Posted on: November 14th, 2009 Advent & Spiritual Sobriety

Why is it that Advent is not merely a time of mirthful exuberance? After all, the event we are anticipating and waiting for – the birth of Jesus – is a happy event.

Advent is, to be sure, a time of joyful expectation, but it is not just that. It is much, much more. It is tinged, it is colored with a certain sense of “Lord, have mercy on me.” Why?

To realize why this is, consider the attitudes of the two main figures which Christians have associated with Advent for the last 1600 years. First, consider John the Baptist, known in the Eastern tradition as “John the Forerunner.”

Was John exuberantly excited about Jesus? I am sure that at one level he was, but the impression we get is that John was also deeply shaken by the coming of this Jesus. He said, “When he comes, I will not even to worthy to relate to him as a slave would to his master: I will not even be worthy to untie his sandals.” He echoed the cataclysmic picture painted by Isaiah, a picture which is breathless in its anticipation of justice and salvation, but which also senses the shaking of the foundations of everything we think we know. When this Messiah comes, he will turn our worlds upside down; he will cut us to the quick.

Profound joy, mixed with deep and sober penitence.

Consider the Virgin Mary. Was Mary excited about the Redeemer of her people whose arrival was imminent? I am sure that at one level she was. But she was also barreled over with penitent humility. “How can these things be? … Here I am, your slave; have your way with me, according to your word.” Sure Mary was prostrate as she uttered these words to St. Gabriel.

Why this sober aspect of Advent? Because, to paraphrase Rowan Williams, when Jesus comes into the world it is unplanned, overwhelming, making a colossal difference. It satisfies out deepest longings, but we don’t know what it will involve, other than risk and pain, along with the restoration.

And so we can respond to Jesus by saying “No, thanks. I prefer my own darkness,” or we can say “Yes, I will take you, along with the risk and the pain.”

Either way, this is sobering if not scary stuff.

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Posted on: October 15th, 2009 The Trisagion

During Advent at St. Richard’s we will be using the hauntingly beautiful words and melody of the Trisagion (“Thrice Holy”) during the first portion of the service of the Word (ie, during the synaxis)  in our Eucharistic services.

Quoting from Howard Galley’s The Ceremonies of the Eucharist (p. 81):

The Trisagion is a text drawn from the entrance rite of the Byzantine liturgy. It became widely popular, and was taken into regular use by many other liturgies, both eastern and western. The chief exception is the Roman rite, in which it is used only on Good Friday. The present Prayer Book is the first Anglican liturgy to include it. The rubrics (p. 406) provide that it may be sung three times, which is recommended here, or antiphonally, which is the traditional western method….

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Posted on: October 8th, 2009 Renewing the Festive Center (again)

This, below, is a piece I wrote for the monthly newsletter of St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, where I am currently serving as Assistant (to the) Rector.


At the center of our insanely hectic lives, there must be leisure. In the middle of our mechanistic, frenetic modern world there must be festivity. At the heart of our active church, at the foundation of our busy families, there must be deep rest. There must be, that is, if we are going to survive.

We must, individually and corporately, renew the festive center, by which I mean that, instead of allowing the “microwave culture” (a phrase of Rev. Mary’s which I heard her utter within five minutes of meeting her) in which we live to crowd out life as it was meant to be lived, we must put “first things first.” We must “begin with the end in mind.” (Yes, I am appealing to all you Stephen Covey types.)

And what is our end? The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) describes it as “enjoying God forever.” Does that sound restful to you? If not, if it sounds boring or scary, then you might be misunderstanding the nature of the God we worship.

The classical Christian tradition of virtue (which baptizes and builds upon the life and practice of the likes of Plato and Aristotle, who lived in 5th century Athens) puts this same idea in terms of the beatific vision, in which humanity will one day participate in the very life of the Trinity in ways that we cannot now begin to imagine. Remember that, even though God does not have a body, this does not mean that God is less than embodied, but rather infinitely more: God so radically transcends our material world and existence (since they cannot begin to contain God) that it is accurate to say that he does not have a body.

The divine, infinite life of that community of persons called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is described by theologians as a dance. (Sounds festive, does it not?) This dance is not just movement (though it does include something like that) but rather all kinds of loving, relational dynamics that we cannot imagine. Suffice to say that they greatest party you have ever experienced (complete with all the “fun stuff” you experienced at that party) pales in comparison.

What’s crazy about this picture is that, according to classical Christian theology, this dance is what we are invited into, and we are invited into it now.

Learning this divine dance is what we are doing in the liturgy. To quote Peter Leithart (from Against Christianity),

Worship trains us in the steps for walking, for dancing rightly through life. Christian cult trains us in the protocols of life in the presence of God, and thereby, since all life is in the presence of God, acclimates the worship to Christian culture…. Christian ritual displays the world how we believe and hope it will be one day. Ritual displays to public view who goes where,how each of us fits into the whole, how the members of the body are knit into one while remaining many, how the melodic lines of each individual life harmonize into a communal symphony…. Through the rituals of worship, we begin to realize together who we are together: of course we are a sinful people who needs to break away from the world, to make a weekly Exodus from Egypt; of course we are an ignorant people who needs to be instructed and reminded each week of our language and our story; of course we are the children of the Heavenly Father, who has given all things freely in Hin Son and displays that gift in the gift of food; of course, we have been ingrafted into the community of the Trinity, for each worship service begins and ends in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and ends with the triune name spoken over us.

Is this how you imagine and understand what we do every Sunday morning at St. Richard’s? Here is true festivity and true rest.


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Posted on: September 2nd, 2009 Verse & Quote of the Day

“O Lord, you know all my desires,

and my sighing is not hidden from you.” (Ps 38:9)

“God is not the kind of father who casts off sick and erring children; if he were, he would have no children.” – Martin Luther.

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Posted on: August 15th, 2009 John Calvin: Anti-ritual?

Peter Leithart, in Against Christianity (p 89), writes

… Calvin was fatally wrong in suggesting that [the Roman Church’s] Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual per se. Calvin notwithstanding, the redemptive-historical move that the New Testament announces is not from ritual to non-ritual, from an Old Covenant economy of signs to a New Covenant economy beyond signs. The movement instead is from rituals and signs of distance and exclusion (the temple veil, cutting of the flesh, sacrificial smoke ascending to heaven, laws of cleanliness) to signs and rituals of inclusion and incorporation (the rent veil, the common baptismal bath, the common meal)…. Rituals are as essential to the New Covenant order as to the Old; they are simply different rituals.

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Posted on: July 27th, 2009 Prayer: Listening in on the Conversation within God

For years I have been saying that “Prayer is God reaching forth to God” and drawing us up into that process within the Trinity. This is a quotation of someone, though I can’t remember whom (maybe Kallistos Ware?).

Fr. Robert Barron, Catholic Priest and director of Word on Fire, says (in this video) that prayer is quieting ourselves to the point where we can overhear the conversation that the Son and the Father, through the Spirit, are having, about you.

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Posted on: July 8th, 2009 +Stephen Sykes on Anglicanism

“Bishop Stephen Sykes once gave a crisp account of why he feels both attracted to and repelled by Anglicanism. On the positive side, he listed four chief strengths: a ‘quiet and confident Catholicism,’ an openness to a range of spiritual traditions, the exercise of authority with consent, and a developing baptismal ecclesiology. His dislikes included ‘the triviality an superficiality into which our eclectic openness can fall,’ the proneness of Anglicanism to fashionable causes and ‘the all-consuming ruthlessness of the campaigners, for whom politics is all.” – Rupert Shortt, Rowan’s Rule: the Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I was particularly interested in this comment about “baptismal ecclesiology,” since the absence of such a thing is one of the main reasons (you might say “the efficient cause”) of why I finally left Presbtyerianism.

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Posted on: June 23rd, 2009 Deacon’s Vows

This past Saturday I had the joy of attending an ordination service at (beautiful) Christ Cathedral in Houston, at which several good friends were ordained to the diaconate. (I myself am supposed to be ordained to the diaconate sometime this fall.)

There were several strking ocurrances during the service, but one of the most poignant for me was when Bishop Doyle asked each ordinand, one by one,

Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?

After which each individual ordinand responded,

I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

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Posted on: May 27th, 2009 “Strange Ecclesiology,” Indeed

In his article about the Church of Scotland’s recent decision to “appoint” its first openly practicing homosexual minister, Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman argues that the decision of some evangelical churches to remain in the C of S but not to associate (including financially) with the denominiation or with non-orthodox parishes is “strange ecclesiology.” And I agree.

However, Truman’s own ecclesiology, it seems to me, is just as strange, in its advocacy of separating from denominations when they don’t conform to one’s own idea of “orthodoxy.”

It seems to me that this approach (inscribed into the history of Protestantism, and, in its own way, post-Tridentine Romanism) is problematic on three levels:

First, who gets to say what orthodoxy is? Some arbitrary conglomeration of individuals and congregations who band together on the basis of agreement? On the contrary, orthodoxy is the rule of faith, which is concretely embodied in the creeds of the church in her liturgy. Beyond this, we are called to engage in an ongoing, open-ended discussion of real listening and give and take. This discussion has a name: tradition.

Second, and related, the very idea of a denomination is fatally problematic. That is to say, efforts to organize the church on the basis of any doctrinal content other than what all Christians believe amounts to ideological gnosticism, and not the witness of proclamation of the Christian church. It guts the church of her primary way of imaging the God of which she is an icon: unity. (Within this unity of God and analogously of the church there is of course great diversity. Hence the presence of various interlocutors in the ongoing dialogue.)

Third, as NT scholar (and friend) Daniel Kirk points out here, denomination wars aggravate and encourage Gentile-like (and Pharisee-like) conflict before a watching world. This is the very kind of division and power-play that Jesus and Paul rail against. (Of course the church has always been full of sinners, but denominationalism raises this kind of conflict to a new level.)

What binds the church together in unity is her eucharistic liturgy, which necessarily involves Scripture, bishops, and creeds (among other things). I do believe in something called “church discipline” (as I have posted on here) but this is quite different than breaking the unity of the church at a structural level. (What I mean by “unity,” by the way, is eucharistic unity: sharing the eucharist around the same table.)

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Posted on: May 24th, 2009 Peter Rollins & Liturgy

I have a great deal of respect for Peter Rollins. Both of his two recent books are provocative and stimulating. What I appreciate about him is that he brings his knowledge of “postmodern” theory (Zizek, Derrida, Levinas, and others) to bear on Christian theology. Rightly so.

However, when it comes to what I regard as “the great divide” in the Church and in Christianity, Peter Rollins falls clearly on one side.

One side says that our worship is an expression of our theology and our convictions. The other side says that worship is something that we simply inherit from the past (as tradition or in Greek paradosis, ie, “handing down”) and then (yes, critically) reflect on that received tradition and ask questions like “In light of this way of worshiping, what can we realize about God and creation?”

Rollins clearly lands of the former side. Which means that he, along with, perhaps, the rest of the “emergent movement,” thinks that worship is, at the end of the day, an expression of our theology.

I disagree. I, along with the bulk of the catholic tradition in both the east and the west, think that “the law of worship is the law belief.” Lex orandi, lex credendi. Our theology flows from our worship, and not vice-versa.

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Posted on: May 8th, 2009 Candler on Participation & Representation

In his Theology, Rhetoric, and Manuduction, Peter Candler “defines” participation and representation (p. 34):

By ‘participation’ I refer to an ontological principle by which creatures ‘are’ by analogy to the way in which God ‘is,’ but also the notion that sacra doctrina is a kind of scientia which participates in God’s knowledge of himself, and is therefore not something superadded to God.

And again,

Representation … is a matter of immediate apprehension by virtue of an exterior sign, and is removed from the variables of time and human communities. As such, representation is the fundamental philosophical and theological strategy of modernity.

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Posted on: April 27th, 2009 Sexuality & Divorce in the Contemporary Church

Many people who keep up with me will know that, in my new role as candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, I am in the process (it will surely be a life long process) of trying to think more deeply about issues surrounding human sexuality.

Talking about this recently with a fellow seminarian (actually, a friend in the Lutheran program here at my seminary) I was confronted with a really good point.

Many conservative types (such as myself) who perhaps have a more “traditional” opinion regarding homosexuality become quite silent when the topic of divorce comes up. My friend suggested (though I don’t think I agree with him) that the Scriptures are more clear on this issue than on homosexuality.

What is true, however, is that Jesus explicitly addresses divorce, and not homosexuality, in the gospel narratives (Matt 19). Why is this important? Because, as another friend pointed out, Anglicanism has always followed “the catholic tradition” of seeing the Gospels as having a certain priority over other parts of the Christian Bible, and this view is embodied in our liturgy. For the classic statement of this by Origen, see here.

Joel at Living Text has a post on divorce which I find quite compelling.

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Posted on: April 21st, 2009 Liturgical View of Scripture: Conclusion

For the introduction to this series, go here.

What is the point of all this? Maybe it is this. Have you ever wondered why it is only modern “protestant types” (liberal and evangelical: really two sides of the same coin, in that they both reject all of the above) who get all hot & bothered over biblical “contradictions?” It is not a coincidence.

“Catholic types” (read: historical traditions who have always known that Scripture is a time bound practice in the bosom of the church) don’t really get too hung up about it, and for good reason.

Another way of saying all of this is that Scripture is mediated through the church and her liturgy. And if that is the case, then the messy details which might seem like an outsider to be earth shattering differences, are in fact part of a larger conversation and development.

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Posted on: April 21st, 2009 Liturgical View of Scripture (IV): Scripture Itself

Intro to series. Part I. Part II. Part III.

Finally, NT Scripture itself teaches that there is another stream of “revelation” or “teaching” or something that comes to the church (this is ecclesiology) from God other than just Scripture: see the following:
•    2 Thess 2:15. Here the verbal and written apostolic instruction is subsumed under the heading of the ‘traditions’, suggesting not a two source revelation paradigm, but rather one source –  God, who uses two unified means, namely written and oral which are harmonious rather than contradictory.
•    Luke 1:1-4. Here we find the oral tradition (v.2) preceding Scripture as a source of catechesis (the word used in v.4).
•    John 20:30 and 21:25.
•    There is Paul in I Cor 11:23: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you….”
•    There is 2 Tim 2:2: “Entrust the things which you heard from me to faithful men.”

Conclusion to this series.

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Posted on: April 21st, 2009 Liturgical View of Scripture (III): History

Intro to this series. Part I. Part II.

Now for some history.

Another anecdote. In a liturgy class here we were discussing the Didache. Modern scholarship now dates it at 100 CE. Now, what is interesting about the Didache (among other things) is that the Eucharistic liturgy it gives us is in certain very important ways continuous with the way that the church (many branches of it) continued to celebrate the Eucharist down through the centuries. The Didache has the same shape or structure (in important respects) as both the Eastern Orthodox Church has always had as well as the Roman Catholic Church. It is this shape or structure which is then recovered in the 19th and 20th century “liturgical renewal movement” (eg, Dom Gregory Dix) and then imported back into many Protestant churches (including Anglicanism).

The preceding paragraph allows us to say that the liturgy of the church predates (at least much of) the NT documents. We know that if they were worshiping in a particular way in the year 100, then (because liturgy is inherently conservative) they were worshipping that way in the year AD 60.

Hence, liturgy is older than Scripture. Now what, exactly, does that “prove?” I am not quite sure, but this realization has had the effect on me of opening my mind to the possibility that Scripture is something which somehow belongs “within” the liturgy. And I think one could develop this in many ways, including the very liturgy of the didache which is consistent with “the Great tradition” (alluded to above) in which the reading of the Scriptures is decidedly a liturgical act or a liturgical reality. Hence the liturgy provides the context for Scripture.

Now we finally come to the Paschal Mystery, or “the death and resurrection of Christ.” What is the liturgy? One could say that it simply is the Paschal Mystery. It is the death and resurrection of Christ ritually enacted (important phrase) in so many ways and on so many levels. This is true for the Anaphora of the Eucharist; it is true for the rite of Holy Baptism; it is true for the Great Vigil of Easter, out of which and around which developed the entire liturgical year. (BTW, we know about that from another of these ancient historical documents: the reconstructed liturgy of the Roman presbyter Hippolytus.)

Next article: Part IV.

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Posted on: April 21st, 2009 Liturgical View of Scripture (II): (Philosophy of) Time

Intro to this series

Previous article (part I)

Here is another reason why the differences in Scripture aren’t such a huge deal: time. This is one of Rowan William’s main Leitworts. The church is in the process of a grand conversation which is leading somewhere. It is leading, ultimately, to the new heavens and the new earth.

Conversations take time. This fits perfectly with my Vosian understanding of Pauline eschatology. Conservatives look at this posture within Anglicanism and call it “neverending indeterminacy” because they want something given, something spatialized, something fixed, static and stable, some kind of original autographa. Over and against that, what liturgical traditions are really showing is that our life (which is liturgical), that is, our reading of Scripture, takes place in a temporality which is analogous to the temporality of the biblical narrative (as Rowan Williams argues here).

If you want to understand the deep theology of liturgy, you must see that it is about God’s actions taking place in and through time (which Plato says is a moving image of eternity).

This, too — liturgical theology — is ecclesiology.

Next article (part III)

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Posted on: April 21st, 2009 Liturgical View of Scripture (I): Communion of Saints

Here is the introduction to this series.

Here is Part II.

I have spoken to some friends about how the liturgy has transformed my attitude toward a feminist person at my seminary. Experiencing this person (let’s call her “Jane”) in the liturgy, interacting with her in the liturgy, prompted the realization that, although she may hold many views which I find objectionable, she is a member of the body of Christ, and is clearly worshipping Jesus. I think that this is a powerful anecdote which begins to show how liturgy can transform the way we deal or cope with biblical messiness and interbiblical “conflict” (what some people call “contradictions in the Bible”).

I am drawing an analogy here between myself & Jane, on the one hand, and, say, Joshua and Judges (vis a vis the conquest), or the Old Testament’s portrayal of harem warfare, or whatever biblical conflict (“contradiction”) you like. By the way, one implication here is that it is not the case that “Israel has misreprented YHWH” (say, in the affirmation and committing of harem warfare) but rather that we, the people of God, have (possibly) misrepresented YHWH. Huge difference there, one which (in some ways) is less traumatic or fatal or disturbing. (By the way, and I hope to come back to this at some point, Anglicanism has never affirmed that Scripture is inerrant…. For that matter, I don’t think that classical Presbyterianism has either, at least until our isolated modern denominations did so, has it?)

But because of this analogy, because Jane and I are not just in the same family as each other (and — within the liturgy — we find a way to live peacefully with our differences) but also in the same family as whoever it was who “wrote” or spoke or passed down the Old Testament (on principle I don’t use the phrase “Hebrew Bible” anymore except in limited situations. That phrase contradicts one of my basic points here.), these differences are worth discussing and struggling with, but they don’t cause some crisis in the church. They neither prompt us nervously to rush to Scripture’s defense, nor do they prompt us to jettison Scripture as something which is hopelessly flawed.

This, by the way, is ecclesiology.

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Posted on: April 21st, 2009 Liturgical View of Scripture: Intro

This little series is an attempt to flesh out my understanding of Scripture. It is like my own personal “doctrine of Scripture.” It might be called “a liturgical understanding of Scripture,” and I think it is right down the center of classical Anglicanism (including Cranmer and Hooker), but postmodernized (that is, perhaps, filtered through the theology of Rowan Williams and Radical Orthodoxy).

I am trying to challenge (what I perceive as) some basic ways that modern Protestant Christians (including biblical scholars), both more conservative ones such as those associated with Westminster Theological Seminary, as well as more revisionist ones such as Bart Ehrman, are thinking about the Bible. I think this approach helps to explain the anxiety over “inter-biblical conflict” which causes, on the one hand, Westminster Seminary types defensively to freak out over “liberal” views of the Bible, and, on the other hand, the (proto-) Bart Ehrman types to want to jettison Scripture (at least in terms of a norm or rule for the Christian faith and life).

Here’s my  outline:

  1. Communion of Saints
  2. Philosophy (time)
  3. History
  4. Scripture Itself (NT)

For the first article in this series, go here.

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Posted on: April 8th, 2009 “The Body’s Grace:” ++Rowan on Human Sexuality

I just read Rowan’s article “The Body’s Grace.” I am glad I did. It is a wonderful article in almost every respect. I had already read — and profited from — Michel Foucault on human sexuality as always-already socially constructed, and so Rowan’s points about “the hermeneutics of sexual desire” (my term) made complete sense.

When built upon by Christian anthropology (specifically, our theological understanding of body), this is powerful stuff, and compellingly shows why (among other reasons) we don’t agree with (the supposed view of) Rome of procreation as sex’s sole purpose.

However, none of that theology actually challenged the “default posture” in my thinking about human sexuality (ie, same sex erotic desire).

The one sentence that did so challenge, me, however, was: “In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely … on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts….”

OK, I have blogged on Richard Hays’ (Duke Divinity School NT scholar) work on homosexuality here.

Hays addresses, very profoundly, the relevant Biblical material on homosexual relations, and I find it very compelling. He comes down at a place that is, I think, utterly responsible and charitable, and yet pretty “traditional,” especially by the standards of The Episcopal Church. (BTW, I am 99% sure that NT Wright basically agrees with Hays’ on this issue completely.)

Hays, who takes the authority of Scripture quite seriously (as does historic Anglicanism), ends up saying that, on the basis of Scripture, the church ought not to be ordaining practicing homosexuals to the presbyterate and the episcopate.

Apparently Rowan sees this as fundamentalist. I have spent many years thinking about fundamentalism, and it is not clear to me that this is the case.

I would love to discuss these biblical texts — and how and why they do or don’t matter — in greater depth.

Having said all this, however, here are three ways in which Rowan challenged me:

  • He forced me to go back to the three NT texts (other than Rom 1) which are regularly brought out for the traditional position (Acts 15:28-29;I Cor 6:9-11; I Tim 1:10). I can now see that the Acts passage (with its use of pornea) is probably irrelevant to this issue.
  • He forced me to think more deeply about our Reformed understanding that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” In this understanding, we elucidate relatively obscure passages by use of relatively clear ones. My question is now: “Which are the clear doctrines: the three passages listed above, or all the biblical contexts Rowan brings out in his article (what God’s instructions to Hosea imply about human sexual desire, risk, and reciprocity; Paul’s instructions on giving our bodies to the other; etc.)?
  • While it is pretty clear to me that Hays’ work in this area is not fundamentalist, I do need to consider whether it is abstract. His material on his friend Gary, however, strongly suggests to me that it is not. (But I want to make sure.)
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Posted on: April 7th, 2009 Ecclesial Revision in the Book of Acts

In our study of the book of Acts (which meets on Sunday afternoons at St. Mark’s in Austin) we have waded through many details. We have “gotten down and dirty” and delved into the gritty particulars of the story.

Because we have engaged in this hard work, I think we are now in a position to begin to discern some larger patterns in the narrative (what Alfred North Whitehead called “a simplicity on the far side of complexity”).  One of these patterns which we have seen and discussed repeatedly is the outward expansion of the Jesus movement from Jerusalem, through “Judea and Samaria” (1:8), to Rome, a city which embodies “the ends of the earth” or the outer reaches of the realm of the Gentiles or the “Greeks.”

Presupposed by this theme is the more basic one of “Jewish versus Gentile,” which, again, we have discussed deeply and widely.

But these two themes (outward expansion to the ends of the earth and the cultural tensions between Jew and Greek) are connected to a third: revision of the predecessor religion of the people of the God of the Jewish Scriptures.

The church today is full of people who advocate revision of various kinds. (One thinks of the issue of “open communion” as well as the ordination / consecration of openly homosexual presbyters and bishops.)

There are, however, two kinds of revisionists (at least potentially or in theory): there are those who, in their advocacy for change, are motivated by and rely upon sources external to the tradition (for example, the values of our Western, secular, post-Enlightenment culture) and those who are motivated by and rely upon sources within the tradition of Christianity or, within that, of Anglicanism.

While it does seem to me that revisionists of the first kind are fundamentally misguided right from the start, it nevertheless remains the case that there is a place for revision within the Christian tradition. In fact, the case can be stated much more strongly: the religion of the New Covenant in Christ is itself a drastic, radical, and shocking revision of something prior.  The process of this revision, in fact, lies at the heart of the story told in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.

Given this, it seems that a revisionist can rightly analogize from the revision narrated in Acts to other revisions which might be needed today. (Henry de Lubac, in fact, thinks this way in chapter VII  of his Catholicism. See here.) This would be the second kind of revision, motivated by and relying upon sources inherent to the tradition. Unlike secular revision, this kind should be respected and deeply engaged with.

The book of Acts, in fact, provides us with a set of criteria for revision in the Church. How did it come about that the Gentiles were included in the New Covenant of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures without having to become Jewish (ie, without having to be circumcised and having to observe the other ceremonial and cultic practices of the Jewish people such as festival keeping and various food laws)?

There are several factors which hold in the narrative, and which the text is at pains to emphasize, in the developments narrated in Acts:

1.    Confirmation by the larger body.
2.    Confrontation by undeniable phenomena (ie, Gentiles speaking in tongues).
3.    Scandalous, uncontrollable surprise.

These three factors will be elaborated upon in upcoming posts.

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Posted on: March 9th, 2009 Tanner on Open Communion in the Episcopal Church

What follows is a summary of the article of “In Praise of Open Communion: A Rejoinder to James Farwell” by Kathryn Tanner which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I wrote this piece for my “God and Creation” class at the Seminary of the Southwest.

In this article Kathryn Tanner attempts to respond to James Farwell’s article which argues against the practice of open communion in the Episcopal Church. The article is, indeed a rejoinder to Farwell.
Her initial foray into what turns out to be the bulk of her argument is that, while Farwell is correct in pointing out that many or most advocates of open communion, following the consensus of the Jesus Seminar, deny the historicity of the account of Jesus’ Last Supper meal with his disciples, this move need not be made by advocates of open communion. Rather, all that must be argued is that the last supper account be read in light of Jesus’ larger food ministry, both his lavish, unconditionally inclusive table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, as well as his ministry of feeding the crowds. When one does this one quickly realizes that the last supper is not really that different from the latter: in both cases Jesus is dining with sinners (in the case of the last supper, with a Christ-denier and a Christ-betrayer) who are ill-informed about Jesus and his Kingdom designs and purposes. Tanner thinks that this undermines Farwell’s argument, since she thinks, for reasons unknown to this writer, that Farwell’s argument relies on the commitment of the participants in the Eucharist as well as their status as well-informed. (This is not Farwell’s argument.)
Tanner also accuses Farwell of portraying the Eucharist as nourishment for mission, but this, she says, encourages “the corrupting disjunction between worship and mission to which Christians everywhere seem prone.”
While Farwell does not claim that baptism is about commitment, Tanner does make this claim, by emphasizing that the baptismal covenant calls for radical commitment on the part of the baptized. (But what about the repetition of the baptismal covenant by the already baptized? one is led to ask.) Because of this, and because the 79 prayer book supposedly sees baptism and eucharist as part of a larger, complex rite of initiation, one can argue that the Eucharist, in giving the person the shape of the Christian life, can precede and prepare for Baptism.
One way of seeing what Tanner is trying to do here: she is applying the same “logic” which the framers of the 79 prayer book used for baptism (in our post-Constantinian context) to the eucharist. If the wider world is no longer Christian, there are many reasons to admit them directly to the table, she thinks.

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Posted on: March 9th, 2009 Farwell on Open Communion in the Episcopal Church

What follows is a summary of the article “Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of ‘Open Communion'” by James Farwell which appeared Spring 2004 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I wrote this piece for my “God and Creation” theology class at the Seminary of the Southwest.

In the first, introductory section of the article Farwell summarizes the basic argument which advocates of open communion put forth. The line of reasoning  goes something like this: “(the historical) Jesus would not have engaged in a ritual meal which in any way excluded anyone, and therefore it is unfaithful to the example of Jesus to do so. On the contrary, the Jesus of history went around and scandalized the Jewish leaders of his day by feasting lavishly with ‘sinners:’ prostitutes, tax collectors, and outcasts. The practice of ‘closed communion’ in which baptism is a ‘gateway’ to the table is exclusionary in a way which contradicts the gospel of Jesus.” Farwell, however, views this is a prima facie argument which lacks systematic rigor and makes arbitrary presuppositions, which need further scrutiny and clarification, especially given so central a matter for the life of the Christian Church. Farwell suggests that the failure to engage in this deeper reflection might lead us to give in to the dangerous “the seduction of relevancy.”

In the second section of the article, “The Argument for Open Communion,” Farwell digs deeper into one  of these presuppositions, namely that “the restriction of the eucharist to the baptized was not an early practice, and, therefore, is insupportable,” a claim made by the Jesus Seminar, seen in the work, for example, of John Dominic Crossan.
Farwell responds to this claim in the third section by saying that, according to many biblical historians such as John Koenig,  “it is not clear that the origins of the eucharist cannot reside with Jesus” (italics his, 220-221). Many scholars, for example, argue that “open meal ministry and the more focused supper with the disciples lie alongside one another in a non-dualistic relationship.” (221) It is true, Farwell grants, that Paul’s teaching on the common meal in I Corinthians does not explicitly state the necessity of baptism; however, “there is in the … passage a clear logic of participation” which requires that at least two conditions be met in order to “participate in the table of the Lord” (I Cor 10:21), the “Lord’s supper” (I Cor 11:20): embrace of “the little ones and the outsiders,” and forsaking idolatry.  This law of participation, which is for St. Paul participation in “the future that animated Jesus himself,” is “consistent with” the practice of baptism. (223) If all of this is so, then the post-apostolic documentary evidence (Farwell quotes from the Didache 9.5; Justin Martyr’s First Apology, Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catechesis, Theodore of Mopsuetia’s Third Baptismal Homily, and Augustine’s Sermon 272) must be reconsidered not necessarily as “the accretion of ecclesiastical exclusivity,” but rather “the deepening of the participatory logic of the NT: eucharist completes the initiation and fires the remembrance of the disciple in a pattern of life suitable to the kingdom, to which he or she has joined himself or herself in baptism” (223).  This logic characterizes participation in the death of Christ (I Cor 11:26) and so it is perhaps “disingenuous to offer this meal as if it requires nothing but the desire to participate out of curiosity, custom, or an unformed sense of spiritual longing, however sincere” (224).
In the next section of the essay, Farwell argues that “there is a classic soteriology enacted in the connection of baptism and eucharist on which the practice of open communion may have a serious impact” (228) by spelling out the “both – and” theology of baptism and eucharist. Taken together, they narrate or display both the “gift” aspect of the Christian life  and the discipleship aspect of the Christian life.  It is true that baptism explicitly centers on and embodies more of the gift element, but it also set forth the trajectory and the content of the Christian life of discipleship and obedience (as, for example, is seen in our Baptismal Covenant). Baptism “carries the weight of clarifying the life for which eucharist strengthens us,” something which the eucharist does not do in an explicit way. Rather, it is as if the eucharist is “the performed shorthand for this divine life that we both receive and adopt through baptism” (emphasis his, 226). In other words, the eucharist presupposes baptism since it is there where the content of the Christian life is most fully described.  The eucharist fortifies us and nourishes us to live the life we were initiated in by baptism. But “open communion threatens to short-circuit this enacted “both-and” soteriology of the sacraments by collapsing the entire practice in the direction of divine gift.” (227)

Next Farwell deals with two pastoral issues. He notes that, when it comes to folks wanting to approach the Altar in Communion, there is a huge pastoral opportunity to shepherd people through the whole ordeal of dealing with desire or longing. If, however, we simply and hastily bring them to the table, we cheaply shortchange them of the opportunity to learn from their longing(s). Second, Farwell suggests that advocates of open communion are falling into our modern society’s priority of the individual, a priority which leads to the loss of the common good. This, too, presents a pastoral issue which is shortchanged if we simply rush ahead with open communion.
Finally, boundaries can be hospitable: “good fences make good neighbors.” Farwell’s point is analogous to my saying that it would be inhospitable for me to invite every stranger who knocks on the front door of my house to spend the night with my wife and me in our marriage bed.

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Posted on: March 7th, 2009 The Moral Tradition of Virtue (Part I): Priority of the Social

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows. For the introduction to this essay see here.

First, we recognize in each of these civilizations, a certain priority of the social. That is, the particular traits of personality or character which come to be prized in a given culture are rooted in the social arrangement of the time, along with the specific roles which accompany that arrangement. So, for example, in the heroic civilization described and narrated in the epic poems of Homer,  we find those qualities which make for an effective warrior are valued: loyalty (to kin), courage, and strength (principally physical strength). The warrior is the glue, you might say, which binds the society together, and so the virtues of the role of soldier  come to be seen (by Homer as well as his later ancient interpreters) as the highest virtues – at least in that particular society and culture – of the human moral life.

In fifth-century Athens, however, nothing could be more formative on the moral vision of Plato, Aristotle and the various schools (Stoicism, Skepticism) than the establishment of the democratic city state of Athens. Here a different politics, a different “prior social arrangement,” is going on other than that of Homer’s kinship-based, warrior society. Writes MacIntyre:

For Homeric man there could be no standard external to those embodied in the structures of his own community to which appeal could be made; for Athenian man, the matter is more complex. His understanding of the virtues does provide him with standards by which he can question the life of his own community and enquire whether this or that practice or policy is just. Nonetheless he also recognizes that he possesses his understanding of the virtues only because his membership in the community provides him with such understanding. The city is a guardian, a parent, a teacher, even though what is learnt from the city may lead to a questioning of this or that feature of its life.

No longer does the common good of the society depend primarily upon the warrior’s effective performance of his role. Here, in fifth century Athens, a different role is required with different standards, or excellencies, of performance. What matters now more than a society full of good warriors is a society full of good citizens, together with the different social role which accompanies the citizen.

This social situation gives rise the particular values of fifth century Athens. Hence young men were enrolled in various schools and academic formation societies in order to cultivate the virtues of   rhetoric (on the more pragmatic side) and justice (on the more theoretical side). Again, the four “cardinal virtues” of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude (among others) were seen as foundational to the well being of the city state.
With the rise of medieval Christendom, however, we find a radically different social situation. Gone are the days of classical Athens and its counterpart, that cultural echo which is the city of Rome. In this new political reality, several factors come into play to create a different kind of, and a different conception of, social space. First, no longer is the polis, as classically conceived, becomes the primary locus of one’s committed loyalty. Rather, there is a new city in town, that city set on a hill, the politeuma  of the church, together with her sister city, the Christian kingdom. In these overlapping communities a different set of excellencies, a different set of aretai, is valued, encouraged, and cultivated.

Second, in medieval Christendom, for example the span of Thomas Aquinas’ life in thirteenth century France, the church and the civilization of which it is the center is being challenged and confronted by Islam. This new cultural situation gives rise to the need for mission, and in response St. Thomas writes his Summa Contra Gentiles. Here we see an example of how the values of the community are not just for the purposes of the community itself, but also for its expansion, its social mission to the world.

Third, the Europe just before St. Thomas’ time is a Europe now getting the first tastes of the literature of classical antiquity mediated through a kind of proto-Renaissance. As MacIntyre points out, this widespread confrontation served as a social crisis of a different kind, one which forced the society how to deal with challenges from a pagan (ie, not just Muslim) world view . Such a social challenge was utterly new, nothing of its kind having occurred either in classical Greece or in its predecessor culture.

This new social situation gives rise to the particular values of medieval Christendom, values needed for the survival and bene esse of the Christian church community. Faith, hope, charity are at the top of the list of virtues required for the collective eudaimonia of the Christian church, which is why Thomas borrowed them from I Corinthians 13 and with them adorned the more secular virtues of Aristotle and the classical tradition.

We see, then, that each of these three predecessor cultures to modernity share a common feature: their social setting conditions the human character traits which it values. But the point is actually deeper than this: far from exhibiting a denial or even a nervousness of the social or political rootedness of moral discourse, these three predecessor cultures are willing openly to admit and celebrate this. And we are now in a position to show why that is: for all three of these civilizations, morality and the practice of morality was intended to serve the common good, the good of the whole community, in each of its different conceptions / configurations, respectively. And because the common telos of man / humanity is public, it is unitary in its public nature: we see no bifurcation – not in the narrative world of Homer, not in the city state of Athens, not in medieval Christendom – of the public and the private. If the private exists at all (a doubtful protasis), then it exists only for the sake of the public, for the sake of the commonweal, for the sake of the common good of all its members.

For Part II of this series go here.

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Posted on: March 7th, 2009 The Moral Tradition of Virtue: Introduction

Last semester I had the opportunity to do an independent study with Nathan Jennings at the Seminary of the Southwest in the moral tradition of virtue in Christianity. I felt that this tradition was something almost completely eclipsed in my Reformed theological training at Westminster Theological Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this study, which follows.

Within what Anglicans call the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books of Scripture, in the book of I Maccabees, we read in the first chapter that, after many years of Jewish struggle to maintain its own faithful identity in the context of Gentile rule,  that “certain renegades … from Israel … built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined themselves with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.”

“What hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?” asked the African church father Tertullian in the early third century. According to the narrative perspective of I Maccabees, the answer is clear: absolutely nothing.
And yet this paper, investigating antique (ie, pagan) virtue is not written from the perspective of Jerusalem. Rather it is written from the perspective of Antioch, or of Rome, or of Canterbury. For Christianity is not merely Jewish, any more than it is merely Gentile.

And so in this paper we are perhaps asking, “What does Rome  have to do with Jerusalem and Athens?” For an answer to this question which is at once historical and theological we will turn to St. Thomas Aquinas. But before we do that, we will rely on Alisdair MacIntyre to guide us through times and seasons before and after St. Thomas. For what precedes Thomas – what he inherits and baptizes – is a rich and complex tradition of virtue. According to MacIntyre, this tradition has its primative origins in the ancient culture which MacIntyre calls “heroic” (primarily the narrative – epic and saga – world of Homer as well as those of other lands such as Ireland, Iceland, and Germany). It then finds its touchstone in the developments of fifth century Athens of Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, and especially Aristotle.  This tradition is then translated into Latin (with Cicero and Boethius playing mediating roles) and inherited (and sometimes rejected) by medieval theologians in the eleventh and twelfth centuries such as Peter  Abelard and Thomas Aquinas.

These three predecessor cultures – primieval heroic culture, fifth-century Athens, and medieval Christendom – are important as the backdrop to modernity. For in modernity the plot thickens, as the tradition is apparently discarded by such thinkers as Descartes and Kant. I say “apparently discarded” because, as MacIntyre crucially points out, most modern thinkers (including the profoundly Christian Kierkegaard) retain many fragments of theology from this predecessor tradition while at the same time both living in a radically new social situation lacking the social and political soil in which the previous world view had grown up, and rejecting many of the philosophical and theological bases in which these very retained fragments are rooted. This situation – retaining traditional concepts like “God” or “love” while rejecting their foundations or reasons – gives rise to moral incoherence, especially when accompanied by the complex rise of pluralism, in which many different communities of voices and cultures of voices pick and choose and arrange their fragments from the past differently. MacIntyre calls this state of moral confusion “emotivism.”

As I inquire into the nature of this moral tradition of virtue, however, I do so not simply as some generic Christian, but rather as a member of the particular tradition of Anglicanism. What, if anything, does Anglicanism think of this tradition of virtue? Has it received and developed it, or simply rejected it? Is this premodern tradition in need of retrieval within Anglicanism? To begin to answer these questions, we will examine and evaluate the work of 20th century Anglican moral theologian Kenneth Kirk. What is going on in his work from the point of view of the virtue tradition (with Alisdair MacIntyre as a prime interpreter, representative, and advocate)?

Before we turn to an evaluation of Anglican moral thought embodied in the thought of Kenneth Kirk, however, we need to look more closely at these three predecessor cultures to modernity. Instead of looking simply at the differences between these three cultures and civilizations, let us examine what they share, what they hold in common. When we do this, we find three broad overlapping features, more or less shared among them: (what I will call) a priority of sociology, a practice of philosophy, and a presupposition of anthropology.

See here for Part I of this series.

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Posted on: February 17th, 2009 Pickstock & McLaren on Liturgy & Art

Brian McLaren, who will soon be speaking at my the Seminary of the Southwest here in Austin soon, suggests that worship is art. He rightly states that “there is a huge difference between propoganda and art. Art says, ‘Hey, I’m telling the truth as I see it. And the truth might not be pretty.’”

Much of what McLaren says here is good and true, it seems to me. He is right to call out “the worship industry” in its propaganda-like consumerism, displayed in its attempts to create a pre-packaged “experience” for “worshippers.”

He is right to imply that for an artist to pander to people’s consumeristic desires cheapens her art.

However, worship is not reducible down to art; worship is not art. Worship and liturgy may contain esthetic qualities, and it is and should be beautiful. In The Pillar and Ground of the Truth Pavel Florensky describes Russian startsky’s as “connoisseurs of beauty.” However liturgy is not artistic expression.

I have been searching for an example to show how this is the case, and today Catherine Pickstock gave it to me. In her article “Asyndeton: Syntax and Insanity,” she praises writers like Joyce and Pound for their use of disorder in their writing in order to depict the disorder of the fragmented, modern world around them. In doing this they were consummate artists. This is good and true artistic expression. It is beautiful in its truthfulness (as McLaren would say).

However, what if the liturgy were to attempt to mirror this cultural disorder by itself becoming disordered? In fact this very thing has (unwittingly, perhaps) been attempted in the modern church, as Pickstock labors to point out in this article. Twentieth-century Anglican revisions of the Creed have used asyndetic syntax in the attempt to make the Creed more palatable or acceptable to the modern worshipper. (Hmmm … this actually sounds like what McLaren rightly critiques above: the desire to pander to the consummeristic urges of modern people.)

But not only is this bad art; it is damaging to the people, for it distorts the true purpose of worship and liturgy. Unlike art, the purpose of the liturgy is not to prompt people to reflect more deeply on the world around them, as noble a purpose though this be.  (This might, however, be a purpose of preaching.) Rather, the purpose of the liturgy is to put people into participatory contact with the transcendent God. And this is something which art – no matter how good – can never do.

I am yet again forced to the conclusion that the problem with “the emergent church” is the way it thinks (to the extent that this movement is a monolithic “it”) about liturgy and worship. It has many good things to say about art. And yet, there are lots of good artists and philosophers out there who can teach us about art.

Teaching about art is not the primary role of the church. The role of the church, again, is to enact the ritual, liturgical participation in God, which is, as Alexander Schmemann tells us, the life of the world.

This is something that artists cannot do. It is something that only the church can do.

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