Monday, January 3, 2011

The West-Schindler Debate Over Concupiscence in the Theology of the Body

David Delaney at the blog Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex has posted a summary of an article that will appear in the December Homiletic Pastoral and Review on the debate over the correct interpretation of concupiscence in John Paul II's Theology of the Body. I will give a few excerpts from the summary and then offer some comments from a Reformed, Evangelical perspective in red in between quotations.

"The ongoing Theology of the Body debate between Christopher West and his critics (including Alice Von Hildebrand, David Schindler and Dawn Eden) is an important one. For those not familiar with it, I suggest reading David Schindler’s initial open letter, Christopher West’s public response and Dawn Eden’s thesis. West’s public response correctly identifies the primary issue; concupiscence. It, at least in part, underlies most of his critic’s concerns." [For those unfamiliar with this debate the above links are a good introduction. A bit of searching on Google, however, can lead to more relevant articles.]

"Schindler claims that West’s understanding of concupiscence is deficient because he neglects to understand “that concupiscence dwells ‘objectively’ in the body, and continues its ‘objective’ presence in the body throughout the course of our infralapsarian existence.” Eden explicitly quotes Schindler citing the same concern.

West admits he may have under emphasized the “fierce” and enduring nature of concupiscence in the past. Nevertheless, he doesn’t retreat from his emphasis that redemption brings about liberation from concupiscence, and for good reason. The words come from JPII. West points to 15 references in the TOB catecheses in support of this. Accordingly, one of West’s central themes is “mature purity.”

West believes mature purity excludes continence. Rather than turning away from temptations, it is an achievement in which one no longer need turn away." [West is here teaching something quite recognizable to anyone familiar with the Reformed tradition; we have encountered it before in the Wesleyan and Holiness traditions of sinless perfection.]

"West correctly interprets John Paul II’s demand that we can and must cooperate with grace in order to overcome concupiscent temptations. We have to demand self-mastery from ourselves in each and every temptation, explicitly demanding we orient our will toward the authentic good. For example, when tempted to reduce a woman to her sexual value because he notices the shape of her body, a man must demand of himself that he see and affirm her as created by God for her own sake. He must endeavor to recover the habitually threatened spousal meaning of the body (TOB 32:3). West rightly emphasizes this point." [John Paul II, in his section: "The 'Heart': Accused or Called?" (pp. 301-321) rightly emphasizes the fact that Jesus calls us to sanctification rather than simply using the law to lay bare our sin, guilt and need of grace. From a Reformed perspective, we would say he is embracing what Calvin called the "third use of the law," that is, as an aid to living a holy life.]

"In general, West is correct about that which John Paul explicitly teaches in this regard. However, I think that he seriously errs when he leaves JPII’s explicit words to concretely apply TOB. . . . Ultimately, West’s view about liberation from continence contradicts Catholic tradition; something John Paul II never does. Rather, John Paul synthesizes the tradition with new insights from phenomenological personalism, though mature purity is not a new insight. It is an articulation of St. Thomas Aquinas’s anthropology." [I think Delaney is exactly right in drawing this conclusion.]

[Here Delaney clarifies the difference between John Paul II and West. Note carefully:] "What John Paul II actually means by liberation is from the “constraint of the body” which arises with the advent of concupiscence (TOB 32:2). The constraint of concupiscence makes authentic total self-gift virtually impossible (TOB 32:6). He also uses constraint to describe the instinct of animals who cannot but follow their urges (TOB 14:6). Something like constraint to instincts is what happens to the man of concupiscence. This constraint is insuperable until the advent of Redemption. However, liberation from this constraint is not the same as near immunity from concupiscence for those who have become “pure” as West puts it.

John Paul holds to tradition saying that “immediate continence,” together with self-mastery and habitual temperance are all simultaneously needed to live the ethos of redemption (see TOB 49:4, 53:5). Continence is “a definite and permanent moral attitude, …a virtue” (TOB 124:4; emphasis mine). He doesn’t say continence can ever be set aside." [There is a huge difference between saying that, in this life, we can overcome the tug of concupiscence and make the sincere gift of the self to the spouse, on the one hand, and saying that we can, in this life, become free of the tug of concupiscence altogether. One is victorious Christian living by means of the filling of the Holy Spirit; the other is sinless perfection. Note: what I am calling "victorious Christian living" does not involve the disappearance of temptation; it involves deliverance from the power of sin but not the presence of sin. The freedom from concupiscence that West talks about is not part of the progressive sanctification, but part of glorification (or final, competed sanctification), which happens only at death or the return of Christ and involves having a resurrected, glorified body. It is not that what West wants is not part of salvation; it is just that it is unattainable in this life. If Delaney is right in his arguments, the upshot is that John Paul II is closer to the Reformed doctrine of sanctification than to the Wesleyan-Holiness doctrine, as well as being a good Thomist, as Delaney stresses.]

A final comment is that my Reformed position is informed by the Evangelical stress on the transformation of character and so is closer to that of Jonathan Edwards than to certain strands of the Reformed tradition which are highly suspicious of experience and reject revivalism. This makes me closer to John Paul II than some Reformed theologians, but not closer to the Wesleyan-Arminian-Holiness tradition, as I hope this discussion shows.


Steve Kellmeyer said...

Christ freed us from the power of death, but we each still die.

Christ freed us from the power of sin and the temptation to sin (concupiscence), but we each still sin and each still experience concupiscence.

Death cannot be avoided, nor concupiscence permanently defeated until we have the final victory with Christ.

Craig Carter said...

It all, of course, depends on the meaning of "defeated" doesn't it?