February 26, 2009

Self-Denial or Self-Affirmation? Freedom or Slavery? A Lenten Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 7:54 am

I preached this sermon a few years ago, and it was on my old website. With Lent upon us, I thought people might find it helpful again.

John the BaptistLent is a time of the Church year that is dedicated to repentance, to dying to self. During these six weeks, we enter a period of self-examination, of humility, of repentance, of “acknowledg[ing] and bewail[ing] our manifold sins and wickedness.” Rather than affirming out choices, Lent seems to be about denying our choices. You do not have to be a genius to realize that this message of self-denial is out of touch with the values of our society. The message of the beer commercials and of most of the television shows on my television set is not one of self-denial, but of self-affirmation. The “swimsuit” edition of Sports Illustrated, which I did not notice in the grocery aisle last week, was not telling me to hold back. Even within the Christian churches, the message of self-affirmation has (broadly speaking) replaced the message of self-denial. More than ten years after Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart, there are still some TV evangelists who preach that God wants you to be rich or healthy or successful. If you’re not, it must be because you don’t have enough faith. On a less crass level, there are theologians, bishops and pastors within the Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the mainline Protestant churches who affirm that the self should be valued, not denied.


February 18, 2009

Kevin Vanhoozer on the Priority of Scripture

Filed under: Theology — William Witt @ 6:37 pm

Two interesting quotes from Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s very helpful book The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Louisvile: John Knox Westminster Press, 2005:

“We affirm that those who say that Scriptures have no authority save that which they have received from the kirk are blasphemous against God and injurious to the true kirk, which always hears and obeys the voice of her own spouse and pastor, but takes not upon her to be mistress over the same.” The Scots Confession 1560

The real theological issue at stake in the debate over the relative authority of Scripture and tradition (not that one has to take sides, only prioritize) is actually Christology. Are there postcanonical, Spirit-inspired or -illumined insights into the way of Jesus Christ that do not have the canonical testimony to Christ as their ultimate source and norm? (189)

This is one of the more important and thoughtful theological books I have read lately. More on Vanhoozer later. Meanwhile, I recommend that Evangelicals, Catholics (Anglican or otherwise), and Liberal Protestants (not likely) make reading this book a priority.

February 14, 2009

Thomas Aquinas on the Formal Sufficiency of Scripture

Filed under: Development of Doctrine,Scripture,Theology — William Witt @ 9:54 am

AquinasDr. Michael Liccione has responded to my post on the distinction between formal and informal sufficiency of Scripture, and specifically objects to my reading that Thomas Aquinas subscribes to a “formal sufficiency” of Scripture. By a formal sufficiency I had meant that Scripture has an inherent intelligibility that does not derive from some source outside itself. To the contrary, I had stated that a merely material sufficiency would not have an inherent intelligibility, but would rather derive its intelligibility from an outside source. Dr. Liccione specifically quarrels with my reading of Aquinas, and insists to the contrary, that Aquinas affirmed the “material sufficiency” of Scripture

in the sense explained by WW, in no way affirmed the formal sufficiency of Scripture in the sense explained by WW. That is partly why Aquinas, like Newman and even Vatican II after him, most certainly did see a magisterium as necessary for interpreting Scripture reliably.

I find this a startling admission, and shows at least that I have not misunderstood the kind of argument being put forward by current disciples of John Henry Newman. Dr. Liccione’s defense for his interpretation of Aquinas is a quotation from S.T.

Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith.

Unfortunately, the passage does not mean what Dr. Liccione claims that it means, as one can discern from its immediate context. Thomas is not concerned here with epistemological questions such as Dr. Liccione’s distinction between “opinion” and the infallible teaching of the “magisterium.” Indeed, the authority of the magisterium is not the point of discussion at all. Aquinas mentions the “teaching of the Church,” but he nowhere mentions the pope, for example. To know what he means we have to know which specific teaching of the Church he is talking about, and why he considers it infallible. (more…)

February 12, 2009

Wrestling With the Symbols: A Sermon on Reading Scripture

Filed under: Scripture,Sermons,Theology — William Witt @ 8:28 am

The following is a sermon that appeared on my website, and never made it to my blog. Sometimes an example is better than an argument. Perhaps what I write below shows something of what I mean when I say that Scripture is “formally sufficient” and has an “inherent intelligibility.” Other helpful examples can be found in my article on George Herbert in my “Pages” section in the sidebar and my sermon on “Christological Subversion.” . . . Or you could just read all of my sermons.

Lamb of GodO ne of the prerogatives of the preacher is that, since he or she is the one in the pulpit, he or she can also break the rules on occasion. This morning, I’d like to break the rules a little bit. Rather than preaching on the Scriptural readings, I’m going to talk about them. In a few minutes, you’ll realize what I mean by that.

What I would like to do this morning is talk a little bit about the use of metaphorical and symbolic language in Scripture. Metaphor and symbol are the primary ways in which the language of the Scripture speaks of God. This happens so frequently that often we don’t even think about it. A good example is the number of images that cluster around Jesus in the NT. In the NT, Jesus is called a King, a Lamb, a Priest, a Shepherd, a Judge—the list goes on and on.


February 3, 2009

A Little More on the Development of Doctrine

Filed under: Development of Doctrine,Theology — William Witt @ 5:08 am

A reader with the nom de plume of kepha asks me to respond to a piece by Michael Liccione, which I haven’t read yet.

I will look at Prof. Liccione’s piece. The two of us have a history together and this sometimes produces more heat than light in our conversations. Perhaps this is because we do indeed have much in common. I think both of us view Thomas Aquinas as our primary mentor. Both of us have a friend in the Pontificator, who helped keep me in Anglicanism back when he was an Episcopalian, and who became Roman Catholic largely through discussions with Michael Liccione and others.

Part of our disagreement has to do with a different understanding of the trajectory of Thomas’s theology. Prof. Liccione sees a trajectory from Aquinas through Trent to Newman. I rather see Trent as a rather unfortunate sidetrack in the train of late Medieval Scholasticism, where the kind of Thomism that flourished at that time was a kind of mongrelized version of Suarez or Cajetan, and Newman as rather too much reflecting the epistemological unclarity that followed Descartes. (To put this way too summarily, Newman echoes Descartes when he views the problem of interpreting Scripture as an issue of the certainty of the knower rather than a question of the intelligibility of the extra-mental object. The solution here goes back to both Aquinas and Aristotle, both of whom were realists in insisting on an inherent intelligible correlation between known object, knowing subject, and language as an “intelligible word,” and the crucial role of the judgment in affirming truth or falsity.) (more…)

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