Have you ever stopped to reflect on the deplorably tiny portions of Communion bread and wine that most Reformed churches serve? I did yesterday.
"Here's Christ's body, given for you."
"That little crumb I just put in your hand."
"I can hardly see it."
"Too bad--may it nourish you unto eternal life."
"Here's Christ's blood, shed for you. Drink it in remembrance that Christ died for you."
"I don't think there was any in my little glass--I didn't taste anything."
"Don't worry, there was some there."
"How do I know?"
"That's why we tell you to receive it in faith!"
Thomas Aquinas, in "Tantum Ergo Sacramentum" wrote "Faith, our outward sense befriending, makes the inward vision clear" asserting that it was by faith that we discerned the true body and blood of Christ beneath the outward forms of bread and wine. In some churches now, faith must come to your aid to even discern the presence of the outward forms.
I can't help but wonder about the theological message this sort of parsimony sends. "Here's Christ's blood shed for you...just a little bit--he doesn't have much to spare." Here we are supposed to be celebrating the bounteous grace of God, the great outpouring of Christ's sacrifice, and the message we're getting in our bread and wine (if we're lucky enough to be given actual wine!) is that Jesus has to be rather stingy with how much of himself he's actually willing to give us.
Perhaps there's some connection with the doctrine of limited atonement--if Christ's blood really is shed for a limited few, we should depict this by only dispensing a few drops of his symbolic blood. There does seem to be something of a correlation here--the more rigid, hard-core Calvinist a church is, the less wine they give you. And, come to think of it, the correlation works also if you prefer to call it "Particular Atonement"--everyone gets their own little particular cup. Whereas, if you go to the not-very-Calvinist Anglicans, the universal atonement is symbolized by the common cup, in which there always seems to be enough wine for everyone to take a generous gulp if they desire.
Another fine example of lex orandi, lex credendi!
Reflecting back on some of the reactions I got about Church in Crisis, and also to my “Wielding a Serrated Edge with Care,” I’ve realized that there are three questions that have to be carefully distinguished in dealing with this issue: 1) How do we respond to gays? 2) How do we respond to Christians and churches that are not responding to gays properly (e.g., are ordaining them)? 3) How should Churches respond to churches that are not responding to gays properly? It’s the relationship of the latter two that I particularly want to clarify here.
As for the first question, O’Donovan certainly touches on this issue a fair amount, and I think he is generally on the mark--as far as treating it like any other sin, preaching the Gospel with sympathy, etc. As Donny has suggested, we need to be careful that in speaking and listening sympathetically, we don’t omit Biblical word of judgment, but I think O’Donovan says this clearly at various points as well.
The second question is the one I was primarily addressing in my “Wielding a Serrated Edge with Care” (though, of course, I wasn’t addressing simply the gay issue). This is a question about Christian charity, not about homosexuality, or about church unity. It is the question that must be answered by ordinary Christians in pews, and by church leaders, denominational leaders, and denominations themselves about other denominations, over which they have no jurisdiction. That is the difficulty of Protestantism, of course--there may well be a church discipline issue here, but 95% of fellow Protestants are in no position to adjudicate on it. The PCA, and indeed the LCMS, cannot decide what disciplinary action the ELCA should take towards its churches. It can express an opinion about what it would do in like circumstances (an opinion that should be constructively, rather than destructively worded), but that’s it. To do otherwise would be like my parents deciding how my friends ought to be disciplined. The PCA, and indeed, the LCMS, certainly cannot decide what disciplinary action should be taken against the ELCA itself, or against TEC. To attempt to do so would be like my parents deciding how my friends’ parents ought to be disciplined.
Given the current situation of Protestantism, most church leaders and even denominations do not have a position of authority from which to enact judgments upon churches and denominations that may need judgment upon them. They can only speak as ordinary Christians to erring Christian brothers--admonishing them from the Word, and seeking to pursue single-mindedness with them. What they cannot do is say, “Well, heck...this church ought to be excommunicated, and no one’s doing it, so I’ll just personally excommunicate them...decide that I’m not going to treat them like Christians anymore.”
No, we can’t do that. We can’t decide that the local Episcopal Church is no longer Christian because they ordained a homosexual, and so we won’t treat them as Christian anymore. We may confront them, but we confront them as brothers, not as pagans.
This point could be summed up as “If your brothers are misbehaving, remember that they’re your brothers, not your children.” Now, this question is not part of O’Donovan’s discussion, because he is working in a Protestant communion that still has sufficient institutional unity that it can ask, “How shall we discipline erring churches in our own midst?”
O’Donovan is thus interested in addressing the third question--how should a Church (that is, a body like the Anglican Communion) respond to individual member churches (or member denominations, like TEC) that have taken unbiblical action regarding homosexuals (and other matters)? Since O’Donovan deals with this at some length (as I am still working through), I just want to address one crucial issue that is lurking in the background that he doesn’t address, an issue which we all too often take for granted.
If church discipline is what is called for in this situation, what does that look like? What does church discipline mean on a massive scale? In the New Testament, of course, we have no testimony as to what church schisms on a large scale might look like; what we do have is a fair bit of instruction and some examples about how individual sinners in the church should be disciplined. The Church, from these passages, has been able to develop a fairly complete and Biblically grounded set of procedures to use in reprimanding and if necessary excommunicating unrepentant sinners. In recent centuries, Christians have been quite ready to apply the paradigms of excommunication on a grand scale, excommunicating not only entire congregations, but entire groups of churches, or even denominations. I almost said “Protestants have been quite ready...” but then, it is only fair to note that they learned this strategy from the late medieval papacy, and from the acts of the Reformation-era popes that created Protestantism by means of such mass excommunications.
Now, my question is, can this application be so easily made? Is rebuking and excommunicating an unrepentant congregation or a group of unrepentant congregations really the same sort of thing as rebuking and excommunicating a single unrepentant sinner?
There are at least three very important differences that I can think of. First, the larger-scale action, in addition to multiplying all the other risks that excommunication on a smaller level involves, risks severely harming the unity of the Church. The judgment may be wrong, in which case, unnecessary and potentially harmful schism has occurred; but even if the judgment is right, such a decision may have devastating repercussions that break fellowship even among those who are united in the truth. Second, while I am the last to deny the reality of corporate sin, and corporate responsibility for sin, it seems dangerous to apply a tool as severe as excommunication to a large group of people, only some of whom may be guilty. It is as if a father committed murder and his whole family were sentenced to death. Can we really unchurch a whole congregation, even if there be ten righteous within it? Or a whole body of churches, even if there be ten righteous churches within it? This seems a very cavalier way to proceed. Third, the point of excommunication is to invite repentance and restored fellowship. When someone is truly cut off and alone, this is often effective. But when it happens on a massive corporate level, the cut-off body are likely to seek solace and solidarity in one another, rather than to be moved to repentance and restoration. Instead of being simply unchurched, they are likely to simply consider themselves a separate denomination, and go their merry way, and then proceed to confuse fellow Christians and the world about what is and isn’t the Church.
So, while it may be quite true that The Episcopal Church has crossed an important line that warrants disciplinary action by the Communion, it is far from clear how such discipline ought to be exercised. We simply have no good precedents for it--there are plenty of bad precedents, like medieval popes excommunicating whole nations when their kings were disobedient, or like the Presbyterian Church kicking out 30% of its member churches in 1837--but no clear precedents we’d like to follow. Many are loudly shouting, “Kick them out! Discipline them! Cut them off!” but we need to say “Hold on! How? Is there a Biblical and helpful way to do this?” And saying that does not mean you’re being soft and wimpy on the sin, as lots of conservatives seem to think. It is merely to recognize that the Church has never satisfactorily developed any clear understanding of how church discipline should function on a large, institutional scale, and the Bible provides very limited guidance. Such an understanding must be reached before we can even begin to decide how institutions like the Anglican Communion should respond to serious sins like those in TEC. And that’s the discussion we need to be having, but which seems to be almost entirely neglected in the current debate.
An excerpt from "Choruses from 'The Rock'" by T.S. Eliot
What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore
I have given you the power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
And the wind shall say: "Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls."
When the Stranger says: "What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?"
What will you answer? "We all dwell together
To make money from each other"? or "This is a community"?
Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.
Last spring when Dr. Leithart was teaching on "Constantine and Constantinianism," he put up a number of quotes from early Church Fathers such as Tertullian and Irenaeus, which were propounding remarkably pro-Empire positions. The principle point was to show that, historically, the "Constantinian" way of thinking predated Constantine; but there also seemed to be some suggestion that, because we could show that even pre-Constantinian Christians thought this way, then it was a solidly Biblical way to think.
Theodor Mommsen, in his article, "Augustine and the Christian Idea of Progress" offers a more cynical reading of these pro-Rome pronouncements, showing that they stemmed from a syncretism of Biblical and pagan prophecy. Mommsen is not making a theological argument, but if he is correct, then we must certainly object theologically that these fathers were operating with a confused and poorly-developed eschatology, and didn't seem to have understood either Daniel or Revelation very well--they failed to understand that they were living after the downfall of the Fourth Monarchy, after the Messiah had begun to reign.
"Many Christians...actually hoped and prayed for the continuance of the Roman empire. This affirmative attitude grew out of certain historical and eschatological ideas which went back to both pagan and Jewish traditions. In the Hellenistic era there had developed in the East a theory which saw history take its course in a sequence of great, or, rather, universal monarchies. Four of these empires were to follow one another, and the series was to conclude with a fifth monarchy which, it was believed, would last to the end of the world. This idea of the four or five monarchies was adopted by some of the Roman and Greek historians, and it appeared likewise in Jewish literature. For the great image seen in a dream by Nebuchadnezzar and the four beasts seen by Daniel himself were explained by the pre-Christian tradition in terms of an interpretation of world history: these visions were believed to signify symbolically that history takes its course through the succession of four universal monarchies; the disintegration of the last of the four empires was assumed to usher in the end of the world.
In the latter part of the second century and in the first part of the third century Christian theologians like Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertulllian and Hippolytus adopted these pagan and Jewish traditions and expressed their opinion that the Roman empire 'which now rules' should be considered to be the fourth monarchy. All these Christian authors shared the belief that the fall of the last empire would be a most ominous event. Thus, Tertullian said in his treatise On The Resurrection of the Flesh (ch. 24) in which he interpreted a passage in St. Paul's 2nd Thessalonians (2:7) that the Antichrist will appear after the Roman state has been scattered into ten kingdoms. On the basis of this eschatological belief Tertullian declared very emphatically in his Apology (ch. 32.1): "There is another and greater necessity for our praying in behalf of the emperors and the whole status of the empire and Roman affairs. For we know that only the continued existence of the Roman Empire retards the mighty power which threatens the whole earth, and postpones the very end of this world with its menace of horrible afflictions." In the early fourth century Lactantius stated even more explicitly in his Divine Institutions (7.25, 6-8): "The fall and the ruin of the world will shortly take place, although it seems that nothing of that kind is to be feared so long as the city of Rome stands intact. But when the capital of the world has fallen . . . who can doubt that the end will have arrived for the affairs of men and the whole world? It is that city which still sustains all things. And the God of heaven is to be entreated by us and implored--if indeed His laws and decrees can be delayed--lest sooner than we think that detestable tyrant should come who will undertake so great a deed and tear out that eye by the destruction of which the world itself is about to fall."
To be entirely fair, though, I should say that Mommsen gets Augustine pretty atrociously wrong at points later on in this article, so it is possible that he has misrepresented Tertullian, Lactantius, et. al., though those quotes speak for themselves to a degree.
So I've been reading Wealth of Nations, and was tickled to find Adam Smith understood and warned against the dangers of corporate capitalism. Corporations, he understood, colluded with each other and with governments to the hurt of ordinary citizens. Get a load of these excerpts:
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. The pretence that corporations are necessary for the better government of the trade, is without any foundation.
In every country it always is the interest of the great body of the people, to buy whatever they want of those who sell it cheapest. The proposition is so manifest, that it seems ridiculous to take any pains to prove it; nor could it ever have been called in question, had not the interested sophistry of merchants and manufacturers confounded the common sense of mankind.
To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight, appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.
Chapter 4, “Scripture and Obedience”
In chapter 4, O’Donovan turns to reflect on the authority of Scripture, and how it needs to figure into this whole discussion. Again, we will find that the argument of this chapter is primarily aimed at liberals, against whom O’Donovan insists upon a firmly evangelical account of Scriptural authority. But it is worth paying careful attention to the way he lays out his argument.
First, he seeks to guard against neo-orthodox attempts to drive a wedge between God’s authoritative self-revelation on the one hand, and witnesses to that revelation, such as the Bible and Church, on the other hand. “God’s authority authorizes, and it is through authorized persons and activities that we see the effective exercise of God’s authority in the world....Scripture is not the first moment of God’s self-announcement; that is the historical deeds themselves by which he raised up Israel and Jesus. But neither is it a moment after God’s self-announcement, a retrospective commentary that could be peeled away, leaving the core intact. Scripture is, we may say, God’s administration of his self-announcement, the record he has authorized to it and the seal he has set on it to confirm that it is true.” (54-55)
O’Donovan is quite aware that we must deal with the Scriptures as historical, human writings, but he insists that this detracts in no way from their authority: “If we glide from speaking of their humanity into implying some kind of inadequacy in them, as though their being human were a shameful secret that we have laid bare, a deficiency we are now in a position to patch up, then it is we, not they, that must stand charged with ignorance and superstition. The humanity of the Scriptures does not entitle us to patronize them….God truly attests himself and his deeds through this poetry, these letters, this history.” I don’t care where you’re from, but that’s a mighty fine statement of Scriptural authority, and I don’t want to hear any crap about “sick unto death.” (55-56)
O’Donovan notes that the liberal stance toward the authority of Scripture now stands in uncomfortable contradiction to its past. In 19th and early 20th-century liberalism, “the moral authority of the Bible, or at least of the New Testament, was simply self-evident.” Doctrinally, the Bible might be full of superstition; historically, it might be quite fanciful, but morally, it was reliable and authoritative. “So far have liberal convictions undergone a sea change,” O’Donovan notes—now it is precisely on matters of morality that liberals contest the Bible’s authority (of course, this is not to say that they have softened their judgments about its doctrinal and historical authority; no doubt it was to be expected that once those were tossed out, the moral authority would not be far behind).
In the present, O’Donovan asserts, we have rightly abandoned our pretensions (formerly shared by liberals and conservatives) that moral truths and ethical judgments were self-evident. We are recognizing again that our moral path lies dark before us unless illumined by the Word.
However, the illumination is not that simple…on moral matters, in particular, we have a double difficulty in discerning what Scripture has to tell us—we must first struggle to interpret what Scripture means, and then we must struggle to interpret what our current situation means, so that we can properly apply Scripture to it, or, as O’Donovan puts it (he’s always so precise in his wording that I might as well quote him): “There is the interpretative task of discerning what the text means, and there is the conscientious task of discerning ourselves and our position as agents in relation to the text, on the other.” (58) So, to use the example he gives, I must first interpret what the Bible means when it says “Do not bear false witness” and I must then determine whether the ambiguous statement I am planning to make is deceitful, or merely discreet.
The second question, the question of what our situation means, is usually much more challenging than the interpretive question of what Scripture might mean. Therefore, it is usually quite foolish to act like the answer to this question is clear, and then to come to Scripture armed with this “knowledge,” as, he says, has been a common temptation for many, whether liberal and conservative. “It hardly matters which,” he says provocatively, “since the two come closest to each other precisely at the point where they are both furthest from the truth. If the conservative thinks that all the scriptural witness to moral behavior can and must be honored somehow, and the liberal that only some of it, or only most of it, must be honored, what difference does that make if each thinks that conclusion has been reached from some self-evident intuition about what the times require, so that the appeal to the Scripture merely confirms what has already been decided? This is not to take Scripture seriously as an authority. And it is not to take living in the present seriously as a risky business.” (59-60)
But now he turns to address specifically liberal errors, since the next chapter will be primarily devoted to guarding against the dangers in the other direction. O’Donovan tackles head-on the liberal claim that “among the particular New Testament values and precepts….there are time-bound judgments of value and fact, and they show that the Holy Spirit has deepened moral sensitivity through the course of the Church’s history and the history of mankind.” (60—here he is quoting Heinz Schurmann) That we may need to say something of this sort of the Old Testament makes sense…indeed, the New Testament requires us to. But “to take the same way with the teachings of the New Testament, on the other hand, would be self-subverting. And to avoid this fall into incoherence, the liberal hermeneutic proposal faces, it would seem to me, a simple alternative. Either it posits some further climax of salvation-history over and beyond Christ, some ‘age of the Spirit’ such as Montanus or Joachim conceived of, or a Hegelian dialectical history with an Absolute Future, something, at any rate, that will allow a ‘deepened moral sensitivity’ to which the revelation of the incarnation looks immature and outgrown. Or else it makes a distinction between the normative position of Jesus himself and the subnormative position of the apostolic authors, refusing to claim on their behalf the kind of finality it claims for him. The difficulties into which each of these courses leads are too well known to be pursed in detail at this point.” (62)
What the liberals must learn to do, he says, is to bring to the text genuinely open questions—“one must purposefully look to the source from which an answer is sought, an answer not already contained in the question, which is therefore capable of reforming and refining the question, which is therefore capable of reforming and refining the question. And that is precisely what is meant by the authority of Scripture in Christian ethics.” (62) The liberal paradigm, he says, has been unwilling to live with the danger we all must face…the danger that we might be wrong. Instead, it takes its morality for granted, and is prepared to shove everything aside, including Scripture, in favor of that morality.
Scriptural authority, of course, is not an easy thing for us to live with—authority, we feel, takes away our freedom. But the authority of Scripture also sets us free to live well. We must accept its judgment upon us if we are to judge rightly how to live. But, of course, this applies to all of us. We are not free to use Scripture as a hammer of authority on others, while holding ourselves above judgment: “We had better not approach the famous biblical texts on homosexuality as though we were not personally affected! What business could we possibly have with them if our only interest were to frame a theory of sexuality, or perhaps a history of sexuality, for scientists and philosophers to discuss? We had better come to them knowing that we need the help of God’s word if we are to find our way through this idol ridden sphere, and that our own sexuality and idolatry—nothing less!—are under scrutiny in those texts....We had better stumble across homosexuality, our own or other people’s, as a genuinely unknown quantity; we had better ask about it as those who need to be told, rather than reckon we already know all there is to know.” (66-67) To do otherwise—to ask questions of Scripture when we have determined that we already know all the answers, is not to take its authority seriously.
O’Donovan’s words in this chapter ought to be heartening for evangelicals, representing as they do an uncompromising insistence on Scripture’s infallible moral authority, against all who would seek to gainsay or ignore it. But they are also a challenge—a challenge that we remember that if we appeal to Scripture, to Scripture we must go! Appealing to Scripture to justify our fears or prejudices cannot be substituted for actually submitting those fears and prejudices to what the whole of Scripture actually wants to teach us. We must be patient and thorough in discerning Scripture, rather than taking a cursory proof-text approach. We must realize that the Scriptures stand in judgment of us just as they do of homosexuals, and we must be able to learn how the condemnations of homosexuality include condemnations of our idolatries as well. And we must remember that crucial point that O’Donovan makes earlier in the chapter—discerning the meaning of our own situation is far more complex than discerning the meaning of Scripture, and we must be patient and careful as we bring Scripture to bear upon it.
It annoys me to have to say this, but since there has perhaps been some confusion on this matter thus far, none of these closing comments should be taken as hinting at any need to revise the Church’s teaching and stand against homosexuality, and I don’t think O’Donovan’s argument in this chapter is aimed that way at all either. Nor do these comments imply that evangelicals have failed to take note of these things—as my dad always used to tell me, “Just because I’m telling you to avoid something doesn’t mean I think you’ve been doing it.” These are simply valuable things to be mindful of in the midst of debate.
While I was cleaning up the domicile this evening, in preparation for my dearly beloved's return to this side of the Atlantic tomorrow evening, I decided to go back to the good ol' days and listen to Cavanaugh's lecture on "Torture and the Eucharist" which I used to listen to every couple months, it seemed. It was quite as amazing as I remembered, and I must post the link here, and urge all and sundry to go listen to it.
The final words of the lecture:
The world did not change on 9/11. The world changed on 12/25—when the Word of God became incarnate in human history, when he was tortured to death by the powers of this world, and when he rose to give us new life—it was then that everything changed. Christ made friends of us who are enemies of God, and thus made us capable of loving enemies as ourselves.
...who else would entitle the section on the Incarnation in their dogmatics, "The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country"? (and the content is just as amazing as the title, by the way.)
Barth later admitted that this metaphor, and its complement in the next volume, "The Homecoming of the Son of Man," came to him in a dream.
What a stud.
Michael Northcott, in Economy, Ecology, and Christian Ethics, puts his finger on the basic problem of Christian defenses of capitalism. He points to the Michael Novak's theological defense of capitalism as an example of the dilemma that such defenses run into. Here it is in a nutshell: Novak recognizes that capitalism itself does not produce the virtues which make possible its continued success, virtues like thrift, honesty, self-reliance, hard work, trust. Hence the capitalist system must be undergirded by an edifice of Christian morality. However, this is no symbiotic relationship, but rather a parasitic one, because a successful capitalist economy does not merely fail to promote these virtues, but in fact undermines them, promoting instead unbridled desire, greed, laziness (the product of the luxury brought by success), collusion, social detachment, etc. Now, it is of course possible that a carefully regulated capitalist order could hold these vicious outcomes in check, but that begs the question of why it's worth trying to an order whose natural ends run so contrary to Christian morality. Why should Christian morality bear the burden of being the edifice that supports a capitalist order, when that very order is working to undermine the Christian moral edifice?
Here I quote the entire last page of the chapter of RMO entitled "The Created Order," a ethico-philosophical tour de force in which O'Donovan not only demolished my last remaining sympathies for nominalism, but also made me begin to wonder why any Christian would be a nominalist. This page (and indeed, the whole chapter) reads a lot like like a highly-condensed version of The Abolition of Man:
Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation--not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him--unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man's 'interest' in preserving his 'environment'. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man's monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved.
So you may have been wondering what happened to Wright and Justification. Well, so am I. I had it with me on Thursday, I put it in the stroller while we were walking around Portobello, and it hasn't been seen since. We did leave the stroller unattended for awhile when we were on the beach, so I suppose someone really wanted that book and stole it. So...I'll just be reviewing O'Donovan for now. But, that's probably plenty; there's no way to have good discussion about the reviews if I'm putting too much up at once. So I'm going to hold off till tomorrow to put up part 4 of the review. I've replied to the comments on the last three posts (as well as on David's comments about socialism), and if anyone wants to follow up on those, go ahead.
Also, in case you're wondering why I haven't engaged Wilson's critiques of O'Donovan yet (I think I said I was going to), it's because he doesn't make any until chapter 7, which he calls, "phantasmagoria of non sequiturs." I'll leave you to judge for yourselves when we get there whether you think that is an accurate judgment. I certainly don't think it is--I think it follows very much from what he says in the other chapters, but part of demonstrating that means going through the previous chapters carefully to discern his argument. Just so you know, though, what I am seeking to respond to in these reviews, here's how Wilson diagnoses the book: "a classic illustration of why the moderate and progressive segments of the Anglican communion in the UK, Canada, and the US are all sick unto death." This is a very grave charge--to say that not only the progressives, but even the moderates in the Anglican Communion--even evangelical moderates like O'Donovan--are "sick unto death." Sick they may be, as are all our denominations, but only God knows whether it is a sickness that will end in death. For my part, I think O'Donovan's work suggests strongly that it will not. I'm interested to know what others think, though.
Chapter 3 of Church in Crisis: “Ethics and Agreement”
This chapter should be a pretty quick review, since it is essentially a primer on how to make discriminating ethical judgments, for the sake of liberals who no longer know how. For the evangelical side of the debate, most of this chapter will seem fairly obvious. But it’s worth rehearsing his argument briefly and paying attention to some places where he draws important conclusions for all sides of the debate.
First, O’Donovan points out another curious about-face by the liberal tradition. Once upon a time, the liberals insisted that doctrinal agreement was unimportant, as long as we united around a common morality that we all agreed upon. Now, liberals insist that moral diversity must be embraced within a minimal common creedal framework. But, as O’Donovan points out, either position assumes that we can maintain a disconnect between moral and doctrinal formulations, something traditional Christian teaching has always insisted against—doctrinal commitments entail moral consequences, and moral conduct affects doctrinal commitments. But this will not be a one-to-one correspondence, because the nature of ethics means that different historical circumstances may require different applications of the same principles and same lines of moral reasoning. But to what extent—how do we discern the legitimate boundaries of moral diversity?
Before answering this directly, O’Donovan lays out “three coordinates for mapping differences of practical judgment”:
“1. Some differences of practical judgment are not ethical differences, others are.
2. Some ethical differences of judgment do not indicate underlying moral disagreements, others do.
3. Some ethical disagreements do not reflect doctrinal disagreements, others do.” (38-39)
What does this mean? Well, it’s fairly simple. The first point simply asserts that there are all kinds of differences in practical judgment that have no ethical ramifications—if I decide to ride my bike to school and you decide to walk, then, in almost every set of circumstances imaginable, this would not constitute an ethical difference between us on that point. However, if we both filled out our tax returns, and you did yours truthfully, while I did mine untruthfully, then we would have an ethical difference.
The second point asserts that, if we have an ethical difference in our conduct, we may or may not have a disagreement about what we ought to have done. That is to say, I may have lied on my tax return because a) I shared your judgment that it was a rotten thing to do, but I did it anyway (sin is often willful in this way, contra Socrates); or b) I did not share your judgment that it was a rotten thing to do, because I sincerely believed that my duty to provide for my family was higher than my duty as a citizen, and I felt that I was being forced to choose. In the latter case, we have an underlying moral disagreement—I understand the nexus of moral requirements surrounding the issue very differently than you do. In many cases, I may still be quite culpable for my error in judgment, but in other cases, the fact that I am acting sincerely on my understanding of the moral situation leaves me innocent, though erroneous.
The third point asserts that, of the class of ethical differences that reflect underlying moral disagreements, some of these will involve doctrinal disagreements; others may arise within a shared doctrinal framework, due to different judgments about the requirements of the circumstances, etc.
With this map now clear, the question is where we place the homosexual debate…or perhaps, where to place different parts of it. At this point, though, another question arises—how important a disagreement is this, really? (This, of course, is a liberal question O’D is addressing…the evangelicals have not really been tempted to ask that.) This is difficult, because our judgment of what is morally most important tends to be extraordinarily changeable depending on the cultural era. How can we be sure how much weight to put on what seems most morally important to us in our era? “Christians in any period of history, whatever their disagreements, seem to agree with one another on morality more than they agree with Christians of other ages on morality and more than they agree with one another on doctrine.” (44)
At this point, I can’t resist quoting O’Donovan’s example, because it shows how little he understands what kooks American evangelicals really are: “The moral profile of Christians today is pretty recognizable across most varieties of church and churchmanship. They believe in international aid and fair trade; they believe in care for AIDs victims; they do not believe in racial discrimination; they believe in families; they tend to think the more abstract forms of capitalist financing morally perilous; they regard making money out of sex as debased, and so on.” (44) Of course, Pastor Wilson, and many others I knew in Moscow, did not believe in international aid or fair trade, and didn’t believe that AIDs actually existed…and were perhaps not nearly as leery of capitalist financing as most other Christians. But anyway, O’Donovan’s main point is sound
This point is not intended to advocate an ethical relativism—he is not saying that ethical right and wrong are changeable, but that ethical priorities are, and often rightly so. That is, while Christians have always opposed drunkenness, at certain eras and in certain traditions this has been far more militant and central than others. Sometimes there is no good reason for these changing priorities; other times there is—the times and circumstances may demand the focusing on certain concerns more than others. “The logic of human historicality is that living in a given age means having a distinct set of practical questions to answer, neither wholly unlike those that faced other generations nor mere repetitions of them. It is to be neither superior to nor independent of the past; but it is to be answerable for our own space and time and for its peculiar possibilities of vice and virtue.” (45)
But there is more to it. The gospel reveals that we do not have to do with a set of separate moral requirements, some weightier, some lighter, but rather, that all of our moral requirements find their place within the overriding law of love—they are all particular applications and manifestations of love. The size of the disagreements that we face, then, are “not determined by the matter of the difference as such, but by the relation in which it stands to wider agreements and disagreements.” Therefore, no moral question can simply be isolated and judged on its own, but only in the context of all of the obligations and circumstances surrounding it: “The question is always, what does it mean, in this constellation of circumstances, to approve or disapprove of this or that line of conduct? What relations are present to us in and through it? How do the various refractions of the demand of love within the moral law come together to form an understanding of where we stand?” (47)
This admonition is primarily directed against the liberals, who seek to make a quick and easy matter of justifying homosexuality. But of course, it also needs to be heard by evangelicals, who, even though they think the final answer of the ethical question is quite clear, need to beware short-circuiting the complexities along the way.
We also need to beware hanging a greater significance upon the question than it demands. “We must,” says O’Donovan, “take seriously the fact that homosexuality has become a dividing issue among us. There is no point in expressing scornful wonder. It is part of the shape of the history we have been given to live through—no more rational and no more irrational than any other history.” As we seek to understand why this issue has become charged with such significance in our day, we may be able to reach the point where the homosexual question is “ready to be seen precisely for what it is and not as the bearer of some wider cultural decision.” (48)
Now, O’Donovan finally returns to the question raised near the beginning of the chapter—what is the acceptable range of moral pluralism? His answer, for which I shall not rehearse the argument, since I think we would all completely agree, is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to argue for true moral pluralism, which “must paradoxically maintain a kind of approval of moral judgments of which we disapprove.” (5) That being the case, the liberal churches have been very foolish to advocate such a course without providing any reasoned explanations. The liberals, he suggests, did not decline to explain themselves to the African churches because of racism, as was charged by many, but because “an ill-conceived doctrine of pluralism persuaded them that thinking was an unnecessary labor. They may have suffered something worse than a bout of racism, if such a thing can be imagined; they may have suffered an implosion of their powers of practical reason, the result of long habits of irresponsibility. And since theology is nothing if not a discipline of common reasoning about God and our life together, unless they recover it, their days of being churches of any kind are numbered.” (53)
So, in this chapter, O’Donovan levels a pretty harsh broadside against liberal moral pluralism, but he leaves at least three points for evangelicals to reflect on (at least, three points that caused me to reflect). The first is the difference between outright sin and a moral disagreement—between actions that arise from knowing rebellion against morality, or actions that arise from a different understanding of the requirements of morality. We can be much more sympathetic, if still opposed, to the latter. The second is that the homosexual question cannot be summarily answered in isolation; we have to be cognizant of its complexities, and of what response it calls for in our unique historical circumstances, which will necessarily be a somewhat different response to that of other historical eras. Third, while recognizing that the issue is tangled together with many other issues in our day, we must work to prune it down to its true size, and respond to it appropriately, rather than with panic and melodrama.
Church in Crisis, Chapter Two: “The Care of the Churches”
In this chapter, O’Donovan sets out to clarify the ecclesiastical politics surrounding the gay controversy. This is especially important to those outside the Anglican Communion, who don’t understand the polity structure of the church, and who are thus at a loss to understand why recent events have proved so chaotic and difficult to resolve. He also lays down some principles for how to understand and pursue church unity. These, I think, are crucial for those of us in the hyper-schismatic Reformed tradition, who have, I think, very little ability to reflect critically on what church unity requires of us. Again, O’Donovan makes his argument so carefully and thoughtfully that it is difficult to disagree, though certainly questions arise at a few points.
First, O’Donovan clarifies the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is not anything like a Pope—his personal authority is more that of influence than command. His responsibility is not to resolve crises on his own, but to help coordinate and guide conciliar resolutions. The Anglican Communion has a very conciliar authority structure, and the current ABC, Rowan Williams, believes very strongly on using that approach, rather than attempting to solve the problem by forceful personal gestures.
This makes good sense, I think. If people are determined not to get along, you can’t force them to just by shouting—at best, you might just keep them quiet until you leave the room…more likely, you’ll just make everyone shout louder.
O’Donovan then attempts to articulate the paradox of church unity. On the one hand, the communion we have together in Christ depends on Christ, and not on ourselves: “To claim evangelical communion is a statement of faith in God’s gift of himself, a gift that cannot be proved empirically, but must be believed in and witnessed to.” (21) On the other hand, this communion must be witnessed to, and properly discerned, by institutional structures, structures “equipped to exercise judgment, to draw a line, where necessary, between true and false communion.” (21) In other words, the function of church structure is not so much to make and break communion, but to attempt, carefully and patiently, to discern and declare where it no longer exists. O’Donovan returns to this point later, so I shall leave it for now.
He makes the additional point that “evangelical communion is never merely synchronic; it is always also diachronic, involving a communion with past Christians in receiving from them the faith they have witnessed to and handing that faith on again to further generations.” (22) This is a point he makes primarily against the liberals—the structures of the Church must ensure that the Church is faithfully in communion not only with itself in the present-day, but also with its past. Of course this does not mean slavish devotion, but it does mean careful attention.
What all this means is, again, that the role of the Communion as a whole, and of the Archbishop in particular, is not primarily to make ringing declarations of excommunication, but to engage in patient discernment of whether and how certain churches are in communion with the Church: “The heart of the Archbishop’s role in the Communion is to give voice and effect to judgments the churches have reached about the work of the Spirit in their midst, to speak and act on behalf of their common mutual recognition.” (23)
This patient process no doubt seems rather glacial and frustrating to most evangelicals, but this is only because we have become so accustomed to the process of schism that it seems a rather straightforward affair, and because we live in denominations so small and homogenous that we cannot imagine the difficulties of trying to manage church crises on a scale like that of the Anglican Communion’s. And it is also important, in this fast-paced age, to get a bit of honest perspective—the crisis in the Anglican communion has only been going on for six years now, the serious debate for eleven years. That is not a lot of time to be making decisions about making or breaking communion on a global scale.
And above all, this kind of patience is necessary if church unity really is as critical and earnestly desirable as I think it is, Biblically. O’Donovan has more to say about the imperative to seek unity with the kind of forbearance and longsuffering that God Himself shows to his people, and we shall return to this soon.
Getting back to an account of how the crisis played out, O’Donovan sketches the conciliar position taken by the Windsor Conference in 2004, in which the North American churches were chastised and put on a kind of probation, while giving them time to discuss the issue more fully among themselves; meanwhile, the Communion as a whole tried to develop a clear policy for addressing the recent actions of the American churches. The result of the conference, he says, was to split a two-sided issue into a four-sided issue. Now there were anti-conciliar revisionists (those who wanted to revise the Church’s policy on homosexuality, no matter what the councils of the denomination said), conciliar revisionists (those who wanted to revise the policy, but working patiently through proper channels), anti-conciliar anti-revisionists (who wanted to maintain traditional Church policy, and traditional Church polity be damned), and conciliar anti-revisionists (who wanted to maintain traditional Church policy through the proper channels).
I should mention, of course, that almost everyone I’ve had contact with before has been in the third party, and this is the party with whom O’Donovan is most mystified: “The emergence of an antirevisionist strand of opinion that was cool, to say the least, about the conciliar process was, perhaps, most perplexing. With the North Americans on the back foot, it might have seemed that antirevisionist sentiment only had to cling tight to the conciliar project.” The main reason, O’Donovan suggests, “was a confidence in the immediacy of moral judgments, such as underlay, also, the development of liberal Christianity. Where there seems to be nothing to discuss, there can be no discussion.” (25) In other words, the evangelicals said, “It’s obvious homosexuality is wrong, so we’re not going to waste time sitting around discussing the issue.” But O’Donovan objects, predictably, “A process of moral reasoning is needed if we are to reach well-founded concrete moral judgments.” The evangelical response of self-assured moralizing, he suggests, is little better than the liberals’ self-assured moralizing which precipitated the crisis.
Now, this is where things get sticky, because, as O’Donovan himself admits here: “antirevisionist ‘discernment’ could claim, with much greater prima facie plausibility, to be in line with the unwavering testimony of Scripture.” (26) Well, yeah, that’s an understatement! What O’Donovan goes on to say will likely be frustrating to the evangelicals who are of the opinion that “We know what the Bible says, so just get on with it!” O’Donovan says, “It is enough to remark in passing that, on this side as on that, the immediacy of the insight tends to make the interpretation of Scripture seem superfluous. The contrast with the rather careful hermeneutic of scriptural teaching on divorce and remarriage is striking.” (26) Evangelicals at this point will protest that there’s an obvious difference—Scripture has complex and conflicted testimony on the issue of divorce and remarriage, while it does not on the homosexuality issue. And I would have to agree that O’Donovan should’ve chosen a better example.
However, I think O’Donovan’s main point here warrants attention—first of all, it’s always a good idea, however clear the conclusion seems to be, to take the time to interpret Scripture slowly. Second, if the evangelicals are so confident of what Scripture says, then why fear taking a little time?—the end result will vindicate their claims. Third, though, and most persuasive, I think, is the practical point. Even if we are 100% sure about Scripture’s teaching, do we violently force that judgment on everyone else and lose 75% of the Communion, or do we take a few years to talk through things and keep 75% of the Communion? On this basis, O’Donovan is quite right to rebuke the antirevisionist anticonciliarists. Again, we’re only six years into this mess…hardly enough time for people to throw in the towel and say “To hell with the Anglican Communion—I’ll just hang out with the Ugandans!”
Anyway, O’Donovan continues, “When the Windsor Report posed as the alternative to its own approach, that ‘we shall have to begin to learn to walk apart,’ it clearly did not mean this as a choiceworthy alternative, one that the church of Jesus Christ could opt for with integrity. It was to be viewed as a horizon of total failure. Unhappily, it seems to have underestimated the capacity of Anglicans to think the unthinkable.” (28-29) Yes, unhappily indeed. Such wholesale schism as was now being contemplated by both liberals and conservatives was a suicidal alternative, for “the Anglican identity is constituted by its particular communities, and cannot survive a decisive breach in them. Even if we were to accept this as the price to be paid for a purer church, however, there is a more profound obstacle.” (30) This latter obstacle, he says, is that the schism, due to the fourfold division of opinion, could not occur on straightforward homosexual/anti-homosexual lines. Many evangelicals would stay in TEC, not desiring schism; conservative Anglo-Catholics would go to Rome or the East, preferring that to joining with the schismatic evangelicals, etc. “The idea of a united antirevisionist Anglican church is as fantastic as the idea of an amicable parting of the ways.” (30)
Now O’Donovan addresses the difficult question, to which everyone desires an answer: “what grounds justify a deliberate breach in communion within the church?” This question leads us into a paradox: “On the one hand, we are never justified in breaking communion within the church of Jesus Christ, for schism is sin; on the other hand, communion implies and requires fundamental agreement in the gospel….So unity in the truth turns out to be a commitment that may pull us in opposite directions to opposite conclusions: there is no communion-breaking moral disagreement, on the one hand; on the other, any disagreement is potentially communion-breaking.” (30) What is at least clear, though, is that you cannot draw an arbitrary line in the sand and say, “OK, now that this line is crossed, we must split”—as O’Donovan says, “The one answer we cannot find is the answer we set out to find: this, rather than that, is the specific cause that will justify a breach.” (31)
I think I am with O’Donovan on all this. Certainly, the experience of denominations that I have known is that, once the habit has been established of drawing a line in the sand, it becomes easy to do it over and over again, for increasingly arbitrary reasons. The only breach that justifies schism is the one that proves completely irreparable.
So here is how O’Donovan assays to resolve the dilemma—“one can address the disagreement. Communion should not be broken, but that does not mean disagreements can be ignored. There are ways of addressing serious disagreements that affirm and renew communion by proven willingness and determination to resolve them. And the very attempt to reach a resolution transforms our experience of the disagreement. Disagreements are no more unnegotiable natural forces than deliverances of the mistaken conscience are. They are openings for those who share a common faith to explore and resolve important tensions within the context of communion.” (32)
This “solution” can seem maddeningly naïve, or else compromised from the outset. “Address the disagreement”?! But that’s precisely what is impossible in this case! “Explore and resolve important tensions”?! How can we, when we can no longer even appeal to the fundamentals of the gospel for unity? When we disagree over everything, how can we attempt to address the disagreement? These questions will immediately arise from evangelicals, who will also feel like they are being asked to relinquish the force of their convictions from the outset—“You’re saying that I need to adopt a ‘Who knows?’ standpoint, instead of sticking by my convictions.” O’Donovan anticipates this objection, and his response is masterful, and must be quoted in full:
“This kind of proposal, is, of course, easy to mishear. It can be taken to mean that parties to disagreements must be less than wholly convinced of their position, ready to make room for possible accommodation. When really serious issues are at stake and talk of a status stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure. But that is all a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape—a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only thing I have to think—and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!—is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.” (32-33)
This is a convincing account of what the search for agreement amidst seemingly intractable disagreement, and why it is a challenge that no man of honour should decline. O’Donovan recognizes that this search may in the end fail, and “God may in his judgment scatter a church…and there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression.” However, such institutional expression “must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result.” This declaration must be made after much patience and forbearance, however, because it must be willing to “wait for God to purify his own church in his own time.” (33) O’Donovan concludes, “The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert, the one that lies on the far side of every conciliar process that can be devised.” (34)
This is a hard counsel to accept, and yet, it is hard to contest. Schism is not simply a straightforward matter of church discipline. Even in local church discipline, while it may prove necessary to cut off a member for the health of the body, to hand over to Satan those who have repudiated God, this should be done after great patience and deliberation. How much graver a matter it is to contemplate the cutting off of thousands, or millions of members! And again, in the current crisis, many evangelicals are taking that fateful step after six years or less. Some may object that the current crisis has been a long time coming, and the liberal churches have been driving off the cliff for a long time. But God can purify and revive liberal and apostate churches! He has done so before, and can do so again. We must not lack faith and hastily take matters into our own hands.
Lately, I have found myself thinking a lot more about what Christian charity in debate should look like, and in particular, my encounter with O'Donovan's book on the gay issue has sharpened these thoughts a bit.
For the past few years, I’ve become less and less comfortable with the whole “Serrated Edge” approach to debate-—the idea that we should imitate the Biblical prophets in mocking and railing against those believers who are hypocrites, or are undermining the faith, whomever they may be. Aside from the question of whether or not that style of prophetic condemnations could in principle be normative for the ordinary believer, there is a clear practical objection to our imitating them. We don’t know who’s a hypocrite, and who’s undermining the faith. We may think we have a pretty good idea; in some cases, we may be almost dead certain, but we will always have to face the fact of our limited knowledge and understanding, the fact that it may in fact be ourselves who are the hypocrites. The Biblical prophets (and Jesus, and the Apostles) spoke as specially called emissaries of God, and so could denounce God’s enemies with some confidence and precision. We cannot, and so we’d be much wiser to hold our fire.
I’ve also come to see the dangerous threads of the American hatred of authority in the “Serrated Edge” approach. If you think that anyone can act just like Jesus or Jeremiah, then any old believer or self-ordained minister can take it upon himself to denounce and mock the bishops and God-ordained leaders of the Church, whenever he thinks they’re wrong. Now, there can be Pharisees and Caiphases who need to be called to account, but something seems wrong with this anti-hierarchical free-for-all that the “Serrated Edge” approach advocates.
Anyway, all that to say that I’ve been doing some reflecting on what Christian charity really means for us, particularly in light of my reflections on the gay controversy (see my serial reviews of O’Donovan on this) and I wanted to throw three observations out there.
1) Hearing out the other side
First, being charitable means being willing to respect, listen to, and (in some cases) even submit to others even on the points with which you disagree with them. Now, this really should be quite obvious; after all, how is it any virtue to respect and listen to others on the points with which you already agree with them? That’s really almost just a form of patting yourself on the back--“Ah, he says the same thing I think--good for him...I like this guy.” But I know people--pastors and teachers--who think that doing this makes them charitable. “Oh yes, I try to be charitable and balanced. I don’t just chuck everything that guy says in the rubbish bin--only the stuff he says that is wrong. But he says other stuff that is right, with which I fully agree, and I’m perfectly willing to give him credit for that.”
Now, admittedly, to say this is actually a big step forward for many in the Reformed tradition, for whom it is customary to chuck everything someone says in the bin if you disagree with them on anything of importance. But I should hope we can go further than this in cultivating the virtue of charity.
Charity means saying, “Ooh, I like what this guy is saying here...but I’m really not happy with where he goes in chapters four and five. However, even there, I have to give him credit for his careful, Biblical argumentation, and for his earnestness, and I really need to read back through those chapters carefully to see if maybe I have something I need to learn.” Charity means saying, “I’m pretty sure this is wrong, but I need to keep listening to see if it’s really me who’s wrong.” For many evangelicals and Reformed folk, saying this, in many contexts, sounds like compromise, sounds like being willing to get wobbly about the gospel. It can be, for sure, but it doesn’t have to be. (O’Donovan has a fabulous quote on this, that I’ll be sharing shortly in my review of Church in Crisis.)
2) Keeping in mind the original audience
Second, charity means being willing to read someone else within their own context, in light of their own audience, rather than insisting that they address you and your concerns directly. Again, this should be fairly obvious, and is hardly a matter of distinctively Christian charity--it’s just common sense. But it doesn’t seem all that common. Too often, we judge Christians writing in other backgrounds by the standards we would apply to someone writing with a background identical to ours. We have to be willing to ask, “What audience is this author trying to address? What problems and concerns does that particular audience have? Given those particular problems and concerns, how might this author want to address them? What would the arguments in this book mean or convey to someone in that audience?” Only after we have asked these questions thoroughly can we begin the difficult process of translation—“what form would this message take if addressed to me? How does it apply? Do we agree fundamentally despite the necessary differences of approach?”
Very often, Christians seem unable or unwilling to go to the work of this kind of translation, with the result that Bible-thumpers here in the US lambast British evangelicals for “giving up the gospel” or “abandoning Scripture,” even when those same British evangelicals are known to their own audiences as stalwart defenders of the gospel and the authority of Scripture. And I don’t just mean, “Well, everyone’s so liberal over here, that you have to understand that what looks liberal to Americans looks conservative to Brits.” It’s not that simple. It’s a matter of differences in culture, history, church organization, priorities within the faith, etc. I’m getting very tired of American evangelical leaders who know nothing about the history or culture of the Church of England, about its polity, about its struggles and triumphs, proceeding to mock any Church of England leader who isn’t willing to say exactly the same thing about homosexuality as they would say, at the same time and in the same way as they would say it. There might be legitimate complaints, but it is hard to find them amidst the endless heap of absurd ones that keep getting chucked across the pond.
3) Owning other branches of the Church
Finally, I’ve realized something crucially important about catholicity and church unity: we already are all one body--it’s not up to us to decide whether and how much we will be. That is to say, we can’t decide whether we want to be connected to or associated with Christians who are doing all kinds of wacky stuff and are cooking up heretical ideas and are ordaining homosexuals—inasmuch as we are all belong to the Church of Christ, all share in one baptism, we already are connected to and associated with each other. So our job is not to decide who we’re connected to in Christ, but how to respond and relate to those to whom we are already connected to.
At times it seems as if we operate with something of an Old Covenant purity mentality, constantly fearing contamination. Evangelicals seem to think that their purity may be contaminated if they come too close to Christians who are involved in various errors. Do we dare attend a Roman Catholic worship service, or will we be contaminated by idolatry? Do we dare attend a liberal worship service, or will we be contaminated by their unbelief? Do we dare attend a service led by a woman? Or by a homosexual?! I know many who would do the Protestant equivalent of crossing themselves at the very suggestion. Why is this?
Why is it that whenever a denomination takes some dangerous new step toward apostasy, all the surrounding denominations (and many of the constituent churches) trip over one another trying to distance themselves? I noticed that when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted in favor of homosexuality this summer, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod put out a statement saying (roughly), “Please don’t get confused—we have nothing to do with them. We’ve always said they were bad.” Somehow I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he prayed “that they may all be one, as we are one.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there aren’t very important practical questions to be addressed here, and that there is not an important place for church discipline to declare when Christians have cut themselves off from Christ, and an important place for believers to acknowledge and respond to that reality. However, in Protestantism’s current condition of denominational mayhem and lack of real authority, there is no clear-cut way of making such judgments. Indeed, what does it mean to say that such-and-such denomination by their action so-and-so has made themselves to no longer be a Christian church, and we don’t need to treat any of them as such anymore? We make those kinds of pronouncements all the time, and I don’t really see how we are in a position to. Until God acts decisively in judgment upon his unfaithful children, and they are utterly scattered and destroyed, we must remember that they are still his children, of whom He has “kept seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” and we must relate to them as such. And this means owning them, rather than denying them. I would like to have seen the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod say, “Yes, our Christian brothers have said this. We value them and pray for them as Christian brothers, but we believe they are in serious error here. We repent for this error on their behalf, and hope that they will repent also.”
In other words, we are not pure Christians trying to avoid being contaminated by apostates. We are already contaminated by our own sins and theirs—because we are all part of the Body of Christ, we too must own responsibility for their errors, and repent as well. If ordaining women is a sin for the Church, I share the guilt by virtue of being a member of the Church, not by attending a service led by a woman.
Again, we may still need to make practical judgments about how to relate to and associate with errant Christians, but it must be always from this starting point—we do not get to choose whether or not we will be connected with them, because we already are, like it or not.
Ok, here's part one of my review of Wright's Justification, and Wilson's interaction with it. Note that I am simultaneously posting piece-by-piece thorough reviews of two different books, Wright's and O'Donovan's, in both of which I will be using Doug Wilson's critiques as something of a foil (though much more in the Wright reviews). So don't get confused. :-)
In the Preface, Wright points out what he sees as three major pressure points in the debate over his view of Paul. First, he says, is the issue of the nature and scope of salvation—since the Reformation, Protestants have had a tendency to focus on individual salvation, rather than corporate and cosmic salvation. Second is the issue of the means of salvation—here Wright thinks that the Protestant tradition has often given insufficient attention to the work of the Spirit, and this is why it has been so paranoid of attributing significance to works flowing out of faith. Third is the question of the meaning of the word justification. Here, Wright thinks that there are four major themes key to justification that Piper and others in his tradition have tended to sideline: 1) Jesus’ Jewish Messiahship, 2) the covenant with Israel, 3) the divine lawcourt setting of justification, and 4) eschatology, which gives attention to final justification.
So far, I am altogether with him.
In reviewing Wright’s preface, Wilson only has a couple of concerns. One that he raises is “But I (and Piper, and many other opponents of the NPP) agree with these things.” That is to say, when Wright says that one disagreement is over the nature and scope of salvation (cosmic, or basically individual), Wilson insists that postmillennialists are going to agree with Wright entirely on this, but that doesn’t mean that they will agree with him on justification. Therefore, Wright is wrong to act as if this is a crucial hinge. Wilson raises this sort of objection repeatedly, and while I think it has some force at times, I think Wright might well reply, “Well then, my point is that you’re being inconsistent—you haven’t allowed this postmillennial, cosmic thinking to properly penetrate your soteriology.”
The real test isn’t whether you can say, “Oh, I’m postmil too!” but whether that postmillennialism has actually worked its way consistently through your system. If both Wright and Wilson agree on the scope of salvation, but disagree over the nature of justification, then likely this means that there is an inconsistency in one or the other’s system. And in the course of this review, I shall try and see if it is in Wright’s (I’ve certainly never been able to find it there before).
Then Wilson concludes by saying, “So the hinge that I mentioned earlier is not really "why do Reformed types not see this"? The hinge is "why did Saul of Tarsus not see it?" In order for us moderns to understand the story of Israel rightly, we must understand the biography of Saul rightly. This is what Piper sees, and what Wright does not. This is the hinge upon which everything turns. And so we will return to this theme again and again.”
At this point, I am not at all sure what he is getting at with this remark. But since he plans to return to it again and again, hopefully I will figure it out.
Chapter One, “What’s All This About, and Why Does it Matter?”
Wright begins by telling a parable, in which he likens the present dispute to that of a heliocentrist who cannot seem to convince his friend that the Earth goes around the Sun, instead of vice versa. The stubborn friend takes him out to see the sunrise, thinking that this proves his point. Wright’s point in this parable goes beyond mocking the seeming inability of the two paradigms in the Pauline dispute to come to grips with one another at all; the point he is making is that, in his understanding of justification, we are revolving around God; in many Protestant versions, God seems to be revolving around us—our individual salvation is the focus. Wilson called this parable “egregious,” though I couldn’t really see why.
Wright then goes on to make a number of key preliminary points. First is to insist, once again, that he is not part of “the New Perspective”—it doesn’t exist. There are radical differences among the key figures, and accusations that ignore that are rendered ineffectual from the start. Then, he says that a major problem with the Old Perspective, it seems to him, is that it’s simply trying to put together the jigsaw puzzle of Paul’s thought with half the important parts missing. Wright wants to try to supply some of those missing or ignored pieces. Here he reemphasizes in particular the Old Testament covenant background which is so crucial to Paul’s thinking, and which, especially in Lutheran thinking, but to a surprising degree also in Reformed, has been largely ignored.
In Wilson’s review of chapter one, we find more of the same concerns as he voiced in the preface. Wilson repeatedly objects, “But why are you criticizing the opposition for these errors (individualistic, pietistic soteriology, etc.) Plenty of folks on the opposition repudiate those errors just as much as you do!” Again, it is possible that Wright is making unfair generalizations, but, we should note that he does have an awful lot of opponents he is responding to, and he has to make some generalizations. More importantly, though, the question is whether the folks he’s opposing, even if they have repudiated in theory pietistic soteriology, have nevertheless unconsciously aided and abetted it, or remained closer to it than they realized. This, I think, is Wright’s point. It’s as if an American were to say to an Englishman, “Oh, well you’re over there in Europe, aren’t you?” The Englishman might remonstrate that there was a big channel of water separating England from the rest of Europe, and England made a big point of distinguishing themselves from the “Continentals.” The Englishman would have a point…there is a difference. But the main point of the American—that geographically and culturally, England was much closer to Europe than it was to America—would remain valid.
Wilson then takes Wright to task for suggesting that the large-scope, redemptive-historical perspective was some grand new thing, when it was rather a standard Reformed emphasis. This is something of a fair complaint, though again, I think Wright would say that, standard emphasis or not, it was always incompletely applied. Wilson does offer a bit of an excuse for Wright--that in the Anglican setting, and in academia, where Wright is writing, these things have been quite ignored—and I think that’s an important point in Wright’s defense. Wright is writing very much against a particular backdrop he is familiar with, and is too unaware of other potential backdrops, but the same criticism applies to any writer, certainly including Wilson himself.
Wilson then returns to the enigmatic point he raised in reviewing the Preface:
“Why did Abraham get it, and Saul did not get it? It was because Saul, even though he was up to his neck in covenant boundary markers, did not have faith…Wright is very clear that personal faith and piety are good things, and are most necessary. He says, "Salvation is hugely important" (p. 7). But what he does not seem to see is that personal faith and piety are a hermeneutical necessity also.”
I confess that I am as bamboozled here as I was the first time Wilson raised this point. I was not aware that Wright had ever denied that Saul was unconverted before…well, his conversion…or that he had denied that personal faith and piety are necessary. I shall certainly read on to see what Wilson is getting at here.
Chapter Two, “Rules of Engagement”
In chapter two, Wright sets out the method he intends to use throughout his study of Paul. First, he says, exegesis, not systematic theology, has to be the engine driving the whole thing. “Scripture does not exist,” he says, “to give authoritative answers to questions other than those it addresses.” We must look not merely for answers in Scripture, but first seek to discern what questions the text itself is trying to ask and answer.
Likewise, it is important to let the whole Pauline corpus be equally authoritative, rather than privileging certain portions, like Romans and Galatians, and using them as a grid through which the other epistles must be forced.
Second, Wright notes that it is crucial to establish the historical context in which Paul would have been writing, and the backdrop against which his writings must be understood. This would seem to be a “No, duh” point, but many NPP critics have complained that it depends too much on extra-Biblical sources to determine the thought-world of the Biblical writers. If we do not investigate the 1st-century context, it is not as if we will simply interpret the text purely on its own terms—as if that were possible, but rather, we will import another context within which to try to make sense of the letter—that of the 16th-century, for many Protestants.
Again, hardly anything revolutionary here. From where I’m sitting, so far, so good. What about Wilson, though?
Wilson’s chief objection in this chapter is to Wright’s omission of the Pastoral Epistles in his listing of the Pauline corpus. Here, I think, Wilson makes something of a mountain out of a molehill. First of all, Wright does not list the epistles with the announcement “Here is the Pauline corpus”; rather, he simply says, “We must listen not only to Romans and Galatians, but also to the two Corinthian and Thessalonian letters, and also to Philippians, and not least to Ephesians and Colossians.” This clearly does not say that Paul did not write the Pastorals, only that they aren’t particularly relevant to Wright’s purposes for this discussion. Now, if Wright does not accept the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, that is scarcely surprising, because hardly anyone in New Testament studies these days does; which also means that Wright may well accept these as Pauline, but recognizes that he has to pick his battles, so he doesn’t make a point of it.
Wilson, though, thinks this issue quite important, because it is one of Scriptural authority, and also (here it comes again) because the Pastoral epistles have a fair bit to say about “Paul’s unconverted state prior to the road to Damascus.” I’m still waiting to get the importance of this.
At one point in the chapter, Wright makes the point that we need to avoid reading our theological categories into Paul, when they’re simply not there in the text. For example, he quotes J.I. Packer to the effect that while “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” is not discussed by Paul, the concept is there, and we can read it back into the text. Wright is (in my mind, rightly) skeptical of this as an imposition of extra-Pauline categories. Wilson has this to say: “ I am with Packer on this, but with this proviso. This meaning is not something that has to be teased out of what Paul actually does say, but is rather a meaning that is capering all over the text of Romans, waving its arms and beckoning to sinners. In this way it is like the phrase faith alone. The meaning is flagrantly there, while the actual phrase is not (except in James, to be in that sense denied). God's covenant righteousness is seen in His provision of an Adam who did it right, an Adam who obeyed on our behalf the way the first Adam did not. That obedience is mine because God considered or reckoned it to be mine. Take this away and the architectural structure of Romans collapses in a heap. Much more on this later.”
Here, I suspect there may be some talking past one another. I do not think that Wright would necessarily disagree with Wilson’s last sentences—but Wright would insist that the proper category for understanding this is union with Christ, not imputation. I’m sure we will come across more to illuminate the contours of this dispute in later chapters.
Wilson then points to a “contrast in paradigms.” He quotes Wright saying that exegesis must be first and foremost in debating about Paul, and then says, “No, it is not exegesis first, but Christ first. Christ is preached and proclaimed from the Scriptures first. Then comes faith and baptism. Then after that comes the exegesis.” Now, this seemed to me almost like a joke at first, like when someone asks you what you favorite book is, and then, hearing your answer, reply, “What? It’s not the Bible?” Wilson goes on to elucidate this remark a bit when he says that exegesis must be done from a standpoint of faith, not Enlightenment ideals of rationalism. “In other words, is true faith necessary to true exegesis?” he rhetorically asks. But here, I can’t help but feel sure that Wright would agree, and am somewhat baffled as to why Wilson chooses to belabor this particular point.
Finally, Wilson makes a good point when he notes that Paul tends to use the same word in multiple senses in the same passage, and so we should not put too much stock in exegetical arguments that depend on consistency of meaning. However, Wright is also right to have pointed out that we should beware introducing equivocation in the use of a term in a tightly-reasoned line of argument. Deciding which principle to follow in a specific case of exegesis is where the rubber meets the road, and it will be interesting to see how this disagreement of emphasis works out in the exegetical section of the book.
(That post title is for you, Donny)
It seems that God calls two very different sorts of people to do work for his kingdom in speaking, writing, preaching, and so on. On the one hand, He needs people who go around with flamethrowers, blasting false prophets mercilessly wherever they see them, hurling prophetic thunderbolts at the ungodly, men who when asked “Is it peace?” reply like Jehu, “What peace, so long as the harlotries of your mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” On the other hand, he needs folks who are more even-tempered and soft-spoken, whose motto is “a gentle answer turns away wrath,” and who, like Joseph and Daniel, have learned the virtue of listening sympathetically and pursuing peace with their enemies. These two personalities characterize not merely individuals, but also denominations and traditions—Presbyterians are notoriously the former; Anglicans notoriously the latter.
The problem, of course, is that either of these personalities can often find themselves doing the devil’s work, rather than the Lord’s. The flamethrower may be so trigger-happy that he roasts friends and foes indiscriminately, and frightens away those who might be interesting in hearing God’s message. The peacemaker, on the other hand, might find that he has accommodated away his own grandmother in the interest of “seeking mutual understanding,” and has left anyone interested in hearing God’s message confused as to what exactly it might be.
And because of this, those of each personality may find it difficult to believe that the other group is doing the Lord’s work, and may dedicate themselves to thwarting the other’s work. Presbyterian hotheads start blasting away with their flamethrowers at the Anglican moderates whom they are sure are doing the devil’s work, and the Anglican moderates exasperatedly devote themselves to trying to douse all the flames that the evangelicals keep lighting.
It is precisely this predicament that has been thrown into stark relief by the gay controversy, and of which Wilson’s scoffing dismissal of O’Donovan’s The Church in Crisis provides such an excellent example. But of course, God needs both, and both need to figure out how to work together. Is O’Donovan making the kind of fatal compromise for which his race are so infamous (think Neville Chamberlain), or is he saying some profound and constructive things to which we all need to pay attention? Is Wilson raising a godly alarm against an attempt to sneak liberalism in through the back door, or is he, like the Confederate troops at Chancellorsville, getting spooked and pouring a volley into one of the best generals for his own side?
This is the puzzle I hope to solve in these reviews. I should be entirely forthright and say that, after careful reading and reflection, I think the answer is much more the latter, but I’ll try to establish that point-by-point.
In chapter 1, entitled “The Failure of the Liberal Paradigm,” O’Donovan seeks to trace the historical roots of the liberal movement, and in the process, displays the odd contradictions at its core—how did the middle-of-the-road peacemaker liberals become the drum-rolling radical liberals? It becomes clear in this first chapter that O’Donovan’s primary concern is with the liberal wing in the homosexual debate. This is a rather important point to note. Evangelicals might approach this book, having gotten it into their head (from reading reviews like Wilson’s) that O’Donovan is something of a liberal, and therefore, must assume that his main target is evangelicals. It is not. The audience he primarily wishes to address and call to account (albeit in as conciliatory a manner as possible) is the liberal wing of the Church that has pressed for gay ordination. We must keep this in mind throughout the book, or else we may find ourselves sorely confused at times.
He begins by observing that, in their actions regarding Gene Robinson and the blessing of same-sex unions, the North American churches were making political statements. He then remarks somewhat sardonically, “In defending them the North American churches followed the counsel that it was wiser not to be too explicit. The spoke to the world about a “discernment” they had been privileged to make over a long time and from the grassroots up, leaving the ontology of the question strictly to one side. The Windsor Report thought it surprising that the actions of the Canadian and US churches were so unaccompanied by theological explanation or interpretative commentary.” (2)
The Anglican Church, O’Donovan observes, has long been “liberal” in the sense that it has been in the “habit of negotiating stubborn oppositions by synthesizing them within a central, undogmatic stream of opinion.” This tendency became particularly important in the aftermath of the Oxford Movement, as the Church had to hold together strongly catholic and strongly evangelical wings. However, in the recent development of liberalism, we find that “the historically centripetal middle had become a new centrifugal pole.”
In response to the homosexual crisis, Canterbury and others have insisted on maintaining the traditional attitude of the Communion—“stepping back, untangling the skein, reconciling conflicting views, toning down exaggerated positions, forging coalitions, squaring circles, finding commonsense ways through,” but no one seems willing to do this anymore. “In its place are radical postures, strident denunciations, and moralistic confessionalism.” In this, again, it is important to note that his main target is the liberals, and to remark on the oddity that the liberals are now the feisty dogmatists; but of course, there is here also a criticism for the evangelicals, many of whom, feeling threatened, have felt the need to indulge in “radical postures, strident denunciations, and moralistic confessionalism” as well. Inasmuch as this is his point, we reach here a first point of tension, for the evangelical is going to insist that there are times when this is just what the Bible calls for. Perhaps so. But I would suggest here an analogy from Just War theory—only as a last resort, only when all peaceful means have been exhausted, because, while the conflict may in fact be just, there is a terrible risk that it may not be, and that we may do much needless harm. Biblically, I think, the danger of overhasty war is greater than the danger of overstrained peace. This point shall come up again and again.
As he sets out to tell the tale of liberal Christianity, O’Donovan first takes a moment to acknowledge the Church’s debt to liberalism. This will jar in the ears of many of us, but is surely a point always worth making. The questioning habit of mind that liberalism fostered, while deeply subversive of many valuable things, has also opened up insights and avenues of inquiry that the Church had never found before, and for this, we must give it credit. The jarring tone that O’Donovan here sounds is quickly harmonized.
O’Donovan’s analysis of the roots of theological liberalism is masterful. In the nineteenth-century (and indeed, beginning with Kant and pietism before), liberalism operated on the assumption of the priority of the ethical. That is to say, liberalism took it for granted that, while dogmatic conclusions were always debatable and doubtful, everyone could at least agree on what constituted morality. Thus, the liberals simply posited the reigning ethical norms, presupposing them to be valid, and then used them as a grid through which to force Scripture and tradition, disposing of the claims of each that could not stand the ethical test.
The liberal standpoint, while doubting all that the past held down, bowed in homage to the present: “The inner shrine of the liberal gospel was its attitude of respectful attentiveness to the world as it is.” The world as it was could be equated with the revelation of God, and liberalism thus broke down the traditional barriers between God and the world, and between the eschatological future and the sinful present. Because God’s revelation was coterminous with the present world, it could not stand in judgment over it, but always affirmed it. Church institutions, within the liberal paradigm, are an obstacle, since they are holdovers from a past that must be transcended, and since they display an antithesis between world and church that liberalism is keen to overcome.
All this is a sketch of the liberalism that prevailed until the World Wars, and which, by tethering the narrative of God’s self-revelation to the narrative of Western civilization, foundered on the same rocks that Western civilization broke up upon. Subsequently, liberalism had to find a way to reinvent itself, and the new form both contradicted and radicalized the earlier form.
The moral norms of Western consciousness could no longer be presupposed, since they were hotly debated and there was no longer (if there had ever been) an ethical consensus. As a result, liberalism, in keeping with its prejudice against the past, adopted as its new narrative and moral inspiration the struggle for emancipation, the struggle for minorities to overcome the prejudices of the past and assert their rights. The civil rights and liberation movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s “threw a lifeline to a floundering liberal imagination, offering a matrix by which the present could be seen as standing in perpetual judgment on the past, allowing the Western hegemonic tradition of modernity to rebrand its anticonservative appeal….In grasping the lifeline, however, Western liberalism paid its price. From that point on, it became identified with one kind of moral cause to the exclusion of others. It became a church-party proper, a specific agenda to pit against other agendas.”
This picture of course reveals a number of deep problems within the liberal paradigm, but here’s the key one for O’Donovan’s purposes. The liberal agenda has simply posited the moral right of emancipation causes—the particular features and interests of any given minority party are really of little interest or importance to the liberal agenda. The liberal agenda simply drags minorities forward, says, “You know what you really lack? Equal rights, freedom from abusive prejudice. That’s what we’ll give you. And then you’ll have everything you need.” As O’Donovan sharply puts it, “The gay cause is grist for the liberal mill while it is in militant mode, for the mill processes victim classes in want of a fair deal.” But, once the cause has been dealt with, once homosexuals have gotten their equal rights, the liberal agenda will abandon them and move on to another cause.
Who we need to hear from, O’Donovan insists at the end of the chapter, are not the liberal activists, but gay Christians themselves. What is it that they are really looking for? How do they understand their experience, and what questions are they asking about how they fit into the Christian community? Until we start hearing answers to these questions from them, instead of from the liberal clergy, we will not be able to honestly evaluate the nature of the questions and challenges that the gay movement within the Church poses to the Church. O’Donovan concludes by asking, “Is the gay Christian movement still attached to the wheels of the liberal chariot, content with the victim mentality that the liberal program prescribes for it? Or can it present itself as the bearer of an experience of the human that is, at the very least, of irreplaceable important for our understanding of our own times? Is it of age, able to speak for itself? On the answer to that a great deal may depend.”
All this, I think, should be entirely uncontroversial. Perhaps the most strident among the evangelical ranks will protest that they have no interest in hearing the gay Christian movement “speak for itself”—just call these sinners to repentance, and have done with it, some will say. But this is surely not a Christian attitude—even if we are to assume that the gay Christian’s experience is wholly corrupt and sinful, with nothing constructive to offer (and we’ll come back to this), we are surely bound to listen sympathetically to the sinner even as we call him to repentance. And, as O’Donovan suggests, listening sympathetically is something that few among the evangelicals or among the liberals has done properly.