Notes in the Margins
Jun 5, 2015

After receiving some wise counsel from a friend the other day, I have decided to pull the plug on much of my online activity for the near future. That will include time off both from all social media, and from reading and writing blog posts.

Although I took a break from blogging just a couple of months ago, it is prudent for me to take a more serious break from the online world at this time, particularly as I'm at an important stage of my research that requires a good deal of concentration. Additionally, I simply need to spend more time with my family. Unlike last time, however, I am not setting a definitive date for reactivating this blog or returning to social media. It all depends on how my work goes in the next little while.

As radio DJs used to say, I'll catch you on the flip side.

May 21, 2015

Fred Sanders, in a very interesting post yesterday, discussed some of John Webster's recent writings on the doctrine of creation. One of the things he emphasised was Webster's critique of the idea, so prevalent in modern theology, that God and the world are somehow mutually dependent on each other. Webster and Sanders argue that this idea profoundly distorts our understanding both of God and of creation.

Whilst Sanders cites Webster directly on the way this idea 'compromises God's assymetrical lordship' and impacts the way theology is done, he goes on to paraphrase Webster's thought and to add some further comments, noting in particular that the task of theology requires us to once again become teachable creatures who are willing to learn from the Creator. It is this part of Sanders' piece that I found most helpful, and worth quoting at length here:

What theologians need now is to learn how to learn from God. What is making us unteachable is ourselves, a whole set of habits and tendencies that make us too mentally restless to take in the truth about God and ourselves. And these unruly dispositions that keep us from learning are not just intellectual habits: they are moral and spiritual postures. To be instructed by God about who we are as creatures, we need these dispositions to be killed in us and replaced by a whole range of new dispositions, ones that show us to be teachable. Where we now tend to be hostile to the truth about our creatureliness, we must learn how to rejoice in that truth, and to be pleased with learning it from God.

It won’t be easy to break free from the theological culture that resists this Christian instruction about what it is to be a creature. It will require struggle, new discipline, and a strong desire to be free to hear God’s truth. The constraining power of our deeply established philosophical and religious culture has all of us in its grip. What we have to do is turn our attention toward God for his own sake, and to do that in striking contradiction to our own mental habits and hungers. The theological culture we inhabit considers that the greatest imaginable thing to focus attention on is God’s ways with the world. In a parody of Anselm’s thought, modern theological culture thinks of God’s engagement with creatures in history as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived'. Everywhere you look in theology and biblical studies, this over-estimation of 'God for us' is at work. It’s the presupposition of almost every Bible commentary and the foregone conclusion of almost every theology book. It’s hard even to conceive of an alternative to it.

But we have to. Because that way of thinking cannot grasp the truth about the relationship between God and creation. And it misses the real meaning of most of the other important doctrines as well.

Indeed. Read the whole article here.

May 18, 2015

John Webster, in his chapter in Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography, discusses the role of Scripture in the life of the Church. Commenting first on the nature of Scripture and how it works, he remarks:

Holy Scripture is the unified canon of texts appointed by God as the herald of his self-publication. The canon is holy, that is, it is a set of creaturely textual acts sanctified to serve God’s revelatory presence. By the divine act of sanctification these creaturely acts are made fitting attestations of the divine Word. As a field of the Spirit’s operation in its production, Holy Scripture is inspired, that is, God undertakes that Scripture’s prophetic and apostolic authors give creaturely voice to what the Spirit says to the churches. As a field of the Spirit’s operation in its reception, Holy Scripture possesses clarity, because the Spirit who inspires Scripture also illuminates its readers, making the prophetic and apostolic word intelligible and effectual (218).

It is on this basis that Webster goes on to argue for Scripture's authoritative place in the Church's life. Because of what it is, It must be recognised as the legitimate means of guiding the Church both in truth and action:

As an attestation of the rule of Christ and his gospel, Holy Scripture is authoritative; in reading Holy Scripture the church receives an embassy from the church’s Lord, so that its speaking can legitimately require the attention that is properly given to the viva vox Christi. As that to which Christ entrusts the task of instructing the church, Holy Scripture is sufficient; it is not one of a number of potential creaturely mediations of revelation, but is fully adequate to guide the church into the comprehensive truth of the gospel. None of these affirmations entails thinking of Scripture as other than a creaturely product, but simply specifies the way in which God acts mediately through its testimony (a robust theology of mediated divine action provides release from a modern quandary according to which Scripture is either a purely natural religious product that represents the circumstances of its production, or a supernatural reality only incidentally related to creaturely processes)… [Holy Scripture] orders the church’s identity, both in relation to its divine ground and in relation to its temporal passage, and it also presents the imperative force of the divine work, as not just a condition in which the church rests but as a legitimate directive of the church’s action (218-219).

In the context of the book, Webster's comments come in response to those practical theologians who would be less inclined to give Scripture such authority, and in the end, he helpfully and persuasively articulates why its normative status must be retained.

May 14, 2015

Michael Nazir-Ali, in his chapter in Celebrating the Anglican Way, notes that there is a certain missionary understanding of the Church that is intrinsic to Anglican ecclesiology. Anglicanism has always been concerned with catholicity, but this has never demanded uniformity of expression at the local level. Instead, borrowing from the thought of William Reed Huntington, Nazir-Ali stresses that ’the Anglican Church, in its fundamental doctrine, [calls] the local church to be and to become the catholic church in that place’ (61). Wherever the Anglican Church goes, it is expected to be a faithful expression of the one, holy, catholic Church, but a faithful local expression of catholicity. This missionary focus means it is always concerned with being the Church for that specific place. Nazir-Ali continues:

Surveying the landscape
[Anglicanism has always required] that local churches should be firmly rooted in local cultures and that they should be responsive to the challenges and opportunities provided for them by their locality. It is true, of course, that even such local mission cannot be exercised in isolation from brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. Indeed, there must be a partnership of giving and receiving even in such situations. In the end, however, the local church’s role cannot be usurped by anyone else (62).

Nazir-Ali goes on to argue that this principle of locality gives validity to different expressions of the Church in different contexts, because ‘in the culturally plural situations in which the Church so often finds itself, a variety of responses is needed’ (63). Whilst it is important that the Church in its local context continues to participate in the wider life of the Church and to order its missional priorities accordingly, it is also important that each local church act in line with the ‘discernment and direction of the movement of the Spirit’ (63) to enable fruitful mission and witness in that specific place.

Bruce Kaye, in his book, An Introduction to World Anglicanism, makes a similar observation, and notes that this emphasis on locality is one of the fundamental differences between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. Where Roman Catholicism operates with the principle of centralisation and imposes its structures and patterns wherever it goes (and Vincent Donovan's book, Christianity Rediscovered, is a fascinating indictment of that paradigm), Anglican ecclesiology prioritises a ‘commitment to the local’ and does so ‘on the assumption that each local church is committed to the Catholic faith in its entirety and it holds that faith in freedom’ (210-211). Quoting Mandell Creighton, Kaye continues:

[Local churches] have no power to change the Creeds of the universal Church or its early organisation. But they have the right to determine the best methods of setting forth to their people the contents of the Christian faith. They may regulate rites, ceremonies, usages, observances and discipline for that purpose, according to their own wisdom and experience and the needs of the people (211).

This commitment to locality is one of the reasons Anglicanism around the world has such a diverse character, and indeed, has flourished in so many of the places it was introduced. However, my experience here in England, at least at the parish level (although limited, and something that perhaps ought to be further explored by empirical means), is that this emphasis on locality has in many ways been lost. For example, instead of being attentive to the context it exists in, the character of a parish church sometimes seems to morph according to the preferences of its vicar or priest. In other cases, I see adverts for incumbents that require an applicant to be respectful of a church's particular heritage and tradition. And a friend recently told me of a large church in a middle-class part of a city that planted another church in a much more working-class area, yet almost completely failed to reach anyone in that area because it was a carbon copy of the planting church.

Yet these are precisely the kinds of things an emphasis on locality should guard against. Being the local expression of the catholic Church does not allow us to prioritise our own preferences or the patterns and expressions of our tribes and traditions, but instead requires us to survey the landscape around us and to be attentive to the context we are ministering in so that our mission and witness flourishes in those places.

The Church ultimately exists, both globally and locally, for the life of the world. And as Nazir-Ali and Kaye point out, this is something that lies at the heart of Anglican ecclesiology.

May 12, 2015
parish church Durham

Pete Ward is a practical theologian whose recent work explores the intersection of ecclesiology and ethnography. His contention, as articulated in the introduction to the edited collection, Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography, is that ethnography can make a significant contribution to the discussion of the church because of the ‘growing sense that there is often a disconnection between what we say doctrinally about the church and the experience of life in a local parish’ (4). Ethnography, Ward argues, gives us the tools to explore the practical and lived ecclesiology at work in a local context, in distinction from a purely theoretical and dogmatic ecclesiology. He continues:

It has been the custom in theological circles to talk about social realities in ways that lack credibility. It is interesting to contrast the way we theologians customarily talk about the contemporary church with the way we deal with historical or philosophical sources. When it comes to history or philosophy, we proceed with considerable caution. We take great care to make sure that we abide by accepted academic convention and we want to demonstrate that we are proceeding with academic rigour. Then when we talk about the contemporary church, completely different rules seem to apply. It becomes acceptable to make assertions where there is no evidence. We assume a common perception of contemporary church life between author and reader. We base whole arguments on anecdote and the selective treatment of experience… The turn to ethnography challenges these conventions by the simple observation that assertions about the lived reality of the church require a kind of discipline and rigour similar to those that pertain to other areas of theological writing (4).

For Ward, this is a question of plausibility. Allowing ethnography to contribute to the work of ecclesiology serves to encourage ‘a way of talking about the church that is closer to or at least more directly concerned with congregational life’ (5). Not giving due attention to what is actually happening in the life of the church limits the scope of ecclesiology. Instead, Ward suggests, 'ecclesiology needs ethnography', because when our concentrated explorations of the lived reality of the church intersect with our normative judgements and dogmatic assertions, the latter are ‘enhanced and finessed’ (6).

I think Ward makes an important point in encouraging us to attend to the reality of the church on the ground. But that of course raises big questions, not least about the extent to which ethnography should shape ecclesiology. Should the findings of ethnographic research be given primacy and be allowed to re-shape and re-define ecclesiology? Or does ethnography instead help to show us where the lived reality of the church needs to challenged and brought in line with what Scripture says about the church?

These are some of the questions the contributors to the volume address. And as they come from a wide range of perspectives, it certainly makes for interesting reading.

Mar 12, 2015

Despite having a growing list of thoughts and ideas I have been meaning to turn into posts, time in which to do so has been eluding me as of late. What's more, over the next couple of months, I have a lot of different things going on; there are some fairly substantial projects to I need to complete, and I will also be doing some travelling. As a result, I am putting posting here on hold, probably until May. At that point, I expect things to settle down a little bit and can hopefully begin posting more regularly again.

As always, thanks for reading, and if you would like to connect with me in the interim, I can still be found on Twitter.

Mar 2, 2015

Most of the first two books of Irenaeus' magnum opus, Against Heresies, are devoted to exposing the heretical teachings of the various sects and their leaders in the late 2nd century that were connected with what we commonly call Gnosticism. Of all the errors of these sects, Irenaeus is most critical of their claims to know more about God than God himself has revealed in Scripture, and their extremely ‘creative’ attempts to prove what they know.

Aware that some Christians might be attracted by the idea of having some secret knowledge about God and the origins of creation revealed to them, Irenaeus issues a warning towards the end of Book II in which he makes clear the dangers of these teachings, both in terms of their content, and the way in which they distort a person's proper relationship to God. He writes,

Preserve therefore the proper order of thy knowledge, and do not, as being ignorant of things really good, seek to rise above God Himself, for He cannot be surpassed; nor do thou seek after any one above the Creator, for thou wilt not discover such. For thy Former cannot be contained within limits; nor, although thou shouldst measure all this universe, and pass through all His creation, and consider it in all its depth, and height, and length, wouldst thou be able to conceive of any other above the Father himself. For thou wilt not be able to think Him fully out, but, indulging in trains of reflection opposed to thy nature, thou wilt prove thyself foolish; and if thou persevere in such a course, thou wilt fall into utter madness, whilst thou deemest thyself loftier and greater than thy Creator, and imaginest that thou canst penetrate beyond His dominions.

It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to be found among those who are blasphemous against their own God (II.xxv.4, II.xxvi.1).

The problem here, of course, is pride; in claiming to know things that God has chosen not to reveal, the false teachers set themselves over and above God. Their fundamental error, Irenaeus continues, is that 'by the knowledge which he imagines himself to have discovered, he changes God Himself, and exalts his own opinion above the greatness of the Creator' (II.xxvi.3). When you get to this point, Irenaeus suggests it is better to give up all your knowledge, and to simply hold on to one thing:

Nor can there be no greater conceit than this, that any one should imagine he is better and more perfect than He who made and fashioned him, and imparted to him the breath of life, and commanded this very thing into existence. It is therefore better, as I have said, that one should have no knowledge whatever of any one reason why a single thing in creation has been made, but should believe in God, and continue in His love, than that, puffed up through knowledge of this kind, he should fall away from that love which is the life of man; and that he should search after no other knowledge except the knowledge of Jesus Christ the Son of God, who was crucified for us, than that by subtle questions and hair-splitting expressions he should fall into impiety (II.xxvi.1).

As a theologian, Irenaeus would not rule out theological exploration – he lived, of course, in a time when some of most essential doctrines of orthodox Christianity were being formulated. But as a bishop, he also urges us to recognise our limits as creatures, and to be cautious about who we listen to in the pursuit of truth. To that end, Irenaeus offers a simple test to determine whether or not you are on the right track:

A sound mind, and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind (II.xxvii.1).

And that is a word of wisdom the Church today would do well to continue to heed.

Feb 19, 2015

One of the easiest things for those in ministry to do is to pass judgement on the believers who gather for worship each week. I say this as one who has done so myself – annoyed at their seemingly half-hearted participation, silently questioning their motives, wondering if anything in the liturgy or the sermon is sinking in, and so on. When these kinds of thoughts are entertained, the label 'nominal' gets tossed around far too easily. Books on pastoral ministry and conversations with others assure me that I am not alone in this.

People praying in church

In some ways, this kind of attitude is a reaction against the type of ministry that never inquires into the spiritual well-being of the members of a church, operating either on the belief that because they are there, their faith is alive, or on the assumption that the leaders of a congregation have no business meddling in the lives of those in the pews. But it is a reaction that swings to the opposite end of the spectrum, and in addition to being sinful in its judgement and condemnation of others (and let me be clear that this is something I am repenting of), it will not enable a minister to love their parishioners and to offer the spiritual care they need if they are to grow and flourish in faith. As someone remarked to me earlier, pinning the label 'nominal' on other believers comes off as elitist slander, and simply cannot be legitimised.

Leander Harding, the rector of an Episcopal church in New York, makes this point in a very convicting way in a lovely piece written on Ash Wednesday several years ago. Harding challenges us to look at the gathered believers entirely differently:

I have become more and more suspicious of the concept of the nominal Christian. Our parish churches are supposed to be full of nominal Christians who are just going through the motions, of half-believers who are relying on their good works and who have not really surrendered to Christ and accepted the Gospel. In any parish church there are a few real apostates, and a few real scoffers and perhaps a few who genuinely hate God. Their numbers are routinely exaggerated. Most of the people who come to the church Sunday by Sunday know they are dying and are placing their hope in Christ. It may be an inarticulate hope, it may be a confused hope. Often there are huge brambles of misunderstanding that must be cleared away before the whole power of the good news can come in upon them. Often there is real darkness into which the light of Christ has not yet come and which cries out for a light-bearer. Yet, they come. When Jesus saw such as these gathered in their multitudes on the hill side, the sight provoked in him not contempt for the nominal but compassion, 'for they were like sheep without a shepherd.'

Harding beautifully articulates the balance between the two extremes I noted above. Ministers are called to treat their parishioners with love and compassion no matter where they are on the road of faith. To be sure, some will be near the starting line of that journey, seemingly unwilling to move. But applying the 'nominal' label in cases like this is not only about wrongfully passing judgement on them (in part because we can never really know what is going on in their hearts), it is also effectively making the statement that they are beyond the transforming work of the Spirit (even if you don't articulate it as such).

Assuming the worst about others makes for bad and unfruitful ministry. What is needed instead is a ministry characterised by love, compassion, and charity. And that is because it is only as we genuinely love and care for each person and seek their flourishing in faith, regardless of where they currently stand, that we will be able to walk with them in such a way that ‘the whole power of the good news can come in upon them’.

(HT: Wesley Hill. Photo from here.)

Feb 11, 2015
Anglican Social Theology

Malcolm Brown recently edited and contributed to a book entitled, Anglican Social Theology: Renewing the Vision Today, which brings together a number of authors from different theological traditions to work towards developing a coherent social theology for the Church of England. The book itself is well worth reading, but I was particularly interested by Brown's description of the Church of England in his opening chapter. He notes that the diversity of the Church presents certain challenges to developing a coherent social theology:

[The Church of England] is a Church for the people of England: a Church created to unite a warring nation around a few basic shared texts and practices – most of all, the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. Despite many subsequent periods in which one wing of the Church has been hounded by another, it has sought to remain both Catholic and Reformed – a capacious Church rather than a Church where only middle-of-the-road beliefs are welcome. Today it might be described as a coalition of three parties. Each party has a project and, typically, each thinks its project the only one that counts. One project might be caricatured as that to complete the work of the Reformation. One project aims to complete the work of the Counter-Reformation. The third appears to be about completing the work of the Enlightenment. The three parties are the turbulent members of a complex coalition. But it any party or project succeeds to the exclusion of the others, the Church of England as the Church for all the nation will cease to be. No wonder that, to the frustration of many, the Church's internal structures…seem designed to stop things happening – the point is that the structures exist to stop any one party wiping out another (18-19).

While he says this is a slightly tongue-in-cheek caricature of the Church, he also recognises that doing theology in this context can be difficult. However, he believes that the Church's diversity also has its merits, not least in the way each tradition can bring different questions to the table in the process of theological reflection. This is particularly important in what he calls the 'theological interim', the time we inhabit now 'between Pentecost and the Parousia, with the presence of the Holy Spirit among us but in a world still marred by the persistence of sin' (18). In that context, working together in the pursuit of truth is especially important:

Anglicanism, interestingly, includes many whose allegiance to their party precludes the idea that such a coalition has any intrinsic value… But with the concept of the theological interim in mind, and the knowledge that, this side of the eschaton, Christians are not granted full knowledge of the mind of God, the coalition model is still one way to retain an awareness that the Church itself is a flawed institution that needs to hear the corrective influence of every strand of its own complex and confused tradition if it is to come close to God's truth (19).

It is fitting that Brown makes these comments at the start of his book, because although this cooperation in the pursuit of theological truth (something that has been characteristic of Anglicanism for centuries) can often be a difficult and frustrating venture, it can also be a fruitful one – and his book, I'm pleased to say, demonstrates just that.

Feb 9, 2015

Paul Avis (pictured below), in his book, The Anglican Understanding of the Church, notes that the apostolicity of the Church is about the continuity of its mission and message. Apostolicity derives first 'from the mission that the Son receives from the Father and conveys to the Church, together with the gift of the Holy Spirit' (90), and a Church then maintains its apostolicity when it is in continuity with this mission and with the life of the early Christians first entrusted with this mission. Today, apostolicity is manifested both by a Church's ongoing confession of the apostolic faith, and through its ministries and sacraments.

Paul Avis

For Avis, it is the mark of apostolicity that is key in determining when you should leave a Church,1 something he notes in his book, The Identity of Anglicanism. Having addressed this question before on this blog here and here, as well as finding this to be a significant question in directing my own ecclesiological journey and shaping my thoughts on the unity of the Church, I was interested to read Avis' take on the question. He writes,

Anyone who has reached this definite position – who believes that their church has forfeited its apostolicity – cannot be expected to remain there… They are the ones who should feel free, in all conscience, to depart in search of a church about whose apostolicity and authenticity as a true church they are assured...

Separation from and breaking communion (koinonia) with those with whom we are already in communion cannot be justified on less grounds. A study of the grounds of separation in the New Testament suggests that it is justified only when the fundamental baptismal faith is denied. Only what cuts us off from communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit can be allowed to cut us off sacramentally from one another. As Henry Chadwick has put it: 'To refuse or to withdraw from participation in the sacrament, through which the unity of the Church is effected as a concrete reality, is an exquisitely painful denial of everything we understand to be the Lord’s intention for his people' (143).

Two thoughts spring from this. First, briefly, whereas Avis remarks that anyone who feels the apostolicity of the Church has been compromised should feel free to leave, I would be more inclined to suggest that it is a matter of (particularly theological) integrity that they actually do leave.

Second, Avis adopts a similar tone to that of John Frame, who I quoted in my last post on the subject, by urging extreme restraint with regards to leaving a Church. The implication again (like Frame too seemed to suggest) is that we remain where we are and to continually work towards reforming our Churches. Of course, there always remains the possibility that we will be kicked out, but to echo my conclusion from last time, unless that happens we must not do anything that would cause any further splintering and division. To do so would be at odds with Christ's will for his Church, and with the biblical pattern for dealing with false teaching.

Our responsibility, then, remains to work towards reform where it is required to ensure that our Churches do not lose the mark of apostolicity, and to do this as we earnestly pray that these efforts will play a part in ultimately re-establishing the real and tangible unity of the body of Christ.

1Note that Avis is talking about a national organisation of churches, or a denomination. If your local parish church breaks from the apostolic faith, you can go to the next parish. It is quite a different matter if the whole Church officially loses the mark of apostolicity.
©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.