Today is the feast day of John-Baptist Vianney, about whom James Kiefer at The Daily Office writes:
Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney (better known as the Cure’ d’Ars, or curate of Ars — now Villars-les-Dombes) was the son of a peasant farmer, born in France in 1786, three years before the beginning of the French Revolution. He wished to become a priest, but his studies were hindered, first by the poverty of his family, next by the anti-religious policies of the Revolutionary government, and finally by the wars of Napoleon. He was not a particularly bright student, and struggled hopelessly with Latin. He was 29 when he was finally ordained, his superiors having decided that his zeal and devotion compensated for his “academic underqualification.”
He was sent as curate to the small and obscure village of Ars-en-Dombes (now called Villars-les-Dombes (46:00 N 4:50 E),about 30 kilometers northeast of Lyon (formerly Lyons, 45:46 N 4:50 E), where he proved an unexpectedly brilliant preacher. He campaigned vigorously against drinking, dancing, and immodest dress, but became chiefly known for his skill in individual counselling. He was blessed with extraordinary psychological insight, and knew when to tell someone, “You are worrying too much about your sins and failing to trust in the mercy of God,” and when to say, “You are not worrying enough about your sins and are treating the mercy of God as a moral blank check.” He would often tell people, “Your spiritual problems do not lie in the matters you have mentioned, but in another area entirely.”
Many people came away convinced that he must be a mind-reader. As his fame spread, people came for hundreds of miles to hear him preach (close to 100,000 in the last year of his life) and to receive his private counsel (he ended up spending eighteen hours a day hearing confessions). The work was exhausting, and three times he undertook to resign and retire to a monastery, but each time he felt bound to return to deal with the needs of his congregation. He died “in harness” at the age of 73, 4 August 1859.
I’m tempted to wonder whether Father Vianney’s lack of aptitude for academic theology blessed him with extraordinary fluidity in tailoring his message to the individual’s spiritual imbalances. The Bible contains apparent contradictions or inconsistencies of emphasis (e.g. Paul’s “by grace alone” versus James’ “faith without works is dead”) that cannot be crammed into a perfectly neat theological system, but that widen the Scriptures’ applicability to every type of audience.
Similarly, in the gospels, Jesus himself is perpetually surprising, at one point proclaiming even stricter moral laws than the Pharisees, at another point forgiving and touching the outcast sinners. So is this religion about moral perfection or moral anarchy? When we abstract out the dynamic initiative of God and His personal relationship with each of us, we have no way to balance these competing principles, and we develop a heartless or mindless theology that overcompensates in a particular direction.
My friend the writer Elise Chase expressed this insight well in an as-yet-unpublished essay about John 14:6 and the possibility of salvation for non-Christians (boldface emphasis mine):
Jesus tells us that belief is crucial [to salvation], but it is often unclear from his words which is more important–theological understanding, or inarticulate trust. What is clear is that his call to commitment is so radical, even outlandish, that it runs counter to our deepest autonomous instincts, and nothing short of God’s own intervention in our hearts can make such commitment possible. This alone should make us hesitate to spell out too precisely just what we must do from our human end to be “saved”. Yet if we throw up our hands and say we have no role in the matter, there are all those other passages in scripture that seem to suggest our human failure to recognize who Jesus is, and to follow him, has enough impact on the heart of God that he suffers genuine pain.
There is so much paradox, even ambiguity, when we set text against text! If each word in scripture is the way God intends it to be, then I can’t help thinking this paradox is there for a reason. Perhaps God doesn’t want us to be too rigid in our understanding of exactly how the salvation provided by Jesus “works”, in an operational sense; maybe the Bible’s very mystery has a pastoral function. We have enough passages promising God will be faithful to his “chosen” ones that, as believers, we are given assurance about our eternal security in him. When it comes to where others may stand with him, though, tension between the themes of God’s sovereignty, on the one hand, and his desire that everyone might come to salvation, on the other, cautions us not to set categorical boundaries around God’s grace….
In the end, I can’t help believing, agape love, which is always rooted in Jesus, inevitably trumps doctrine. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:15). Yes, doctrine is necessary as a pastoral tool: to ground us in clear thinking, to anchor us in commitment to Jesus as Savior and Lord, to give us assurance that he has already accomplished everything necessary for our salvation, and it is not up to us. But when obsession with doctrine snarls and entangles us, making us regress spiritually and inhibiting us from loving God and those around us, surely it is better to loosen our grip, at least for the moment, on the propositional tenets that are doing this damage.