Monday, April 24, 2023

Affirming GAFCON, Critiquing GAFCON, Resetting the Communion, Confirming ABC-led Communion

GAFCON 2023 press statement here, final communique: the Kigali Commitment here, news site here.


Via my Twitter feed I paid some attention to GAFCON 2023 as it met in Rwanda last week.

There was so much to commend - clips of beautiful worship, summaries of agreeable biblical teaching (e.g. on the supremacy of Christ in Colossians), a sense of unified direction for a significant part of the Anglican Communion (noting signs of common accord between GAFCON and Global South).

Thus these paragraphs, from the Kigali Commitment are, hopefully, true of each and every gathering of faithful Anglicans whether globally, provincially, diocesan-wide or in a parish:

"Our conference theme for 2023 ‘To Whom Shall We Go?’ (John 6:68), along with our Bible studies in the Letter to the Colossians, focused our attention on Jesus, the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form, the Lord of all creation and the head of his body, the church (Colossians 1:15-19; 2:9).

Our Chairman in his opening address encouraged us to be a repenting church, a reconciling church, a reproducing church and a relentlessly compassionate church. This is the church we want to be.

We were reminded that the purpose and mission of the church is to make known to a lost world the glorious riches of the gospel by proclaiming Christ crucified and risen, and living faithfully together as his disciples"


Focus on the supremacy of Christ was where things got ecclesiologically interesting because that supremacy leads to comments I noticed as the Conference unfolded which are mundane in one perspective and dynamic, Communion changing in another perspective.

Mundane: it is a simple matter of logic that if Christ is supreme, aka head of the church, then no bishop or archbishop or Protestant-pope-in-the-pulpit or Roman Pontiff is head of the church. All leaders in the church, leaders of churches are at best to be respected, never to be venerated, always to be subject to scrutiny through Christo-centric lenses. And so forth. Agreeable. Nothing to controvert on this level.

Communion changing: thus Church Times reports:

"THE fourth gathering of the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) is under way in Kigali, Rwanda, uniting breakaway Anglican leaders and some of those still within the Communion in their rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the “spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion”.

In his presidential address on Monday evening, the chairman of Gafcon, Dr Foley Beach, said that “with broken hearts, we must say that until the Archbishop of Canterbury repents we can no longer recognise him as the first among equals. It’s time for the whole Anglican establishment to be reformed anyway.”"

GAFCON disagrees with a recent decision of the CofE, about blessing of couples in same sex marriages or partnerships, over which the ABC presides, and so the ABC is no longer worthy to be the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, no longer primus inter pares (first among equals) for the episcopal leadership of the Communion. He has been judged and found wanting.

By the end of the Conference, as written in the Kigali Commitment, this rejection had stiffened to all the Insturments of Communion:

"We have no confidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the other Instruments of Communion led by him (the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meetings) are able to provide a godly way forward that will be acceptable to those who are committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of Scripture. The Instruments of Communion have failed to maintain true communion based on the Word of God and shared faith in Christ.

All four Instruments propose that the way ahead for the Anglican Communion is to learn to walk together in ‘good disagreement’. However we reject the claim that two contradictory positions can both be valid in matters affecting salvation. We cannot ‘walk together’ in good disagreement with those who have deliberately chosen to walk away from the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). The people of

God ’walk in his ways’, ‘walk in the truth’, and ‘walk in the light’, all of which require that we do not walk in Christian fellowship with those in darkness (Deuteronomy 8:6; 2 John 4; 1 John 1:7).

Successive Archbishops of Canterbury have failed to guard the faith by inviting bishops to Lambeth who have embraced or promoted practices contrary to Scripture. This failure of church discipline has been compounded by the current Archbishop of Canterbury who has himself welcomed the provision of liturgical resources to bless these practices contrary to Scripture. This renders his leadership role in the Anglican Communion entirely indefensible."

But, reading through the whole final communique, one and only one issue sets GAFCON (and, now, likely Global South) against the Instruments of Communion: any approach to permanent same sex partnerships/marriages which softens the strict discipline of celibacy for gay Anglicans. No disagreement on this issue is possible. No deviation from the GAFCON-party line. Thus no respect for the Instruments of Communion which have sought to engage with differences among Anglicans in response to certain realities in both human sexuality and in civic life of different societies.

Particularly disturbing is to read all the antagonism to the Instruments because some gay Anglicans wish to marry but NOT ONE WORD AGAINST THE UGANDAN PRIMATE who as recently as his Easter message, here, publicly supported the proposed legislation in Uganda's parliament which could lead to the execution of gays.


Whether we like this hardline against the Instruments or not, it is what it is, and it looks like a significant joining of forces is taking place between GAFCON and Global South so that a key word to consider in  the Kigali Commitment is "reset":

"Resetting the Communion

We were delighted to be joined in Kigali by leaders of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) and to host a combined Gafcon-GSFA Primates meeting. Together, these Primates represent the overwhelming majority (estimated at 85%) of Anglicans worldwide.

The leadership of both groups affirmed and celebrated their complementary roles in the Anglican Communion. Gafcon is a movement focused on evangelism and mission, church planting and providing support and a home for faithful Anglicans who are pressured by or alienated from revisionist dioceses and provinces. GSFA, on the other hand, is focused on establishing doctrinally based structures within the Communion.

We rejoice in the united commitment of both groups on three fundamentals: the lordship of Jesus Christ; the authority and clarity of the Word of God; and the priority of the church’s mission to the world. We acknowledge their agreement that ‘communion’ between churches and Christians must be based on doctrine (Jerusalem Declaration #13; GSFA Covenant 2.1.6). Anglican identity is defined by this and not by recognition from the See of Canterbury.

Both GSFA and Gafcon Primates share the view that, due to the departures from orthodoxy articulated above, they can no longer recognise the Archbishop of Canterbury as an Instrument of Communion, the ‘first among equals’ of the Primates. The Church of England has chosen to impair her relationship with the orthodox provinces in the Communion.

We welcome the GSFA’s Ash Wednesday Statement of 20 February 2023, calling for a resetting and reordering of the Communion. We applaud the invitation of the GSFA Primates to collaborate with Gafcon and other orthodox Anglican groupings to work out the shape and nature of our common life together and how we are to maintain the priority of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations.

Resetting the Communion is an urgent matter. It needs an adequate and robust foundation that addresses the legal and constitutional complexities in various Provinces. The goal is that orthodox Anglicans worldwide will have a clear identity, a global ‘spiritual home’ of which they can be proud, and a strong leadership structure that gives them stability and direction as Global Anglicans. We therefore commit to pray that God will guide this process of resetting, and that Gafcon and GSFA will keep in step with the Spirit."

Practically, it looks like the following consequences are now facing us:

1. When ++Welby calls a meeting of Primates, there will be fewer Primates than previously turning up.

2. When ACC meets, there will be fewer faces.

3. The next Lambeth Conference, should there be one, could consist of mostly white faces.

Nevertheless there is time and water to flow under the bridge. If, say, the next Lambeth Conference has a Kenyan-type response (the Primate would not attend Lambeth 2022, bishops were free to make their own minds up re attendance; contrast party-whipped boycott by Nigeria), then it could be fascinating to see who does follow the GAFCON line and who does not.

However, the signs are that the Communion is being "reset", that a significant, but yet to be fully measured, part of the Communion will walk away from commitment to meeting together when called to do so by the Archbishop of Canterbury - the communications and invitations of the Archbishop of Canterbury to meet will be ignored and rejected by a now larger number than previously.

We may feel inclined - I do! - to be highly critical of what is going on here - for example, of a cleavage between "doctrine" and "history", of a shift from an Anglicanism focused on "relationships" to an Anglicanism focused on "texts - but I do not think such criticism will amount to more than a whistling in the wind of change. What we can do is pray (for as much Communion-unity as possible) and resolve to take up invitations to meet (busyness at home is no longer an excuse!!)


The challenge is to "stand firm" in what we (who are not GAFCON, who do recognise the ABC as "primus inter pares") believe and are committed to. 

The sanity of the centre has a lot to commend it! 

Focus on global Anglicanism as primarily relational and only secondarily textual is a worthy commitment. 

Whether we be few or many, there are moderate Anglicans and not only in North America, Europe and Oceania. God loves moderate Anglicans as much as God loves GAFCONites :).

Although there are (effectively) two Anglican communion/federation/networks in the globe today, they are not the same. A bit more time will be needed to tell which is which. It will be confusing because of a resolute commitment to the naming rights of "Anglican" (at least in countries apart from those such as the USA and Scotland where a happy distinction between "Episcopal" and "Anglican" exists). But the simplest distinction, it now appears is between those who are with the Archbishop of Canterbury and those who are not.

POSTSCRIPT a few thoughts on GAFCON's divorce between theology and history with its cancelling of the ABC:

The Kigali Commitment is an ecclesiological divorce between theology and history (and, yes, I am well aware that the Church of England committed such action in the 16th century - there is no need to do this twice!).

If the ABC is found theologically wanting and thus is replaced, what happens to the replacement? A certain nervousness that she or he (it won’t be a she, will it?!) must toe the theological line because respect is only gained and held if doctrinally orthodox. 

When we divorce history (the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the senior bishop of the Church of England and thus the senior bishop of the Anglican Communion) from theology, we change our ecclesiology: Anglicanism becomes solely confessional: whomever confesses the right confession is correct; and leadership is only granted to those who make the right confession. 

Either the purist of the confessors (Nigeria? Uganda? Sydney?) will be primus inter pares; or some kind of election among the purer confessors is held. But no sense of history may intrude such proceedings. Anglicanism may not - on this understanding - be nostalgic for the mother church; nor consider any office of the church significant because of the past, that is, because of how that office came into being. 

A certain kind of existentialism becomes GAFCON Anglicanism: what counts is the now of doctrinal purity. Ironically, “history” plays a role in doctrinal purity: the Anglican church is considered to have once been doctrinally pure, but now, alas, no longer. The historic doctrine of the church (on GAFCON logic) judges the present incumbency of significant office; but the significant office of the church is permitted no room to develop that historic doctrine through time. 

Even though we may and should observe that historically there was no moment in the past when the Anglican church said, “we now have reached doctrinal orthodoxy”, it is reserved to ourselves (our GAFCON selves) to determine that there was such a moment. 

But when was it? Was it 1549 or 1552 (when Cranmer presided over two different publications of liturgy en route to a certain “moment” in 1559, no, wait, 1662! Was it when the Geneva Bible or the Bishop’s Bible or the King James Bible was published? If it was, say, the King James Bible (1611) combined with the BCP (1662), what on earth led modern Anglican evangelicals to embrace, say, the NIV through the last quarter of the 20th century or the more recent ESV? Perhaps weight is put on the Forty-Two Articles? Of course not, they were just the forerunner to the Thirty-Nine Articles!

Put another way: the historical continuity of the Anglican church could be a continuity of pure doctrine, though that is a tricky case to argue (because life keeps changing, and churches keep changing, even GAFCON ones: do they all use only the BCP (1662) every service? Of course not!). 

The better historical continuity is around offices, acknowledging that there will be bumps along the way because no ABC is a clone of a predecessor, and none of the predecessors was perfect.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Water, water everywhere ... thematic reflections in John's Gospel

It is not news that there are themes woven through John's Gospel which clearly and obviously for the reader have great theological significance: light, truth, Father/Son, "I am ..." and so forth. Recently some reading through the Gospel opened up for me the various and manifold ways in which "water" features in many chapters.

1: John says "I baptise in water."

2. Water is turned into wine at Cana.

3. Jesus to Nicodemus: "... born of water and the spirit."

4. The woman at the well and much talk about water, thirst and quenching.

5. Healing at the pool of Bethesda.

6. Stilling of the storm on the lake; Jesus walking on water.

7. Streams of living water.


9. The blind man will see after he has washed his eyes in the pool of Siloam.


11. Jesus wept.


13. Taking a bowl of water, Jesus washes his disciples' feet.

14 - 18.

19: On the cross, Jesus is thirsty (though is given sour wine to sip) and when a spear is thrust into his side, water as well as blood pours forth.

20. Mary weeps.

21. The third encounter by the (male) disciples with the risen Lord takes place beside the Sea of Tiberias.

What are we to make of this?

Maybe not that much. We cannot live without water so the appearance of water in an account of a life and associated lives interacting with that life may be nothing extraordinary. "We all gotta eat and drink and some of us should wash" :).

On the other hand, John does like repeats to make a point. Another example of repetition of a theme is the manner in which John invokes key titles for Jesus - with the point being that every such invocation builds the case for the purpose of the Gospel being fulfilled, that is "that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may have live by his name" (John 20:31).

So, we find:

1. Jesus is, inter alia, Messiah / Christ, Son of God, and Lamb of God, Son of Man, the Word, Rabbi.

4. The Samaritan woman (and her townsfolk) testify to Jesus being Messiah / Christ, the Saviour of the World.

6. At the end of this chapter, after the Feeding of the 5000, the Stilling of the Storm and the provocative discourse about the bread of life, Peter confesses, "We believe and know that you are God's Holy One."

9. As the story of the blind man who is healed progresses, the blind man moves from identifying Jesus as "from God", perhaps a "prophet" to declaring, "Lord, I believe."

11. Martha, challenged by Jesus as to whether she believes he can raise Lazarus from the dead, confesses, "I do, Lord ... I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who was to come into the world." 

John pushes the case, though such repetitions (and, also through many discourses not cited above which argue the toss on the question of who Jesus really is), that Jesus is the Messiah / Christ, the Son of God and so, finally, in 20:31, the application of the case is made, that we the readers should believe in this Jesus.

Back to water: if at least some of the water themes in John's Gospel are intentional repetition to make a point, what might the point be?

John Ashton in his beautiful, breathtaking Understanding the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) says,

"Bread and water, the staple necessities of life, are natural symbols of supernatural life." (p. 219).

Through some of the "water" references in John's Gospel, water is not the symbol but the occasion (e.g. the lake/sea, stored in stone jars, tears) for the supernatural, i.e. for signs to be displayed which reveal the glory of God in the life of the Son.

Other references lift water as a natural staple of life to express the supernatural: water as symbol of the Spirit, water as sign of life, life which is in-spired by the Spirit.

Water as a sign of life?

Yes, because the Gospel of John is the Gospel of Life.

"I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly." (10.10)

"But these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." (20:31)

The Gospel of John continues to challenge me because it is so different to the other gospels. How to make sense of it in relation to the Synoptic Gospels? Currently I am re-reading Ashton's book and a number of things are (finally) making (more) sense. There may be some forthcoming posts on this Gospel!

But what does make sense today is that John announces with laser like focus through his gospel that what - who! - gives true, lasting, abundant life to human beings is Jesus Christ. 

There is also an intriguing question of the role of the life giving Spirit/water and the believer in the continuing mission of Jesus Christ to give life.

In John 7:38 re read (NRSV):

and let the one who believes in me drink. As[a] the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart[b] shall flow rivers of living water.’ ”


  1. 7.38 Or come to me and drink. The one who believes in me, as
  2. 7.38 Gk out of his belly
There is a bit of commentariat controversy as to whether Jesus is speaking about the rivers of living water flowing from himself (the footnotes don’t bring this out) or from the believer, at least in respect of the question where do people find living water when they do not yet have it. 

Also challenging is working out what Scripture is being quoted! No one can find the Scripture in the sense of a directly cited verse or half verse. Possibly some kind of pastiche is in mind, drawing from some or all of the likes of:

Exodus 17:6Numbers 20:11Psalm 114:8Isaiah 44:3Isaiah 55:1Isaiah 58:11Joel 2:23Joel 3:18Ezekiel 47:1Ezekiel 47:12Zechariah 13:1Zechariah 14:8. [Sourced from . Though this list misses, arguably, the most important verses of all to consider: Psalm 78:15-16.]

John 7:39 makes clear that the reference to living water is a reference to the not yet given Spirit:

Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

But, does this mean that the living water/Spirit flowing “in” the believer also flow “through” the believer so that we are (in some sense) a source of life for people who come to faith through our testimony?

Jesus, after all, when speaking to the Samaritan woman in John 4:13-14 only promised water “in” her:

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Commantators discuss such things thoroughly, without quite agreeing, but, post Easter, as GAFCON gathers, possibly, as one headline says, to reshape the Anglican Communion, as we consider the resurrection life of Jesus, John’s Gospel invites us - as always!! - to consider the promise of life in Christ.

Will we be faithful witnesses to Christ?

Will we allow the water of the Spirit to well up within us?

Will the water of life overflow to others?


I am en route to Christchurch after a wonderful few days in Paihia (the Bay of Islands) - quite a lot of water - participating in the 200th anniversary of the Williams family arriving in Paihia. I am not a member of the family but the bishops were invited to join them - over 700 were registered for the event

In 1823 Henry  and Marianne Williams arrived as Church Missionary Society missionaries, followed in 1826 by William and Jane Williams. Together the two couples, along with their children, forged a new beginning to the mission work begun in 1814. After a few years baptisms of Maori took place, the language was written down as the Scriptures were translated and as William Williams, an excellent linguist, compiled the first dictionary of Maori language, and mission stations spread throughout the North Island.

There is much more to the story, as we heard over the weekend, suffice for this post to say that the living waters flowed within and through the Williams. Deo gloria! Kororia ki Te Atua.

Monday, April 10, 2023

It's no longer Passiontide but Eastertide: the resurrection of Jesus in 2023 (3/3)

Christ is risen! Alleluia!! Easter greetings to all readers :)

The present and future of our faith in Christ is always about our encounter with the risen Christ. Either Jesus Christ is alive today and, in some meaningful way, "available" to us, or he is not alive and we are to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).

The Gospel "resurrection narratives" tell stories of what gave rise to the conviction of the first followers of Jesus that he was no longer dead but alive. 

The epistles spread both a conviction that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead and a hope that every believer would also be raised with Christ - a conviction, we could say, that the experience in this life of relationship with the risen Christ will not itself be overcome by the death each of us will die. (See, for example, the epistle reading for yesterday, Colossians 3:1-4). 

When we die we also will be raised with Christ into the presence of God. (This conviction, by the way, being somewhat different to a common "Kiwi" hope that beyond the grave lies various forms of reunion with loved ones. Such states of reunion may be part of God's future for us, but the primary hope of the resurrection is full (re)union with Christ.)

What gave rise to the conviction that Jesus was no longer dead but alive?

In one word, appearances. (Yes, the empty tomb was important, but that could have been due to mischief making by the authorities or others with removal of the body of Jesus.)

When Peter preaches to Cornelius and his entourage, he says,

"... but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead." (Acts 10:40-41)

When Paul, who does not feature in the Gospel resurrection narratives, describes his own encounter with the risen Jesus, he writes,

"... and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared ... then he appeared ... then he appeared ... Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." (1 Corinthians 15:4-8) 

The resurrection narratives are occasions when the witnesses to the resurrection (female and male disciples) "saw" the risen Lord and in some narratives (in Luke, John) the seeing involved extensive conversations, sometimes over a meal - note Peter's "who ate and drank with him" above.

The variety and number of appearances not only affected the individuals who met the risen Jesus in this way, it also created a collective conviction among the first Christians that their distinction was to follow a living Lord and Teacher. Beyond the Ascension as the historical end to (for want of a better description) "appearances of Jesus in everyday life on earth", this conviction nurtured both the first believers who had experienced such appearances and those new believers who had not had such experiences.

In some way, their sense as a body of believers that they not only followed a living Lord and Teacher "in the abstract" but also "in reality" was continually boosted and refreshed by a conviction that when they met to break bread eucharistically together, Jesus was in their midst. "The Lord's day", each Sunday, was not only a remembering that it was on the first day of the week that Jesus rose from the dead but also a description of a special day each week when eucharist was celebrated and Jesus their Lord was especially in their midst.

The Emmaus story in Luke 24 makes this point, not only about the evening of the Day of Resurrection but also about every eucharist subsequently.

"Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread." (Luke 24:35).

In 1 Corinthians 11 a different point is made when Paul writes,

“For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.”

The eucharist simultaneously looks back and forward: to the death of the Lord and to the Lord’s return, which means that, “known to them in the breaking of the bread” as he was, nevertheless a fuller experience of the risen Lord was yet to come.

In 2023, we continue to live in the same in-between time as the Corinthians, and our reality as church is that our best life during this time is not primarily determined by getting plans and budgets sorted (though they help) but by our faithfulness in proclaiming the death of the Lord, through preaching, through practical deeds of love and through participation in the eucharist, with a sense of anticipation - the Lord is returning soon (Maranatha!) - and a sense of excitement and joy - the Lord is with us, near us and in us.

Resurrection is now, or nothing. It is not something which only happened in narratives and reports composed long ago, into which we may dig like archaeologists to find out what happened in ancient times past.

Rather, the event of the resurrection of Jesus continues. Jesus lives. The church is the body of Christ on earth. We are the people of the risen King.

Do we live as resurrection people?

Is the church alive with the joy and hope of resurrection?

Let's be honest. Sometimes we cannot answer such questions with the assurance we would like.

Dear Lord Jesus,

You are alive. 

May nothing in my life or the life of the church distract from this glorious truth.

And all God's people said,


Sunday, April 2, 2023

It's Passiontide … how certain may we be about the truth of the cross? (2/3)

The curses of Twitter are often noted, espcially now it mediates with musky tones. But there are blessings. One recent one has been a reference to an Australian artist I had never heard of before, Clarice Beckett. Extraordinary. Relevant to Holy Week is a link noticed this morning to a post by Diana Butler Bass, The Holy Thursday Revolution

Another fairly common blessing is notices of books. 

Yesterday a Tweet alerted me to a recent book prefaced by Cardinal Burke* and afterworded by Cardinal Sarah - an Anglican equivalent would be prefaced by the Archbishop of Nigeria and the concluding word would be by the Archbishop of Uganda. 

This book is The Faith Once for All Delivered: Doctrinal Authority in Catholic Theology edited by Kevin L Flannery with 13 contributors. It has in its sights theologians such as Rahner and Kasper and its great concern is the lifting of the anchor of Catholic theology, especially post Vatican 2, from the objective doctrine of the church, deposited once and for all in Scripture and Tradition. That lifting of anchor is through the unwelcome efforts of Kant, Hegel, and the nouvelle theologie of the first half of the 20th century. Thus this comment is made by Pecknold, and recited in the Introduction:

“Maritain’s early worry that ‘the new theologians’ were playing the early Church Fathers to the music of Hegel has proven prescient.” [Location 229/762 in the Kindle sample of the book which I downloaded for free].

Ironically (with philosophers Hegel and Kant in view as enemies of sound doctrine) the key to sound doctrine which threads through the Introduction is that theology-and-philosophy is critical to maintaining the faith. Thus a sharp jibe concerning Kasper’s theology is made:

“Stark neatly summarizes the consequences of Kasper’s line of thinking by concluding that “in theology politics is slowly replacing philosophy.” “ [Location 260/762 in the Kindle sample]

“Politics” here means theology undertaken with a view to the hsitorical circumstances of the day and thus with the possibility that the consensus of today’s faithful might be different from yesterday’s.

The first half of the book can be summarised as:

“ the negative effects of German idealism on Catholic theology throughout the twentieth century, in particular, of the doctrinal and moral relativism produced by the influence of historicism.” [Location 355/762 in the Kindle sample]

The second half sets out the way forward to avert doctrinal disaster. Topics include the Magisterium, development of doctrine, the sense and consensus of the faithful, the apostolicity and historicity of Scripture, and the (limited) role of bishops meeting in national conferences.

Of course, the great target through the book is the Pope himself. The Introduction implies that throughout the essays in the book, no opportunity to state that popes are not above criticism is left unstated!

As best I can see, from reading the Introduction, the thesis of the book is that there is sure and certain doctrine held by the church which is in grave danger of being revised and deconstructed by theologians who have lost sight of the - in this case, Catholic - basics of knowing and maintaining “the faith once for all delivered.”

All good then?

Not really, in my view, and working only from the Introduction, per my free Kindle sample download, it is interesting that a lot of emphasis is placed on being sure and certain that Scripture is without grave problems as a clear repository of doctrine because (e.g.) the questions raised by modern critical approaches to the Bible can be waved away. 

Yet the very fact of needing to restate what the Magisterium is (and is not) and what different levels of magisterial-speak mean supposes that we cannot be (and, indeed, never have been) sure and certain about the teaching of Scripture since it is not even intuitively clear what authority (in this case, the Magisterium) constitutes the uncontested authority to determine what the teaching of Scripture is. 

In this respect, we must always remember, whether we are Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox that on the most basic issue of doctrine, the nature of God in relation to Jesus Christ and to the Holy Spirit, the church took centuries to settle the “faith once for all delivered.”

With reference to a parallel in the Protestant world, I also refer readers to recent comments to the post below re Nostalgia. What are "confessional" statements but tributes to the failure of Scripture to be "sure and certain" on various matters?

We might, then, this Passiontide, also reflect on another matter of basic doctrine: the truth of the cross. What was and is the meaning of the cross, or, what was it that Christ achieved through his death and resurrection?

Now, let's get something straight at the beginning: Scripture, via the Gospels and Epistles, with a significant helping hand from Isaiah, teaches many things about Christ's salvific work on the cross. It is not in doubt that many things are taught. Nor is it in doubt that each such thing is inordinately, indeed eternally valuable. Nor is it in doubt that Scripture teaches that through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection, the possibility of salvation exists for all who respond to Jesus Christ in faith.

What is at question is whether Scripture yields one definitive or "sure and certain" theory of atonement.

What does Scripture say? (With NRSV as translation used unless otherwise indicated.)

First, we might note that the Gospels themselves are pretty coy about what Jesus himself said about the meaning of his imminent execution. 

Matthew and Mark emphasise that Jesus died, according to his own words, "to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28//Mark 10:45). But what is meant by ransom (normally meaning the price paid to set a slave free)? 

Luke 21:28 refers to a future "redemption" (without explicitly associating that with Jesus' death on the cross) and reports to us that after the resurrection, Jesus twice refers to the cross as necessary suffering the Messiah had to undergo (24:26, 46). (We might note that in Peter's Pentecost sermon, the purpose of Jesus' death seems to be that his being raised from the dead is the greatest of all the signs and wonders associated with Jesus). 

John makes the strongest link between the death of Jesus and its consequences for our wrongdoing. In John 1, Jesus is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29, cf. 1:36) and in John 18-19, Jesus dies at the hour the lambs for the Passover feast are being sacrificed.** Yet in John 10, where Jesus speaks of his being the shepherd who "lays down his life for the sheep" (10:11, 15), there is no explicit explanation of how this sacrifice brings life (10:10) or salvation (10:9) to the sheep. 

John is quite allusive to the meaning of the cross. On it some kind of work is done ("It is finished", 19:30), but what is that work? On the cross, God is glorified and thus the cross is, somehow, a testimony to the truth which God reveals in Jesus (see, e.g. the high priestly prayer of Jesus in chapter 17). Finally, in his death, Jesus expresses the love of God (3:16) and exemplifies the way of love for his followers (part of the point of the washing of his disciples' feet in chapter 13).

Of course the clearer understanding of Jesus' death comes when we open up the key epistolary commentary on the Gospel according to John, the epistle bearing John's name, finding these helpful words:

"But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2) - with "atoning sacrifice" translating hilasmos = expiation; or propitiation (ESV) (also 4:10).

Generally, the epistles are "the" Scriptural providers of interpretation of the meaning of the cross. Some examples - by no means an exhaustive set:

1 Peter 2 is pretty clear that 

"Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps" (21)


"He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (24).

We may note that the second meaning of the cross for Peter does not take us deep into "how" we are freed from our sins or healed by his wounds.

Hebrews, especially through chapters 9 and 10, is more detailed in its understanding of the cross. There Jesus, our great high priest offers himself as a permanent and complete sacrifice for our sins, understood with the Mosaic law to mean that we are sanctified or cleansed from our sins. A few verses only cited here, such as:

"he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption" (9:12)

"But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself" (9:26)

"For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (10:14)

"Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, ... let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" (10:19-22).

Ephesians 2 proposes a different understanding, with an emphasis on "reconciliation": between humanity and God, and simultaneously between humanity's two groups, Jews and Gentiles:

"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace: in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us ... that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death than hostility through it." (2:13-16)

Earlier in the same chapter, Paul writes about how his readers were once "dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived" but now they have been "made ... alive together with Christ" (2:1, 5) while not spelling out exactly how this is so. Even though "wrath" is mentioned in 2:3, there is no sense, here, that God has punished Christ in our place.

And, bien sur, Romans where 3:21-26 sets out, in the context of why the law and obedience to it counts for little and faith counts for much, how Jesus has justified and redeemed us through becoming "a sacrifice of atonement" or hilasterion (a means of propitiation (ESV) ; a means of expiation (REB; NEB) - also used at Hebrews 9:5 = "mercy seat" -  and Romans 5 follows through with:

"Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God" (9)

Finally, we should note a theme which has already appeared above, redemption or the sense that we have been slaves to sin and now through Christ's death we have been redeemed from that slavery. So, one example, Colossians 1:13-14:

"He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."

Other "redemption" examples include Galatians 3-4 and 1 Peter 1:18-19, while the whole of Romans 6-7 is focused on our freedom from slavery to sin without the word 'redemption" appearing.

In summary, Scripture proposes a wonderful, richly themed account of what Christ achieves on the cross: salvation in which we are justified, we are made righteous, we are redeemed, we are forgiven, we are reconciled to God. Yet, if we press Scripture hard and ask questions such as "to whom is a ransom paid? To Satan? If so, why would God be beholden to that snake?" or "How is our forgiveness from sin and reconciliation with God achieved - is it by propitiating or by expiating God's wrath against us?" or "Is it Christ's death on the cross alone which saves us, or Christ's death-and-resurrection?" then Scripture is not as comprehensive and full of detail as we might like it to be so that we had utter clarity in the answers. There is a mystery in the death and resurrection of Jesus: we can be certain of what it achieves (our salvation) and not quite so certain of how that is achieved.

Moreover, a bit like what Scripture says in relation to the relationship between God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the statements relevant to these questions are here and there across many writings in Scripture. There is no definitive teaching about salvation to be found in one writing only. Hebrews, Romans and Galatians come close, but our understanding of salvation is illuminated by other passages - in the Gospels, in 1 Peter and 1 John (per citings above) and elsewhere, and could we be as rich and deep in our understanding if we only had one of Hebrews, Romans or Galatians?

So, I don't buy the confidence The Faith Once for All Delivered has in the apostolicity and historicity of Scripture as though it provides some uncontestable space for theology to begin and doctrinal development to take place, providing we do not let the Kants and Hegels cloud our minds.

I do understand the human desire for clarity in teaching and certainty and conviction in what we are meant to believe, whether we are among the brainiest of current Catholic theologians or the oh so very crisply toned English rebels in London who a few days ago announced a piece de (literal) resistance to the CofE bishops by setting up a "deanery" because of their certainty that the bishops are wrong on a matter.

But can we be so certain when Scripture is a complex amalgam of writings, with varied themes and emphases, and, however uncomfortable it is to acknowledge, a lack of a sentence or two on many matters which, if made, would have saved (and would save) the church hundreds of years of debate!

Is the calling of Jesus to follow him accompanied by a promise of clarity and certainty on what to think? Are disciples of Jesus better disciples because they learn all the propositions they are meant to believe (whether as rationalistic evangelicals or rationalistic Catholics) and hold steadfastly to them no matter what?

The call of Jesus, in gospel reality, seems to be much more a call to follow Jesus through storms and into controversies with the only certainty being that Jesus will always be in the storms and in the controversies. 

The propositions of our faith are helpful but they may not get us to where God is leading us. Peter thought he had discipleship sewn up in a neat rational "for the Jews only" package, until he encountered God and Cornelius. Paul knew the propositions of his faith forwards and backwards. Then he met Jesus!

There are many certainties in Scripture - that we are saved, that God is the God who identifies with Jesus Christ the Son and with the Holy Spirit, etc - but there are also uncertainties, some of which have been so worked on that the universal church proposes through the creeds what we may be sure of (e.g. that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and some of which, despite assertions of "we are certain" are not quite there as universal dogma (Does the Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son?).

This mix of certainty and uncertainty, I suggest, is also true of moral theology (a significant concern of The Faith Once for All Delivered). We can be certain that God intends for marriage to be lifelong and not asundered and less sure what we are to do when a marriage breaks and there is a divorce (again, note differences between Western and Eastern Christianity, and within Western Christianity). We can be certain that killing is wrong, that beginning a war is consequentially wrong, and less sure whether, when invaded, we should fight back or not, or, if pressed to join the military we should do so as Christians or not.

Finally, to the matter at hand, we may be sure that God in Christ loved us so much that on the cross he died for us, that we might live an abundant life for eternity, saved from sin, redeemed from the clutch of the evil one, cleansed and made whole through the high priestly sacrifice of the Great High Priest, a matter made sure by the resurrection on the third day.

To the resurrection the next post will turn. A blessed Holy Week to all readers.

I can't usually find the time to make such a long post but the last few days have unexpectedly granted me some spare time!

*As an illustrative case of why this same Cardinal might be wrong when he is sure that he is right, and, in particular, that history (the new appreciation of the equality of women with men) may affect our understanding of some matters, see Bosco Peters' post on Burke's resolute opposition to girls/women in the sanctuary.

**I leave aside here the question of how a lamb takes away sin when the Mosaic law speaks of a "scapegoat" taking sins into the wilderness, and the Passover sacrifice of lambs commemorates Israel's release from slavery in Egypt.