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.


At 10:48 PM, Blogger Closed said...


Again, this seems like rehash of debates I've had elsewhere (about God's gender mostly) in which an extreme literalism has so overtaken language itself that notions of analogy, metaphor and the like are non-existent. Nazianzus scoffed at such literalism. Augustine was also duly troubled.

The end result is an absurd God who is not absolutely free, and not being absolutely free cannot freely love--a god at our whim and mercy then. Little "o", orthodox theology maintains that God perfectly loves because God is perfectly free and vice versa. This requires God be wholly Other than Creation which necessitates matters of impassibility and unmoveablity, which have unfortunately from time to time in our history been understood as a cold Father in the sky approach end resulting in deism and atheism.

While Moltmann and Pannenberg "push" matters using the communicatio idiomatum, in ways that I think are important to consider (and Moltmann has quite a bit of dialogue with E. Orthodox because of his Pneumatological thinking), they don't tend to push God into the flux of Creation--as you point out, in ways that would undo God's freedom. They do, however, remind us of the dangers of an over-Grecoized understanding of God, that not so much in patristics, but in some later developments, begins to look very non-Jewish in some circumstances. But their nuances are something other than Mr. Sanders' take.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...


I do not mean to disparage Moltmann or Pannenberg, or even Hartshorne or Cobb--indeed, one should stop to ask whether Hebrew Scripture is correctly read from within the framework of ancient Greek metaphysics. And it may well be that the church comes to adopt a "theology of hope" or even a "process theology" perspective as its principal framework for understanding Scripture.

I contend merely that the church, even ECUSA, has not yet done so--even as many theologians explore and map out alternatives, the church remains within the older Greek framework.

Tillich, whom Sanders takes pain to criticize, operates within that Greek framework, in my opinion. Indeed, Tillich is so very firmly within that framework, he has trouble making out traditional doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity--and his is not the first case of such trouble.

Sanders' allergy to Tillich's liberalism may (who knows?) have lead him out of the Greek framework entirely--fine so far; he has good company.

Things get ugly when Sanders tries to call his view "orthodoxy"--which it isn't. Orthodoxy, for the time being, still comes with a heavy Greek accent.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Derek the ├ćnglican said...

I would agree with you esp. as far as Dionysius and Augustine (esp. the theory of language about God in De Doct. Chr.) go.

I've never been convinved on the impassibility one, though. God's dialogue with Abraham over Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophets' intercession for Israel make one wonder about that. Classic "impassibility" language is, after all, rooted in a Stoic understanding of the passions as those things which intemperately move us. In that sense absolutely God is impassible. But taking impassibility to mean the absolute imperviousness of God to humanity doesn't seem right either...

At 10:41 AM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

You want to know whether impassibility really holds of God or not--not just the history of the notion.

Starting from Augustine, we should ask whether God is immutable or not. (1) If God can change, he must be temporally located; (2) if he must be temporally located, he has a cause; (3) if he has a cause, he must be a creature; etc.
So, the Augustinian might infer: God must be immutable, incapable of change--change implying imperfection. Then there is nothing we can do to change God--and stories like the haggling between Abraham and YHWH should not be taken literally.

Immutability need not be taken to imply imperviousness in a bad sense--that is, whatever we do is present to God from eternity, by his choice (a staggering thought really). Each moment of our existence is more vivid to God than it could be to us--our pains and pleasures, our thoughts and volitions are all before his intellect and known in a level of detail impossible for us to comprehend.

But because it is all present to God at once, his second-order cognition of it, namely what he thinks of my prayer, what he does in response to my sin, etc, can be before him at once.

The content of God's thinking is populated with the detail and detritus of our existence--in that sense, what we do or do not do constitutes and contributes to God's activity, at least as an object of his intense awareness.
But this awareness doesn't imply succession, and so need not occur in time.

At 1:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


While in no way qualified to debate in this area, Augustine's assertion

(1) If God can change, he must be temporally located;

I find problematic.

If anything, I would state it the other way around: "tempore" is located within "change" and not vice-versa.

Change seems (to me) to speak to God's freedom: "time" is just the way we poor mortals struggle to understand "change." [Does this not also square w/ post-Einstein astrophysics, wherein we know time to be (post Big Bang) a created, um, "matter"?]

Furthermore, I have to admit, where Sanders says:

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

...I really like it.

It may not be "orthodox", but I think Sanders is (via the idea of "affective relationship") tapping into a long-standing desire in the human condition. Why is that desire there? Is it part of the Imago Dei?

This is all so above my pay-grade! ;-)

The thing I find ironic, is that Sanders busies himself w/ "hunting heresy".

When I learned that word back in seminary, I was taught it meant "party-spirit" (Yes, I had much fun w/ the word. This was Union Theological, folks! ;-p). That is, a spirit of dissension, prone to adopting one "party" or another.

In leading a schism against his bishop, has Sanders not---dare I say it?---become possessed by such a "party-spirit"? :-(

At 3:58 PM, Blogger The Anglican Scotist said...

Maybe the idea is that you will like such talk of God, making it seem as if you affect him. There is something fetching, even tender, to the idea of God literally strolling about Eden on a warm afternoon and, later, fitting animal skins of Adam and Eve. What's not to like?

If metaphorical language draws you into a relationship with God, it has served its purpose. I fear for many, "seeing" God as he actually is would be overwhelming. How long does it take an infant to appreciate his father as a person? How much longer our heavenly Father.

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

It is interesting to read your comments on Dr Sanders. I fell under his fire some time back as a contributor to "Let the Reader Understand." I began to frame a response to his sometimes very wild allegations, but had the same experience as you in that his arguments seem to stem from such a solipsistic basis (which he imagines to be "orthodox") that it is hard to find a holding point. I found myself (literally!) having to contradict or correct every sentence. This makes for very tedious discussion. My ultimate conclusion is that Sanders has achieved what was long thought impossible: he has invented a totally new kind of heresy based on a kind of uber-objectification of God. (E.g., his "thesis" in response to the essay on the Scripture centered on his assertion that the Scripture as the Word of God is the spatiotemporal presence of the Second Person of the Trinity, so anything said about the Bible is being said about Christ. I kid you not. This is a communicatio idiomatum taken to the extreme, I think.)


Post a Comment

<< Home