Of Limited Pastoral Use  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Jamie Parsley is an Episcopal priest in Fargo, North Dakota. In a sermon preached yesterday he spoke about being attracted to liberal theology (of the Jesus Seminar-Bishop Spong variety) while a seminarian. However, these theologians turn out to be of limited relevance when one is faced with the realities of parish ministry. Do read the entire homily.

...The more I have worked in parish ministry and cultivated my own spiritual life and delved deeper and deeper into scripture, I have found myself becoming distanced more and more by these academic religious thinkers. Oftentimes, I simply have found that the message of these theologians rings hollow in my ears next to the experiential faith of my day to day life and those around me.

Having said that, I am just as quick to say that I have not become a fundamentalist by any sense of the word. I still consider myself to be progressively minded as I once was. I am a good "progressive, inclusive, neo-orthodox, Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian".

...However, what I discovered very quickly as I grew both as a Christian and a priest active in parish ministry, is that all that critical training I received from those [liberal] theologians was not always helpful--either to the people I served or even to my own spiritual well-being.

[Quotes Spong to the effect that Jesus' body was tossed into a common grave from which there was no resurrection].

So, yes, there was an empty tomb, but nothing ever laid there. The resurrection wasn't a miracle, though it was a profoundly spiritual event. But it all seemed just as far-fetched for me. How did Spong know this? Where did he get his knowledge on this subject? Certainly he wasn't there. And, as far as I understand, Spong wasn't any more educated than most other bishops I knew of or knew personally. Certainly his episcopacy gave him no greater knowledge on these topics than anyone else. Yet, he wrote with such authority on this issue that it seemed almost as though anyone who believed contrary to his rather flimsy approach to this subject was small-minded and quaint.

The other more practical problem for me with this was that I could never preach that message from this or any pulpit. There is no good news in it. There is no hope in it. A mass grave and anonymous, "unmarked bones" are not what those I look to for spiritual inspiration lived and died for--people like George Herbert, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill, The Martyrs of Memphis, and any of the others.

Irenaeus and the Atonement  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Today we commemorate Irenaeus (130-202), a Greek who became bishop of Lugdunum (Lyons) in Gaul. He was a native of Smyrna in Asia Minor and was a disciple of Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of John the Evangelist. He is best known for the five-volumne On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-called Gnosis (better known as Adversus Haereses) which is an anti-gnostic tract.

Irenaeus has recently become controversial within some circles of the Episcopal Church because of his use by the Rev Kevin Thew Forrester, bishop-elect of the diocese of Northern Michigan. Forrester stresses Irenaeus' references to deification, while downplaying what is said about Jesus and his atonement for sin. (A good reference to the controversy can be found here).

I throw in a few quotes from Irenaeus touching upon both theosis and the atonement. They are found in David W Bercot (ed) A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs Peabody, MA Hendrickson 1998 p 44.

In this manner, the Lord has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls and His flesh for our flesh. He has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, actually imparting God to men by means of the Spirit. On the other hand, He has joined man to God by His own incarnation. And He will truly and lastingly bestow immortality upon us at His coming--through communion with God.

The Word of the Father and the Spirit of God had become united with the ancient substance of Adam's formation. So it rendered man living and perfect, receptive of the perfect Father, in order that as in the natural Adam we were all dead, so in the spiritual Adam we may all be made alive.

To do away with that disobedience of man that had taken place at the beginning by means of a tree, "He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross". He thereby rectified that disobedience that had occurred by reason of a tree, through that obedience that was upon the tree...In the first Adam, we had offended God Himself. For Adam did not perform God's commandment. However, in the second Adam, we are reconciled to God, being made obedient even unto death. For we were debtors to no one else but to Him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning...By transgressing God's commandment, we became His enemies. Therefore, in the last times, the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation. He has become "the Mediator between God and men", propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned. He has cancelled our disobedience by His own obedience. He also conferred upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker.

Underhill on Worship  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was one of the 20th century's leading writers on mysticism. Her 1911 book of the same title remains a classic. After a long spiritual pilgrimage she became a prominent laywoman in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, itself no mean feat. She was the first woman to lead clergy retreats in the C of E.

On her feastday today I include an excerpt from Worship, one of her lesser-known works that nevertheless still has lots of relevance (orig 1936; Crossroad 1985). The excerpt is from pp 60-61.

The character of worship is always decided by the worshipper's conception of God and his relation to God: that is to say, whatever its ritual expression may be, it always has a theological basis. Though the cultus may not tally at every point with the creed, since it often carries along many traditional and even primitive elements which have long ceased to bear their original meaning, in general the relation between the two is close; and only the believer, acting from within that cultus and conforming to its ritual pattern, can truly appreciate the meaning or the spiritual value of those devotional words and acts by means of which his worship is expressed. All this is eminently true of Christianity. In the bewildering variety, and even the apparent contradictions, of its many practices, from the extreme of liturgic ceremonialism to the extreme of silent or informal prayer, and from a close dependence on sacramental acts to their entire rejection, Christian worship is yet always conditioned by Christian belief; and especially belief about the Nature and Action of God, as summed up in the great dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Though the awestruck movement of the soul over against the surrounding mystery, and intimate devotion to the historic Person of Christ, in Whom that mystery draws near to men, both enter into it, its emphasis does not, or should not, be on either of these completing opposites of our spiritual experience. Its true secret is hidden between them, and is at one and the same time a personal communion and a metaphysical thirst.

Perhaps we come as near to that secret as human language permits, if we define Christian worship as the total adoring response of man to the one Eternal God self-revealed in time. This adoring response is full of contrast and variety; and has a span which stretches from the wordless commerce of the contemplative soul with "that which has no image" to the most naive expressions of popular belief. Profoundly historical, it accepts, carries along, and transforms to its own purpose the devotional language and methods of antiquity; and no one will understand it who does not keep this fact in mind. Yet on the other hand it possesses an inherent freshness and power of adaptation, which again and again accepts new embodiments for its worship of unchanging Truth. Its possibilities, indeed, are too rich to be fully explored by any one worshipper or any one group of worshippers; for it is at once thoroughly personal and thoroughly corporate in character, and in its expression can use many contrasting devotional methods--spontaneous and liturgical, symbolic and spiritual, sacrificial and contemplative--and embody these in the most ornate or the most austere of ritual forms. But careful study will discover a certain character which conditions and gives inward unity and significance to all these different, and even superficially conflicting, expressions of the Christian spirit of worship: and this character is neither ethical nor mystical, institutional nor personal, but doctrinal.

The Resurrection is not a Bludgeon  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

Alister Mcgrath, formerly of Oxford University, is now a professor of theology at King's College, London. He is the author of a seemingly endless series of books (his Introduction to Christian Theology is highly recommended) and he is one of my very favorite non-brain-dead evangelicals. In a recent article in TimesOnline he discusses the tendency of movements--political, intellectual, or religious-- to identify themselves in terms of what they are against. He then contrasts this with the attitude of the first-century Christians toward the Resurrection of Jesus.

There is a comparison to be had here with early Christianity as it celebrated the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection was not seen as a way of scoring points against anyone else, but as an event that transformed the human situation. Yes, enemies were declared to be defeated--such as the fear of death and a pervasive sense of hopelessness in the face of human mortality and transciency--but the Resurrection set out new possibilities, offering humans hope in their struggle against these ancient enemies.

The first Christians thus did not affirm the Resurrection of Christ against anyone. The "victory" of the Resurrection was not seen as a way of stigmatizing other people, or proclaiming their defeat. Celebration here did not entail condemnation. The Christian Church may well have deployed its ideas aggressively or prejudicially at later points in its history, and merits criticism for doing so, yet this is a defection from its original vision. Belief in the Resurrection was seen as a positive option, "good news" for all humanity.

Athanasius on the Trinity  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

On this Eve of Trinity Sunday we have a reading on the trinitarian nature of God. It is taken from a letter sent to Serapion, an Egyptian bishop, by Athanasius, the great champion of orthodoxy, who was (on several occasions, due to political infighting) the Patriarch of Alexandria during part of the fourth century. In case any patristics scholars are reading this, the exact reference is Ep 1 ad Seraptionem, 28-30: PG 26, 594-595. 599. I found it on pp 741-743 of The Prayer Book Office (Seabury Press 1988, op).

It will not be out of place to consider the ancient tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church, which was revealed by the Lord, proclaimed by the apostles and guarded by the fathers. For upon this faith the Church is built, and if anyone were to lapse from it, he would no longer be a Christian in either fact or in name.

We acknowledge the Trinity, holy and perfect, to consist of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this Trinity there is no intrusion of any alien element or of anything from outside, nor is the Trinity a blend of creative and created being. It is a wholly creative and energizing reality, self-consistent and undivided in its active power, for the Father makes all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit, and in this way the unity of the holy Trinity is preserved. Accordingly, in the Church, one God is preached, one God who is above all things and through all things and in all things. God is above all things as Father, for he is principle and source; he is through all things through the Word; and he is in all things in the Holy Spirit.

Writing to the Corinthians about spiritual matters, Paul traces all reality back to one God, the Father, saying: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; ans varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in everyone.

Even the gifts that the Spirit dispenses to individuals are given by the Father through the Word. For all that belongs to the Father belongs also to the Son, and so the graces given by the Son in the Spirit are true gifts of the Father. Similarly, when the Spirit dwells in us, the Word who bestows the Spirit is in us too, and the Father is present in the Word. This is the meaning of the text: My Father and I will come to him and make our home with him. For where the light is, there also is the radiance; and where the radiance is, there too are its power and its resplendent grace.

This is also Paul's teaching in his second letter to the Corinthians: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. For grace and the gift of the Trinity are given by the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. Just as grace is given from the Father through the Son, so there could be no communication of the gift to us except in the Holy Spirit. But when we share in the Spirit, we possess the love of the Father, the grace of the Son and the fellowship of the Spirit himself.