concerning the church and the seriousness of God's sovereign call to us as its members?
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

How would this change our attitude towards the church as corporate recipient of God's grace?

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15 March 2012

Gerson on Locke and religious freedom

Michael Gerson has published an astute analysis of the current controversy south of the border over religious freedom: Catholics, contraceptives and John Locke. An excerpt:
One tradition of religious liberty contends that freedom of conscience is protected and advanced by the autonomy of religious groups. In this view, government should honor an institutional pluralism — the ability of people to associate, live and act in accordance with their religious beliefs, limited only by the clear requirements of public order. So Roger Williams welcomed Catholics and Quakers to the Rhode Island colony, arguing that a “Church or company of worshippers (whether true or false) . . . may dissent, divide, breake into Schismes and Factions, sue and implead each other at the Law, yea wholly breake up and dissolve into pieces and nothing, and yet the peace of the Citie not be in the least measure impaired or disturbed.”

There is another form of modern liberalism that defines freedom of conscience in purely personal terms. Only the individual and the state are real, at least when it comes to the law. And the state must often intervene to protect the individual from the oppression of illiberal social institutions, particularly religious ones.

This is the guiding philosophy of the American Civil Liberties Union. But as Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, pointed out to me, this approach has roots in the Anglo American tradition of political philosophy. John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” urges legal respect for individual conscience because “everyone is orthodox to himself.” But Locke offered no tolerance for the institution of the Catholic Church: “That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince.” In Locke’s view, Catholics can worship as they wish as individuals, but their institution is a danger to the liberal order.

It seems that the Lockean influence has blinded many citizens of English-speaking democracies to the need for institutional religious freedom. Here is where we do well to support the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, led by my friend Stanley Carlson-Thies.

In the meantime, Kevin L. Boonstra has published an analysis of the Supreme Court of Canada's recent decision in S.L. v. Commission Scolaire des Chênes: LexView 76.0 - Whose Children Are They, Anyway? Controversies over religious freedom have erupted virtually simultaneously on both sides of the 49th parallel. Let us pray for justice in the two countries and elsewhere.

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11 March 2012

Déjà vu all over again

Well, a war was fought over all this in the 17th century, wasn't it: Catholic monarch could put Church of England in peril, bishop warns.
The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Tim Stevens, who leads the 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords, tells The Sunday Telegraph that David Cameron’s policy to end Britain’s 300-year-old succession laws risks overturning the Church’s constitutional role.

Bishop Stevens also defended the bishops’ recent political opposition to several Government reforms and said that they were watching draft legislation carefully for measures that could disadvantage particularly poor or vulnerable people.

He argued that the Prime Minister’s plans to repeal the ban on the monarch being married to a Catholic posed a serious potential risk. Currently the Queen is required to take on the role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England — making it the established Church. But the bishops said that it would be impossible for a Catholic monarch to have that role.

Two observations seem warranted. First, if the Act of Settlement were changed to allow a Catholic to become monarch, the Church of England would be forced to come up with another reason for existence rather than its current position as established church. Might it have to become — perish the thought! — a confessional church? The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion would do just fine, I should think, but they might wish to consider the Heidelberg Catechism as well.

Second, if Britain moves to repeal or amend the Act of Settlement, the 15 other Commonwealth realms recognizing the Queen as head of state would have to follow suit. Here in Canada it would take a constitutional amendment to do the job, and this would require approval of both chambers of Parliament and all ten provincial legislatures under section 41(a) of the Constitution Act, 1982. If little Prince Edward Island were to object, the whole enterprise could be derailed and the Act of Settlement would remain. Either that or Canada could wind up with a resident Protestant monarch imported from England while the other Commonwealth realms end up with his or her Catholic relative, thereby breaking the personal union of the Commonwealth realms.

Unlikely? We shall see.

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08 March 2012

Religious freedom in Canada

Fr. Raymond J. de Souza writes in Canada's National Post: Bringing soft totalitarianism into the classroom. An excerpt:
Ill winds are blowing across the land when it comes to parental rights, religious liberty and education policy.

Quebec's new "ethics and religious culture" curriculum aims to promote religious tolerance by teaching that religious differences don't matter. If you are a Muslim parent who wants to teach your child that Islam is superior to being an atheist or being a witch, the education system will be undermining that view in class. Quebec will brook no exceptions to the new groupthink: No child is permitted to be exempt from class when the teacher instructs her that her pious parents are teaching her falsehoods. The Supreme Court of Canada affirmed this soft totalitarianism last month, saying in effect that parents ought to get with the program and get over their religious, moral and cultural obligations to instruct their children. That is the narrowing of liberty to the point of eliminating it; everyone is free to teach his kids what he wants at home, just as long as the state gets to teach the little ones the opposite at school.

After reading Fr. de Souza, I am reminded of this quotation from the great christian statesman Abraham Kuyper with more than a little relevance for current developments on both sides of the 49th parallel:
When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith.

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04 March 2012

Shahbaz Bhatti's assassination: one year later

This past weekend my wife and I were privileged to attend a banquet near Toronto to mark the first anniversary of the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's minister of minorities and the only Christian in that country's government. A number of dignitaries were present at this event, including Canada's immigration minister, Jason Kenney, who delivered an excellent keynote address, and the newly minted Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto. Far from being a sombre event, there was a note of celebration and thanksgiving for the life and witness of this servant of Jesus Christ. No one can fail to be moved by this heroic statement of faith in Christ which Bhatti recorded prior to the death he so clearly anticipated.

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Celebrating the Lord's Supper often

This morning we observed Holy Communion for the first time since late last year. How I wish Reformed churches would celebrate the Lord's Supper whenever they meet for worship. When will we finally follow Calvin's wishes rather than the defective practice of Geneva's city fathers? Many years ago I published this article in Reformed Worship: The Lord's Supper: How Often? Here is an excerpt:
As for the Lord's Supper itself, we should begin to think of it as it was meant to be: a meal. We eat meals three times a day. And the most pleasant and meaningful of these are eaten in the company of family and friends. Fellowship at table does not lose its significance simply because it is repeated two or three times daily. The same, I would argue, is true of frequent reception of communion.

Because we are frail human beings plagued with the normal doubts that beset everyone, we need this tangible confirmation of our salvation in Christ's body and blood. Far from being burdensome, our nourishment in the Lord's Supper should be cause for joy and gratitude. . . .

In churches where the Lord's Supper is celebrated weekly, the people have generally come to treasure this opportunity to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8). Far from becoming mundane and ordinary, the supper has come to enrich the faith of those receiving, who increasingly find themselves looking forward to each Resurrection Day with eager anticipation.

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