What if the Most Radical Thought is the Simplest: A Pre-Lenten Memo to Myself

Thirty years ago, I read an article about some youth groups of liberal Presbyterian Churches in the bay area. The teenagers stumbled upon the Jesus Prayer, silent devotion, lectio divina, and icons. Youth group meetings got very quiet. The parents became worried- was this some kind of cult the kids had gotten into? Suddenly traditional Christian prayer had an edge of rebellion, which only made it more appealing!  And, even in that simpler age tech-wise, the young people came to enjoy the silence.  Similarly I have heard of Catholic youth groups saying the Rosary as they meet  in suburban Dallas- counter-culture of the best kind!  What if the late folksinger John Prine had it right: his  ‘blowing up our cellphone (back then, ‘TV’)’…and ‘finding Jesus (though not just ‘on our own)’ turns out to be the most radical and the simplest answer before us?

But of course, as is always true in the spiritual life, our witness is effective when it is aligned to our life.  I have used the example before of my teacher in seminary, Henri Nouwen, who was a pioneer in the rediscovery of the contemplative life, even as he himself was restless and incessantly talkative. His gift was steering toward a port not easy for him to reach.  Though I am here poaching on my friend Michael Smith’s domain, maybe I am then the right person. At the seminary I instituted a weekly service of intermittent Taize chanting and gazing on an icon of Jesus: when the faculty found me an implausible messenger, I suggested that, in some cases, they are the right kind.

Don’t just say something, sit there. And while you’re at it, say the Jesus Prayer, rinse, and repeat.. And let the not-doing and not- speaking be a witness to the sheer gift-ness of grace.  And now, having said this to you all, I have my accountability group for the ‘one thing needful’ in my Lent! I invite you to find your practice, and your group, as well.



The Roots of our Catholic and Reformed Identity

Dear brothers and sisters, A year ago I taught a course on Anglicanism at Truett/Baylor. I thought that I would post from time to time parts of lectures for that course. Here is one that deals with the prelude to the Reformation, and the roots of our thinking of ourselves as both catholic and reformed. Peace +GRS

In this talk I want to set him in the context of the late medieval period for the  Anglicanism of the Reformation period. Here we are borrowing from the perspective of scholars like Heiko Oberman and Stephen Ozment, for whom the break between late medieval and reformation is not so sharp.  Of course it isn’t- Luther was a creature, like all of us, of his time.  If he was, then so was Cranmer, who heard about the daring ideas from Germany in the White Horse Tavern in Oxford in his youth, and never abandoned their direction.

First of all, in the world of 1500, Christendom in Europe was thought of as one. Clerics and theologians moved across borders. To be sure, there were strong feelings of nationalism, and resentments at the control, and taxation coming from Rome. This goes back centuries in England, for example with praemunire where a debate was about who could appoint bishops. But they are tensions within one Church. To be sure, the Church had lived through the Avignon captivity, when there were no less than three feuding popes, so there was a real sense that the Church was broken, but still, it was one broken church.  One result of that debacle in the 14th century was the conciliar movement, the desire to gather the bishops to reform the Church, though the council in that era did not suffice. Still the idea that the church needed to, and could be reformed, remained. It is good to recall that figures like Luther and Cranmer themselves had hopes in the 16th century of a council.

If we turn to theology, the key truth is the following. Everyone, reformer, catholic, was an Augustinian. In other words, the 16th century was a fierce debate which did have a considerable background of agreement. This was shared by popes, Calvin, Luther, etcetera.  What do I mean by this? Theologians in the  Augustinian tradition would say that they are simply Pauline theologians, with his contrast between grace and works.  Augustine was like most ancients confident that the human being could know the good. But he had a ground-breaking (and Romans 7) insight that knowing the good and not being able to do it are not the same. For this reason salvation cannot be attributed to the human will, in whole or in part, but must be attributed to God. To be sure, also by God’s grace, we can, after conversion, cooperate with Him in sanctification. But this too is a work of grace. The assumed opponent here is of course Pelagius- another way to put the matter is that in the late middle ages and reformation period, no one wanted to be called a Pelagian. Now how the interaction between divine and human agency was a question that continued to be debated, and we will see that different vocabularies were employed. Can one be a ‘moderate’ Augustinian? that is an open question. Still all the participants were content to be contained by the guardrail of Augustine. The Christian West was in that way at least still a coherent tradition. This is an important point, for it means that 1) the Reformation debate about grace was inherited from the scholastic theology of the middle ages, and 2) it was in an important sense a ‘family fight.’ You can contrast here the outlook of the Christian east, which had neither an Augustine nor a Pelagius and simply didn’t pose the question in the same way- this is a better way to put it than to say that the East was itself Pelagian.

Let us pause for a moment over this question of grace. It is distinguishable from, but connected obviously to the question of predestination.  If only God can save us, then it is his decision to do so, and why he exercises that decision in some cases and not in others presents itself immediately. Of course the wise theologian wants to nuance the matter- God also knows all, and can foresee our course in life. Furthermore, the attitude of hauling God into the dock to answer for his decisions, Job-style, is open to critique.  There is also the question of what and how much to ask- we are, as Luther was well aware, on firmer ground talking about our own confidence of salvation, Heilsgewisstheit, based on the promises, than we are speculation about others.  When then do we retire into an humble silence? But the New Testament has lots to say on these questions, and some of it is sobering.

The other key question of that time has more of an apologetic side- what about the issue of fairness, the possible appearance of capriciousness on God’s part with respect to those who are saved?  And what about taking the real but limited gift of will that we do have, though it presents itself alongside our own sinfulness both of will and of mind (as we think about these things)? I should add that it would certainly be mistaken to suppose that these questions are relics of some other era- if the great question of the modern era is our own overweening sense of our capacities of self-creation, then we too live in an era in need of the Augustinian dissent.

There is the possibility however of subtlety, which makes the issue more complex (and helps us consider the supposedly ‘moderate reformed’ position we will be considering in different forms.  Let me begin with the master himself, the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas.  A popular adage of the time went like this: ‘to the one doing what he or she can, God will not deny him or her the grace.’  To be sure, what the human can do may be slight, and the giving is still by God. But you can see how the sentence comes dangerously close to imposing necessity on God, which we know is always wrong. Heh, God, I did my part- now you have to pony up!’  Soon one is at a full synergism, cooperation, I doing my part, His doing his, a team- where did sovereignty go? And can a serious look at our own sinfulness conclude that I can really ‘do my part’ when we are talking about standing before God, for none is righteous, not one, not one able to stand!  So here is how Thomas dealt with this classic problem in medieval thought. He said, yes, to the one doing their best, God will answer with grace, but…even that ‘doing what you can’ part is also by grace. First he works in us to do with we can, and then he rewards his work with more grace. Prevenient followed by saving grace. Think how you can now recall God getting you ready for conversion. Now the cynic could say that this just pushes the question back a step, but at theologian you could reply that we are talking about God, whose ways are not your ways… You can easily see however that it would be easy in popular pastoral life to lose Thomas’ nuance and to revert to a simpler and less satisfactory version.

A second twist in the plot which bears directly on the Reformation debate, including England, has to do with the medieval theology of the pactum, i.e. covenant, in this case between God and humankind. It bears some resemblance to our first point. We cannot do much, our contribution puny. But wouldn’t it be a way to understand grace to say that our beneficent God has graciously decided to count multiply our small contribution a million fold. It is like parenting- you child jumps over a stone, and you pretend he or she has polevaulted to the moon!  This is called ‘condign’ merit- not merit strictly speaking, but only so because of a prior agreement. That is where the pactum comes in. Now the problem with this is if you look at the state of the heart. Every act of ours has some germ of self-interest, especially when we are at our best! That is what the tradition means by ‘utterly depraved,’ that there is no corner where the germ has snuck in.  Luther could not accept that there is this innocent corner, however tiny, since our view of ourselves surveys the whole of us. Still, the point is that the pactum theology does not have to claim that we really merit salvation, only that God has graciously agreed to rules as if we did. But this seems to the reformers like playing a game.  (A very thorough account of the pactum is given by Alister McGrath in his magisterial book on justification). My point is that this view is technically Augustinian, and yet it can be readily challenged- hence the kind of debates which filled the reformation period.

So far our examples have dealt with the 16th century struggle over grace, but what about faith. Now there is a ready contrast as to the latter- the medieval catholic view was that faith was an assent of the mind to the truth of the Church’s doctrine as moved by love poured into the heart. It was not solely cognitive, but involved both. The Reformation view emphasized not the fides quae creditur, ‘the faith which we believe’, but rather the fides qua creditur,’ the faith by which it is believed’, the act. Here Luther stressed fiducia, trust, which we have in Christ due to his prior love for us. He leads with the inter-personal; the heart precedes and leads the mind.  Now you might say that the angels are dancing on the pin here, since both think it involves both, but you can still see their points.  Now I want to add what may seem to be an arcane footnote, but I do think it matters. A Thomist scholar named Stephen Pfurtner made the point that, while faith was first of all cognitive in Thomas, the virtue of hope had a strong element of trust in it. In other words Thomas was working with a different vocabulary emphasizing the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. He has a good dose of fiducia, but it is located in this treatment of hope- with Luther three centuries later things are rearranged and the trust them has become affixed to faith.

The point is that at the level of the great masters of theology, there may have been less daylight between the  Augustinianism of Catholic and Reformer than you might think. In the modern ecumenical movement people have come to see this, that they were often driving at the same point by different linguistic roads. Now this doesn’t mean that in the 16th century there were not real problems and real abuses, for at the level of popular piety there was a clear functional Pelagianism, for example in indulgences, invocation of the saints, and how people often imagined purgatory. Likewise you would not want the doctrine of your denomination determined by the opinions of all the folks sitting in your pews. There were indeed abuses, but there was also space to articulate the needed Augustinian corrective in a way that various groups could hear.

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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.