Orthodoxy According to Robert J. Sanders
Recently I started reading through the essays of R.J. Sanders, a defender of "orthodox" thought in ECUSA and an agent in the recent drama afflicting the Diocese of Florida--he actually led his parish out from under the episcopal oversight of Bishop Howard. Very curious to see his justification, I turned to his essay, The 'Ecstatic' Heresy, wherein he claims "Beneath the surface, a powerful heresy has taken hold of the Episcopal Church" (1) such that "whenever you hear people saying that all language for God is symbolic, that the Spirit is guiding the church into new truths, or that our historical and cultural context goes beyond that of biblical peoples, you could well be in the presence of heresy" (ibid).
What interests me is how he engages with the theology of ECUSA I have been at pains to articulate from Christian Believing and The Anglican Vision. I do not recognize the theology of ECUSA's leadership in Sanders' description; more importantly, the orthodox alternative he advocates seems impossible.
Sanders' Absurd "Orthodoxy"
Sanders' clear argumentative style makes his bizzare notions about what constitutes orthodox Christianity all the more puzzling: surely I am missing something huge in modern theology that makes his views about Christ and the nature of God plausible. But I am at a loss to put a finger on it. He does not seem to be the sort who would embrace the historicism of a Moltmann or even a Pannenberg--those guys would make some sense of Sanders' comments, but their theology is not orthodox or even--at least yet--mainstream. They are what I would call "soft process theologians," distinguishing them from the theology of the Whitehead and Hartshorne-camp, which gives God entirely over to the flux.
When someone says "orthodox Christianity" I think of patristic thought as systematized in the Middle Ages: to be brief, Damascene and Augustine received in the writing of Anselm and Aquinas. Not all that these thinkers have said is correct--e.g. Cur Deus Homo's rationalism seems like a big mistake; Augustine's theory of original sin is debatable, to say the least. Surely departures from orthodoxy--e.g. in devotion to Mary--abound, and are not absurd simply for being departures, but they bear a special burden: why step away to adopt a novel reading or interpretation, one at odds with long tradition? Sanders's failure is twofold: (1) believing his novel notions are part of Christian orthodoxy; (2) not discharging the burden of proof on his novelties. I am especially bothered by (1).
For instance, Sanders looks at the epiphany of Isaiah 6 and writes (my bold-face) that
According to an orthodox understanding, Isaiah literally heard God speak. He understood what God meant when he said, "Whom shall I send?" As a result, Isaiah replied, "Send me." God spoke again, giving Isaiah a message that Isaiah then proclaimed to the people. (1)
Not so fast! An Aquinas would say God cannot speak--he would have to have a body to do so, but God does not have a body. The very notion of someone "literally hearing" God speak is absurd, according to orthodox tradition--it just could not happen. Alas, Sanders goes on:
The critical difference is whether or not God actually spoke to Isaiah. In the orthodox view, God actually spoke. He uttered literal words that Isaiah could understand, and as he spoke, he also revealed himself as Holy and Transcendent. (ibid)
I am not making this up. Our author, poor fellow, actually thinks it is orthodoxy, rather than heresy, to say God speaks and utters "literal words." Surely God could have used a creature to produce words which Isaiah heard--such a possibility is fully orthodox, no big deal. But that is not what Sandes means; for Sandes, where the Bible attributes speech to God, God is himself speaking, not a creature that God uses as an instrument. His mistake reveals such a shocking poverty one does not know quite where to begin with educating him--would a rehearsal of orthodox argumentation showing that God is not a body, as some presocratics, stoics, and epicureans thought, help?
Would he listen to argument, or are we in the presence of some sort of Bible literalist, who would simply insist "If the Bible says God speaks, then God speaks." Well, such literalism would contradict real orthodoxy--as I hope you can see, that kind of literalism leads to inferences contradicting the traditional Christian understanding of God.
It gets worse. For Sanders, God as understood by orthodoxy lacks the attribute of impassibility--an error of such gross proportions I am shocked, simply stunned by its crudity. I am not making this up:
In the orthodox view, spirituality is an encounter with God, mediated by Word and Sacrament, in which God and the person know each other as distinct selves who speak to and affect each other.
Pace Sanders, genuine orthodoxy affirms there is no real relation between God and creatures. We cannot change God in any way--he is entirely unmoved by us and whatever we do here below. An orthodox Christian might well ask Sanders "What do you worship? It cannot be the God of Peter, Paul and and the rest of the Apostles, the God of ancient Israel, YHWH. What manner of idolatry is this?" How many of our self-appointed "orthodox" Episcopalians share Sanders' novelties? And how many congregations have been deceived into believing such novelties are any part of orthodox Christianity?
Maybe a last word from Sanders--I apologize gentle lector, I truly do:
In the orthodox view, God does miracles when God becomes objective in the world of time and space. Every act of God is miraculous, including revelation in which God addresses the mind and will.
Heaven help us! It is not enough for Sanders to suggest that "God becomes"--thereby already stepping far from orthodoxy; he has the audacity to suggest God becomes a spatiotemporal object. Amazing. Suffice to say he has no idea what orthodox Christianity makes of God.