Experimental thoughts concerning General Synods and the theology of councils

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Chances are, after the Anglican Communion explodes and the Anglican Church of Canada finally snuffs itself out with a whimper, the most important achievement of General Synod 2019 will have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical province for indigenous Anglicans, on the grounds that it will probably outlast white Anglicanism. In other news, we white Anglicans are all dissatisfied with how things went regarding marriage.

For the liberals/progressives/post-liberals, the dissatisfaction stems from the marriage canon remaining unchanged.

For the conservatives/evangelicals-catholics, the dissatisfaction stems from an amendment thereto allowing bishops to interpret the canon in such a way that it would allow for same-sex marriage, anyway.

A priest I know posted an interesting reflection on Facebook about how the Holy Spirit was invoked and called upon at General Synod, and these were the results. Whatever else is going on, this seems to be His will right now, even if it makes no sense to any of us.

As a person with a background researching the history of ancient church councils, this is an interesting point. If you read Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, you will find that they cite the precedent for the idea of an ecumenical council in the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 where it was decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic law. The telling phrase for the history of the councils is, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ (Acts 15:28) in the letter documenting the council’s results.

Ecumenical Councils are considered to be unerring in their doctrinal statements and universally binding in canon law. The reason why we didn’t get any between Acts 15 and Nicaea in 325 was the difficulty of getting church leaders together before Constantine’s conversion — at least, that’s what mediaeval accounts of events tell us.

The Seven Ecumenical Councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is God
  2. Constantinople (381): Jesus is God (round 2), also the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is a single, united person
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus is a single, united person with two natures
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus is still one person, that’s the main thing. Also, let’s condemn a few people while we’re at it.
  6. Constantinople 3 (681): Jesus had two wills because he had two natures.
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Make pictures of Jesus and kiss them.

The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all agree that these are ecumenical councils and accept their canons and doctrine. Anglicans are fuzzier. We have historically embrace 1-4 with gusto, and the only recent statement on them I know of is GAFCON (bafflingly) saying that they also embrace 5-7 so far as they are in accordance with Holy Scripture (but, based on the understanding of the people sitting in those councils, everything they did was in accordance with Holy Scripture, so what does GAFCON mean? Don’t kiss icons? Ignore canon law?)

The argument that the Holy Spirit speaks through the ecumenical councils is something along the lines of the fact that an invitation went out, every bishop who could made it, and then the major bishops who weren’t able to be there ratified the outcome later. Bishops in the Late Antique church are elected by the clergy and people of their dioceses and anointed and consecrated by three other bishops after their selection has been approved as valid by the Metropolitan bishop. Their duty, in part, is to preserve orthodoxy.

The ancient church may not have been a representative democracy, but this is vaguely kind of what this is. Maybe. But not really. Moving on.

But a General Synod is not an Ecumenical Council. Not only that, but we Anglicans, outside of those who don’t give a rat’s behind about the 39 Articles, theoretically believe that ‘general councils’ can err and sometimes have erred (Article of Religion XXI). This Article is mostly directed at the mediaeval ‘general’ councils of the western Church, which may not even technically be ecumenical even by Rome’s own canons, as lucidly and provocatively argued by Norman P Tanner in an article in  Studies in Church History 38: The Church and the Book.

Anyway, what has this to do with General Synod?

By the Anglican view of things, General Synod can err. But did the Holy Spirit not show up? He was invoked. People prayed. This time, it seems delegates actually tried to act in love. Well, what about Lateran IV when it approved transubstantiation in 1215? I do not believe in transubstantiation. But I also believe that Innocent III and his cronies were praying men. Did the Holy Spirit show up?

What if sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up just to mess with us? I dunno, this is just an experiment. Setting aside medieval councils, consider:

  • The Council of Rimini, 359: the imperial church officially adopted a creed that said Jesus was ‘like’ (homoios) God the Father, rejecting all talk of essence (ousia). Given the engineering behind other councils, to say that Rimini was imperially engineered to that end need not necessarily take it out of the running as an ecumenical council. That homoian Christianity is heresy does. Hm.
  • The second ecumenical council, Constantinople (381), was probably not originally conceived as ecumenical, and certainly not received as such in the West at the time, possibly not until after Chalcedon in 451. Anyway, the Bishop of Constantinople who presided, Gregory of Nazianzus, resigned and left in a huff because they did not craft a creed that was completely unambiguous about the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. So even an ecumenical council may be perceived as messing up at the time. Hm.
  • In 448, a second council met at Ephesus and approved a one-nature formula of Christology. One of the reasons it was rejected was because of how it was run by the bullying Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus. Funnily enough, his sainted uncle, Cyril, was about as much a bully at the first council of Ephesus, and we accept it as ecumenical. Regardless, from 448 to 450, as far as anyone could tell, the imperial church was going to accept one-nature Christology. Hm.
  • In 754, there was an Iconoclast council at Constantinople that considered itself an ecumenical council. Iconoclasm, from the perspective of history as lived on the ground, had a lot of staying power until 787 at Nicaea 2, and was even reinstated by the imperial powers after that. Hm.

If we look at the ecumenical councils, we’ll see that there was a lot of arguing back and forth before and after them. They were not accepted immediately. Some spent a period of time being overturned, like Nicaea 1 and Nicaea 2. What makes them ecumenical is their long-term acceptance by the church — and even then, the so-called ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East only accepts two of seven, and the Oriental Orthodox of Miaphysite persuasion only accept three.

So what does this mean regarding Anglican General Synods?

Keep praying. Keep loving. Keep searching the Scriptures and their authority and figuring out what Truth is. Keep listening to the Holy Spirit. Hold fast to faith once delivered. Remember that the Church is Christ’s, not General Synod’s. Who knows why the Holy Spirit lets things happen that seem contrary to how we interpret Scripture and Gospel. But I like to think there was a purpose behind allowing the Council of Rimini to occur.

Oh, and if you’re a bishop: Obey canon law, for Pete’s sake.

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Some living Anglicans to consider

If you find yourself wearied by yet another General synod, here are some living Anglicans worth considering. (Some days it seems like all the best Anglicans died before 1700; some died just this year: RIP Michael Green.) Some of the people below, like Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley, have an appeal across the theological spectrum. Since the idea here is to encourage those despairing of the Communion and its traditional structures I choose not to include those worth reading who reside amongst schismatics (here, let me sneak in Hans Boersma, Mark Galli, and J I Packer through a back door), nor people who did good work as Anglicans but have subsequently converted to a different church (like Edith M. Humphrey).

What is great about the people I mention below is the fact that they are signs of vibrant life in what we might call the ‘real’ life of the Church — life beyond General Synods in areas other than arguing about sexuality.

I must say, first, that there are many faithful clergy worthy of consideration within North American mainstream Anglicanism (that is, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church), but I know the writings of few of them.

So, before the barrage of the British, here are two from the Anglican Church of Canada worth noting. I’ll probably offend some friends and family by forgetting people I actually know or should know. I purposefully exclude for the moment my siblings.

Canada

Gene Packwood, involved in Anglican Renewal Ministries, has a blog worth reading.

Ephraim Radner from Wycliffe College has written some thought-provoking pieces online not only about the hot-button issue of marriage but also about age theory and Christian leadership. Two very good pieces of his are linked to from Wycliffe’s bio page: ‘Praying with Those Who Pray‘ and ‘Anglicanism on Its Knees‘. I admit to never having read any of his books.

Steve Bell, I understand, was at some point part of the Anglican community St Benedict’s Table, but I do not know if this is still the case. Steve is a wonderful musician whose work has both musical and lyrical depth — and spiritual depth, too, of course. His concerts are always a mixture of stories and songs, and the stories carry with them added depth. He has become an advocate for indigenous rights, which is great, and recently put out a boxed set of resources for the church year called Pilgrim Year, besides also now leading retreats.

The USA

Before leaving this continent, I’d like to recommend two from the USA.

Christopher A. Hall, I believe, is still Episcopalian. I have profited from Reading Scripture with the Church FathersLearning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers as well as The Mystery of God.

Rt Rev George Sumner, Bishop of Dallas, former principal of Wycliffe College, writes interesting things at Covenant (or the Living Church? I get confused by the website). Ephraim Radner also publishes there.

England 

Given that we are called ‘Anglican’ because we trace our spiritual heritage and ecclesiastical structures to the English Reformation and the Church of England, recognising the Archbishop of Canterbury as primus inter pares, one would hope to find contemporary English Anglicans worth considering. Allow me to give just a sampler based on my recent experiences — so, not Nicky Gumble (although I assume he’s still worth your time) and not Alec Ryrie (because I haven’t read his big book on Protestants yet).

Sarah Coakley is an engaging theologian in print and in person. I recommend her book God, Sexuality, and the Self to you. It deals with the doctrine of the Trinity using Scripture, the Fathers, art history, and sociological fieldwork interviewing some local Anglicans. Rather than beginning with a demonstration of the Son as God, and everything else following on, she starts with the biblical case for the full and equal divinity of the Holy Spirit, arguing that this affects how we approach God himselves. (Himselves is my own neologism.)

Malcolm Guite is a poet, theologian, and literary critic based in Cambridge. I’ve reviewed his book Faith, Hope and Poetry here as well as having reblogged some poems from his blog. His literary-critical theology plays at the edges of our awareness, seeking to travel the regions where analytical reason finds the going tough and where imagination can lead the way. His poetry does likewise, though in a different mode. My own English poetic taste runs more towards Herbert than T S Eliot or Ezra Pound, but Guite is a modern poet I heartily appreciate.

Rt Rev Rowan Williams used to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He has returned to academia and recently written a book I desperately want to read, Christ, the Heart of Creation. He is a very good stylist in the English language and thereby elegantly cuts to the heart of Gospel in his writings. I have mostly read occasional pieces of his on the Internet, plus one very good essay about the social ramifications of Easter in Sojourners magazine. The only Williams book I have read is The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ.

Scotland

I list them under ‘Scotland’ since that is their abode, but neither of these two is a Scotsman. I must very quickly hasten to say that I have no doubt that the work of Dr Sean Adams is beyond reproach, as well as that of Profs Paul Foster, Helen Bond, and Larry Hurtado. However, the only book of Hurtado’s I’ve read was not quite what this post is into, I only know Bond by sight, and most of my contact with Foster was either social or in Greek class. Sean, on the other hand, is a deep thinker, critical scholar, and nice guy who is well worth drinking a few pints with whenever the chance arises. Anyway, after hopefully covering my tracks with people I know/should know:

Oliver O’Donovan writes mostly for the academic crowd. Besides hearing him in person while a student at Edinburgh, I have read his book On the Thirty-Nine Articles, which I recommend because it is not a guide to or defence of them but, nevertheless, takes them seriously, considering itself conversations with Tudor Christianity. He is ordained in the Church of England, but has remained in Scotland since retirement (last I checked).

N T Wright, former Bishop of Durham, is, like Rowan Williams, back in academia, now up in St Andrews. I have read the methodology section of The New Testament and the People of God and one of his books written as ‘Tom’. He is an intellectually rigorous scholar who takes seriously both theology as the church lives it and historical study as the academy practices it.

Spend some time with one of these folks to encourage you that God is still afoot within the normative structures of Anglicanism.

Where is God when it hurts?

Being abandoned by his friends when he needs them most.

Being beaten by rods.

Being slandered right to his face.

Being stripped naked.

Being whipped.

Again.

And again.

Being mocked.

Having thorns pressed into his flesh.

Being nailed to a piece of wood and hanging there.

Naked.

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding.

Dying.

That’s where God is when it hurts.

Hurting with you.

Taking all the pain and sorrow and hurt of the world into himself and swallowing it.

A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

Apologetics and the impossibility of certainty

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

My wife was recently talking with someone who said that she had been a Christian, but she lost her faith when she went to Bible college. It was because of an apologetics presentation. Her rational mind was activated, and she realised that unless she could find a perfect argument, she couldn’t believe.

No such argument exists or ever will exist.

For pretty much everything.

Even if my beloved St Anselm thought he could prove the Holy Trinity using logic alone.

But apologetics — which is the defence of the Christian faith — frequently presents itself as giving airtight arguments for the existence of God. If only those poor, benighted agnostics and atheists knew, they would become theists. And then they present arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and expect that the Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims will join our faith as well, because Christianity is a perfectly rational faith and perfectly defensible.

And, of course, if you can’t prove something beyond the shadow of a doubt, can you trust it? (At which point, can you trust your existence? What about that of other minds?)

I have met other people who, having been to Bible college, abandon the faith or at least orthodoxy when they realise the world is not dominated by the narrow, simplistic, pat answers of their particular Bible college. This is not a tirade against Bible colleges in general, just those that seem to have had this effect.

That Christians seem to think that our faith is entirely defensible in an airtight, scientific way is evidence that we have allowed ourselves to get sucked into Enlightenment rationalism to far too great a degree. There is no airtight argument for God. Nor is there one for the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This doesn’t mean Christianity is irrational (all the time). One of the ideas that stuck with me from one of the few apologetics books I’ve read, Little’s Know Why You Believe was that, while our faith may go beyond reason, it does not go against reason.

Hence apologetics.

I have two directions I want to go. One is mystery. The other is the unproveability of most stuff. I’ll stick with the second for now, and get back to the first another day.

The ability to definitively prove anything is actually very slippery, especially in the humanities — and not just philosophy and theology, which is where some of the basic apologetics stuff resides. The slipperiness of proving stuff is evident in history, for example. For example, there are people who deny the existence of Napoleon — they say he was just a propaganda tool of the French government and the man arrested was just an actor/figurehead.

The Phantom Time Hypothesis exploits the holes in our knowledge and the difficulty of matching material and textual evidence for the years 614–911 to argue that they never actually happened and that it’s all a conspiracy by Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II.

Pretty much all Roman history before the Punic Wars was made up.

Now, I would never subscribe to the Phantom Time Hypothesis. But the fragmentary evidence it exploits is very important to consider, because it reminds us that there is much we do not know for certain. We might have textual evidence for an event — but can we trust that evidence? Sometimes it turns out we can’t. Sometimes we can.

100% certainty is an impossibility.

I go on faith that plausible historical accounts of events are to be trusted unless the contrary evidence from material culture or other historical accounts is too much to ignore.

Christian faith is not about being able to provide airtight arguments for the existence of God, or about proving 100% that Jesus rose from the dead.

It is about an encounter with the living God — and, whatever logic may figure into relationships, they are different creatures from philosophy textbooks.

I’m not jettisoning apologetics. Just relativizing its importance.

We all live in and with mystery. Let’s see where we can find God in that, in the uncertain. For He is there as much as He is in our rational arguments for his existence.

George Herbert, The Holy Communion

Since I’ve quoted Hooker on the Eucharist at length, here’s a poem I often read in preparation for receiving the Blessed Sacrament. George Herbert’s 1633 poem ‘The Holy Communion’. Classic Anglicanism is rich and beautiful, as you can tell. He also expresses something of eucharistic soteriology, as you can see. For Herbert’s indentations done properly, go to the online edition at the CCEL.

The H. Communion.

NOt in rich furniture, or fine aray,
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who for me wast sold,
To me dost now thy self convey;
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
Leaving within me sinne:

But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep’st into my breast;
Making thy way my rest,
And thy small quantities my length;
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sinnes force and art.

Yet can these not get over to my soul,
Leaping the wall that parts
Our souls and fleshy hearts;
But as th’ outworks, they may controll
My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name,
Affright both sinne and shame.

Onley thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at doore attend
Dispatches from their friend.
Give me my captive soul, or take
My bodie also thither.
Another lift like this will make
Them both to be together.

Before that sinne turn’d flesh to stone,
And all our lump to leaven;
A fervent sigh might well have blown
Our innocent earth to heaven.

For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother;
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.

Thou hast restor’d us to this ease
By this thy heav’nly bloud;
Which I can go to, when I please,
And leave th’earth to their food.

A little Richard Hooker on the Eucharist

I cannot shake this idea of writing something deep and involved about eucharistic soteriology, so I just Googled “Richard Hooker on eucharist”, whereby I found this article from The Continuum on just that topic. It is mostly about Hooker’s understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Hooker (1554-1600), if you don’t know, is one of the greatest theologians of the Anglican tradition, and he is one of the people who really set the stage for what the Church of England would grow to be over time. He has been called a Catholic Protestant. Or perhaps a Protestant Catholic.

Anyway, I have lifted a quotation from the aforelinked article for your perusal, hoping that you can handle the Elizabethan English. It is worth reading. Hooker is a man of his age, and he does not shy away from vivid imagery such as ‘in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues.’ The bit that relates to my research trajectory is at the end; I have bolded it for easy skimming. 😉

Let it therefore be sufficient for me presenting myself at the Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotion, and hitherto in this cause but over patiently heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharpwitted men beat their heads about what questions themselves will, the very letter of the word of Christ giveth plain security that these mysteries do as nails fasten us to his very Cross, that by them we draw out, as touching efficacy, force, and virtue, even the blood of his gored side, in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues, we are dyed red both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched; they are things wonderful which he feeleth, great which he seeth and unheard of which he uttereth, whose soul is possessed of this Paschal Lamb and made joyful in the strength of this new wine, this bread hath in it more than the substance which our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with solemn benediction availeth to the endless life and welfare both of soul and body, in that it serveth as well for a medicine to heal our infirmities and purge our sins as for a sacrifice of thanksgiving; with touching it sanctifieth, it enlighteneth with belief, it truly conformeth us unto the image of Jesus Christ; what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my Soul thou art happy!” Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.12

This is the great, central, catholic, classic teaching on the effect of Holy Communion in the life of the believer. This is what I want to expound..

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.