Dreher, Chaput, and Esolen: sacraments and culture...

Error message

The lead book review of the April 2017 issue of First Things is Notre Dame prof Patrick Deneen's group-review of three prognostications for the future of Christianity in North America. Each work is set against the backdrop of the sexual anarchists' revolution concluded in 2015 by the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision.

The books' authors are Rod Dreher (a former Methodist who converted to Roman Catholicism, then to Eastern Orthodoxy), and two Roman Catholics—Charles Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia, and Tony Esolen who serves as professor of English at Providence College. Before critiquing these men's religious faith, let me say that I have often been grateful for the leadership of both Charles Chaput and Tony Esolen...

Deneen summarizes "the argument of these books":

Politics will not save us. What is first of all necessary is to rebuild a culture in disarray.

[T]he authors are in general agreement... that the task at hand is a creation of a distinctive Christian culture.... Perhaps, if some restoration of culture is successful, a political remedy may present itself. 

Responding to the sack of the American Empire by hordes of sexual barbarians, we find Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox reassuring Christians that a distinctively Christian "culture" is the Christian hope for the future. That's not what I'm saying in summary of these books; it's what a Notre Dame prof writing for First Things says.

What is this "culture" we should hope in?

The authors respond, good art, good education, and good play (Esolen).

Reviewers have their own points to make and I suspect "culture" isn't as central to Archbishop Chaput's vision as it is to the visions of Mr. Dreher and Professor Esolen. Being an ecumenical venture, First Things has always shown a religious faith in truth, beauty, and goodness—not the doctrine of Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel that alone create and sustain the Church of Jesus Christ. In other words, in an ecumenical publication edited by Roman Catholics, Christendom is gonna win and the Reformation is gonna lose.

This is a critically important thing for those of us who are Reformed Protestants to get into our heads on this five-hundred year anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Here is a foundational truth past generations of Reformation Christians never stopped pointing out: sacramentalists believe in art, philosophy, rituals, and ceremonies. This is their religious faith. Read through Luther's commentary on Galatians and count the number of warnings against ritualism and ceremonialism. Read through anything by Calvin and do the same.

It's no shocker that souls who put their religious faith in the sacraments' rituals and ceremonies never stop dressing up the accoutrements of those rituals and ceremonies. No expense is too high. No beauty too extravagant. No sculpture too costly. No window too ornate. No harmony too complex. No voice too gelded. No treasury too full.

This brings us to the church's treasury of merit dispensed through the sale of indulgences.

It's not accidental that the offense opposed throughout Luther's Ninety-five Theses was the sale of these indulgences. But note: the reason Tetzel was out hawking them was Rome's need to fund the eighty-eight year construction of St. Peter's Basilica.

The Roman religion at the time of the Reformation put no faith at all in the doctrine of Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel. The Roman religion at the time of the Reformation had all its faith in its seven sacraments and the Roman church was in hock up to her eyeballs from the cost she was incurring building the most splendid setting possible for those sacraments' rituals and ceremonies.

It's no wonder Roman sacramentalists refer to St. Peter's as "the greatest sermon of all time."1

Here's one traveler's description:

Going directly down the Borgo Vecchio, towards it, it seemed a long time before we arrived at the square of St. Peter's; when at length we stood in front with the majestic colonnade sweeping around—the fountains on each side sending up their showers of silvery spray—the mighty obelisk of Egyptian granite piercing the sky—and beyond, the great front and dome of the Cathedral, I confessed my unmingled admiration. It recalled to my mind the grandeur of ancient Rome, and mighty as her edifices must have been, I doubt if there were many views more overpowering than this. The façade of St. Peter's seemed close to us, but it was a third of a mile distant, and the people ascending the steps dwindled to pigmies.

I passed the obelisk, went up the long ascent, crossed the portico, pushed aside the heavy leathern curtain at the entrance, and stood in the great nave. I need not describe my feelings at the sight, but I will tell the dimensions, and you may then fancy what they were. Before me was a marble plain six hundred feet long, and under the cross four hundred and seventeen feet wide! One hundred and fifty feet above, sprang a glorious arch, dazzling with inlaid gold, and in the centre of the cross there were four hundred feet of air between me and the top of the dome! The sunbeam, stealing through the lofty window at one end of the transept, made a bar of light on the blue air, hazy with incense, one-tenth of a mile long, before it fell on the mosaics and gilded shrines of the other extremity. The grand cupola alone, including lantern and cross, is two hundred and eighty-five feet high, or sixty feet higher than the Bunker Hill Monument, and the four immense pillars on which it rests are each one hundred and thirty-seven feet in circumference! It seems as if human art had outdone itself in producing this temple—the grandest which the world ever erected for the worship of the Living God! The awe felt in looking up at the giant arch of marble and gold, did not humble me; on the contrary, I felt exalted, ennobled—beings in the form I wore planned the glorious edifice, and it seemed that in godlike power perseverance, they were indeed but "a little lower than the angels!" I felt that, if fallen, my race was still mighty and immortal.

He goes on to describe the Vatican:

The Vatican is only open twice a week, on days which are not festas; most fortunately, to-day happened to be one of these, and we took a run through its endless halls. The extent and magnificence of the gallery of sculpture is perfectly amazing. The halls, which are filled to overflowing with the finest works of ancient art, would, if placed side by side, make a row more than two miles in length! You enter at once into a hall of marble, with a magnificent arched ceiling, a third of a mile long; the sides are covered for a great distance with inscriptions of every kind, divided into compartments according to the era of the empire to which they refer....

Then came the statues, and here I am bewildered, how to describe them. Hundreds upon hundreds of figures—statues of citizens, generals, emperors and gods—fauns, satyrs and nymphs—children, cupids and tritons—in fact, it seemed inexhaustible. Many of them, too, were forms of matchless beauty; there were Venuses and nymphs, born of the loftiest dreams of grace; fauns on whose faces shone the very soul of humor, and heroes and divinities with an air of majesty worthy the "land of lost gods and godlike men!"

I am lost in astonishment at the perfection of art... There is scarcely a form of beauty, that has ever met my eye, which is not to be found in this gallery. I should almost despair of such another blaze of glory on the world, were it not my devout belief that what has been done may be done again, and had I not faith that the dawn in which we live will bring another day equally glorious. And why should not America, with the experience and added wisdom which three thousand years have slowly yielded to the old world, joined to the giant energy of her youth and freedom, re-bestow on the world the divine creations of art? Let Powers answer!


I absolutely trembled on approaching the cabinet of the Apollo, I had built up in fancy a glorious ideal, drawn from all that bards have sung or artists have rhapsodized about its divine beauty. I feared disappointment—I dreaded to have my ideal displaced and my faith in the power of human genius overthrown by a form less than perfect. However, with a feeling of desperate excitement, I entered and looked upon it.

Now what shall I say of it? How make you comprehend its immortal beauty? To what shall I liken its glorious perfection of form, or the fire that imbues the cold marble with the soul of a god? Not with sculpture, for it stands alone and above all other works of art—nor with men, for it has a majesty more than human. I gazed on it, lost in wonder and joy—joy that I could, at last, take into my mind a faultless ideal of godlike, exalted manhood. The figure appears actually to possess a spirit, and I looked on it, not as on a piece of marble, but a being of loftier mould, and half expected to see him step forward when the arrow had reached its mark. I would give worlds to feel one moment the sculptor's mental triumph when his work was completed; that one exulting thrill must have repaid him for every ill he might have suffered on earth! With what divine inspiration has he wrought its faultless lines! There is a spirit in every limb which mere toil could not have given. It must have been caught in those lofty moments.2

If you have any tendency toward Rome, etch those paragraphs into your memory bank for recall the rest of your life. This is the Roman religion. This is her faith. These are her gods.

Of course her priests and profs tell us we must withdraw from political engagement because the battle is lost. Of course they call us to go back—way back—to Christendom's "culture" and rebuild it for a new age dawning. If your hope is in sacraments, you multiply them and dress them up as extravagantly as possible. Playing dress-up has such a powerful impact on sheep without shepherds.

Sacramentalists are what they are and always have been. Luther and Calvin wrote simply about the doctrines of Scripture and preached simply the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Rome did neither. Rome sold indulgences to pay for the gilding of the physical setting of her sacraments' ceremonies and rituals.

Take your pick. You can place your religious faith in culture or you can put it in Jesus Christ. One or the other, said the Reformers. And being their follower because of the grace of the Holy Spirit leading my soul away from the lions, one or the other say I.

The Christian's hope is not sacraments bathed in culture. It is simple and straightforward Gospel preaching bathed in the power of the Holy Spirit giving birth to the Church which is always recognized by Her devotion to the teaching of the apostles, the breaking of bread, fellowship, and prayer. Those are the four pillars of Christian culture, which is to say Church culture.

In this dark day, our hope for the future is the same hope Luther and Calvin clung to in their sexually debauched and ignorant day. They read their Bibles and put their hope in the Holy Spirit using their preaching of the Gospel to restore the Bride of Christ.

Thus the first of Luther's Ninety-five Theses:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, "Repent'" (Matthew 4:17), He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

This is the truth absent from Reformed preaching today and this is the reason our children are converting to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions. Someone must help them with their guilty consciences, so if we refuse to call them to repentance, they'll go somewhere that gets them dead-drunk on ceremonies, rituals, and culture.

  • 1. http://scholarship.rollins.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=mls
  • 2. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11535/pg11535-images.html
Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!