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Archive for June, 2011

Every now and then, one of the posts appearing in this blog becomes something more than the writer’s personal thoughts on a subject. It becomes a tool that is useful for teaching, preaching, and the spiritual formation of the entire church.  In this sense, it becomes authoritative, in that the church recognizes the value of the writing to its spiritual formation and desires to incorporate it into its life.

Douglas Dobbins, our Catholic representative within the community of the ‘Block, provided not just one such post, but a series of posts (eleven in all) in which he expounded on each clause of the Lord’s Prayer. Through these reflections, Douglas demonstrated the incredible depth and breadth of Jesus’ teaching on prayer to his disciples, pointing not to himself, but to his Lord.

Once the editorial team recognized the value of the posts to the church, the decision was made to publish the reflections first on the Spiritual Formation section of the Center for Theology, the area with articles, lectures, and sermons that have been recognized as useful to the entire church’s growth and development. You can read them by visiting the “Meditations on the Lord’s Prayer” portal page. Later, Douglas’ reflections will be published as a pamphlet to be made available to the churches of the Anglican Diocese of New England (ADNE) and elsewhere.

We would like to thank Douglas for being faithful to our Lord by providing such a valuable contribution to the church. In this, he has fulfilled on purpose of the Center for Theology: to provide excellent work in service to the church’s spiritual formation. We encourage our readers to take some time to absorb Douglas’ series on the Lord’s Prayer. They are good for the soul!

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It is a not uncommon experience to meet a fellow believer who “got saved” through an altar call at a retreat center, revival meeting, or Christian camp. It is also not uncommon to find that such believers are inconsistent church-goers; spiritual but not “religious” in the sense that their personal relationship with Jesus trumps any need to participate regularly in a church body. Since they repented of their fallen nature and accepted the redeeming love of Jesus at the altar call, they know they are going to heaven and the only thing they need to focus on is their personal relationship with Jesus. Church life, with its politics and hassles and irrelevant practices, takes away from the development of their own spirituality.

Dr. Paul Aganski, the head of the Adult Education Council at All Saints’ Anglican church in Amesbury, Massachusetts, calls those who possess such attitudes “People of the Middle,” that is, people who have embraced a central part of God’s redemption story — but only a part. In the grand scheme of God’s redemptive plan, which according to Paul is summarized as Creation –> Fall –> Redemption –> Judgment, believers who emphasize only the forgiveness of their sins by Christ are practicing an incomplete version of the faith that can be improved by incorporating all the elements in God’s story.

And so, in his article “In the Beginning: God’s Great Design,” Paul focuses on the first element in the story of God’s redemptive plan, Creation. Explaining how God had specific purposes for humanity when he created, Paul shows how the acknowledgement of God’s design help believers fulfill their creative purposes and prevent idolatry. Using a fun illustration with Dodge Viper, Paul shows how understanding the design of a Viper (by reading the manual) helps the driver to care for the car and enjoy it more fully. Similary, submitting ourselves to God’s plan by reading the Bible and obeying his precepts help us to maintain our spiritual lives and experience God fully. As Paul says,

God designed and created all that is, seen and unseen.  He made it happen according to His own blue print.  Only He knows how His creation functions best.  Thankfully, He has revealed that optimum functioning to us.  We can see it in nature.  We can read about it in the written word of Holy Scripture.  We can see it lived out in the lives of Jesus and the great cloud of witnesses we read about in the 12th chapter of the book of Hebrews.  We can also see it in the church when the church is faithful to God’s design.

Paul encourages the church to remember God’s creative purposes so we don’t become fixated on our sin (The Fall) or the forgiveness of our sins (Redemption) to the exclusion of all else. Take some time to read Paul’s article and reflect on the ways in which God’s creative purposes may enliven your faith.

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What kind of authority do pastors have over their congregation?

Usually, we want our pastors to be spiritual therapists who comfort us in our trials and tribulations, who remind us that God loves us. It is rarer, though, to think about our pastors as figures of authority who are entitled to exercise discipline over our lives. Sure, we understand pastors are shepherds, guiding and protecting the flock from danger, but usually we prefer that sweet image of Jesus the Good Shepherd cradling the sheep that ran away rather than the image of the shepherd using his crook to reign in unruly sheep by hooking them by their neck. Nevertheless, pastors are called to shepherd their congregations in in comfort and in challenge. How does the pastor maintain this balance?

The Rev. Brian Morelli addresses this question in his essay “The Pastor as Gatekeeper” in the Summer issue of the All Saints’ Center for Theology.

Fr. Brian outlines the broad responsibilities of the pastor,explaining the proper tasks of a pastor within his or her congregation. They include:

1) Teaching and preserving the gospel from false doctrine

2) Leading people into repentance and restoration

3) Preaching that leads to repentance

4) The administration of the sacraments

5) Counseling others into reconciliation

6) Leading others into social justice causes

Fr. Brian also discusses the limits of the pastoral authority, showing how the pastor’s authority focuses on the beliefs and behavior of the church rather than the physical property of the church. It is the responsibility of the vestry (the board of directors/trustees) to manage the physical and legal issues that arise within a parish.

We invite you to read Fr. Brian’s clearly written essay on pastoral authority. Come back here to offer your own thoughts!

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“John Williamson Nevin, architect of the nineteenth-century movement, the Mercersburg Theology, has increasingly gained respect as one of the most important theologians of American history and the broader Reformed tradition. Accompanied by the great historian, Philip Schaff, Nevin faced a headwind of American individualism, subjectivism, and sectarianism, but nevertheless forged ahead in articulating a churchly, sacramental theology rooted in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Drawing from the well of German Idealism and Romanticism, Nevin proposed a theological hermeneutic that was greatly at odds with the prevailing methods of his day. Nevertheless, Nevin persisted in his efforts, confident that the concepts of organic unity, catholicity, and incarnation offered a vital corrective to the tendencies of the American church and society. Hence, Nevin’s theological polemics, while often focused on matters of ecclesiology and sacraments, also have much to offer in the way of a much broader theology of history, mankind, and culture.”

…Thus reads the back cover of Adam S. Borneman’s Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy: The Social and Political Dimensions of John Williamson Nevin’s Theology of Incarnation. In this impressive new publication by the folks over at Wipf & Stock, Borneman introduces modern readers to the life and literature of John W. Nevin (1803-1886), a thinker with profound insights into the complex and controversial relationship between the Church and society. By locating Nevin’s work along the intersection of the political and ecclesial, Borneman lends his voice to contemporary conversations dealing with the Church’s call in, for, and over-against the modern socio-political landscape. As such, Borneman confronts head-on the growing pandemic of individualism, sectarian revivalism, and uncritical nationalism in American Protestantism.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Adam S. Borneman concerning his recent work:

What was it that initially sparked your interest in John Williamson Nevin?

In retrospect, my interest in Nevin resulted from a collision of several interests. I write about these interests in the introuduction to the book, but in short, there were basically three factors: My newfound interest in American historical theology, a curiosity about the hermeneutical role of liturgy and sacrament, and a desire to understand the broader Reformed tradition more thoroughly. All of these came together in my reading of Nevin. I was “awakened from my dogmatic slumbers,” to put it pretentiously.

Why do you think it is that Nevin has not garnered more interest in academic and theological circles?

There are many answers to this question. Historically, Nevin has been underappreciated because American theology has never latched on to the type of hermeneutic that Nevin and the Mercersburg theologians employed, opting for the commonsense realist approach rather than Nevin’s idealist, historicist, romanticist approach. Princeton’s domination of American theology – thus a common sense realist domination of American theology – during the most formative stages of American theological development did not help the Nevin cause, to say the least. What is more, the would-be students of Nevin are mostly in those Protestant communities that have been most deeply influenced by the Edwarsean and Princetonian traditions. There is much to be appreciated from these theological traditions, but they generally do not provide an easy route to Mercersburg.

Another historical phenomenon at play is the history of the German Reformed church, which, through a series of splits, reunions, and incorporation into other denominations, basically phased itself out of existence. It gets little press in American religious history, and neither does one of its major players, John Nevin.

I should also add that Hodge and co. are much easier to read than Nevin, who, like many other 19th century writers, was excessively verbose and long winded. Hodge was far more systematic and concise, which is why he is still read so widely to this day.

You speak throughout your book of Nevin’s fervent disapproval of many key Enlightenment tenets (individualism, nominalism, rationalism, etc.). What would you say was Nevin’s main point of contention with the Enlightenment project?

For Nevin, all of these “isms” (you might add “revivalism”) were part and parcel of a privatization of Christianity which he believed was inherently contrary to the nature of the body of Christ. For Nevin, the body of Christ, i.e. the Church, is essentially an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Individuals don’t make the church as much as they are called to the church. The “every man for himself” narrative of nineteenth-century American protestantism, taking its cues from the broader culture of privatization and fragmentation, was, for Nevin, a scandal to the gospel.

For Nevin, the Church is the historical extension of the Incarnation. Could you elaborate on what Nevin means by this?

No (ha!) This is a difficult concept, but one that is in many ways crucial to Nevin’s project as a whole. It would take quite a lengthy response to do justice to what Nevin means by this. E Brooks Holifield’s analysis of Nevin on this point is very helpful, and I gladly recommend his work on the topic. In short, I should at least point out that, for Nevin, this issue has much to do with his rendering of the visible/invisible church distinction, or perhaps I should say “rejection” of this distinction, at least as it is typically understood. It is important here to understand that Nevin is engaging with Hodge, who literally says that the church is not a visible society. This is, in my opinion, a huge misstep of Hodge, one which constitutes a rejection of the best of Calvin and subsequent Reformed ecclesiology. More specifically, because Nevin’s ontology insisted on an organic relationship between the ideal and the actual, he refused to concede a distinction between the visible and invisible church, opting rather to accept its mysterious nature as, once again, an instance of the ideal being organically expressed in the actual, and vice versa. For this reason, he linked his understanding of the church to the mystery of the incarnation, both of which he couched in terms of history and eschatology. Nevin’s theology is packed full of mystery and speculative reflection, and interpreters are forced to deal with such when reading Nevin on this point.

You write: “For Nevin, the church serves as the sole locus of humankind’s communion with and participation in the life of Christ. It is the historical stream of Christ’s life, giving life to those who enter its doors and become reconciled to God, by faith, through the gracious ministry of word and sacrament” (93). Is it safe to assume that Nevin would agree with St. Cyprian’s maxim that extra Ecclesium nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”)?

Simply put, yes, but it is important to emphasize the “by faith” component of participation in Christ. I would say that, on this point, Nevin is remarkably close to Calvin.

Early on in your book, you mention that for Nevin “creation itself is shot through with the organic, historical, sacramental character of God’s presence in his son, the incarnate Christ” (6). However, in your chapter on Nevin’s ecclesiology you write that there is “no presence of Christ in the world apart from the church, which is the very form that Christ’s body has taken” (92). Can you please explain the relationship between the church’s role as the solitary extension of the incarnation and the larger sacramental character of all of creation?

I’m pretty sure I wrote an answer to this question that is roughly 181 pages long (ha!). In short, its very important to read Nevin always keeping eschatology in mind. Nevin doesn’t typically employ “eschatology” in the same way that modern theologians do, but his entire framework is basically eschatalogical because it so intensely emphasises history and its final culmination in Christ. Even Nevin’s notion of the Incarnation needs to be understood as an historical, dynamic event that has an inherent telos in its very constitution. The analogia entis is very important here, because for Nevin, the “higher orders” of existence reach down and raise up the “lower orders.” So, creation can be said to be shot through with the presence of Christ because the church reaches back into history and to the lower orders of existence and ushers them unto their reconciliation with God. For Nevin, to deny the organic relationship between the church and creation would be to sunder the ideal from the actual, a division which for him is something of a cardinal sin. I wrestle with whether this is a “gracing” of nature that Nevin is attempting. It certainly sounds like it, but Nevin’s overwhelming affirmation of nature’s goodness leaves me wondering. As in so many other areas of Nevin’s thought, I think the difficultly lies in our unfamiliarity with Nevin’s brand of idealism, which needs much more attention, particularly from the philosophically gifted (i.e. not me!)

One of the most striking features of Nevin’s theology is his high sacramentology. For instance, according to Nevin, the Eucharist is the medium whereby “Christ communicates the whole of his life to the believer who receives it by faith” (98). Would you say that this is a departure from traditional Reformed theology?

Absolutely not. If anything, it is a salute to Calvin and an attempt to improve upon Calvin’s basic premises. I often direct folks to Institutes IV.xvii.11, where Calvin is anticipating Nevin in a number of ways, particularly in his comments about the Lord’s supper effecting redemption, justification, sanctification, and other benefits of Christ. It is important to read Calvin in context here, because he’s not going the route of Osiander, but it is nevertheless a striking instance of Calvin’s high sacramentology, one which should make Nevin more palatable for folks who are worried about betraying their Reformed tradition.

As the title of your book indicates, for Nevin there is an intrinsic relationship between the Church’s sacramental being/ministry and the “secular” political realm. Can you briefly describe Nevin’s understanding of this important relationship?

The last chapter and conclusion of the book hammer home this relationship pretty clearly, I hope. The best way to describe it is as “the liturgy after the liturgy.” This is a phrase I picked up from a Luther scholar describing societal reforms at the reformation, but I think it is quite helpful because it indicates the close connection between the work of worship and the work of “politics” (or whatever word we want to put there). Or, more specifically, I think Nevin would have us consider the fact that the liturgy of worship is something that disrupts the rhythm of the secular world. It has its own time, its own rituals, its own king, its own polity etc, and yet it is an an institution which influences many who participate in the secular liturgies of society. Nevin would have us think carefully about how the rhythm of worship should be the metronome and the leitmotif of our lives (to keep with a musical metaphor), setting the pace and the narrative by which we live in the world. Unfortunately, much of the protestant church has allowed the opposite – cultural liturgies are setting the rhythms of worship. This is a terrible irony.

Finally, why is it important that we consider the works of Nevin? What do you believe that Nevin has to offer to our contemporary ecclesial/theological context?

I suppose my answer to the last question could just be reiterated here. To address specifically ecclesial/theological context, I would say that Nevin forces us to rethink the importance of unity, catholicity, mystery, and the formative role of the Christian liturgy. He also offers an alternate way of thinking theologically, and whether or not one agrees with him, it is always good to critically engage with theological methods that will challenge us to be more clear and precise within our own theological traditions.

* * *

You can view a guest post by Adam Borneman at the All Saints Writers’ Block by clicking HERE. You can also order a copy of his Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy HERE

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Learn the faith and profess it; receive it and keep it—but only the Creed which the Church will now deliver to you, the Creed which is firmly based on the whole of Scripture.  For since not everyone is able to read the Scriptures, but some are prevented from learning them by illiteracy, others by lack of time, we summarize the whole teaching of the faith in a few lines, so that ignorance will not lead you to lose your souls.  I want you to memorize it word for word, and to recite it very carefully among yourselves.  Do not write it down on paper, but inscribe it in your memories and in your hearts…  Keep it as food for your journey at every moment of your life, and never accept another Creed apart from it, even if we ourselves change our minds and contradict what we are teaching now…  For ‘if we or an angel from heaven preach to you a gospel which is opposed to what you have been taught, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:8)… For the articles of the Creed were not put together by human choice; the most important doctrines were collected from the whole of Scripture to make a single exposition of the faith.  ~St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 5.12[1]

Icon of St. Cyril of Jerusalem

Cyril was the bishop of Jerusalem from 350 to 386.  He is remembered today primarily for a series a lectures he delivered to candidates there who were preparing for baptism on the Easter Vigil, of which this text forms a part.  He is also known for the significant liturgical reforms he supervised in the Jerusalem church.[2]  One of his important contributions was his emphasis on his church’s uniquely robust creed, which many modern scholars theorize formed the base of the Nicene Creed we recite to this day.[3]  It is this base creed that Cyril encourages his catechumens to memorize here.

The editor of the volume from which this translation is taken tells us that “Cyril subscribed to a form of sola scriptura doctrine.”[4]  Cyril stated “categorically that every doctrinal statement must be based on the Scriptures,” as for example in Catechesis 4.17 and Catechesis 16.24.  Cyril was indeed unequivocal on this point, going so far as to recommend to his catechumens that books reckoned “apocryphal” by the Church should not be read at all.[5]   This passage tells us, however, that Cyril also understands unequivocally that the Scriptures are only read properly as interpreted by the Church.  For ease of access, the Church has provided a summary of the proper interpretation in the form of a creed.  So sacred is even this interpretation—this creed—that Cyril cautions his catechumens to never accept a different creed even if the bishops themselves ever give them a new one, equating his warning with Paul’s own about false gospels.[6]  Indeed, the creed is not fundamentally a human invention at all, in as much as it only says in summary fashion what the whole of Scripture says.

The creed serves its function in a number of ways.  First and most importantly, it provides a concise summary of Scripture, upon which the Church’s doctrine has its ultimate normative foundation.   This summary then enables the Church to read the Bible in its constituent parts faithfully, so that the relationship between Scripture and creed is a dynamic interactive one; Scripture produces creed, creed illumines Scripture.  Second, it does this to prevent God’s people from being led astray by fanciful heresies or elaborate arguments.  Cyril himself had witnessed many people fall under the influence of Arian bishops and their strange creeds which denied the full divinity of Jesus, and his effort to safeguard his own catechumens from falling victim to a similar fate explains why he was so adamant that any other creed was invalid.  Third, to maximize its effect the believer is exhorted to memorize it and “inscribe it” on their hearts, in echo of the biblical notion of God’s law being inscribed on human hearts in the New Covenant age.[7]  In this way, it will be available for reference in “every moment of life.”

Even as Cyril articulates with potency the unique role of Scripture in the Church’s doctrinal and catechetical task, in his view Scripture cannot be read faithfully without the Creed, the Church’s interpretation of Scripture in summary.  Likewise when we read Scripture, we do not read it alone, but with the witness of the Church from ages past.  As we affirm that Scripture by itself “contains all things necessary to salvation,”[8] we nevertheless stand in the Church’s historic reading of the same that the Creed represents.  It is the Creed by which we know we are reading Scripture appropriately and believing the faith it reveals correctly.


[1] Edward Yarnold, Cyril of Jerusalem (The Early Church Fathers, London: Routledge, 2000), 113-4.

[2] Reforms we know of from these lectures and from the account of a pilgrim, Egeria, who visited Jerusalem at the very end of Cyril’s episcopate.

[3] What we call the “Nicene Creed” was probably first drafted at Constantinople in 381. It is thus known to scholars as the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed” to distinguish it from the creed drafted at the first Council of Nicaea in 325, of which it is a significant expansion.

[4] Yarnold, 56.

[5] Catechesis 4.33.  Read on to see Cyril’s approved list, both for the Old Testament (4.35) and the New (4.36).

[6] Cyril lived in an age when bishops were being deposed and replaced by meddling (and often heretical) emperors with nauseating frequency.  The “we” here then likely refers to bishops in general.  Cyril is thus trying to proactively prepare his flock to maintain the orthodox faith should he himself ever be deposed under similar circumstances (as in fact he was on two separate occasions!).

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In Exodus 31, the LORD tells Moses that Bezalel will be filled with the Spirit of God — the first time the “Spirit of God” dwells within an individual — so that he can make artistic designs for the LORD’s dwelling place among the Hebrews.  Here, the Holy Spirit acts the muse* for the Hebrews in order to inspire them to create beautiful things dedicated to the LORD.

Ever since then, godly people have struggled to understand what constitutes Inspired art from human, non-Spiritual art. When the Hebrews produced Inspired art, they used the finest materials at hand (fine linen, gold, silver, etc.). When they produced bad art, they fashioned crude idols out of common items such as mud and clay. The lesson here seems to be that beauty results from Godly inspiration — if it doesn’t come from God, then the Hebrews were led to fashion crude images made from the ugliest and cheapest materials.

But, of course, that is too simple. There is plenty of art deemed “beautiful” by the art critics of history that had nothing to do with the LORD; indeed, many beautiful things created throughout history were dedicated to other gods, in pagan temples that has nothing to do with the LORD and his people. Indeed, as this writer expressed weeks ago, there is a struggle even today to understand the nature of godly art from the ungodly.

St. Augustine of Hippo was one such person who struggled with these issues.  As Leah Easley discusses in her essay for the Summer issue of the All Saints’ Center for Theology, “St. Augustine: Theologian of the Arts,” Augustine rejected all forms of pagan art even as he embraced certain aspects of pagan philosophy — which possibly led him to embrace a flawed Christian aesthetic. As Leah explains, Augustine’s Neoplatonic impulses led him to favor the immaterial things, the things that existed in the ideal world rather the material things that express a crude, third-rate version of the ideal. In other words, Augustine’s artistic tastes were so caught up with heaven that they were no good on earth. This led to a rejection of the concrete, the sensible, and the sensuous, and this rejection has, according to Leah, “echoed down the ages.”

As part of the Think Tank, Leah’s essay invites us to explore the definition of a Christian aesthetic that produces beautiful, godly art. As we have seen from the story of Bezalel, God privileges art as a way for His highest creation to express their worship. It is then important for the church to reflect on the role of art in its liturgy, its churches, and even in its devotional life. So, we welcome your comments as we work toward the construction of an aesthetic pleasing to God.

* The idea of the Spirit of God as Muse from the story of Bezalel was first pointed out to me by Michael Lee in the comments section of my post “Without God There Is No Art.”

 

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Corpus Meum

Today, being the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, is celebrated in the Western church as the Feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for “the body of Christ”). This feast specifically celebrates the institution of the Lord’s Supper and invites the faithful to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s presence in this Supper. Now, if you are liturgically savvy, you might say, “Wait, don’t we already commemorate this on the Thursday in Holy Week as part of the Maundy Thursday activities?” And yes, in fact, we do. Maundy Thursday walks through those events in Christ’s life on the day before his crucifixion. We zoom in on that upper room where Christ washed his disciples’ feet and commanded his disciples to observe the celebration of the Eucharist.

The trouble is that Holy Week is such a somber season! Our Lord’s betrayal, passion, and death are right before our eyes; we have just been through the penitential season of Lent; we are very much focused on our own wretchedness; and thus we are hardly in the celebratory mood that a feast calls for. Now clearly there are penitential tones to the Eucharist, clearly we are called to contemplate our sin, Christ’s suffering and his death. But, there are also celebratory tones in the Eucharist: Christ is with us; Christ feeds us, Christ takes care of us; Christ animates us with his power. These are wonderful and deep themes of the Eucharist that perhaps get overlooked when we commemorate its institution on Maundy Thursday. Thus, the feast of Corpus Christi, a non-penitential, non-somber, non-downer commemoration of the Sacrament of Christ’s presence with us.

I am all for it. I think the Eucharist is a multifaceted (even infinitely faceted) aspect of Christian worship, and I think it is great that we can hone in on the celebratory tones of this mystery.

The trouble is that this feast has largely been the domain of the Roman Catholic Church and has therefore more often been a feast of propaganda for the doctrine of transubstantiation (which of course Anglicans find officially untenable).

So what is an Anglican with a love for the Eucharist to do? Well, let’s just appropriate the feast using our own Eucharistic theology; thus leaving behind the doctrine of transubstantiation and anything that follows from it (perhaps things like processions, monstrances, or benedictions). In fact, the Church of England even has lectionary texts for services on this day (more Anglicanly called the “Day of Thanksgiving for Holy Communion”).

I will end with this lovely prayer “Of the Holy Eucharist” from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (pg. 252):

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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