Theology, Life, and Death

An interview I did with the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner back in September while we were both in Dallas at The Cranmer Institute. This was a great privilege for me because Dr. Radner’s work has been very meaningful to me and it is a big part of why I continue to minister in The Episcopal Church. He talks about his own conversion to Christ, the meaning of the word Anglican, and why theology matters to the average person.

To see more of Dr. Radner’s work, check out The Anglican Communion Institute.

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Biblical Catholicism: The Branch Theory

Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI meeting in 1966.

Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI meeting in 1966.

“There’s a quaint Anglican concept of the universal Church known as the ‘branch theory,’” says Damian Thompson at the start of a post he made earlier this year for his blog at The Telegraph. Thompson went on to say that the possibility of the Church of England ordaining women as bishops is killing any shred of a future hope for the reunion of Anglicans with the Eastern Orthodox Church. “Cue creaking of timber as the branch theory falls apart.”

Of course, many people have pronounced the death of the branch theory before, almost since the moment of its first articulation in the nineteenth century. In large measure, they have misunderstood what the theory actually asserts. Most people today understand the branch theory exactly the way Thompson expresses it in his article. They believe that what the theory teaches is that the Catholic Church is comprised of three different communions, the Roman, the Anglican, and the Eastern Orthodox, each having its own idiosyncrasies and each being separated by accident of history but, nevertheless, each having all that is essential to be considered the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church founded by Our Lord. Having expressed the theory this way, critics then proceed to call it hogwash for a variety of reasons. First, the two largest and arguably oldest of these three communions do not accept it. Both the Roman and Eastern communions understand themselves to be the Catholic Church in her entirety, having no need even of each other, let alone Anglicans. Second, the theory is novel even among Anglicans since no one dreamed it up prior to the nineteenth century. Third, the Protestant churches that do not possess the apostolic succession are arbitrarily excluded from this formula and thereby denied the respect they deserve as equal churches. Fourth, the differences between these so-called three branches of the Catholic Church are not merely cosmetic but include serious and irreconcilable doctrinal differences. The first three of these objections are simply straw men, much like the common articulation of the theory itself. The fourth objection poses a more serious challenge, but it is one that presents itself not only for Anglicans but for all Christians serious about seeking unity between separated believers.

The Branch Theory’s Roots

Credit for the first articulation of the branch theory is usually awarded to William Palmer’s 1838 book, A Treatise on the Church of Christ. It is a large and ambitious book that relies heavily, as so much early Anglo-Catholic writing did, on the Fathers and the seventeenth century Anglican divines. Palmer works from some fairly basic biblical tenets: that there is one Church of Christ, that there are local churches within the one universal Church, that the Church is visible and historical, and that its unity is to be found both in the visible communion of local churches and in the shared faith of local churches. He derives these principles not only from Scripture but also from Article XIX’s assertion that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” Leaning heavily on William Laud and James Ussher, Palmer attempts to show that the Church of England is a legitimate local expression of the Catholic Church because of her historic faith and practice. In the process, Palmer legitimates the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches as also being Catholic,  despite the fact that he believes they suffer from certain errors. Palmer is even surprisingly generous to Lutheran and Reformed bodies. He is ultimately unwilling to call these bodies churches in the proper sense because of their lack of episcopacy (and thereby, in his mind, their lack of legitimate sacraments), but he recognizes that it was never the intention of Luther or Calvin to be separated from the Catholic Church. He sees neither man as a heretic or a schismatic, but rather as great men whose aim was to reform and purify the Church. In fact, Palmer quotes from Calvin quite extensively. The loss of episcopacy in Lutheran and Calvinist churches Palmer views mainly as the Divines did, as an accident of history which the Church of England might generously correct.

The point for Palmer and for many of the early Anglo-Catholics was not to create some kind of false unity between Christians who are so obviously and so scandalously divided, but to take a realistic look at the divided nature of the Church and to ask, What does this mean? Edward Bouverie Pusey put the matter this way in a letter to John Henry Newman in 1870, well after the latter had become Roman Catholic:

I have written twice to [Bishop] De Buck about the proposed condemnation of the  ‘branch theory,’  as people call it, explaining to him that the only principle really involved in it was that there could be suspension of intercommunion without such schism as should separate either side from the Church of Christ. This any one must admit in the case of Anti-Popes, St. Cyprian, the Churches of Asia Minor, St. Meletius…

What Palmer spreads over almost 600 pages, Pusey renders in just a few lines. The issue is not whether Rome, the East, and Anglicans have some secret bond of true catholicity that only the Anglicans seem to be aware of. Rather, it is that what makes a church truly Christian and truly Catholic is not automatically lost even when churches choose to separate from each other. Palmer even makes the point that errors in doctrine, so long as they do not constitute out and out heresy, are not enough to remove a local church from the Catholic whole. “All errors,” he says, “even in matters of faith, are not heretical.”

The Scandal of Schism

Sooner or later, all Christians must grapple with the fact that not all who follow Jesus as Lord are united as He commanded. The scandal of our separation from one another is grave and sinful, no less because it is one of the main things that keep people from coming to know Jesus. As a pastor, I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard people say, “If Christians can’t figure out what they believe amongst themselves, why should I listen to them?” The divisions we live with are terrible, and it is only by God’s grace that despite them people are still brought into the light of God’s truth and love. We who are Christians today did not create these divisions, but we have to live with them. So the question that poses itself to us is, what are we to do with them? How are we to respond?

Several possible options exist. The first is to do what Rome and the Eastern churches have done, to declare that their particular churches are, in fact, the whole Church and that anyone not in communion with them is outside of the Church. On the other extreme is the generic Protestant option, so often employed today under the label “non-denominational,” of suggesting that there is no real division at all, that what matters is solely correct faith and not visible communion, and that the true Church is therefore invisible, not corresponding at all with existing bodies. What Anglican ecclesiology says is that both of these options are inadequate. What we require is a much more dynamic understanding of the Church, one that accounts for the irregularity of the era we live in.

Catholic Ecclesiology in a Divided Christian Landscape

In his Learned Discourse on Justification, Richard Hooker affirms the doctrine that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, the doctrine that Martin Luther said was the one which the Church rises or falls on, and he excoriates Rome for teaching a counter message. Nevertheless, when it comes to understanding what the Church is, Hooker took a different tack:

How far Romish heresies may prevail over God’s elect, how many God hath kept from falling into them, how many have been converted from them, is not the question now in hand; for if heaven had not received any one of that coat for these thousand years it may still be true that the doctrine which at this day they do profess doth not directly deny the foundation and so prove them to be no Christian Church…

Quoting from various Reformed sources, Hooker goes on to say that denying the title of church to Rome would be like denying the title of man to a sick man. The existence of error weakens a church but does not turn it into something else entirely any more than having a bad cold might weaken a man but does not kill him. Of course, a disease left untreated can eventually kill, but Hooker sets the bar very high. So long as Rome continues to preach that Jesus is Lord, accept and obey the Scriptures, and celebrate proper Sacraments, she cannot be left for dead.

What are the marks of the Church? What is absolutely necessary and essential for a local church to be the Catholic Church? The answer that early Anglo-Catholics offered was eventually codified in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, but it has its roots in Hooker: Scripture, Sacraments, Creeds, and Episcopacy. The marks of the Church pertain not solely to faith or to visible communion but to both. These things are not all that there is, but without any one of them the rest fall, just as without the brain the heart ceases to pump. If there is even a breath left, there is a responsibility to render aid, to try to connect, to celebrate life and encourage new birth, even if the odds are slim. In our own day, when the Church is battered and torn in so many ways, we do well to remember that schism is a sin on par with the sin of the priest and the Pharisee who left a man beaten on the side of the road for a Samaritan to find.

The Church is Salvation

Questions about the Church sometimes strike Protestants as arcane and uninteresting. Why spend so much time focused on institutions? Why not get on with following Jesus? But for Catholics, of whatever stripe, the question of the Church is always central because the Church is the only place where Jesus is to be found. In a very real sense, the Church is Jesus, because it is by the Holy Spirit that the Church becomes His Body and His Bride, one flesh united with Him. To be outside of the Church is to be outside of Him, which is why, as Saint Cyprian says, outside of the Catholic Church there is no salvation. The gift that Anglicanism has been given, in the midst of Christian brokenness, is the opportunity to name that brokenness for what it is, a sin, and to call us, ever so gently, to start to climb out.

“I am the vine,” says Jesus, “you are the branches” (John 15:5). Even if we are separated from each other, if we are united with Him that separation will not abide. Therefore, the key to true catholicity is not to be looking at what Rome or the East or anybody else is doing, but to look at the crucified and Risen Jesus and to ask ourselves whether or not our church looks like Him. And then, and only then, will we be able to open our eyes and truly see our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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Biblical Catholicism: Rethinking the Anglo-Catholic Movement

IMG_0735When I was in seminary, one of my professors, a staunch British Calvinist, made the off-hand remark one day that Anglo-Catholicism could not be defended from an historical perspective. The point seemed so obvious to him that he did not feel the need to explore the matter any further, so I cannot be absolutely certain of his meaning, but if I were to guess, I would imagine that he meant that the understanding of the Church of England that was articulated by the Oxford Movement and those who came after is entirely incongruent with the Anglican Reformation and the Church of England’s history between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. I have found that this is a common assumption amongst modern Anglo-Calvinists. They argue that the Reformed nature of the Anglican formularies precludes Catholic theology, despite the fact that it was the Calvinist party which originally found many of those same formularies odious when they were first introduced. Moreover, they accuse Catholic Anglicans of a kind of special pleading when it comes to interpreting the formularies, arguing that Catholics pick and choose, twisting the meaning of words to fit their previously held theological commitments, as if this is not exactly what Calvinist Anglicans today do as well.

Back to Basics

The Catholic revival started out, much like the Evangelical movement in Anglicanism, as a reform movement that sought to bring Anglicans back to their roots. Anglo-Catholicism did not simply fall out of the sky. It was preceded by more than two centuries of classical High Church thinkers and writers who planted the seeds for it, from Hooker to Laud to the Non-Jurors to Cosin to Joseph Butler and John Jebb. In America, Samuel Seabury and John Henry Hobart laid much of the ground work. None of those figures would have described themselves in the same terms that the Oxford Fathers used, but they set a trajectory which early Anglo-Catholics believed they were following. Many of the great lights of the Anglo-Catholic movement revered their High Church predecessors. Pusey can hardly write five sentences without quoting from one of them. This is not to deny that they did a good bit of picking and choosing, as we all do. But, right or wrong, the Oxford Fathers and the century of figures who came after them believed that they were the true inheritors of what the Anglican Reformation was meant to achieve. Far from being innovators, they saw their essential task as one of continuity.

Newman’s Ghost

So why do we not think of them that way? The answer, I think, is largely to be found in the shadow that John Henry Newman continues to cast over the Church. It has been more than a century and a half since Newman’s defection to the Church of Rome, but the effects continue to be felt. Newman’s was by no means the only voice of the Oxford Movement, but he was among the most talented and brilliant of the Oxford Fathers and his voice was the strongest and loudest. His creeping doubts, which eventually led to his conversion, were unwittingly sewn into the DNA of the Anglo-Catholic movement, not unlike the way that Luther’s personal story became the focal point for the development of Lutheranism. Every Catholic Anglican since his departure has had to wrestle with the Newman question. If a man as convinced as Newman had such doubts, why should I be any different? If he realized he was in the wrong place, and he wrote half the tracts defending my position, perhaps I am not standing on as firm a foundation as I thought.

The siren song of Rome, and in more modern times Eastern Orthodoxy, has been a constant burden for the movement. The desire among many Anglicans to prove our catholicity has motivated a kind of constant looking over our shoulder to see what Rome is doing and then imitating it. The development of what some have come to label “Anglo-Papalism” is a symptom of this. Anglo-Papalism is everything that nineteenth century Evangelicals feared and accused early Anglo-Catholics of being, a movement that has completely abandoned the Reformation and the Anglican formularies in favor of Romanism. It is this wing of the Anglo-Catholic movement, at least in Britain, that has been slowly making its way into the Roman Church’s new “Personal Ordinariates” where they are “entering full communion with the [Roman] Catholic Church while maintaining distinctive elements of their theological, spiritual, and liturgical patrimony.” One has to wonder exactly what these Anglican distinctives are, given that many of the priests entering into the Ordinariates have spent their whole ministries celebrating out of the Roman Missal and trying to get as far away from anything distinctly Anglican as possible.

Thoroughly Catholic, Thoroughly Non-Roman

This is what the movement has become in some places, and it has given rise to a caricature that is sometimes applied to all Anglican Catholics, but this is not what the Catholic movement was meant to be, nor is it what it has to be today. The writing of men like Keble and Pusey, John Mason Neale, Richard Meux Benson, and the American Charles Chapman Grafton point in a very different direction. Rather than looking wistfully towards Rome, these were men who were eager to see Anglicanism recover her own first principles and lay claim to the true catholicity that the Elizabethan Settlement sought to recover. Far from trying to emulate Rome, Anglo-Catholics sought to recover patristic Catholicism. Their model as not the nineteenth century Roman Church but the Church revealed in the writings of the early Church Fathers. In some cases, this led them to write things about Roman Catholicism that are far more vitriolic than anything that ever came from a Puritan’s pen. But their primary task, as they saw it, was not the criticism of Rome or of anybody else, but the building up of the Anglican Church through a recovery of Catholic life. They founded monasteries and schools, took positions leading churches in the poorest of slums, and went about the business of re-centering the life of the Church back upon the mystery of the Incarnation and the miracle of the Lord’s real and true presence in our worship in the gift of His most precious Body and Blood.

In this new series on Biblical Catholicism, I hope to share with you all some of my re-discovering of the great Anglo-Catholic saints of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the ways in which they appealed to the centuries of Anglican High Churchmen who came before them to make their case. But my goal is not simply to revive and reclaim a patch of history. What I think these folks have to offer us is something much more vital. They were, in many cases, pioneers, carrying with them a spirit of adventure as well as a deep dedication to the principles they held. They were willing to be ostracized, to be inhibited, to lose their callings and their status, sometimes even to be thrown in prison, all for the sake of helping people to experience union with the living Lord Jesus. They were willing to risk it all for the sake of uncovering the pearl of great price and offering it anew to the world. This is the same spirit that I believe we need to find again in the Church today, not just in the Anglican Communion but throughout the Holy Catholic Church. We need a break from the incessant church politics and the handwringing over our losses to the culture. Truth, beauty, worship, holiness – these are the things that truly matter and that can truly invigorate us. These are the things that a truly biblical, truly Anglican Catholicism can give us.

Photo of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania, taken by Fr. Jonathan. Feel free to use, but a credit that leads back to this site is much appreciated.

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Ask an Anglican: The Book of Mormon

417px-Mormon-bookDavid writes:

My family believes in the book of mormon and is very disappointed and, sometimes, furious with me for believing only in the holy bible. It has lead me into religious confusion because it looks and sounds just like the Bible but the Christian church seems to have universally rejected it on the grounds of nit picks and certain contradictions – - as opposed to having large, indisputable proof that it is false doctrine. How do Anglicans see the “gospel restoration” the book of mormon claims to be and how did the church come to reject it? My family has seriously driven me nuts over of this book. They don’t want me to only believe in the Bible.

The relationship between orthodox Christians and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) is rocky and complex for a variety of reasons, not all of them theological. There was certainly a history of Mormons being ill treated by Christians, which is part of what led to the Mormon movement west in the nineteenth century. But today Mormons and orthodox Christians usually are able to get along, to live together in the same communities, and even to work together for the betterment of society. I consider that a blessing. Most of the Mormons I have known in my life have been very decent, loving people who cared deeply for their families and friends.

Nevertheless, what David has asked here is a theological question, a question about what is true. And because it is a very serious, straight forward question, it deserves an equally serious and straight forward answer. David wants to know why Anglicans, along with other orthodox Christians, accept the authority and legitimacy of the Bible while rejecting the authority and legitimacy of the Book of Mormon. The answer is that the Bible is true and the Book of Mormon is not.

History is a Mystery

The historical problems with the Book of Mormon are myriad. For starters, it does not appear on the scene until 1830. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that it was a record from a much earlier time, approximately 2200 BC to 421 AD, that had been previously lost but was revealed to him on golden plates by the angel Moroni (who in and of himself presents a theological problem, but we will get to that in a minute). That is all well and good. Legitimate ancient texts are occasionally rediscovered. All we would need to do to verify Smith’s claim is to take a look at the original documents and do a standard historical, anthropological investigation. Except, we cannot do that because the plates mysteriously disappeared. Several people swore that Smith had shown them the plates, although they were all friends, family, and financial backers of Smith (and their stories do not always line up with one another). Bottom line, while we have lots of very ancient manuscripts of the Bible that allow us to verify them as ancient documents, we have no such way of verifying the Book of Mormon.

The same historical problems exist within the narrative of the book as well. The Book of Mormon makes a variety of claims about things that supposedly happened in the ancient world, especially in the Americas. The Bible makes many historical claims as well. Archeologists have verified some of the Bible’s claims while as yet being unable to verify others. But there is not a single shred of archeological evidence for any of the Book of Mormon’s claims.

The Once and Future Church

So, at best, the historical reliability of the Book of Mormon is questionable, requiring us to place a great deal of faith in the personal testimony of Joseph Smith if we want to believe it is true. But what is much more problematic for orthodox Christians than the historical inconsistencies in the Book of Mormon is the way in which the Book of Mormon, and Mormon beliefs in general, contradict the teachings of Holy Scripture and of the ancient Catholic Church.

As David mentioned, Mormonism is a “restorationist” faith. What this means is that Mormons believe that some time shortly after the founding of the Christian Church, there was a great apostasy in which true Christianity was tossed aside in favor of a lie and the true Christian Church was replaced by an impostor Church. The founding of the LDS Church in the nineteenth century was God’s way of restoring the true Church on earth after a long absence. This means that for almost two millennia, all the people who thought they were really Christians were wrong. They were following a false Church with false teachings. Only those who have received the Mormon revelation have received the fullness of Christian truth. There were a number of restorationist groups that emerged in nineteenth century America, but Mormonism is the most prominent and enduring.

Sometimes Mormons get upset that so many Christians are unwilling to accept their movement as a legitimate expression of the Christian faith, but the reality is that to accept the Mormon story is by definition to say that anything and everything else is a lie.

In many ways, the Anglican principle is the direct opposite of the Mormon principle. While Mormons start from the presumption that Christian history is useless between the end of the apostolic age and the nineteenth century, Anglicans begin from the presumption that the early Church held a clear and cogent understanding of the faith as it had been handed down by the apostles. Rather than declaring everything prior to be apostasy, the Reformation English Church sought to safeguard the legacy it had received and to pass it on to future generations. Early Mormons sought to restore the Church by accepting a new revelation which contradicted what had come before. Anglicans sought to reform the Church by going back to what they had already received in the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers.

Angel Hair Impostor

How does Mormonism contradict historical and scriptural Christian teaching? Many, many ways. A simple example can be found even in the story of Mormonism’s founding. The plates that Joseph Smith supposedly found were revealed to him by the angel Moroni whom Mormons believe was the last prophet to have written in the plates before their disappearance more than a thousand years before. Upon Moroni’s death, he became an angel. Many people today would not blink at this since there is a widely held misconception that angels are what we become when we die, but the Bible teaches that angels are spiritual beings created by God prior to the fall. Angels do not have bodies, unlike human beings. We will never become angels, and they will never become human. Rather, the choirs of angels and the choirs of human saints join together in worshipping God.

However, Mormonism’s teaching on angels is hardly the most consequential way in which its teaching departs from historic and biblical Christianity. Mormons do not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity. Mormons also have a completely different way of understanding salvation that is largely built on personal moral triumph. In fact, Mormonism teaches that human beings have the potential to become gods themselves (though there is some dispute as to exactly how this claim is to be interpreted). The bottom line is that while Mormons use a lot of the same language as Christians to describe their beliefs, what they believe in is not Christianity. The God of Mormonism is not the God of the Bible.

Tough Love

Again, none of this is to cast aspersion on Mormons as people. Mormons are often pillars of the community, and most of the Mormons I have known have been far better people than I am. I understand completely why Mormons find it frustrating that so many Christians are unwilling to call Mormonism a Christian faith. But the fact remains, if we are to treat each other with respect and love, part of that love requires speaking uncomfortable truths. Paul says, “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Mormons have been given a false gospel by a false angel. The only antidote to that is the true gospel that comes in the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Archbishop Runcie once famously called Christianity “one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread.” In this case, it is also one beggar telling another that the bread they think they have is actually poisonous.

Of course, in a situation like David describes, where there is a lot of pressure coming from family, all of this can be tough. Sometimes the only thing that you can say, once everything is out in the open, is just, “You have your beliefs and I have mine, but I love you, even if I don’t agree with you.”

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Apocrypha is Apocry-fun!

Why do some Bibles only have 66 books while others have over 70? What are these funny “extra” books of the Bible sometimes called “apocrypha” and what does Anglicanism teach about them? Find out the answers to these questions and more in the latest episode of the Conciliar Anglican video podcast.

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Evolving Words and the Word of God

words-1Among the many podcasts I listen to is the Slate program Lexicon Valley which is kind of a pop exploration of all things language related, think Radio Lab but with words instead of science. A recent episode discussed the way in which words evolve and the impulse that many of us have to criticize new and novel uses of language. One of the show’s hosts, Bob Garfield, mentioned his great loathing for the way that many people today use the word “literally” when they mean “figuratively” (e.g., “when people misuse language, my head literally explodes”). This is also one of my pet peeves, but as the program progressed, I was stunned to learn that this shift in the way that “literally” is used goes back at least as far as 1903!

Words Change

There are a million words like “literally” that have shifted in meaning over the centuries, to the point that they now mean almost the opposite of what they once meant. A great example from our Anglican formularies is found in Article X, which says in part, “We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us…” To the modern reader, it sounds like the article is telling us that we cannot do good works unless Jesus stops us from doing good works, which makes no sense. In fact, “prevent” originally meant to come before or to precede, so that the article’s meaning is that we cannot do good works unless we have been previously enabled to do them by God’s grace.

Regardless of what you think about biological evolution, it is one hundred percent certain that language evolves. Language is not like math. It is not static and tidy, nor is it predictable. Words change over time, as do the ways in which we use them. What seems utterly wrong in one generation might be completely fine in another. Language is an art more than it is a science. And in many ways, it is like a living organism. It adapts to its surroundings. It grows. It makes it own rules, then breaks them, then makes another set and starts the process all over again.

The Way We Read Matters

Given this evolution of language, what are we to make of the words that God has given us in Scripture? Surely, this poses a challenge to the kind of sola scriptura teaching that insists upon a “plain reading” without the influence of exterior factors. In this much, postmodernism, for all its foibles, is absolutely correct. There is no such thing as a reading of a text that is unaffected by a thousand exterior factors. If you take a Bible off by yourself and simply try to live by it, assuming even that you could somehow have the original text, in the original language, with no alterations, you would still not achieve a “plain reading” because there is no way for you to get out of your own head and receive the meaning of the words objectively. Everyone reads a text slightly differently, based on their own experiences and influences, as the comment thread on this post will no doubt reveal about how you all receive even what I am writing right now.

Richard Hooker was no postmodernist, but he understood this principle. In articulating the Anglican position on Scripture as opposed to the Puritan position, he says in Book I of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:

In like sort, albeit scripture do profess to contain in it all things which are necessary unto salvation; yet the meaning cannot be simply of all things that are necessary, but all things that are necessary in some certain kind or form; as all things that necessary, and either could not at all, or could not easily be known by the light of natural discourse; all things which are necessary to be known that we may be saved, but known with pre supposal of knowledge concerning certain principals whereof it receiveth us already persuaded, and then instructeth us in all the residue that are necesary.

Of course, in this statement alone we see the principle of language’s evolution at work, since Hooker uses many words here differently than we would use them today (and that’s after I cleaned up the spelling). But Hooker’s point in regards to Scripture is that we have to come to it with a certain amount of knowledge already intact if we are going to get anything out of it. He will go on to use the example of a person learning to read so that he may read what the Bible says. A person needs to be taught to read in order to read the Bible, which means that a person needs to have this skill in order to receive the gifts of salvation which the Bible has to offer, but the Bible cannot teach us to read. That has to come from somewhere else.

The Church as Living Interpreter

Hooker is by no means trying to undermine the authority of Scripture. Rather, he is trying to help us see just what this authority is and how it should function in the life of the Church. Hooker’s work describes what many other Anglican divines also tried to articulate, the necessity of applying reason and tradition to Scripture in order to properly understand it, something which Hooker believed could only be done effectively in the life of the Church, not off on one’s own. This is why the things that the Church of England fought to preserve through the Reformation–things like the historic episcopate and the practice of liturgical worship–are so important as to be considered essential to the the Church’s well being. The radical notion of Puritanism that still infects much of Protestantism today was that the Christian Church could be rebooted from scratch in every generation through an objective reading of God’s Word. The Puritans rightly believed that the Gospel does not change, but they mistook the words of the Bible themselves for the actual thing, rather than understanding those words as sign posts pointing towards the grace of God. Ironically, this is exactly what many Protestants both then and now accuse Catholic Christians of in our approach to the Sacraments. In point of fact, as Luther argued and Hooker echoed, both the administration of the Sacraments and the preaching of the Scriptures are places where God’s eternal Word transforms ordinary things into channels of His grace.

As Article XX reminds us, the Church is the “keeper of holy writ.” This means not only preserving the text but also passing on the rule of faith which allows the text to be properly understood. Part of Anglicanism’s vocation has been to be a witness for the Scripture’s proper place in the life of the Church. The Church does not exist over Scripture, as if Scripture is nothing but a collection of our thoughts about God, but neither should the Church attempt to empty herself of all other wisdom and receive only Scripture because attempting to do that leads inevitably to radical and grotesque departures from the Gospel. Rather, the Church must patiently apply the tools at her disposal, learning about the culture that produced the texts of Scripture and the evolution of language that has happened since, always coming back to the rule of faith that has been applied throughout the centuries to biblical interpretation, the rule that grounds everything that we receive in the good news of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Tongue Twisters

This kind of interpretation can be a slippery business, as we have seen in contemporary Anglicanism’s near collapse. It is easy to misstep in one direction or the other, either falling into the trap of postmodern liberalism and suggesting that there is no real meaning to the text besides what we give it, or falling into the trap of reacting against such nonsense by developing a neo-puritanism that pretends to give us the Bible alone and unadulterated, all the while piling on its own set of cultural baggage behind the scenes. Both of these are heresies. The Bible can be properly interpreted by the faithful Church, but only if the Church does not receive the Scripture in a vacuum, as if nothing has happened since the apostolic era. Rather, the Scriptures must be set within a stream of teaching that has continued unabated since the apostolic era, a teaching that spread around the globe, adapting to new cultures not by accommodating their idiosyncrasies but by speaking their language. The Word never changes, but words do. This is why Jesus established a Church and not a library. A library’s job is to preserve words as museum pieces. The Church’s job is to use them for the healing of the world by the cure of souls.

The Play is the Thing

This means for Christians that we are not to try to live under the authority of the naked Bible, as if the book could jump up and start telling us what to do, but instead to live under the authority of the biblically centered Church. A play comes to life when a director, actors, and others all do their part to bring about a faithful rendition of a script. Far too many Christians seem to think that the play can go on with the script alone.

I remember the first time I read Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when I was in the tenth grade. I was a nerdy kid who liked reading, but Shakespeare still did not make any sense to me. The cultural and linguistic distance between the Bard and mid-nineties me was just too much to bridge through my simple reading. But when we watched a recording of a production of Twelfth Night in class, suddenly the whole thing made sense. In that performance, what Shakespeare was trying to communicate came through by means of the faithful witness of the company. The Scriptures can be so much more than mere words, but not on their own. They need the Church’s faithful witness to bring them to life.

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The Living Church Lives!

In this episode, Fr. Jonathan talks with Dr. Christopher Wells, the Editor of The Living Church, about how the magazine continues to tackle big ideas and speak to both the Church and the culture.

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Ask an Anglican: Why Enter (or Remain in) the Episcopal Church (USA)?

William writes:

Might you have some encouraging words for someone who is recently converted to Anglicanism / Episcopalianism—who does not want to join ACNA, AMiA, or, for example, the Reformed Episcopal Church—who wants to enter TEC but is frightened because of its current, tragic state?

This is an incredibly distressing time to enter TEC. If I don’t get some encouragement soon, I just may pass altogether. I could merely hold my beliefs but worship elsewhere.

Christ came to save sinners (see Mark 2:17 and 1 Tim. 1:15).

Christ came to save sinners (see Mark 2:17 and 1 Tim. 1:15).

I rarely respond to questions by beginning with my own personal experience. My reason for this is simple: theology should consist of deduction from first principles—and autobiography is not and cannot be a first principle. I don’t wish to deny the importance of subjective hopes, fears, desires, etc. In truth, these have a very important place in human life and thus in Christian life. Most importantly, Christ came not to save the principles of logic, but to save sinners in all their messy, tangled subjectivity. But in Christ, God interrupts our subjectivity—and although our experience of this interruption is intensely personal, it far too big and far too important to be confined to the narrow borders of our own subjective experiences. God interrupts me, but the grace in question extends far beyond the boundaries of my own life.

Two points should therefore be made. First, our life in Christ is a life oriented toward and by the divine Logos, which orders all things (see John 1:1 – 18, where the Greek ‘Logos’ is translated as ‘Word’). In Christ, our subjectivity is called and enabled to look beyond itself. Second, theology is for the wider community of the Church. If we have a question concerning the Christian life-in-community—if we are concerned with being in and remaining part of the Church—we must ultimately turn to those catholic truths—those catholic first principles—which have been shared by all Christians, in all times and in all places. In what follows, I begin with my own story. I then turn, however, to wider, shared points of Christian belief and practice. (Readers should note my assumption that William, like myself, holds to the orthodox nature of the Creeds, the effectual nature of the Sacraments, the inspired nature of the Scriptures, and the normative nature of the historic threefold ministry.)

A Very Brief Spiritual Autobiography

I was not raised Episcopalian, but come from a non-denominational, charismatic background. When I was 16, my parents began attending a Reformed church, and I left that decisively not long after turning 21. I spent a little over a year attending a ‘continuing’ Anglican parish of the EMC (Episcopal Missionary Church), where I grew to have both an appreciation of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and a sense that it was somewhat outdated and in need of revision. I later moved on from that parish and drifted for some months between various liturgical churches, but shortly before I finished my undergraduate degrees, I was invited by a friend to visit the Episcopal student center, affectionately known as ‘Chapel House’. I did so, and when I first walked through the doors of the chapel I felt like I was home for the first time in my life. It is an experience which I had never had before and which I have never had since. It is an experience that profoundly shaped me; I do not exaggerate when I write that it is an experience and a memory that I still carry and feel in my bones.

St. Arthur Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1961 - 74). His books should be read by all serious Anglicans.

St. Arthur Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury (1961 – 74). His books should be read by all serious Anglicans.

I was confirmed about a year and a half later—on May 22, 2005, to be exact (my confirmation certificate hangs on the wall of my room)—after reading a good bit of Rowan Williams, Michael Ramsey, William Reed Huntington, Lancelot Andrewes and the Greek Fathers. Andrewes was the most moving of these authors; Ramsey, more than anyone else, gave me a sense of the Anglican ethos. His closing words in From Gore to Temple: An Era in Anglican Theology made a tremendous impact on me shortly after my confirmation: ‘the theological coherence which a Gore or a Temple exhibited came, not from a quest for tidiness, but from a vigorous wrestling with truth for truth’s own sake’ (p. 170). These words move me even now. And yet, as intellectually compelling as I find such a view, at the end of the day my movement into Anglicanism was an event of the heart, which was then followed and confirmed by my head. Put somewhat differently, my move into the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion was not just the result of study, but the result of an unexpected, charismatic experience. My conversion to the Anglican way was the joint action of both Parakletos and Logos; the former inspired unexpectedly, and the latter enjoined communicable discourse on the matter. (One without the other, or one set against the other, lacks the fullness of orthodoxy.)

Why be Anglican/Episcopalian—and, why be Christian?

Does one convert to a church because of its current state or because of the integrity found in the depths of its tradition? As the above shows, my own conversion was not inspired by the current state of Anglicanism! Without question, now is a distressing time to enter the Episcopal Church (USA), and I recognize that not all readers can appeal to a charismatic experience or the deep movements of the heart. But at the same time, as noted above, I sought to test my experience by turning to the study of church history and theology. In studying the roots, I found not just traces but effectual signs of life. I converted because of these; I embraced these, I learned from these, and I sought and seek to live faithfully according to these. Grounding these are the universal theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity—and charity is nothing if not patient and longsuffering, rejoicing in the truth. Ultimately, love fails to fail because it never fails (see 1 Cor. 13). If I may be so bold: if one’s current frustrations cause one to lose sight of the simple fact that the greatest of Christian virtues is charity, then one’s problems with church membership are located less in a particular church than in oneself.

None of this is to deny the binding nature of Christian duty. Sadly, it may be difficult to observe one’s Christian duties in a particular church. Some churches, whether ‘left’ or ‘right’, are genuinely destructive of one’s wellbeing—for example, they may undermine one’s marriage, or inhibit one’s ability to be a faithful Christian parent, or even be abusive in any number of ways. If this is the case, then yes, by all means leave that church and go elsewhere! Other churches call ministers who are not fit for their position because they do not adhere to the duties of the Christian ministry. Perhaps their sermons are heterodox, or perhaps they lack Christian character, or perhaps they are impious and/or irreverent toward the sacraments. If this is the case, I fully sympathize with the desire to go elsewhere. In truth, it is important for churches to be reminded that they cannot do whatever they wish; bad decisions can and should have negative consequences, and there is nothing remotely Christian about allowing oneself to be bullied into ‘unity’ by a negligent church hierarchy.

However, we must be careful; it is tempting to say that you should seek a church where you can be fed (note the passive voice of this statement)—but this borders on two falsehoods. The first error is the heresy of Donatism and Puritanism: the assumption that the means of grace are invalidated by erring clergy and/or erring laity. On the contrary, Christian faith—both the orthodox faith that I believe (fides quae), and the personal faith by which I believe (fides qua)—is stronger than the errors of anyone in any given time or place. No less importantly, the gifts of God remain pure and undefiled gifts even if misused by laity (which Puritanism cannot accept), or by a particular church and/or its particular ministers (which Donatism cannot accept).

The second error is that of making one’s own subjective experience the measure of objective truth. I suspect that this is the real problem today, not Donatism and Puritanism. People too often think that the answer to their discomfort is to find a place where they feel fed right where they are, but this is false. Insofar as you pray in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you sing hymns in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you profess the Creed in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you hear the Scriptures in church (any church), you are fed; insofar as you participate in the Eucharist in church (any church), you are fed (and this literally!).

The bulk of the Christian life is lived outside of church, and thus the bulk of Christian discipline and Christian maturity must be pursued and attained outside of church. However, church membership and the Christian life are identical in this: neither is about us; both are about faithfulness to the promises given and the way of life enunciated in Word and Sacrament. Such faithfulness may make us uncomfortable at times, even in our own church, but discomfort and struggle are part of becoming a mature human, not to mention a mature Christian (and I fail to see how you can attain the latter if you neglect the former). When it comes to both motivation and action, the weight of my pleasures should always be outweighed by the weight of my duties. Maturity recognizes this and lives accordingly, while immaturity does not.

Discomfort and struggle are not, in and of themselves, a free pass to go off in search of more comfortable surroundings. One is certainly not free to leave a church because it is supposedly ‘dead’; this excuse is usually used by people who do not wish to accept their duty to be Christian toward other Christians within the Church. Rather, they simply want to be fed (and again, note the passive voice of this statement). Sometimes it is our job to feed others (now note the active voice of this statement), and it is always our job to crucify our own egos and judgments through service and the love of our neighbors. A church with just one member is a living church; a church is not dead until it ceases to exist—and until that happens, we are all bound to our Christian duty, which calls us to be the ‘living stones’ (1 Pet. 2:5) which help enliven and sustain all that happen within the four walls of a church.

Discipline your own appetites and then you will see the rest clearly. And thus we are left with two catholic truths. On the one hand, we are bound by our Christian duty. If a given church fundamentally undermines our ability to be faithful to our Christian duty, then we must leave and go elsewhere. This is not a mere hypothetical; this can and does happen, and no guilt should haunt those who, in obedience to the dictates of faith, hope, and love, must leave one church for another. On the other hand, we are bound by orthodoxy and must repudiate any Donatist or Puritan heresy which claims that the good gifts of God might be fundamentally vitiated by human sin or error. If you leave a church, leave in love to the best of your ability. If the direction of the will is not toward charity in such a situation, flee from resentment and keep from slander, insult, and the like when you discuss your former church. Wherever you are, be faithful by recognizing the objective goods in the objective gifts of prayer, hymnody, creed, and Word and Sacrament.

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How to Stand for Classical Anglicanism in the Midst of Anglican Pluralism

1014362_695786157102673_1405505395_nIt is very difficult to speak of Anglicanism these days without a modifier. There is no longer Anglicanism but rather Anglicanisms. Catholic Anglicanism, Evangelical Anglicanism, Liberal Anglicanism, Charismatic Anglicanism, Calvinist Anglicanism, even Lutheran Anglicanism. And within each of those groups, there are probably forty or fifty more branches that we could tease out. Even in what has of late been called classical Anglicanism–perhaps the strangest modifier of all–there are further gradations when we investigate closely. Most everyone in the classical Anglican movement holds to the necessity of the formularies as standards for both doctrine and worship, but interpretations can vary widely as we continue to try to fit our favorite theological ideas into the words we have inherited.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Some people argue that this endless division is Anglicanism’s fatal flaw, but in reality it is the fatal flaw of the postmodern waters that we swim in. There is no form of Christianity that has been immune to this kind of endless subdivision. Rome has its happy clappy post sixties aging radicals, its Latin Mass enthusiasts, its Thomists and its Molinists, etc. Orthodoxy is divided largely along ethnic lines, though there are also pockets of theological division between old calendarists and new, western converts and more liberalized native born, the Russians pushing towards erastianism and the fathers in the Phanar who argue for the centrality of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And within Protestantism, where do the divisions end? Gather any five people who call themselves “Lutheran” or “Calvinist” or “Baptist” and you are likely to find at least three qualifiers attached to each term per person. Not all of this is directly the result of western culture, but all of it has some connection to the fact that most of the world has now been influenced by post Enlightenment values. It took a couple of centuries to accomplish, but individualism has finally planted its seed just about everywhere. We construct our own identities now, starting with what we feel and what we want to believe and working our way outward. Even those who seek to be “traditional” today are working from that basis, picking and choosing which “traditional” ideas or attitudes they want to adopt. Tradition is by definition not a taste preference but an inherited wisdom that we receive. At the point when you are choosing to be traditional, you have to admit that tradition has already largely been lost.

It was inevitable that Christianity would be affected by this kind of identity deconstruction. But Anglicanism has had more than its fair share. While there may be many different kinds of Roman Catholicism that are in some ways at odds with one another, there are at least a few basic principles that continue to make sense of why the disparate pieces stay together, a general belief in the authority or at least the honored place of the pope, a high view of the Eucharist and of Mary, etc. In Anglicanism, the things at the center have become rather thin, despite more than a century of Anglicans discussing just what those things might be. The varied Anglicanisms that exist today stay connected with one another more from inertia than from anything else. In some ways, the Puritans and Anglicans who fought each other bitterly in the English Civil War had more in common than differing factions of Anglicans do today.

Putting Lipstick on a Pig

In order to reconcile this, since the mid twentieth century Anglicans have attempted to make a virtue out of vice, arguing that the incompatibility of our various theological streams is all part of some master plan called Anglican Comprehensiveness. The Elizabethan Settlement even gets invoked in this regard, not as the articulation of Anglican principles that it actually was but as a kind of agreement to disagree, as if the idea all along had been that we will just be together as one Church and ignore our obvious divisions. We hear the language of “Anglican streams” and the idea that all of these competing theologies ought to be left alone because we are really all headed in the same direction anyway. Anglican pluralism mimics the pluralism of the post-enlightenment western world in which all religious claims have to be treated as being of equal value and the only idea that is out of bounds is the claim that a particular religion is true to the exclusion of the others.

Poor Us

Those who attempt to stand against the tide of Anglican pluralism are pilloried for it. People laugh at the poor souls who try to argue for the ongoing place of the 39 Articles in Anglicanism or who make use of one of the classic forms of the Book of Common Prayer instead of always reverting to one of the newer, jazzier rites. The very notion that Anglicanism is more than a placeholder, that it actually is something, is seen by many Anglicans today as kooky, on the level with the person who wears a placard and hands out Chick tracts at the mall. Once, during a conversation with an English Evangelical, I told him that I believed that Anglicanism was a genuine theological tradition and he looked at me as if I had sprouted a pair of wings and simply said, “Well, that’s extraordinary!”

The madness of all this is frustrating, but we do not do ourselves any favors when we retreat into our cozy ideological enclaves instead of engaging with the people around us. Prayer Book Anglicans, Classical Anglicans, whatever modifier you want to use–we have been incredibly bad at articulating our theological position and explaining why anybody not living in the seventeenth century should care about it. Our strategy has been defeatist, running off to try to found purer and purer churches or parachurch organizations, talking only to ourselves, complaining about our fate. We have to break free from the victim mindset. We have to stop complaining and start evangelizing. We have to stop fetishizing the past and start joyously proclaiming in the present that the Kingdom of God has come near.

What Classical Anglicans Need to Do

How do we do that? I think the first step must be to formulate a positive theological position that is not based on reaction against that which dismays us. For sure, we must be able to be critical of harmful things in the Church, but today it often sounds to many like our whole argument is simply based on tearing down rather than building up. We need to think like evangelists. People outside of the Church may or may not be won to the faith by a clear exposition of the Gospel, but they certainly will not be won to the faith by a critique of modern liturgies or a conversation about all of the awful things that this or that particular Anglican leader has done. Those things have their place, but what is our central message? What do we believe? What do we teach? What is our message to the culture that we live in? What hope do we have to share with the world?

Second, instead of trying to fight head on against Anglican pluralism, which is a bit like trying to beat up the ocean while swimming in it, we need to make use of Anglican pluralism to share the truth of the Gospel that is found in our formularies and our rich heritage. Rather than saying to Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, Liberals, and all the rest, that their Anglicanism is illegitimate and that we want nothing to do with them, what we ought to be doing is endeavoring to show how our “stream” of Anglicanism is the source and font of many of the things they hold dear in their own. We need to fight for our legitimate place at the table, alongside our brothers and sisters. Instead of evading them or constantly critiquing them, we ought to be seeking out ways to engage with them. After all, most of the parties within modern Anglicanism started out as reform movements aimed at returning the Anglican churches to some aspect of our theological synthesis that had become lost or obscured. By building relationships across party lines, we can slowly start to show how a return to classical Anglicanism benefits everybody, how it provides a strong anchor for our tradition as a whole and a basis upon which to wrestle with tough questions.

Finally, we need to recover for ourselves a sense of humility in the face of the truth that we proclaim, a truth that is bigger than us and that can be applied critically to our own thought and practice as much as to anyone else’s. If the prayer book truly is a magisterial authority, than we cannot be content simply to use it to bolster the theological positions we already hold. We have to allow it to mold and change us, to challenge us to go back to the Scriptures and the Fathers and really discern how to live in the light of truth. We have to allow the prayer book to be an authority over us, while at the same time acknowledging that the prayer book and the other formularies are not perfect but that they reliably teach us the truth because they are built upon a powerful first principle, that of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture and the reliability of the early Church as interpreters of Holy Scripture. The reformers and divines knew that nothing outside of the Scripture itself was perfect and so they allowed for the possibility of revision of the formularies, slowly, over time, to make course correctives. But they also knew that the general course which the formularies set is steady and true, and that if we follow it we will find ourselves traveling deeper and deeper into the heart of Christ. For classically minded Anglicans today, our task is to share this abiding truth, not with the world that was or with the world that should have been, but with the world that is.

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Ask an Anglican: Creationism Redux

800px-Creationist_carMichael writes:

I watched your video Creationism and Talking Cats with great interest. I consider myself to be a creationist and have some questions about the Scriptural implications of belief in evolution.

Romans 8:19-22 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 make it clear that death is the result of Adam’s sin and that his sin resulted in the fall of all creation. If evolution is to be believed, then that would mean that there would be death before Adam’s sin and that death (through natural selection) brought man into the world. How can you reconcile this view to the modern “scientific” view that human beings evolved from apes and that there was death throughout the whole process? Also, Jesus said that “from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female,” (Mark 10:6), so how does that fit with the modern scientific view that man has only been around for the last million or so years out of billions of years of history?

If there is no literal Adam and Eve, then that would mean that there was no Fall, and if there was no Fall, then there is no sin to be redeemed from, so there would be no need for a Saviour. If evolution is true and there is no sin, doesn’t that completely destroy the Christian religion?…

As I tried to say in the video, I am agnostic on the question of whether or not human beings evolved from apes. I do not have the kind of scientific background that would allow me to adequately evaluate the evidence and come to some sort of conclusion. I am inclined to believe there is some merit to evolution because so many scientists seem to be convinced of it, but I am not willing to make any ironclad assertions. My point in the video was not to make the case for evolution but merely to show how it is that we use Scripture to test our theories about the world. Evangelicals, particularly in America, have vested a lot of time and energy in proclaiming as absolute that Genesis proves there could be no evolution and that to say otherwise is to deny the validity of Scripture entirely. But in fact, Genesis says nothing at all about evolution, or about geology, or astronomy, or physics, because Genesis is not a modern scientific textbook and it is a mistake to treat it that way. The Fathers were not all in consensus about how to understand the seven days of creation. It would be a great act of hubris in our own day if we acted as if we knew better than they did.

Reading is Fundamental

Again, the issue here is how we read and understand Scripture. For Catholic Christians,  Scripture is never read on its own, in isolation, but always through the lens of the teaching of the Church. In understanding how Scripture speaks to us, we follow the rule of Saint Vincent of Lerins, believing only that which has been taught everywhere, always, and by all. In practical terms, this means that we require belief in what is absolutely plain in Scripture (for instance, the fact that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead), what is found in the ancient creeds which explain the Scripture, what the ecumenical councils of the Church agreed about the Scripture, and what the Fathers of the early Church were unanimous or nearly unanimous about in their interpretation of the Scripture. Creationism fails all of those tests, which does not mean that it is necessarily false or that a good Christian cannot hold it. It means simply that it cannot be required.

Figure it Out

The problem with the modern Evangelical hermeneutic is twofold. It assumes that there is only one level of meaning in any given scriptural text while ignoring the interpretive biases that we bring as individuals to the text. Take, for instance, the question that Michael poses about how Paul’s writing about death might affect how we should interpret Genesis. I am not sure quite how Romans 8 is being roped into this since it says nothing about Adam, but the appeal to 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 has become quite common. Let’s review for a moment what Paul says there:

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

Paul is setting up a contrast here for rhetorical purposes, trying to show how death afflicts mankind and how Jesus is the answer to that affliction. Adam was the first man. Through his sin, all die. Jesus is the new Adam. Through Him, all live. From a creationist standpoint, the implications are clear. There was no death of any kind before Adam, so how could there be the millions of years of dying creatures that evolution postulates as necessary for Adam to have arisen from amongst the apes by natural selection?

Except, that is not what Paul has said. He has not addressed the question of whether or not there was death amongst the creatures who lived before Adam. What he has said is that death comes to all mankind and that it comes from Adam as a stand in for all mankind. Paul is speaking figuratively here, which is how the Fathers understood this passage. Consider, for instance, this from a homily by Saint John Chrysostom:

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

What then? Tell me; did all die in Adam the death of sin ? How then was Noah righteous in his generation? And how Abraham? And how Job? And how all the rest? And what, I pray? Shall all be made alive in Christ? Where then are those who are led away into hell fire? Thus, if this be said of the body, the doctrine stands: but if of righteousness and sin, it does so no longer.

According to Chrysostom, Paul is talking about death but not about righteousness. There is no implication regarding sin, even though elsewhere Paul will link the two. Here, at least in Chrysostom’s view, Paul is arguing that the bodily death which all must go through, both the righteous and the wicked, is defeated by Christ in the resurrection. The death that exists in other creatures, outside of humanity, is not in Paul’s mind here at all.

Just because this is Chrysostom’s view does not make it so. But Chrysostom’s unpacking of this verse and those that follow shows the complexity of what Paul is doing, a complexity that is lost in a straight, literal reading that lacks the figural sense. In fact, according to Chrysostom, a non-figural reading makes a mockery of the text because it assumes not only that all die in Adam but that all are given the new life of the resurrection, even the wicked and unbelievers, something which Chrysostom thinks is absurd given what Paul has to say on this topic elsewhere. Nevertheless, this is precisely the kind of reading that creationists want to give to this verse, though few if any creationists follow out their own logic and argue for universalism.

Death Before Death

So how then, if evolution is true, could it be that death existed in the world prior to Adam? There are myriad explanations. One possibility would be that the death of non-human creatures prior to the evolution of humanity is not the result of Adam’s sin but of some other mechanism entirely. Another perhaps more plausible explanation is to point to the fall of Satan and the demons that precedes the founding of the world. This prior fall may have affected the creation in myriad ways that are unknowable to us, including introducing death to lesser creatures. Finally, it is possible to postulate that the fall of Adam could have introduced death into the whole of creation even before the events of the fall took place. We are bound by time now, but it is not clear that this was always God’s intention. God Himself exists outside of time and what He does affects all time. Jesus’ death on the cross for sinners is just as salvific for the long list of people who died before it happened as it is for all of us who have come along since. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, not just the whole world from now on.

Are any of those theories correct? I have no idea. There are places in Scripture that seem to support one or the other of them, but Scripture does not definitively reveal the answer, just as it does not definitively reveal whether or not we evolved from apes or how old the earth is. These are not the questions that the Bible was written to address, and when we try to force the Bible to say something about them, we end up undermining the true value of Scripture to speak to us about who God is and who we are in relation to Him.

When You Assume…

Creationism relies on underlying assumptions about the biblical text that cannot withstand scrutiny. Michael points out that in Mark 10 Jesus says, “From the beginning, God made them male and female.” Is Jesus saying something here about the timeline involved in creation? Not at all. He is saying, simply and plainly, that God created human beings to be male and female and that it has always been so. It does not follow, however, that “in the beginning” in this sentence indicates that God created human beings out of a puff of smoke, making no use of natural processes, fallen or otherwise.

Bottom line, when attempting to apply the teaching of Scripture to answering modern questions, it is best to approach the topic with caution, being as skeptical as we can of our own assumptions while trying as best we can to see the text through first century eyes rather than twenty-first century eyes. Catholic, historic Christianity is able to do this, which is why Catholics and Orthodox and Anglicans tend to be far less bothered about the “creation versus evolution” question than Evangelicals are. It is possible that creationism is essentially correct and the world was created in six twenty-four hour days, but if that is the truth it will not be because Scripture somehow settled the matter in an unequivocal manner that anyone reading without prejudice ought to be able to see. As an Anglican, I am quite happy to believe that Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation, but as Hooker and many of the other great divines pointed out, containing all things necessary for salvation is not the same as containing all things. Whether evolution is true or false, we have nothing as Christians to fear from it.

Image by Flickr user Amy Watts. Used under Creative Commons license.

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