June 2, 2007

On Matthew 25:31ff

Earlier this year, Cardinal Biffi, discoursing on how the Antichrist will fill us with interest in "values" displacing the person of Christ, said, "Christianity cannot be reduced to a set of values. At the center of being a Christian is, in fact, the personal encounter with Jesus Christ."

However, the message of the latter portion of Matthew 25 is that there is no Christ without the values, and no values without the Christ. "As you have done ... you have done to me."

In this parable those who are ushered into paradise do not know that they have encountered Christ in the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned -- any more than those who failed to do so.

Moreover, Christ is here referring to "the nations" and how they treated Christ's "brothers" -- those in whom Christ is present. Thus shall the righteous who do not "know" Christ be saved -- through him -- on the basis of how they treated him. There is no salvation by gnosis; only by praxis -- for it is only in praxis that we know Christ. Love lives in loving actions, or it does not live at all.

Tobias Haller BSG

16 comments:

Nathan said...

While I am sure that people who are more Augustinian than me will wade into the fray, I have to admit that I find your emphasis on praxis a bit troubling. Not that I think salvation comes from gnosis either, but if by emphasizing salvation "coming only by praxis" I hear salvation through works or a salvation that I can manufacture.

It seems like you have focused too much on Mt 25 and thus err on the side of Pelagius. Others err by focusing too much on Rom 10:9-13 (i.e. - if you confess Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart...) and err on the side of the gnostic "evangelicalism" that is rampant in this country. I feel like this is a false dichotomy ultimately motivated by fear. As Christians,our emphasis should fall less on what we are doing (either praxis or believing)and more on what God is doing and has done in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

I think that you can nuance what you have said, and if you did, I would agree with your take (after all "faith without works" and all that). But, when it's all said and done, I think we should be emphasizing the gift of salvation and not the prerequisites.

Nate+

Tobias said...

Nate, I take your point, but still want to insist on what appears to me to be Jesus' call to action: a call to fruitfulness and productivity. It is right to affirm that salvation is not based on the works themselves -- salvation comes from Christ as a gift. But at the same time, and to some extent balancing Paul's more confessional approach, we have the continued Synoptic witness, in which Jesus contrasts those who call out, "Lord, Lord," but do not show the fruit of action in their lives.

Matthew 7:15ff (parallel in Luke 6:43ff) links the bearing of good fruit with doing the will of God, and being set on a firm foundation (being "well planted" to mix the metaphor.) Then the first part of Matthew 25 (prior to the parable of the talents and the vision of the last judgment) presents us with the wise and foolish virgins -- surely all three parables of the importance of action, as opposed to mere presence or affirmation.

I support the idea, dear to Paul, that our good works are a result of God's action, not the means by which we earn salvation. But they appear to be signs or indications by which we know a good tree from a bad, to use the language Jesus provides. That is how I would reconcile the apparent contradiction. Ultimately, to pick up the Lucan language, what troubled me in Cardinal Biffi's meditation was his apparent siding with the piety of the Priest and Levite, as opposed to the good action of the Samaritan.

Charitable feelings are of no use without acts of charity. Compassionate feelings are of no use without acts of compassion. Loving feelings are useless unless they lead to acts of love. The Priest and Levite may well have felt sorry for the wounded man as they steered a course past him, and the Samaritan who stopped to help may have been muttering under his breath at the inconvenience the whole time. How they felt was immaterial to the wounded man. It is by how they acted, even in spite of how they felt, that makes all the difference.

Visual-Voice said...

I think Nate makes a mistake in his thinking that the expression of love and the concept of being "saved" are separate entities, which they aren't. The gift of love in our hearts, if real and authentic, inspires us to act in the world in a kind and loving manner. One thing leads to the other, and if it isn't, then one is not aligned with the source of deep love in our souls, where god/divinity resides.

my simple 2 cents worth.

rick allen said...

"... it is only in praxis that we know Christ."

It is in that "only" that mischief may be done. Faith permeate one's whole being, and the good tree produces good fruit.

And of course, so far as I know, no one claims that "gnosis" is sufficient. Certainly not fundamentalists or Cardinals.

But what one does cannot be severed from the root of why one does it. We do not do what we do "only" because we do it. I am reminded of a passage in one of Walker Percy's novels, where he describes a couple who abandoned God, Jesus, Mary and the Church for relevance and compassion--and then found that, over time, those dried up as well.

My perspective is of course that of one who was raised Protestant and came to see that as a road wrongly taken. All those "solas" cut out too much; similarly here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post - you state what ought to be obvious but what is all too often ignored or avoided. If we as Christ Followers were to focus on praxis (e.g. MDGs) I think the "world" would take the gospel we preach more seriously.

Peace+

Bo

Tobias said...

I will stand by the "only" on this one, on the basis of a higher authority than my own. I take the summary of the Law to require love of God and neighbor -- and love can only exist in action. While it may be true that Protestants can err in the direction of activism, the fault of Catholics seems to run in the direction of an overly realized eschatology. I prefer to acknowledge the "not yet" in which all that is depends on action -- that is, life itself is in process, and we do not experience pure "being" apart from "doing." I find that to be a more sacramental rootedness, reflecting the historical reality of the Incarnation as not merely a state of being, but an historic event whose effects ripple forward through time. I suppose what I am rebelling against is a kind of appeal to "pure" charity separated from actual acts of charity. In the long run, I think Biffi sets up a false dichotomoy: it is not necessary, for instance, to set aside one's belief in Christ in order to have an irenic interfaith discussion -- I do it all the time with my Muslim and Jewish colleagues here in the Bronx, where we have a very active and mutually respectful joint clergy/community association. Moreover, where we come together is precisely in those areas of meeting human need, about which we can all agree, without any compromise to our individual religious traditions.

You can read Cardinal Biffi's essay in reflection on Soloviev for yourself and judge if he goes too far. Perhaps he doesn't, but what troubled me is his exaltation of somewhat "static" values of Truth and Beauty as being more Christlike than the more "active" values of Solidarity and Love for Peace. Much of his argument sounds good, but his linking Antichrist with things like the ecological movement strike me as going far too far; and when one looks at the various ideological forces that work within the Roman Catholic Church's own dysfunctional institutional life, it seems to me there is quiet enough to work on there as in the world of secular social programs. In particular, claims to an absolute "Truth" are, to my mind, far more capable of demonstrable evil than claims to work for ecological or social justice! I just saw a very interesting PBS series on the Inquisition; and the horror of what people do when they think they (and they alone) speak for God certainly rivals all of the ills of the secular socialist and fascist states.

rick allen said...

"You can read Cardinal Biffi's essay in reflection on Soloviev for yourself and judge if he goes too far."

The link only takes me to a journalistic summary. Can one get to what he actually says? (And I find these days I have very little confidence in the ability of journalists to summarize anything more subtle than a press release).

Tobias said...

An earlier essay on similar themes is available here. As the press release was an official one (from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops) I hope it is more trustworthy than your average popular account. It was the release to which I was responding, but also informed by the earlier essay. (I find the concluding paragraph of the essay linked above particularly troubling, and perhaps blind to its own tendency towards ideology under the rubric of "truth.")

Much of this Biffian world view is gathered together at this link the introductory paragraph to which indicates the kind of ultramontanism that I find suspect and troubling. Of course, I'm an Anglican, so I'm free to do so! I find trust in an infallible papacy to be as rationally suspect as trust in an inerrant Scripture or an indefectible church. That is not the denial of Truth, but an attitude of humility that limits the number of things that come under that heading to the bare minimum. As I noted in my previous post, it is the multiplication of doctrines beyond those of the Creed that separates most Christians from each other.

Tobias said...

Just to get back "to the text" (as Deirdre Good is fond of saying) -- Matthew 25:31ff is not about "what Christians ought to do." It portrays the fate of the "nations" (the same nations referred to at Matt 28:19 -- the ones the apostles are charged to go bring the good news and to baptize). That fate is based on how they respond to the Christians they encounter.

This is not to say that Christians should not do these things as well -- perhaps all the more so. But what I was getting at is that beyond people being baptized there is also this vision of the encounter with Christ in the form of active charity extended to Christians. These "nations" -- who do not even know they've ministered to Christ in the person of his "brothers" -- are ushered into a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. This is a vision of salvation that is, in my opinion, bigger and more vibrant than we could ask or imagine.

Robert said...

Since Pelagius' name was raised in a previous sentence, let me come to his defense. Pelagius had an extensive doctrine of grace, the first element being the gift of free will, the second being the Mosaic Law, the third being that which comes from faith in Christ's redeeming sacrifice (sola fide), and the fourth that comes from the effectual following of Christ's teaching and example. The first and the fourth provide the grace-filled foundation for action (praxis), that allows one to carry out the works described in Matt. 25.

rick allen said...

For myself I'd never heard of Biffi until some news account ran something on his calling the environmental movement "Satanic," at which time I sighed and thought, "Some old reactionary cardinal--or the media has got it all wrong again." Looks like more the latter than the former. He draws a line between "truth" and "ideology" that I think is a little too absolute and subtle, as per his closing line:

"A passionate defender of the human person and allergic to every philanthropy; a tireless apostle of peace and adversary of pacifism; a promoter of Christian unity and critic of every irenicism; a lover of nature and yet very far from today's ecological infatuations - in a word, a friend of truth and an enemy of ideology."

Yeah, I can see how the -isms obscure their own substance. But he leaves himself very open to being misunderstood.

As to Soloviev, I've never heard of him. I don't quite know how he can be called "ultramontane," since he is plainly Russian orthodox, and, from your link his debt to Dostoevsky is very evident (Dostoevsky, who so deeply distrusted Western "reformism"--and whom, reportedly, Archbishop Williams will be principally imbibing at Georgetown this summer.)

Again, I think it's a matter of grasping the whole. Jesus' discourse on the sheep and the goats is another of those vital aspects of Christianity which the Nicene Creed doesn't remotely reference. And it is part of a whole, not to be isolated. If I understand Biffi, it is simply that Christianity cannot be reduced to an ethic, the application of a general idea. Otherwise one ends up with Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, who orders Christ to be burnt, for the greater happiness of mankind.

Grandmère Mimi said...

What an interesting discussion. I even understood most of it.

Rick, my more-Catholic-than-the-pope friend, you have met your match. I am not your match, but Tobias is.

Nathan said...

Perhaps, I would have profited by reading Cardinal Biffi’s meditation and maybe I will head on over. It would no doubt fill in a piece for me.

But in the meantime, I will grant what you have said about faith and action. Faith will lead to action. Jesus says it, Paul says it. The Bible points toward responding to the faith we proclaim in concrete ways. I do not believe that accepting certain propositions will save us. Faith must be lived out by expressions of love and by working for justice and peace.

And looking at Mt 25 we can see that God commends acts of compassion, even in the absence of faith. And so I might even grant that praxis is more fundamental then faith for “pleasing” God, though that might be a stretch.

Moreover, in disagreement with Rick, I don’t know if it worthwhile to speculate about root and fruit. Faith will manifest itself in praxis for one person and praxis might actually produce faith in another. We cannot run away from the notion of loving our neighbor as ourselves, and that of course means actually manifesting that love. Love is not just a feeling.

But my continued concern is with this notion of praxis as the means to salvation. Salvation is a free gift from God. We cannot manufacture it. We cannot produce it. For me this free gift motivates my attempts to live a life free of fear and anxiety. It is only in the absence of fear and anxiety that I can truly reach out to others in love. Only in space created by the absence of fear can I die to self. Salvation precedes praxis.

So, I guess I would like to know a little more about what you mean by salvation?

Tobias said...

Nathan, I suppose I was packing too much into a few words in my original comment (I was aiming for terseness, but that does risk some confustion!)

The primary praxis of salvation is God's act -- the saving gesture is God's. But our response to that saving gesture is also an act, the loving act that responds to God's initiation. This is, I think, what lies behind Matt 25, and such teachings as 'Those who call me, Lord, Lord' being insufficient. I suppose what I am saying is, to echo James 1:17, every act of love ultimately comes from God even when we are the agent or actor. We participate in God's praxis by our own acts done in God's name. And when we fail to do the loving acts that Love requires, we stifle and remain fruitless. So rather than saying that salvation precedes praxis, I would say that it is all of a piece. The new life in Christ has a beginning, but continues as a process -- as a Life lived, a Way taken, as well as a Truth expressed.

Nathan said...

Thank you for the clarification. I find I am in much agreement with you. You have even gotten me thinking about my own declaration that "salvation precedes praxis". Maybe, I am operating with too static a view of salvation, as if salvation was a stamp to the forehead reading "SAVED". I've got to think about that.

In any case, thanks for the post and the clarification. I appreciate your thoughtful blog and ministry.

Nate+

Anonymous said...

This simple layperson observes that actions can result in faith, as well as the more commonly cited "faith results in actions". It is easier to see Christ in the stranger if you just get out there and do something for the stranger. Sitting on your hands fails to make it "real". Some people learn by doing.

NancyP