"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In What Sense is the Bible the Word of God?

"For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do."
The Epistle to the Hebrews, 4:12-13

We recently read the above passage from Hebrews as part of the Sunday lectionary.  There are a great many passages of Scripture that speak of "the word of God" or "the word of the LORD".  This verse  from Hebrews is one of the more oft-cited references by Protestants, who almost uniformly would interpret "the word of God" here as referring to the Bible itself.  That interpretation could certainly be contested, based on the context of the passage (and other such passages, as well).  But for Christians of all traditions, the idea of the word of God is central to our theology and identity, and that idea is frequently strongly linked with the Holy Scriptures.  So, in what sense may we speak of the Bible as the word (or Word) of God?

In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis wrote,
"Naivete, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed [from the pages of the Bible].  The total result is not 'the Word of God' in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history.  It carries the Word of God..." 
F.D. Maurice, an influential nineteenth-century English priest and theologian, preferred to view the Bible as "the history of God's Word".  I like that.  I share with Lewis and Maurice a discomfort with the prevalent Protestant assertion that the Scriptures are the very Word of God.  I would rather assert that the Bible is the revelation of the Word of God.  That Word of God is Jesus Christ, the Divine Logos, the eternal, living, and active Person of the Trinity, and not to be confused with words written and bound in a book.  As revelation, the Holy Scriptures are indeed divinely inspired, and both Old and New Testaments, seen in the light of Christ, bear witness to the supreme and central revelation of God in the person of Jesus.  I accept that they are "the rule and ultimate standard of the faith" (Lambeth Conference, 1888), "containing all things necessary for salvation" (Articles of Religion).  But the fact remains that the Bible is a collection of books, written, edited, and collected by men, and subject to the influences of the various historical, cultural, and religious contexts in which the books were written.

I firmly believe that the Holy Bible is the divinely inspired revelation of God's Word, but the Very Word of God cannot be constricted and contained within a leather-bound cover, any more than God in all His fulness can be comprehended within the mind of man.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Redeemable Me (or, Not Totally Depraved, After All)

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen
Collect for the Season after Pentecost, Proper 23 

I was thinking about the Incarnation, and about its implications for the way we view the stuff of this earth, particularly our very selves.  In the Incarnation, God has embraced us, His earthy creatures, and this has profound implications for the way we view all manner of things, from our physical bodies to our approach to worship (I blogged about this previously  here).  As I was reflecting over this, I was reminded of something my priest said in a homily a while back.  She spoke of God as viewing humanity (and all creation) as good, at least enough so that we are 'redeemable'.  This is evidenced by the Incarnation, the ultimate and total embracing by God of His creation in Christ.

A further thought then occurred to me.  I don't consider myself a Calvinist, and I should note that I haven't done a lot of deep, scholarly study of Calvin and his theology.  Alright, actually, I can remember TULIP (my powers of information retention are impressive, are they not?).  And what does the 'T' stand for? Total Depravity!  That's pretty strong language, if you ask me.  If 'total' means 'entire', 'absolute', 'through and through', and 'depravity' means, well, 'depravity', then what does it mean to speak of God first loving us, 'while we were yet sinners'?  If we sinners beloved of God are truly and absolutely rotten to the core, sin-saturated beyond even any semblance of good,  then wouldn't we be correct to speak of God as loving that which is depraved?  And is that not a kind of perversion in itself, to love the perverse?  

Now, don't misunderstand me.  I certainly acknowledge that we all (that's right, I'm not just going to politely speak for myself) are beset by sin; we make choices that cause pain for ourselves and others and separate us from each other and from God.  I'm not down with a bland 'I'm o.k., you're o.k.' theology.  I would also say that we are ultimately dependent upon God for all good, for He is the source of every and all good.  But as regards how far we've fallen, I think I would have to draw the line somewhere before we get to 'total depravity.'  I would rather say that we are out of joint, mixed up, not right; as C.S. Lewis put it, 'something has gone wrong'.  But not totally.  God did not leave us entirely without the capacity for good (that should be obvious enough), but created us free, with the ability to choose the good or the evil.  That is not the same as the ability to unite ourselves to God through our own unaided efforts.  But, rather than conceiving of God as loving someone (or something, really) so totally and sickeningly depraved that we may well question the rightness of such love, it makes more sense to me to understand God as loving me, despite my sins, knowing the purposes for which He intended me, and able yet to see the potential my soul retains, however deeply buried it may be.  In the Incarnation, God says 'yes' to that buried good within each human soul.  We are not so far gone as to be beyond redemption.

I'm aware that the great minds and mystics of the Church have wrestled with such questions down through the centuries, plumbing the depths of both mind and spirit in the process (I'm also aware that I am not nearly so well-acquainted with the fruit of their labor as I should be), and so my thinking out loud here may just be so much pretentious rambling.  But, seeing as how I've plodded along this far, I may as well wrap up with a little flirtation with heresy.  I read a statement once (can't remember the source now) along the lines of there being a streak of Pelagianism that runs all through the history of Anglican spirituality.  Well, maybe so.  But then, maybe Pelagius was misrepresented, after all.  Maybe this is what he was getting at.            

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Yeah, I'd Like to Be a Priest

A few nights past I had a conversation with a friend who is an ordained Lutheran pastor.  I was sharing with him my experience of the last year and a half, as I've been "seeking to discern a call" to ordained ministry.  I've always felt awkward simply trying to articulate what it is I'm doing, this path of discernment, prayer, study, reflection.  "Seeking to discern a call" is how I usually phrase it; it sounds serious, but not too pretentious, or so I've supposed.  My friend asked what I could point to as an indicator that I should be an ordained minister.  There's no single thing upon which I can put my finger, just my abiding love of the church, and my interest in and affinity for all things ecclesial, my desire to serve Jesus faithfully, as well as a desire for work that is vocation, in which I can find fulfillment (something that seems increasingly absent in my current job), and in which I can help others in ways that are truly meaningful.

During the course of our conversation, he said something which I found very helpful.  He said that in his church tradition one would not really speak of being called to be a pastor until such time as a local congregation actually called upon the individual to come and serve them as pastor.  Not everyone who starts down the road to ordination actually becomes ordained, and there are those (teachers, chaplains, etc.) who are ordained but serve the church in ways other than as pastor of a local parish.  I could be ordained and discover that I am not, in fact, called to be a parish rector (I don't really see that being the case, but I am aware of that possibility).  This was not really news to me, but it was the language of "being called" in the context of our conversation that has been helping me think about things in a different light.  Maybe I should stop trying to be so pious about all this, like I know what I am talking about.  Maybe I should just be honest, naivete and all, and say simply, "I'm thinking about becoming a priest; I think I'd really like it."

Some time back, another friend of mine, an Episcopal priest, shared with me a story from when he was in the beginning stages of the ordination process.  He was at an interview with one of the professors of the seminary that he was seeking to be admitted to.  After being asked repeatedly why he was seeking ordination, my friend finally answered, somewhat in desperation, "I just know I want to be a priest."  I'm not sure that I've quite reached it yet, but I feel I'm pretty quickly moving to that place.  So, there it is: I think I'd like to be a priest.



Friday, October 12, 2012

Ramsey: Be on the Godward side of every human situation

I'm currently reading Michael Ramsey's The Christian Priest Today.  The book is written for priests, and those considering the priestly vocation, but the following passage is a great admonition for any follower of Christ.  This is from chapter three, Man of Prayer.
Amidst our contemporary tensions between traditional modes of prayer and the newer forms of secular spirituality, it helps to recapture the simplest meaning of our Lord's high-priestly intercession: to be with God for the people.  Anywhere, everywhere, God is to be found.  In your daily encounters with people, God is there: you can recollect him, you can be with him, you can share your doings with him, you can shoot arrows of desire from your heart to his: and all this will be for the people's sake.  You can be on the Godward side of every human situation; for the Godward side is a part of every human situation.  But you are unlikely to have the power to be on the Godward side of human situations if you think that it can be done by a kind of shallow secularized activism.  This is the fallacy that does so much damage at the present time.  The truth is that you will have the awareness of God and the power to be on the Godward side of human situations only if you carry with you into the day's ups and downs an "interior castle" of recollection drawn from your times of quietness and eucharist and scripture.  There is no by-passing the Psalmist's wisdom, "Be still and know that I am God", and there is no by-passing the example of our Lord whom Simon Peter found praying alone in a desert place a great while before day.  You will not try to be wiser than the Psalmist, or wiser than our Lord.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Changing Culture, Changing Worship?

I just finished reading Opening the Prayer Book, by the Rev. Jeffrey Lee.  It's part of "The New Church's Teaching Series."  It's the second book of the series that I've read (The Anglican Vision by James E. Griffiss being the other), and so far I've been pleased.  They are well-written as to style, and short enough to read fairly quickly, while remaining very informative.  They're popular, not scholarly, but I've never felt like I'm just reading an expanded version of a visitor's welcome pamphlet; the books strike a good balance between basic introduction and in-depth study.  I recommend.

In the last chapter of the book, Lee writes of "looking toward the future".  He notes succinctly that "One of the identifying marks of the Anglican way is its willingness to engage the realities of contemporary experience."  I would certainly agree.  But's it's another statement from the chapter that I've been chewing on.  Writing about change and revision to the prayer book (something of a continuous reality if we look at history, as Lee documents earlier in the book), Lee references a quote from the late Leonel Mitchell: "Language changes.  Culture changes.  Our worship is conditioned by both and must change in order to remain the same."

This is a thoughtful and challenging statement, and one with a couple of things to unpack.  First is the assertion that our worship is conditioned by language and culture (which, unarguably, are forever changing).  This may seem a bit threatening.  After all, is not our faith "an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast", as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it?  Consequently, Paul writes to the Ephesians that "we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves."  For myself, the idea of a culturally-conditioned worship brings to mind (to borrow from Niebuhr's typologies) the "Christ of Culture", ever-changing (one might say even manipulated), according to the shifting currents of society; not a happy vision, as I see it.  However, I think this is an overreaction.  To say that worship is conditioned by language and culture is not to say that worship is at the mercy of either.  It is, rather, an acknowledgment of what, on reflection, is quite obviously true.  The Christian faith, perhaps more than any other, has at least one foot firmly standing on the ground of this earth, for the whole of our faith points to this Man who walked the dusty roads of first century Palestine.  In the Incarnation, God enters our world and its culture.  Jesus lived within a specific and historically identifiable culture, and while He certainly challenged that culture, to maintain that the early church was not conditioned by its cultural setting is surely an exercise in self-deception.  Likewise, to read the Bible without a basic grounding in the varied cultural and historical backdrops that inform it is to choose to miss out on whole layers of understanding.  The culture in which we twenty-first century Christians live is much changed from that of the first century Roman world.  Not surprisingly, the church has undergone changes as well.

Which brings us to the second assertion of Mitchell's: our worship must change in order to remain the same.  Even the most cursory study of the history of the church will reveal that the church has evolved and changed in many ways over the course of two millennia, with the exception of the Eastern Orthodox (just kidding; sort of).  This in itself is not surprising.  What Mitchell proposes is, I think, a unique way of explaining such change.  On the one hand, it seems reasonable to say that the changes we observe in the church's worship are simply due to the influence of a changing external culture.  While Mitchell acknowledges this to an extent (as per the first assertion), he also claims that there is a very intentional logic behind the change.  The church intentionally changes the outward form of worship in order to keep alive the spirit that lies behind the form.  As the church, we are called to render worship faithfully unto God, and I certainly believe that there are right and wrong ways to do so; a change in the church's established forms of worship is no flippant thing.  But the church is not called only to worship.  As Jesus reveals in His 'high-priestly prayer' to the Father, even though we are not of the world, we remain in it.  And it is in this world that we are also called to follow the way of Our Lord: to love our neighbor, to seek the lost, to make disciples, to stand in opposition to the injustices of the kingdoms of this world, to embrace the cross.  If a particular form of worship, which  empowered the faithful to do these things in another place and time, is no longer serving to facilitate this call, why should that form of worship not change?  Indeed, is it not necessary that it change "in order to remain the same", that is, to continue to enable the church to proclaim and live the Gospel?

The real question, as I see it, is neither to determine whether or not our worship is conditioned by culture, nor whether it should change.  The question is: How do we take part in a continual, intentional renewal of worship in a way that facilitates the mission of the church today while also preserving the integrity of the faith we have received?  At what point does a well-intentioned, missional attempt to change the form of our worship cross the line and begin to erode sound doctrine and the foundations of the faith?  Are there areas in the church today where this line has already been crossed?

What do you think?