Thursday, January 12, 2006

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.


At 10:19 AM, Blogger Lee said...

I discovered your blog via Pontifications - great stuff!

A question, though, re: the crucifixion. Don't we want to say that, in addition to providing a normatively binding example, that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus also empower us to turn to God? It seems to me that an example would only be sufficient if we were already basically good people, or at least disposed to be good. But aren't Scripture and tradition pretty unanimous that the problem goes deeper than that?



At 5:35 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

HI lee; thanks for your comment.

In a sense, we remain fundamentally good--Scripture and the Fathers, as well as Doctors of the Church, would agree. That is, we are disposed to the Good, in that we are creatures by nature only able to find happiness and to be what we were meant to be by entering into the community and life of the Trinity.

We are ordered to a supernatural end--original and subsequent sin cannot erase our nature.

Yet, you rightly draw attention to our fallen condition. We seem to be "naturally" selfish, disposed to turn from God to creatures--but this sinful disposition is not genuinely natural; it's acquired. The fact of sinful egoism is consistent with a deeper, fundamental orientation to the Good, to God.

I believe the mere Crucifixion as an ultimate example obligates even without empowering--the obstinate selfish sin worse now for knowing they sin against the order of Christ.

Empowerment requires, I think, more than the Cross, but also grace.


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