Monday, April 13, 2009

Reflections on an Easter Monday

So I slept in ‘til about noon and then spent most of Easter Monday afternoon watching the Dodgers beat the tar out of the Giants in the at home opener.

Then decided to check out the comments in the queue on Friday’s sermon and found them to include some interesting dialogue with this familiar pattern:

It seems that if one makes the assertion that Anglican comprehensiveness has historically extended to include a wide breadth of theological perspectives AND if one happens to espouse a perspective disagreed with by certain members of the self-styled "Royal Order of Defenders of Orthodoxy" one finds oneself being asked to defend one's position as if it were a doctoral dissertation. At least.

So here's an Easter Monday News Flash regarding theology:

It's all our best guess, anyway.

It's called the mystery of faith for a reason:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

And Augustine's definition of theology that has stood the test of time is FAITH SEEKING UNDERSTANDING.


As I said on Friday, if the theory of substitutionary atonement works for you as a way of understanding the saving grace of of God in Christ Jesus then party on.
But the Good Friday News Flash is that there are people of faith whose faith have led them to OTHER understandings -- and that didn't start at EDS in the '70's.
Those understandings are as old as the 1st century and as new as yesterday. And for ANY of us to have the hubris to think that we -- in our finite, puny, striving-to-be-faithful-and-screwing-up-anyway, pick-ourselves-up-and-start-over-again selves -- have such sole possession of the Absolute Truth that if someone doesn't pass our theology quiz they don't get to pass "Go" and collect Eternal Life, well ... let's just say that bears no resemblance whatsoever to anything historically Anglican.

So here's my radical Easter Monday suggestion: What if we worked ... maybe just try it out for these next 50 Days of Easter ... to all become a little more Elizabethan in our Anglicanism?

What if we could take on the discipline of worrying less about what was going on in other "men's souls" (in a more gender-inclusive 21st century kind of way) and worried more about where the fruits of the Spirit were blooming in our own.

You remember them, don't you? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?

Happy Easter, everybody. All 50 Days of It. And may YOUR faith seeking understanding continue to give you the grace to walk in love as Christ loved us -- and gave himself for us to show us how to love one another!


Fred Preuss said...

More Elizabethan? Do you mean trying to convince Irish Catholics by force?

Priscilla said...

Thank you! Just what I needed to hear. I am battle-weary and exhausted from trying to dialogue one-way with people who aren't willing to accept that there are different theologies within the Anglican communion and the Episcopal Church. Balm for my soul!

Easter joy and blessing to you!

Song in my Heart said...

It's all our best guess, anyway.Hear hear!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm all for more 'Elizbaethan' approach. ;~)

Neil Houghton said...

What we must all remind ourselves in the heat of the moment... or rather MOMENTS that we have all endured!

Thanks for your continued ability to communicate a deeply know and constantly needed message.

Brian F said...

Susan - I wasn't asking for a doctoral thesis to support your contention that your model of the atonement has origins in the first thousand years of church history - merely for some references to back up your assertion; otherwise what you are essentially asking for is a carte blanche to make up whatever theology suits you on the run - hence the drift away from Bible based Christianity that is occurring in ECUSA, resulting in a dramatic decline in ECUSA's membership apart from a few isolated pockets.

You are trying to stretch the principles of the Elizabethan Settlement beyond all reasonable bounds to encompass all kinds of bizarre and unBiblical doctrines.


Ironic that a "settlement" conceived -- beyond all reasonable bounds -- to emcompass the seemingly impossible coexistance of things protestant with things catholic in the 16th century is not deemed applicable to the current challenges of differences that we face in the 21st.

Happy Easter, anyway!

lou.poulain said...

Hey, Brian,
(Sorry, Susan, to butt in on your dialogue, but I can't help myself!)
"Bible based Christianity" is broader than adherence to a theological understanding rooted in one particular cultural, linguistic and philosophical perspective. I accept the witness of Scripture. I don't accept that it can only have one interpretation. BTW, you might find it interesting to read about atonement from a Girardian perspective, and I offer to you that writers like James Alison have no little insight into the topic.
Lou, Sunnyvale CA

uffda51 said...

Bible-based Christianity means different things to different people, including the writers of the Gospels.

Bible-based Christianity gave us an Anglican Church that condoned slavery and once owned slaves. Conservatives defended the practice. Progressives worked to abolish it.

Bible-based Christianity has given us millions of California voters who still believe homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. Conservatives support this view. Progressives work towards marriage equality.

Bible-based Christianly gave us a born-again President who authorized torture and spoke of preemptive war and occupation as a crusade. Progressives began interfaith dialog and held interfaith services.

Faith seeking understanding is an ongoing process. Thank God.

Hiram said...

In pondering the significance of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the first thing to be said is that no human being, no matter how studious, talented, and prayerful, will ever come to a complete understanding of those great events. They are beyond our ability to comprehend. But because we cannot know everything does not mean we cannot know anything.

A lot of our differences come from differences in methodology, as well as differences in some basic convictions about who God is and how we know anything about God.

I think that one large difference is that progressives think that the Elizabethan settlement means that, when two widely varying ideas meet, it is the Anglican way to try to “split the difference,” or to simply allow both ideas to co-exist, however uncomfortably, in the same institution. Or so it appears to me, at any rate. Conservatives, on the other hand, look at the Elizabethan settlement and see that the argument seems to have been how much “Tradition” to hang onto. Both the Catholic end of the spectrum and the Protestant end upheld Scripture as God-breathed and authoritative, and both agreed on the Creeds as a summation of the Christian faith. What varied were things like the nature of the Sacraments and their role in salvation, and lesser questions such as vesture and whether the Church properly had two or three orders of ordained ministers. These were important questions, to be sure – but they did not include the existence of the Trinity nor did they include whether human beings were sinful and in need of redemption. The Elizabethan settlement set wider boundaries than did the Reformed, the Lutherans, and the Anabaptists – but they did set boundaries even so.

There are of course a wide number of understandings of theological ideas. There are quite a few differing interpretations of scripture passage. But for the conservative, there are ways to evaluate those understandings and interpretations to determine which of those understandings and interpretations – or which “set” of them – gives the clearest and best picture of what the truth is. (Conservatives are liable to the sin of pride – at the same time, it seems to me that progressives are liable to claim a deliberate lack of clarity in order to do what they please.)

For the conservative, the first question is always, “What does the Bible say?” We are convinced that Scripture comes from the mind of God and the Bible tells us what God wants us to know. The Bible certainly does not tell us everything we would like to know, but it tell us enough so that we can know ourselves, know God, know how to come into relationship with him, and know how to grow in doing that which pleases and honors him. Different passages of course may have a number of interpretations – but we believe that the best interpretation will take the words, the grammar, and the context into account, as well as the setting of the original writer and the original readers.

We conservatives are not de-constructionists, who (from what I understand) think the meaning of a text is entirely in the mind of the reader, and not that of the author. Scripture is not a launching pad for ideas; it has a core meaning that can be agreed upon, even by such varying groups as the Mennonites and Eastern Orthodox.

I believe that the progressives have a different method of interpretation and of thinking theologically. I have to admit that I do not know how to describe that method because I am unable to discern what that method is. (I suspect that there are several different methods.) I sometimes think that the progressives regard Scripture and the various theological writings of people down through the ages as something of a “cafeteria” from which to select items, based upon criteria that I do not know – which seems to lead up to a wide variety of “a theology of” quite a number of different areas, but no overarching theology.

Dr Roger Nicole (Ph. D from Harvard, so no slouch), my master’s thesis advisor, said that Scripture uses a variety of types of language to speak about the meaning of the cross – language from the law court, language from the slave market, language from the altar, and one or two other areas. Each gives a slightly different picture of the cross, and none is sufficient in itself for us to grasp what God was doing through the crucifixion. But he also said that the doctrine of penal substitution was the core concept. Vicarious atonement is the “keystone” that holds all the other views of the atonement into a whole, just as the keystone of an arch holds the arch together. If you jettison the idea of substitution from the cross, you trash the book of Hebrews, you make Old Testament worship and ceremonial laws detached from any significance for understanding our faith, and you make many of Jesus’ statements about his purpose meaningless. What would “the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many” mean if substitution were not part of it?

A “mystery,” by the way, was originally used to speak of a revealed truth. Because it was revealed, rather than discovered, it was to be treated with great respect. Having been revealed by God, it was to be trusted and obeyed, even though there were areas that were opaque to understanding. A mystery is not an excuse to do what we want since we cannot understand it – it something to be respected and obeyed, especially since we cannot understand it all.


Hiram ... thanks for taking time to "flesh out" your perspective. Hope you're having a Blessed Eastertide!


PS -- And, just for contrast, my academic advisor was David Griffin -- a died in the wool process theologian -- and I (ironically, perhaps!) spent a great deal of time defending "my traidtion" as viable in a post-modern, post-Christian, post-theological context. Go figure!

Jim said...

Hiram's post above is an interesting subject in itself. He correctly I think, observes one of the problems. That is that the various 'sides' really do not understand how the others think, 'do theology' (if that is a term) or select their basic paradigm.

His description of his "conservative" approach is helpful but it really cries out for a response ad comprehensive and I don't think this business major is the right writer. I hope someone picks up their keyboard and responds.


Brian F said...

Thankyou Hiram for taking the time for your lucid explanation. The gospel has been explained to me as like a diamond with many different facets: reconciliation, redemption, ransom, adoption and justification - using terms from the market place, slavery, the legal court and the family - but again, as you say, with substitutionary atonement at the heart of it, which makes reconciliation, adoption etc possible. None of those terms fully explain the depth and breadth of the work God has done for us in Christ, but they all have a scriptural basis and were accepted by the early church, and putting it all together was far from "guesswork", which is a terribly disparaging term for the grappling of the church with doctrine. None of those facets of the diamond was "release from fear of death" however, so I am still waiting for Susan Russell to support her assertion that this was the main model of the atonement in the 1st 1,000 years of church history. I would like to see references from the primary sources: Scripture, the early church fathers and councils of the church; not from any literature of the last 100 yrs. Let's do our theology properly, even if it might fall into the category of process theology, rather than just making it up on the go.

Song in my Heart said...

My tuppence worth as a non-theologian with no training:

Whatever you say about what various bits of Scripture mean, there is a bit where Jesus is asked what is the most important thing.

His reply is as follows:

"The first commandment is this:
'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.'

The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'

There is no other commandment greater than these."

For me, any interpretation of Scripture which leads to me judging rather than loving my neighbour is one of which I should take extreme care.

It's all interpretation: I understand that even in the original languages there are ambiguities in the Biblical text. I'm not a scholar, I don't know enough Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic--or enough history--to interpret most bits. I have to rely on historians and theologians. But the Summary of Law seems clear enough. I'm not aware of any major theological disagreements over it.

I don't know how that relates to substitutionary atonement, and I don't know how it relates to other models of understanding the Crucifixion. I don't have a fancy name for my understanding, which in any case has been undergoing profound change recently. I don't deny that these things are important; but I think they are only important insofar as they help us to love and serve one another better. And I respectfully submit that I do have good Scriptural evidence for putting love and service of others as my top priorities.