Wesley Hill on Phillip Cary
As my fellow student and I emerged into the fall air and traversed campus on the way back to our dorms, she turned to me and said, with real anguish, that she had been losing sleep since reading in preparation for that day’s class. “I don’t think I’m a Christian,” she told me. “By these criteria, I’m not a genuine believer, and I’m afraid I’m going to hell.”
The reading was Jonathan Edwards treatise on Religious Affections, which was drafted in the heat of the Great Awakening that gripped his Northampton, Massachusetts church. The eighteenth-century pastor, theologian, and revivalist offered some diagnostic tools that would-be believers could use to “make certain about [God’s] calling and choosing [them],” as the second epistle of Peter put it centuries earlier. Although Edwards conceded that only God could peer into the depths of the human heart, he believed it was possible, even with the limitations of human finitude and proneness to faulty judgment, to gain confidence that one had had a genuinely saving encounter with God. He proposed a dozen signs one could look for in one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that would indicate God’s grace had indeed been at work, the chief of which was an enthrallment with the glory of God: “True saints [are] inexpressibly pleased and delighted with… the things of God.”
Another friend, an alumnus of the same evangelical college where I studied Edwards, was sitting across the table from me in a trendy bar. The topic of conversation was his imminent reception into the Roman Catholic Church. I knew some of the twists and turns that had brought my friend to this juncture, but I wanted to ask him what the decisive thing had been—the thing that made him feel he had to be Catholic, that he could put it off no longer.
My friend was slow in replying. “When I was an evangelical,” he finally said, “I was always wondering whether I was doing enough. Or whether I was studying enough—had figured out the Bible well enough—or praying enough. I felt that I had to sort out my theology and gauge whether I was ‘spiritual’ enough. But, being Catholic, I don’t have to figure anything out. I trust the Church to offer salvation. Communion is the body and blood of Christ, and when I receive it, I know I’m receiving grace.”
Both panels of this diptych of memories hinge on anxiety, either endured or given up—the stress and agony of having to wonder whether one is a “true believer,” the resulting introspective attempt to arrive at a satisfying answer, and the relief that comes when one escapes from the necessity of doing so. According to Phillip Cary, such anxiety is endemic to the sort of Protestant, evangelical Christianity that was refined and cemented through the preaching of Jonathan Edwards and his heirs.
Several years ago, Cary, who teaches philosophy at Eastern University near Philadelphia, published a book primarily for evangelicals titled Good News for Anxious Christians. The subtitle promised an enumeration of practical things you don’t have to do if you want to be a Christian. It’s liberating, Cary rhapsodized, to simply forget about assessing yourself at all. God doesn’t expect you to determine whether your faith is authentic or not because that would be to shift your focus away from Christ and the gospel to the character of your belief itself, which isn’t what saves you.
Rather, what’s needful is to hear a message from outside your head, a message that says, “Christ died for you.” When you hear that word and believe and consume the edible, potable version of it, you are thereby, as the prayer book of my church puts it, assured that you “are living members of the Body of [God’s] Son, and heirs of [God’s] eternal kingdom.” No further assurance is needed or required.
Cary’s newest book, The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther, Augustine, and the Gospel That Gives Us Christ, might be read as an extended scholarly apparatus to the earlier, pastoral book. Its thesis is that Martin Luther’s mature theology should be seen a comfort-oriented radicalizing of St. Augustine of Hippo’s sacramental theology—and, thereby, the most powerful tonic for troubled consciences believers could ever hope to find.
Augustine, writing in the fourth century, was the first in a long line of Christians to describe the sacraments as “visible words”—tangible signs that impart inward, spiritual grace and so help lead us on to our final end, which is to see God in his eternal radiance and goodness. Augustine’s account depended on distinguishing between the sacramental sign (signum) of water (in the case of baptism) or bread and wine (in the case of the Eucharist) and the reality (res) which they convey. One could eat and drink the sign of bread and wine and miss the spiritual reality, if one consumed the Eucharist in unbelief. But for those who eat and drink in faith, trusting in God’s grace, the signs really deliver what they signify.
According to Cary, Luther takes up and reshapes these Augustinian insights in several ways. In the first place, he reverses Augustine’s image of the Christian soul in pilgrimage to God, receiving sustenance for the journey in the Eucharist. No, insists Luther, it’s the other way around: in the sacrament Christ comes to the believer in the flesh and says, explicitly, that he is “for you.” It is hearing, rather than seeing, God and his promise of free absolution that is the climactic soteriological moment in Luther’s theology.
Moreover, although Luther agreed with his contemporaries—heirs of Augustine, all—that receiving the Eucharist without faith conveyed no saving benefits, he insisted that the way to have faith wasn’t to step back and “work on” having faith, only then to return to the Eucharist with a new preparedness and fitness to receive. Rather, as Cary puts it, it “is precisely faith in the sacrament, which is to say, believing the outward sign, that justifies.”
And he insisted that Christ is as truly present in the message of unearned mercy proclaimed from the pulpit as he is in the sacrament: indeed, preaching itself is sacramental in exactly the same way the Eucharist is. As you hear that message, it simply is Christ promising you in the moment the forgiveness of your sins. It’s as though you’re predestined to salvation right then and there, on the spot.
In this way Cary takes Luther to be the archenemy of what he terms “reflective faith,” and throughout he polemically sets Luther’s insights over against the Calvinist tradition represented by Edwards and others. Knowing that faith is necessary for a proper reception of the sacraments, you might be tempted, in the moment of receiving, to ask yourself, “Am I really approaching the altar in faith? Is my faith real? Am I really believing what I’m hearing?” Such a self-assessing turn is entirely unnecessary, not to mention spiritually disastrous, says Cary’s Luther.
Listen instead to the gospel in the Word preached and the sacrament administered which always includes the promise that it is for you. As one of the most memorable lines in Cary’s book has it, “Luther’s concept of the Gospel [is] the promise of God authorizing a sacramental word that says ‘you’ and means me.” Believing genuinely in Christ is thus not a precondition for hearing the word of absolution and receiving the Eucharist “because believing I am absolved when I hear the word of absolution simply is believing Christ.” What happens when the public reading of Scripture and the preaching of the gospel reach your ears, what happens when you receive the bread and the wine in the Eucharist, is none other than Christ promising you again that he cancels your debt and makes you perfectly righteous in God’s sight.
Some historical theologians dispute parts of the story Cary tells. Even I, who trained as a New Testament scholar and not a historical theologian, bristled at Cary’s running polemic against the doctrine of the beatific vision, the hope that Christians are destined for the blessed sight of God that Dante and other mystics made so indelible in the Christian imagination. And I’ve read enough Calvin to know that he is far less vulnerable to the charge of encouraging the “reflective turn” than some of his later followers are. “[F]aith totters,” says Calvin bluntly in his Institutes, “if it pays attention to works, since no one, even of the most holy, will find there anything on which to rely.”
But this sort of criticism runs the risk of burying the lede: Cary is profoundly, existentially, homiletically in touch with the agony of my Edwards-reading classmate. He knows the skin-prickling agony of lying awake wondering if one is among the elect. And he wants a theology that can rescue us from that misery by redirecting our gaze to Christ alone—the Christ who comes to us from beyond our heads and hearts—as the ground for hope.
In the book’s introduction, Cary ventures an interpretation of the experience of my Catholic convert friend in the second panel of my diptych above. He has observed, as I did during my days as an undergraduate at an evangelical Christian college, the way many who were reared with a “reflective faith” wind up discovering later in life the liturgical, sacramental traditions of Christianity—Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and so on—with their long Eucharistic prayers that amount to a recital of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection among and for us. (This is my story, too.) What accounts for this phenomenon? What converts to liturgical traditions are often seeking, Cary suggests:
is worship that is not about me, my life, my experience, my heart, my relationship with God, and so on. The great sacramental liturgies give us Christ, not advice about how to live the Christian life. In Luther’s terms, they preach Gospel, not law. They focus not on telling us what to do but on telling us what Christ does, thus directing our attention away from our own works to Christ himself. The story they tell does include me, but that is because I get to be part of Christ’s story, not the other way around. Sacramental faith does not mean trying to fit Christ into my life but rather finding that I belong in his life.
In a strange twist, the heart of Protestant theology—Luther’s claim that the preached Word and rightly administered sacrament deliver Christ himself, in person, to bruised and troubled sinners as their life and salvation—may be found outside Protestantism. (Cary hints that it may even be found more easily outside Protestantism—surely an occasion not for any more Protestant soul-searching and hand-wringing but for doing what Luther recommends: listening again to the gospel!) Luther’s insight is “a contribution to the life of the whole church that need not divide the church.”
Is it too much to hope that, as people like my friend encounter it afresh at the Catholic Mass or the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, they may end up reintroducing faith to us Protestants?
Wesley Hill (PhD, Durham University, UK) is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Lord’s Prayer: A Guide to Praying to Our Father (Lexham, 2019), Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality (Zondervan, second edition 2016), Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Eerdmans, 2015), and Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian (Brazos, 2015).