Where We Start and Where We Finish

090815-N-7280V-339Whether systematic or not, all theologies rely on a set of underlying philosophical principles. Sometimes these principles are openly acknowledged, sometimes not, but either way the end point of a given theology is largely determined by where you start. This became somewhat apparent to me in the recent conversation about satisfaction in which a number of Eastern Orthodox commenters said that the scriptural passages that refer to God’s wrath must be metaphorical because wrath simply does not fit into the picture of a loving God. In other words, a particular understanding of the doctrine of God drives the interpretive model of Orthodox theology. There is a rich and diverse theological landscape that one finds in Orthodoxy, but it is all rooted in a common beginning point that sets the stage for how the rest is to be received and processed.

This is not dissimilar to what happens in other theological traditions. Like Orthodoxy, Calvinism also begins with the doctrine of God, particularly emphasizing God’s sovereignty, which leads to a whole host of conclusions about how salvation works, what the purpose of the Christian life is, etc. Lutherans start with justification and the cross. Baptists start with personal conversion and transformation. Roman Catholics begin from the doctrine of the Church and particularly the petrine ministry. None of that is to say that these traditions only care about those things. That would be overly simplistic. Nor is it to suggest that they do not examine all the evidence. A good deal of energy is wasted in our disagreements among ourselves as Christians when we shout verses of Scripture or passages from the Fathers at one another, as if the other side is unfamiliar with them and had never considered them before. For the most part, the difference between varying Christian traditions is not in the evidence. It is in the way the evidence is processed. It is a divergence of first principles that separates us and makes it difficult for us to understand one another.

Wherefore Art Thou, Anglicanism?

In light of this, I have been puzzling over the question of what the starting point is for classical Anglicanism. It is a difficult question to answer for several reasons. Since modern Anglicanism is so drastically divorced from its classical sources, in most enclaves of Anglicanism today the starting point for our theology is being provided by some other tradition. But even where there is consistency with our historical theology, there remain several viable candidates for an Anglican first principle. Classical Anglicanism takes very seriously the notion of common worship, for instance, and so a compelling case can be made for worship as the starting point of our theology. Likewise, there is a good case to be made that the starting point for classical Anglicanism, like Roman Catholicism, is the doctrine of the Church. The Anglican reformers and divines certainly placed a great deal of importance upon both common worship and the doctrine of the Church, but the more time I spend considering this question, the less I think that either of these  are the starting point for our theology rather than the natural fruit that comes from having a theology built upon our actual first principle.

Grounded in Revelation

In the nineteenth century, as the Anglican Communion began to take shape, a great question hung in the minds of Anglicans about how to build bridges with the wider Christian world without losing our own distinctiveness. This question fueled the writing of William Reed Huntington’s classic The Church Idea and eventually led to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which remains a hallmark of Anglican theology to this day. The original purpose of the Quadrilateral was simply to lay out the terms upon which the reunion of the Christian Church might be established, paring down to the bare minimum of what is necessary for a body of Christians to be properly called a church. However, over the years, as the Anglican Communion has drifted further and further away from her own foundations, the Quadrilateral has become something of a homing beacon, guiding us back to our roots and to our core convictions. I have written here before about what the Quadrilateral has to say about the sacraments and about the ministry. However, there is an inherent order to the four points of the Quadrilateral, and what we believe about Baptism, the Eucharist, and the episcopate, comes directly out of the first two points of the Quadrilateral:

(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.

(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.

The Anglican Reformation was not about creating something new but about recovering something old. What the Anglican reformers discovered when they read the Fathers of the earliest era of the Church was that they held a particular care for Scripture and they exercised a way of reading Scripture that animates all of the Church’s life with the Holy Spirit. It became immensely important to the renewal of the Church of England that Scripture form the foundation of every doctrine, not in an individualistic fashion in which each man reads and makes up his own mind, but in a communal and traditional fashion, in which the Scriptures are read as the Church has received them. Responding to Rome, John Jewel wrote in his 1562 Apology for the Church of England, “Wherefore, if we be heretics, and they (as they would fain be called) be Catholics, why do they not, as they see the fathers, which were Catholic men, have always done? Why do they not convince and master us by the Divine Scriptures?”

Scripture, Tradition, and Reason Redux

The starting place of Anglicanism is the doctrine of revelation. That is the doctrine that colors how we see all else. Our tradition is founded upon Scripture, tradition, and reason, not as three co-equal categories, and certainly not as three legs of a stool, but as three interconnected parts of a whole fabric of divine revelation that cannot be separated if we wish to see the complete picture of the Gospel. Holy Scripture provides the foundation and it is the final authority. But Holy Scripture cannot be properly understood outside of a conciliar framework. The ancient creeds are affirmed along with the Scriptures because they truly teach what the Scriptures reveal and because they represent the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit within the Church to speak God’s Word to us, not a new Word for each generation but the same Word truly explicated. When we read Scripture in conjunction with the creeds and the teaching of the Church, we can apply reason to our reading to see the patterns and the order that exists in the Scripture. Reason and tradition do not prove anything about God for us apart from their consistent grounding in the Scripture. Scripture needs tradition and reason to be properly understood, but Scripture steers the ship. Even though reason would lead us to expect logical patterns in what Scripture reveals, we correct our faulty, fallen reason with the Scripture and allow God’s revelation to lead the way, even when it seems to lead us into seeming contradiction, even when it seems to lead us away from what we held before. We accept the correction of Scripture, read through the conciliar and patristic tradition, and when we do so we assume that new light will emerge for our reason to ascertain.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

This starting point in the doctrine of revelation differentiates Anglicanism from Rome and the east because classical Anglicanism requires an unswerving fidelity to the Scriptures as the fullness of revelation and the final authority. The Fathers are held in the utmost respect in Anglicanism, but they are not a means unto themselves. By their own writings, they bound themselves to the Scriptures and they bid us to do the same.

On the other hand, Anglicanism’s rock solid insistence upon reading the Scriptures within the life of the Church and through the lens of the Fathers prevents Anglicanism from collapsing into fundamentalism and the rampant individualism of modern Evangelicals and Liberals (excepting, of course, our own Evangelicals and Liberals who eschew Anglican principles in favor of their own). Nor does classical Anglicanism fall into the trap of confessionalism, writing in stone that which the Church has not yet received in a catholic, conciliar fashion. Our formularies are of paramount importance to us, but they are not absolutes. The Book of Common Prayer can be revised. The Catechism can be expanded. The Articles express the Catholic faith, and yet there is freedom for evolution of thought in how we understand and apply them, so long as we do not traverse their plain, grammatical sense.

Where Do We Want to Go?

How does this work in practice? Well, for starters, it means that there is nothing in our theology that we need to protect from Scripture. Returning to the conversation about satisfaction, for instance, Scripture paints for us a picture of a God who is loving and who exercises wrath against sinners. The tradition confirms this picture and puts it in context along with the full range of imagery that Scripture employs. And reason tells us that, while we might see a contradiction between God’s love and His wrath, the problem must not be with what Scripture reveals but with our perception. The starting point determines the outcome. We start with God’s revelation and therefore that is also where we end up, standing in awe, gratefully receiving the mystery of God.

Of course, as with everything else, the degree to which Anglicanism produces this kind of theological fruit is in direct proportion to how faithfully Anglican churches adhere to authentically Anglican principles. It is considerably easier, especially today, to adopt a different theology under the banner of Anglicanism and follow it out to its natural conclusion than it is to rely on the musty, overlooked Anglicanism of the past. But if our starting point becomes something other than God’s revelation, our ending point will be equally divorced from the truth that has been revealed in Jesus Christ. If God’s truth is where we want to end up, then it makes little sense to start anywhere else than in what God has actually said.

Photo is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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35 Responses to Where We Start and Where We Finish

  1. Astute observations. I agree that our a priori assumptions determine so much. Materialsim (in the anti-spirit sense), free will (or not), and a host of other things play heavily into how we reason. This presuppositions are worth examining, and should be examined as well.

    I find it interesting that you land at Scripture as the “base” on Anglican thought. Not that I disagree, but because I was raised in a tradition that heralded Scripture as the sole authority of our faith (leaning toward fundamentalism) and see, if you’re correct in your assessment, I’m in a tradition with a similar foundation now.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Chris,

      Not to put too fine a point on it, but what I said was that our starting point was the doctrine of revelation. Scripture is, of course, the most important part of that equation and there is no revelation that does not have its root in Scripture. Nonetheless, our notion of how one understands Scripture, through the teaching of the Church historically and the application of well formed reason, would not sit well with many “Bible alone” Christians. The fullness of the doctrine of revelation assumes the teaching of the Church.

      • Well said, and you are correct. I concur. I have moved away from a fundamentalist-leaning view to a more orthodox view of revelation (I hope!)

      • Aaron says:

        I find the idea that revelation is confined to Scriptures problematic . Revelation is not something that happens in the past, else what is the role of the Holy Spirit? And what of natural revelation?

      • Andrew Nixon says:

        The Truth was ONCE delivered to the saints there is NO NEW revelation:

        Jude 1:3 Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

        As for the role of the Holy Spirit:

        John 15:26 “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me,”

        John 16:13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.”

        As for “natural revelation” you may find these articles helpful Aaron:

        http://creation.com/scripture-and-general-revelation

        http://creation.com/general-and-special-revelation

  2. LauraC says:

    I am a reformed believer attending a Wesley church (!!!!) I was baptized & confirmed in the Episcopal Church and belonged to one until my late thirties (15 years ago.) I was especially interested in your paragraph labelled “Scripture, Tradition, and Reason Redux.” The Wesleyan church has a “Quadrilateral:” “Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.” I can only speak to MY individual church (since I have attended only one Wesleyan church), but for most of the people there (including the leadership, but not the pastor) “scripture’ means “Me, my bible, and the Holy Spirit,” “tradition” is “how WE’VE always done it,” “reason” is totally ignored except as in “that sounds reasonable, I’ll think on it, maybe,” and “experience” is king, probably even above scripture. Do I sound a little discouraged? I used the word “commentaries” in Sunday School this past week and was told that that’s “that theology and college stuff,” with a mocking voice. This from one of the church leaders and the Bible class Sunday School teacher. What’s funny (not really) is that he spent most of his adult years in an Episcopal church. Say a prayer for me, I love these people, love the pastor (although we disagree on a number of issues), and, up until lately, thought that I was able to bring a little knowledge into the conversation. The one positive to come out of all this is that I now pray several times a day for my poor discouraged pastor, who grew up in the denomination, but is getting quite disenchanted with it. Especially since he himself has some of “that theology and college stuff” behind him now.

    • LauraC, you raise a good point. The words “Scripture, Tradition, Reason” are not without their own meaning. Scripture doesn’t just mean me and my bible and the Spirit, but me in the Church guided by competent spiritual teachers reading the Bible through the lens of the Church Fathers.

      “Tradition” to many protestants is reduced to mere local practice in historical continuity – “we’ve always done it that way” on the level of liturgical practice and where we put the tables in the fellowship hall. But “Tradition” in the Anglican sense (borrowed largely from our Roman Catholic roots) means capital S Sacred capital T Tradition: the entire process of Jesus’ promise coming true that the Holy Spirit will lead the Church (not individuals, but the apostolic Church) into all truth. That means the Creeds, the Councils, the canon laws of the councils, the curses within the creeds, the Ancient Fathers, even the Jewish cultural and ethnic milieu of the Old Testament. Why did Jesus not speak about homosexuality, for instance? because the entire cultural and religious identity of the Jewish people from day one was against it on grounds of God’s self-revelation through the Law, so He didn’t need to – so that becomes part of Sacred Tradition, the continuing revelation of God to the world through His miracle, the Church.

      “Reason” gets reduced, as you say, to “Well shoot, that sounds right to me!” or even worse, an attitude where everyone’s an expert on theology, and no one can tell you what you should or shouldn’t believe (ESPECIALLY not the clergy! I really don’t need a pastor all that much…). It becomes a pride in being unguided; when the Scriptures constantly tell us that to eschew correction is the work of fools; that we need to be taught, be guided in the Christian faith and life. The Orthodox say that whoever chooses himself as a spiritual director chooses a fool, no matter how mature a Christian he seems to be. Individual common sense is simply not a good enough guide to challenge us at our deepest level and make us grow. We are too little critical of ourselves in some areas and over critical of ourselves in others. Still less does “Reason” mean human rationality and philosophy. St. Paul specifically warns against that. In the Anglican sense, “Reason” means the best judgement of the conciliar church’s proper authorities, such as synods, councils, archbishops, and in the case of the CofE, monarchs. It is NEVER meant to be an individual’s reason. Individuals in the Church of England had only two duties: follow the teachings of the Church and obey the King. It was only the Church gathered on a less-than-catholic scale that could exercise “reason” to make a good judgement for its own local circumstances about matters that were not specifically mentioned by Scripture and in Sacred Tradition.

      In your Wesleyan tradition, it’s no wonder Experience is king. John Wesley’s turning point came when he experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Aldersgate, and all the Wesleyan denominations carry that theme through: the United Methodists, other Methodists, Wesleyans, Church of the Nazarene, even Pentecostal Holiness. It’s what makes your church’s pedigree unique. Most Pentecostal (Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, others) and Charismatic (foursquare, full gospel, others) denominations would agree; where the older denominations like Presbyterian, Baptist, congregational, and Anglican were around before Wesley started talking about the Spirit, so their identities hang on other issues. Anglicans would mostly say that Experience does not belong in the three-legged stool because we experience the Spirit through Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the conciliar Church’s best judgement – the other three contain “Experience” in themselves.

      • LauraC says:

        “where we put the tables in the fellowship hall” Oh yes, exactly! Have you been to my church? ;)

  3. Levi Nunnink says:

    This is an extremely helpful article, Fr. Jonathan. Thank you for your clear-thinking (and writing) on this issue.

  4. FatherThorpus says:

    “Well, for starters, it means that there is nothing in our theology that we need to protect from Scripture.”

    Sheer brilliance.

  5. Robbie says:

    Father Jonathan, thanks so much for this. Very helpful.

    To get back to your previous post, nothing you say here would preclude an Anglican from rejecting penal substitution theories, no? It seems to me that one of the great gifts of the church catholic, and the Anglican tradition in particular, is that we are not committed to any one single theory of the atonement – not the least of which is ‘justification by faith.’ All Christians, though, are committed to the centrality of the cross; but as to what this means exactly, we have sufficient warrant to vary. Julian of Norwich – very much an Anglican theologian – comes to mind as one example. (Apologies if this has already been said – I’m a little late to the party!)

    Robb

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Robbie,

      I don’t want to reiterate the last conversation too much, but I think that what Anglicanism needs to affirm is the doctrine of satisfaction, as it is expressed in the prayer book, because it is affirmed and articulated by both Scripture and the tradition. There is no necessity for us to be absolutely wedded to one particular formulation of that, but we cannot avoid what Scripture has to say about it. Simultaneously, though, we cannot ignore the other words about the atonement that we find in Scripture. Substitutionary atonement does not preclude Christus Victor, ontological models, or any other model. Reason tells us that all of these images go together, even if we cannot immediately see how.

      Justification is a slightly different though related topic. Suffice it to say, if we drop justification by faith, it is hard to see how we have much of a Bible left at all.

      • Robbie says:

        Hey Father Jonathan, thanks for the clarification!

        RE justification by faith, I’m using it as a proxy to say that much hinges on how we interpret the pistis language in the NT, rather than being committed to _Justification by Faith_ as a school of thought. For instance, it’s not at all clear to me how some of this Lutheran/ Reformed doctrine aligns with Scripture, especially when so much NT scholarship, Anglican theology, and Prayer Book language push against a simple reading of a contractual relationship between God and the world (or even NT scholarship/debate around the faith of Christ or faith in Christ), as opposed to the all encompassing apocalypse (or revelation) of Christ.

        But this is only a round about way to get to your larger point. Yes, “we start with God’s revelation,” but this always requires the work of interpretation. This is why, I think, Anglicanism, uniquely perhaps, allows some leeway in interpreting how we think through the apocalypse (the word Paul uses) of Jesus Christ. And one that better aligns with the Prayer Book, Scripture, Tradition, the liturgy and reason. You probably saw this already, but Father Aiden’s blog touches on this: http://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/becoming-a-new-creation-with-the-apostle-paul/

        Hope this makes sense!

        Cheers,

        Robb

  6. Andrew Nixon says:

    “We hold these truths to be self evident” – what may be true in the quoted instance (it took a four year War to suppress the Confederacy into accepting it and to this day many in their hearts do not accept it ie. the negro as equal!) is axiomatically not true in Christendom.

    As Iain Murray highlights in his masterful “Evangelicalism Divided”

    (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_15?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=evangelicalism%20divided&sprefix=evangelicalism+%2Caps%2C571),

    the fundamental and irreconcilable problem in Christendom is the question “Who or what is a Christian”. Until that question can be put to bed all other discussion is superfluous and as a Young Earth Creationist and Pre-Tribulation Rapture Pre-Millenialist, I know superfluous!

    In a recent study of The Fathers views on Baptismal Regeneration I came to the conclusion that Christendom will never agree the Fundamentals of the Faith as those very Fundamentals are open to interpretation and there is NO consensus on ANY Doctrine whatsoever. Like beauty, the meaning of Scripture is in the eye of the beholder. Neither Scripture, the Creeds nor the Fathers are of any ultimate assistance. De facto “private interpretation” will always be the order of the day whether at an individual or corporate level.

    Now that truly is the gauntlet thrown down!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Andrew,

      What it sounds like you’re grappling with is the postmodern notion that words have no meaning. There is some truth to the fact that it is hard for us to come to understand one another sometimes. If I say the word “car,” you may think of a Ferrari and I may think of an old Studebaker. Both are cars but they’re both very different from one another. Nevertheless, there is a definite meaning to the word “car.” If I say “car” and you think of an aardvark, that is not just your personal interpretation against mine. You have, at that point, completely redefined “car” away from its plain meaning.

      I would suggest that the interpretation of Scripture is something like this. There is room for disagreement, but much of what is there is clear and specific. Moreover, the way we read is guided by the teaching of the Church through the centuries, which keeps us from importing new meanings into old words as our use of language and our culture changes. Certainly, an individual can go off with his or her Bible and come up with all sorts of goofy stuff, as many people do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a free for all and any interpretation is correct. It matters not just that we read Scripture but how we read it. And how we read it is in the context of the Church with the whole tradition guiding us along.

      • Andrew Nixon says:

        “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
        Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
        “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
        “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
        “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
        “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
        Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

        Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” (1872)

        Do you ever fear Brother Jonathan that Humpty Dumpy Hermenutics is the order of the day in today’s “Church”.

        I see no-one is taking the bait in daring to define “who or what is a Christian?”. Interesting!

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Hi Andrew,

        I am continually amazed at how much the American Church today resembles Wonderland. This passage is no exception.

        In terms of “who” or “what” is a Christian, that is really not the discussion of this thread. There are answers to that question, of course, and if you’d like I can try to address some of them in some future post.

      • Andrew Nixon says:

        That would be most instructive Dear Brother Jonathan.

      • Aaron says:

        The very idea that Scriptures are the sole authority in Christian life is the problem. Because once you make only the Bible the ultimate rule, you open the door to private judgement, and fundamentalism and liberalism are both its children.

        If the Church is the intepreter of the Bible, then I think Anglicanism has some explaining to do why it took such a radical turn from the rest of Christendom… because in many cases the theology or practice is far from either Rome or the East. There is no substantive veneration of saints or the Mother of God, the Eucharist is not explicitly affirmed as becomming the Body and Blood of Christ in the classical Anglican formularies, either (it is frankly fudged), and in both Rome and the East, the Eucharist is a sacrifice offered by the priest for the living and the dead, whereas in Anglicanism this is often denied.

      • Andrew Nixon says:

        Aaron can you give chapter and verse where we are told:

        1. To venerate “Saints” (all Blood washed New Testament Believers are Saints according to Scripture) or the “Mother of God” (an unscriptural term)

        2. That the Eucharist becomes the body and blood of Christ (never mind how that would be ontologically possible)

        3. That the Eucharist is a sacrifice offered by the priest for the living and the dead (the Scriptures make clear there was only ONE sacrifice made for sin ie. Yeshua at Golgotha)

        If there are no Scriptural affirmations on what revelatory Authority are these assertions made?

  7. Fr Hermogen Holste says:

    Dear in Christ Fr Jonathan,

    Orthodox Christians do not regard that the language of divine wrath as metaphorical because it does not align with our theological presuppositions, but rather because it is a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy that *all* of our language about God is metaphorical. God cannot literally become angry, any more than He can wake from sleep; He is unchanging and ‘without body, parts or passions’.

    I readily affirm the truth in the Scriptural metaphor of God’s wrath, just as I affirm the truth in the equally-Scriptural metaphors of God as a drunken warrior, a wounded cuckold or a violent she-bear. However, these and all other Scriptural metaphors must be interpreted in the light of the overarching narrative of the Scriptures, and more especially in the light of God’s perfect self-revelation in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we see that God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live, and that sins should be forgiven unto seventy times seven.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Fr. Hermogen,

      That is, of course, one way of looking at it, and I can understand why it would be important for an Orthodox to stake out that position. However, even in what you’ve just said here, you reiterate the fact that Orthodoxy starts from a particular position and interprets all else in light of that position. “It is a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy that *all* of our language about God is metaphorical.” That is a presupposition. It is a hermeneutic. And there’s nothing wrong with having a hermeneutic. Everybody has one. But that has to be owned and acknowledged, and then presumably defended on some basis. I don’t find it to be a terribly helpful hermeneutic because it easily writes off that which strikes us as uncomfortable about God. Of course there is language in Scripture about God that is metaphorical. God is not literally a mother hen, for instance. But there are also plenty of places where the language is not metaphorical. When John 4:24 says that God is spirit, that is not a metaphor. When 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love, that is not a metaphor. So if God’s wrath is a metaphor, the case must be made for it from the text, and it is difficult to make the text support such a claim without summarily dismissing it.

      • Fr Hermogen Holste says:

        ‘Pneuma’ means wind or breath. To apply it to God is most certainly a metaphor. To say that God is love is also a metaphor; He is not literally an intense human feeling of profound affection.

        Even if you go with Aquinas’s terminology, and distinguish between those things which may be stated of God metaphorically and those things which are meant literally, you still have to acknowledge of even the ‘literal’ names that ‘as regards their mode of signification, they do not properly and strictly apply to God; for their mode of signification applies to creatures.’ (Summa Theologica, Part 1, Article 3)

        No human language is capable of adequately describing God. This, as far as I know, is not simply a doctrine of Eastern Orthodoxy, but basic Christian teaching. As St John of Damascus writes: ‘The Deity being incomprehensible is also assuredly nameless. Therefore since we know not His essence, let us not seek for a name for His essence. For names are explanations of actual things. But God, Who is good and brought us out of nothing into being that we might share in His goodness, and Who gave us the faculty of knowledge, not only did not impart to us His essence, but did not even grant us the knowledge of His essence. For it is impossible for nature to understand fully the supernatural. Moreover, if knowledge is of things that are, how can there be knowledge of the super-essential? Through His unspeakable goodness, then, it pleased Him to be called by names that we could understand, that we might not be altogether cut off from the knowledge of Him but should have some notion of Him, however vague. Inasmuch, then, as He is incomprehensible, He is also unnameable. But inasmuch as He is the cause of all and contains in Himself the reasons and causes of all that is, He receives names drawn from all that is, even from opposites: for example, He is called light and darkness, water and fire: in order that we may know that these are not of His essence but that He is super-essential and unnameable: but inasmuch as He is the cause of all, He receives names from all His effects.’ (Exact Exposition, Book 1, Chapter 12)

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        First, can we agree that, whether this notion of all God language being metaphor is a hallmark of Christian orthodoxy or not, that it is a presupposition through which we read the text? This is not to say whether it is right or wrong, but simply to acknowledge the function it is has in interpreting revelation.

        Second, there is an important distinction to be made between saying that language about God is not comprehensive of all that God is and saying that language about God is metaphorical (IE, not completely true). The former is certainly a hallmark of Christian theology. “God is love” does not capture God or encapsulate God, as if we can read that sentence and know everything that there is to know, but neither is it simply a metaphor. God is not like love. God is love. God is not like spirit. God is spirit. There is much more to God than those words express, but there’s certainly not less. This is also significantly different from, for instance, when Jesus compares God to a judge, a king, a vineyard owner, etc. In those places, the language is clearly metaphorical. It is telling us something important and true about God, but it is obvious that God is not actually any of those things (at least in human terms – He is certainly both a judge and a king, but of a kind much greater than we can comprehend).

      • Fr Hermogen Holste says:

        Okay, Fr Jonathan, now I think we’re getting somewhere!

        I would largely agree with your first point, though I would emphasise that the incomprehensibility of God is not something that we bring from the outside to our interpretation of divine revelation, but is itself part of the content of divine revelation.

        With the second point, I think we arrive at the real issue, one, as is so often the case, of terminology. I would not say that a metaphor is not completely true. Quite the opposite! Metaphorical language expresses truth through the use of words and symbols that do not apply to the subject of discussion in their usual, direct and literal (i.e., human) sense. Metaphors for God are true, as far as they go, but they do not exhaust truth. When we start to think they do, we create idols.

        God is my rock, but my rock is not God.
        God is Father, but my father is not God.
        God is good, but He is not good as men ordinarily conceive goodness.
        God exists, but He does not exist as men ordinarily conceive existence.
        God is God, but He is not a god, as men imagine such entities.

        All human language falls short of describing the divine essence, which is why St Dionysius insists that the only way we can avoid the peril of idolatry is simultaneously to affirm and to deny everything we say about God. It is true that God is love and that God is spirit, but the concepts that arise in my mind when I hear those statements, no matter how refined and elevated, are inadequate at best. If ever I let myself forget that, I risk fashioning a golden calf out of the earrings of my own imagination, and proclaiming with Aaron, ‘These be thy gods, O Israel.’ In fact, this risk is rather greater when the concepts are more spiritual and exalted. I’m not very likely to think that God is actually a drunken warrior or a cuckold, but I’m more likely to be drawn astray by the notion that He is a spiritual presence permeating the universe, or the power of love.

        For a book discussing this apophatic approach to theology in the Western Christian tradition, I heartily recommend Denys Turner’s The Darkness of God. I found it extraordinarily helpful.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        I have not read that particular book by Dr. Turner, but I did study medieval theology under him in seminary at Yale. A very gifted and thoughtful teacher.

        I’ve always been a little bit suspect of apophatic theology. Perhaps this is because I’ve heard so many people use it as an excuse to say that we simply cannot say anything at all about God and therefore we can say and do whatever we want (which is certainly not what you’re saying, but you can see how one could fall or perhaps leap into such an error). But as I said before, I will certainly grant that God is inexhaustible by human language. And you’re quite right that our ideas of God become dangerous idols, particularly the more abstract they become.

        That said, what is revealed in Holy Scripture is more than just our feeble attempts to say something about God. It is God’s Word to us. It is God, who is almighty and beyond comprehension, choosing to speak to His lowly and finite creatures in such a lowly and finite way as with words. And, in truth, this is the only reason we know anything about God at all, because God spoke a Word, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit filled the hearts of men, and there were words infused with the Spirit through which that one Word of God could be spoken into our hearts. While we are always in danger when we try to say something more about God than what Scripture says, there is an equal and opposite danger of us saying less.

        In your examples above, you juxtapose things that are not actually opposites. “God is Father, but he is not my father.” Well, of course not. But that’s not what “God is Father” says or even implies. The same goes for the rest of it. These statements are akin to me saying something like, “I am a man, but I am not all mankind.” The second half has nothing to do with the first other than on a superficial level, nor does the relative truth of the latter effect the concrete reality of the former. Whether or not I am all of mankind, I am a man. Whether or not God is my father, God is Father.

        The real key here, I think, is that we receive words with a certain amount of personal baggage. “God is Father, but He is not my father” is an important distinction for the person who was abused by his or her father and who therefore associates the word with abuse. It is a helpful pastoral directive to show how God’s Fatherhood is the pattern for human fatherhood and not the other way around. But the work there is to go back to the revelation, look at the words through a different hermeneutical lens, and try to discern what they really mean instead of just what they mean to me.

        So in the case of God’s wrath, if we approach the text with our qualifications already in place, we will miss what is actually being said. God’s wrath is certainly not like human wrath, as the Bible says over and over again. But neither do we need to protect God from the text, as if admitting that God has wrath against sinners will somehow invalidate His love and His desire for all to be saved.

      • Fr Hermogen Holste says:

        My point is simply that all of our statements about God, even the most true, contain within themselves an element of falsehood, inaccuracy or insufficiency. Taken by themselves, they give both a true and a false impression. Sound theology has to recognise this, and therefore to conduct itself with a degree of humility. Moreover, we must be very careful not to take any theological symbols, whether the symbol of wrath or the symbol of love, and use them promiscuously, as though they had meaning in themselves. Every aspect of the biblical story only has meaning within the context of the overall narrative, which is the story of the Christ. If one plucks out any aspect of the story in isolation, or even if one retains all the elements of the story but recombines them according to a different plot, then what one has ceases to be the Word of God and becomes something altogether different.

        I am concerned – though I don’t think you’ve gone quite that far in your presentation – that the language of penal substitution tends to distort the biblical story in just such a fashion. It is certainly the case that a very dark, exaggerated version of that theory has held an unduly prominent position in our society for some time, to very ill effect. It is precisely in response to just such exaggerations and misunderstandings that my father-in-law – remember, Fr Stephen serves in Appalachia! – has taken his stand. I am in a different place, and feel much more comfortable with the language of wrath and punishment than he does, yet I still worry that you’ve done something with it that isn’t quite biblical. As I pointed out on the other thread, in the Scriptural narrative God’s justice is His mercy, and His vengeance is His deliverance. Most presentations of penal substitution oppose them to a greater or lesser extent. I’ll readily admit that I still am not quite sure where you come out on this, but I eagerly await further clarification.

    • Aaron says:

      I really agree with what you are trying to say about God. Having said that, there is no purely apophatic theology that can remain Christian. Christianity is not Zen Buddhism where enlightenment is found in detachment from all ideas or notions, it is belonging to a Person and being drawn into His Trinitarian life.

  8. Eugene says:

    I think it’s very easy to see where classical Anglicanism started from; it started from the divorce of Henry the VIII. Or, perhaps earlier, it may started with the idea (common to all Protestant bodies) that the Church somehow after Constantine became corrupted and was in need of “reformation.” Given the history of the European church at the time of the Protestant Reformation, it’s easy to see why this happened. From an Orthodox point of view, however, classical Anglicanism developed from responses to ideas generated by the Roman Catholic church, that in themselves were never very good ideas.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Eugene,

      As I’m sure you know, I have to disagree with your statement about the roots of classical Anglicanism. Its roots are ultimately in the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. As a distinctively reformed body, the Church of England splits with Rome under Henry IIX, but Anglicanism as a theological tradition develops largely out of the Elizabethan Settlement. To say that Henry IIX started Anglicanism is akin to saying that Michael Cerularius founded the Orthodox Church in 1054 when he broke away from Rome at the time of the Great Schism.

  9. Eugene says:

    It just seems very clear to me, that the papacy developed in response to a chaotic Western Europe, and that the Elizabethan Settlement developed in response to a papacy full of abuses. Like Khomiakov says, the West knows but one datum, a (the papacy). You can have +a, or -a, but it’s all the same a datum. It seems to me that in the West, all the questions ultimately revolve around who’s got the power. Does the pope have the power through the church and the sacraments? Or does the individual have the power, by virtue of faith?

    Right now Bishop Schori has the power, and what she says represents the Anglican church in America. She’s the bishop, after all, and that’s just what she does: represent. You might say that, well, MY church doesn’t believe what she does; but then, what church would you mean? Your own parish? Some other undefined parishes along with yours? Or yours without the bishop?

    I get really uncharitably hot under the collar about this stuff, because my wife is an Episcopalian and I keep wondering if I could convert, and have a sacramental life with her. But I can never understand what church I’d belong to, and so never do it. You can’t belong to a book (the BCP).

    BTW, I do mean it: I get uncharitable. So I should just say that I love the liturgy you guys have, and I also love your blog, although I wish the entries were a bit shorter. “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.” (Mark Twain)

    • Andrew Nixon says:

      Same in the UK Eugene – the Episcopal church in the Home Countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland is Biblically bankrupt eg. NO Bishop accepts the Creationist teaching of Genesis all are Evolutionists, most don’t accept the Virgin Birth or the Bodily Resurrection etc. etc. etc.. I am an Episcopalian re. The BCP, The Articles and The Two Books of Homilies – I utterly reject the Episcopal Church as an Institution. It is Laodicean and Ichabodian, That is not my problem it is the Episcopal church that needs to repent.

  10. Aaron says:

    If Classical Anglicans truly believe in conciliarity, why are Anglicans not seriously seeking union with the Orthodox Catholic Church (the Eastern Orthodox)? If not, then it’s hard to see how Anglicans are seriously conciliar and not in fact just another Protestant group like Lutherans. The logic of appeal to the Scriptures as the supreme authority, and not also the Councils or Creeds in fact betrays a modernist and Protestant epistemology. Modern Catholics and Orthodox make ample proofs of the Scriptures in many, if not all, of their doctrines and dogmas, and yet Protestants choose to rebuff them for the most part for polemical reasons.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Aaron,

      If you do some searching on the Anglican Communion website and in other places, I think you’ll find that there have been many fruitful contacts between Anglicanism and the east. The intro to the Anglican Covenant currently being debated in the Communion draws heavily from Orthodox-Anglican agreed statements. Moreover, the Fellowship of Saint Sergius and Saint Alban has been bringing Anglicans and Orthodox together for almost a century now. While there is always more to do to work towards unity, we’ve come quite a long way in a relatively short period of time.

      Classical Anglicanism affirms the councils and the creeds. They form an authoritative framework from which to understand what Scripture teaches us. Scripture holds a primary place of authority because it is our primary source, the inspired revelation of God, but Anglicans have never believed that Scripture is all you need or that you as an individual are equipped to render binding judgments on what Scripture means. There are a number of posts on this site about how Anglicans understand the authority of Scripture. You may find them helpful for better understanding.

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