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Through a glass darkly_0

Language matters. Our commentator and occasional author, Bosco, uses the language of conversion – ‘I am saved’ in a way Evangelicals have for centuries, but without the context in which that phrase has been used by Christians since the beginning; it is, perhaps, historical ignorance, it is, perhaps, the excitement of immature faith, but whichever, there are those other Christians to whom this seems like an unwarranted, and an unwanted, claim to a kind of exclusivity. In claiming, as he does, that Jesus tells him how to read the Bible, Bosco at least takes this sort of thing to its logical conclusion, claiming a kind of personal infallibility. Excluding, as it does, not only most other Christians now, but nearly every Christian who has ever lived, it has something very contemporary about it: only me and my feelings/personal revelation matter. It is a form of thinking which has most impact on those who lack either an historical or a personal context in which to receive the gift of faith. Unlike some, I do not say it cannot be so, I simply suggest that it is, at best, an invitation to learn more about what Christ has done in the world these last two thousand years; at worst, it is off-putting and does much harm – but then that is hardly confined to one expression of Christianity.

What such language neglects is that Grace is bestowed upon us in baptism – at least so the Church has held from the beginning. That we are justified by faith is so, but if we view it so narrowly, we forget that sanctifying Grace leads us into actions; good works do not save us, but they are the inevitable sign of real Grace; if our hearts cannot keep from singing the joy of the Risen Lord when we know Him, neither can our hards keep from doing His work in this fallen world. The language of assurance can lead, as St Paul warned the Corinthians and Galatians, to complacency, to the thought that since I am saved, I may do what I want, whereas, as Paul made plain, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Setting forth to read the revealed Word of God from sacred scripture by the light solely of one’s own intellect (or pretended inspiration) breeds individualism which breeds error; like the Ethiopian, we cannot know these things unless someone explains them to us.

The age of the Enlightenment taught man to prefer the light of his own wisdom to the accumulated wisdom of posterity, indeed, it taught that the past was full of people who in many ways were less bright than we were because they had not the advantages of modern science. At this remove, we may be less easily duped into supposing that everything that science has given us is for the better, and we are certainly better placed to see that the early Church was liturgical in its worship, thought confession and spiritual direction useful, and paid reverence to the Virgin Mary, as well as to reject the myth that all these things were there only from the time of Constantine. This will not stop the Boscos of this world continuing to spread ancient falsehoods given fresh life by the Internet, but then nothing will, because such people are driven by forces which are beyond our control.

For the rest of us, language can unite as well as divide. If we really know what the Catholic Church means by justification, we shall not find ourselves very far from what Lutherans and Anglicans mean, and the same is true for the Orthodox. That does not mean things do not still divide us, or that they are not important, but it does mean that this kind of dialogue has a use in helping clean the mirror in which we look at God in ourselves.