Substitution?

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     How do newcomers get to the Episcopal Church? Maybe someone friendly when they visited, or the beauty of the liturgy, or the desire for roots in something ancient. Sometimes a Catholic with a Presbyterian spouse finds her or her own ‘middle way.’ For some in our context they are trying to make sense of their own conservative Protestant background.

         It is in the context of the latter reason that I recently had a conversation with a thoughtful member of our diocese. She had been reading Tom Wright, with his questions about the individualist account of redemption and heaven she had grown up with, as well as his stress on the kingdom coming to the whole world on account of Jesus’ resurrection. Wright asks good questions, and one can see how they would inform her own. But she went on to wonder about the whole idea of substitution. Isn’t the idea that Jesus paid some account owning to a demanding God so that I can get to heaven just what Wright to helping us move beyond?

       This question is more important than whether you are a Baptist or an Episcopalian. One way to answer the question is to think about one of the most influential books of theology in the 20th century. The Swedish Lutheran Bishop Gustav Aulen wrote a book about the atonement (Jesus’ work on our account) called Christus Victor. It has been much criticized, but for our purposes it is useful. Aulen says there are three ways to think about what Jesus did for us on the cross: first, that he won a victory over our enemy (Satan, the powers and principalities). The second answer he gives is called ‘satisfaction’: Jesus makes right what we owe. The third answer is that of the moral example: Jesus’ self-giving inspires contrition and love in us. (A great deal of what we hear in preaching in our time and church would fall under the third rubric).

     There is much we could say about these three. There is a great deal of victory talk in the New Testament, though the victory model assumes we are victims only, and not also perpetrators of our predicament. The third, moral example, type leaves the onus on us, to change, to improve, which doesn’t alone sound like good news. Perhaps victory is what Jesus does, satisfaction is how he does it, and moral improvement is a hoped-for result.

     Back to my main point: in both the victory and the satisfaction models, Jesus does something we could not do for ourselves. That is the first thing to say. Furthermore, if you probe further, you realize that He wins the victory by taking on death, and not any death but one that suffering the result of our alienation from God. (the early Church Fathers even talk of baiting a hook to catch Satan on by submitting Himself to this). In other words, in both the victory and the satisfaction ways of talking about the cross of Jesus, He stands in our place. He dies because we will, He suffers because we deserve to; Paul does so far as to say, amazingly, that he ‘became sin who knew no sin.’

     The long and short of the matter is this: there are different ways to talk of what Jesus did for us. You can find a variety in the New Testament. You may have felt that an exclusive use of the image of paying a debt, or of being acquitted in a law court, such as you heard in another denomination, was too limiting. Fair enough. But also be clear that any account of Jesus’ work involves His doing what we can’t, And His dying in our place and suffering in our stead. Whatever language you use, being-in-our-place is substitution, ‘for us and our salvation.’ This is not Baptist, or Catholic, or Episcopal, but Christian. And his doing so, his dying in my place, makes it possible for you and me to live in His, by grace.

Peace, GRS

Why Bishops Matter (and Don't)

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The last few days have involved enough things episcopal to last a decade! Thanks to all whose efforts made the events possible.

Last weekend I heard a bon mot of the great Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. The question was whether having bishops is of the essence (esse) of simply the well-being (bene esse) of the Church. Ramsey quipped they must be of the esse, for they sure aren’t of the bene esse! After all that pomp it is good to take a little air out of the episcopal tires.

This has set me to thinking about the question, and I think the answer is that bishops do matter to the extent that their ministries make it plain that they don’t! By this I mean that they exist to point at, and remind us of, things true quite before and outside of them. They matter in pointing away from themselves, and in this are the same as clergy and lay leaders of the Church too.

 First of all, we recall that Paul always cites the apostles in his letters as witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. That is the new and creative thing they are sent to tell people about. This means that bishops too, heirs and servants of that apostolic ministry, are to do that same thing. And it also means that they are not to worry overmuch about creativity or originality- those have been covered primarily by Jesus Christ, though we do think about how to lift up the news about Him in our time.

Secondly, priests in every place and time have oversight for the ministries of Word and sacrament, in companionship with their bishop. But the latter has a special care to protect the continuity and the recognize-ability of the Gospel. They are bridges, seeing that the same Gospel is received from our grandparents and passed on to our grandchildren. They are signs that salvation is the same for the human being in Dallas, Toronto, Cairo, and Singapore. Here too the particularity of the bishop is less important the reliability of what is passed on.

Third and finally, we can return to Archbishop Ramsey. He thought hard about the question of holding the more catholic and evangelical wings of the Church together. The first emphasized the apostolic succession of teaching, the second the apostolic succession of persons down the ages. Ramsey wanted to hold the two together, the latter existing to guarantee the former. So the point is this, the special role of bishops has the focused purpose of serving the faithful succession of the Creed, the gospel, the hearing of Scripture. Apart from these his or her ministry is of no consequence.

One last point of a different kind. Last Sunday I had a great time with Emmanuel Anglican Church, our Nigerian congregation at St. Luke’s. Members of their Mothers’ Union wore dresses with the picture of Mary Sumner, wife of an English bishop of the mid-19th century and fonder of the Union on them. I have written of her before. But it is good to recall once more that most mission in our tradition was initiated by lay men and women like her. The job of the bishops was not to get in the way, in Winchester’s case so his wife could get on with it.

I guess that means two cheers for bishops! But not on their own, but on the basis of what they exist to witness to. For me, as for all of us in the face of God’s call, there is a challenge, and a relief too.

Peace, GRS

Posted by Bishop George Sumner with

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