Notes in the Margins
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.
Feb 5, 2015

This question has been at the heart of a module I have been taking over the past couple of terms, as a few of us have wrestled through the writings of Anglican theologians from the 16th century onwards, old parliamentary acts, and other significant historical documents. As of yet, we do not have an answer to the question – although there are still several weeks left in the term.

However, I stumbled across something last week that I remember initially seeing on Peter Hitchens' blog a couple of years ago, which reminded me that being a good Anglican, while certainly encompassing questions about the nature of authority, the threefold order of ministry, theological method, and so on, is also, on the individual level, simply about being holy. That something is this fascinating list of the duties of church members issued by the Archbishops over sixty years ago:

Duties of Anglican church members

This list must have been published sometime between 1945 and 1955, as that is when Geoffrey Fisher's and Cyril Garbett's times as Archbishops of Canterbury and York, respectively, overlapped (it is interesting to note that the version Hitchens found in an old church dates from at least six years later). The language, of course, is from a different era, and I wonder if our Archbishops would be so quick to speak of the 'duties' of church members today.

That being said, in many ways, this should not feel old-fashioned. And that is because holiness ought to remain foundational to answering the question of what a good Anglican looks like because. As Paul Avis has noted in a number of his books, to be an Anglican is first and foremost to be a Christian: to be in communion with Christ and his people, conformed to his likeness, and sent out to bear witness to him – just the sorts of things the list of duties calls us to.

The point is simply that even if you have your ecclesiology sorted, your Eucharistic theology nailed down, and your understanding of the episcopate ironed out, without holiness, you can never be a good Anglican.

(HT: Lee Gatiss)

Feb 4, 2015
Statue of St Irenaeus of Lyon at Fredrikskirken in Copenhagen

Most of the first book of Irenaeus’ magnum opus, Against Heresies, is devoted to exposing the teachings of various heretical sects, largely connected with Gnosticism. As you read through Irenaeus’ account of the multitude of Aeons, words that reveal secret codes and hidden knowledge because of the numerical value of their different letters, and so on, it makes almost no sense; indeed, Alexander Roberts, the translator, notes in the introduction that 'not a little of what is contained in the following pages will seem almost unintelligible to the English reader'. In part, that is Irenaeus’ point – to demonstrate the absurdity of these heresies. He even pauses halfway through, in I.xvi.3, to remark to his readers,

I well know, my dear friend, that when thou hast read through all of this, thou wilt indulge in a hearty laugh over this their inflated wise folly!

And that is certainly the temptation when also face we encounter something that seems so ridiculous. In some ways, it has even become acceptable to do so (or at least is done so more regularly in public) in the social media age. But Irenaeus demonstrates that he also has a deeply pastoral heart, and will not allow his readers to keep laughing at those who hold these false teachings:

But those men are really worthy of being mourned over, who promulgate such a kind of religion, and who so frigidly and perversely pull to pieces the greatness of the truly unspeakable power, and the dispensations of God.

Would that we did the same. Of all the things the Bible says about dealing with false teachers, it never instructs us to laugh at them. Instead, our actions towards them must always be guided by the goal of bringing them to repentance.

Jan 21, 2015
Shepherd of Hermas

As part of my reading plan this year, I have been reading the Apostolic Fathers, as compiled in this very helpful book edited by Michael Holmes. In the last couple of days, I have been working my way through The Shepherd of Hermas, written sometime in the early- to mid-2nd century AD. Hermas, the main ‘character’ in the document, initially receives some visions that convict him of his sin and the need to repent, and help him to grow in understanding, before he relays a variety of commandments also revealed to him.

What is interesting about Hermas is that in the process of receiving these visions, he finds himself unsatisfied. The more he receives, the more he wants. And not only does he begin to desire further revelations, but he also begins to ask for interpretations of the visions. At this point, the figures who reveal the visions to him begin to chastise him for these demands. In 18:8-91, we find this dialogue:

'These revelations are sufficient for you…' I answered him and said, ‘Sir, I ask only this one thing…that a complete revelation may be given.’ He answered me and said, ‘How long will you people lack understanding? Your double-mindedness causes you to lack understanding; indeed, you lack it because your heart is not set towards the Lord.'

A few chapters later, in 22:3, Hermas writes,

As I was walking by myself, I asked the Lord to complete the revelations and visions that he showed to me…in order that he might strengthen me and grant repentance to his servants who had stumbled.

Hermas is presented throughout as someone lacking in understanding and wisdom, and he seems to believe that simply by receiving these visions, he will gain the understanding he needs. Conspicuous in their absence as Hermas pleads for understanding are references to Scripture or the Church, and we are left wondering why Hermas effectively ignores these things in pursuit of further visions. I almost felt a sense of frustration as a result whilst I read the document.

Reading Hermas drew my mind to Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus. After having died and gone to Hades, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family of where they will end up unless they too repent. Abraham replies that all they need to do is listen to the Law and Prophets, and that if they are not prepared to do this, not even the appearance of someone from the dead would convince them.

There is a fairly clear parallel with Hermas there, I think. Finding himself in a position of being made aware of his sin, and weak in his faith, Hermas longs for these revelatory visions, believing that if he can see just a little more, and a little more, he will have the understanding he needs to have his heart transformed and to know the truth in all its fullness. Like the rich man, though, he has in many ways already ignored Scripture and the Church. To be sure, he did not have the Bible like we have it today, but as a member of the church in Rome, and possibly even the brother to the mid-2nd century bishop there (according to Holmes’ introduction), he would have had access to the Scriptures, and whatever New Testament writings would have been circulating at that time already. Abraham’s statement in Luke 16:31 could easily be modified to apply to Hermas: 'If [he does] not listen to Moses and the Prophets, [he] will not be convinced even if [he receives several visions].'

Holmes notes that The Shepherd of Hermas, despite being such an enigmatic document, was quite popular in the Early Church. That is a bit of disturbing thought because of what it implies about the place of Scripture in the Church at that time. Perhaps more disturbing, though, is the way in which Hermas' spirit continues to operate in the Church today; not so much that we are looking for further visions and revelations, but that we so quickly turn away from the revelation already given to us in search of wisdom and guidance. The chastisement Hermas receives in 18:8, then (which Anglicans will clearly hear echoed in Article VI), is one we ought to heed whenever we pick up a Bible: 'These revelations are sufficient for you.'

1Hermas uses two different referencing systems; Holmes employs the more modern chapter and verse system.
Jan 5, 2015

Jesus famously said to his disciples in John 13:35, 'By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ You do not need to spend much time in Christian circles before you hear those words employed. The point is simple: when the world sees us living in peace and harmony with one another, it reflects something of the beauty of life as it was meant to be lived, and has a magnetic attraction that draws people in to find the source of this life.

The problem, of course, is that far too often we fail to love one another, and our strife and disunity, whether between individual Christians, or between churches and denominations, absolutely cripples our witness in the world. This is not a new problem. Around 1900 years ago, we find this in Second Clement, one of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers:

For the Lord says, ‘My name is continually blasphemed among all the nations,’ and again, ‘Woe to him on whose account my name is blasphemed.’ Why is it blasphemed? Because you do not do what I desire. For when the pagans hear from our mouths the oracles of God, they marvel at their beauty and greatness. But when they discover that our actions are not worthy of the words we speak, they turn from wonder to blasphemy, saying that is a myth and a delusion. For when they hear from us that God says, ‘It is no credit to you if you love those who love you, but it is a credit to you if you love your enemies and those who hate you,’ when they hear these things, they marvel at such extraordinary goodness. But when they see that we not only do not love those who hate us but do not even love those who love us, they scornfully laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed (13:2-4).

These are strong words, but notice the severe warning in the second line: ‘Woe to him on whose account my name is blasphemed.’ The author of Second Clement is building on Isaiah 52:5, where God says that it was because of Israel’s unfaithfulness that his name was blasphemed by the nations who took them into exile. The author’s point is that we bear personal responsibility for those who are turned away from coming to Christ because of our poor witness. That is a terrifying thought. And that is why most of Second Clement is filled with urgent calls for the church to repent and to reconcile with one another.

Although I think a lot of good work has been done in the last century or so to reawaken us to the way our disunity and lack of love for one another hinders our witness, I have never heard anyone speak as clearly as the author of Second Clement of the responsibility we bear for those who are turned away from Christianity because of us. There is good reason, then, to read this letter, because that is a reality we need to be confronted with. And it should drive us to earnest repentance both for the sake of the world, and for the glory of God.

Jan 2, 2015

Now that I am back in the academic world, I have found that I have less time for personal reading than I used to, meaning I have to be more intentional about what I read. Where I used to just pick up any book that caught my eye, I want my reading over the next few years to be more focused. That is why I have decided to make 2015 the year to read primary sources.

Old books

I have made this decision for two reasons. The first is because I have not given adequate time and attention to primary sources in my theological formation. Whilst I was required to read different primary sources in university and seminary, I never maintained the practice, even though I benefited from it at the time. However, this year I have been taking a module in which I have been reading Anglican sources from the 16th and 17th centuries, and it has reminded me again of how important it is to work with primary sources. For the second reason, I direct your attention to the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, in an extended quote from his magnificent introduction to Athanasius' On the Incarnation:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about 'isms' and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o'clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ('mere Christianity' as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

So this year, I will be devoting my attention in my personal reading time to reading old books. For a guide, I am using this list provided by the Center for Pastor Theologians, whose work I have long admired, and who too are committed to the importance of studying primary sources. The list they have compiled is helpful and balanced, and as they suggest, I will be starting with Michael Holmes' book, The Apostolic Fathers in English. Because I am an Anglican, I will make certain amendments to the list later on, particularly from the Reformation era onwards (for instance, making sure to read authors such Richard Hooker and John Henry Newman), but otherwise their list seems to be a good place to start.

I don’t expect to get through the whole reading list this year, of course. Nor will I entirely avoid reading any new(er) books. But I want to put the emphasis on primary sources this year, and expect it to prove to be a fruitful pursuit in my own theological formation.

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.