Eucharistic Soteriology

This phrase came through my mind while reading 1 Corinthians a while ago, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I’ve decided to write at least something on it today, since it’s Corpus Christi — the feast of the Body of Christ, the Most Blessed Sacrament. Eucharistic, of course, is the adjective to describe Holy Communion, and soteriology is the -ology of salvation.

If I were to attempt something along these lines, I would start with my slow drift away from statements like Luther’s, that justification by faith is the whole Gospel. I would explain why I feel that, without denying justification by faith alone, there is a bigness to Gospel that extends beyond courtroom metaphors, that, once our juridical position with God is settled, we enter into relationship with Him. I would express concern about corners of Protestantism that cannot see salvation in any terms but justification by faith.

I would then discuss the different ways in which the Bible and the Greek language talk about the word salvation and related verbs, maybe even the word Saviour. This sort of philological pedantry can be fun, but there would be a bigger point related to the above, a point about how our theological battles of past centuries have diminished our understanding and appreciation of the greatness of Who God is and what He has done to save us.

All of this is preliminary, of course. One further preliminary, having laid a foundation, is to talk about participation in Christ in particular. I would use Scripture such as John 15:4, ‘Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.’ (NKJV) I would also talk about the Fathers seeing salvation as a whole as participation in the life of Christ — in fact, not only the Fathers, but the whole pre-Reformation tradition.

I always think it’s worth time for us children of the Reformation to take stock of what came before, whether we agree with it or not.

I would now get around to Holy Communion, pulling out verses like John 6:53-55:

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.55 For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. (NKJV)

More patristic, mediaeval, and Byzantine evidence would follow, of course. And I would talk about Martin Luther’s theology of the sacrament because it interests me, followed by Cranmer and the BCP. How does any of this related to the 39 Articles, and why should we care?

Then I would meditate on what this means for us. How is the sacrament of Holy Communion abiding in Christ? How is it salvific? How does this change how we live daily life, read Scripture, eat food, do church, love our neighbour? Because if salvation is a participation in the life of Christ, then it is a transformation of your own life.

Beginning with what you eat and drink.

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Corpus Christi: Three Sonnets on Communion

These sonnets resonate with me as I reflect on the Most Holy Sacrament of Holy Communion this Corpus Christi. May they touch you as well.

Malcolm Guite

Today is the the feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ), which is really a celebration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. In mediaeval times there used to be wonderful processions in which the consecrated elements were taken out of the church on this day and processed on the streets, showing that the Word made flesh was not just in a box labelled ‘church’ but in our midst, just as He was on the streets of Nazareth and Jerusalem. Rebecca Merry‘s lovely art work ( above) has the feel of those mediaeval ‘showings’ on Corpus Christi.

For my contribution to Corpus Christi I am offering here a trio of sonnets about the experience of receiving Holy Communion, each from a slightly different angle. The first two sonnets were published in Sounding the Seasons, my cycle of seventy sonnets for the Church Year.The book is now back in…

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Classic and Charismatic 2: The Spirit of Truth

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

The charismatic renewal is sometimes stereotyped, whether by high-church catholic types or biblicist evangelical types, as being pure emotionalism with a shallow understanding of the faith, relying upon one spiritual high after another, driven by charismania and manufactured emotional experiences that are mistaken for encounters with God. No doubt this is accurate about some people.

But my experience within charismatic Anglicanism included not only the lady who saw a miracle in everything, not only the weepers, but also the people who had a concern for orthodoxy. Of course, a concern for orthodoxy and doctrinal truth can be a great danger. It can become a concern for being right, a concern for your own side ‘winning’, a means of judging everyone. But I have found, over the years, that my conservative Presbyterian friends can as easily fall into that pattern as the charismatics, as the Roman Catholics, and as the large group lumped together as ‘liberals’ or (now) ‘progressives’.

Nevertheless, my own experience was, thankfully, more of a generous orthodoxy of the Anglican charismatics. And people were certainly interested in what the truth of Scripture was and how to apply that to our lives. At the charismatic parish where I grew up, a group once gave my father a copy of St Augustine’s City of God — a lovely, hardback that I have enjoyed reading, myself. Pentecostalism has also given us the liturgical theologian Simon Chan, and John White was a member of the Vineyard here in Vancouver. I have also caught glimpses of the charismatic in the work of the recently deceased Anglican Michael Green.

There is a concern for God’s truth amongst the charismatics. They want to know it, and they want to live by it.

It is not a movement simply about experiencing God or emotions or special experiences.

If the charismatics are truly having the Holy Spirit poured into them, it only makes sense that mature charismatics, Christians with a deep spiritual life, would also have a concern for knowing the truth and articulating it well. After all, one of the names given to the Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’ (Jn 14:17, 15:26, 16:13; 1 Jn 4:6, 5:6).

The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost did not merely result in them praying in tongues, it also resulted in St Peter’s first sermon, as the Apostle’s finally ‘got it’. Jesus promised as much in John:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (Jn 16:12-14 ESV)

I am no longer the fiery seventeen-year-old who hung on every word uttered by Charles Alexander when he came to do a parish mission. I wish still for that fervour, mind you (more later, perhaps). But my own journey has gone a particular route. As far as doctrine is concerned, my articulations of the truth sometimes veer into language used by ancient authors or by the Eastern Orthodox. The actual content may even have changed.

Certainly, I hope my intellectual grasp of some doctrines has improved as well as deepened. In some ways I have become more catholic. My approach to the Bible is different as I embrace ancient and mediaeval pathways of knowledge. Sometimes it’s hard to articulate what has changed. For example, I have never not believed in the Most Holy Trinity. And I would certainly not claim to understand how three Persons share one essence — but by reading the Cappadocians (especially St Gregory of Nazianzus) and St Augustine of Hippo, my appreciation for this doctrine and its importance has certainly deepened.

The charismatic Christian who turns to historic Christianity for more than just a few examples of the manifestational gifts of the Spirit, but as a source for doctrine and such, will find truth resident there. This has been the case for me. I have not turned my back on my old travelling companions — Dennis J Bennett, Nicky Gumbel, Anglican Renewal Ministries — but I have found some new-old ones who have only deepened my approach to the faith — Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and people with names that start with other letters as well.

This only makes sense. Christ sent the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. He indwells every Christian. We are all part of the same mystical body of believers as existed in first-century Jerusalem, fifth-century Hippo, fourteenth-century Athos, and sixteenth-century Wittenberg. As we encounter that body throughout history, enlivened by that same Spirit of truth, we will meet truth, whether from the pen of St Isaac the Syrian or Martin Luther, of St Maximus the Confessor or Richard Hooker, of St Ignatius of Antioch or St Ignatius Loyola or John Wimber.

This is perhaps less a vindication of my charismatic background than a call to others from a similar place to seek the Spirit of truth as He has quickened the minds of believers throughout the ages. It is a journey worth taking.

Classic and charismatic 1: Manifestations

The church I grew up in, from ages 5-15, was a charismatic Anglican parish. My parents were involved in the charismatic renewal in the Anglican Church of Canada, so this meant that the charismatic movement came with them wherever we went. At our next parish, parish missions would have guest speakers associated with renewal, and we did some partnering in ministry with the local charismatic parish.

I grew up with modern liturgy, contemporary worship songs (mostly Vineyard and Graham Kendrick), and prayer ministry that at times involved people being “slain in the Spirit” off to the side as well as praying in tongues. And one lady at my church growing up was a prophet. I happily called myself an Anglican charismatic.

People with this sort of background who move into a preference for higher liturgy, hymns, and ancienter theology are often cynical of their upbringing and skeptical of the claims to the supernatural of those involved. I would say I have found a deeper foundation and rooting for my faith, but not that I have jettisoned the charismatic element.

One reason I cannot cast aside my charismatic roots is the fact that the manifestational gifts (charismata) of the Holy Spirit, for which the movement is named, are not only biblical and apostolic, they are also historic. Consider prophecy, visions, words of knowledge, healings, and tongues.

Prophecy

The Apostolic Fathers lived at a time when they still saw the prophetic ministry at work amongst them regularly. St Ignatius of Antioch (who may have been, as a bishop, horning in on the prophets’ territory) spoke in the prophetic voice in the 100s. So did St Cyprian in the 200s. St Hildegard of Bingen in the 1100s, if you read her Scivias, received many words from the Lord that call people to account. — that is to say, prophecies

Prophecy, as words from the Lord to His people, has not stopped.

Visions (and dreams)

St Hildegard had visions. Julian of Norwich had a vision in the 1400s which formed the basis of her Revelations of Divine Love. St Catherine of Siena had visions in the 1300s, too. St Patrick had a dream in the 400s that sent him on his missionary journeys in Ireland. Medieval Christianity abounded in visions and dreams — and the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world has not seen any sign of such visions and dreams stopping.

If I take seriously the faith of the Fathers, I should take seriously the possibility of visions and dreams in my own age as well.

Words of Knowledge

Here I think on the modern Greek Orthodox saint Porphyrios who often had special knowledge or words to share with people specific to their situation. Once a girl received a phone call from him because he was moved by the Spirit to call her. She had been contemplating suicide, and he saved her life.

Healings

St Augustine tells of a miraculous cure of haemorrhoids. The lives of the saints from Late Antiquity to today are crowded with healings and exorcisms. I know people today who have been prayed over and experienced an immediate and miraculous healing of an ailment.

Tongues

On Pentecost, the Apostles spoke in languages unknown to them. Something like this seemed to happen throughout Acts every time the Holy Spirit descended. Paul speaks about the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians. In terms of a ‘prayer language’, possibly St Hildegard, the Moravians, and early Quakers displayed this. St Patrick claims to have heard one such language, but that’s not quite the same.

Nonetheless, missionaries have often been granted the ability to speak or understand foreign languages. An interesting case is a story of an Orthodox priest who was showing people around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Greek. An Israeli woman was listening to him, but she knew no Greek — yet she heard him speaking Hebrew, and the power of the Gospel converted her. The skeptic will wonder if it happened, the Christian will hope it is true! It is certainly not beyond the power of God nor outside the scope of things He did in the Bible.

Why would God’s MO suddenly change at the Protestant Reformation?

My study of ancient and mediaeval Christianity, my engagement with the Orthodox way, my reading of the mystics — these have only deepened my belief in the validity of the manifestational gifts of the Holy Spirit, even if at times both now and in history people can too quickly claim the supernatural.

This is not all the Holy Spirit does, though…

Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I was chatting with a Roman Catholic friend, formerly a very engaged Anglican of evangelical bent, recently. He was talking about the rise of “industry” as a virtue in the early modern period (“industry” is not a virtue in the ancient and medieval worlds) and how its rise is involved in the denigration of the contemplative tradition — I, myself, later thought of Gibbon’s criticism of the ‘idle mouths’ of the Later Roman Empire that included monks.*

Basically, today contemplation must always be subservient to action. If you want to sit around in silence, what you do is supposed to outweigh it. The contemplative person, the mystic, has no place in this worldview. They are idle, potentially lazy, and useless.

I remarked that this is the complete opposite of St John of the Cross (whom we both love, of course), and that everyone today thinks this way.

He said, ‘Not the Carmelites!’

And then he said something that I’ve felt sometimes as well. He said that one of the things he has appreciated about becoming Roman Catholic is the presence of an ongoing contemplative tradition in the Roman Catholic tradition, and that such a tradition is something that is lacking in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is, by and large, devoid of this. It is upbeat and happy. It is also frequently shallow in its approach to suffering — let’s all read our Bibles and sing some happy songs!

This feels like caricature, but much depends on your corner of the evangelical world. (Much depends on your corner of Roman Catholicism, too, of course.) I can think of many times when simply reading the Bible has been presented by evangelicals as a cure-all, and of the discomfort one sometimes has with always singing at a fast tempo in a major key, despite the fundamental brokenness of all people.

I have often felt that Protestantism, and the evangelical world I have spent most of my life in (although that word evangelical is being destroyed and sapped of meaning by American politicising), is not sure of mysticism/contemplation. I think on the many people, including evangelical Anglicans, who say that they have no sympathy with or understanding of monasticism.

I, on the other hand, have had a longstanding interest in monks. The single-minded devotion of the Desert Fathers. The power of St Francis (whose legacy is both active and contemplative). The mystical writings of St John of the Cross. The daily grind of La Grande Chartreuse. Julian of Norwich. Cassian, Benedict, Anselm, Bernard. Cuthbert and Bede. I’ve blogged on all of these.

I have no doubt that there are faithful Roman Catholics who have no use for monks. However, Roman Catholicism has that rich, contemplative spiritual tradition alongside Roman Catholic social teaching and social action.

The mystical path for a Protestant does not usually involve going to your pastor for spiritual direction but, rather, books (and, today, the Internet). It is fraught with danger, but also excitement. And those who set forth are not alone.

There are Protestants who are seeking to plug into the ancient ways of contemplation/mysticism — James Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home both come to mind. But their engagement with the mystical tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is not part of an ongoing living tradition. We Protestants have to go it alone, or make it up with each other as we go along.

I was going to put this forward as a liability, but maybe it is not, which derails anything further I wanted to write when I started this piece.

It forces us to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us into the darkness, the silence, hesychia.

And that’s a good thing, I’m sure.

*Note: Monks of Late Antiquity not actually idle mouths, since a great many of them were involved in the cottage industry or farming.

Prudentius’ Psychomachia turned up at church today!

The death of Superbia, British Library, Cotton Cleoopatra C VIII (10th century)

Unexpectedly, in a sermon that quoted John Piper (of all people) and Martyn Lloyd Jones, my minister closed the preaching with a brief discussion of the Psychomachia of Prudentius from around 405. Now, Geoff isn’t afraid of the Fathers — he’s prayed prayers from St Irenaeus before, and cited Cassian and Evagrius at length. He doesn’t even shy away from the Middle Ages, being an evident fan of St Anselm and unafraid of that great ox, St Thomas Aquinas.

Nevertheless, rarely in a sermon of any sort does later Latin poetry emerge!

So I was tickled pink.

If you’ve never read the Psychomachia, you should read it pronto. Drop whatever you are doing. Read it. Here it is in the original Latin. There is one English translation here, and another here.

Pause while you read Prudentius…

This is a short epic poem (approximately 916 lines; I guess it’s an epyllion?) written in dactylic hexameters, the meter of classical Latin and Greek epic. Beyond the technicalities of Latin verse, this poem is written in the poetic style of Virgil but is one of the first personification allegories. The theme is the battle for the human soul (indeed, the old Loeb translates the title as ‘The Battle for Mansoul’, although ‘Soulbattle’ would be closer). The characters are the virtues and the vices doing battle against each other; although each set of characters numbers seven, they are not the two lists you know:

  • Fides – Faith, vs ‘Worship-of-the-Old-Gods’
  • Pudicitia – Chastity, vs Lust
  • Patientia – Patience, vs Wrath
  • Mens Humilis – Humility, vs Pride
  • Sobrietas – Sobriety, vs Indulgence
  • Operatio – Thrift, vs Greed
  • Concordia – Concord, vs Discord/Heresy

Each of the virtues comes out victorious, of course. My favourite moment, and one that my former office mate also enjoys, is Patience (Long-Suffering in the Loeb) standing still, doing nothing, and defeating Wrath, who ends up killing herself. I quote the Loeb Classical Library translation:

Standing unmoved by the javelin while the monster that shot it rages in ungoverned frenzy, she waits for Wrath to perish by reason of her own violence. And when the barbarous warrior had spent with fuming the strength of her unconquerable arms and by showering javelins tired out her right hand with no success till it was useless, since her missiles, having no force in their flight, fell ineffectual, and the shafts, all idly cast, lay broken on the ground, her ruthless hand turned to her sword-hilt. Putting all its strength into a blow with the flashing blade, it rises high above her right ear and then, launching its stroke, smites her foe’s head in the very middle. But the helmet of forged bronze only resounds under the blow; the blade rebounds with blunted edge, so hard it is; the unyielding metal breaks the steel that smites it, unflinchingly receives the vain attack, and stands up to the striker without hurt. Seeing her blade shivered in pieces and how the sword has scattered away in rattling fragments while her hand still grasps the hilt after it has lost its weight of steel, Wrath is beside herself and casts away the luckless ivory that has been false to her, the token of honour turned to shame. Afar she flings that unwelcome reminder, and wild passion fires her to slay herself. One of the many missiles that she had scattered without effect she picks up from the dust of the field, for an unnatural use. The smooth shaft she fixes in the ground and with the upturned point stabs herself, piercing her breast with a burning wound. Standing over her, Long-Suffering cries: “We have overcome a proud Vice with our wonted virtue, with no danger to blood or life. This is the kind of warfare that is our rule, to wipe out the fiends of passion and all their army of evils and their savage strength by bearing their attack. Fury is its own enemy; fiery Wrath in her frenzy slays herself and dies by her own weapons.”

My minister noted that the poem can be bloodthirsty, yet is well worth the read. We do not spend enough time thinking about the battle raging in our own souls. This lack of watchfulness (a virtue not in Prudentius but recommended by Christ: ‘Watch and pray’ [Mt 26:41]) is dangerous for our spiritual health. Thus, Prudentius can be good devotional reading. (I admit to not having read the Psychomachia devotionally before.)

The important thing, though, is that we are not merely victors because we are virtuous. Rather, we are virtuous because we are victors. Or, rather, we are more than conquerors (Ro 8:37). Prudentius knows this, as the close of the poem makes clear:

The opposing winds of light and dark are at war and we, body and spirit, have desires that are at odds with one another until Christ, our Lord, comes to help. He places the jewels of the virtues in their proper places and in the place of sin builds the courts of his temple; he makes for the soul ornaments from its dark past to delight Wisdom as she reigns forever on her glorious throne.

The Prologue (a very important piece of programmatic poetry in Late Antiquity) also points us to Christ:

Christ himself, who is the only true Priest, the Son of one whose name cannot be said, will feed the victor and enter his heart to let it entertain the Trinity. The Spirit will embrace the childless soul and make it fertile with eternal seed; late in her life, this richly endowed soul will be a mother and produce an heir.

Christ, you have always been revered because you have always had compassion on the misery of man; you are always revered for the powers you share with the Father – it is one power for it is only one God yet it is not merely one God that we worship since you too are also God born of the Father. Tell us, great King, how the soul is endowed with strength to fight and expel our sins from our hearts; when our thoughts are scattered and when strife rises within us, when evil desires rebel, tell us how to guard the liberty of the soul; tell us about our defenses against the fiend.

For you, good leader, have not left us here helpless before the onslaught of vice without the virtues to help us in battle and renew our courage; you yourself are in command of legions that fight this battle where the attack is worst. You yourself can arm the spirit with precious skills which permit it to resist and fight for you, conquer for you. The path to victory is there before your eyes. We must study the features of the virtues and the dark monsters waiting there to challenge their strength.

Here we have a magnificent piece of literature from the flowering of Latin literature in Late Antiquity, bound together with the realities of Christ empowering us to fight the vices. Well worth a read.

The poets and artists leading the way

Western Christianity (Protestantism in particular, evangelical and otherwise) is in crisis in a few ways, all probably related. The bottoming out of church attendance and post-Christendom, for example, are undoubtedly related. And the bottoming out of church attendance is itself related to the fact that we have forgotten God, as Mark Galli has so succinctly diagnosed the problem in American evangelicalism.

As we have been slowly failing to get accustomed to this situation, many wonder who (or where) our guides in the Wasteland are. In the Introduction to A New Kind of Christian, McLaren writes, ‘Is there no Saint Francis or Søren Kierkegaard or C. S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy?’ (p. xiv) Probably until 2010, many believed McLaren was that Kierkegaard or Lewis.

I’d like to imagine that the thinkers of my own direction, the ancient-future, are the guides in the Wasteland — D. H. Williams and the evangelical ressourcement, or Robert E. Webber with ancient-future faith, or Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall with palaeo-orthodoxy — but I fear these writers are largely un- or under-read (except Ancient-Future Worship by Webber, which seemed to do well amongst Michael Spencer’s iMonk set a decade ago).

Or maybe the theologians can lead the way? Sarah Coakley, perhaps? Hans Boersma (he’s almost the ancient-future set, though)? Miroslav Volf? Is Oliver O’Donovan too old to count? T F Torrance is dead, alas. What about non-Protestant guides? Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, Kallistos Ware in the East?

But if we stick to our own set of Protestants with a bent towards historic orthodoxy and a desire to drive faith forward into the future, a desire to grab the living God and pull ourselves up into Him, a desire to set fire to the Enlightenment and show the world a real Persons at last, a desire to grab other people and show them the glory of God in its fulness —

The ancient-future set and the theologians will certainly help those who read them. (All, what, five of us?)

But I think Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite and (to toss in a Roman Catholic) John Michael Talbot are proving more helpful in this wasteland. Poets and musicians all, committed to the ancient paths but also to the shifting sand under their feet and bringing the power of the transcendent God of grace into our lives in a time when many within western Christianity feel uncertain or are walking away.

I say this as someone more likely to be like Christopher A. Hall (a patristics scholar who writes books about the Fathers for evangelicals) than Bell, Guite, or Talbot.

Their poetry and music — as well as Bell’s stories and his new Pilgrim Year resources, as well as Guite’s theological lit crit, as well as Talbot’s writings on the mystical and ascetic tradition — make truths immediate that are not always apprehensible in other forms. A Guite sonnet can carry freight that no theological article I have ever read can. Poetry and music grasp our souls in a different way from discursive analysis, much as I think the latter important.

I think on the rapture I have experienced at choral eucharists and evensongs. Or the hold that John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’ has on me. We need what the Romantics called the sublime. The sublime helps us rise up from the prosaic, mundane materialist world foisted falsely upon us by the Enlightenment. And as we rise, the transcendent God makes Himself immanent and enters our hearts and we can meet Him.

I may be amiss, but I think this is the case, and I think it make sense.

Regardless of the accuracy of the term ‘postmodern’, and regardless of how many of McLaren’s 2001 imaginings have come true, it is the case that the ‘postmodern’ is thought to be more interested in story than proposition, in the evocative than the precise, in connection than precise rationalisation.

Poets and singers, painters and architects, playwrights and novelists, can help bring us to God in such a culture.

May God raise up more to be the prophets to our generation.

(I’d list my musician friends, but I’m not sure they’d welcome the publicity…? And one has gone off to be a ‘normal’ person.)

Steve Bell’s website is here.

Malcolm Guite’s is here.

John Michael Talbot’s is here.