Thursday, October 10, 2013

"[T]hese benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us"

In a passage from his Operationis in psalmos, which he wrote between 1519-1521, Martin Luther observed, "For just as, according to Bernard [of Clairvaux], knowledge of self without knowledge of God leads to despair, so knowledge of God without the knowledge of the self leads to presumption." Indeed, this insight, which the reformer gleaned from a sermon by St. Bernard, a Doctor of the Church, is but one demonstration (of many that could be made) of just how much of monastic theology, which is both biblical and humanist (I would argue it is humanist in an authentic way because it is biblical), was preserved by the reformers, who by and large resisted the systematic taxonomy of the scholastics.

In his wonderful book, Pater Bernhardus: Martin Luther and Bernard of Clairvaux, which I have been savoring for several months, Franz Posset, commenting on Luther's citation of the Doctor Mellifluous above, wrote, "This monastic mind-set encouraged the search for the knowledge of God and of self and recognized man's nothingness, his need for salvation, and his dependence on God's mercy, all of which are included in the mystery of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ" (226).

Being increasingly wary of commenting on mysteries that are too great for me, I want to note that Book I of John Calvin's magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, is "Knowledge of the Creator." Chapter I of Book One is entitled, "The Knowledge of God and That of Ourselves Are Connected. How They Are Interrelated." Article One of Chapter I is "Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God" and Article Two of Chapter I is "Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self." Hence, the first words of the Institutes are, "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and or ourselves." Calvin went on to immediately note-

while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he "lives and moves" [Acts 17:28]. For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God
Yesterday the Roman Catholic Church observed the liturgical Memorial of Bl. John Henry Newman, who remains perhaps the most well-known and beloved convert of modern times. Newman, a former priest of the Church of England, was a self-described Evangelical in his youth, having had a profound conversion experience, which occurred in 1816, when he was 15. Mentioning a Rev. Walter Mayers, who was at Pemboke College, Oxford, Newman recalls towards the beginning of the first chapter of his autobiographical Apologia pro sua vita, that this man "was the human means of this beginning of divine faith in me." He also mentioned the effect of the books Mayers had him read, "all of which were of the school of Calvin." One of these books, the title of which Newman could not recall while writing his religious memoir, was by an author named Romaine. He remembered that he "received it at once, and believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious (and of which I still am more certain than that I have hands and feet,) would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory."

Later in life Newman insisted, "To be steeped in history, is to cease being a Protestant." This may well be true. However, I would insist, even as a Catholic convert (though not from Protestantism) and clergyman myself, that there are those with whom we do not enjoy communion and who are not in the Orthodox Church, or one of the ancient Oriental Churches, who are better described as "Reformed" Christians than as mere "Protestants." We do well, I think, to make this distinction. After all, to follow Christ is not to live one's life as a protest, but as a surrender, as a selfless sacrifice of love best manifested by serving others (Luke 9:23-27; Rom 12:1-2). Besides, Jesus loves us too much to ever allow us to be smug, especially towards those who also love Him.

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