November 2, 2019

Signs of Hope and Cracks in the Armor: An Ordination Sermon for a Secular Age

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 10:00 pm
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Preached at the Ordination of Greg and Noel Collins Pfeiffer to the Priesthood

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 145
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 10: 1-9

Angelus

One of the things I enjoy most about having been a seminary professor for awhile is that I get to go through the “entire process” with my students, from beginning to end. Nine years ago, I saw a young couple arrive at Trinity, having recently finished their undergraduate schooling in Chicago, now coming to study together – Greg and Noel Collins Pfeiffer. There are no typical seminary couples these days, but Greg and Noel were not typical even at Trinity. He was a Starbucks barista. Sometimes it seemed like his sense of style was stuck in the 90’s — the 1890’s. She sometimes worked as a swimming lifeguard. They read fantasy literature, especially Tolkien, and they hung around with a group of students who called each other “The Scooby Gang.” They lived with some other students in a kind of intentional community. Both Noel and Greg took courses from me, and while faculty are not supposed to have favorite students, I confess that I developed an especial fondness for Greg and Noel. I had the privilege of directing Noel’s thesis on Gregory of Nyssa. I saw both of them graduate in 2013. Noel’s hair was the same color as her graduation hood that day. In August 2013, Noel used her secret connections to get me invited to give some talks on Reformation Anglicanism for the first CANA West Diocesan Synod in San Antonio, Texas. Among my other jobs, I am on the Commission on Ministry for the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, and I was on the committee that interviewed Greg and Noel to enter the ordination process – one week before their son Elian was due to be born. And today I am privileged to preach at their ordination to the priesthood. I am honored and grateful to be part of the end of this journey, as I was at the beginning. It is, of course, a truism, to say that this is really not an end, but another beginning. But while it may be a truism, it is not trite. Noel and Greg will now be exercising the ministries that they first came to Trinity to begin studying for. Noel, Greg, I thank you for this opportunity to speak at your ordination to the priesthood. I have not taught any students of whom I am so happy to see this moment arrive as I am for you.

Greg, Noel, as I speak to you this evening, I can’t help but wonder about the path you have chosen, as I am sure you probably have yourself. To take the path of ordination to the priesthood these days is to set out on a hard road. Why would anyone want to be a priest today? The culture seems to be going through what is called a process of “secularization” that began in the 1960’s, but it finally seems to be reaching its apex. In the last generation, church membership in the United States has plummeted. From 1937 through the 1990s, membership regularly averaged around 70% of the population. From 1998 until now, church membership has dropped to just around 50% of the population. Since the turn of the 21st century, the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation has doubled, from 8% to 19%. The shift is also generational. Among millennials, those of Noel’s and Greg’s generation, only 42% are members of any church. And, of course, church attendance is lower than church membership. Only about a third of the population attend church weekly, but among those aged 18 to 29, only 17% attend church every week.

Along with the decrease in church membership, respect for clergy as an occupation has also dropped. A recent study found that among those who attend church regularly, 75% view clergy positively. However, among those who attend church only once a month, only 52% think clergy are trustworthy. And if you attend church less than once a month, the chances that you consider clergy to be honest and intelligent is only 27% to 30%. The population as a whole views teachers, doctors, scientists, and members of the military more positively than clergy. Only 42% of average Americans have a positive view of clergy. In terms of trustworthiness, clergy are viewed about the same level as lawyers.

So how should the church respond to this changed situation? Noel, Greg, perhaps this is a time to rethink. You already know how to make coffee and coach swimming. It’s not too late to change your minds. I really don’t want you to change your minds though. If anything, clergy are more needed now than they were a generation ago. There was a time when the local pastor or priest was something like those doctors who used to give house calls. Someone you could depend on, just part of the way things were, but not someone you thought about much until someone got sick. In the current situation, the priest is something more like an emergency medical technician in the midst of a major catastrophe. Clergy are more necessary now, not less. Matthew 9:36 speaks of an event in the life of Jesus: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” When the sheep have lost their way, we need shepherds to find the sheep and bring them back into the fold. There is a passage in the gospel reading this evening that is right on target. Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Greg and Noel, the church has called you to be laborers in the harvest.

(more…)

September 27, 2019

Unjust Stewards and Unrighteous Wealth: A Sermon on the Gospel According to Robin Hood

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 11:50 pm
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Amos 8:4-12
Psalm 138
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

St. GeorgeOne of the most popular of traditional stories is the “Robin Hood” or “Cinderella” story. The story begins with a setting of injustice. There are a group of powerful and usually wealthy figures who are in charge – the “bad guys” – who are unfairly oppressing someone else – an individual or a group of people who are poor, powerless, and unable to defend themselves. In “Robin Hood,” the bad guys are Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. In Cinderella, they are the wicked stepmother and the ugly step sisters. In the midst of this injustice, a previously unknown, poor, and apparently powerless figure appears out of nowhere, but this figure surprises everyone by defeating and overcoming the powerful and wealthy villains, the poor are delivered, and everyone lives happily ever after. Robin Hood and Cinderella play this figure in their versions of the story, but the story is still very much with us in contemporary culture. Orphaned teenagers Peter Parker and Harry Potter are Robin Hood and Cinderella respectively in our own day.

There are lots of ways to tell the biblical story, and the Robin Hood/Cinderella variation is one possible framework. Jacob’s son Joseph is the youngest of twelve brothers, who is sold into slavery, but eventually rises to be Pharaoh’s right-hand man, to deliver Egypt from famine, and to save his own family, including the brothers who had betrayed him. Jacob’s descendants are slaves in Egypt, but they are delivered by Moses, himself the son of poor Israelites, who was pulled out of the Nile as a baby floating in a basket. In the New Testament, we are familiar with Mary’s prayer, The Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . . He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46-48, 52-53)

The Robin Hood story can provide a kind of common framework for making sense of this morning’s lectionary readings. Turning to Amos, we find that the theme of the reading is the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. Amos is historically the first of the writing prophets, written between 760 and 740 BC. The book is a judgment on the sins of the nation of Israel, and, unlike later prophets, Amos’s message is entirely negative. He offers no message of hope or forgiveness. Amos threatens that Israel will go into exile, and that is exactly what eventually happened. (more…)

July 16, 2019

I Get Mail or Justification and the New Perspective on Paul

Filed under: Justification,Theology — William Witt @ 5:23 am
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This is the second part of a response to a reader who left some comments on an essay I’d written a few years ago entitled Anglican Reflections on Justification by Faith. Unfortunately, an adequate response required more space than would fit in a comment box. Here’s my response to the second comment:

And one other issue: IMHO one of the most powerful claims made by the “New Perspective” is that we cannot find a single instance of an author in the New Testament period who was defending “works righteousness”; hence, Paul could not have been arguing against a non-existent opponent. I have not seen a single response to this claim.

Unfortunately, (as Krister Stendahl asserted in an important essay), we read Paul through Luther, who indeed was battling those who were advocating salvation by works. A better resolution may be found in pursuing more carefully how the church has understood the role of merit in justification/sanctification. I’m reminded that Augustine said that when God rewards our merits, He crowns his own gifts.

Thanks. Steve

Lamb of GodSteve,

You raise two different issues in this comment, but both are variations on a common theme – that in some way the “New Perspective on Paul” invalidates the Reformation understanding of justification. In the realm of “popular” theology, I see this claim raised both by traditional Protestants (who then reject the New Perspective) and by Roman Catholics (or others of “catholic” leanings, e.g., Eastern Orthodox, Anglo-Catholics) who presume that the “New Perspective” in some way validates the “Catholic” position on justification. I mentioned this in my essay: “Occasionally, one comes across Roman Catholic apologists who suggest that the New Perspective proves that the Council of Trent was right, after all. More frequently, traditional Protestants (such as John Piper) vigorously attack the ‘New Perspective’ (notably N. T. Wright) as not only a betrayal of the Reformation, but a distortion of Paul’s theology.” Your reference to “merit” as God “crowning his gifts” sounds like a variation on the “Catholic” apologetic.

Some of this I already addressed in my essay: (1) “[T]he New Perspective does not amount to a simple rejection of the Reformation understanding of justification.” (2) “For example, broadly speaking, New Perspective scholars are clear that justification language in Paul is the language of the courtroom, and is thus forensic,” and (3) “New Perspective scholars continue to affirm that justification in Paul is ‘by faith alone.’ ”

(more…)

July 10, 2019

I Get Mail or Concerning Justification and Doctrinal Development

Filed under: Development of Doctrine,Justification,Theology — William Witt @ 3:57 am
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A reader left some comments on an essay I’d written a few years ago entitled Anglican Reflections on Justification by Faith. Unfortunately, an adequate response required more space than would fit in a comment box. Here’s my response to the first comment:

Very good article. Some Reformers identified the doctrine of justification as the “article by which the church stands or falls” and Luther himself said something very similar. Yet, as you indicate, the Reformation understanding of justification as 1) forensic and 2) distinct from sanctification was a genuine doctrinal development. Alister McGrath agreed with this assessment saying that the Reformation understanding was a “theological novum.” Herein lies the problem: if the reformed view of justification is a theological novum and it is central to our understanding of salvation, then it would seem that the church had erred on a central doctrine for 1500 years; indeed, it would seem that the church only began to “stand” with this theological discovery. So, I’m curious as to why you would label the Reformers view of justification as Doctrinal Development 1 instead of Doctrinal Development 2 (designations that you used in an essay on DD). Thanks. Steve

Lamb of GodSteve,

Three different issues need to be addressed here. First is the notion of doctrinal development itself. What constitutes a genuine as opposed to an illegitimate doctrinal development? Second concerns the question of whether justification by grace through faith is a genuine doctrinal development or rather an illegitimate development. Third, if justification is the article by which the church stands or falls, was it the case that the church “erred on a central doctrine for 1500 years”?

(1) So what constitutes a “doctrinal development”? A doctrinal development takes place when the church affirms as definitive a doctrinal position that had not been clearly articulated previously. In a very real sense, by definition, all doctrinal developments are “theological novi,” and it is for this reason that they often meet with opposition. Primary examples would be the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon. Nicea affirmed dogmatically that Jesus Christ is homoousios (of the same nature or “consubstantial”) with the Father. Chalcedon affirmed what became the official dogma concerning the incarnation – that Jesus Christ is one divine person with two natures, one divine and one human. Some resisted homoousios on the grounds that it was not a biblical expression, and that it was suspect as being “Sabellian.” Nestorians and monophysites/miaphysites rejected Chalcedon for opposite reasons. Nestorians rejected the language of “one person” because they suspected it was monophysite, while monophysites rejected Chalcedon because they suspected it of Nestorianism.
(more…)

June 10, 2019

A Sermon on Engaging Theological Conflict

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 3:26 am
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This is a sermon I preached at the 2019 Ancient Evangelical Future Conference at Trinity School for Ministry.

Luke 20:27-21:4

St. GeorgeThis morning’s lectionary reading from Luke’s gospel consists of a number of stories about conflict between Jesus and different opponents. Each one of these could be the subject of a sermon in itself. In Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on Luke, Cyril preaches three different sermons on what for us this morning is a single reading. I don’t have time to preach three sermons, but I don’t intend to focus on only one of the conflicts in which Jesus is involved in this passage either. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of conflict itself. Each one of the conflicts in which Jesus is engaged is essentially about a theological disagreement, and I am going to suggest that in this morning’s lectionary reading, Jesus provides an ideal example of how to deal with theological disagreement. We live in a culture that does not handle conflict very well, but, more to the point, this is a theological conference in which Christians of different theological traditions are gathered, so there are certainly issues of theological disagreement among us. Yet, this is also an ecumenical conference, in which, despite not agreeing on everything, we presumably believe that we agree enough on some things that we can meet together both to engage in mutually beneficial discussion and to worship. So how does Jesus address theological conflict in these stories?

In the first conflict story, Jesus encounters some Sadducees, a Jewish group who disagreed with the Pharisees in that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus’ Sadducee opponents engage in a reductio ad absurdum argument. They try to discredit the notion of resurrection by showing that if taken to its logical extreme, resurrection would lead to absurd results. They tell the story of a woman whose husband dies. Under the principle of levirate marriage, found in Deuteronomy 25, the brother of a man who had died was obligated to marry his brother’s widow in order that the man would not have died without heirs, but also as a form of financial security for the widow. The central plot of the book of Ruth in the Old Testament revolves around this practice. As the Sadducees tell the story, the woman marries the surviving brother, but he dies as well. The widow keeps marrying brothers, all of whom die, and then finally she dies. This leads to a question with all of the sophistication of a social media debate: If there is a resurrection, out of the seven brothers, whose wife would the woman be?

So how does Jesus address the conflict? (more…)

May 5, 2019

New Essay on the Anglican Spirituality of Thomas Traherne

Filed under: Anglicanism,Spiritualty — William Witt @ 6:16 am
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Here is a link to an essay on the Anglican spiritual divine Thomas Traherne, which I just posted to my list of “Pages” on the right of my blog. This was originally published in Pro Ecclesia: A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology, Vol. 25, No. 4, Fall. 2016. I thought this might be suitable for the Easter season.

April 19, 2019

The Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:17 pm
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Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4-14
John 12:1-8

Lamb of GodWhen I was a child I used to watch a television game show called “Let’s Make a Deal!” I was really surprised as I was writing this sermon to discover that it is still on television. “Let’s Make a Deal!” had two premises: first, the initial premise had to do with beginning with nothing followed by having something good. Contestants would get recognized by the host – Monty Hall – for doing things like wearing ridiculous costumes or waving signs. They would then trade some insignificant personal item like some postage stamps or a silly hat to Monty Hall for something slightly better, perhaps a few hundred dollars,  in order to make a deal – that’s the beginning with nothing part– and the something good part was that they would win what was behind the curtain or the door, which might be something valuable like a new automobile or an expensive vacation.

The second theme of “Let’s Make a Deal!” – and what led to the tension of the show – was the problem of what I am going to call “genuine value” over against “apparent value.” After Monty Hall had traded something of genuine value in exchange for postage stamps or a silly hat, he would inevitably offer the contestant a choice. Would they be willing to trade their newly acquired treasure for what was behind “Curtain No. 1”? The contestant would then have to make the hard choice of keeping the good thing they had just acquired for the unknown item behind the curtain. Some would keep the money, but most would choose what was behind the curtain. Sometimes the trade would be worth it – even more money or some more expensive item like a new television would be behind the curtain. However, sometimes the viewer would find when the curtain opened that they had just traded away their deal for a goat and a bale of hay. The viewer had traded something that had real value for something that had apparent value, but turned out not to have value at all.

The two themes of “Let’s Make a Deal!” are also common themes in the four lectionary readings this morning: lack or loss followed by gain, and real contrasted to apparent value. (more…)

March 23, 2019

Reflections on the Hypostatic Union: How Can a Single Person Have Two Intellects and Wills?

Filed under: Theology — William Witt @ 9:39 pm
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Christ EnthronedOne of the most difficult concepts for students of theology to get their heads around is the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation. Students generally are willing to affirm that Jesus Christ is a single person (against Nestorianism), that he is “God become a human being” and not a human being in whom God was especially present (against adoptionism), that he is fully God and fully human (Chalcedon); however, I have found that concerns arise when some of the affirmations of the later Councils are discussed. Affirmations of ditheletism (that Christ has two intellect and wills, one human and one divine) and anhypostasia (that because Christ is a single divine person, he has no distinct human person) create puzzlement. In an email conversation with a well-known contemporary Evangelical theologian, I was once told that the notion that Jesus had both a divine intellect and will and a human intellect and will sounded like “Nestorianism.” More recently, a student complained that saying that Jesus was not a human person sounded like Apollinarianism. A student sent me an email awhile back, raising some of these questions, and I have belatedly responded:

I’m still stuck on the single personhood of Christ in the face of two natures. I understand the distinction (the who vs. the what) and the necessity to keep either from being diminished/replaced by the other. But I’m struggling with how to understand someone with two wills, two knowledges, two ontologies, as a single anything. I know at some point we plead mystery, but I want to get as close as I can before I do.

Concerning personhood, I think the following is necessary:

a) A person is absolutely unique. There are many human beings, but there is only one unique Bill Witt or D___ S___ (name omitted).

b) A person is consciously aware, and the source of his or her own actions.

c) A person knows and wills and, on that basis, is able to act in a responsible manner.

d) A person is relational – specifically a person is in relation to other persons as I and you.

e) For all of the above reasons, a person is a “some one” rather than a “some thing.”

Where things get confusing for us is that in the only cases of personhood of which we have immediate experience (that of fellow human beings), every person is an embodied individual with a single intellect and will. If there is more than one intellect and will, there is more than one person. (more…)

March 7, 2019

I Get Mail: A Response to a Catholic Reader

Filed under: Ecumenism,Theology — William Witt @ 1:13 am
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I got an email awhile ago from a young Roman Catholic gentleman who expressed appreciation for some of what I’ve written on my blog, following a growing frustration with online rationalist Roman Catholic apologetics.

I first came across your blog ten years ago when I was fifteen and beginning to seriously study the Reformation and Roman Catholicism from a Baptist background, and read it intermittently for a couple of years. I did eventually become a Catholic, at twenty four, but recently began reading your blog again. . . . The reason I’ve returned to reading your blog is largely because of a burnout with modern Catholic discourse [especially rationalist Catholic apologetics] . . . I’ve found that reading solid devotional writing like yours, whether from Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox, does far more for my faith than the old polemical reading I used to do.

Crucifix IconDear xxxxx,

I’ve been meaning to reply to your kind email. It is Ash Wednesday, and I have a little time. Your email was quite encouraging to me. Around six months ago, I began receiving repeated emails from a Roman Catholic gentleman who would ask one-line questions such as “Who founded your church?,” while including links to conservative Catholic apologetics sites. I sent several replies that I hoped would be charitable, but he ignored what I actually wrote, and just kept bombarding me. Finally, I had to block his email address. So imagine how encouraging it was to receive a positive email from a Catholic reader of my blog. I often wonder whether what I write is helpful to anyone except myself, and I am always happy to hear when it is.

Concerning what you write about rationalist apologetics: I find conservative online apologetics to be generally toxic; it does not matter what brand is being sold. The biggest problem with these people seems to be a peculiarly modern obsession with epistemological certitude coupled with an obsessive Cartesian anxiety about doubt. These folks spend way too much time focusing on arguments as to why their side is the only correct one, and far too little time exploring the substance of their Christian faith, whether they be Catholic, Orthodox, some kind of Protestant, or Anglican (like myself).

One of the most helpful books I have read in recent years was D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Fortress Press, 2014). In this book, Long (a Methodist) writes about how Balthasar (a Roman Catholic) rediscovered the heart of Christian faith through reading Karl Barth (Reformed). Barth’s theology focused on the Nicene-Chalcedonian center of Christian faith: the Trinity and the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Balthasar believed that if Catholicism were going to be renewed in the 20th century, it needed to return to this Nicene-Chalcedonian center, and abandon the unfruitful manualist Apologetics of the late 19th and early 20th century that focused on Catholic quarrels with Protestantism and modernity. It is this creedal center that I have found most fruitful for my own theology and spiritual life. (more…)

March 3, 2019

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Aquinas and the “Tradition Challenge”

Filed under: Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 5:43 am
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Aquinas

Of all of the essays I have written on the topic of women’s ordination, the one that has received the most negative feedback has been the one entitled “Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument ‘From Tradition’ is not the ‘Traditional’ Argument.” In this essay, I argue that despite claims simply to be upholding the church’s historic tradition, both versions of the current arguments against women’s ordination used respectively by Roman Catholics and by Protestants are not traditional at all, but actually represent departures from the historical reasons that women were not ordained.

In that essay, I made the case (citing numerous historical examples) that historical opposition to women’s ordination is rooted in an ontology of inequality: women could not be ordained because they were less intelligent, emotionally unstable, and more subject to temptation than men. Moreover, the traditional argument was not simply an argument against the ordination of women, but against any leadership of men over women.

It seems fairly obvious why so many have reacted negatively to this essay. If I am correct, historical opposition to women’s ordination is not only based in a questionable major assumption, but is also directly contrary to a key claim of both the new Catholic and the new Protestant positions, that opposition to women’s ordination is not based on any kind or intellectual or moral inequality. Resistance to this essay led me to post something I called the “Tradition Challenge.” In that essay, I laid out the traditional position in three premises:

(A) Women are less intelligent, more emotionally unstable, and more subject to temptation than men.
(B) Ordination necessitates exercising authority over others, particularly teaching and speaking in an authoritative manner. Women cannot be ordained because they are necessarily subordinate to men, and therefore cannot execise authority in this manner. This is primarily an exclusion from women exercising any authority whatsoever over men, and only secondarily a specific exclusion from ordination.
(C) Proposition (B) is a direct corollary or consequence of Proposition (A). Women are necessarily subordinate to men, and cannot exercise authority over them because of an ontological incapacity located in a deficiency in reason, emotional instability, and susceptibility to temptation. Because of this ontological deficiency, they cannot exercise authority over or teach men, and so cannot be ordained.

(more…)

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