Sunday, July 31, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (15): Secondary Causes

Below is the fifteenth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

We seem to be a lot closer in our thinking than I realized. At least, that’s what I thought until I got to your discussion on the third page about secondary causation. You say you agree that God is not the author of evil in the sense that He uses secondary means to accomplish his decrees. But that is not the sense that I meant it when I said God is not the author of evil, so you are affirming agreement with a position I didn’t advocate.

Before I explain why I didn’t use the popular secondary causation argument, let me make sure I understand your terminology correctly. If I am hammering a nail into a piece of wood, I am the primary cause of the nail going into the wood, while the hammer is the instrumental or secondary cause, right? Similarly, for all of God’s decrees, He is the primary cause while the instruments or means by which He accomplishes those decrees are the secondary causes. Have I understood?

Assuming I have understood correctly, here’s why I don’t find that explanation particularly helpful. If the statement that God is not the author of evil means merely that God determines evil through secondary causation, then by the same logic we would have to say that God is not the author of salvation, since He uses secondary causation in the work of redemption, such as the work of missions and preaching the Word (Romans 10:14). During your discussion of evil you said that God does not get the credit for what happens through secondary means, so it hardly seems consistent to reverse this when we are dealing with the secondary means leading to salvation. You can’t have it both ways and are going to have to pick.

I looked up the Jonathan Edwards passage you referenced and I was surprised to find that most of it is actually 100% consistent with everything I argued, particular where he writes:

“But if, by ‘the author of sin,’ is mean the permitter, or not a hinderer of sin; and, at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say, if this be all that is meant, by being the author of sin, I do not deny that God is the author of sin (though I dislike and reject the phrase, as that which by use and custom is apt to carry another sense). And, I do not deny, that God being thus the author of sin, follows from what I have laid down; and, I assert, that it equally follows from the doctrine which is maintained by most of the Arminian divines.”

If that is all you meant, and all that Jonathan Edwards was saying, then there would be no difficulty. The problem is that this is not all that has been said, as I showed in my previous letters.


Canterbury Chris

Friday, July 29, 2011

Conservative and Radical

"Every Christian should be both conservative and radical: conservative in preserving the faith and radical in applying it."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Anglicanism's Magisterial Authority

A couple of years ago I published a piece entitled "How Much is 2 Plus 2?" in which I offered responses to troubling things I've heard from some "progressive" Episcopalians when it comes to doctrine and ecclesial authority. Here's an example of what I've heard someone say:

To claim that there is such a thing as 'the faith of the Church' and that the Bible, the creeds, and the liturgies of the Prayer Book embody that faith is merely a way of trying to impose one's own views on other people. The Episcopal Church doesn't have teaching that's binding on anyone. To say otherwise is to endorse indoctrination, not inclusiveness.

Fr. Jonathan of The Conciliar Anglican has written a piece entitled "The Anglican Way: Magisterial Worship" which refutes such nonsense. Here's a sample:

... classical Anglicans share more in common with Orthodoxy than with our sister churches in the west. We have no specifically Anglican confession. We do not narrow our doctrine down on every last matter but only on those matters where the Holy Spirit has definitively spoken in the Church through the Scriptures and the Fathers. We allow mystery to be, well, mysterious. There is, however, an important and distinctly western element to the way that we live this out that separates us from our Eastern brethren. We have a magisterial authority. 
The word magisterial comes from the Latin for “magistrate” or “master.” That which is magisterial is that which conveys the mind of the master. It is official and authoritative. Magisterial authority within the Church is that which is exercised to provide us with the framework of both how to understand our Christian faith and how to live good Christian lives. In the Church of Rome, this function is performed largely by edicts of the Pope. In traditional Reformation Protestantism, it is the work of the confessions. Some more radical Protestants deny the need for any magisterial authority beyond the Bible itself, though in practice this usually means that the whims of individual preachers and teachers fill in the gap. For Anglicans, magisterial authority rests in the Book of Common Prayer. ... 
Anglicanism holds scripture in the highest place of authority and yet acknowledges that scripture has to be interpreted from within the life of the Church to be properly understood. While there is more than one way to pass down this apostolic faith from one generation to the next, liturgy is by far the best. This is because liturgy is not simply didactic. Liturgy is participatory. Liturgy is dynamic and relational. When we read the words of a confession or listen to a good talk by a learned Christian preacher, we may learn many good things about God, but when we participate in liturgy we actually encounter God. We learn who He is and who we are in relation to Him by worshiping Him, hearing His Word proclaimed, and receiving His grace through the Sacraments. ...

... the Prayer Book has always been for Anglicans the highest source of authority for teaching and understanding the faith of the scriptures. The liturgy is not just an expression of our faith but the teacher of that faith itself. It forms us in our faith, and as such we are called to submit ourselves to it.

Fr. Jonathan also notes what can happen when we fail to submit to Anglicanism's magisterial authority:

It is no accident that the unraveling of traditional faith in some parts of the Anglican Communion has coincided with the introduction of new liturgies that obscure both the beauty and truth of classical Anglican worship. Our liturgy is our center. When it goes, everything else eventually will go with it.

And again:

At some point along the line—and it really would require some careful study to be able to discern when—we stopped thinking of the Prayer Book as magisterial, as an authority that we submit ourselves to, and started thinking of it as a creative outlet for the theological whims of the moment. Hence, we see turbulent efforts at liturgical revisions marking the last thirty years every bit as much as we see a breakdown in The Episcopal Church of belief in the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Alternative liturgies abound today, each seemingly less historical and more heretical than the last, but even these do not seem to be placing limits on the clergy in many dioceses who feel free to dispense with authorized liturgies altogether and create their own from scratch. Letting go of the liturgy has meant letting go of the faith.

I note that some of the ways of letting go of the faith through illegal liturgical revision are downright silly and irreverent while others signal a renunciation of our core identity in favor of accommodation to religious pluralism and cultural relativism.

Fr. Jonathan has written a very fine piece, so read it all.

The motto “Praying Shapes Believing” sums up the importance of liturgy or common prayer as the means for passing on the faith of the Church and as the glue that holds the Church together. But there seems to be a breakdown in the connection between the liturgy and what people actually believe and how they are formed. So as part of a more proactive focus on doctrine (particularly as laid out in the historic creeds), we would do well to use the Prayer Book as a central resource for teaching. In addition to better education and formation as Anglican Christians, that might also address the problem of why so many feel the need to tinker with the Prayer Book.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

William Reed Huntington on Reconciliation, Ecumenism, and Catholicity

Today is the feast day of Episcopal priest William Reed Huntington (1838-1909). Here's what the Holy Women, Holy Men blog says about him:
“First presbyter of the Church,” was the well-deserved, if unofficial, title of the sixth rector of Grace Church, New York City. Huntington provided a leadership characterized by breadth, generosity, scholarship, and boldness. He was the acknowledged leader in the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention during a period of intense stress and conflict within the Church. His reconciling spirit helped preserve the unity of the Episcopal Church in the painful days after the beginning of the schism, led by the Assistant Bishop of Kentucky, which resulted in the formation of the Reformed Episcopal Church.

In the House of Deputies, of which he was a member from 1871 until 1907, Huntington showed active and pioneering vision in making daring proposals. As early as 1871, his motion to revive the primitive order of “deaconesses” began a long struggle which culminated in 1889 in canonical authorization for that order. Huntington’s parish immediately provided facilities for this new ministry, and Huntington House became a training center for deaconesses and other women workers in the Church.

Christian unity was Huntington’s great passion throughout his ministry. In his book, The Church Idea (1870), he attempted to articulate the essentials of Christian unity. The grounds he proposed as a basis for unity were presented to, and accepted by, the House of Bishops in Chicago in 1886, and, with some slight modification, were adopted by the Lambeth Conference in 1888. The “Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral” has become a historic landmark for the Anglican Communion. It is included on pages 876–878 of the Book of Common Prayer, among the Historical Documents of the Church.

In addition to his roles as ecumenist and statesman, Huntington is significant as a liturgical scholar. It was his bold proposal to revise the Prayer Book that led to the revision of 1892, providing a hitherto unknown flexibility and significant enrichment. His Collect for Monday in Holy Week, now used also for Fridays at Morning Prayer, is itself an example of skillful revision. In it he takes two striking clauses from the exhortation to the sick in the 1662 Prayer Book, and uses them as part of a prayer for grace to follow the Lord in his sufferings.

In his book The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity (1870), Huntington claims to answer to the question of “what Anglicanism pure and simple is” and to clarify “the absolutely essential features of the Anglican position” regarding the "Church of the Reconciliation" in America. According to Huntington, those features are:

1st. The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God.
2d. The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith.
3d. The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself.
4th. The Episcopate as the key-stone of Governmental Unity.

Huntington’s four-fold explication of the Church-Idea laid the groundwork for the formulation of the Chicago Quadrilateral at the General Convention of 1886 and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888:

That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God's blessing made towards Home Reunion:

(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as "containing all things necessary to salvation," and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

(b) The Apostles' Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself - Baptism and the Supper of the Lord - ministered with unfailing use of Christ's words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.

(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church

To this day, Huntington's The Church-Idea remains an outstanding American contribution to Anglican thought on ecclesiology and ecumenism. And it also shows that Huntington believed that the Gospel is universal and comprehensive in scope, i.e., catholic. The community called together by this Gospel must, therefore, embody the intention of the Gospel to save “all souls collectively.” And this means that the Church on earth must form a visible unity.

For more detailed discussions of Huntington, as well as background for the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, check out two of my earlier postings: "William Reed Huntington and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral" and "On the Way to the Quadrilateral."

In The Church-Idea, Huntington argued that “Anglicanism stands or falls” with the historic episcopate, and he drove the point home in strong language:

Indeed, … if the Episcopate have no more claim on our regard than any other form of ecclesiastical polity, then the sooner Anglicans in America shut their church-doors and burn their prayer-books, the better; for they are only adding, upon insufficient grounds, one more to the sectarian divisions under which the land groans. But if they have in the Episcopate that which links them by an actual historical connection to the Church of the primitive times, then ought they to thank God and take courage, and do all they can by the removal of misapprehension and disabilities and needless partition walls of prejudice, to make their inheritance available for the enrichment of the whole scattered flock of Christ.

Huntington also wrote eloquently about the connection between reconciliation and catholicity:

If our whole ambition as Anglicans in America be to continue a small, but eminently respectable body of Christians, and to offer a refuge for people of refinement and sensibility, who are shocked by the irreverences they are apt to encounter elsewhere; in a word, if we care to be only a countercheck and not a force in society; then let us say as much in plain terms, and frankly renounce any and all claim to Catholicity. We have only, in such a case, to wrap the robe of our dignity about us, and walk quietly along in a seclusion no one will take much trouble to disturb. Thus may we be a Church in name, and a sect in deed.

But if we aim at something nobler than this, if we would have our Communion become national in very truth, - in other words, if we would bring the Church of Christ into the closest possible sympathy with the throbbing, sorrowing, sinning, repenting, aspiring heart of this great people, - then let us press our reasonable claims to be the reconciler of a divided household, not in a spirit of arrogance (which ill befits those whose best possessions have come to them by inheritance), but with affectionate earnestness and an intelligent zeal.

141 years later, Huntington's ecumenical call for the nobler aim of reconciliation and catholicity continues to resonate.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Anglicanism as an Expression of Catholic Christianity

At his blog genu(re)flection, Caleb Roberts offers interesting thoughts in a posting entitled "Why I am Anglican." He expounds upon the following three dimensions of Anglicanism as expressions of Catholic Christianity that called him beyond his more Protestant upbringing:

  1. Nicene Orthodoxy
  2. Apostolic Succession & Episcopal Polity
  3. A Sacramental & Liturgical Spirituality

I resonate with the reasons why Caleb was able "to break the glass ceiling of 'TULIP Calvinism'" for Anglicanism. Increasingly, I, too, share "an appetite for catholicity":

... a real, tangible sense that I believed and worshipped in a manner that was representative of the whole scope of the Church’s life in history. That was really the impetus for it all: I wanted to be a Catholic Christian.

Perhaps it’s more than a desire; I often view it as nothing less than an obligation and a conviction to find the most catholic expression of Christianity I can and submit myself under it. The sad fact of our present moment is that the Church is visibly divided and we shout “I am of Apollos” louder and more fervently than ever in history. But there are still some simple criteria for those desiring true catholicity to consider. Some of my readers may be wondering, with all this talk of catholicity, why I haven’t “gone all the way” and become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Well, that is a valid concern but quite frankly, it is because neither the Roman Catholics nor the Eastern Orthodox are catholic enough that I have chosen to become Anglican. It isn’t because the Anglican Communion in its comprehensive, institutional state embodies the full breadth of catholic Christianity; some of the most foolish and poorly-disguised wolves to presently claim the name of Christ are Anglicans. It is rather that within Anglicanism, there exists and can exist, in my estimation, the most catholic expression of Christianity available to us today. It is by no means perfect — show me a church or a denomination that is — but the criteria for catholicity that I maintain can be found within her.

I agree: at its best, Anglicanism is the purest expression of catholic Christianity in the West.

Caleb continues with some excellent reflections on the centrality of the Nicene Creed for any genuinely catholic expression of the Christian faith that this Creedal Christian can't help but quote:

To be a Nicene Christian is to be a Catholic Christian in the most basic sense because the Creed is the foundational litmus test of true belief. Whereas one can disagree with the various statements of faith of today’s denominations and still remain a faithful Christian, to oppose any article of the Nicene Creed is to necessarily advocate heresy. Because the conditions of orthodoxy/heterodoxy are so simply defined in relation to the Creed, a Catholic-minded Christian keeps it always in view as the standard of doctrine and resists any temptation to place additional confessions and statements of faith alongside it to narrow the scope of orthodox belief to that of his particular affiliation. ... As a result, the Anglican standard of doctrine is ultimately a positive one; it reaffirms the beautiful simplicity of the Nicene Creed and only distinguishes itself from other communions in those areas where innovative doctrines have burdened authentic Christian belief.

Caleb's reflections remind me of a section in one of my earliest blog postings entitled "The Radical Creed":

The mysteries of God cannot be contained by rational explanations. But like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed points us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost as to what is truly essential for reaching the goal of the Christian journey without it. Anglicanism agrees. Beginning with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in the late 19th Century and reaffirmed by subsequent Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of the Episcopal Church during the 20th Century, Anglicanism maintains that the Nicene Creed is "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

It's worth pausing for a moment over that word "sufficient." The Nicene Creed is "enough." We don't need anything more to express the core of the Christian faith. But at the same time, we can make do with no less. This is why Anglicanism - unlike the Reformed tradition - is a creedal rather than a confessional tradition. Anglican bishop Charles Harris put it well when he said:

"The Nicene Creed aims at promoting unity, the later confessions at justifying division; the former states only what is essential, the latter descend into detail and include a large number of disputable and highly contentious propositions" [from Creeds or No Creeds (1927), quoted by Frank E. Wilson in Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse-Barlow, 1967), p. 71].

It's a very heartening sign to see folks like Caleb join the Anglican fold. May there be many more like him!

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (14): Is God the Author of Evil?

Below is the fourteenth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

You asked, “Within your Arminian system, how do you reconcile evil with the existence of a sovereign God?” Well, to start with, I never advocated anything like an Arminian soteriology when I disputed your explanation of evil. That is a different question altogether. However, on the question of how I explain evil, I do not try to explain it. All I can say is that for some mysterious reason, God has seen fit to allow evil and work good out of it, and this somehow fits together within His sovereign plan.

But while I do not attempt to explain evil, I do reject all explanations which make God the author of evil. I promised in my last letter to respond to that, so let me have a shot at it now.

To start with, if God is the author of evil, then He fosters wickedness in people's hearts. But if so, then God is sinful by the Biblical definitions of sin and evil. Consider that in the Proverbs the ones who incite and tempt to evil, like the fool's friends or the prostitute, are just as morally guilty as the simple man himself who falls prey to those temptations. James says that God does not tempt us, but if God is the author of evil then He is doing a lot more than merely tempting us: He is fostering the evil in our hearts and inciting us to sin. If God does this, then the words "God is good" are no longer intelligible because God is violating His own self-revelation of what constitutes goodness.

Consequently, if God really is the energizing principle behind both the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent then we would have to conclude that the Biblical categories used to describe God are ultimately non-descriptive. Moreover, it would make a mockery of the anti-thesis that we find throughout the war-Psalms if God is the causal force behind both sides. This would be similar to how the Rothschilds secretly financed both sides of the American civil war.

Moreover, if God is the author of evil then we would have to conclude that evil is just as much an intrinsic part of God's character as His goodness. But in that case, we are left without a standard for distinguishing between good and evil. Using God's character as the standard for distinguishing good and evil would then be akin to using a tape measure in which inches and centimeters were all mixed up. God can only be the standard for distinguishing between good and evil if the former and not the latter is fundamental to His character.

(Check out chapter 3 of C. S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain on some of the necessary preconditions to goodness behind intelligible. While Lewis doesn't put enough emphasis on the noetic effects of sin, he makes some good points which relate to this question.)

It is on these grounds that I would object to the position taken by Gordon Clark in his book Religion, Reason and Revelation, and the whole Superlasparian tradition that he was part of. Clark writes:

"God is the sole ultimate cause of everything. ... The men and angels predestined to eternal life and those foreordained to everlasting death are particularly and unchangeable designed. ... Election and reprobation are equally ultimate. ... There was never the remotest possibility that something different could have happened. ... God is neither responsible nor sinful, even though he is the only ultimate cause of everything. He is not sinful because in the first place whatever God does is just and right. It is just and right simply in virtue of the fact that he does it. ... Since God caused Judas to betray Christ, this causal act is righteous and not sinful. By definition God cannot sin. At this point it must be particularly pointed out that God's causing a man to sin is not sin. There is no law, superior to God, which forbids him to decree sinful acts."

I have always found it problematic when thinkers like Clark appeal to God's actions rather than His character as the source of justice. Biblically, the standards of justice and goodness as well as God’s actions proceed from the same common cause: God's own nature. C.S. Lewis pointed out that if "good" means only "what God wills", then the statement "God is good" means merely "God wills what God wills", which is meaningless, for the devil also wills what he wills.

But there is a deeper problem with Clark’s position. While there is some truth mixed into this quote (error usually has truth mixed with it), it does seem to trivialize evil. When Job or the Psalmists are asking God “Why, oh why are you letting the wicked prosper in his way?”, the answer, according to Clark, would be simply “Evil exists because God makes people sin because God wants them to sin. End of story.” This trivializes the very personal and agonizing prayers that we find in the Bible in general and the Psalms in particular. This is one of the reasons I don't think it’s helpful to go down that road, because it is not the road that the Biblical writers go down.

This same trivialization of evil is apparent in other less extreme supralapsarian thinkers. Just today someone shared with me a Facebook status posted by a well-known reformed teacher who said that because God is sovereign, even those things which are not as they ought to be really are just as things ought to be. He went on to say that there are ultimately no bad things, since God is completely sovereign. Now if all he meant is that even bad things work out ultimately for good, then I have no problem with that. But there is a great different between saying, on the one hand, that God works good out of evil, vs. saying that that since God is the author of all things that evil isn’t really bad, or that everything which happens ought to be.

To say that God created and authored evil is a reductionistic approach that removes a necessary paradox from Christian theology. Any theological framework that takes seriously God’s goodness, His control over all things and the reality of evil in the world is going to have some degree of tension resulting from the interplay of these realities. That tension (which is not just intellectual, because many of the Psalmists struggled with this tension in an intense personal way) is necessary, not least because all the great heresies throughout history have arisen from a person or a group extrapolating the implications of one principle and, in the name of consistency, overriding other foundational doctrines. Put somewhat more technically, all heresy arises from a failure to preserve dialectical tension. The early Christological disputes are a perfect example, with different heretics defining the relation between Christ's humanity and His divinity in a way that failed to do justice to both. Other examples would be the relationship of Christ to the Eucharist or the relationship between the one-ness and the three-ness of the blessed Trinity. On all such questions we have to preserve a significant aspect of paradox and mystery. Where the Bible remains mysterious, we ought to remain mysterious.

Your comments about Proverbs 16:4 seem to ignore what the verse actually says. It says that God has made all for Himself including the wicked, but it doesn’t say that He creates their wickedness. Even if the passage did say that, we would be obligated to interpret it in a way consistent with the Bible’s meta-themes about God’s character.

It seems that part of the problem may be that Calvinists have a tendency to be rationalistic, so they will extrapolate principles to their logical extension rather than letting things be fuzzy at the edges to maintain the dialectical tension necessary for preserving important meta-themes about God.

Of course, this raises the question: if God is not the author of evil, where does it come from? Again, I’ll be upfront with you and say I don't know what causes evil. Nor is my overall position undermined by my ignorance on this point. In fact, my position wouldn’t be undermined even if someone could present a seemingly airtight argument to the contrary, such as: if God created everything ex nihilo, then if we trace everything back far enough He would seem to be the cause of everything like clockwork; ergo, God is the author of evil. Although such an argument has a certain logic about it, John Byl has rightly pointed out in The Divine Challenge that “if the falsity of the conclusion is more plausible than the truthfulness of the premises, then it is rational to reject the premises. ... The advantage of this method of refutation is that one need not pinpoint exactly where the initial error occurred."

At this point an atheist could say that this simply proves that the existence of evil is incompatible with a good God, but the problem here is that without God as a standard the very concept of evil is meaningless. If God’s goodness is not our starting point then there is not a problem of evil because there is no ultimate standard in which the categories of good and evil can have any legitimacy. And that is a crucial point, for many atheists and skeptics throughout the history of Western philosophy have used the problem of evil as grounds for concluding that God is either not all-good or not all-powerful or not all-knowing. David Hume's famous formulation of the difficulty remains the most iconic of such arguments. The difficulty here is that the philosophical problem of evil assumes a neutral framework in which we can meaningfully critique God's actions in the world and conclude things about his character, ability or omniscience as a result. But in reality, once any or all of these attributes are doubted, we no longer have a framework in which we can meaningfully talk about moral values at all, or the privation of such values in the existence of evil.

There is a big difference between the problem of evil that the Psalmists struggle with (see Psalm 74 and Job 21) vs. the standard philosophical formulations of the problems. The former rightly assumes that God is good and in control no matter what happens and even if what is happening is difficult to reconcile with God's faithfulness. (Here again C.S. Lewis is most helpful, in particularly the last paragraph of his chapter "The Rival Conceptions of God" in Mere Christianity). Thus, either we have God, with evil as a problem, or we have no God and no evil at all since without God the concept of good and evil is meaningless.

OK, I’ve kind of wandered off topic. I guess that means it’s a good time to end.


Canterbury Chris

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Year A, Proper 12: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

[Listen to the sermon here.]

I can’t believe it. It feels like yesterday, but it was actually 10 years ago that I was living in Sewanee, TN and getting up very early each morning to drive into Chattanooga for CPE. For those of you unfamiliar with the lingo, CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. It’s sort of like boot camp for aspiring clergy. For 3 months, you work full-time in a hospital setting doing pastoral care and processing the interactions with supervisors and colleagues. I’ll bet that anyone who’s done CPE would agree: spending 40-plus hours a week (not to mention weekends on call) entering into people’s lives in times of crisis, grief, and loss can be emotionally draining and spiritually challenging.

One of my assignments at Erlanger Hospital was the Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit. I’ll never forget one of the guys I met there who was suffering from brain tumors. He was in a lot of pain, and perhaps because he was so very afraid he was willing to let me, a complete stranger, catch a glimpse of the turmoil in his soul. He told me that what was happening to him was God’s doing. I asked him why he thought God would afflict him and he told me it was because he had stopped attending church. God was punishing him for failure to worship. I was stunned by this man’s loss of trust in God’s goodness, and by his conviction that being right with God was all up to his own efforts. And I was also deeply saddened, because what this man needed as much as anything else was the conviction that whatever the coming days and weeks might bring, he was loved by a God who would never, ever abandon him. And that somehow – even if only in the world to come – what he was going through would be redeemed and made right by a loving and just God.

This man’s case may sound extreme. But I wonder if it is. Don’t we all go through periods in our lives that challenge our trust and confidence in God? Don’t we sometimes have cause to wonder if God is really on our side, if God really cares for and loves us? Maybe it’s a medical diagnosis. Maybe it’s a move to a new place where we don’t really know anybody. It could be the collapse of a relationship that’s left us feeling shattered or the death of a friend or family member. Maybe it’s an opportunity we really wanted that’s passed us by. Or perhaps we’ve lost a job and now find ourselves in a place we never dreamed we’d end up, having to reinvent who we are and reassess what matters in our lives.

There are countless ways that life can throw curveballs that cause us to question God, and even to lose our confidence that God’s intentions towards us are benevolent and loving. When we enter those dark valleys, the words we hear this morning from the apostle Paul may sound dissonant. He says: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).



I’ve been through times in my life and in relation to family and friends when that verse sounded more like a sappy line from a Hallmark greeting card than the inspired words of Holy Scripture. But it’s important to remember that Paul is no shallow sentimentalist. On the contrary, he’s someone deeply acquainted with suffering, loss, grief, and death.

Paul was a guy who had it all: education, power, social status and respect, and a promising future as a leader among the Pharisees. His reputation as a fierce defender of Jewish orthodoxy and a force not to be messed with was solidified by his relentless persecution of those men and women who dared to publicly assert the heresy that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that he had been raised from the dead. Paul was on a crusade to stamp out that nonsense. But then the curveball came, and when it hit, it utterly shattered the image of having it all together that Paul projected to the world. Out of the blue on a road to Damascus, Paul encountered the risen Jesus. And it knocked him flat. His very identity – everything he thought he knew for certain about the scriptures and God’s truth and his role among God’s chosen people – collapsed. It was such a devastating blow that it would take three years for Paul to recover and be ready to venture out into the world with a new identity and a new message (cf. Galatians 1:18).

But it hardly got any easier for Paul. Proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ didn’t restore his social status and prestige. Instead, proclaiming the Gospel ensured for Paul a life in which persecution, death threats, beatings, imprisonment, ship wreck, hunger and the very real possibility that everything he’s worked for may fail, were just another part of the typical work week.

And yet, in spite of it all, Paul can still say with absolute confidence that all things work for good for those who love God. And he can still say with absolute confidence that nothing in all of creation – not even sickness or addiction or broken relationships or a lost job or even death itself – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And even though he could be arrested or killed at any time, even though his enemies who preach a different gospel may prevail and destroy everything he’s worked for, Paul still says this not only with confidence, but also with joy.

Either Paul is crazy, or he knows something that many of us either don’t know or haven’t allowed to sink into our bones.

I believe that Paul is not crazy. And I believe that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and is thus rightly received as the authoritative Word of God. And so what Paul says in our epistle lesson this morning is true. And it’s truth that has the power to change our lives.

There are times in life that we so easily experience as the end of the world: times when our sins come home to roost, when we lose something or someone we love, or when sickness or death cast a dark shadow. When those times come, Paul reassures us that they do not ultimately define who we are and they do not get last word. There’s someone that can give us a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose that can never be taken away by the changes and chances of this life. Indeed, if Paul is right, there’s someone worth risking everything for, someone worth living and dying for, someone whose love can touch and heal and transform us to the depths of our bodies and to the core of our souls, and someone we can trust absolutely.

That someone is Jesus Christ.

My friends, the grounds of our confidence and joy in life cannot be found in our own efforts to insure our security or to please God. It’s not found in the prestige of where we went to school, where we live, what we do for a living, what kind of car we drive, or where we worship. It’s not even found in our relationships with family and friends. All of these things will change and eventually pass away.

Our confidence and joy in life are grounded in a deeper and more reliable reality: the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the forgiveness of our sins, and an expectant hope for the world to come. It’s the joy of knowing that our personal well-being and the fate of the world are not determined by current circumstances or by whether we succeed or fail in pleasing God. They are determined, not by what we do, but by what God has done and continues to do. They are determined by the victory of God in Christ over the forces of sin, suffering, sickness, death, and decay, a victory we share by virtue of our baptisms.

Paul’s confidence and joy are gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit. But those gifts don’t just belong to Paul. They are given to all Christians in Holy Baptism. So perhaps the real question is not, “How does somebody like Paul manage to be so confident and joyful in the midst of so much trouble?” The real question is, “What hinders us from sharing the same confidence and joy as Paul’s?” What keeps us from living with confidence in the power of Jesus’ forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection? What prevents us from owning the truth of our baptisms: that we are marked as Christ’s own forever and that we are eternally safe in his love?

Perhaps we can name what those things are. Perhaps we cannot. Either way, I invite you this morning to bring all of that stuff with you when you come to communion. Offer all of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly – to God. And in return, receive the precious gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood, the outward and visible signs of the truth that in Christ, God is quite literally dying to love you. And then go forward with the reassurance that nothing will ever take that love away.

In Christ, we are secure and we are loved. May that love penetrate into the depths of our being. And may it bear the fruits of unquenchable joy and unassailable confidence in the truth that, ultimately, all things shall indeed be well.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mary Magdalene: First Witness and Messenger of the Resurrection

Today is the feast of St. Mary Madalene. Here is what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about her:
Mary of Magdala near Capernaum was one of several women who followed Jesus and ministered to him in Galilee. The Gospel according to Luke records that Jesus "went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out ..." (Luke 8:1-2). The Gospels tell us that Mary was healed by Jesus, followed him, and was one of those who stood near his cross at Calvary.

It is clear that Mary Magdalene's life was radically changed by Jesus' healing. Her ministry of service and steadfast companionship, even as a witness to the crucifixion, has, through the centuries, been an example of the faithful ministry of women to Christ. All four Gospels name Mary as one of the women who went to the tomb to mourn and to care for Jesus' body. Her weeping for the loss of her Lord strikes a common chord with the grief of all others over the death of loved ones. Jesus' tender response to her grief - meeting her in the garden, revealing himself to her by calling her name - makes her the first witness to the risen Lord. She is given the command, "Go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20:17). As the first messenger of the resurrection, she tells the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" (John 20:18).

In the tradition of the Eastern Church, Mary is regarded as the equal of an apostle; and she is held in veneration as the patron saint of the great cluster of monasteries on Mount Athos.

Anglican bishop N. T. Wright argues that a biblical case for the full participation of women in the orders of the Church includes, among other material, John 20. This is the chapter of the Gospel according to John in which Mary Magdalene is the first person to both discover that Jesus' tomb is empty and to encounter him raised from the dead. And not only that, but Mary is also the first person to be commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the good news of his resurrection. Check out what Bishop Wright has to say in the following video beginning around 2:25.

Wright notes in his comments that in the ancient Jewish and pagan world, the commissioning of Mary Magdalene as the first messenger of the resurrection is "so counter-intuitive," and he's correct. As I noted in another posting few years back, women in Jesus' day were not allowed to testify in court and they were regarded as unreliable witnesses. And so, in light of Mary Magdalene as the first witness and messenger of the resurrection, Wright says:

In the resurrection there is a radical reevaluation of the role of women. ... Apostolic ministry grows out of the testimony that Jesus is alive. That to me is the basis of apostolic ministry. And I cannot understand why that should be problematic if you're a biblical Christian.

Thank God for Mary Magdalene, and also for Mary, Salome, Joanna, and the other women who not only discovered the empty tomb of Jesus, but who also had the courage to proclaim the Good News that Jesus is risen indeed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bishop Robinson's Statement About Jesus Sparks Controversy

The Right Reverend Gene Robinson, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, recently said something that has set off controversy in some quarters. Here's the reported statement of the bishop:

“I know Jesus to be the son of God,” he told a group of about 50 people, “but what a small, limited God we would have if that was the only manifestation. I think Christians should stay away from spiritual arrogance and show more love, mercy and zeal for justice.”

Fr. Peter Carrell at Anglican Down Under responded as follows:

Now this is a media reported statement not a theological essay or paper, so I am not going to declare this to be evidence of heresy. But, on the face of it, here is an Anglican bishop making a christological statement which, putting it diplomatically, falls below the Nicene and Chalcedonian par.

The least we could expect of Anglican bishops around the world is that, different and diverse though they may wish to be on human sexuality, whether Hooker meant this or that re Scripture, reason and tradition, and what robes should be worn on which occasion, they all subscribe to the common ecumenical creeds.

The statement above is not unique as a sign that not all Anglican bishops are completely convinced of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of the Father in whom the fullness of God dwells.

Read it all.

Bishop Robinson's statement reminds me of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's slippery statements about Jesus, and particularly her response to the question "Is Jesus the only way to get to heaven?" in an interview with Time Magazine back in 2006:

We who practice the Christian tradition understand [Jesus] as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.

(I've written more about the PB's theological views here and here.)

What some dismiss as "an awfully small box," others affirm as the Incarnation. And while some affirm Jesus Christ as the norm above all norms, others affirm him as one norm among other possible norms. Fr. Carrell is correct that "not all Anglican bishops [or priests and deacons, or laypersons, for that matter] are completely convinced of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ." And it is impossible to find a middle ground of compromise between those who affirm the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and those who clearly (or more stealthily) deny his uniqueness.

One commenter pressed Fr. Carrell's criticism of Bishop Robinson by saying:

Just what is 'heretical' about Bishop Robinson’s statement that so offends you, Peter? I just don’t 'get it.' ... Bishop Robinson says that affirming Christ as the Son of God in words is not enough; deeds matter. What is your problem with this?

To which Fr. Carrell replied:

I specifically spelled out that I do not think the media report constitutes evidence to declare 'heresy.'

It does look like a statement was made which falls below par and I am using the opportunity to reflect on the possibility that the Covenant, over time, could raise the standard to which bishops aspire when they speak, not least in being unafraid to espouse the uniqueness of Christ.

Yes, +Gene went on to make a fine statement about avoiding spiritual arrogance, and living out the gospel. No problems.

I do have a problem if a bishop seeks to link spiritual arrogance to affirming the uniqueness of Christ. We can make the affirmation and be humble at the same time.

Whether or not the Anglican Covenant can raise the doctrinal standard is a debatable point. But there has been and continues to be, in some quarters at least, a tendency to equate making orthodox claims to truth with arrogance. Sadly, there are cases in which that charge sticks. But Fr. Carrell is right to insist that it is quite possible to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus Christ with humility. Indeed, it is quite possible to affirm the reality of Absolute Truth without claiming absolute certainty. I believe that's called faith.

The charge of arrogance is a sword that can cut both ways. For there is also an arrogance behind some of the attempts to downplay the uniqueness of Jesus Christ for the sake of being more "tolerant" and "inclusive." Such arrogance implicitly claims to "know better" than the combined authorities of scripture and tradition. And there is also an arrogance driving some of the claims to special revelation in our day, claims that have not been recognized and received as genuine revelation from God by many (if not most) other Christians living in the world. Again, there's an implicit if not explicit claim here that "we know better" and/or "we are enlightened and those who disagree with us are not" (a judgment which gives the lie to "inclusion").

On the basis of this one reported statement, no one can say with certainty that Bishop Robinson is guilty of Christological heresy. Nevertheless, I agree with Fr. Carrell that Bishop Robinson's statement "falls below the Nicene and Chalcedonian par."

I see that, in the light of Preludium's defense, Catholicity and Covenant has also weighed in on Bishop Robinson's statement:

+New Hampshire was not attempting to affirm the continuity of the Old and New Covenants. Nor was he referring to natural revelation. He was, it appears, suggesting that the scandal of the Incarnation is, well, far too scandalous. Or, to use his own words, "small" and "limited". We - the Church - require a 'larger', more 'generous' vision of God than the Incarnation.

Read it all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Basis of Our Relationship with God

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t always think like a Christian. I don’t always feel like a Christian. I certainly don’t always act like a Christian. But that is not the basis of my relationship with God. That relationship is based not on me, and what I do, but on God and what God does. So when you are having trouble being a Christian, touch your forehead, remember your baptism, and remember that you are a Christian because we [the Church] told you so.”

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (13): Fate, Necessity, and Evil

Below is the thirteenth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George

I appreciate you coming back to me with scripture. From what I can make out, your whole understanding about evil being necessary hinges on Romans 9:22. I want to interact with your exegesis of Romans 9, but that will have to wait for another letter. In this letter I want to clear up some misunderstandings.

First, you spend quite a while trying to show that the reformed view of the decrees is not fatalism, as if that answers the arguments in my last letter regarding necessity. Yet even if you are correct, that seems to be a separate issue to the specific concerns I raised about the necessity of evil. However, with regard to the issue of fate, I find it interesting that while apologists like yourself have attempted (legitimately) to distance the reformed view with the pagan concept of fate, if you read what Martin Luther said about predestination in The Bondage of the Will, it differs very little from the pagan concept of fate. In fact, Luther specifically appealed to the pagan concept of faith to prop up his views. For example, he wrote:

"But why should these things be difficult for we Christians to understand, so that it should be considered irreligious, curious, and vain, to discuss and know them, when heathen poets, and the common people themselves, have them in their mouths in the most frequent use? How often does Virgil alone make mention of Fate? 'All things stand fixed by unchangeable law.' Again, 'Fixed is the day of every man.' Again, 'If the Fates summon you.' And again, 'If you will break the binding chain of Fate.' The aim of this poet is to show that in the destruction of Troy, and in raising up the Roman empire, Fate did more than all the devoted efforts of men. . . . From which we can see that the knowledge of predestination and of the foreknowledge of God was no less left in the world than the notion of divinity itself. And those who wished to appear wise went so far into their debates that, their hearts being darkened, they became fools. (Rom. 1:21-22) They denied, or pretended not to know those things which their poets, and the common folk, and even their own consciences, held to be universally known, most certain, and most true."

I actually agree with much of what you wrote in your last letter, though I dispute the conclusions you draw. Keep in mind that there is a huge difference between saying:

1. (a) The final judgment reveals God’s wrath, and this somehow mysteriously shows the Lord’s glory/character because everything God does shows His glory/character; or (b) because all things work together for good for God’s children, it follows that all the pain and suffering of the world, including the sin and damnation of some, will somehow further God’s good purposes for His children.

versus saying

2. (a) It is necessary that evil eternally exist so that God’s wrath can be displayed in forever punishing it; or (b) a world without sin would have been horrible because then we wouldn’t know that God hates sin; or (c) without evil there would be no way to know that God is just.

If the arguments you presented in your last letter prove anything, they only prove 1 and not 2. To articulate the former, as you did in your last letter, is not to redeem your previous articulation of the latter. Although 1 and 2 may seem to be saying the same things, and although 1 may seem to logically entail 2 in your mind, there is an important difference. Jonathan Edwards’ thought clearly falls into the category of 2 when he says “So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature,” as does Piper when he argues that the evil and misery of some are a necessary pre-condition for the ever-increasing enjoyment of the saints. Similarly, when Douglas Wilson says it “would be horrible” if there had never been any sin, we are going way, way beyond 1. The difference may be subtle, but the difference is crucially important. Romans 9 and Proverbs 16:4 get us to 1, but they can only take us to 2 if we ignore many other passages of scripture and the Bible’s meta-themes about the character of God.

The reason it is important not to conflate 1 and 2 is that it ends up making goodness eternally dependent on evil, leading to the type of functional dualism that we find in St. Augustine where evil has to balance with good to achieve a type of metaphysical symmetry. As he writes in City of God:

“God would never have created a man, let alone an angel, in the foreknowledge of his future evil state, if he had not known at the same time how he would put such creatures to good use, and thus enrich the course of the world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem. ‘Antithesis’ provides the most attractive figures in literary composition: the Latin equivalent is ‘opposition,’ or, more accurately, ‘contra-position.’ The opposition of such contraries gives an added beauty to speech; and in the same way there is beauty in the composition of the world's history arising from the antithesis of contraries—a kind of eloquence in events, instead of in words."

Or again Augustine writes:

“And thus evils, which God does not love, are not apart from order; and nevertheless He does love order itself. This very thing He loves: to love good things, and not to love evil things—and this itself is a thing of magnificent order and of divine arrangement. And because this orderly arrangement maintains the harmony of the universe by this very contrast, it comes about that evil things must need be. In this way, the beauty of all things is in a manner configured, as it were, from antitheses, that is, from opposites: this is pleasing to us even in discourse.”

You seemed to come pretty close to Augustine’s view of evil being a metaphysical necessity in your last letter when you wrote, “God's wrath is just as much a part of Him as His love…. These two dimensions of God's nature need to be embraced in tandem…. God's justice/righteousness meant that the only kind of creation that would reflect the totality of His nature would be one in which his justice would be justice indeed, full-orbed with both sides of the equation being equal.”

Now maybe all you are saying is nothing more than what I articulated until #1 above. But it does seem to veer pretty close to #2, with creation and evil being necessary to reflect a certain side of God’s nature. And, of course, if God’ nature includes these two dimensions - that is, if wrath is something God is like love rather than something He does (which seems to be the corollary to thinking that only a world marred by evil can “reflect the totality of His nature”) – then one might ask how God’s character could be fully expressed before creation if the members of the Godhead weren’t wrathful against one another.

Another reason it is important not to move from #1 to #2 is because it slides us down the slippery slope to having to affirm that God is the author of evil, a position you come precariously close to in your last letter while discussing Proverbs 16:4. But to do justice to that issue, I will have to wait until my next letter.


Canterbury Chris

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Defending the Historic Creeds

Over at Into the Expectation, Fr. Matt Gunter has posted an outstanding apologetic essay on the normative character of the Creed (by which he means both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed). It's entitled "Centered in the Creed." Here are some excerpts:

To say "Just love God with your whole heart mind and soul" only begs the question "Who, or what, is this 'god' I am to love and what does it mean to love this 'god'?” As for loving neighbors (let alone enemies), why should I? And in what way? Why is it so hard to do? And, for that matter, what does it mean to be human? And what kind of a world do we live in? Any answer to those questions takes us into the realm of belief and doctrine. ...

It is inadequate to appeal to a simplistic pietism, whether in its more conservative or more liberal versions, that says "Don't bother me with doctrine, just give me Jesus". We have no access to Jesus other than the Gospels which are soaked in interpretation (doctrine) of who Jesus is and why it matters. And the creeds are the Christian guide to understanding God in light of Jesus. ...

Because it is about God, much of the Creed is metaphorical. Because it is about the God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus much of it is not metaphorical, but historical (i.e., everything between “became incarnate” and “he rose again”). That has always been the scandal of Christianity to the philosophers and Gnostics (ancient and contemporary) who want to keep God safely on the side of the metaphorical (protecting God or themselves?). But, Christians confess an historical virgin birth to an historical Mary of an historical infleshment of God who died an historical death under an historical Pontius Pilate, but lives again through an historical resurrection leaving behind an historical empty tomb – all "for us and for our salvation". ...

To say that all language about God acting in history, e.g., the virginal conception, the incarnation, and the bodily resurrection as historical, physical events, is metaphorical and only true in some spiritual sense is to try to be more spiritual than the God we know though Jesus has deigned to be. The God we know through Jesus and the creeds is a God who is prepared to get down and dirty in the material world to address the very literal, tragic mess we have made of ourselves, others, and the world. ...

Continuing to say the words of the creeds without intellectual assent and meaning them in the common sense warps language. Either we mean it or we don’t. Or we stretch the meaning of words beyond all logic. What if we used the same approach to language with the marriage vows? Can I have an affair and then tell my wife she needs to get over her unsophisticated, literalistic interpretation of “forsaking all others”? ...

Why should anyone consider us credible (a related word) if our preaching and teaching contradict the rest of what we say in worship? Or if all we have to offer is doubt and more questions? The latter is almost always a power move that hides the real answers those who claim to be about questions are actually peddling. ...

Thankfully it is not up to us to believe this or that bit of the Creed on our own - as we sometimes pray, "regard not our sins, but the faith of your Church" (1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 395). Sometimes others believe for us. In spite of any personal struggle, the Creed is the standard of Church teaching. At the very least, it is what Christians aspire to believe and conform their lives to – however inadequately.

Fr. Matt's essay goes a long way towards answering the kinds of questions and criticisms of the historic creeds that sometimes get translated into dumping the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy, charging the creeds with being theologically defective, banning the creeds from worship in order to be more "inclusive", and other ways of rejecting the normative character of creedally orthodox Christianity.

Read it all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Misapprehended Latitude: Dorothy Sayers and the Centrality of "Dull Dogma"

I first published this back in July 2007 when I started blogging. In light of Episcopal parishes that see fit to dump the Nicene Creed from the Eucharistic liturgy, clergy who charge that the creeds are defective, and those who pit "dull dogma" against "love" and find alternative creeds more "accessible" and "inclusive" than the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds (like, for instance, the Iona Creed), it seems fitting to republish.

Thanks to Fr. Jones, I came across this rather pointed observation on the web the other day:

Every now and then, a smug Episcopalian will make a statement that gives me cold chills. They will say something like, "I love being an Episcopalian, because I can believe anything I want." This statement is a gross misunderstanding of the doctrinal flexibility built into our Church. The point is that on certain issues, like the nature of Christ's presence in Eucharist and other sacramental matters, a range of nuanced positions are possible. Unfortunately, some misapprehend the latitude offered within Anglicanism as license for disbelief.

There are many antidotes to this kind of "misapprehended latitude," and one within the Anglican tradition is Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957). Perhaps best known as the author of detective stories that feature a character named Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers was also a Christian apologist with a keen sense for the beauty and truth of Christian doctrine and the historic creeds.

As one writer puts it: "Like her friends C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Charles Williams, Sayers was a brilliant Christian thinker, an Anglo-Catholic who took doctrine seriously and bristled at the growth of 'fads, schisms, heresies, and anti-Christ' within the Church of England."

Sayers was a tough-minded defender of the notion that Christian faith entails non-negotiable truths that don't change simply because the winds of intellectual fashion and the culture have shifted in a new direction. Relevance comes, not from revising core dogma to accommodate post-Christian thinking, but from faithfully doing what the Church at her best has always done: preach, teach, and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Here's a taste of Sayers' writing taken from A Matter of Eternity: Selections from the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by Rosamond Kent Sprague (William B. Eerdmans, 1973). Even this small sampling gives a clear picture of her passionate embrace of creedal Christianity. Sayers would have little patience for even the suggestion that being an Episcopalian means that one can believe whatever one wants!


The Christian formula is not: "Humanity manifests certain adumbrations of the divine", but: "This man was very God." On that pivot of singularity the whole Christian interpretation of phenomena uncompromisingly turns.

If Christ was only a man, then He is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; if He is only God, then he is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Unless he believes rightly, there is not the faintest reason why he should believe at all.

... if the Church is to make any impression on the modern mind we will have to preach Christ and the cross.

It would not perhaps be altogether surprising if, in this nominally Christian country, where the Creeds are daily recited, there were a number of people who knew all about Christian doctrine and disliked it. It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine: that would be understandable enough, since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting, so dramatic can be the orthodox Creed of the Church.

God did not abolish the fact of evil: He transformed it. He did not stop the crucifixion: He rose from the dead.

It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everyone knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practise it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.

If Christ is not true God equally with the Father, there is no essential difference between Christianity and pagan polytheism.

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as "a bad press." We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine - "dull dogma," as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man - and the dogma is the drama.


You can learn more about this gifted Anglican theologian by logging on to the The Dorothy L Sayers Society.

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (12): Is Evil Necessary?

Below is the twelfth installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

I’m glad to learn that we are in substantial agreement on the issues I raised last week. I was especially heartened to learn that you are considering using Common Worship: Times and Seasons with your family. Do let me know what you decide to give up for Lent next year.

Something must be wrong if you and I are actually agreeing with each other for a change! On that positive note, it is probably time to turn to something more controversial, namely your sermon on divine justice.

You said in the sermon that without evil we could never appreciate goodness by contrast. When I first heard you say that I was shocked, but as I began reading around the issue I found that Saint Augustine advocated a similar position, having written that

... if all had remained condemned to the punishment entailed by just condemnation, then God's merciful grace would not have been seen at work in anyone, on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness to light, the truth of God's vengeance would not have been made evident.

If we adopt this position then we are forced to believe that God's love, grace, goodness, etc. are only intelligible in a world marred by evil. On a purely practical level this doesn't make sense. Consider, I don't need to go down to the local dump and gaze upon the garbage there in order to appreciate the beauties of our town’s nature reserve. I don't need to feed on putrefied fruit and rotting bread for breakfast in order to enjoy a bowl of strawberries and cream for lunch! Similarly, I’m sure that the members of the Blessed Trinity were fully capable of appreciating each other’s love prior to the advent of evil.

I’ll be straight with you, George, I was rather disturbed by your comment that God leaves some people in their sins in order to demonstrate His justice. I looked up the passage you referenced from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, and I’d like to quote from it because it seems to encapsulate the basic problem inherent in the position that you and many other reformed thinkers have adopted on this issue:

“It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. ...

"Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.

"If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired. ...

"So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.”

I have always been uneasy with that type of reasoning since it seems to implicate that there are unrealized potencies within the godhead. Consider that the Triune God is completely self-sufficient and doesn't need to have evil to demonstrate His character any more than He needed to create the world, let alone redeem it, to demonstrate His personality. (Saint Augustine makes this latter point lucidly in his Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love). God could have left our first parents in a state of bondage, He could have chosen for less or more people to be redeemed, He could have chosen not to create at all. The only things God cannot do are those things which contradict His nature.

The implication of saying that if God didn’t have a group of people to be angry with for all eternity that one whole side of his character (namely His hatred of sin) would not be able to be demonstrated and expressed, is essentially to say that God requires an opposite in order for Him to be good, or at least for such goodness to be fully actualized or manifested. A corollary of this is that throughout all eternity, the goodness and justice inherent in the blessed Trinity was always incomplete. On the other hand, if the members of the Trinity are completely self-sufficient and could fully appreciate their own justice independent of creation, then presumably it would also be possible for God’s redeemed and glorified children to appreciate God’s goodness and justice apart from the existence of evil, unless you can first produce an a priori argument to the contrary (which, of course, neither you nor Jonathan Edwards have done).

Consider further, if evil is necessary in order for God's goodness to be manifested, and if the manifestation of such goodness is a crucial part of what it means for God to be Lord (since otherwise God’s hatred of sin couldn’t find an outlet), then it follows that creation is necessary in order for God to be Lord since creation is itself a precondition to evil. In that case, God would not be Lord prior to creation. Ergo, creation is not an overflow of God’s abundance but something that was necessary in order to realize a certain aspect of His character. This lands us uncomfortably close to what some Arians have proposed. I have met Arians who said that in order for God to be Lord, He must eternally be Lord over something; ergo, the Son must be eternally subordinate to the authority of God the Father.

In your sermon you referenced John Piper’s work Desiring God and The Pleasures of God, Piper seems to go even further than Edwards, suggesting that the pain, evil and the misery of some are a necessary pre-condition for the ever-increasing enjoyment of the saints. This seems to leave us with a kind of dualism since it makes goodness eternally dependent on evil. Again, if taken to its logical consequence, this would entail that evil must be just as eternal as the blessed Trinity.

Using your own analogy of the potter, I want you to try to imagine a certain scenario. There is a potter who labors continually until he has created a number of excellently wrought vessels of great beauty and delicacy. But he is not satisfied with that - he must also construct a second class of vessels in order to smash them into a hundred bits. This proves to everyone that he has strength. Now if I correctly understand what you are saying, God is like this potter and must have two classes of people, one group on which to demonstrate His love and mercy, and another group on which to demonstrate His wrath and hatred of sin. But in the end doesn’t this amount to saying that God hates sin so much that He wanted it to enter His creation eternally so that He could always be punishing it? But consider carefully what this actually means. It means that it is precisely because His hatred of sin is so great that He must create it and that it must go on existing eternally in those subjects He is punishing (for to say that they cease being evil is akin to the universalism you reject). According to such a theory, if God had chosen to prevent the existence of evil in the first place this would have been a worse state of affairs then the endless perpetuation of evil in an everlasting hell since there would then have been no way for us to know that God is just. Hence, what it amounts to saying is that God hates evil so much that He must ensure its eternal existence. Even my eight year old would be able to see the absurdity in such a position.

Suffice to say, the idea that a cosmic torture chamber is necessary in order for God to actualize otherwise unrealized potencies in His character, is an idea I find most disturbing. Your sermon notes gave a link to some of Douglas Wilson’s articles. I looked up the posts and Pastor Wilson makes essentially the same error, saying:

"In a world without sin, two of God's most glorious attributes—His justice and His mercy—would go undisplayed. This, obviously, would be horrible." (Westminster Three: Of God''s Eternal Decree)

“In a world without sin and evil, at least two attributes of God would have gone unrevealed and unmanifested, those attributes being wrath and mercy. Since this is obviously intolerable, God determined to direct our affairs the way that He did.” (Mercy As Transferred Glory)

Now evil exists, so there must be some explanation for it that does not compromise the attributes of God, seeing as terms like goodness, justice and love can have no meaning apart from God. However, if what I wrote above is correct, then the explanation given by you, Augustine, Jonathan Edwards and Pastor Wilson must be false. But even apart from the falsity of that explanation, there is another more practical difficulty raised by such theories.

Consider: what these theories amount to is essentially that God has two sides of His character, a side that delights to show mercy and a side that delights in punishing sin. Both these sides need to be expressed. By redeeming the elect, God’s love and mercy are demonstrated. But lest the Father’s wrath be completely pacified and we forget how much He hates sin, He needs to have another group on which His hatred of sin can be expressed. Now if this is true then I would struggle with knowing how to have a positive relationship with such a God. I am reminded of how the Greek writer Xenophon recorded that he had been assisted by Zeus in his capacity as the god of safety and god of kings but had then fallen foul of Zeus in his capacity as god of propitiation. Similarly, the God presented by the aforementioned argument has two sets of self-contained attributes that must both be expressed in order for God to be completely Himself – attributes which are antithetical to each other. Our task is presumably to get on the side of God that needs to express love and be thankful that we aren’t a target of the side of Him that needs to express His hatred of sin, just as Xenophon had to get on Zeus’s side as god of safety and not god of propitiation. Now here’s the problem: I can go through the motions of worshiping such a God and I can try to be on His good side and I can recognize that however things appear He must be good since phrases like goodness, justice and love have no meaning apart from God as the ultimate standard, yet on a purely existential level I don’t know how to love such a God or to feel anything other than horror when contemplating Him. That doesn’t make such an idea false, but it does render it problematic on a purely existential level for me.

Psalm 5:4 declares in no uncertain terms that God does not take pleasure in wickedness. Why then does He allow evil? I am not God, so I do not presume to know the answer to this question. I also do not presume to know why He chooses to leave some people in their sins. It is a mystery, and I can only say that God must have a morally sufficient reason for everything He chooses to do or not do. I can even say that evil somehow furthers God’s glory because everything furthers His glory in some way. But that is as far as I’m willing to go because that’s as far as the Bible goes. We should leave these matters with God’s mysterious council instead of trying to plumb the depths of the decrees and turning God into a cosmic sadist as a result.

Okay, I got a bit carried away there. I guess that means it’s time to stop.


Canterbury Chris

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Better Question than "WWJD?"

"While it is popular to ask 'What would Jesus do?' the better question was always 'What is Jesus doing?' The first question assumes that the Savior is on the sidelines and that the burden of life and work is on our shoulders. But in that case the Savior is not really saving but is setting impossibly high standards that we attempt to imitate by doing what we assume he would do if he were in our situation. On the other hand, the question 'What is Jesus doing?' is built on the conviction that he is alive, reigning, and at work in our lives. In other words, he is in our situation, and that changes everything about our mission. Rather than believing that the work of Christ is completed and that now it is our turn to try to imitate his life and work, we take on the identity of being witnesses who watch and testify to his continued work of salvation that is unfolding before our eyes."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (11): The Liturgical Year

Below is the eleventh installment in the series I'm publishing on behalf of a friend entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George." Before reading and responding with comments, please be sure to read my introduction and the author's introduction to this series at the first posting entitled "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George (1): The Via Media." And also read the other postings in the "Canterbury Letters to Geneva George" series here.

Dear Geneva George,

I promised to take up the question of the church calendar but it seems you have already beat me to it.

Your argument about the church calendar being a throwback to paganism seems a curious move to make. Looking at it historically, there is credence for thinking that the shoe may actually be on the other foot. It was when the Protestant church abandoned the church calendar that they inadvertently opened the door to certain pagan influences.

Think about what happened with the North American Puritans. When they abandoned Christian holidays they left a vacuum that would ultimately be filled by the non-religious ordering of time. Such non-religious ordering would help to reinforce the idea that there exists a secular world which functions separately from religious categories.

I appreciate that the Puritans were animated by noble motives. Their rejection of the cycle of Christian holidays was rooted in the notion that the entire year was sanctified, that every day is a holiday unto the Lord. Even so, by relinquishing the Christian narrative from the calendar, they created the template for a culture evacuated of its religious moorings. This would eventually manifest itself first in a sense that culture is an autonomous institution running parallel to the church, and later with a sense of culture being a rival system in actual competition with the church. I’m greatly oversimplifying things here because this was a process that took hundreds of years and which involved many other factors. Nevertheless, by rejecting the church year as one legitimate way to tell and retell the story of redemption, the Puritans helped to underscore the sense of evangelical religion as disembodied, detached from the space-time continuum.

By contrast, a robust embracing of the church calendar can act as an antidote to the types of crypto-Gnosticism and rationalism that we discussed in earlier letters. As one walks through the cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost, Lent and Easter, we are reminded that what matters most is not ideas but events. As children participate in these holidays year in and year out, it helps them internalize the fact that the story of redemption is something that they are themselves participating in.

But while the church year helps to underscore the fact that our redemption is first and foremost a story, it also provides wonderful opportunities for emphasizing the doctrinal aspects of our faith. In my own home I have found that each of the church’s feasts provides its own unique insight into the work of Christ. Every holiday we revisit the cycle of fall, redemption, continuation and consummation, noting the particular place this holiday holds within this sequence. We’ve had some great Bible studies together, but I always try to keep it fun with plenty of treats and surprises (except during Lent, as Lent is not supposed to be fun!).

It is possible that the rhythm of a liturgical year has been one of the chief means for inculcating a metanarrative into the fabric of society and transmitting it to the next generation. We see this same dynamic at work in pagan societies: the recurring rituals connected to the seasonal cycles and the harvest help to instill the narratives of the pagan culture into the next generation. If this suggests anything, it is that human beings are innately liturgical. It is in fact impossible to attain the ideal that Terry Johnson proposed in Reformed Worship when he spoke of being “liberated from…nature’s cycles.”

It is not so much a question of whether human beings will celebrate a religious calendar, but what religion they will celebrate. We invariably organize the year into rhythmic structures that reflect our priorities. If our year is not organized by the great feasts of the church, then by default our year will probably end up being structured around secular holidays that tell the story of political redemption or else holidays that pay homage to the god of hedonism, such as vacation time. (I have no problem with vacation time, by the way, but I do question the tendency to structure one's priorities around vacation instead of around the church year.)

I’d like to end by leaving you with two quotations from books dealing with this subject. The first comes from Common Worship: Times and Seasons, a book I use with my children during family worship. In the introduction the authors have this to say about the importance of the church’s liturgical year:

“The liturgical year thus provides a structure for the Church’s collective memory, a way of consecrating our human experience of time in the celebration of God’s work – in Christ and in human beings made holy through Christ – a work which is both unrepeatably in time and incomprehensibly beyond time. It asserts a Christian understanding of time as a context of God’s grace, against the world’s purely functional reckoning of time....

“The rhythm of the Church’s times and one of the primary ways in which Christians learn, and are strengthened in their grasp of, the story of Christ – just as Jesus himself was familiar with the Jewish festivals, and with the way that the annual remembrance of Passover shaped the identity of the chosen people.”

The second quotation comes from Tom Wright’s excellent little book For All The Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed:

“The church’s liturgical year is rooted in ancient custom. It follows the story of the key events in the life of Jesus: his birth at Christmas, his death on Good Friday, his birth at Christmas, his death on Good Friday, his resurrection on Easter Day, his Ascension forty days later, and his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost (‘Whitsun’).

“Into this sequence, again in ancient custom, the church inserted Advent and Lent. Advent offers four Sundays of preparation before Christmas, recalling simultaneously the preparation of Israel and the world for the coming of Jesus at Christmas and the preparation of the church and the world for his final second coming. Lent, the forty penitential days leading up to Holy Week, which itself climaxes in Good Friday, recalls the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert at the start of his ministry. Advent and Lent have traditionally been seasons of penitence and preparation for the awesome events to which they point.

“Other key moments have also been added. Epiphany (the showing of Jesus to the non-Jewish world) commemorates the coming of the Wise Men to the boy Jesus in Matthew 2. Candlemas (Jesus’ presentation i n the Temple) picks up the theme of ‘light’ from the song of Simeon (‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’) in Luke 2. And so on. At a different level, the western churches have for a long time kept the Sunday after Pentecost as Trinity Sunday, celebrating the complete revelation of God which has been granted through the events of Jesus’ life and his sending of his own Spirit.

“... many churches have found that by following the liturgical year in the traditional way they have a solid framework within which to teach and live the gospel, the scriptures, and the Christian life. The Bible offers itself to us as a great story, a sprawling and complex narrative, inviting us to come in and make it our own. The Gospels, the very heart of scripture, likewise tell a story not merely to give us information about Jesus but in order to provide a narrative we can inhabit, a story we must make our own. This is one way in which we can become the people God calls us to be. The traditional Christian year is a deep-rooted and long-tested means by which that biblical aim can be realised.”

Last night I re-listened to your sermon on justice and this time I took notes. In my next letter I’ll try to interact with some of your points.


Canterbury Chris