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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Peter Waldo, Preaching, and Prophecy

In the December 1960 issue of the journal Theological Studies, Avery Cardinal Dulles wrote a paper entitled "The Protestant Preacher and the Prophetic Mission" in which he described the Protestant communion as self-identifying as a "Church of the Word".  It seems hardly necessary to argue that such an identity, so far from being alien to Protestantism's Catholic roots, remains an integral and necessary part of the identity of the Church, one which by necessity must be integrated with the ecclesial framework rather than placed in a dichotomy against the "church of the sacraments".

To preach is, as Dulles notes, essentially a prophetic mission:  "The Christian tradition has recognized that the office of preacher is essentially prophetic."  A prophet can only be sent by God; therefore a preacher, to be truly a preacher, must be sent by the Church, that is ordained.  "The prophet, however, is one who speaks in obedience to a call, or mission received from God," and therefore requires summoning from God's vicar on earth, the bishop.  Preaching is inherent to the sacramental character of Holy Orders, since the prophet's words "are not empty speech, but events of the supernatural order.  They are, according to many theologians, always efficacious - either unto justification or unto judgment, depending on the response of the hearer."

What then, do we make of the extra-sacramental "charismatic" function of preaching exemplified in the Protestant ministry, finding its prototype in the preaching of the Gospel by Pierre Valdez, also known as Peter Waldo and inspiration of the sect of Waldensians?

The Waldensian question, so far from an abstruse historical matter pertaining to 13th-century ecclesial politics, by contrast remains one of the most pressing matters facing the Church in Her mission today.  For it was the alienation of the Waldensians from the Catholic communion into the first proto-Protestant concordat that led to the rise of the Wyclifites and Moravian Brethren, culminating the Protestant Reformation and the most disastrous rend within Christendom.

To answer the Waldensian question, it may be useful to take a unique approach by turning to the ecclesial experience of the Christian East, and the witness of St. Symeon the New Theologian.  The same dialectic seen in the life of Peter Waldo emerged in the life of St. Symeon, champion of a charismatic spiritual authority which finds its justification not in ordination by a bishop or external apostolic succession, but in the reality of theosis.  Yet St. Symeon did not rebel against or deny the hierarchical order, even if he criticized its laxity and failure to live out the reality of the Gospel it preached.  Rather, he asserted - in a profound affirmation of the sacramental order of the Church - that the sacramental order given by the hierarchy of bishops and ordination to the priesthood is nothing other than the sanctifying reality of theosis, and that consequently the same graces attributed to the priesthood - the ability to engender grace as spiritual fathers, efficaciously praying for the forgiveness of a penitent's sins after confession - are also to be found in those laymen who have achieved the heights of theosis.  The graces imparted by ordination are also conferred by sanctification; St. Symeon braved the disapproval of bishops by taking a unordained monk as his spiritual father and confessing his sins to him rather than to a priest.

The Orthodox Church, and by extension the Catholic Church of both Byzantine and Roman rites, has perhaps surprisingly given its stamp of approval to the writings of St. Symeon and upheld him as a father of the utmost orthodoxy, even bestowing on him the title "New Theologian", thereby ranking him with only two other saints in the history of the Church to bear the title "theologian" - St. Gregory Nazianzus and St. John the Evangelist.  Perhaps St. Symeon's recognition of a charismatic grace to forgive sins should have been extended by the West to a recognition of a charismatic mission to preach the Gospel.  When the clergy, through laxity and worldliness, fail to preach the Gospel of Christ, then Christ calls up his little ones from the laity and enkindles the zeal of the Spirit in their hearts, sending them to preach the Gospel to the world.

These little ones were, of course, historically monks.  The monastic institution, dating from the Egyptian desert at Scetis, was originally thoroughly lay in institution, and spiritual fathers and staretz both before and after St. Symeon were quite often lay monks.  The Franciscans likewise began as a lay brotherhood, and it is to the Franciscans that the consciousness of a layman's duty to preach the Gospel was first recognized in all its clarity in the West.  "Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary" were the words dubiously attributed to St. Francis to his disciples.  At times words were indeed necessary, and it was in such times that a figure like Peter Waldo took up the holy book to preach.

One can only imagine the course of Western history had the bishops recognized Waldo's divine mission rather than suppressing it.  The Protestant Revolt could quite possibly have averted, and the estranged Eastern and Western Churches could have come closer together in a recognition of the common spiritual roots of the Waldensians, Franciscans, and Symeon.

Today as Protestant theology comes into a true dialogue with the Catholic tradition for the first time as the whole theological community writes in the shadow of Barth, it seems fitting to turn back to the Waldensian question and re-evaluate the prophetic mission of preaching within the Church.  St. Symeon's grounding of charism in theosis restores the unity of prophecy and sacrament within a common theophanic and iconographical catena of theosis.  Theosis is the true proclamation of the Kingdom, and it is from theosis that one receives one's interior direction to prophecy, to speak, to act, and to admonish.  This does not justify in any way the idea that laymen should be preaching during the Liturgy.  Liturgical preaching is a role of the special priesthood and as such can only be conferred by a bishop.  What it does mean is that our idea of preaching should not be restricted to liturgical preaching; rather, our life itself should be a sermon, just as the cosmos - divinized through man by grace - in which we live our lives is itself a type of the Mass.  Edification given by laypeople outside of the Mass also partake of the "gratia sermonis", according to St. Thomas, and the Protestant preacher would bear this grace in a special way, one strong enough that Dulles is willing to grant it a status of being "quasi-sacramental".  This is not to say that Protestants maintain valid Holy Orders, but "invalidity does not mean total inefficacy - and hence we believe that also regarding ecclesiastical office one must speak of a vestigium ecclesiae among Protestants."

To conclude, what must be done to restore the Protestant spiritual development back along orthodox lines?

We must recognize, with St. Symeon, that theosis is the source and summit of the sacraments, and that the prayers and preaching of one deified are just as efficacious as the administration of the sacraments.

We must recognize that the Liturgy and the cosmos are types of each other, and that the prophetic and preaching function in both are types of each other - one restricted to the ministry of one ordained, the other being the lives we live.

We must emphasize the theophanic and iconographic nature of both the sacraments and of prophecy, thereby recognizing their inner unity.

And both must be rooted in a deep monastic spirituality.

1 comment:

  1. "What then, do we make of the extra-sacramental "charismatic" function of preaching exemplified in the Protestant ministry" I think the phrase from the CCC1257 fits in here "but he himself is not bound by his sacraments". Hope you don't mind me commenting a bit this week. Had some time and your blog was on the table.