Tuesday, July 03, 2007

On CWOB: Against Ephraim Radner

Having picked up this latest dust-up over CWOB, T19 helpfully linked to a number of earlier pieces opposing the practice; the one that caught my eye was an old and well-written work from Radner, which still exists online.

Much of it is, frankly, quite good; I'd like to quote some parts with brief commentary:

[A] Hence, “discerning the body” [in I. Cor 11] refers to a kind of life. It is a life led in reception of and in conformance to the “body of Jesus [crucified]” (something which Paul lifts up throughout his letters as a central reality of the Christian vocation and gift). It is also a life led in accordance with the mutual love and subjection among Christians that represents the keeping of the “new command” within the “new human being” (cf. Eph. 2) of the Church’s corporate life in Christ. The Eucharist “shows up” this kind of life....

[B] What are the implications of all this? On one level, it is very simple: “Take heed”....Watch out! Take care! Take care how you eat, what you do, how you approach, how you live! For the calling is great, the gift is powerful, the judgment is strong. The import of this conclusion is not meant to turn the Eucharist into the Ark that killed Uzzah as some kind of impersonal outbreak of destructive holiness (cf. 2 Samuel 6)....The place to which we come is a place where terror has no initiating role, but where awesome joy and delight and worship blossom. But that is only because it is place opened up to the willing, for the sake of approaching God himself.

I very strongly agree with the comments in [A] and [B]--and similar comments beautifully made throughout Radner's piece on the nature of the Eucharist.

But why do such considerations imply the necessity of Baptism?

Opponents of CWOB too often take shots at straw men. Notice how Radner throughout the article refers to advocates of open communion as if they formed a homogeneous mass in thought and practice. Not true, not true at all. His characterization of CWOB manifestly fails to get traction with the reality of CWOB.

For instance, comments like [A] and [B] could just as well be pulled out of Radner's article and pasted into a pro-CWOB article. In themselves, they seem neutral. They might feel like they carry great weight inasmuch as opponents of CWOB are worried about cheap grace or deflating the practice of the Eucharist--but (1) CWOB can be practiced without deflation or cheapening, with respect for and consistent with such considerations as those voiced in [A] and [B] by Radner, and (2) C with B can be cheap and deflated in spite of the restriction to the baptized.

It is easy to hear, if you are listening for it, odd tones out of place in Radner's exegesis:

The Church has never claimed (in its doctrinal definitions around this matter anyway) that baptized Christians are “better” than the unbaptized; and Jesus certainly did not single out his 12 disciples on the basis of their moral preparedness. The claim made is simply this: that the baptized have made a choice to be held accountable to something greater than their own sense and construal of God, that is, to the calling from God given in Christ Jesus, to “follow” him “to the end”. The choice, however, itself carries with it enormous responsibilities and dangers.

That is, as it stands, obviously false. There is a long tradition of infant baptism in the church, from which it follows that most--nay, the overwhelming majority--of the baptized made no such choice at their baptism. Radner is off in la-la land here, fetishizing human autonomy in a way foreign to a long tradition of Christian thinking. Grace simply does not need your choice to operate and bring you close to God. Your choice is not really of any ultimate significance.

Let me say that again: whether you are saved or damned is not ultimately determined by any choice you make. And likewise for whether you are close to God or far from God, sanctified and holy or polluted and unclean.

Yes, someone will quote "Choose this day..." but be careful not to read too much Kant (or modern secularity) into the OT.

The point of choosing God is not an occurrent act from which everything else follows. That is not saving faith, but the old error of works righteousness. It's also pretty foolish; we are ever at risk of getting lost in translation. The point is not "daring to think for yourself" or "daring to choose for oneself" as if human autonomy were of ultimate import. It is important, to be sure, but not that important. Rather, the point of choosing God is living a certain kind of life and becoming a certain kind of person in a certain kind of community. Life/character/community: Radner knows this at some level; he writes in [A] that discerning the body refers to a kind of life. Why can't he stick with this valuation of living a type of life, giving it its due seriousness?

And note this well: you are already formed in a life in a community with a certain character before you are even capable of making a choice for yourself. And lo--that community might be Christian, practicing the Eucharist and offering your baptized self the body and blood of Christ, which you rightly take. And no choice need be made in the matter.

The smell of Kantian-influenced secularity is all over Radner's reading of Scripture. I cannot wash it off--it sticks like a sweet, cloying syrup. Sweet and sticky because we would like to flatter ourselves that our works make a final difference to whatever it is God will do with us, or whether we rightly partake of Christ's body and blood. True, Radner seems in at least one spot to know better--but occurrent choices get priority in his argument again and again.

Another, second, odd tone out of place in Radner's piece, vitiating his use of Scripture: he fails to distinguish between the case where (A1) Baptism ought to precede participation in the Eucharist from the case where (A2) Baptism would best precede the Eucharist, but its priority falls short of being obligatory. It's just too bad, but sometimes in the sad valley, what would have been best is lost in the fog of the merely counterfactual--and how then to go on?

In short, he seems--I speculate--to have been misled into a rather coarse exegesis by his attatchment to taking shots at straw men. He quotes the Gospel narratives around the institution of the Eucharist, I Cor. 10-11, et al inferring (A1) but never bothering to eliminate (A2) as a reading. Or: he never bothers to actually get dirty building an explicit case for an obligation from Scripture. For a proponent of CWOB could well passionately advocate (A2)--ceteris paribus we would be better off being baptized before being in Communion--while acknowledging that sometimes other things just aren't equal.

A final discordant note: so far as I can see, his tone is overwhelmingly occurrent. I have a very hard time detecting any eschatological dimension in Radner's conception of the Eucharist here. As the strongest theological case for CWOB (that I can see) leans heavily on seeing the Eucharist in eschatological terms, Radner's instincts at least are dead-on; he's "better off" seeing the Eucharist as a gathering of the Body of Christ here below, period. Go back and look at his descriptions in [A] and [B]: one would (falsely) infer the Eucharist is all about things done in the here below and this life.


At 4:49 AM, Blogger Jon said...

"Your choice is not really of any ultimate significance."

If this is true, why should we go out of our way to oppose bigotry and hatred? If this is true, what can we say about the martyrs? Where they fools for suffering and dying in the hope of salvation when they could just as easily have chosen to do what was asked of them by the civil authorities with the result that they would have lived and still been saved?

On choice and infant baptism, it is clear that infants don't make the choice for themselves, but since the choice is made for them it is still probably proper to describe baptism as being grounded in a choice. After all, parents make a great many choices for their children that have long term, or even life-long, impact. Of course the choosing isn't really over after being made explicit by baptism, but it is far better to have the choice made explicitly in baptism and/or, in the case of infant baptism at least, in confirmation or some sort of renewal of vows.


At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You would do better, I think, to read the Scotist's words in context: when he says "your choice is not really of any ultimate significance" he's affirming the sovereignty of God in the matter of your salvation, nothing else. When you interpret him as disparaging the other issues you seem to be implying that becoming a martyr or campaigning against bigotry and hatred make one more deserving of salvation than someone who doesn't do those things - which I guess is not what you intend, since it would tend to downplay the utterly undeserved nature of God's redeeming Grace.

Regarding infant baptism, I'd appreciate it if you'd explain how the point you're making undermines what the Scotist said (as you seem to think it does). After all, no one is saying that salvation occurs by accident: there is always a "choice" involved, but Scotist's point it's always ultimately God's choice. Your earthly parents chose to get you baptized, and God chose to give you his one Spirit to drink; arguably in neither case were you consulted first ;-)

At 7:44 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Jon and Anonymous,

Thanks for focusing the issue so well, indeed with laser-like perspicacity.

To echo Anonymous, martyrdom and works of justice do not God's hand force. For instance, God can elect rather lousy and duplicitous Jacob-types and worse, while ignoring the outwardly righteous.

There is an odd but powerful and widely accepted current--from far left to far right--in current theology that sees God's sovereignty as a scandal--as an outright absurdity.

One way to put the point is simply that all ultimate things are solely "in God's hands" and we would do well in our worship to respect the Mystery of his will.

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Certainly choice must be understood in the context of God's previously providing grace. There is still a question to be asked about how important our response to that grace is.

There are at least two senses in which salvation can be said to be dependent on God's choice. (1)It could be that salvation (and damnation if it happens) is compulsory. This view appears to run counter to the recognition that love neither compels nor can it be compelled. This view of salvation also seems likely to encourage recklessness, immorality, and passivity, since it suggests that human choices are essentially meaningless. (2)Alternatively, it could be that God makes salvation possible, maybe even strongly encourages us to choose in favor of salvation, and then proceeds to push us in the proper direction. Granted this can encourage a works-righteousness view of salvation even though that runs against the reality of God's previous action.

It appears to me that CWOB, in treating human choice as trivial, only really makes sense in the context of 1 with humanity more or less strictly being done to, rather than having anything like an active role in salvation. This is why the witness of the martyrs matters. If we are victims of divine action, why bother choosing to suffer for God when there are more pleasurable options?


At 3:14 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


Here is a more philosophical approach.

On the matter of choice, sometimes we sound as if God grants some exactly one occasion to choose for or against him here below or perhaps at the end of all things, and then salvation or damnation follows on that.

For instance, some evangelicals sound that way to me: they say, in effect, "Accept Jesus as your personal Savior and be saved/ avoid Hell/ etc."

That approach makes little sense to me. Radner above sounds that way for the most part: he keeps talking about "a choice" or "the choice" as if it were something that passed on a certain occasion.

But no choice is intelligible apart from the personal life of which it is a part. E.g. consider the parable of the servants who say no but go out into the fields to work anyway. More: a person's life will only have intelligibility as part of the life of a community.

"Have intelligibility" meaning being understandable as being for or against God.

Why such a wide context, reaching out over a life and a community? Short answer: meaning is structured linguistically, or structured around words (grounded ultimately in the Word).

The upshot of all this, I think, is that human freedom is rather conditioned by the structures in which it is ensconced. E.g. my choices are always made against the backdrop of my being human.

That is, my nature influences my choosing; it may well be that given my nature, my Ultimate End is set for me, regardless of any choice I can make at all. In that case--which I'd say actually obtains--my choices have more to do with whether I recognize the Ult. End as such, or keep trying to put something else in its place.

In that sense, I may have a roughly libertarian freedom, but only over a very limited range.

So for instance, what I recognize as an End(incl. what is good/evil, divine/profane) will be influenced by how I have been raised and the people I have been raised around.
Stepping apart cannot be done all at once, and can only be gradual.

At 12:35 AM, Blogger Jon said...

Cerianly our choices are conditioned. Does this mean we ought to conclude that we are incapbable of making real choices? I doubt it. At the very least we need the illusion of choice to stave off dispair.


At 2:16 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

No, no; choice need not be an illusion Maybe the range covered by choice goes something like this:

[Fallen Condition] without grace: real choices of themselves limited to greater and lesser evils; one should always choose the lesse of available evils, but a simply good act is beyond our power;

[Mixed Condition] with grace: a simply good act is open to us--like doing what is right simply from the love of God (though we can still do evil).

There is a third position possible, opposed to the fallen one--the position of the Saved, say:
real choice between options is limited to various simply good actions; which one will be chosen is within our power.

At any point, which condition we happen to be in depends in large part on the community forming us. Say, crudely--

the Fallen Condition: fallen communities

the Mixed Condition: church communities

the Saved Condition: the communion of the saints and God

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Jon said...

I certainly hope it isn't an illusion, but if the possibilities are either an explicitly deterministic universe or a a universe with pseudo-choice, then the one with pseudo-choice is to be preferred. I objected to your initial characterization of choice because it seems to lean in the direction of the explicitly deterministic universe.

How many different conditions are possible in eternity? I only see two; with God or against God. This is especially likely if eternity is a sort of permanent "now," or a frozen instant since in that case no change would be possible.



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