Why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant’

I am very often called a ‘Protestant,’ mainly by American Evangelicals, Pentecostals, or Roman Catholics. But I have always rejected the term, and that is often perplexing to them. Since I am now a bit tired of explaining why, I have decided, after being encouraged, to just write a post about it.

Some (and mainly Americans) claim that ‘Protestantism’ (as it is often used these days) is, in some sense, a result of the Reformation. Baptists, for instance, who are undeniable part of so called modern ‘Protestantism,’ have their origin in the Anabaptist and radical reformations, yet these predates the Lutheran Reformation and are condemned by name in Confessio Augustana, art. 5, 9, 12, 16 and 17. These are ‘Protestants’ in the modern sense, yet to say that they are a result of the Reformation is, well, undeniably wrong, as they are condemned by it, and would therefore have to exist before or concurrent with it.

As for the use of ‘Protestant,’ allow me explain why this is an improper designation to use for Lutherans:

Some (American) Lutherans claim that “Lutherans were the original Protestants,” yet that is true only of German Lutherans in the Holy Roman Empire and perhaps their successors, yet I would say that this is dubious, as the term ‘Protestant’ is NOT, and have never been, a theological designation. It is a purely historical designation, and in its time it was political, not theological.

The origin of the name ‘Protestant’ was a protest not against any church body (so not against the Roman Catholic Church) but against the Holy Roman Emperor’s enforcement of the Edict of the Second Diet of Speyer in 1529, upholding the condemnation of Luther and Lutheranism in the Empire from 1521 (the Edict of Worms) and reversing concessions made to Lutherans at the first Diet of Speyer in 1526. Read more at Wikipedia, and in the included links. This decision was met by protest (hence the term ‘Protestant’) from “six princes of the Holy Roman Empire and rulers of fourteen Imperial Free Cities,” according to Wikipedia. They didn’t protest the Catholic Church but the Holy Roman Empire, and the term wasn’t theological, it was political. It was a protest against the religious politics of the Holy Roman Emperor (to use more modern terminology). To use a modern equivalent, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the US are ‘Protestants’ in the historic sense when they protested the HHS Mandate. The Wikipedia article notes: “During the Reformation, the term protestant was hardly used outside of German politics. People who were involved in the religious movement used the word evangelical (German: evangelisch).” Later, and gradually, the article notes, “protestant became a general term, meaning any adherent of the Reformation in the German-speaking area.” Note when it says that it was a general term it was general in the German-speaking area, and not in Lutheranism as such. It was, and remains, a political term, confined to the German situation.

It is understandable that many American Lutherans call themselves ‘Protestants’ (and underline that “Lutherans were the original Protestants”), as German Lutheranism has had a strong influence on American Lutheranism, more so, it seems, than Scandinavian Lutheranism (which is to be expected, the population of Germany far outnumbering the population of Scandinavia). Scandinavian Lutherans did not call themselves ‘Protstants,’ and I never will call myself that. In Norway we generally call ourselves ‘Lutheran’ or ‘evangelical Lutheran’ (no. evangelisk, not to be confused by the Norwegian evangelikal, used of the modern Evangelical Protestants) or often simply ‘Christians,’ though I find that to often be misleading. If someone asks me what I am, I don’t say simply ‘Christian,’ as I do not want to be put in the same box as Reformed, Baptists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Charismatics. I would rather be mistaken for a Roman Catholic than for an Evangelical.

Scandinavia was never part of the Holy Roman Empire and as such the edicts mentioned didn’t apply to us. Historically, no Scandinavian Lutherans called themselves ‘Protestants,’ and it is an entirely historically contingent term. In fact, in Scandinavia we had the reverse. Here, the Reformation wasn’t ground up, as in Germany, but top-down, as in England, introduced by the rulers (though the process was more ‘ecclesially willed’ in Sweden, then in Denmark-Norway, AFAIK). So the ‘Protestants’ in Scandinavia were Roman Catholics protesting the religious politics of the King (Gustav I in the Swedish Empire, Christian III in Denmark-Norway).

So the historical designation ‘Protestant’ doesn’t refer to me, or to many Lutherans, therefore ‘Lutherans were the original Protestants’ is simply not true of Lutheranism as such, only of German Lutheranism (and, arguably, only for those six princes of the Holy Roman Empire and rulers of fourteen Imperial Free Cities, and their subjects, who uttered their political protest against the religious politics of the Holy Roman Emperor).

But what about the more modern use of the word ‘Protestant’? Well, that is even more problematic. Many today simply say ‘Protestant’ every time they speak of a Christian who isn’t Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Oriental Orthodox (or perhaps Old Catholic, if they know of their existence). But that means that it has become utterly useless as a term. It doesn’t say anything about what we believe, only who we aren’t subject to. It doesn’t tell you anything about the person who is given the title. It just tells you what he isn’t. I know Lutherans (especially Americans) who time and time again has to explain that yes, they do believe in the real presence or yes, they have liturgy, because they get lumped together with everything from Pentecostals to Adventists. When Anabaptists, who are opposed to the Lutheran Reformation, are called ‘Protestants,’ we see that it has lost its meaning.

I am a non-Swede. I do not live in Sweden, and have never lived there. But non-Swede is not therefore a useful word to use about me. People from, say, southeast Asia are also non-Swedes but I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with people from southeast Asia. To illustrate the point, consider these two sentences: “As a Norwegian, I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with southeast Asians.” Or: “As a non-Swede, I have far more in common with Swedes than I have with non-Swedes.” The second sentence is utterly nonsensical an that tells us the uselessness of ‘non-Swede.’

So to with the word ‘Protestant’ (as many use it). I have fare more – theologically, liturgically, sacramentally, and ecclesially – in common with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics than I have with Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Baptists, etc. To use the same kind of sentence, I would have to say, “As a Protestant, I have far more in common with Roman Catholics than I have with Protestants.” It shows how useless the term is. But it goes beyond this.

To use a word – ‘Protestant’ – to denoted some kind of unity between me and these ‘Protestants’ over and against Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics isn’t just useless and bizarre, it is misleading and, quite frankly, deceitful. It makes it look like there is some kind of unity between these so-called ‘Protestants,’ when, quite frankly, no such unity exists. It thus serves to cover up the fact that there is more unity between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Old Catholics than there has ever been between Lutherans and, say, Evangelicals, Pentecostals or Baptists. To use ‘Protestant’ in this modern sense is basically to lie and deceive.

And that is why I am not, and will never call myself, a ‘Protestant.’

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Some Lutheran reflections on Scripture and Tradition

A while back I was reading through an old (closed) discussion on an online forum, and read some thoughts from one of the participants.[1] He said that we shouldn’t read Scripture through any kind of tradition, since Scripture was ‘self interpreting,’ ‘clear,’ and ‘easily understandable.’ Then he went on to cite his proof of this, and said that Luther held to sola scriptura. There is just one big problem with this, and that is the fact that neither Luther nor any other Lutheran reformer made the claim that sola scriptura implies that tradition (or Tradition) doesn’t matter. This we can see by analysing the word. ‘Tradition’ (Gk. παράδοσις, Lt. trāditiō) just means ‘that which is handed over,’ and the act of handling over is παραδίδωμι in Greek and trādere in Latin. Scripture is itself handed over, and is thus part of Tradition. But, as we see with all text, this handing over is not passive. It is always interpreted, and Scripture is no exception. It is not ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable,’ and is read within a community, within a Tradition.

The Lutheran reformers, who used the term sola scriptura, meant by this the fact that Scripture stands above (other parts of) Tradition. But Scripture was still to be read within a living ecclesial Tradition, and especially though the writings of the Church Fathers. One can, of course, discuss to which degree they were successful in this, but they did not use the term sola scriptura as a way to exclude Tradition. In fact the first authorities mentioned in Confessio Augustana (CA) aren’t Scripture, but the Nicene Creed (article 1) and, in all ways but in name, the Chalcedon Creed (article 3).[2] To get technical, the Lutheran reformers defined Scripture as ‘the norm which norms (but which is not itself normed)’ (norma normans or norma normans non normata) and Tradition, especially the ecumenical creeds, as ‘the norms which are normed’ (norma normata).[3]

But there is a danger here. Since Scripture judges Tradition, we often end up defining Tradition as a given creed (the Apostles’ Creed, CA, etc.) That is what has happened in many modern Reformed and Lutheran churches. In a discussion I once referred to St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said to obey the bishop, and was told that this wasn’t uttered explicitly in Scripture, so we shouldn’t believe it. But this has never been part of what, at least Lutherans, have understood by sola scriptura.

I have been asked why, on this view, we cannot just say that Scripture is ‘the written rules from a board game,’ and play the game based solely on Scripture. The problem with this is that there are many different interpretations at play. The ‘game’ has changed, and does change constantly. We can say that the ‘game’ has gotten a lot of ‘expansion packs.’

The question often boils down to this: Why must Tradition judge me, and my reading of Scripture? The answer is that one person’s reading of Scripture is not identical with Scripture itself. That person’s interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily correct. Although Scripture cannot be normed by Tradition (norma normans non normata), it can be, and is, interpreted through Tradition. Tradition is still a norm (norma normata). It all boils down to the question of whether or not Scripture is ‘clear’ and ‘easily understandable.’ As a man with a master’s degree in theology, and who loves Greek, I can say that it is far from.

We need people to teach this. People not only with education, but who are called and ordained to teach in Church. According to Lutheran teaching, “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.” (CA XIV) Who are ‘regularly called’ (Lt. rite vocatus)? William Weedon has some thought on this:

The Augsburg Confession is very bold in its insistence: “As can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church universal, or from the Church of Rome, as known from its writers.” (Conclusion of first half of the AC) “In doctrine and ceremonies we have received nothing contrary to Scriptures or the Church universal.” (Conclusion of the second half of the Augsburg Confession).

I would contend, however, that precisely at the point of AC XIV Melanchthon KNEW that something needed to be introduced that was new in both doctrine and in ceremony. But he was betting the farm that his opponent, Johann Eck, would NOT notice what he had done. And so what Melanchthon did was to scrounge up a term from canon law that might be a tad ambiguous – rite voctaus – and hope that Eck wouldn’t notice that the term was being used in a novel manner.

Fat chance. Eck was a careful student of the Lutheran movement and watched it with growing alarm. He did not let AC XIV slip by without telling commentary:

“When in the fourteenth article, they confess that no one ought to administer in the Church the Word of God and the sacraments unless he be rightly called, it ought to be understood that he is rightly called who is called in accordance with the form of law and the ecclesiastical ordinances and decrees hitherto observed everywhere in the Christian world, and not according to a Jerobitic (cf. 1 Kings 12:20) call, or a tumult or any other irregular intrusion of the people. Aaron was not thus called. Therefore, in this sense the Confession is received; nevertheless, they should be admonished to persevere therein, and to admit in their realms no one either as a pastor or as a preacher unless he be rightly called.” (Reu’s *A Collection of Sources for the Augsburg Confession*, p. 357)

The question is this: What is meant by rite vocatus? Does it mean, following Eck’s opinion, that you need ordination in apostolic succession (as that had been understodd throughout Church history), or something else? The problem is that we have never agreed what it actually means. The way I see it, is that we must read it the way the receivers of the text would read it. CA was not just a confession, it was an apologetical piece of writing, delivered to the Roman Catholic Church and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Imperial Diet of Augsburg, June 25, 1530. It seems to me that if you write a work, you need to use terminology the way its intended audience will use it. And furthermore, the authors of the confession claimed that “there is nothing,” at least in the first half of the confession (articles I-XXI), “that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.” (CA XXI) The ‘writers’ in question is the Church Fathers (Lt. ex scriptoribus; Ger. aus der Väter Schrift).[4] But if this is true, we need to understand rite vocatus as a need to not only call but to ordain men into the apostolic succession. There have been much discussion on this. But if we want to read this artivle through Tradition – the Tradition of the Church Catholic and the Church Fathers – we cannot avoid this idea. We must either read CA XIV as part of Tradition, or as a break with (or a correction of) Tradition. But then we end up, I think, as judges of Tradition. We become the norma normata ourselves. I will stop there, and let Chris Jones, one of the commentators on William Weedon’s blog post get the last word:

If the Apostolic Tradition means anything, and if the Creeds, the Councils, and the Fathers are worthy of any credit at all as faithful witnesses to that Tradition, then it seems to me that we must see our Confessions as part of that tradition, and consistently read them in the context of that tradition. Otherwise how can we possibly claim to be the Catholic Church, rightly reformed? And if that leads us to the conclusion that our Lutheran fathers were mistaken about the necessity of episcopal ordination, then that ought to lead us not to put the “Catholic principle” out of court, but to repent of that error. If we have made a mistake, we ought to admit it – not re-interpret Church history to make the mistake somehow not a mistake. After all, if one should never admit a mistake in doctrine or practice, there never could have been a Reformation.

If the “Catholic principle” is only an a posteriori judgement, not an actual embrace of the Apostolic Tradition, then it was no more than a rhetorical weapon against the Romanists, without substance. And that leaves us not as evangelical Catholics, but mere Protestants. That is not a position that I care to be in.

Notes:

[1] This post is based on different things I have written here on my blog, and on some posts in which I have participated in various online forums.

[2] For thought on this, read this (unfortunately Norwegian) article by Knut Alfsvåg: «Luthersk spiritualitet: Om lære og liv i den éne, kristne kirke» (Dansk Tidsskrift for Teologi og Kirke 40:1, 2013): 42-56.

[3] The Roman Catholic Church also essentially states this, in Dei Verbum. Here is a ‘taste’: “But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

[4] For the Latin and German texts of the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord), see Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (Herausgegeben im Gedenkjahr der Augsburgischen Konfession 1930. 5., durchgesehene Aufage. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1963). In the Church of Norway, however, we are bound not by the entirety of these confessions but only the three (western) ecumenical creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed); Confessio Augustana; and Luther’s Small Catechism.

A Roman Option for Lutherans?

The cover of Oddie’s book

Update: There is now a Norwegian version of this post.

Today I got my copy of William Oddie’s book The Roman Option.[1] Written in 1997, in the aftermath of the 1992 decision of the Church of England to ordain women to the priesthood, it explores the possibility of a ‘Roman option’ for ‘disaffected’ Anglicans. Some have compared Oddie’s proposals to the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to allow (Catholic-minded) Anglicans to convert corporately to the Catholic Church, while retaining certain elements of their Anglican patrimony,[2] and I know some Anglicans personally who have rejected the proposal of the Pope, favouring rather an (conservative) Old Catholic solution,[3] and who refer to the proposal of the Pope as ‘the Roman Option.’ I have not yet (started to) read the book, but plan to do it in the not so distant future, but I believe some remarks are in order.

I have long wondered if it isn’t perhaps time for a ‘Roman option’ for Lutherans. Much of what was considered abuses in the Augsburg Confession (a word which assumes that there is a legitimate use of said things) is long gone, and I must admit that although the Book of Concord is an interesting piece of history, I couldn’t care less about much of what it says, should I disagree with it. Belonging to the Church of Norway, I am only bound to Scripture, to the three ancient (western) symbols (the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed), to the Augsburg Confession and to Luther’s Small Catechism.[4] And there is also a ‘hierarchy of truth’ here. Scripture is the norm which norms and which is not itself normed (norma normans non normata); the rest are norms which are normed and which do not themselves norm (norma normata).[5] A further important point to be made is that in article 21 of the Augusburg Confession, in the conclusion of its doctrinal part, it is said that «there is nothing [in the preceding doctrinal part] that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.» (Emphasis added) If Lutherans are to be seen as a part of ‘the Church Catholic,’ if the ‘catholic principle’ is to be taken seriously, and not merely as a rhetorical device void of meaning, we need to take a look at what the Church has taught throughout history. And we also need to ask four important questions. The fourth question, which is the mirror image of the third, is the most important, adressing the concerns of the Reformation, its relation to our present situation and Christ’s prayer of unity in John 17:

  1. Is there room for a Catholic ecclesiology in the Church of Norway, or in any given Lutheran church?
  2. Is there such a thing as a ‘non-papal Catholicism’?
  3. Do we have to be in communion with Rome?
  4. Are there any compelling reasons not to be in communion with Rome in our present situation?

I am not going to answer these here, but they might be a good starting point for a discussion.

With these thought in mind, I recommend reading this post (and the subsequent discussion) concerning comments from the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Kurt Cardinal Koch, on the possibility of a Lutheran ordinariate.

Notes:

[1] William Oddie, The Roman Option: Crisis and the realignment of English-speaking Christianity (London: HarperCollins 1997).

[2] See here, here and here. For an introduction to Pope Benedict’s proposal, see Wikipedia. Also read the ‘founding documents,’ Anglicanorum Coetibus and its complementary norms. Here, here and here are links to the three main Catholic-anglican personal ordinariates in England/Wales, USA and Australia, respectively.

[3] One person I know has seeked union with the PNCC and the Nordic-Catholic Church.

[4] See Arve Brunvoll, Vedkjenningsskriftene åt Den norske kyrkja (Ny omsetjing med innleiingar og notar. Oslo: Lunde 1979). I am probably only self-imposedly bound by this as a layman, but should I be ordained in the Church of Norway, I will be bound to it canonically, through my vows at the ordination. For some considerations of the Catholicity of the Augsburg Confession, see Wolfhart Pannenberg, «The Confessio Augustana as a Catholic Confession and a Basis for the Unity of the Church» (in The Role of the Augsburg Confession: Catholic and Lutheran Views, ed., Joseph A. Burgess. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press 1980), pp.27-45; Joseph Ratzinger, «Elucidations of the Question of a “Recognition” of the Confessio Augustana by the Catholic Church» (in Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press 1987), pp.27-45; and Avery Dulles, S.J., «The Catholicity of the Augsburg Confession» (The Journal of Religion 63:4, 1983), pp.337-354.

[5] Let me Google that for you.

Some thoughts on Purgatory

In Catholic Theology, the ‘consensus’ is that in the afterlife, there are three realms: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. I say ‘realm,’ since this can be read more loosely than ‘place.’ This fall I have been writing my master’s thesis on the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, comparing Lutheran Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg and Catholic theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now known as pope Benedict XVI. I make the point there that if Lutherans were to accept a Catholic view of the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, this, although it be ecumenically (and historically) signigicant, wouldn’t in and of itself necessarily lead to unity. There are many other aspects that needs to be considered, including Purgatory. Theology should be marked by coherence, and the same goes for unity.

The last couple of days I have been pondering the concept of Purgatory, and have tried to grasp what the doctrine actually is. We can read about this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There it says, in paragraphs 1030-1032:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. the tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

The main point is that those “who die in God’s grace and friendship,” that is, those who are already saved, already ‘on their way to heaven’ and “assured of their eternal salvation” can still be “imperfectly purified,” and thus in need of purifying, purgation. It seems to me to be a perfectly Biblical idea, as long as you understand what it means. It doesn’t involve a ‘second chance’ and it doesn’t mean that one ‘earns one’s way to heaven.’ It means nothing else than that we are purified. In 1. Cor. 3:11-15 Paul states (RSV):

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Paul starts out here by pointing out that Christ is the center. No other foundation can be laid, no one but Christ can hold up ‘the structure of life.’ But we can build on that foundation, we can live our lives, build our lives, and build upon this foundation both with gold, silver and precious stones, on the one hand, and wood, hay and straw on the other. Then, at some point, this will be tested with fire. What gold, silver and precious stones have in common is that not only can they withstand fire, they are not destroyed but purified and molded by it. So if ‘the structure of your life’ has been made up only by gold, silver and precious stones, your work, a work that in reality is the Lord’s own doing (Phil 2:12-13) will survive. What wood, hay and straw have in common, however, is that they do not withstand fire, they are destroyed by it. So if ‘the structure of your life’ has been made up only by wood, hay and straw, your work, will not survive.

We probably all have a bit of both; both that which endures and that which perishes. The point here, however, is that the fire of the Lord purifies and burns. And this is the core of the doctrine of Purgatory. There are some, it says, who are Christians, who “who die in God’s grace and friendship” (who have laid the foundation of Christ), but who are in need of purgation (because they have built upon this not only with gold, silver and precious stones. but also with wood, hay and straw). This seems to me to be a utterly Biblical doctrine, and I see no reason why a Lutheran should not believe in it. There are many ideas related to this that may need to be removed, but that doesn’t mean that the doctrine is problematic in itself.

A final thought: What is the fire that burns? It seems to me that the Orthodox have a very good answer to this: it is Christ, it is God himself. Heaven is to love being in the presence of the God who loves you. Hell is to hate being in the presence of the God who loves you. Purgatory is to love being in the presence of the God who loves you, and whose love purifies you. Allow me to end with some words from Pope Benedict XVI, from the Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi:

46 … For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

47 Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).