July 24, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Mutual Submission

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 9:46 pm
image_pdfimage_print

weddingIn previous essays in this series on women’s ordination, I have distinguished between the two different kinds of arguments used against women’s ordination by those I have designated “Protestants” and those I have designated “Catholics.” Protestants have focused primarily on issues of hierarchy and authority: women cannot be ordained because of an inherent subordination of women to men. In the church and family (at least), men always exercise authority over women; women never exercise authority over men. Because ordination has to do with authority, women cannot be ordained. Women cannot exercise positions of leadership in the church; they cannot preach; they cannot teach men. Catholics have focused instead on issues of sacramental theology: In performing sacramental actions, the ordained act as representatives of Christ. Since Jesus is a male, no woman can represent Christ. Women can exercise other roles in the church, including roles of pastoral leadership, preaching, and teaching. What they cannot do is celebrate the sacraments. Because ordination has to do with celebrating the sacraments, women cannot be ordained.

I have focused so far on Protestant opposition, whose advocates designate their position as “complementarian”: women and men are equal in status, but exercise different complementary “roles.” The term “complementarian” is misleading, since the sole way in which the roles “complement” one another is that men always exercise authority, and women always submit to male authority. I have also focused on the Bible, specifically the creation narratives in Genesis and the teaching of Jesus and his interactions with women because the doctrines of creation and Christology are crucial to the debate. I have argued that both Genesis and the gospels actually count against the complementarian position. Far from suggesting that there is an inherent hierarchical relation between men and women, both the creation narratives and the gospel narratives point in the opposite direction. Genesis 1-3 teaches that men and women are equally created in the image of God, and the subordination of women is a consequence of the fall into sin, not part of God’s intention in the original creation.

Looking to the gospels, we find that although Jesus lived in a highly patriarchal culture, he deliberately subverted hierarchical relations between men and women by challenging the “shame culture” of the first century Mediterranean world, by treating women as equals, by having women as disciples. In his call to his disciples voluntarily to take on the role of servants to one another, Jesus challenged the notion of hierarchical relations between men and women rather than endorsing it. Nothing in either Genesis or the gospels teaches or implies an essential ontological subordination of women to men.

However, although complementarians appeal to Genesis and the gospels to argue for female subordination, the primary complementarian arguments against women’s ordination come from the epistles of the apostle Paul. Paul has no extended discussion of a theology of the relations between men and women. Instead Paul’s views on men and women and how they relate to one another occur in places in Paul’s occasional theology in which he writes about men and women in the context of some other issue: household management, worship in the church, whether the single should marry. It is this handful of occasional texts in Paul’s letters that have become central to the debate.

Complementarians appeal to two kinds of texts to support their position: texts advocating submission of women to men; texts restricting women’s activity in worship, either in speaking or teaching. In addition, in two letters (1 Corinthians and Ephesians), Paul uses the word kephale, the Greek word translated “head” in English to describe the relation between men and women. This single word kephale is so central to the complementarian position that complementarians regularly use the term “headship” to describe their position, even when discussing passages where the word kephale does not appear. For example, Wayne Grudem refers to “male headship” in his discussion of Genesis 1-3 although the Hebrew word for “head” that would have been translated kephale in the Greek Septuagint appears nowhere in the creation narratives. George Knight entitles the two main chapters of his book on The Role Relationship of Men and Women, “Submission and Headship in Marriage” and “Submission and Headship in the Church.”1

Readers of Paul have responded to this handful of Pauline texts in different ways. Complementarians have appealed to them as the definitive lynchpin in support of their position. Secular and liberal Protestant feminists have instead treated these passages as an excuse to dismiss Paul as an irremediable sexist. Other Christians, who recognize the canonical status of Paul’s writings and appreciate Paul’s crucial significance for Christian theology, especially his account of redeeming grace centered in the cross and resurrection of Christ, the Christian liberty that is a characteristic implication of his theology of grace (Gal. 5:1), and his affirmation of the fundamental equality of men and women in their unity in Christ (Gal. 3:28), read these passages with a kind of discomfort, perhaps wishing that Paul had not written them, or, in some cases, relieved that he did not.2

In recent decades, however, there have been numerous biblical scholars who have argued that a more careful reading of these passages does not support the subordinationist reading. What Paul writes is not inconsistent with the egalitarian position of Genesis or the gospels, and Paul should neither be appealed to as an advocate of male hierarchy, nor dismissed as a sexist. In the next several essays, I want to look again at these controversial passages in Paul’s epistles. In this essay, I am going to look at Paul’s discussion of the relationship between husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 because I believe that it is the key New Testament passage laying out Paul’s understanding of the relationship between men and women. Other passages need to be understood in the light of this passage.3

(more…)

July 8, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Apostolic Succession?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 9:05 pm
image_pdfimage_print

Four_ApostlesApostolic succession has had three different meanings in the history of the church.1

(a) In the second century, apostolic succession was important (over against gnosticism) because of the issue of historical continuity. A historical succession of bishops was one of the four marks distinguishing catholic Christians from their gnostic opponents. Those churches that recognized the canonical authority of Scripture, interpreted and summarized Scripture by the Rule of Faith, and worshiped in word and Sacrament were the same churches that could trace their history through a succession of bishops from the apostles. This is the argument used by Irenaeus in Against Heresies 3.3,4. The focus here is on succession of bishops as an assurance of orthodox teaching.

(b) The bishops are successors of apostles in the sense that they continue to exercise various functions exercised by the apostles: teaching, preaching, celebrating the sacraments, ordination.

(c) The most controversial understanding of apostolic succession is that the “grace” of ordination is handed down from the apostles from one generation of bishops to another through the laying on of hands.

(more…)

July 7, 2014

Anglican Reflections: What About Bishops?

Filed under: Anglicanism,Theology — William Witt @ 12:07 pm
image_pdfimage_print

I received the following question in my email and thought it worth sharing my response:

I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the defense for episcopal church government. I can see the case for a plurality of elders in the New Testament, but this would seemingly lend itself to either a Presbyterian or Congregational polity. What is the best defense for the role of bishops? Can we defend it from the New Testament? And how do Anglicans account for the plurality of elders, such as revealed in Philippians 1:1?

The following is my own argument, but is a summary of arguments that can be found in numerous sources. A bibliography occurs at the end.

BishopAlmost immediately after the Reformation, Anglicans acknowledged that the distinction between bishops and presbyters is not clearly articulated in the New Testament. Episcopacy was still defended, and a number of similar arguments have been used and repeated, beginning at least from the time of Richard Hooker.

The first issue has to do with the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics, that is, the difference between what Scripture meant in its original historical setting and how the church applies Scripture to its life today. The fundamental difference between Richard Hooker and his Puritan opponents had to do with the issue of contemporary application. Both Hooker and the Puritans agreed that Scripture was the final authority for Christian doctrine and practices, but they differed on what that meant for the contemporary application of Scripture. The Puritans subscribed to the “regulative” principle of biblical interpretation: whatever is not specifically commanded in Scripture is forbidden. Accordingly, they were opposed to such practices as the exchange of wedding rings, written liturgies (such as the Book of Common Prayer), hymns (apart from the Psalms), vestments, and bishops, insofar as the Puritans noted correctly that the New Testament makes no inherent distinction between presbyteroi (presbyters) and episkopoi (bishops). To the contrary, Hooker embraced a permissive understanding of biblical hermeneutics: whatever Scripture does not explicitly forbid is permitted. Moreover, Hooker distinguished between matters of doctrine and morals (which are unchangeable), and matters of civil and ritual law (which are changeable by the church). The famous distinction between moral, civil and ritual law is not original to Hooker; it can be found in Thomas Aquinas, in the Lutheran Confessions, and in John Calvin. Hooker also insisted, however, that the distinction meant that churches were free to adopt ecclesiastical practices that were not explicitly commanded in the New Testament as long as they were not forbidden. This included written prayers (liturgical worship, including the Prayer Book), practices such as exchanging wedding rings, and retaining the historic catholic practice of the three-fold order of bishops, priests, and deacons – even if that order is not explicitly commanded or found in the New Testament. (more…)

March 28, 2014

Knowing the Light and Walking in the Light: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:02 pm
image_pdfimage_print

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:(1-7)8-14
John 9:1-13(14-27)28-38
Psalm 23

Plato and AristotleRecently, I have been reading a book about the influence of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in the history of Western civilization. It is a fascinating book that shows how these two Greek philosophers who lived approximately four hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ have repeatedly influenced Western thought for over two milennia. The book is entitled The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.1 The title takes its name from Plato’s famous analogy of the cave. You’re familiar with the analogy? In Plato’s dialogue, The Republic, Socrates suggests that the human situation is something like that of a group of people who have been chained in a cave all of their lives facing a blank wall. Behind the people are a group of figures whose shadows are being cast on the wall in front of them by a fire –something like shadow puppets –and the people are trying to make sense of the silhouettes. These shadows are the only reality the people know. Socrates then asks what would happen if someone were to be released from the cave and were to venture out into the world above to see the sun and nature as it really exists. If such a person were then to return to the cave and tell what he or she had seen, the man or woman would not be believed. The people in the cave know what reality is. It is the shadows that they can see on the wall. They cannot imagine anything else.

Arthur Herman, the author of the book, contrasts Plato’s understanding of reality – knowing the unchanging truth that lies behind the illusory shadows – with Aristotle’s. In contrast to Plato’s focus on knowing the permanent and unchangeable, Aristotle insisted that we could find reality in the ordinary day to day world in the midst of which we live our lives. Where Plato wanted to leave the cave, Aristotle insisted that the cave was where we needed to get to work.

Each philosophy has its consequences for how we live. To be simplistic, Plato’s philosophy included an ethic that focused on knowledge, specifically, knowledge of that which is certain and permanent and about which one cannot be mistaken. Aristotle’s ethic focused instead on what he called “practical knowledge,” that is, how to get things done in a world that was not certain or permanent, and which changed constantly. So Plato’s prescription for how we should live focuses on “knowing.” Aristotle’s focuses on “doing.” There’s a silly joke that’s been around for awhile that gets the philosophers wrong, but basically gets the idea right, so I’ll adjust it by providing the correct names. Plato said: “To be is to do.” Aristotle said: “To do is to be.” Frank Sinatra said: “Do be do be do.” And, of course, Fred Flintstone said: “Yabba Dabba Do.” And Scooby Do said “Scooby Dooby Do.”

Both philosophies have their influences, and also their characteristic errors. The characteristic error of Platonism would be the Socratic fallacy. If we only know the right thing, we’ll be sure to do it. Of course, that is not the case. We all do things that we know we should not do. The characteristic heresies associated with Aristotle are perhaps Pelagianism and antinomianism. Although these are opposite heresies, they are both characterized by a focus on action, on what we do rather than on what we know, on, as we say, “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.” So today the descendents of Plato would be the ideologues, the people who spend hours on their computers typing comments on social media because someone on the internet said something that was wrong. The descendents of Aristotle are the activists. They can be do-gooders who try to change the world for the better, but they can also be the busy bodies who make everyone else’s life miserable by trying to straighten them out.

Why bring up Plato and Aristotle in a Lenten sermon? As we look at the lectionary readings these morning, we note that there is a common theme about “seeing” and “light,” especially when we compare the gospel and epistle readings. John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. Before Jesus heals the man, he says: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:6). At the end of the passage, Jesus says: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (v. 39). The Ephesians passage contains the statement: “Walk as children of light . . . and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” and concludes, “But when anything is exposed to the light, it becomes visible. . .” (Eph. 5:8,14) The similarities to Plato and Aristotle are certainly intriguing. There is the same imagery of light and darkness. The John passage, like Plato’s analogy of the cave, focuses on “seeing.” To the contrary, while the Ephesians passage uses light imagery with its contrast between light and darkness, the focus is on “doing,” more like Aristotle. John seems to be focusing on knowing the light. Paul focuses on “walking in the light.” (more…)

March 9, 2014

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Disciples of Jesus

Filed under: Theology,Women's Ordination — William Witt @ 5:57 am
image_pdfimage_print

PDF Version of This Document

Previous posts in this series include:

Concerning Women’s Ordination: Preliminaries
Non-theological Arguments Against the Ordination of Women
Concerning Women’s Ordination: The Argument “From Tradition” is not the Traditional Argument
Concerning Women’s Ordination: Hierarchy and Hermeneutics
Concerning Women’s Ordination: Beginning with Genesis

“For Martha”

christ_in_the_house_of_martha_and_maryIn previous essays in this discussion of women’s ordination, I have identified two basic theological rationales endorsed by two different groups who oppose women’s ordination – a Protestant approach and a Catholic approach. Both oppose women’s ordination, but for very different reasons. Protestant opposition to the ordination of women focuses on hierarchy and authority, and bases its case on passages (especially in some of the New Testament epistles) that suggest that women should be in subordination to men or that women should not speak in church or teach men. Catholic opposition focuses not on authority, but on sacramental theology. It is claimed that women lack some essential characteristic that is necessary for administering the sacraments.

Both arguments also appeal to Jesus, but do so for contrary reasons. The Catholic position emphasizes that both Jesus and his twelve apostles were all males. Since, it is argued, the ordained clergy represent Christ when they administer the sacraments – the ordained presbyter/priest acts as a representative of or “in the person of” Christ (in persona christi) – a woman cannot be ordained because a female presbyter cannot represent a male Christ. Conversely, the Protestant position has recently stressed an argument drawn from a novel interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Protestant opponents to the ordination of woman have argued for a parallel between the eternal relations of the divine persons of the Trinity and the relations between men and women. It is argued that, although all three persons of the Trinity are ontologically equal, from eternity the Son has a “role” of subordination to the Father, and the Father has a “role” of authority over the Son. From all eternity, the Father commands and the Son obeys. Similarly, it is argued, there is a parallel relation between men and women. Men and women are ontologically equal, yet, just as with the Father and the Son, there is always a subordination of “roles” between men and women. Men always exercise authority over women, and women are always subordinate to men.

The Catholic and Protestant positions thus provide contrary reasons for not ordaining women to church office. For the Catholic position, women cannot be ordained because they do not resemble Christ. For the Protestant position, women cannot be ordained because they do.

At the same time, insofar as these ironically contrary reasons for not ordaining women appeal to Christology for their opposition to women’ ordination, they share a common characteristic. Both positions use highly abstract arguments that are somewhat removed from the actual narratives about Jesus in the gospels or the specific focus of the teaching about Jesus in the epistles. The Catholic argument presupposes a specific understanding of the role of ordained clergy in celebrating the eucharist that seems to have been formulated first in the Medieval period, and then attaches to that theological understanding reflection on its significance for women that seems first to have appeared in an encyclical of Pope Paul VI in the twentieth century. The Protestant argument makes highly questionable assumptions about the eternal relations of the divine persons of the Trinity, insisting that the “economic” obedience of Jesus to his Father that appears in the gospels (an obedience of the Son in his “mission” as God become human) is a direct parallel to an eternal subordination of authority and obedience in the “immanent” Trinity itself, and, furthermore, that this eternal obedience of the Son to the Father is directly parallel to a permanent role of obedience of women to men.1

Needless to say, neither of these arguments reflects a careful exegetical reading of what the New Testament actually says about Jesus. There are no New Testament discussions whatsoever about the role of ordained clergy in celebrating the eucharist, let alone what its theological implications might be for the ordination of women; nowhere in the New Testament is there a parallel drawn between the highly speculative theory about an eternal obedience of the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity and a permanent subordination of women to men.2

At the same time, both positions are correct that a discussion of ordination and the relation between men and women rightly needs to focus on Jesus, and that what the New Testament teaches about Jesus is finally normative for what the church believes about the relations between men and women, and, ultimately for the question of whether women can be ordained to ordained ministry.

In what follows, I will examine the significance of what the gospels teach about Jesus for its significance for the relations between men and women. (In a subsequent essay, I intend to write about the same issue in the Pauline epistles.) In particular, I will focus on the question of subordination. Does the New Testament teach a permanent subordination of women to men, and does it do so based on the example of Jesus? (The essay will focus, then, on Protestant rationales for opposition to the ordination of women. The Catholic sacramental argument that a female presbyter cannot represent a male Christ will be addressed in a later essay.) In addition, in contrast to the highly abstract Christological arguments endorsed by both Protestants and Catholics, this essay will focus on the specific concrete teaching of the New Testament gospels, particularly the implications of their narrative and symbolic logic. (more…)

January 16, 2014

Behold the Lamb of God! A Sermon on Sin and Freedom

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 12:24 am
image_pdfimage_print

Psalm 40:1-10
Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-41

Lamb of GodIn our gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist announces: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). John’s statement is a brief summary of the heart of the Christian faith. Christian faith is about Jesus. Who is Jesus? He is someone who has a special relationship to God. “He is the Lamb of God.” He is also, according to John’s gospel, “the Word of God,” “the Son of God,” “the Christ,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” the “Bread of life,” “the Water of life,” and a number of other things.

What does Jesus do? He takes away the sin of the world. These are the two central affirmations of Christian faith. Lose either affirmation – who Jesus is and what Jesus does – and you no longer have Christian faith. Yet both of these affirmations have become increasingly problematic in contemporary Western culture, and, significantly enough, I think, the second more than the first.

Let me illustrate what I mean by mentioning two incidents that happened in the last several weeks, one in secular culture and one in the church. The first is the notorious Duck Dynasty incident. Phil Robertson, the star of a reality television series about a family of self-styled backwoods Bible thumpers who became millionaires from making duck calls created a cultural firestorm when he answered a question addressed to him in a magazine interview: “What in your mind is sinful?” I am not going to repeat Robertson’s answer here. You are no doubt familiar with the story.

The second event was the appearance of a new Church of England baptismal rite. Supposedly the rite had been rewritten to put it in the language of East Enders in London, who apparently could not make sense of the current rite of baptism in the Church of England’s Common Worship liturgy. What is significant about the new rite is not that the language is simplified so that East Enders can understand it, but that the language changes the actual meaning of the rite. It removes all language of sin, and all references to Jesus as Savior from sin. The baptized no longer “die to sin,” but to “all that destroys.” The baptized do not renounce sin; they renounce evil. Throughout the new liturgy, in every case in which the word “sin” appears in the current rite, the word “evil” is substituted.

What both of these incidents have in common is that they reflect the discomfort our society currently has with the notion of sin. (more…)

January 8, 2014

The New Church of England Baptismal Liturgy

Filed under: Anglicanism — William Witt @ 7:14 pm
image_pdfimage_print

My brief (for me) comments on the new Church of England baptismal liturgy.

Evil is horizontal language. Sin is vertical language. An atheist can reject evil. Sin always has reference primarily to God. Dropping the language of sin is carried through to soteriology. The baptized no longer turn to Christ as “Saviour,” but simply “turn to Christ.” They no longer “submit to Christ as Lord” and Christ is no longer identified as “the way, the truth, and the life.” The extent of Christology is that the baptized “trusts” in Christ and promises to “follow him for ever.”

It is interesting that the baptismal prayer omits all language of sin. The apostles’ creed is dropped in preference to vague promises to trust God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The prayers again omit any reference to sin or forgiveness of sin.

This strikes me as a Nestorian (or adoptionist) Christology an Abelardian soteriology, a Pelagian anthropology and an ethics that has only the second table of the law.

The formula itself does at least contain the traditional trinitarian names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but if we take seriously the principle of lex orandi lex credendi, it is questionable whether this is even a Christian rite of baptism because the content of the faith in to which the person is baptized is not Christian faith.

January 3, 2014

On “Lutheran” Anglicanism

Filed under: Anglicanism,Spiritualty,Theology — William Witt @ 7:56 pm
image_pdfimage_print

Luther"Last summer, my friend David Koyzis started a conversation about why there are so many Baptists who call themselves “Calvinists,” but no “Lutheran” Baptists.

David might be surprised to know that there are Anglicans who call themselves “Lutherans.” They have historical connection with Trinity School for Ministry in connection with a former Dean/President, and every year I discover at least one or two new students in my classes who identify with this “Lutheran” Anglicanism. The recent publication of this book reminded me that “Lutheran” Anglicanism is alive and well, and has prompted me to post my own assessment of “Lutheran” Anglicanism.

Before I give my own assessment of Lutheran Anglicanism, I should perhaps say a little about my own acquaintance with Luther and Lutheranism before I encountered the “Lutheran” Anglicans. During my years at graduate school, I came across Luther as part of my studies, and knew several Lutherans who were fellow students. I studied Luther primarily in courses on Christology and liturgy, and included a chapter on Luther in my dissertation. My assessment of Luther was mixed. I appreciated most Luther’s Christology and his sacramental theology, although I found his theology of the ubiquity of Christ’s ascended human nature problematic. I was less happy with Luther’s Bondage of the Will, where I thought he could have learned a thing or two from Thomas Aquinas or Augustine. Luther’s failure to distinguish adequately between natural and moral freedom combined with a failure to distinguish adequately between foreknowledge and predestination led to a determinist doctrine of human will and divine predetermination that made God responsible for sin. Luther’s way of stating the distinction between the “hidden” and “revealed God” was rightly repudiated by Karl Barth as undermining the fundamental theological thesis that God is in himself who he is in his revelation. I was also less than happy with Luther’s “law/gospel” hermeneutic, which, while it had some validity for interpreting certain passages in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans was largely a case of eisegesis if imposed on the Bible as a whole. As a Reformation Christian, I embraced Luther’s doctrines of sola scriptura, and justification by grace alone through faith alone, not because they were Luther’s but because I believe them correct – although I tended to understand the Reformation sola’s through Anglican eyes.

As part of my doctoral research, I read quite a bit in modern secondary literature on Luther. I read not only Luther, but became familiar with some of the key hallmarks of Lutheran theology – the Augsburg Confession, and much of the material in the Book of Concord. I also became familiar with a few modern Lutheran theologians: Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gustaf Aulen, Helmut Thielicke, and contemporary Lutherans such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, Gilbert Meilaender and David Yeago. Overall, my assessment of Luther and Lutheranism was mostly positive.

I discovered a very different “Luther” and approach to “Lutheranism” among the “Lutheran” Anglicans, a kind of Lutheranism I had never encountered before. This “Lutheran” Anglicanism was a variant on a way of reading Luther that Lutheran theologian Gilbert Meilaender calls “dialectical Lutheranism”1

Dialectical Lutheranism is distinguished by the following key characteristics: (more…)

December 21, 2013

What Happened to Pluralism? The Duck Dynasty Fiasco

Filed under: Christianity and Politics — William Witt @ 11:40 pm
image_pdfimage_print

Melancholy It seems to me that a key issue here is that of genuine pluralism. Most people spend their time with other people who are much like they are and who largely share their own values and views. This social isolation tends to be self-reinforcing as we simply presume that our own views and values are self-evidently correct. We seldom encounter those who disagree strongly with our views, and we tend to characterize those who are not part of our own “in group” as not only “the other,” but also as self-evidently in error, and, if obstinately holding their views, perversely in error.

When people (of whatever ideological commitment) come to share social power, the immediate temptation is to use that power to surround oneself with those of like-minded commitments, but, not only that, to use that power to reinforce the “in group” ideology, and to limit the expression of those characterized as “the other.”

From Pius IX’s principle that “Error has no rights” to McCarthyism to the Soviet Gulags to the A&E and Duck Dynasty, the knee-jerk tendency is simply to “shut up” those who are self-evidently deluded.

The alternative is genuine pluralism. Genuine pluralism presupposes that cultures and societies are formed of numerous social groups, who, simply because they are different social groups, will necessarily hold views that are at odds with one another. Genuine pluralism insists that this is a good thing and to be encouraged, and that the best way to resolve issues of disagreement is through public discussion and the genuine politics of “give and take.” If nothing else, pluralism is to be encouraged not only because our own views may be those that are in error and cannot be corrected without being willing to listen to those who disagree with us, but because the alternative to pluralism may mean that it is our own views that are suppressed tomorrow. (more…)

October 27, 2013

The Trinitarian Unity of the Church: A Sermon on Ecumenism

Filed under: Ecumenism,Sermons — William Witt @ 6:31 pm
image_pdfimage_print

Ephesians 4:1-16
John 17:11-26

TrinityThe epistle reading from Ephesians and the reading from John’s gospel are perhaps the two single most frequently cited biblical passages about the unity of the church. Certainly unity is a central theme in both passages: Ephesians 4 rings the changes one the word “one”: There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6). John has what is sometimes called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, where he prays that his followers will be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:11,22). And, of course, unity is one of the four classic marks of the church: The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What is the nature of the church’s unity that is such a major theme in these passages? There have been numerous answers to this question given in the history of theology. The 39 Articles and the Lutheran confessions speak of that unity in terms of activities that the church performs: The church is where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church has historically placed that unity institutionally: The church consists of all those who are in communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome. Anglo-Catholics have focused on historical continuity. The church is rightly found in those churches who can trace their succession through a series of bishops to the apostles. In the last century or so, many of the Orthodox have focused on Sobornost, a notion of the church as a community or fellowship based in freedom and love. In the last several decades, Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have focused on the understanding of the church as a community of character, of Christian discipleship as a path of virtue whose primary focus is following the way of Jesus in the non-violent way of the cross.

What all of these descriptions have in common is that they are descriptions of the church from our point of view, from the ground up, as it were. Sometimes it helps to look at things from a different point of view. What is different about the way in which Ephesians and the Gospel of John look at the unity of the church is that they look at things from the opposite point of view, not from the ground up, but from the top down, from a God’s-eye point of view, as it were.

Both Ephesians and the Gospel of John point to the unity of the church first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. The church is one because God is one. But God is not simply one as a monad. God is a unity of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians, Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). John records Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us . . .” (John 17:21). We might read John’s approach as binitarian rather than trinitarian, except that in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in John, he had already talked at great length about the Comforter, the paraklete, whom Jesus says, he will “send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.” (John 15:26). So the church’s unity originates first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. Again, the church is one because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. (more…)

Older Posts »

Non Sermoni Res is proudly powered by WordPress
Entries (RSS) and Comments (RSS).