The Silence of the Gaps: Dom John Main’s Mystical Mutilations in Romans

6 Oct

If someone were to say that the Holy Spirit plays a central role in the Christian life, no Christian would argue, if what the person means by central is  “very important,” and “crucial.” We would say the same about the Father and about the Son. However, if we compare the roles of the Son and the Holy Spirit, I think it would be correct to say that Christ is at the centre of  Salvation, and the Holy Spirit, graciously, plays a supporting role. In the light of this supposition, consider the following excerpt from “Words in Silence.” The author is Dom John Main, a Benedictine monk. On p. 3, he quotes (New English Bible – C.H. Dodd) St Paul’s letter to the Romans 1:1-5:

I have underlined pertinent sections. Notice the gap between “ours” (end of verse 2) and “because,” (second half of verse 5). shortly.

Romans 1:1-5

Verse 1

    . Therefore, now that we have been justified through faith, let us continue at peace with God through the Lord, Jesus Christ, V

erse 2

    . through whom we have been allowed to enter the sphere of God’s grace, where we now stand. Let us exult in the

hope

    of the divine splendour that is to be

ours

    …..

Verse 5bbecauseGod’s love has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us.”

Dom Main comments: “His (St Paul) great conviction is that the 1. central reality of our Christian faith is the sending of the Spirit of Jesus; 2. indeed our faith is a living faith precisely because the living Spirit of God dwells within us, giving new life to our mortal bodies.”

Dom Main’s point 2 is right; his point 1 is wrong: the sending of the Spirit of Jesus (the Holy Spirit) is not, according to the Bible, the “central reality of our faith”.

Dom Main is right when he says that it is the Holy Spirit living in Christians that breathes life into their faith. But he is wrong to say that Paul thinks – or any Christian should think – that the sending of the Holy Spirit is the “central reality of our Christian faith”. It seems that Dom Main’s view is a common “mystical” (my term) interpretation. The Bible, in many places, clearly states what the centrality of faith is. Here is one passage. Jesus is speaking, after the resurrection, to his disciples (a short while before His ascension into heaven).

Luke 24:44-48 (I’ve marked two relevant sections, A and B):

“He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. And he said to them, “Thus it is written that:

A. the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

B. You are witnesses of these things. And (behold) I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

Dom Main says that B is the “central reality”. I would say the central reality is A: the suffering (death), the rising from the dead, and the repentance of sinners and forgiveness of sins for those who have faith that Christ has died, Christ has risen (and Christ will come again):

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1Cor 15:3,4).

What is the Holy Spirit’s role in the “economy” of salvation? He is the “sealer” of the Faith, the Counsellor, the Comforter, the Revealer of truth, the Power from on high that equips us – to learn, to understand, to love, to witness. And to suffer for the Gospel. Nothing the Holy Spirit does can be divorced from the Word of God. Whenever, we read the Word the God, we should truistically read it in context. What is the context of the references to the Holy Spirit in Romans 5:1-5?

I return to Dom Main’s quote of Romans 5:1-5, and the dots between “our” and “because”, which indicates that Dom Main had left something out. Well, he left out half of Romans 5:1-5.  (He said he was quoting verses 1-5). Dots within a quote indicate that the quoter thinks the part he omits  is not central to his purpose. Dom Main is correct. They are not central to his purpose;. What is his purpose? His purpose is to show that the Bible considers the “central reality of our Christian faith” to be “the sending of the Spirit of Jesus” (Dom Main above).

Let’s see what Dom Main skipped in Romans 5:1-5. Here is the restored passage verses 1–5. The part in bold is what Dom Main left out. Pay special attention to the word “hope” in different parts of the passage.

1 Therefore now that we have been justified through faith, let us continue at peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have been allowed to enter the sphere of God’s grace, where we now stand. Let us exult in the hope of the divine Splendour that is to be ours. 3 More than this: let us even exult in our present sufferings, because we know that suffering trains us to endure, 4 and endurance brings proof that we have stood the test, and this proof is the ground of hope. 5 Such a hope is no mockery, because God’s love has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he has given us.

In Dom Main’s mutilation of Romans 5:1-5 (slicing off verses 3,4 and a part of 5) , “hope” refers only to “the hope of divine splendour”. But what does the unmutilated text say. The “ground” of “hope” is not divine splendour, but  being proved through “present sufferings”, “endurance”, and standing the “test”; in one word – through the cross; where the hope of divine splendour/glory shines through. Through Christ Jesus.

“Did you know then”, to quote Paul again, a chapter later, that “all of us  who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” (Romans 6:3). “Baptised” here is not so much the physical act of immersing your body in water, but immersing yourself in Christ’s suffering and death – and, consequently, in your own death as well.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” (Mark 10:38).

In “The Passion of Bach: The Heart of Tragedy”, I described a well-known conductor who told of the deep effect Bach’s tragic “Passion of Christ” had on him. Not that he believed that the person being crucified was anything but a man. “You don’t, he said, have to be a Christian to feel the pain and the tragedy of such suffering.” From the Christian point of view, he didn’t understand that this Death meant much more than a human tragedy; it was a Death that brings life. I concluded that failure to grasp the meaning of this Death is what lies at the heart of tragedy.

With regard to Dom Main’s mutilation – with its “spirit-filled” intentions, there could also be a tragedy there. While the music conductor was ignorant of the Bible (for reasons known to God), Dom Main displaced the centrality of Christ by giving us a Holy Spirit-centred Gospel. As I mentioned above, the work of the Holy Spirit is to reveal  Christ, and to strengthen us in Christ. Of course, it is absolutely valid, and very good, to learn as much as we can about the Holy Spirit, who is the third person of the Trinity. What I think was not so good was the manner in which Dom Main went about excluding from Romans 5:1-5, “3 More than this: let us even exult in our present sufferings, because we know that suffering trains us to endure, 4 and endurance brings proof that we have stood the test, and this proof is the ground of hope.” In Romans 5:1-5, Christian faith is grounded in sufferings that trains a Christian to endure to the end, and ultimately he will be taken up to the divine splendor of Christ, his Saviour. The Holy Spirit is the One who helps the Christian on the Way.

The conductor of Bach’s “Passion” sobbed over the death of a man called Jesus. Or was it the music itself that brought on the sorrow? Music does that. The Conductor doesn’t know (and/or care) about scripture. Dom Main, on the other hand, has studied much, and also, no doubt, cares much about scripture. All the more reason that he should  “divide” the word with more diligence, without cutting it up so.

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that need not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

The greatest danger of mysticism for the Christian is to displace Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, a more universal term, which appeals to mystics across the religious smorgasbrod.

P.S. Dom John Main can’t respond to my criticisms, because he died in 1982. But someone else may wish to do so.

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