By Steve Schlossberg
One of the things I learned in seminary is that Reformed theology and Catholic liturgy are incompatible. I happened to learn that at an ardently Anglo-Catholic seminary, but I’m fairly sure that I would have learned the same thing at an ardently Reformed seminary. One thing we can all agree on is that liturgy conveys theology, and for an ardently Reformed believer, the Mass gets practically everything exactly wrong — the nature of ministry, the nature of the sacraments and, probably above all else, human nature.
A better student of theology could explain this better than I, but I suppose that somewhere near the bottom of this lies the doctrine of total depravity. Reformed theology insists that we have nothing more to offer God than filthy rags, and Catholic worship is basically human beings making a big production of our offering God our finest linens.
A possible exception to the rule, possibly proving the rule, is the Reformed Episcopal Church. Formed in the 19th century in reaction to the growing proliferation of chasubles, candlesticks, and other Romish corruptions of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, the REC at some point in the 20th century suddenly became flagrantly, fabulously Catholic in ceremony while compromising none of its theological austerity.
I never learned the reason for the liturgical flip-flop, but I saw it for myself a few years ago when I visited an REC church one Sunday in snake-belly-Low Virginia. The church wasn’t quite nose-bleed High — a small congregation meeting in a makeshift space, there were plenty of candlesticks but no bells or smells — but it was certainly Catholic in its piety, and the sermon, delivered by a man in a chasuble, was flagrantly Reformed. The text of the sermon was the Parable of the Good Samaritan; the substance of the sermon was that we can do nothing for anyone, least of all ourselves.
I thought the sermon completely failed to exposit the text — the sermon practically denounced the text — but I could not help but admire the preacher, who otherwise demonstrated himself an ardent biblicist, and who in the face of a dominical teaching refused to yield a theological inch. Remembering what I had learned about this in seminary, I tried to identify how exactly the sermon contradicted the chasuble, but I failed. A chasuble is meant to represent charity, of course; but then, in my experience at least, chasubles tend to go hand-in-hand with bad preaching.
The astounding sermon, however, called to mind an equally astounding preaching conference I had attended a few years before. The keynote speaker, an ardently Reformed preacher, spent the first half of his address insisting that the primary discipline of preaching is responsible exegesis and the second half of his address insisting that the controlling text of every sermon, regardless of the lections, must be Romans chapter 7.
I don’t know if the keynote speaker was speaking for most Reformed preachers; I don’t know that that Virginia church gave a fair representation of the REC; but I’m fairly sure that what I learned in seminary about Reformed theology was no better than a caricature of it, because I’m fairly sure that what I learned in seminary was not what was actually taught in my seminary. Like many seminarians, I suppose, and like most human beings, I am most eager to learn, or at least most willing to hear, what I already believe. And the truth is that I was never interested in learning enough about Reformed theology to understand it. Knowing just barely enough about it to know that it insists on double predestination, I summarily dismissed it. Rather than plow through Institutes of the Christian Religion, I gave the pencil sketch of John Calvin’s face on the book jacket a quick study and, surmising that it was the portrait of a man who never cracked a smile in his life, concluded that his theology must lack charity.
That, of course, was a total failure of charity on my part. But fortifying my prejudices in this regard was my experience of a small handful of converts to Reformed theology, who like all converts to anything were polemicists (i.e., not necessarily the best representatives of the faith to which they’d been converted), who were constantly insisting on the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, and who actually seemed to be constantly insisting on the doctrine of salvation by correct doctrine.
“The only problem with these Reformed guys,” a friend from seminary once said, “is they take the doctrine of total depravity as prescriptive instead of descriptive.”
I know my friend would be the first to say that that’s an unfair generalization, which he probably didn’t even mean as a generalization at all, but only as a complaint against a couple of notoriously Reformed friends who enjoy being notorious, and who glory in post-mortem glorification to the total neglect of pre-mortem sanctification. But then, my friend and I have plenty of Catholic friends of whom the same might be said, and I’m sure that I am not the first to say that I am one of them. But as I am a sucker for funny remarks, the unfair generalization was good enough for me at the time.
All of which is to say nothing about Reformed theology, but only to demonstrate several depraved things about me; all of which I say as a preface to paying a word of homage to a theological tradition to which I remain an ignorant stranger.
For the past several months, my poor wife, who every Sunday must sit through a scratchy, scolding, semi-Pelagian sermon from me, has been spending her lunch hours listening to online sermons of Reformed preachers at Calvary-St. George, New York.
“It’s refreshing,” she told me a few weeks ago. “There’s something about good, old-fashioned Reformed preaching I’ve needed to hear.”
And that’s not just because she’s had too much of me lately. It’s because of everything we’ve all had too much of lately — not just the ongoing trial of the pandemic, but the trauma of serial injustices in our society and our apparently intractable political hostilities, to say nothing of the many, various, and daily challenges of ordinary discipleship — all of which, and every one of which, over and over again sets before Christians the question, “What should we be doing?”
What should we be doing when it comes to the liturgy, the sacraments, and pastoral care in light of the pandemic? What should we be doing to prepare for life after the pandemic? What should we be doing to save the Church from further decline, our people from further detachment, and our society from further dissolution? What should we be doing to give a witness, what should we be doing to make a difference, and what should we be doing to materialize the kingdom of heaven on earth?
Every blog, podcast, and diocesan missive is writing prescriptions for us, and my wife, a very faithful person, takes them all in, takes them each to heart and tries to translate them into practice. A very faithful spouse, she periodically translates them into prescriptions for me, which is only just. And then, on top of all that, she is a member of a Bible study that has been reading through the book of Proverbs. It has been a very rewarding study, she says, but of course the constant refrain in the book of Proverbs is, “Here’s another thing you must not fail to do.”
The sum of all that for her, and to a lesser extent for me, is a steadily accumulating and increasingly crushing weight of responsibility. No doubt most if not all of those responsibilities are truly God-given; no doubt we find them overwhelming now only because we’ve been neglecting them too long. Quietism is certainly not the cure for what ails us. But in some of us, quietly at work somewhere near the bottom of all that, is the ongoing conceit that it’s up to us to materialize the kingdom of God, and the immemorial tug of Pelagianism.
In light of all that, the dogged and liberating clarity of Reformed theology breathes fresh air into my wife’s crowded thoughts and lightens her heavy heart, and to a slightly lesser extent mine too: God is sovereign, we are saved by grace alone, and there is nothing we can do to add to what God has done through Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to himself.
To say that, I realize, is an insult to Reformed theology — to treat its body of thought, reflection, and exposition as no more than ameliorative, a dash of which we can add to our Catholicism or our (semi)-Pelagianism or whatever other error we favor by a matter of temperament, or a handful of leaven to lighten the crushing weight of Christian responsibility. That is certainly not what Reformed theology is for Reformed believers. For them, it is the very bread of life. But speaking merely as an exhausted Anglo-Catholic, that is the debt I feel today. If it sounds patronizing, then that is a testimony to my own vanities and the vanities of my own tradition, not to the tradition I find so off-putting. And for a season at least, with my wife, I can finally feel my debt to it.
And God willing, I won’t let my scratchy, exegetically responsible sermons deprive my people of Romans chapter 7.
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.