Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Revelation enhanced by reason

Loving ++Rowan Williams on Arius: Heresy and Tradition. Shockingly Rowan the professor writing a standard academic tome is clear and concise with his sentences. What happened once he left the fourth century? An impression is forming in my mind that Rowan the Arian expert is feeling as Archbishop that he has seen the last decade before. It was pretty messy back in the fourth century with people in and out of favour with higher authorities, councils decreeing things via written agreements and prelates subsequently undermining them. Even the most orthodox of them all, Athanasius, suffered detraction and imprecation, slander and libel. The Anglican Covenant as an expression of orthodoxy is Nicean in flavour - it certainly has its anti-Nicene party counterpart at work in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

Arius pressed the point that the Son was not only subordinate to the Father (a prevalent notion in the Logos/Son christologies of the second and third centuries), he was also separate from the Father: there was a time when the Son was not. Nicea, the Council, pressed back, the Son was consubstantial with the Father, homoousios: there was not a time when the Son was not. The journey onwards, from Nicea 325 A.D. to Chalcedon 451 A.D., took longer than any one lifetime, but it reached a Trinitarian destination which defined orthodox Christianity for the remainder of time. There was not a time when the Trinity was not, but there was a time when the Trinity was not catholic - not understood and received by all as gospel truth.

Rowan Williams' fine study of Arius reminds us that the church in the case of christology and Trinitarian theology persisted in digging deeply into Scripture, sharpening their spades with the whetstone of reason. The Christ to whom Scripture witnessed, was he (say) adopted as God's Son (as some verses implied), or was he always God's Son? Influenced by or reacting to Hellenistic philosophy, gnosticism, Jewish philosophy (in its own reaction to Hellenism, cf. Philo of Alexandria), our fathers in the faith sought to understand the God of Jesus Christ and the Jesus Christ of God. The conclusion reached was as brilliant as it is paradoxical: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Three-in-One, an eternal communion of love in which Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell one another in perfect unity.

Ever since this theological conclusion has shaped Christian understanding of Scripture: all texts illuminating the person and work of Jesus Christ are read in the light of the Trinity. The rejoinder to the Jehovah's Witness sitting in your lounge banging on about Jesus only being 'a god' does not lie in a battle of Greek wits over the finer points of grammar and syntax in John 1:1 but in confession of the hermeneutical principle: Christians read Scripture in the light of the Trinity (to which Scripture's whole confession of the God of Jesus Christ leads). The question I want to take up soon is whether a Trinitarian reading of Scripture illuminates contemporary challenges in the Communion. But before doing so there is a further piece of groundwork to attend to.

A commenter on my previous post has raised the question of the leading of the Spirit in relation to revelation. That is, God continues to reveal truth to us through the Spirit, beyond the pages of Holy Scripture. This question however involves another question, How would we know the leading of the Spirit? There can be no question here of theological controversy being resolved by such an appeal. Who is to say that you have the Spirit and I do not? How could the Spirit be invoked by one party of Christians proposing one thing and also by another proposing the opposite? In particular, if Holy Scripture has been received by the church as the written down revelation of God, how could the Spirit be claimed as leading us into any truth claims opposed to Scripture?

In any case, the great claim of Jesus himself concerning the Spirit's work in revelation beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus is that this revelation is ... about Jesus: 'When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me' (John 15:26). The Spirit takes us deeper into the truth of and about Jesus. The fruition of this work is the outcome of the church's fullest exploration of the person and work of Jesus: orthodox christology and the doctrine of the Trinity.

If we want to work on issues such as contemporary issues in the life of the Anglican Communion we will waste time and energy seeking the Spirit's revelation of new truth beyond the pages of Scripture (unless we should find in a flash of illumination that we are all hearing the same truth). Rather we should work together on an enhanced understanding of what has been revealed to us (Scripture and tradition) with the aid of reason. In doing this we could heed the lessons of the early centuries: good Christians with sincere theological motivations can get things wrong (the Arians, who sought to glorify the transcendent God), God permits the church to engage in fierce and lengthy debate, and the truth on which we settle will be coherent with Scripture and better reasoned than its approximations voiced by heretics.


Father Ron Smith said...

" if Holy Scripture has been received by the church as the written down revelation of God, how could the Spirit be claimed as leading us into any truth claims opposed to Scripture?"

Precisely, Peter. No-one ought to disagree with your view on this. The question, for you. might be" Has God - despite the centuries which have passed since the writing of the scriptures - declined to reveal to us aspects of our human nature that were not yet revealed in the time of Jesus and his interpreters on the first century?

I think you would agree that the sheer evidence of progressive revelation to, through, and in the lives of the Early Church Mothers and Fathers - together with other significant 'changes' of doctrine in the life of the Church since the writing of the Scriptures; proves that God is still revealing 'new' truth (not specifically revealed in the Canon of the Scriptures)?

Otherwise, where did the Church's formulation of the Creeds come from? Were the Council Father not articulating a fuller understanding of what the scriptures and further revelation had revealed?

Take, for instance; the treatment of slaves and women! On this issue, the liberating ethos of Jesus' teaching has been re-discovered by advocates for these two sectors of humanity, progressively - as the culture of society has shown up the need for an enlightened view on the treatment of slaves and women.

This enlightenment was not revealed until later ages of the Church. My thesis is that revelation is still being imparted - by the Holy Spirit as part of God's plan - at a time when society is now more ready to receive the message.

However, the carriers of the Gospel message - the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world (The Church) is sometimes slow to wake up to the need to "Hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church". We may be so fixated on past revelation, that we are effectively innoculated against the fact that God may just be 'Doing a New Thing - revealing the authenticity of a hermeneutic that accepts the LGBT community, for isntance.

Bryden Black said...

Part 1 Let’s play some Q&A, inspired by RDW!

Q: Why was Arius unable to receive the truth of the Gospel’s God?
A: In Brief - because of Arius’s preunderstanding about deity.

Longer version. Arius was a good Hellenistic lad, immersed in the classical tradition. This meant the available notions of deity that were to hand to be believed in were really rather awkward when it came to recognizing and/or acknowledging the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. God was deemed to be, by good Greek philosophers, in-finite and im-passible (to pick out two key attributes). By definition therefore: Jesus could not have been God, on a direct par with Yahweh. Furthermore, suffering and dying, as all mere mortals do - naturally, obviously - also meant he could not be truly God, in any real sense. For surely; there is a great chasm fixed between The One and all other shades of being. So runs the tape in Arius’s brain.

To which Athanasius and others say .... Let us rejoice in the sovereign freedom and humility of our Saviour God, whose love for us stoops to share our weaknesses and even our very death. Let us revel even in the fact that God has revealed something truly to us humans about his inner being: that what God the Father is, so is God the Son - the only difference being that the Father is the Father and not the Son, and the Son the Son and not the Father. So let us offer true worship and glory and honour [very much like the Book of Revelation does] to BOTH God the Father AND the Lamb who was slain, the very Word of the Father, who ever participates fully in God’s communicative being, which being we mere mortals now, on account of the Incarnation’s Full Story, share in.

This last phrase runs ahead of Athanasius somewhat, echoing contemporary Trinitarian language. In addition, we should see what has really happened to Arius’s thought world. As Karl Barth memorably puts it: “the actuality determines the possibility”, with that word “actuality” in German, Wirklichkeit, having nuances of “eventfulness”, “act-uality”. Just so, what Arius could not bring himself to do was to undergo a paradigm shift in his appreciation of ‘deity’. Yet what the Church eventually did was to bend to the pressure of due revelation’s actual word-&-deed in the Story of Jesus. Well; as far as they were able to at the time, re the Being of God in relation to Father and Son (Nicaea) and Holy Spirit (Constantinople). In Donald Mackinnon’s great image, “the furniture of the mind” of the Church - and even the world itself eventually, with Augustine’s extension of the Aristotlean notion of “relations” that undergirds his notion of ‘person’ - underwent a distinct expansion in the 4th C. For either we buy our furniture from the Dept Store that Arius habitually went to; or we buy from this new store that Athanasius and Co are setting up.

Fast forward to something of today’s renewal of Trinitarian thought. We must have a “distinct blending of Nicene and Reformed theology”, the characteristic concern, highlighted by Tom Torrance, of Karl Barth’s, to fully integrate the Nicene concept of God’s Being-in-his-Act with the Reformation emphasis of his Act-in-his-Being. (“The Legacy of Karl Barth (1886-1986)”, in SJT 39 (1986), pp.289-308, at p.300 especially) “[This] inherent unity of Being and Act in God forces upon us an understanding of God in which movement belongs to his eternal Being.” (TF Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (T&T Clark, 1996), p.149) But this is just a Christological and Trinitarian teaser ...!

Bryden Black said...

Part 2 Of relevance to our contemporary dilemmas. In deference to Ron and Co: have I ever pondered the possibility that my position is like that of Arius? Should I too bend to the pressure of this “new revelation”? Yes; often, as it so happens ...

Furthermore, these questions pertain to BOTH women’s ordination AND the entire LGBT ‘story’/‘stories’. For Rosemary’s ‘beef’ about “reception” rightly hovers in the wings all the time as well.

Yet, while the manner of the questions surrounding both sets of issues is similar, the actual content is very different. Which is why, to date, I have received the truth of women’s ordination, while still deny the rightfulness of the full LGBT stance - knowing full well this then raises the pastoral need still of necessarily ministering among those who deem themselves LGBT. How does all this function?

Peter has begun to set it out in the second part of his post; and pursuing the Johannine corpus alone for the moment. Step One - read Jn 16:12-15. Just as the Word-become-flesh/the Son is the ‘vehicle’ for the Father in the FG, so too is the Holy Spirit/the Spirit of Truth/the Paraclete subsequently the ‘vehicle’ for the glorified Jesus. Step Two - read Jn 15:26 AND 27 together. The key is the “also” and “from the beginning”. For when we go, Step Three, to 1 Jn 1:1-4, we have just that “testimony”, which - surprise surprise! - forms a basic part of canonical Scripture. Step Four: this testimony furthermore has as much to do with God’s being Light, and its implications for sinful humanity, as anything re New Commandments (1 Jn 2) and God’s being Love (1 Jn 4). Indeed, when Light and Love together are the essential attributes before us - Step Five - then we may truly acknowledge how Jesus is Lamb of God and hilasmos (1 Jn 2:2 & 4:10). Yet even here we need to note how Jn depicts God’s love in discriminating terms - Step Six - and not in the all inclusive manner only so popular today - Jn 3:16 is painfully followed by 3:17-21, just as Jn 1:9 is followed by 1:10-13.

So; in brief: I bend to the pressure of women’s ordination because there are many countering NT voices, when we seriously engage in a deeper, broader hermeneutic, to e.g. 1 Tim 2 & 1 Cor 14:34-5 (the latter almost certainly a scribal interpolation, and the former in the context of the Diana Cult in Ephesus), just as I do not bend to same sex activity, given the uniformly negative presentation of that form of behaviour across the NT. Is suggested aetiology however a new form of revelation - for that is really what it seems to boil down to in some minds? Or, the other approach: who am I to deny the self-determination and/or self-fulfilment of those who deem themselves LGBT? The longer version answer will have to wait - but it has to do with a theological Christian anthropology, rather than a humanist and/or autonomous psychology, integrated with Rom 12:1-2, bearing in mind that v.2 is but the tip of the ice-berg of the NT Catechism (cf. Eph 4:17-24). All I ask for however is that Mark Harris and others follow the deep hermeneutical trail blazed by RDW, as I have tried to do ...!

Bryden Black said...

Mutatis mutandis What pertains to the issue of women’s ordination pertains to the question of slavery. Philemon alone sows a deep seed of ‘leveling’, inviting the ex-slave’s owner to receive back a brother, just as Gal 3:28 functions similarly for both women and slaves.

The problem with those who would equalise the homoerotic (whatever its supposed aetiology) is that it may be fully accommodated by a sufficient Christian anthropology, where creation is essentially good yet also fundamentally fallen [NB. The Latin etymologies: esse versus fundus] ... to only begin where I left off last time.

Janice said...

Thank you very much, Bryden Black. Fascinating stuff!

Would you mind expanding on the final paragraph of your 12.52pm comment? I'm not well enough educated to understand it and I would like to.

Bryden Black said...

Your most welcome Janice, and apologies for the short-hand. I’d already spent enough time for today (with other items on the list to do...), but really could not agree that slavery/women were parallel to the LGBT issue (if I may be excused such impersonal naming).

What is really needed is an anthropology - a study of human nature - from an explicit Christian theological perspective, one that does for anthropology what Nicaea and Constantinople did for our understanding of the triune God (not that they were exhaustive of course!). So; the method is very much the same: resolutely Christological (for after all, Jesus was and is the only real human this planet has seen!), and using such understandings as other cultures use ‘naturally and obviously’ as possible counterpoints and/or possible partners. The difficulty however, is that our late modern Western culture has deep underpinnings of the Christian Faith - but then has let itself loose from the tap root, as it were, these past few centuries, which loosening has gained pace during the 20th C (never has there been such a violent century ever in history, e.g.). So; there are great and good things we take for granted, and yet others that have become horridly screwed up as well - a real ambivalence therefore in my view; but we find it hard to look into our cultural selves clearly; we need something of an outsider’s view. This much I appreciate easily enough from living in Africa for 1/3 of my life.

Such a conclusion only reinforces in a quite specific way the brief comment: “essentially” is derived from the Lain verb ‘to be’, while “fundamentally” is derived from the word for ‘deep’. These are NOT equivalents therefore! Some philosophies of the human are virtually dualist at this point, and even in some forms of Christian thought such a tendency has occurred, as if the human is vaguely 50/50 good and evil, or something like that. However, the ‘fundus’ does mean, as the Reformation put it, every aspect of our human being is marred by fallenness, no element has escaped the need for radical (from the roots up) redemption and renewal - even if we are still naturally capable of great goodness and even some wisdom. Added to which the Reformers also distinguished “saving, redeeming grace” from God’s “common grace” or continuing providential care of his creation - which therefore shows itself also in good and timely and helpful human deeds etc. - even as we also stuff things horridly! Nor has the Reformation the last word on such an anthropology: there’s much from e.g. the likes of Irenaeus of the 2nd C and Augustine (354-430) too to be considered, to say nothing of Thomas (c.1225-1274). But enough for now; time to break and leave others to engage with dear Arius and RDW’s take on him.

Andrew Reid said...

This discussion reminds me of an interesting comment my church history lecturer made about the Arian controversy. In his opinion, as well as the diligent study of the Scriptures and appeals to reason, it was Athanasius' stubborn and obstreporous nature that helped win the day for the orthodox faith. He refused to compromise, shift or allow even an iota (homoi- rather than homo-ousios) to be added to what he was convinced was the witness of Scripture and the teaching of the Apostles. It cost him 5 trips into exile if memory serves. It strikes a discordant tone in an age where compromise and rapprochement are viewed as the highest of virtues, and doctrine viewed as irrelevant.
Andrew Reid

Rhys L said...

To return to the original point - do we receive new revelation. It smmes to me that through Christian moral reasoning from God's revelation in Christ, we come to new insight into the truth - but I don't see that as revelation. AS for human nature, yes we gain new insights through reflection onnthe data; but we don't regard say Freudian insights as totally compelling, helpful as they have been. Not quite revelation. Wilberforce on the slave trade - not revelation surely but Christian moral reasoning.

Father Ron Smith said...

" I have received the truth of women’s ordination, while still deny the rightfulness of the full LGBT stance - knowing full well this then raises the pastoral need still of necessarily ministering among those who deem themselves LGBT." - Dr.Bryden Black

It is important for you, Bryden 'to have received the truth of women's ordination'; but, seemingly, you have not yet received the truth of
the validity of the LGBT situation.

Have patience. It may be that God will open up your heart and mind one day. Not every one can take all of the truth at once. (Perhaps I'm just one of the fortunate ones).

Remember, Jesus even had to remind his Apostles: "I can't tell you more than you are able to bear right now"

God is kind and good, and doesn't push us too hard as individuals. It took Athanasius and some others quite a while to be 'in the know' - and even then, they could not know everything.

Bryden Black said...

Thank you for your pastoral concern Ron - touching! It will however take the kind of clear argumentation I read in Athanasius’ work to shift me from the equivalent of an Arian position!! True; I might find among all the advocates of your stance I have met (to say nothing of the texts read!) someone who can actually, eventually display the equivalent. But to date - alas!!!

I wonder if you followed the careful delineation of Steps I outlined exegetically from the Johannine corpus? I ask, as that element is absolutely crucial: for how does anyone identify/recognize objectively “new revelation”? For just to claim the authority of the Spirit simply wont pass muster ...

Bryden Black said...

Lest you or others misunderstand the situation Ron (and I say “the”, not just “my”), we all need to be able to discern this essential difference - using the kind of language built up over the past few threads and comments.

On the one hand, there is the due pressure to bend before the Reality of the God of the Gospel of Jesus, with corresponding consequences for Christian discipleship and mission, for eventual human truth, goodness and beauty. Just so, the likes of Rom 12:1-2, Mk 8:34ff, Rom 6. Just so, one reading of the Arian controversy, stimulated by RDW’s text. (BTW: “Reality” is also a translation of Barth’s Wirklichkeit: cf. CD II.1 - ref. earlier comments)

On the other hand, there is another species of “bending” to note: accommodation to the pressure of ‘the world’. This too is highlighted by the Arian controversy, via such (contemporary) notions as “plausibility structures” (Peter Berger) and Paul Ricoeur’s “available believable”, those features of the culture ‘ready-to-hand’, and simply assumed/deemed to be the case - Arius’s starting point versus Athanasius’s insistence on the new revelation of the Gospel. And again Rom 12:1-2, 1 Jn 2:15ff.

Where we need now to be absolutely clear is this. Is women’s ordination a bending to the pressure of feminism - as some would depict it? Or is it rather, again in RDW’s language, “a cultural time-bomb”, sown deep within human culture by the very Gospel itself, emerging in various ways in the 20th C - a due and eventual bending to truth, beauty and goodness? You and I would say “yes” to the latter, and Rosemary “yes” to the former - with horrid simplicity! My reasoning over against Rosemary’s not “receiving this truth”, is, as I’ve said before, my suggestion there is far more to the NT’s revelation about men and women than just 1 Tim 2 and 1 Cor 14 - again with horrid simplicity! And while indeed “God is patient” and most understanding with his human creature - mercifully! - the question still remains: is your claim regarding, NOT homosexual orientation (still debatable; and able to be viewed in multiple ways), but homosex behaviour and expression, an accommodation to the world, or a genuine new revelation? How, Ron, do you distinguish the two? For unless you can argue BOTH and discern the relative strengths and weaknesses of BOTH, we all may not “receive this truth” at all. And my “wager” (Pascal) is still that you and others simply cannot argue satisfactorily, even via Scripture, Reason and Tradition, that we are indeed encountering the genuine article here.

And where is the genuine article to be found? In an anthropology that is resolutely Christological!

Father Ron Smith said...

From my own point of view; I regard the testimony of many good and faithful practising Christians whom I actually know and count among my close friends, both clerical and Lay in the Church; as well as the reading I have done and seminars I have attended on the issue; as being of paramount importance to my growing understanding of the moral equivalence between their faith and their own personal experience of same-sex attraction (homosexuality)

You, I know, are agnostic about the possibility of homosexuality as a 'given'. However, the evidence from homosexuals themselves is that same-sex attraction, for them, has always been - from ever since they can remember - an abiding reality; from childhood, right through adolescence, into adulthood. For many such persons, there has never been an opposite-gender, sexual attraction!

This situation is not experienced only by 'feminine' types of males, nor only by 'butch' females - it can be experienced across the spectrum of perceived sexual types.

Homosexuality has always been a feature of religious life - whether Christian or any other. However, because of the perceived anathema applied to it's mere existence, it has been covered up - sometimes under the cover of 'celibacy' or sometimes by outright denial.

In latter years, science has offered some suggestion of a biological causation - which has yet to be fully identified, but which, at least, gives hope to Christian Gays who have long wondered about the biological authenticity of their condition.

However, the sad thing is that the some of the safely heterosexual machos in the Church, fearing some possibility of possible leaching contamination from this condition, have resolutely rejected the as-yet experimental scientific evidence of a 'gay gene' or any biological explanation for 'gayness' - calling on Scripture for Deuteronomical strictures against the possibility.

One question that that needs to be asked, when considering the nature or nurture origins of homosexuality is: Why, with all the endemic discrimination offered by society against gays, would they actually choose this orientation? It is only since the relaxation of attitudes, following on scientific studies that suggest gays are a normal part of human society, that homosexuals have felt able to be honest about their sexual orientation - except perhaps within those Churches that still cling to their discriminatory attitudes towards gays.

There have always been gay clergy in the Church. I know it, and most people know it. Unfortunately, the attitude of the hierarchy has been of the 'Don't ask, don't tell me' school. With discerning bishops, this appears not have been a great problem. however, for the people concerned it necessitates a certain duplicity, which is sub-Christian.

Sexual promiscuity, unfortunately, in the circumstances of the taboo that has existed in most societies until relatively recently, has been the only way in which gays can exercise their God-given sexual instincts. For heterosexuals, however, there has always been the protection of marriage, within which state the partners may express their God-given sexuality.

In a time when responsible gays want to express their relationships in the context of a monogamous, faithful partnership, the Church is often still unwilling to assist this movement towards 'Blessing' such relationships in the Church.

This is an issue which has divided the Church into those who accept the reality of same-sex monogamous
Blessings, and those who think them to be blasphemous. This has become the issue which has spawned the 'Covenant' mentality - which, does not however, offer a harsh enough penalty for same-sex Blessings for the taste of the anti-gay sectors of the Church. The paradox here being that the Covenant is a quite conservative instrument, which happens to be not conservative enough for those who deny the human legitimate rights of the LGBT community in the Church.