This is the second post in a series on the theology of proclamation. Having established its possibility and urgency in the first post, this time I want to address the question of the nature — or ‘ontology’ (if you want to get fancy) — of proclamation.
I want to ask: What is really happening when the gospel is spoken? What’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ in the thoroughly human act of opening our mouths to utter gospel words?
Michael’s overview of Luther’s position on the Lord’s Supper gives me a convenient excuse to reflect a little on what we can learn from the tragic dispute over precisely this issue that drove a wedge between the German and Swiss arms of the Reformation.
I did a bit of work on this a couple of years ago. And the part Calvin played in attempting to resolve this dispute left a distinct impression on me. Almost from the moment he rose to prominence as a Reformer he was swept up in the ongoing international attempt to repair the breach. I’ve distilled the following six ‘lessons’ with illustrations from his efforts at conciliation (first two today, next four tomorrow):
- While we cannot stick our head in the sand and pretend about the reality of conflict, pursuing resolution is not an optional extra for Christian people. The way Calvin avoided the two classic temptations when it comes to conflict resolution — either pretend it’s not a problem or make everything about this one issue — is nicely put by Ronald Wallace when he points out that while Calvin lamented that ‘controversy over this central issue should have shown the Church so tragically rent at the place where her unity should be most openly shown’, he was convinced that the solution did not ‘lie in avoiding frank and frequent discussion of points of controversy’.
- Although it’s right to recognise that there’s probably at least something to be said for the perspective of both sides, truth really matters in the search for resolution. Calvin’s sympathies with both the Lutheran and the Swiss position were undisguised and often repeated. He was also convinced that the distance between them was not so great as some imagined. In his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1541), he highlighted what both parties had in common: ‘We all then confess with one mouth, that on receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ’. Yet this certainly didn’t lead to him paper over the very real differences; he insisted that how we partake of ‘the proper substance’ of Christ’s body and blood ‘some may deduce better and explain more clearly than others’. Thus, he wouldn’t settle for deliberate ambiguity — he reacted strongly when that approach was apparently taken by Bucer and Melanchthon at Ratisbon in 1540, saying that ‘this policy does not please me’. Instead, he embraced the strongly realistic language used in Scripture to describe our participation in Christ (as did the Lutherans), while also carefully qualifying and nuancing it (in a similar manner to Zwingli and his followers)
A: a church.
This is our congregation — St Oswald’s, Haberfield 5pm service. We’re part of Christ Church Inner West Anglican Community — a multi-site church in Sydney’s Inner West (Ashfield, Haberfield and Five Dock).
We celebrated our first birthday on the weekend. We launched this service on the 23rd March 2008 — Easter day — after almost 10 years without an English-speaking ministry on the site. God has richly blessed us in our fellowship together. We’ve have lots of joys. As well lots of sheer hard work. But best of all the Lord Jesus has been with us, transforming us by his Spirit to the glory of God the Father!
Actually, he’s one of my heroes.
I really only expressed my disappointment in the (ahem) ferocity of some of his polemics in order to balance out the shameless piece of Whig historiography posted over at the Resurgence.
From my point of view, the high water mark of his career was his orchestration of the Council of Alexandria (362 AD). There, the various groups opposing the Arian heresy — which denied the unity of being of the Son and the Father in the Godhead — although previously not quite seeing eye to eye, managed to forge something of a consensus.
This was achieved (in a manner anticipating the later Council of Chalcedon) first by clearly identifying those constructions of the doctrine of God which were agreed to be unacceptable. It then moved to clarify the important terms favoured by the different groups. Yet without simply upholding the preferred terms of one party over against the others.
So for those who insisted that Father, Son and Spirit are three ‘persons’, it ensured that this not be understood to imply three separate independent beings, different in essence from each other. (That would be polytheism.)
Conversely, for those wanted to speak of God as one ‘person’, it made sure they didn’t mean to compromise the real distinctions between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (That way lies modalism, where any differences between the persons of the Trinity are ultimately unreal, just matters of the ‘mode’ appropriate to each stage of salvation history — the Father in creation, the Son in reconciliation and the Spirit in perfecting the redemption of the creation.)
The emphasis of the Council thus fell on determining what each party did — and didn’t — mean by their favoured terms. And so an important step towards doctrinal agreement was taken. Of course, it would be going too far to say that the Council cleared up all the confusion. Yet R. P. C. Hanson (The Search For The Christian Doctrine of God, p 645) points out, ‘at least the confusion had been identified, and the way was open for a younger generation of theologians’ to hammer out what we now consider orthodoxy.
Huzzah for Athanasius!
A little way into his dense and rich book, Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf outlines an intriguing case for catholicity as the appropriate way of responding to Jesus’ summons to ‘depart’ from our godless personal and cultural situations without ‘leaving’ them (e.g., through some form of monastic withdrawal).
…but it’s close. And it certainly contributes to the cause of procrastination!
How am I ever going to finish reading The Search for The Christian Doctrine of God when I keep get ambushed like this?
Is the gospel beautiful? Can we seriously say the message about Jesus — a wandering preacher of Middle Eastern appearance, executed humiliatingly by the authorities, and reputedly returned from the dead after three days — is attractive, appealing, aesthetically pleasing, compelling even? I mean, it’s pretty outrageous, isn’t it, that we could even think that something so strange, brutal and seemingly impossible might be in the same category as a Rembrandt?
One of the awesome things about reading Christian thinkers from previous generations is seeing just how differently from us they argue. Take a casual glance at Calvin or Athanasius (not to mention the original Mr Potty Mouth, Martin Luther) and you’ll notice that things get very heated — very quickly.
Take this little beauty from the start of Athanasius’s second Discourse Against the Arians, for example:
I did indeed think that enough had been said already against the hollow professors of Arius’s madness, whether for their refutation or in the truth’s behalf, to insure a cessation and repentance of their evil thoughts and words about the Saviour. They, however, for whatever reason, still do not succumb; but, as swine and dogs wallow in their own vomit and their own mire, rather invent new expedients for their irreligion.
Does it remind anyone else of the (now-defunct) Sydney Anglican forums?
This is the first post in a series attempting a rough sketch of a theology of proclamation (the rationale for the series is over here).
I want to begin by exploring why there’s an imperative in the New Testament to proclaim or ‘preach the word’ (2 Tim 4.2). Continue reading
At church we’ve just begun an ‘integrated series’ about extending a gracious witness. That means that over the next four weeks, all the sermons, Bible studies, etc will all be keyed into each other across all ours services at all our three sites.
In order to help us think through the why and how of extending a gracious witness to the Lord Jesus, we’re using Bill Hybels’ book (and study book and DVD), Just Walk Across the Room. I’m only a couple of chapters in. But I want to say up front that it’s turning out to be really worthwhile.
There’s something deeply appealing and profoundly right in what I can only describe as his ‘organic’ approach to sharing the gospel. He’s commending a kind of evangelism by feel… Continue reading