The Fructifying of Faith


Occasionally a friend will give me tickets to a classical-music concert. Such performances are impressive when you think that an orchestra consisting of so many individuals playing vastly different instruments can produce a rhythmically coherent sound. It works because these musicians rely upon two crucial ingredients: a score, which explains the notes to play, and a conductor, who provides personal direction. It would be catastrophic if the orchestra tore up the score or if they attempted to eliminate the conductor.

An even more amazing fact is that two orchestras playing from identical scores can sound so different. When Arturo Toscanini performed Haydn’s Oratorio, The Creation at La Scala, he did so with the punctilious style for which he was famous. Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand, conducted Haydn in Vienna as only someone with his eccentric personality could. They presented the same score in a different style which resulted in a different orchestral sound. The same principle applies to worship.

It is appropriate to expect variety and creativity in the Christian tradition, just as in conducting. God who exists in three persons, relating to millions of different people in diverse cultures and time periods will naturally generate a rich collection of religious experience. Such divine activity should be recognized and celebrated, for it bears witness to the wonder of a God who relates personally to his creation. Having come from an Evangelical background, Thomas Howard is well acquainted with this dynamic:

Surely this riotous fructifying of fashions in public worship suggests something deeply significant about the gospel, namely, that it is a seed of such glorious vitality that, when it is planted anywhere among us mortals, it will sprout, burgeon, and bear good fruit. And more: in the colorful heaps displayed in this harvest we find the rich and particular genius of each tribe and people, redeemed, purified, raised, and touched with eternity itself. What you find in Spain and Latin America differs greatly from what you find in the Netherlands or Norway. Sicilians do not order their worship as do the Watutsi; nor does Irish Catholicism yield just the look given things by the Filipinos.[1]

As Professor Howard describes, we should expect for there to be differences of style in public worship depending upon one’s context. If you doubt this, find a missionary in your church who is home on furlough; take him or her out to lunch and ask him to describe the worship style of people among whom he serves. Variety is a good thing. However, we must remember that while Toscanini and Bernstein differed in their presentations of Haydn’s score, the broad outline remained fundamentally the same. In “The Heavens are Telling…” woodwinds carry the melody. Occasionally, the melody is accented and punctuated by the horns; but the two instruments are never confused. If either conductor failed to differentiate between the horns and woodwinds, the integrity of Haydn’s famous chorus would have been compromised. Herein is the concern that Evangelicals have with Roman Catholic devotion. The horn of tradition seems to frequently usurp the woodwinds of Scripture. Consider the following example.

On November 30, 2007 at Saint Peter’s in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI issued the second encyclical of his pontificate. Spe Salvi, “Saved by Hope,” is a thoughtful and stimulating document. It begins with the following words:

SPE SALVI facti sumus—in hope we were saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24). According to the Christian faith, “redemption”—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey….[2]

The great biblical scholar that he is, Pope Benedict XVI starts the first sentence by referencing Paul’s declaration on hope to the Romans. The encyclical continues to assemble some of the strongest statements of Scripture on the topic. He also cites some excellent passages from the church fathers, and interacts with an impressive range of modern thinkers, from Bacon and Kant to Marx and Adorno. From the table of contents you get a bird’s eye view of the document:

§ Introduction

§ Faith is Hope

§ The concept of faith-based hope in the New Testament and the early Church

§ Eternal life – what is it?

§ Is Christian hope individualistic?

§ The transformation of Christian faith – hope in the modern age

§ The true shape of Christian hope

§ “Settings” for learning and practicing hope

   1. Prayer as a school of hope

   2. Action and suffering as settings for learning hope

   3. Judgment as a setting for learning and practicing hope

§ Mary, Star of Hope

Spe Salvi is worth reading. In his classic fashion, the Pope doesn’t simply teach the Great Tradition; he masterfully applies its truth to our contemporary world with the incisive voice we have come to expect of him. For instance, consider his words from paragraph 16:

How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?

I salute the Pope for statements like this. We, the Church, should appreciate such exhortations if we’re serious about showing the world true hope. At the same time, there are some places in the encyclical where Evangelical readers will have difficulty. The Pope shadow boxes with Luther’s understanding of faith (par. 7), assumes infant baptism to be the normative means of regeneration (par. 10), and reflects on the significance of purgatory (par. 44-47). The most disturbing part may very well be the concluding section in which the Pope prayerfully extols Mary as a “Star of Hope:”[3]

Thus you remain in the midst of the disciples as their Mother, as the Mother of hope. Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to his kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!”

My reason for quoting the Pope is simply to illustrate how, in the final analysis, aspects of Sacred Tradition can eclipse the Christ-centered message of Scripture. Evangelicals eagerly join our voices with the Great Tradition in thankfulness and admiration of the humble and faithful girl whose soul magnified the Lord. But on the basis of Scripture, Evangelicals maintain that Jesus—the Star of Hope—is the one intermediary between God and humanity, the Savior whom we exalt, who alone shines redemptive light into our hearts (2 Cor 4:6; 1 Tim 2:5).

[1] Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997) 34.

[2] Ignatius Press has published Spe Salvi in a book titled Saved in Hope (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007).

[3] A similar movement from Scripture to exaltation of Mary is found in the tenth encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth).

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