Three Cheers for Oliver

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This blog entry is quite simply a commendation of a recent argument by Oliver O’Donovan, the Regius Professor emeritus at Oxford, and more recently at Edinburgh. What isn’t simple is that the argument is in the midst of his critique of the case for same-sex marriage in the Scottish Episcopal Church. However the point he is making is not, strictly speaking, about that- in fact he makes it along the way.

One often hears that we Anglicans ply our theological trade according to the ‘three-legged stool’: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. All count, and presumably, there would be case where, in the words of Meatloaf, ‘two outta three ain’t bad.’ But thinking of the triad as a checklist of separate items is a mistake, and O’Donovan offers us a better way to think of the matter. Forgive the extended quotations, but there are necessary to convey his point:

About scripture O’Donovan wrote, “The authority of the scripture is experienced through its capacity to give us a purchase on the world we inhabit. The whole point of thinking by reading Scripture (always in dialogue with tradition) is to understand our selves where we are).”

“There is a logical sequence in the two discernments, which canot be inverted, and yet we have to make them together and in parallel, for it is the discernment of Scripture that provides us with the categories and analogies we need for discerning ourselves.”

O’Donovan is making a point about how we as Christians think about things, and he is integrating the triad into his account. Scripture locates us, from that fullest of perspectives beginning with God. But this is not done ‘solo,’ but in relation to those who have preceded us, and who accompany us. Our questions are related to, confirm or challenge theirs. Where we are is in a ‘cloud of witnesses.’ And where we are informs who we are, and is inseparable from what we are to do, and so where we are headed. The joint between identity and action requires arguments. These latter two features of Christian understanding conform to what we call ‘tradition’ and ‘reason.’

On Tradition, O’Donovan said, “…subject to reasoned Scriptural critique, of responsible Christian action. The tradition of the undivided church was an ideal for Reformation to aspire to conform to. The claim of Tradition is a moral claim, because sums up what we owe the community that taught us how to believe and act. When we face new questions requiring new answers, we must seek to locate them within the horizon of questions that have been asked and answered before us.”

The implication is this: the triad are not items on a list, but conspire in a trajectory. They function precisely as they make sense together. They are a pointilistic version of proper Biblical interpretation itself. They answer different questions about it. As a result you cannot hive off two-thirds of them on their own.

About Reason, O’Donovan wrote,The role of “reason” in the Anglican tripod is precisely to make our thinking practical. In any exercise of practical reasoning there are two distinct steps: a discernment of the situation we are in, and a discernment of a course of action open to us in that situation. If it is true of every decision we make for ourselves, it is doubley true of decisions we seek to make together, that we cannon settle on an action until we can envisage the situation in which we are to act.”

This insight is not the end of the matter. In the modern period there remain kinds of interpretation whose primary purpose is to undermine, and all interpretation needs to pay attention to the challenges of the culture of its time. But we do so while we listen to the Scriptures- there is no other activity which has the authority to offer the full account of where and whose, with whom and for what, and so who we really are.




The Comeback Kid

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‘Dustbin of history’ is how the destiny of the doctrine of the Trinity was characterized, by the notorious Bishop James Pike, two generations ago. It seemed an anachronism, a mystification, just what modern theology could do without. How remarkably wrong he was! Ten years ago, it seemed that every dissertation or grant proposal needed the word ‘trinitarian’ to be plausible. While the Church was riven by conflict over moral teaching, on this much at least (and it is not small matter!) everyone was agreed.

Why did this happen? I like to think it was because of the beauty and profundity of the Trinitarian truth. But it also had historical reasons. Perhaps after the Second World War the witness of the church began to move to the edges of society. Perhaps the post-modern mind is more open to realizing that there are in the world ‘stranger things than are dreamed of in your (modern) philosophy…’ Surely the work of the great systematic theologians of the post-war era, figures such as Karl Rahner on the Catholic side and Karl Barth among the Protestants. They saw that thinking through seriously the Lordship of Jesus Christ takes you along a path parallel to that of the early Church and on to the triune nature of God.

That same Karl Barth loved his pipe. A Baptist student once challenged him to quit tobacco: ‘drown the old Adam, doctor!’ he said. Barth replied, ‘I have drowned him, but the fellow can swim!” Modernity is like that- it makes a comeback of its own. By this I mean that even the doctrine of the Trinity can become an occasion for contention in theology in the modern or post-modern era. For some the idea of the ‘social Trinity’ became a way to say that the divine is inherently communal, the ground of ‘I am because we are.’ For others the doctrine became a way to say that God is thoroughly implicated in human history. Both are true enough, but also susceptible to misunderstanding. God isn’t a metaphor for a quality of ours, and He isn’t working out His being in time. In fact, you might say that the heart of the Trinitarian witness is the very opposite of these errors!

Perhaps the best way to explain the matter, however, is itself historical. David Yeago, a Lutheran scholar now at Trinity, Ambridge, put it most simply. After the resurrection, the disciples worshipped Jesus as Kurios, as Lord. They anticipated the full revelation of His status and reign on His return, on the Day of the Kingdom. But Lordship is in (what we call) the Old Testament reserved for God of Israel, who is one. But this made sense to the disciples: worshipping Jesus His chosen was none other than worshipping the One at whose right hand He sits. He fulfills God’s plan, He and his Abba, are one, He is (in Mark) the ‘finger of God’ touching and forgiving His people. This all creates a trajectory. Emmaus begins a road that leads to Nicaea, not by some imposition of power, but by the inherent logic of the matter, the working out of the cry, Maranatha, ‘come, Lord Jesus.’



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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.