Posted on: April 30th, 2008 Comments on Bishop Wright’s article: “Women’s Service in the Church”

Several years ago now NT Wright spoke at a gathering of Christians for Biblical Equality, a group of evangelical, mainly American, Christians who want to promote “equality” among males and females in the context of the church.

After taking the group to task for its blindness to its construal of the issues, as well as for mistranslating (and therefore misunderstanding) Gal 3:28’s “male and female” as opposed to the reader’s expected “male or female,” Wright offers his own thoughts about this issue, limiting his comments to Paul’s theology as rooted in the creation narrative of Gen 1.

1. Wright points out that maleness and femaleness is not “a vital part of what it means to be created in God’s image.” He bases this statement on the fact that, even on Gen 1’s own terms, maleness and femaleness is not limited to man / humanity (what, in an effort to stick to the biblical language will call “Adam” and “the woman”), but rather also characterizes animals and plants.

Now, as grateful as I am that he pointed this out (this modest but provocative point has never occurred to me, and I have never seen any other commentator on the creation stories point it out), it seems to me that his conclusion does not follow.

That humans share gender with animals and plants does not imply that gender is not vitally included in what it means to be in God’s image, but rather develops the biblical understanding of the connection and relationship with humanity has to the rest of the created order (with the possible exception of angels). Wright himself stresses in various places (including his treatment of Romans 8 in his commentary on that letter) that man stands somehow at the pinnacle of creation in such a way that when humanity renews covenant with God the whole creation is renewed. Alexander Schmemann, in his For the Life of the World, has similar resonances.

2. The verse Pauline text Wright addresses in Gal 3:28, the implied context of which, he argues, is the synagogue prayer in which “the man who prays thanks God that he has not made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” Wright continues, “Paul is deliberately marking out the family of Abraham reformed in the Messiah as a people who cannot pray that prayer, since within this family these distinctions are now irrelevant.”

I fully embrace this interpretation, and agree that it fits nicely within the larger picture of what is going on in Galatians.

Wright continues at this point to say argue that the “presenting issue” is one of circumcision, and that Paul, especially in light of places like Rom 9 and Gal 4 where he is being especially attentive “to women in the story,” is implicitly arguing that, just as the Gospel obliterates the Jew / Gentile distinction as a boundary marker for the covenant community of God, so also, and to the same extent, for the “male / female” distinction.

Wright then goes on to point out what Paul does not do: he does not obliterate the difference, built into (the) creation (account), between male and female. In fact elsewhere in his letters Paul presupposes this difference, and so pastoral practice must take it seriously.

3. Gospels and Acts.

– It is significant that Jesus chose twelve male apostles, but also of “incalculable significance” is the role the women play in the resurrection stories of Jesus, when (in contrast to all twelve of the men) they are the first to come to the tomb, and the first to be entrusted with the news that he has risen from the dead. “Mary Magdalene and the others are the apostles to the apostles.” (Also, “We should not be surprised that Paul calls a woman named Junia an apostle in Rom 6:17.”)

The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in the Gospel stories is performing a priestly action. In Luke 10 what would have been obvious and unsettling to first century readers is that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet in the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women.

At this point NTW’s prose is so compelling to me that I must quote it directly:

This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at having to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had clean cut across one of the most basic social conventions. It is as though, in today’s world, you were to invite me to stay in your house and, when it came to bedtime, I were to put up a camp bed in your bedroom. We have our own clear but unstated rules about whose space is which; so did they. And Mary has just flouted them. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is “sitting at his feet,” a phrase which doesn’t mean what it would today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher. As is clear from the use of the phrase elsewhere in the NT (for instance, Paul with Gamaliel), to sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that world you would not do this just for the sake of informing your mind and your heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself.

– Turning to Acts, Wright cites one Ken Bailey for his “long experience of working in the middle east, ” where at the height of the troubles in Lebanon, all the men were either hiding or going about very cautiously, whereas the women were free to come and go freely, to do the shopping, to take children out, and so on. This resonates strongly with what we see in the crucifixion stories: in contrast to all the men disciples of Jesus, the women are unthreatened and able to come and go and see what was happening without fear from the authorities.

We find a striking contrast, then, we in the book of Acts, and the persecution against the church including the Stephen story, the women are being persecuted and targeted equally alongside of the men.

4. I Corinthians.

– On I Cor 14 Wright (admittedly, by him and by me) speculates that what is going on here is that women sat on different side of the room than men, and also were unschooled in the formal Arabic language in which the service would be conducted. Wright cites Ken Bailey on this. What happened is that during the service women would get bored and begin to chatter among themselves, and so Paul was encouraging them to be quiet and wait to get home to ask their husbands questions.

– On I Cor 11:2-11. This passage obviously presupposes that women are actively and vocally participating in the worship service, but Paul is encouraging women and men not to blur the lines in which that particular culture (ie, headcoverings for women) displayed the creational differences between men and women.

What I like about this interpretation is that Wright, in suggesting that the Corinthians themselves were likely taking one of Paul’s emphases (namely, the “equality” between men and women) and “running with it on steroids,” grounds this particular issue in a way which is consistent with the larger picture going on in I Corinthians. In that letter, it does seem that the community has an overly realized eschatology, in which, for example, marital relations (and the sexual rules that accompany them) dissolve away. Paul says again and again in this letter, “Hey, slow down, the fullness of the Kingdom has not come yet.”

-Wright also interprets Paul’s use of “head” in this passage as meaning “source,” rooted as it is in the creation story, where the woman proceeds from Adam’s side. Wright does not view this as inconsistent with Paul’s use of head to mean something else in, for example, Eph 5. (I am pretty sure that Wright holds to Pauline authorship of Ephesians.)

5. I Timothy 2. Stay tuned….

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Posted on: April 28th, 2008 Westminster Seminary & Pete Enns

Til now, I have not posted anything about the (sad) situation going on at WTS. But as an alumnus of that institution, perhaps I should have (especially since I signed this).

For now, I will just encourage you to go to Joel Garver’s blog.

For Pete Enns’ excellent book, which is the “presenting issue” of this deeper controversy, see here.

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Posted on: April 28th, 2008 A Hymn … by me

One of the coolest things about ETSS has been the liturgical music class I have been in. In it one of our assignments was to follow the craft which Russell Schultz instructed us in, and to make a stab at writing a hymn for ourselves.

This is to be sung to the tune of “The People That in Darkness Sat” (common meter, ie, 86 86). It is inspired by Psalm 122.

The nations that in fragments lay
in times of stress and pain
endure the heaps of rubble cast
by power’s violent strain, by power’s violent strain.

Our race, our sex, our caste we deem
of great and costly worth
to greed and lust does not occur
the loss of mother earth, the loss of mother earth.

Enter that glorious city where
high lifted up all round,
the Mighty Victim, Prince of Peace
one with his people bound, one with his people bound.

What’s this, you ask? These gates, these walls?
and what comes of my pain?
Behold the paradox, the love
the Wounded Healer’s reign, the Wounded Healer’s reign.

This city rests on Zion’s hill
this temple glorious built
his body and his bride the same
see how love casts out guilt, see how love casts out guilt.

Now to the Father and the Son
be never ending praise
and to the Holy Spirit sing
within these splendorous gates, within these splendorous gates.”

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Posted on: April 26th, 2008 Antony Flew and Bishop Tom Wright

Many people ask me what it is that attracts me to the Anglican church today. There are many, many answers to this question. But one that is important in my personal narrative is simply that I want to be on the same “team” as Bishop NT Wright.

Here is on reason why. Quoting from this website (Probe Ministries) on the recent “conversion” of notable atheist Antony Flew, documented in his autobiographical book There is a God:

In a fascinating appendix to his book, Flew has a dialogue with prominent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright about Jesus. Although Flew is not a Christian and continues to be skeptical about the claims for Jesus’ bodily resurrection, he nonetheless asserts that this claim “is more impressive than any by the religious competition.”{23} But why is this? And what sort of evidence is there for the resurrection of Jesus? This is one of the questions to which N.T. Wright responds in his dialogue with Flew.Although we can only scratch the surface of this discussion, Wright makes two points that are especially worth mentioning: the historicity of the empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. But why think these events actually happened as the Gospels claim? Because, says Wright, if the tomb were empty, but there were no appearances, everyone would have concluded that the tomb had been robbed. “They would never have talked about resurrection, if all that had happened was an empty tomb.”{24}

On the other hand, suppose the disciples saw appearances of Jesus after His crucifixion. Would this have convinced them of His resurrection if His tomb were not empty? No, says Wright. The disciples knew all about “hallucinations and ghosts and visions. Ancient literature—Jewish and pagan alike—is full of such things.”{25} So long as Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, the disciples would never have believed, much less publicly proclaimed, that He had been raised from the dead. This would have struck them as self-evidently absurd. For these and other reasons, Wright concludes that the empty tomb and appearances of Jesus are historical facts that need to be reckoned with. The question then becomes, “How does one account for these facts? What is the best explanation?”

Wright concludes that, as a historian, the best explanation is that “Jesus really was raised from the dead,” just as the disciples proclaimed. This is clearly a sufficient explanation of Jesus’ empty tomb and post-mortem appearances. But Wright goes even further. “Having examined all the other possible hypotheses,” he writes, “I think it’s also a necessary explanation.”{26}

How does Flew respond to this claim? Asking whether divine revelation in history is really possible, he notes that “you cannot limit the possibilities of omnipotence except to produce the logically impossible. Everything else is open to omnipotence.”{27} Flew has indeed come a long way from his former atheist views. For those of us who are Christians, we can pray that he might come further still.”

Flew is not the first well known skeptic of Christianity to change his or her mind because of Bishop Wright’s work: a couple of years ago writer novelist Anne Rice did the same thing.

Thanks be to God for Bishop Tom Wright.

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Posted on: April 22nd, 2008 Martyrdom, Revival, and the Historic Episcopate: the Anglican Church of Uganda

My “Introduction to Anglicanism” class today was really encouraging. There were three group presentations on three different provinces in the Global Anglican Communion.

In particular, two of my classmates gave an excellent presentation on the church in Uganda, a church which sees itself as founded on three things: martyrs, revival, and the historic episcopate.

For more on the Ugandan church, see this article in First Things, and in particular this excerpt:

Theologically, Ugandan Anglicans share much in common with our evangelical brothers and sisters, yet we have retained the historic threefold order of ministry: bishops, priests, and deacons. This, of course, is reminiscent of the English Reformation, which theologically had much in common with the continental Reformers while retaining the historic episcopate.

And yet our commitment to the episcopate is not just about the good order of the Church. As bishops are successors to the apostles, so our focus through the historic episcopate is on apostolic faith and ministry. A bishop is ordained in apostolic succession to be the apostolic presence in the community. A bishop, therefore, is the ongoing presence and voice of the apostles. He is our link to the early Church, and this link between bishop and apostolicity gives Anglicans our transcultural identity. The implication, therefore, is that the essence of Anglican identity is to be apostolic. More than a simple unbroken line of consecrations, we are to be apostolic in nature: faithful to the apostolic message, submitted to apostolic authority in Scripture, committed to apostolic mission and ministry, and devoted to apostolic worship.

In short, an apostolic church is a missionary church. A bishop is the focus for the mission of the Church, following in the footsteps of Jesus, who commissioned his apostles to preach, to teach, and to heal. The bishop’s apostolic ministry starts with evangelism, because transformation begins with the individual. The bishop himself must have a testimony and set a direction in his diocese for evangelism and church planting. When the early missionaries came in the late 1800s, their understanding of mission was not only preaching but also education and health ministry. So, combined with our churches, there are schools and health clinics, all under the apostolic oversight of the bishop, whose charge is to preach (evangelism), to teach (schools), and to heal (health clinics).

The incarnation of Jesus Christ has been described as the “scandal of particularity.” The One who came, as Savior of all, was born as a particular man—Jesus of Nazareth—at a particular place, with a particular ethnicity, and at a particular time. Our particular experience of Anglicanism in Uganda, too, has some universal applicability. The pillars of Anglican identity in Uganda—the martyrs, revival, and the historic episcopate, all resting on the Word of God—suggest themes with historic precedent from the formative years of Anglicanism in Britain.”

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Posted on: April 19th, 2008 My Response to Collins’ Post


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Posted on: April 19th, 2008 Collins Aki on Liberalism and Christianity

My friend and brother Collins Aki on “Liberals and Christianity:”

For some absurd reason, conservatives feel that their party is the only viable platform from whence politics and religion can stand in harmony. Their reasons? Well, let’s see: They are pro-life, support the death penalty, “Strict-Constructionist” on the Constitution (which means, the Constitution does not serve the people, but the people serve the Constitution), they are heavily opposed to government spending—that is of course, not when it comes to spending on the military (which, thanks to Reagan—their Grand Puba—has made us the most indebted country in the world), but they despise government spending on social programs, they detest welfare of any sort, have, what we will call, “an insensitivity to undocumented workers”—that is of course, after they have finished working for them at a wage that is far less than their children’s allowance), oppose same-sex marriage, even so far as to “install an amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a women only”—so much for that strict-Constitution, fiercely defend their “right” to bear arms (hmnnn, what ever happened to “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”? Oh yea, that only refers to “swords”), and a variety of all other things. Now, you might think that I am making a “straw man” out of the conservative position and I’m not being fair. But one thing I will say about conservative is, they are very consistent, unlike Dems, who are always “dreaming” of change (so annoying!) and trust me, the above mentioned platforms have not changed in the last 30 years a la the Reagan Revolution (hell, for you history buffs, those positions go even further back than that, google Barry Goldwater).

But what is my point? Well, of course you know that presidential hopefuls Barak Obama and Hilary Rodham Clinton will be in town this week, debating and promoting heavily as the March 4th Texas primary approaches, and some of us might have some decisions to make. This is not about that, but this is about, those who are close to my circle who may have religious convictions, and either struggle with reconciling that with Democratic affiliations or those who are conservatives, and consider themselves Republicans because they think being a Democrat is for “liberal minded-secular-commi-bleeding heart-tree-hugging lover of gays”. Well, we are all that and more. But I ask you, Republicans, granted, we can disagree on various “ways” to run a country, but why is it that you think that the Republican party is the Christian’s party, and anything other than that is, well, betraying a Godly worldview?

Lets talk about “the sanctity of life”. Trust me, there is not enough time to carry out a discussion on the pros and cons of abortion. But we can still talk about “life”. The Republican feels that, illegalizing abortion is the Godly stance. That, it is the duty of the Christian to battle, as it were, for the “right to life”—regardless the situation. Again, we will not argue this. But my question is, why does that battle for “life” stop there? Why is the social conservative so adamant about the government protecting the “sanctity of life” when they loathe the government working to secure the “sanctity of living”? They weep for the “Child of God” in a mother’s womb, but will fight tooth and nail, if their government should tax more to spend on the programs needed to raise that child of God in a comfortable space (and no, government housing is far from that). To me that sounds inconsistent. Really, to me that sounds purely “political”, and when public policy is an “arm” of the Church or the Church an “arm” of public policy, one only needs to read the history books to see how that turns out. Anyone remember where the term “Bloody Mary” came from?

Speaking about government spending, if you ever want to see anything so utterly removed from the love of Christ and the origins of the church, try and sit down with a fiscal conservative and ask them what they think about programs like a universal health-care or serious government welfare programs and the like. The idea of “being taxed” more to help out “other people” is so utterly repulsive to them. These are the same people who speak about the catholic and apostolic church and the communion of the saints, but when it comes to the government taxing the wealthy a little more in order to help fund programs for the poor, all of a sudden, their Christ-likeness transforms. And why is this? Because at the end of the day, a conservative can not, in any way, reconcile his bottom line platform for government policy, which is always “let’s just maintain the status-quo” with a gospel that says, “peace on earth and goodwill towards all men”. And it is a shame, when the Church will play that same hypocritical role. You can’t weep for the unborn, while holding on tight to your shotgun with one hand and your excess cash in the other hand that could help the “already born” in poverty, and call yourself the “salt of the world”.

As succinctly as I can put it: I am a liberal, because I believe that government must be progressive. We live in a country that is not governed by God but by public policy (that means that, God doesn’t work in the White House, although he does govern the whole world from on high). Therefore it is the duty of public officers to implement laws that are the most prudent to make one’s life fair, safe and happy. That means a person’s choice must be respected so long as that choice is not reckless and irresponsible. Our government must be pro-active in assisting those who are without in order to equip them to be able to live just as everyone else does. In a word, the Social gospel is the general spill-over of the True gospel. General justice, general mercy just as God gave the Church specific justice (the death of Christ) and specific mercy (the saving and undeserving grace of Christ’s resurrection). For all those who claim to be a part of the Universal Church, never forget that the laws of that Church are found in the Holy Scriptures and are binding, only upon those who are part of it. In contrast, a public policy that governs a public people, is not, and listen closely, is not, governed by GOD, but by public officers, who take into consideration, what are the best policies for the sum of the people for which it governs over. Wisdom might be drawn from Holy Writ, but this is only in an abstract and in a general sense. So please, stop trying to make public policy an extension of the Church’s policy, because this has never done any favors for the name of Christ. A name, which has already designated where his House would be, and no, it is not on Pennsylvania Avenue nor on Capital Hill, but in the Church, and centered within the sacraments. Let us keep this in mind and may God save His holy Church and wise men and women serve our blessed Country!”

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Posted on: April 19th, 2008 Cheauvet on Aristotle on the common genus of apparent opposites

Louis-Marie Cheauvet has a great point about Aristotle (which can be found in the latter’s Categories 11b-18; see Runes, Dagobert. Dictionary of Philosophy [Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2006], 67), when he (Chauvet) says,

… Aristotle … pointed out that … opposition … within a common genus … is on the same level : ‘contrary propositions are within the same genus.'” — Louis-Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997) xxi.

“Contrary propositions are,” often, anyway, “within the same genus.”

What this means, is that, according to Aristotle, so many times ethical or political or philosophical or theological positions which seem to be “at each others’ throats” are, in fact, “kissing cousins.” They have more in common than they have against each other.

Some examples I can think of: modern political conservatisim versus modern political liberalism; “Republican” and “Domocrat;” “Arminianism” versus “Calvinism;” resurrection-as-myth (and therefore false) versus resurrection-as-positivistic-fact (and therefore free of cultural or theological biases).

Perhaps all three macro examples that Alistair McIntyre gives (war, abortion, health care / education) in his discussion of emotivism in After Virtue would apply here.

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Posted on: April 18th, 2008 Cambridge Platonists & Eucharist

The Cambridge Platonists are just that: Platonists. As such they escape much of what usually gets associated with the emergence of what Henri de Lubac refers to as “the natural” (as well as its concomitant realm of “the supernatural”), including the bifurcation of the human, premodern telos into two autonomous realms. This unified premodern telos, dominant in the ancient and medieval Christian tradition but discernable as well in antique thought, can authentically be described as praise of God or participation in God. (This is not to deny that they not fall prey to the pervasive English temptation to capitulate to the “gentlemanly” cultural status quo of their day, but such a blemish is difficult to establish on the basis of the texts I have read. Indeed, their bold and persistent call to spiritual discipline and holiness might well be seen as a posture which goes against the grain of their culture.)
As Jaroslav Pelican summarizes in the introduction to the Classics of Western Spirituality dedicated to these men (and one prominent female peer, Anne Conway), Cambridge Platonism has four primary thrusts: the sovereignty of the good, the true, and the beautiful; the goodness of inquiry; participation in the life of God; and the goodness of creation. Of these the first three stand squarely in the main of the classical Platonic heritage. And, of these, all but the second are theologically evocative of a certain approach to the Eucharist. Broadly speaking, I refer to an understanding of the Eucharist which sees it as constitutive of human deification, albeit in ways which prefigure ultimate deification (e.g., Thomas’ beatific vision), and this by radically calling into question what might be thought of as “traditional ontology,” which, after Aristotle, can be thought of as “being-as-substance.”

This move is accomplished by the following theologians who posit the following views: John Zizioulas (being – or ontology – as communion); Catherine Pickstock (being as participatory in divine excess or ecstasy); Jean-Luc Marion (God’s being as supplanted by divine agape); and Louis-Marie Chauvet (symbol – even symbolic exchange – as ontology). Even though each of these moves differ in content as well as what we might call structure (that is, they are each “messing” with “being” or ontology in different ways: for example, it is not the case that all of these thinkers simply substitute “being-as-X” for “being-as-substance”…. No, it is a bit more complicated than that.), nevertheless each of them do subvert the “traditional ontology” which is seen, for example, in the classical Roman justifications of the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is true even of Pickstock, who can be read as affirming this traditional doctrine (albeit with innovative nuances).

For this reason, then, it is surprising and disappointing (from this writer’s perspective) that the Cambridge Platonists discuss the Eucharist so infrequently. It is telling indeed that “Eucharist” does not even appear in the subject index of the Classics of Western Spirituality volume bearing their name. Indeed, even though the Cambridge Platonists resist to a laudable degree the rise of the natural (for example, Henry More vehemently argued in directly against his French contemporary Rene Descartes, after initially hoping that Descartes might expound a philosophy which would be “an invincible Bulwark against the most cunning and most mischievous effects of atheism,” nonetheless they do stand in need of reparation. And that in two particular areas, both foundational for moral theology or “ethics:” their conception of the universalizability of human reason and their reliance upon natural rights theory in service of their laudable yet deficient understanding of tolerance (both religious and political). Each of these positions are “repaired” by understanding of Eucharist as sanctification (or deification, or theopoiesis).

First, the Cambridge Platonists relinquish too much power to human reason, and they do so in a way that is inimical to Eucharist-as-deification. Of the universalizability of reason, says Whichcote: “… the intellectual nature is necessarily and unavoidably under obligation to acts of sobriety, to acts of righteousness, and to acts of godliness.” Again: “All persons, of any improvement and indifference … have this notion, that God made the world, that this has been laid before all understandings, in all ages and successions of time.” (On this view Aristotle, who believed in the eternality of matter, is relegated to the confines of irrationality.) And again: “… every man may know that God made him.”

How does “Eucharist-as-holiness” critique and therefore rescue the Cambridge Platonists here? To answer this question one must first see that essential to the Cambridge Platonists’ understanding of the universtalizability of human reason is the presupposition, and here it is quite telling that More was initially attracted to the philosophical vision of Rene Descartes) is the “flattening out of social space,” or the myth of reason which is unconditioned by the complex interplay of human social factors. In his “The Myth of Globalization as Catholicity,” William Cavanaugh suggests not only that human sociality (“complex social space”) is a necessary condition for human reason, but also that the Eucharist offers a vision and an embodiment of catholicity which unifies the human race, albeit in ways (one might say “precisely in ways”) that are always already local.

Second, in their articulation of tolerance for tumultuous 17th century England, these theologians, while positing what might be called, following John Milbank, an “original peace” of human political relationality, nonetheless apparently lack the full and most radical ratio for such an inclusive vision of human political existence. Simply put, this ratio is the Eucharist. To take just one example out of the many already mentioned above, in his The Sacraments Louis-Marie Chauvet argues sociologically that the Eucharist can be viewed as an example of symbolic gift exchange, in which a “circuit” of community members share in gift exchange which is not simply bilateral. In this community of (self) gifting, the upshot is that a superabundant economy of peace is created and sustained which truly binds people together in the fullness of human communion.

While I am not simply saying that the Cambridge Platonist’s view of human tolerance is directly critiqued by Chauvet’s view, I am suggesting that Chauvet’s picture of human community bound together by symbolic gift exchange exposes the superficiality of mere toleration. To put it a different way, toleration within human community is an unsatisfying secular parody of what true community, imaged in the Eucharist, is intended by God to be.

In summary, the Cambridge Platonists do resist a good many impulses which come with the rise of “the secular.” Nevertheless, they do not remain unscathed. A post-lubacian understanding of the Eucharist shows how their approach to (the universal nature of) human reason and human tolerance can be repaired. (In so doing, it perhaps also shows how and why the Cambridge Platonists were complicit in the rise of the “broad church” school within modern Anglicanism.)

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Posted on: April 12th, 2008 Performing the Text (of Scripture)

Recently I had the opportunity to participate, as a part of the “altar party,” in a week of chapel services at ETSS. In one service I read the prayers of the people in Spanish, in one service I was a “torch bearer” (one who carries one of the candles during the processions to and from the altar, including as a part of the “tabernacle of the Gospel,” when the Gospel lesson is read, usually from within the middle of the congregation), and in another service I was the “server,” whose role is to help the presider prepare and then clear the table (handling the “gifts” and “oblations”) during Eucharist.

As server, it was important that I listen and watch for certain “cues” which would signal when I was to perform various actions. One of these cues was the Offortory Sentences, which basically begin the transition into that portion of the service which is designated in the Book of Common Prayer as “Holy Communion.”

On the day when I was to perform as server, as I was quietly preparing to perform my duties, I was meditating on these offertory sentences (called out by the presider), which in the BCP are:

“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High” (Ps 50:15); “Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name: bring offerings and come into his courts.” (Ps 96:8); “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering of sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:2); “I appeal to you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1); “If you are offering your gifts at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23,24); “Through Christ let us continually offer to God the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his Name. But do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hb 13:15-16); O Lord our God, you are worthy to receive glory and honor and power; because you have created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (Rev 4:11); “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. For everything in heaven and on earth is yours. Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom, and you are exalted as head over all.” (1 Ch 29:11); “Let us with gladness present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord.” (bidding)

And then it struck me in a new way: “Oh, wow, this is what it means to perform the text of Scripture.” You see, the text of the Bible, the words we have printed in our Bibles, are first and foremost words to be performed in the liturgy, at least that is how I am coming (and have been coming, for many years now) to see it. Let me say a few more things about this.

First, this implies that the Bible is, first and foremost, a liturgical thing. Its primary “use” is to be read and heard in the liturgical worship of the church. Certainly Cranmer saw it this way, which is why he placed so much emphasis on the Daily Office, a service which is organically connected to the (Eucharistic) worship of the whole people of God. Anglican priests, by the way, are not really required or perhaps even expected to have “personal quiet times” when they read their Bibles and pray and meditate in the solace of their study or prayer closet. But what they are actually required to do is to pray the Daily Office in public. This means that they are to try to gather around them members of their parish (even if only members of their nuclear family) and pray the Daily Office together. (A good example of this is George Herbert.)

Second, the Bible’s proper use is associated more with a dynamic action that takes place through time than it is with a static spatialization of words on a page. I have neither the time nor the energy to develop this idea, but it is directly related to Catherine Pickstock’s After Wrting: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, a book which shows up on my blog in various contexts. In particular, her treatment (and devastating critique) of Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus is relevant here.

Third, the words of Scripture, as performed in the liturgy, including the offortory sentences above, actually accomplish something. They do, or perform something. They bring about what they say. They are not just speech (certainly not just propositional speech), but are in a sense “ecstatic.” They are “speech acts.” In the language of James Jordan and Jeff Meyers, they are “command performance.”

In this way, they are truly symbolic (in a post-Heideggarian way which keeps the res [“thing signified”] and the signifier bound together in unity), like a kiss or a handshake or the use of the bread and the wine in the Eucharist (all of which actually deliver, or actually all of which just are, what they signify).

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Posted on: April 12th, 2008 St. Cyril on “Catholicism”

[The Church] is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely what one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gift.”

From Ephraim Radner’s “Children of Cain,” in Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner, The Fate of Communion: The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 33-34.

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