Something Chad Holtz wrote a few days ago got me thinking of this West Wing scene.
Like Holtz, the 17th century British priest Richard Baxter believed that one problem facing many clergy was that they had never actually experienced salvation themselves. To use Leo McGarry’s terms, they’d never been down in that hole and found their way out.
Here’s how Baxter put it:
Alas! it is the common danger and calamity of the Church, to have unregenerate and inexperienced pastors, and to have so many men become preachers before they are Christians; who are sanctified by dedication to the altar as the priests of God, before they are sanctified by hearty dedication as the disciples of Christ; and so to worship an unknown God, and to preach an unknown Christ, to pray through an unknown Holy Spirit, to recommend a state of holiness and communion with God, and a glory and a happiness which are all unknown, and like to be unknown to them forever. He is like to be but a heartless preacher, that hath not the Christ and grace that he preacheth, in his heart.
These words of Baxter get, I think, at what the United Methodist Church means — or used to mean — when it asked after the gifts and graces of candidates for ordination. We wanted to know if candidates knew Christ as savior and had evidence of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
If I press this line too far, I suspect someone will raise the specter of Donatism to accuse me. And yet I find Leo McGarry quite persuasive on this point. The best person to help another person out of a hole is one whose been down there before and knows the way out.
Do we know the way out?