The Briefing

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New York Times

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris Catches Fire, by Adam Nossiter and Aurelien Breeden

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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

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Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burns: What this historic cathedral tells us about the development of modern France

It happened right before our eyes, the destruction of one of the most important architectural achievements of western civilization. The burning last night of Notre Dame Cathedral, that historic church right in the center of the city of Paris.

What burned last night in Paris, of course, was not just a tremendous loss to architecture, it was, in many ways, and ways we should consider today on The Briefing, the burning of a symbol that is essential to French identity. That raises a host of issues, a host of theological and worldview issues that are implicated in this story. They are going to be largely missing, ironically enough, from the major media coverage of this tragedy.

It is a tragedy, it's a tragedy to anyone who values architecture. It's a tragedy to anyone who has a sense of history. It is a tragedy especially as you look at the Christian civilization of Europe, a civilization that is now missing one of its most iconic symbols, one of its most historic buildings.

We're talking about a cathedral, the construction of which was begun in the year 1163. We're talking about a great cathedral that took shape most importantly in the 12th and 13th centuries, at the very high water mark of the emergence of gothic architecture. An architecture which is laden itself with worldview significance. What is gothic architecture communicating? It is communicating transcendence. The very design of gothic architecture is to point to the greatness and to the transcendence of God and to make the human being entering such a space feel very, very small. Virtually to the point of being insignificant.

And when you are looking at the development of gothic, into the age of high gothic, you are looking at a monument like Notre Dame Cathedral, recognize that every single part of this building is communicating something of importance. You look at the basic layout of the cathedral, it is shaped like a cross. Not by accident, the altar at the very center of the crossing. And, as we shall see, there are reasons why, looking at that building, you see the fact that it is explained by the Christian tradition. But it's also explained by the unique theology of the Roman Catholic Church. More on that in a moment, but right now we need to consider the historic nature of what happened last night.

It was the destruction, apparently it is now believed, by accident. Most likely by accident given the renovation of the cathedral that was underway. It was the loss of a great treasure to architecture. Western civilization, like every other civilization, but perhaps western civilization in particular, is a history of architectural monuments. You can say the same thing was true of ancient Egypt with the building of the pyramids. You can look to other great architectural triumph, the so-called seven wonders of the world throughout ancient history.

But when you are looking at modern civilization and you are looking at the history of civilizations, you come to understand that those gothic cathedrals, those tremendous monuments to a faith that at least once was, are giving testimony to the very identity of Europe. You can't tell our story, you can't even tell the history of the Reformation or the modern age without talking about the age of the cathedrals, you can't do so without talking about Notre Dame Cathedral right there in the heart of Paris.

Again, the cathedral was begun in 1163, but the history of the Notre Dame Cathedral, built largely in the 12th and 13th centuries, is also a history of Europe's loss of faith. If you look back to Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, one of the things that becomes very evident is that Christianity is the only available worldview. Now this is not to say that every single citizen of Europe during that era was a believing Christian, we're not saying that at all. We are saying that the truths of Christianity were the only available truths to civilization at that time.

The understanding of right and wrong, the philosophy of beauty, the understanding of marriage and the family, of the role of civilization, all of this came down to explicit dependence upon classical Christianity. It took the modern age and the development of worldview pluralism to lead to a situation in which that basic Christian worldview had any rivals. When you look at the great cathedrals and you try to explain them, one thing becomes clear, this was not only the dominant worldview of the civilization, this was the worldview of the civilization.

But what is the word cathedral? Well it comes from the Latin cathedra, but it comes to us, not by irony here, from the French, cathedral, and it means “the seat.” Now what kind of seat is it? It is the seat of a bishop. It was true in one sense of the east, but it was formalized, most importantly in western Christianity, a cathedral is the seat of a bishop. Without a bishop, there is no cathedral. When the bishop sits, he sits in cathedra. It is an official designation.

A cathedral church is generally a large church. You think about those gothic and Romanesque cathedrals in Europe, it is true, most of them are very large. But not all of them. The size of the building does not designate the fact that it is a cathedral. The fact that it includes the seat of a bishop, that's what makes a church officially a cathedral. A bishop or an archbishop is required for the building to be rightly designated as a cathedral. Which means that churches that do not recognize the office of bishop in a formal sense, well those churches do not have cathedrals.

In some variants of Christianity, they might call a large building designated for worship a cathedral. But without a bishop, it's actually not a cathedral. And so, not by accident, you are looking at the fact that most of the great cathedrals were at least begun in the early era of western civilization, the great age of cathedral building came at about the midpoint of the Medieval Era and you are looking at the fact that the Middle Ages are required to explain them and the Middle Ages were overwhelmingly Catholic. This was a Roman Catholic Age. This was when western civilization knew only Christianity as Roman Catholicism. And this was also a pointer to the fact that big changes were afoot because those giant cathedrals were also the evidence of an increasing urbanization within European and western civilization. That urbanization and all of the energy that emerged around it also helps to explain some of the developments that lead eventually to the Reformation and to the modern age.

But let's fast forward in particular with Notre Dame Cathedral. Why is that cathedral so very important to telling the story of the modern age? We're talking about a building that was begun in the Middle Ages, built essentially in the Medieval Era. Why is it so important to explaining the modern era? It is because, as you look to that one cathedral now in ruins, it tells the story of how the modern age became the modern age in one radical example.

The French Revolution that took place in the late 18th century into the 19th century, it itself as an expression of the radical modern impulse, a radically secular modern impulse, it saw the authority of Christianity as an authority that like the king must be overthrown. And thus, on October 10th of 1793, the cathedral that is named Notre Dame Cathedral, the Cathedral of Our Lady, referring to its dedication to Mary, in that cathedral, the statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by the statue of the Goddess Reason.

The modern age reflects a shift from a theological worldview to a secular worldview. And that includes the fact that the highest instrument of authority, according to the French Revolutionaries, was unaided human reason. It was an extreme humanism that of course led to deadly results. But you can come up with no more symbolic act than the fact that Mary was removed from the cathedral and the cathedral was instead claimed for the Cult of Reason, with the Goddess Reason, as she was designed, put in the place of Mary.

A society that had been framed, forged, and entirely founded on the Christian worldview, was now being transformed by a radical version of a secular worldview, an officially atheistic worldview, and we're talking once again about 1793.

Christians ought to pause here for a moment and recognize that the enlightenment produced two different directions of thought. One was the French enlightenment, sometimes Germany's included so that it is the continental European enlightenment, a very radical enlightenment. And then the English speaking enlightenment, sometimes it's just called the Scottish enlightenment, which was a far more conservative enlightenment. It was the radical secular European enlightenment, the French enlightenment, that established the Goddess of Reason in 1793 as the symbol in Notre Dame Cathedral, of the Cult of Reason.

But to no surprise, the Cult of Reason hardly lasted a year. What does that tell Christians? Well, it tells us that secularism can't hold itself together. It is inadequate to establish a civilization or to order a society. The French Revolution, driven by such a radical enlightenment, such a declaration of human rationality, the dethroning of God and, of course, even the execution of the king, it led to the fact that civilization wasn't holding together. This radical revolution had turned on itself.

And so, just about a year after the Cult of Reason was established in Notre Dame Cathedral, that was in 1793, in 1794, largely under the urging of Robespierre, the leader of the radicals in the French Revolution at the time, the Cult of Reason was replaced by the Cult of the Supreme Being. Now you'll notice the supreme being, that is not to say the cult of God.

Now you'll notice the name, the Cult of the Supreme Being. This is not Christianity. This is not even biblical theism. This is not the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the Trinitarian God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is instead a largely secular deity put in place as a necessary check upon revolutionary passions. From the Cult of Reason in 1793 came the Cult of the Supreme Being in 1794.

But then everything changed in 1801. What happened then? Well, Napoleon, eventually the Emperor of France, reached an historic agreement known as the Concordat, between his own government and the Roman Catholic Church, effectively re-establishing Roman Catholicism as the state religion in France in 1801. But not quite. Catholicism was re-established as the state religion, but it was the servant of the state. Napoleon, an autocrat, a totalitarian leader, saw to it that the church that he re-established because he believed that its moral teachings were necessary for a well-functioning society, he made certain that the church would be subservient to his own totalitarian rule.

Part

How the media's description of Notre Dame as a national symbol instead of a place of worship reveals the current state of European modernism

Now, as we're looking at the horrible headlines and the images from France last night, recognize that even though the Cathedral of Notre Dame was the seat of Catholicism within France, it was not even owned by the Roman Catholic Church. Who owns Notre Dame Cathedral? The government in the name of the people of France. The Catholic Church is effectively given the use of the cathedral, but it does not own the cathedral. And that too is a part of the story.

That's why in so much of the news coverage last night, you will see the mourning of the French people for the loss of a national symbol. That doesn't necessarily mean anything theological at all. When most modern French people look at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, they do recognize it in some antique sense as having a connection to Christianity, but they basically see it as a far more romanticized ideal of French civilization and of French national identity.

It is very interesting to see the statements last night made by French President Emmanuel Macron and so many others, they are mourning the loss of a symbol of France. There is no reflection in the most part that there is any theological meaning to this at all.

Symbolic of this was a statement recorded in the news coverage last night within The New York Times. The reporter was Aurelien Breeden. He wrote about a 31-year-old actor by the name of Emmanuel Gary, who was amongst a huge crowd amassed, watching with horror the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. But the actor said, "It's not about the faith, Notre Dame is a symbol of France." There you have it, it's not about the faith. Notre Dame is a symbol of France.

Here's where Christians, and evangelical Christians in particular, need to think seriously for just a moment about what's at stake here. We're not only talking about the loss of an architectural marvel that simply can't be replaced. No one's going to be able to go back, even with the greatest techniques of historical renovation and restore a building that has stood for 850 years. Whatever is built, even if it follows the same architectural forms, will be an essentially modern building.

This is going to mean that all those landscapes, cityscapes of Paris that include Notre Dame Cathedral, they are now going to be like those photographs of New York City without the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Only in this case, in France, we're talking about almost nine centuries of the visual symbolism of the city of Paris.

What should evangelicals think about the great age of the cathedrals? What should we think about these architectural monuments? Well, we should celebrate the fact that they underline the reality that the Christian worldview was absolutely central to the building of western civilization. That's absolutely crucial. When you look at that architecture, it cries out Christianity is at the center of civilization.

But, of course, evangelical Christians, Gospel minded Christians, understand that Christianity is not just a set of truths. Christianity is a faith, a personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And furthermore, those of us who are committed to Gospel Christianity, understand the reality of the Catholic mass. We understand the theological distinction between our understanding of Christianity and the historic and present Roman Catholic understanding of Christianity. The sacramentarianism that takes place in Notre Dame Cathedral is not the theology of evangelical Christianity.

But evangelicals should understand that we share in the loss of this kind of architectural monument to the centrality of Christianity. There is a rightful mourning that should come to evangelicals as well.

And furthermore, you're talking about a building that was built centuries before the emergence of the Protestant Reformation. And thus, the reformers themselves would have looked to this kind of cathedral as a symbol of the Christianity they sought to reform.

In Geneva, Calvin would begin preaching the Gospel and demonstrating the power of the exposition of Holy Scripture in a church building that had been known as the Cathedral of Saint Peter, Saint Peter's Cathedral there in Geneva.

The church historian in me cannot help but grieve. A pipe organ built in the 16th century still functioning, now destroyed. The largest stained glass windows in the history of Christendom, now destroyed in the aftermath of the fire. Perhaps the saddest moment to most Parisians came last night with the fall of the iconic spire at the center of the cathedral. That spire, by the way, is nowhere near as old as the towers that go back to the Middle Ages. But nonetheless, the spire was a symbol of Paris, and when it fell, Paris was heartbroken.

But let's just pause for a moment and recognize what that kind of spire was symbolizing in the first place. That spire's not an accident, architecturally it's very significant. It is pointing to something, thus the shape of a spire. To what or to whom was it pointing? It was pointing to the heavens and the cross at the very top indicated it was pointing to God and to the reigning Jesus Christ.

Parisians, watching with broken hearts the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral, saw so much last night, but those who would think through the lens of Christian truth and biblical Christianity do not see less, but actually far more.

Part

Pope Benedict XVI comes out of hiding to attack the moral and theological liberalism in both Western society and the Roman Catholic church

But next, as we have been discussing Catholicism, what a strange story has emerged in recent days. Here's a headline from The New York Times, "With letter on sexual abuse, retired Pope returns to public eye." Now the first thing that should shock you is the fact that the words retired and Pope generally have not gone together. They haven't gone together for virtually a millennium. But they go together now because of all things the Roman Catholic Church doesn't have just a Pope, but two Popes.

It says that only one, Pope Frances, is actually operating as the Pope of Rome. But let's be clear, there are actually two men with the title of Pope. That would mean Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. And even within the Catholic Church, those two Popes represent two radically different theologies. And all of a sudden, that has become clear.

After almost six years of virtual silence, Pope Benedict is speaking out. And this is international headline news. Jason Horowitz reports, "In his retirement, Pope Benedict XVI is apparently tired of hiding. The former Pontiff, who declared that he would remain hidden to the world when he became the first Pope in six centuries to abdicate in 2013, has released a 6,000 word letter that puts the blame for the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church on the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the disappearance of God from public discourse in the west, and what he considers dangerously liberal theological ideas that eroded morality after the church reforms of the Second Vatican Council."

Putting that in other words, one Pope has effectively declared theological war on another. The nightmare the Roman Catholic Church in having two living Popes has come to a reality when Benedict XVI came out from his hiding and he came out in fighting form.

I waited until I could read the entire 6,000 word document written by Benedict XVI, and it is a blockbuster. It is rightly described by The New York Times as an all-out assault, critique, and indictment of moral liberalism and theological liberalism in western society and in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Writing about the sex abuse crisis, he puts it in a larger moral framework. He goes back to 1968 and the infamous student rebellions that set loose so much of the modern revolutionary fervor of our age. He wrote, "Among the freedoms that the revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms."

Benedict XVI, here speaking of the revolutionary spirit of 1968, we spoke of it yesterday in our coverage of the story concerning Julian Assange. He says that that spirit was antithetical to any kind of moral norm. "There is nothing objectively right or wrong," said the revolutionaries. But, even as we pointed yesterday, they eventually graduated, got tenure, and they have been largely in control of the central institutions of our civilization for a generation and more.

Speaking of theological liberalism within the Roman Catholic Church, he blames the church for accepting, rather than fighting, much of the sexual revolution and moral relativism. He writes, "In many circles of moral theology, the hypothesis was expounded that the church does not and cannot have her own morality. The argument being," he said, "that all moral hypotheses would also know parallels in other religions and therefore a Christian property of morality could not exist."

That's a rather complicated way of Pope Benedict XVI saying that the Roman Catholic Church turned its back on its own moral teachings and destroyed its own moral authority. When the document was released just days ago, the response of many people, especially in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, was to assume that it was not real. That Benedict had not really written the document, it really did not come from him. But within hours, that was quickly dispelled when Pope Benedict XVI himself through his own office, he took responsibility for the statement and made very clear that he intended for it to be released and to be read.

In its coverage, The New York Times wrote this, "In writing the letter, Benedict realized the fears of many church experts who had argued that having two pontiffs living at the same time was a recipe for pastoral, theological, and political disaster that could lead to confusion amongst the faithful." Well, let's just call that an understatement. To say the very least, it is awkward and inconvenient for the Roman Catholic Church to have two living Popes.

Evangelicals looking at this understand that we do not accept the office of the papacy at all. It is one of the major issues separating evangelicals and Protestants on the one side from Roman Catholics on the other. But we can simply look with puzzlement at the fact that the Roman Catholic Church now has apparently two Popes who are now openly arguing with one another. Now Pope Francis has not directed any particular critique at Benedict, but in his teachings he's done everything possible to try to unravel what his two predecessors had put in place. That was an edifice of theological and moral conservatism within Catholicism established by the late Pope, John Paul II, and his successor, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, known as Benedict XVI.

Now, when I was a doctoral student studying for my PhD, I took some particular course work studying contemporary Roman Catholic theological method. At the time, one of the individuals I studied was Cardinal Ratzinger. He would later become Pope Benedict XVI, but I had no idea of that when I studied him back in the mid 1980s. Why did I study Ratzinger? It is because if you, as an evangelical Protestant, want to understand Roman Catholic theology as it is done in its most Roman Catholic sense, then you can do no better than Benedict XVI, than Cardinal Ratzinger. He is a brilliant theologian.

As an evangelical, you at least know you are reading a real Roman Catholic when you read the theology of Joseph Ratzinger. And that's what make him so dangerous to the current Pope. The very existence of two Popes is complicated enough, but in this case, the older Pope is declaring that the younger Pope is leading the church into theological and moral disaster.

We should also be clear that liberals in the Roman Catholic Church hate this letter. They do not want Pope Benedict to have any further influence. They see Pope Francis as the savior of the Roman Catholic Church, as a liberal who is going to bring about a revolution to undo what Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had attempted to do in confronting moral relativism and rampant moral liberalism within western civilization.

It's also fair to say that at least one error that evangelicals would point to in Pope Benedict's statement is that you can't possibly blame the modern age for the origins of the sexual abuse, indeed the priestly pedophilia crisis, in the Roman Catholic Church. Just ask the reformers, they were pointing to the same problems back in the 16th century.

But Benedict is on very sure ground when he says that the church's response to this crisis and its general response to sexual morality has become a mass of confusion and the confusion is by the very making of the Roman Catholic Church, which after Vatican II, has been largely under the influence of theologians who have been doing their best to reverse the course of the Roman Catholic Church on so many of its moral teachings.

And as we close, we simply have to point to the fact that there has to be some kind of historical irony recognized in the fact that we are talking over the same few days about a theological feud between two Popes and the sudden destruction by fire of Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris.

Evangelical Christians have to understand that when this kind of story makes the headlines, theology is in the headlines. And where theology is, we're called to be a part of that discussion, so get there.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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