Monday, January 30, 2006

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.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Does ECUSA have a stand on Abortion?

The Episcopal Church at the national level supports and helps fund the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization advocating abortion rights in the U.S.; the stand seems relatively recent for our church, and it has recently drawn criticism from some on the Anglican/Catholic right. But as far as I can tell, it seems these critics have incorrectly read ECUSA on abortion--at least I hope. They see the Episcopal Church as permitting abortion without qualification, or at least outside the narrow range of extreme circumstances.

As far as I can find, the position expressed by ECUSA's support of RCRC is voiced in resolution GC1994-A054. Take a breath; it's a tad long-winded, and you have to stay awake until the end:

"Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That this 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church reaffirms resolution C047 from the 69th General Convention, which states:

All human life is sacred from its inception until death. The Church takes seriously its obligation to help form the consciences of its members concerning this sacredness. Human life, therefore, should be initiated only advisedly and in full accord with this understanding of the power to conceive and give birth which is bestowed by God. It is the responsibility of our congregations to assist their members in becoming informed concerning the spiritual and physiological aspects of sex and sexuality.

The Book of Common Prayer affirms that "the birth of a child is a joyous and solemn occasion in the life of a family. It is also an occasion for rejoicing in the Christian community" (p. 440). As Christians we also affirm responsible family planning.

We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension, calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community.

While we acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion, as Christians we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience.

In those cases where an abortion is being considered, members of this Church are urged to seek the dictates of their conscience in prayer, to seek the advice and counsel of members of the Christian community and where appropriate, the sacramental life of this Church.

Whenever members of this Church are consulted with regard to a problem pregnancy, they are to explore, with grave seriousness, with the person or persons seeking advice and counsel, as alternatives to abortion, other positive courses of action, including, but not limited to, the following possibilities: the parents raising the child; another family member raising the child; making the child available for adoption.

It is the responsibility of members of this Church, especially the clergy, to become aware of local agencies and resources which will assist those faced with problem pregnancies.

We believe that legislation concerning abortions will not address the root of the problem. We therefore express our deep conviction that any proposed legislation on the part of national or state governments regarding abortions must take special care to see that the individual conscience is respected, and that the responsibility of individuals to reach informed decisions in this matter is acknowledged and honored as the position of this Church;

and be it further
Resolved, That this 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church express its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or national governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision."

The long part before the bold-type paragraph wavers around weakly, but in the end agrees with the Church of England's current official position: abortion is morally wrong except in a narrow range of extreme cases. I've taken the liberty of enlarging and underlining those passages that render ECUSA's disapproval of unconditional abortion obvious.

The paragraph in bold at the very end of the resolution gives voice to another point of view: Come what may, ECUSA should support the Roe v. Wade status quo, as that status quo protects a right, et al (although, just what exactly is the right--one to information, or one to an abortion, or both? Hard to say, if not impossible, from the text). Anyhow, these normal and bold faced sections are, in fact, logically consistent.

That last paragraph, the one in bold, is the one committing ECUSA to RCRC; nothing in the previous paragraphs is similarly effective. The feeling/strategy/panic evident from the last paragraph might be this:

"Without the work of groups like RCRC, abortions will not be available, even in the narrow range of extreme cases. There is no similarly efficacious alternative. The danger of the procedure being entirely eliminated is that severe."

Of course, I do not know.

While ECUSA has never said, to my knowledge, Abortions outside extreme circumstances are permissible, and its support of RCRC does not entail support of such permissibility; indeed, there is disapproval in the resolution for abortion outsiode the narrow range. Still,one should wish for clearer moral guidance here.

Why? The number of abortions performed in the U.S. seems to exceed the number one would expect if abortion were in practice generally a matter of extreme circumstances--we're apparently talking millions. Given the very high numbers of abortions performed yearly, any broad support of abortion rights might well be seen as support for abortion simpliciter.

ECUSA has a teaching office here, a duty to support and render intelligible the dignity and moral significance of human life. To support a legal right to something ECUSA has officialy said is seriously immoral, even "tragic" to use ECUSA's word, is dangerous and risks the appearance of incoherence.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Summarizing Griffiss' "The Anglican Vision"

In an attempt to articulate a distinctively Anglican theology, some time ago I went through Holmes and Westerhoff's Christian Believing; today I have finished going through Griffiss' The Anglican Vision:

Ch. 1
Ch.s 2-3, Pt. I
Ch.s 2-3, Pt. II
Ch. 4
Ch. 5
Ch. 6
Ch. 7
Ch. 8

These two works belong together and illuminate each other. Even though they are not systematic, they do articulate a consistent, common understanding of Anglicanism which--so far as I can tell--remains sound. Moreover, our Anglican Communion has a task group running called "Theological Education for the Anglican Communion" which recommends The Anglican Vision for laity. Griffiss' theology is not merely his own invention, or a curiousity of ECUSA--getting clear on his theology is part of our ongoing effort of self-understanding as a communion.

Griffiss' "The Anglican Vision," Ch. 8: The Church as Sacrament

I. A Sacramental Life
We have seen Griffiss’ high view of the sacraments as participation in the community of the divine persons; for Episcopalians the sacraments are to be features constantly forming a way of life. Despite the occasional furor in our church, “because of that [sacramental] life we remain Episcopalians” (117). This is not to call for a High Anglican style as the only valid practice—we cannot avoid the “fragility” and “ambiguity” of our sacramental signs: “water can become stagnant, wine can become sour, and bread stale” etc (118). Not that we should make that fragility a fetish, but neither should we obsess over the quality of sacramental material, for “it is in their fragility and ambiguity that they show us who God is and how God in Christ deals with us; they make God in Christ present to us in their particularity as ordinary, everyday things of this world” (118).

There is wisdom for our hard times there in Griffiss’ sentence worth pondering. God is really present in an outwardly fragile and ambiguous material sign, and that is how God chooses to be present. It does not offend God to take up the least, the broken, the lowly, the humble. One insisting on fine matter, even what seems to us the very best as a sine qua non for a valid sacrament mistakes the very nature of God for someone he ain’t—that’s not what worshipping this God is about.

For instance, provided ECUSA acts sincerely in pursuing the revelation of God in Christ here below (which I presume it has done), even if ECUSA was indeed wrong to ordain VG Robinson merely on account of his active homosexuality, that does not invalidate the sacrament of his ordination, or even the practice of ordination of which his is an instance; it merely renders him just the kind of fragile and ambiguous matter through which God has a history of working. Paradoxically, the very fragility of our sacraments is their strength, an occasion for the glory of God rather than the so-called glory of creatures to shine through. In other words, sincere errors in theology would not reach down to obstruct and occlude the sacramental presence of God. As Griffiss says, “it is not in the strength of the signs…that God is present, but rather that the Spirit of God takes the signs and makes them holy and powerful” (118) for “God uses the weak things of this world to make known by the Spirit the wisdom of God and our hope for glory” (120).

I would have gone further to say “God prefers using the weak things of this world” in order to emphasize the primary efficacy of the sacraments is in God’s act alone. The secondary causes in sacramental action here below (what some fancy to call its “form” and “matter”) are not merely contingent—they are that, of course—but also are chosen for our benefit, not as another obstacle and burden situated to come between us and God. How far does—or should—that contingency reach into our worship praxis? Think of Christ and his disciples on the Sabbath (the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath), or the catholic Church’s fast and loose dismissal of the Sabbath commandment in the Decalogue for something rather entirely new contrary to the Decalogue—the first day rather than the seventh (so much for the “plain text” huh?).

II. Taking the Church Seriously as sacramental
Griffiss suggests we conceive of the entire church as a sacrament, as an outward sign in the world of an inward grace: “so too the church, comprised as it is of ordinary, fragile, and ambiguous human beings, is the outward sign of God’s presence with us” 119), literally signifying “God with is,” or Christ, to the world in its worship praxis. Though we have the “essential components” of God’s presence through the church in the Bible, the tradition of creeds and councils, etc, (124) God remains transcendent and “beyond all human understanding” (123). These essential components in the church can only “all point us to a final truth which is God,” (123) a truth “deeper and richer than any of our beliefs about God” (124). These essential components (e.g. Scripture) are not God, but are instruments God has chosen (a) for his presence with us in our worship here below, a presence intended to direct us (b) to him beyond those essential components and his effective presence in them.

Do not confuse God’s presence in his material instruments here below for God or the final revelation of himself that he intends for us. Though our direction to (b), the final revelation, begins here and now through (a) the material instruments God has chosen, it is obviously not accomplished all at once. Thus “we pray that God will guide the church into truth” (121); “all we say and do in our weakness must be [ought to be] open to the direction of the Holy Spirit of God” (124)—and we have no choice about whether we should remain open; there is no other way to comport ourselves toward God. The deposit of the apostles can only be a point from which God may guide and chastise us into a more truthful relationship with him. Who are we to tell God to shut the hell up and be done with it? To the contrary, “we are the church as we struggle; we are being the church, indeed we are believing with the church, in the process of seeking God’s will for us” (125). Or: here we stand together in struggle, seeking God; we can do no other. We can do no other and faithfully remain the church. Griffiss has a very high theology of our struggles as Episcopalians. They are not only to be expected, but are marks of fidelity, wounds signifying the seriousness, indeed the ultimacy, of our life in Christ.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Prelude to Treating Lambeth 1998, 1.10

I am having a really hard time seeing what the fuss from the Anglican right over 1.10 is about; they seem again to be victims of a wish-fulfilling mirage.

It nowhere proclaims that blessing gay unions, ordaining gay bishops, or even gay marriage, is incompatible with Scripture; "incompatible" is much too strong for the language present in '98 (see (d) below). The text refers to "homosexual practice" without defining it, presumably referring to certain kinds of sexual activity. But there is no inconsistency between blessing gay unions and 1.10.d, as being in a gay union does not require the sexual activity--the two may be correlated, but they are not necessarily together.

More importantly, before getting to 1.10.d, in 1.10.b, the resolution employs the prefix-clause "in view of the teaching of Scripture." Scripture is said--mirabile dictu indeed--to have a single teaching. No doubt it is rather involved, but "in view of it" or on their interpretation of it, it implies the only alternative to heterosexual marriage is abstinence. Thus, 1.10.b sets up the "incompatible" of 1.10.d.

But note, there is no ruling in 1.10 that its interpretation exclusively or exhaustively, much less infallibly, proclaims the teaching of Scripture. Such a meta-point is nowhere made, implying other interpretations are consistent with 1.10.b. I.e one could say "in another view of Scripture..." without contradicting the text of 1.10.b.

1.10.e merely says that the AC "cannot advise" what ECUSA did at GC2003. Nowhere does 1.10 prohibit what ECUSA did. At most, ECUSA acted against the advice of the AC.

Here is the relevant text:

Resolution I.10 Human Sexuality
This Conference:
commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality;
in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God's transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;
requests the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us;
notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process. Note: The resolutions referred to in subsection (g) of this resolution are set out in the
appendix to this document.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Questions for Anglican Conservatives

Do you believe that God is immutable?

Do you believe that God is impassible?

I ask these questions noting that Christian tradition has long answered "Yes" to both, but that "Yes" has become very unpopular lately--even Alister McGrath seems to have said "No" to both. Finally:

Do the Creeds imply God's immutability and impassibility?

I have a sneaking suspicion many on the Anglican right have beliefs incompatible with a "Yes" to all three of these questions. A "Yes" three times here may well lead one away from the literal sense of Scriptural text, into senses of the text established only by theological speculation. Yet, it seems to me that the Anglican right in its narrative/canonical incarnation is allergic to that speculation, as it would call any general reliance on mere "plain sense" readings of Scripture as normative into question.

On the Episcopal Catechism, Pt. III

Part II on the Episcopal Catechism ended noting our need for redemption, and the revelation that redemption will be effected via a personal relationship with the Messiah, Jesus. Here, in Part III, I consider what the Catechism has to say about that redeeming personal relationship. From the text of the Catechism, namely God the Son and The New Covenant:

God the Son
Q. What do we mean when we say that Jesus is the only Son of God?A. We mean that Jesus is the only perfect image of the Father, and shows us the nature of God.

Q. What is the nature of God revealed in Jesus?A. God is love.
Q. What do we mean when we say that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary?A. We mean that by God's own act, his divine Son received our human nature from the Virgin Mary, his mother.
Q. Why did he take our human nature?A. The divine Son became human, so that in him human beings might be adopted as children of God, and be made heirs of God's kingdom.
Q. What is the great importance of Jesus' suffering and death?A. By his obedience, even to suffering and death, Jesus made the offering which we could not make; in him we are freed from the power of sin and reconciled to God.
Q. What is the significance of Jesus' resurrection?A. By his resurrection, Jesus overcame death and opened for us the way of eternal life.
Q. What do we mean when we say that he descended to the dead?A. We mean that he went to the departed and offered them also the benefits of redemption.
Q. What do we mean when we say that he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father?A. We mean that Jesus took our human nature into heaven where he now reigns with the Father and intercedes for us.
Q. How can we share in his victory over sin, suffering, and death?A. We share in his victory when we are baptized into the New Covenant and become living members of Christ.

The New Covenant
Q. What is the New Covenant?A. The New Covenant is the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and, through them, to all who believe in him.

Q. What did the Messiah promise in the New Covenant?A. Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give life in all its fullness.
Q. What response did Christ require?A. Christ commanded us to believe in him and to keep his commandments.
Q. What are the commandments taught by Christ?A. Christ taught us the Summary of the Law and gave us the New Commandment.
Q. What is the Summary of the Law?A. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Q. What is the New Commandment?A. The New Commandment is that we love one another as Christ loved us.
Q. Where may we find what Christians believe about Christ?A. What Christians believe about Christ is found in the Scriptures and summed up in the creeds.

II. Interpretation
Jesus, the Messiah with whom we are to have a redeeming relationship, is not merely human, though he indeed was genuinely human, receiving human nature from his mother, Mary. He became human, taking on human nature, for our sake, so that we may be "adopted" by God and "inherit" God's Kingdom. This needs some explaining: I venture that its meaning should be tied to, if not partially filled in by, the meaning of both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

A. God the Son
In the Crucifixion, we are told of the sacrificial, costly but also significant nature of Jesus' suffering and death. That is, he makes an offering that we cannot, presumably because he is not under the power of sin but we are--he suffers and dies so that we might be freed from the power of sin, and, further, reconciled with God. What is the connection between his suffering and dying and our being freed from the power of sin? Why can't our own suffering and dying be sufficient to free us from the power of sin, for example? These are deep questions--too deep for the Catechism to resolve with any finality, of course.

It is not that God has ever changed in his standing toward us--God is traditionally conceived as immutable. It is we who need changing; when we are reconciled to God, it is not God who turns toward us, but we who are turned toward God. Redemption is this turning begun. Somehow, the crucial ingredients in our being turned toward God are the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Here, I will take a chance at briefly explaining how these events are to turn us toward God. The Crucifixion does not pay a debt--God is not so affected by our sins that he cannot forgive our sins without anyone having to die or suffer. Traditionally, God is impassible. Moreover, it is not as if the Crucifixion is costly for God, in that anything is taken from God, of that God is altered in any way. True, Jesus suffers, and so in a sense God suffers, since the person of Jesus is the Word, but this involves bno experience of pain or alteration of any sort for the Word. Nor do I think the tradition is wrong here in holding to God's immutability and impassibility.

What then does the Crucifixion accomplish? It is not merely an edifying example of loving conduct; insofar as it is God himself who suffers, that type of obedient suffering unto death is made normative for us. We are put under an obligation to imitate his example. Nobody merely human could live a life that would be the "final word" for us. The fact Christ lived this life makes that very life the final word for us--it makes that life grip us with ultimate finality. And what he shows is the nature of God--love. That showing cannot leave us without obligation, i.e. without being called to enter into a new life.

True--he also issues commands, but God chooses to effect redemption not merely through commands but through our personal relationship with Jesus. In that relationship, we are obliged to become like Jesus by imitating him; we are fundamentally relational in our personhood, and we cannot help imitating those to whom we are closely related; we are mimetic by nature. For the meaning of an action will always outrun its propositional explanations; insofar as we are creatures who are to love in action, we are called not so much to master propositions, as to master action--orthopraxis outweighs (but implies) orthodoxy.

The Crucifixion shows what cannot be merely said; its ultimate meaning depends on the context of action produced by Jesus' life--his entire ministry. What that life shows obliges us to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus by becoming like him. The Resurrection should be viewed in unity with the Crucifixion, completing its meaning for us here below (Christ ascended putting an kind of 'period' at the end of the epistemically accessible part Jesus' life, making it a unit for us here below to imitate)--again, as a showing that includes more than can be exhausted in mere saying. It completes the life of loving submission lived by Christ by showing the proper context of that type of life: eternal life in community with God. Thus, our telos as the same type of creature as Jesus is revealed in the Crucifixion-Resurrection: we are called, as he was, to live eternal life in community with God.

B. The New Covenant
Although the content of our normative model, Jesus' life as a way of life, cannot be exhausted by propositions, that content is not simply non-cognitive. Its cognitive content is given shape in the New Covenant. The relationship initiated by the Crucifixion-Resurrection, wherein we obey God by turning to him in imitating the life of his incarnate Son, is the New Covenant.

The Catechism stresses an odd fact--Jesus life as a model was first received by the apostles, and through their witness to that life we receive it. Our life in the New Covenant depends not merely on a relationship with Jesus, but a relationship with the apostles, and the chain produced by the historical reception of what they handed down to our own day. That is, we also depend on a tradition, an apostolic tradition.

One of the marks of the Church is apostolicity--its receiving and handing on the Faith of the apostles. We see here the content of apostolicity: standing in the tradition to receive what the apostles received from Jesus. Even so, note carefully the apostolic witness is not authoritative, though it is our principal means to that which is authoritative, namely the life of Christ. Indeed, required to believe in Jesus, we are not to take relationship to the apostolic witness as an end rendering our relation to Jesus' witness a mere means. Thus, the Church, receiving the apostolic witness as it should, is obliged to use it as a lens to glimpse the witness of Jesus.

But we are also required to obey Jesus--believing in him, modelling our lives afer his as wqe should, implies obedience to the Summary of the Law and the New Commandment. That is, in toto, we are to love God first and foremost, with our entire persons. At any time, and over time, our lives are to be lived in complete dedication to this love. Second, we are to love our neighbors with the love with which Christ loved us; i.e. with Christ's sacrificial love, revealed in his ministry and death.

The Creeds, insofar as they do what they should, are to point us toward this belief in and obedience to Christ, that is, to our lives lived in the New Covenant. They are instruments to that end.

Seitz' "One Scripture, Two Testaments" at the ACI Conference (1/06)

Christopher Seitz,who moves among the intellectual leadership of the Anglican right-wing, recently presented a paper that KS Harmon (of Titusonenine) posted. As I hope to find reasons why the Anglican right-wing believes and acts the way it does, the paper is interesting, even the mere chunk Harmon serves up. It has seemed to me for some time that the right-wing is not exactly clear on what it thinks or why--systematic theology is not an Anglican strength, alas. Thus, I am happy to deal in fragments such as this.

From the very early days of the Church Fathers, thoughtful readers of Scripture have recognized the text implies what might be called "double truth," a sense for the unlearned, and a sense for the learned. Scripture generally speaks on a low level to the many so that those without learning can understand some things with profit toward their sanctification.

So, for instance, the many may actually believe that divine persons change, such that the Word literally suffers, the Father breathes, gets angry or is visible; one might infer any of these things from the NT. Likewise, on might infer from the OT that God gets angry, is jealous, changes his mind, or speaks, etc. These inferences seem plain as day in the text, but in reality they are all false. To insist on any of them is not mere intellectual, but also moral, error.

We have lost this traditional way of reading the Bible, a way evident through the middle ages--think of Aquinas, a way that recognizes that the sense seemingly evident from the text, its literal sense, very often cannot be what the text means, on pain of sin.

In our day, in some cases even the reading of the "learned" has collapsed into a reading that produces obfuscation and ignorance, issuing moral error. It may be that historical-critical scholarship, uncovering a sense of Scripture in its native context and then applying this as a corrective to our reading today, runs the risk of making the low sense of Scripture normative.

When Seitz gives a diagnosis of the strife in ECUSA, he rightly points out that our contention is over the authority of Scripture, and in particular, how it should be read and understood. He says
"On the other side, [the side Seitz is on] people want to say that the Bible has authority, and a plain sense, and that what others see as homophobia or traditionalism, is for them a crisis having to do with the Bible becoming a kind of ‘wax nose’" and "No, what the other side feels threatened by is the Bible’s possible inability to speak in any clear or straightforward way at all. What for one side is freedom of the spirit or attention to a cultural injustice, is for the other an example of a ‘plain sense’ hearing of scripture being taken away altogether."

I wonder if he is conscious at all that Scripture's predominant mode is analogy, metaphor--even if one concedes the possibility of univocal predication, as I would, the crucial point is that for the most part what the Bible has to teach, it can only teach by saying things that are literally false. For the most part, this is how metaphor or analogy work. But it follows that when the Bible teaches, what it teaches will not be the literal sense plain in the text. Seitz seems to be completely unconscious of this fact; perhaps I am being hasty, seeing only part of his paper.

At heart, Seitz is a leveller of sorts: "If the Bible’s consistently negative word about homosexual conduct is wrong, or outdated, who will then decide in what other ways the Bible is or is not to be trusted or cannot comprehend our day and its struggles, under God?" What now, interpretation by majority rule? Take a referendum? He implies what seems plain to most is to be the plain sense of the Scripture, and that plain sense is to be the one, true sense of Scripture.
In short, If it seems true to us, it is true.

Seitz thinks "[a]ppeal to scripture’s plain sense has been borne of the conviction that the Bible can have something to say without other forces needing to regulate that or introduce a special hermeneutics from outside the text so we can know when and where it can speak" again unconscious of the fact coming to any text without an outside hermeneutic is impossible for us here below--after all, who taught you to read? Just how did you pick that skill up? Seitz' deep justification for his way of reading the Bible comes out "plainly" false.

The rest of what is offerred up from his paper looks merely tendentious, like this tidbit:

Under the acids of historicism and western progressivism, a two-testament delivery of God’s word and character has been replaced with a different kind of economic account of God, in which the work of the Holy Spirit is now said to be going on in a way fully detachable (and unsurprisingly and energetically so) from scripture’s prior testimony;

That highlighted part ruins the sentence--he is busy constructing a straw man. Again, he says

and in this they follow along lines of interpretation in which such normative use of the Old Testament to speak about God is self-evident (the debates they are aware of have to do with whether Habakkuk 3 is about God’s actions in Christ, prophetically displayed, or God’s acts in Israel; even here this God is incomprehensible except as the triune God).

Aww, come on, "self-evident"? Does he really mean that? Oh well.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Love from Uganda

Sine dubio on this inception of Epiphany you are up on the latest Anglican Communion schism-drama. The Abp. of Uganda wrote an open missive to Bp. Lee of Virginia in which the Abp. says I must object, in the most strenuous terms, to your characterization of Rev. Ashey’s decision to resign as a Missioner of the Diocese of Virginia as a renunciation of his holy orders. Steel yourself--and read.

Add this to the growing list of embarassments from the so-called Global South (in reality something less that the global south), a list populated by Abp. Akinola's implying gays are less-than-human, Akinola's notorious letter to Abp. Williams, the less-than-Global South's abandonment of discourse over homosexuality contra the WR, its obstinate "border crossing" contra the WR, and the way the Anglican Church in Nigeria persecutes the Nigerian branch of Changing Attitude.

There's no use turning this thing over for the "Made in Truro, Virginia" label, or the "Approved by the IRD" sticker; the Ugandan province is a full member of the AC, regardless of who influences its thinking. We are called by the WR to covenant with the Provinces of Nigeria and Uganda. Yet trust is a condition for entering into such a covenant. Do you trust the Provinces of Uganda and Nigeria to be partners with ECUSA in an Anglican covenant? Does their behavior confirm confidence in the future of an Anglican covenant? Yeah, sure.

The WR is horribly light on setting up or proposing checks and balances among the Instruments of Unity, and there is nothing in it analogous to a Bill of Rights for member provinces. The by-now painfully obvious implication is that provinces in the minority on controversial issues stand to get "steamrolled." The Archbishop of Uganda evidently imbued with righteous audacity already feels entitled to do whatever he pleases in the province of ECUSA. What if he had the weight of the Instruments on his side, rubber-stamping his cupidity? Where would he stop? Indeed, with the wrong type of covenant, the AC stands to become an arm of the IRD or some equivalent, an arm of partisan, secular powers here in the US. The only covenant worth entering into circa 2008 would be one with clear checks to the power of the Instruments, and clear protections for minority provices.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Griffiss' "The Anglican Vision," Ch. 7: Identity and Diversity

Griffiss pictures an interlocutor asking "[W]hat does the Episcopal Church stand for? What gives it an identity and an authority? What holds it together?" (102) And now, with GC2006 ahead of ECUSA, those questions are even more urgent. Writing in 1997, he could call ECUSA the "roomiest" church in Christendom for its tolerance of "doctrinal differences and diversity in the practice of Christian life" (102)--by 2006 it seems to many that Episcopalian tolerance is self-defeating. It is not merely that roominess is "messy" (103) but that it has led ECUSA at times to adapt "too easily to the 'modern mind'" and also to underestimate "the enormity of the failures of contemporary culture and human sinfulness" (102)--Griffiss admits all this, and ECUSA's right-wing Anglican critics would see the controversial acts of GC2003 as instances. It may well end up that "some will find the Episcopal Church frustrating and, in the end, will not be nourished by it" (103), leaving ECUSA; we may be seeing this play out increasingly as GC 2006 passes and Lambeth 2008 draws near.

Why am I drawing your attention to all this, this grim prognostication? According to Griffiss--and I agree--the travail of the Episcopal Church is not an accident. He did not predict matters would come to such a head over homosexuality in particular, but our current unpleasantness is just the type of struggle the nature of our church, the Episcopal Church, runs the risk of producing. Being Episcopalian means running a risk of conflict such as this--if not over homosexuality, there would be something else in good time.

Well, that is a sobering thought indeed. Just what is it about ECUSA? Is this a feature of our church that we should resolve to accept, or even celebrate, as Griffiss and I think? Or is it a feature of ECUSA that we should seek to extirpate? Griffiss, sounding here a tad like Tillich, would call us to the virtue of courage; we are to willingly live with ambiguity and uncertainty in our belief, living with unanswered questions, all the while continuing to believe and worship. Indeed, "faith in God means not knowing all the answers to all the hard questions" like, this time around, those concerning homosexuality (114); rather, faith is "having the courage to believe in the God of Jesus Christ and the courage to trust what God is doing with us in life as well as in death" (114).

To put it in Tillich's terms, the Church catholic is to be gripped ultimately by God in Christ--in Griffiss' terms, faith implies living within the confines of our fallibility and ignorance, the church "always" needing to be "recalled to its center in the mystery of God in Christ" (114). The living center of the catholic Church is not a body of propositions, a lifeless, abstract corpse, but the risen body incarnate of Jesus, concrete and alive, a mystery beyond our comprehension. What do you bow before, a set of abstracta or the living Christ?

Griffiss could have followed Tillich and said we are to have the courage to resist the Idolatry of bowing before abstracta of our own formulation, calves of frozen dogma; we are to have the courage to live gripped by God in Christ, "having the courage to offer God praise and thanksgiving even in the midst of human pain and desolation" (114). How much of the Anglican Communion, how many Episcopalians pace Griffiss, cooking up new covenants and confessions in cauldrons of vain cupidity, are poised to resist idolatry? Yet, as Griffiss points out, God is with us even "in the ambiguitues, difficulties, and pains of our time" and "can transform them and us into a greater glory" (115).

For the Episcopal Church, even in the brokenness which is a scandal to so many, "is called beyond itself to God" (116) where its only true unity may be found. Here below we have only a foretaste of the not yet completed reality of unity with the Father in Christ, this foretaste being in "Grain scattered and broken bread made one" i.e. (Baptism and) Holy Eucharist, "our recollection in this present time of the event that makes us Christians: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ," the "normative act of worship of the church" (111).

Here I think Griffiss parts from Tillich; whereas Tillich downplays the efficacy of the sacraments, for Griffiss they have the effect of constituting the normal pattern of Christian life. For the sacraments of baptism and eucharist do not merely proclaim a story and establish a commitment--though they in fact accomplish these things; they bring us to participate in the very life of God. Griffiss: "the sacraments of baptism and eucharist are the acts whereby we are joined to the Incarnate Christ, through whom we participate in the divine life of the trinitarian God" (111).

Thus, for "Anglicans, the church mediates the truth of the transcendent God to huan and through its own fragility and incompleteness" (108). In Michael Ramsey's words, quoted by Griffiss, "its [the church's] credentials are its incompleteness" (105). And I cannot do better than quote Griffiss to summarize:

We have no pope...and we have no formal confession of faith....We have the Bible, certainly, but that makes us Christians , not necessarily Anglicans. At one time we all had a 'Book of Common Prayer'...but all Anglican churches have now revised their prayer books extensively. In one sense, all Anglicans have the Archbishop of Canterbury" but he "is just another English bishop. So we have been required by our historical circumstances to look to Christ alone for our identity and authority as a church. (104)

And that, I dare say, is exactly as it should be.