An Old Kind of Christian

I have recently begun paternity leave, and I’ve decided that, besides not formally doing work for ten weeks, I’ll also take a moment away from reading ancient, mediaeval, and Orthodox books for a little bit, to sort of, um, freshen the brain. Read books ‘normal’ people read. So I’ve put my ‘fun’ reading of Statius’ Thebaid on hold and have started Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and my Christian-y reading of St Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations has been switched for Brian D. McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.

I realise I’m 18 years late to this party (and was 18 when the book came out), so any meditations I have on a book that thought it was cutting-edge in 2001 may be a little inappropriate. I will not be able to recapture what it must have been like to have been 36 reading this book back then.

Also, I have read two of McLaren’s books already, one in 2004 (More Ready Than You Realize) the other in 2006 (A Generous Orthodoxy), and I have to admit that I liked them, but neither was revolutionary or game-changing. Finally, for my own 2001-02 context, I did read, in 2002, Walsh and Middleton’s Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, my introduction to postmodernism.

Anyway, having laid out a bit of my own modern context (I use that word on purpose), I also assume any regular reader knows that I am a Classicist and ecclesiastical historian who specialises in Patristics with research interests that stretch into the High Middle Ages and an eclectic, East-leaning Anglican devotional life, having been raised in a charismatic Anglican parish.

Before beginning this book, my thoughts were largely as follows. My sister-in-law once observed that Brian McLaren was not that revolutionary in these early books; he was mostly just explaining postmodernism to middle-aged people. In the end, however, the emerging church as a movement has proven itself largely spent. McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity set him not merely outside the bounds of evangelicalism but of any orthodoxy, however generous (for some solid critique, I direct you to Bill Kinnon, since I know and trust Bill). He demonstrated himself simply another liberal; he was running so fast to find something new that he ended up in the 1990s in 2010.

The only other two names ever associated with the emerging church that I can think of are Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll, and I’m sure I’ll get in trouble for daring to mention Driscoll’s name with such illustrious company — for Driscoll has proven himself simply another Reformed megachurch pastor who happens to be edgy. Bell decided to catch up with the Episcopal Church in affirming universal salvation and gay marriage. Oh, yes, Peter Rollins; he seems not really to be a liberal simply because he is so very different. But he’s by no means anywhere within the boundaries of historic orthodoxy — he may be the only one to have succeeded in becoming a new kind of Christian.

When I first asked a couple of years ago the question, ‘What happened to the emerging/emergent church?’, I found a video on YouTube of one less-famous member chatting with a slightly more famous guy. The less famous emergent guy had emerged into Roman Catholicism, and the other had turned out a Pelagian who rejected the Nicene Creed not on any logical grounds but on the highly individualist notion that the men who wrote it had to place telling him what to believe. It was a strange conversation to watch.

So it seems that in trying to embrace postmodernism, many associated with emergent have ended up modern(ist) in one way or another — the individualistic Pelagian who also rejects Nicaea; the guy who bailed out and became Catholic; the Reformed pastor; the guys who are really not so different from the liberal mainline, itself a product of modernity.

This, of course, is no surprise. Contrary to all the exciting things being said in the first 46 pages of A New Kind of Christian (this is as far as I have got), postmodernism was simply a self-critique of modernism, which is what modernism has been doing for most of its existence. The idea that postmodernism may actually simply be an outgrowth of the modern mindset, that it may actually be modernism dressed up in fancy, new jargon, first came to my attention in a 2009 or 2010 issue of Adbusters. Since then, I’ve seen or heard of a growing critique of postmodernism.

So McLaren, et al., for all that I know their books helped a lot of Christians work through important issues and critique the modern church, failed at becoming a new kind of Christian.

I realise this post is already long-ish, but my other thought, a thought that also inspired the title, and one which I hope to explore further, is that perhaps an old kind of Christian is what we need, but neither a modern(ist) one nor, indeed, an irrecoverable pre-modern one. Brian Walsh and others have dug into those of us who think that we should hunt down pre-modern Christianity to find moorage in the sea of postmodernity. (Brian Walsh has also succeeded in slowly drifting in liberalism in his embrace of the postmodern; where are the orthodox postmoderns?) Rather, I think of a spirit-infused prophet of old who has drunk deeply of the Fathers and can body forth for us in our current context, be in post- or not, the ancient, medieval, Byzantine and even (gasp!) modern wisdom the Spirit has poured into the Church.

One may argue that that kind of Christian sounds like a postmodern Christian as imagined 18 years ago. The difference is that, unlike a Peter Rollins who provides a long-running critique of the whole Christian project, or McLaren who doesn’t really seem to understand the medieval world (or didn’t, back in 2001 when he wrote this book, based on how he uses Lewis’ The Discarded Image), this is someone from within the tradition who embraces it, is infused with it, and loves it to bursting, because the tradition is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, because the tradition is the Holy Spirit at work in the world of men, because the tradition is the life story of the Body of Christ.

Postmodernism, that is, late stage modernity in its current manifestation, has a liking for story and song. Is tradition not simply the story of the church? Is it not the song sung by the Spirit in His people over these long years? Let us go deep into the Christian tradition, East and West, and prayerfully seek the wisdom of the mystics and liturgists and saints and poets and theologians who have brought us here, and use them as guides to bring us to Christ.

It is Christ who will lead us onward.

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Family Traditions

Today we dedicated our youngest son at church (our current church is not Anglican, and they don’t baptise infants). For the event, he was decked out in style. 1890s style:

This is the same gown that his brother was baptised in. And three of his cousins. And me and my siblings. And some cousins. And my dad and his generation. And my granny. And my granny’s granny. I forget if it goes back farther. It is a real-live family heirloom.

It is tradition.

This is probably the most-used such item.

My dad has my great-great-grandfather’s cope, and my great-grandfather’s hymn book, though. He also had some of my great-grandfather’s stoles, but they were getting worn out. My sister and I played our grandpa’s clarinet. My wife and I have been putting our sons in as many vintage outfits as possible, for example.

When I was confirmed, my Granddad gave me, as to his other grandchildren, a Book of Common Prayer, inscribed by him in calligraphy.

This prayer book and the gown represent important family traditions — not merely items, but objects connected to my family’s history of faith, our tradition of faith.

My sons have been baptised and dedicated in the same gown as myself and ten or eleven other relatives. This means that my wife and I have stood in public before our church and dedicated ourselves to God, vowing to raise our sons in the church, to teach them the ways of Christ, and to help bring them into the community of faith, to help them encounter the Triune God.

This means praying with them, taking them to church, reading the Bible with them. I am not sure what else, besides living our own lives of faithfulness. How do you help a small person encounter the immanent, transcendent God?

In doing this, we are part of a great family tradition, as my parents passed the faith on to me and my siblings, and their parents to them, and the generation before — back to before the Victorians stitched that baptismal gown.

The best of family traditions.

Some quotes from Vincent of Lerins

Just because.

On the polyvalence of Scripture:

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. (ch. 5)

Don’t preach heresy!

To preach any doctrine therefore to Catholic Christians other than what they have received never was lawful, never is lawful, never will be lawful: and to anathematize those who preach anything other than what has once been received, always was a duty, always is a duty, always will be a duty. (ch. 25)

Heresy is poison:

They have, in fact swallowed a quantity of poison — not enough to kill, yet more than can be got rid of; it neither causes death, nor suffers to live. O wretched condition! With what surging tempestuous cares are they tossed about! One while, the error being set in motion, they are hurried wherever the wind drives them; another, returning upon themselves like refluent waves, they are dashed back: one while, with rash presumption, they give their approval to what seems uncertain; another, with irrational fear, they are frightened out of their wits at what is certain, in doubt whither to go, whither to return, what to seek, what to shun, what to keep, what to throw away. (ch. 49)

They do, in fact, what nurses do when they would prepare some bitter draught for children; they smear the edge of the cup all round with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. So too do these act, who disguise poisonous herbs and noxious juices under the names of medicines, so that no one almost, when he reads the label, suspects the poison. (ch. 65)

The goal of church councils:

Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? (ch. 59)

Looking for orthodoxy with Vincent of Lérins

So on the weekend, I read Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitorium. This fifth-century (ca. 432-440) text is famous for stating that catholic truth is that which has been believed always, everywhere, by all. This is probably all most people ever hear about the text, quoted with swelling chest by a certain breed of traditionalist, queried with raised eyebrow by those who are pretty sure this is a pretty useless approach to finding truth in real life.

I, personally, was more interested when he got talking about Christology. (No big surprise there!) But, since Vincent is more famous for his quest for catholic truth, I’ll write a pair of posts about the Lerinian monk, starting with the quest for orthodoxy.

First, the early fifth-century context. I’ve written about it a bit more fully here, but what you need to know is that monasticism is kicking off in a big way in southern Gaul (southern France) where Vincent lived, a few decades after the death of St Martin up north in Tours (Tours, on the Loire, is on the cusp of northern Gaul — they still have wine, though!). The island of Lérins (near Cannes and the beach) was a major centre for the ascetic life, and several Gallic bishops started off their ecclesiastical careers as Lerinian monks. Down the coast from Lérins is Marseilles, and around this time John Cassian’s famous works on the ascetic life were being published.

The predestinarian debate is going on in Gaul, starting to enter the phase where people we today call ‘semi-Pelagian’ are being challenged for not being Augustinian enough, including Cassian, Vincent, and the future abbot of Lérins and bishop of Riez, Faustus. Fun fact: All three are saints, so maybe we should cool our heresy-hunting predestinarian horses. Anyway, this debate leaves little trace in Vincent.

Vincent is more concerned about Christology. Off in Ephesus, the Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, had been condemned as a heretic in a council led by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, about which Vincent has knowledge. The condemnation of Nestorius at Ephesus in 431 is not, of course, the end of the story, not even for the 430s. Various letters are going back and forth, East and West, about the easterners who reject Cyril’s council, until a reunion between Alexandria and Antioch happens in 433, although there’s still some simmering on both sides afterwards.

Anyway: Orthodoxy. How do we know it? Obviously, it’s a hot topic in Vincent’s day, all this talk about predestination and whether Jesus was two persons or not.

The two most important things for Vincent are fidelity to Scripture and fidelity to tradition (ch. 4). He argues for the importance of tradition on the grounds that most heretics use the Bible in their defense (ch. 5). Even in small disputes, this is worth noting, as when I explained to a Presbyterian friend that episcopal hierarchy isn’t actually contrary to Scripture. (By ‘small’, I mean Presbyterians aren’t heretics.) The appeal to Scripture alone doesn’t necessarily help you against the Arian or the Origenist, does it? Thus: Tradition!

Vincent goes on to demonstrate times when you lean on antiquity when confronted by error and times when you put your weight on the testimony of the majority. He demonstrates novelty with the examples of the Donatists and Arians. The modern historian will point out that Donatists and Arians would claim that they taught nothing novel, but I do think that pure Arianism, in fact, by stating its case baldly, is a departure from antiquity, from the liturgical expression of the Church, from the (at leas) binitarian nature of biblical worship.

Donatism is actually a better example of the minority. If all the churches of the Mediterranean except for a small number in Africa go one way, are we to believe that the Africans are right? Of course, what about that time everybody was (semi-)Arian after the council of Rimini? Well, that’s why antiquity also helps. Hold them in tension, you should be able to figure it out.

Vincent also talks about why and how heresies arise. Why? Heretics are God’s way of testing the church. They are also a reminder not to be proud. Even Origen and Tertullian fell, after all. How? By not holding fast to antiquity, universality, and consensuality. By trusting in their own cleverness. Through pride. This is how heretics arise.

It’s a worthy warning for we who think ourselves clever when he pulls out Origen and Tertullian. Now, we may want to nuance both of these condemnations. (Like, was Tertullian actually a Montanist?) But still. We shouldn’t be over wise (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

The question is: What does all of this have to do with us?

First, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The consent of the 318 fathers at Nicaea, for example, when coupled with First Constantinople, First Ephesus, and Chalcedon, should have some weight in the question of, ‘Is Jesus fully God?’ We don’t have to recreate the doctrine of the Trinity from scratch — Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and the Cappadocians have already been there and done that.

But Vincent’s approach does leave room for exploration. He has this idea of putting together your own little anthology of patristic greatest hits to help you on your way. (I suspect that this is what his Excerpta are.) He wants his readers to be delving into the works of the Fathers, not simply accepting the dogmatic formulae of the councils.

Bare dogma is not theology. It is a picture frame — sometimes a very ornate frame. Theology is the picture. (My image, not his.)

Second, this approach helps us test new-seeming ideas. I’m too tired to articulate anything here. Sorry.

The general idea is: Test the spirits. Use Scripture and tradition as tools when you come up against something you aren’t sure about. Does it fit in the picture frame of the statements from the councils? Can you find it in older writings? Is it counter to older writings? Do a lot of people in your communion believe this?

Finally, I don’t think it will work beyond the individual believer, because I’m an Anglican from Canada. I’ve already seen schisms in my lifetime because some rejected universality, others antiquity, and no consensus was available.

Anglo-Patristics

I’m sure someone has beat me to it, but I recently coined the term ‘Anglo-Patristic’ while thinking about what I would do if I ended up a theologian (instead of a philologist). Basically, as I imagined my work on dogmatic theology (not systematic, I don’t do academic systematics [whew!]), it was, in some ways, inspired by the Neo-Patristic works discussed by Andrew Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers, or the Ressourcement and evangelical ressourcement stuff I’ve read — but the BCP, John Donne, and Lancelot Andrews kept invading.

So –Anglo-Patristic.

That is, it would be theology drawing deep from the resources of the Great Tradition, producing a synthesis of the Fathers on the important matters of the faith, yet bringing in resources of the Anglican tradition.

Why would anyone want this, you may ask?

Well, no matter how I go about things, I turn up Anglican. Perhaps a bit East-leaning. But Anglican, nonetheless. And when I consider the  triple schism of North American Anglicans and the impending one in England, I see the value of patristic wisdom not only for a rebirth of orthodoxy (as discussed by Thomas C. Oden) but also for a deepening of the faith within the evangelical and charismatic wings.

And, thus, maybe a way for liberals, catholics, evangelicals, and charismatics to find a richness in the Christian tradition without tearing each other apart and without jumping ship to the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Baptists, or Pentecostals, as many are tempted to do. As many have done.

I guess because it appeals to me, I figure it would appeal to other people. To those who pray with Anglican liturgies, read Anglican lectionaries, revel in George Herbert or John Donne, who are also cognizant of being part of a rich theological tradition running from Ignatius and Clement through Athanasius and Augustine on to Anselm and Aquinas up through Hooker and Andrews to O’Donovan and Williams. For those whose spirituality includes John Mason Neale hymns and maybe also Steve Bell. For those of us who read Malcolm Guite and realise that Anglican spirituality can drink from the well of the Fathers as well as of the metaphysical poets.

An Anglo-Patristic synthesis is eminently Anglican. Nay, English, even — from Aldhelm, from Bede’s patristic commentaries, through Lanfranc and Anselm, Alexander de Hales, Robert Grosseteste, Alexander Neckham, let alone the actual Anglicans who have been immersed in the Fathers, whether Cranmer or Andrews or Jewel or Hooker or Parker, not to mention the turncoat John Wesley, on to young Anglican theologians and scholars I am glad to call my friends who study Augustine, Eustathius of Antioch, Athanasius.

If philology doesn’t work out, I know what I’ll do.

The disparate nature of tradition

Council of Chalcedon

I am at present reading Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites. As I read, many questions arise: Did Justinian himself write this? When did he have time? Did he ever sleep? If he didn’t, who did? How was this text received? How would Leo the Great have felt about this text? What about Cyril of Alexandria?

Leo the Great (d. 461) would probably have been fine with this work. I am not sure Cyril (d. 444) would have been, however. This is an interesting reality of our theological tradition. Many people, even within the church, have an idea that theological orthodoxy is monolithic. It is not. Leo the Great did what he could with what of Cyril he had in Latin — not all of Cyril, and Latin is not Greek. So Leo’s Christology is not the same as Cyril’s.

For example, I do not think Leo’s Tome and Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ are actually perfectly compatible.

Yet Leo’s Tome was acclaimed and accepted at the Council of Chalcedon (that he helped engineer) in 451 on the grounds that it said what Cyril says. Which, if we consider the Cyril of the letter of reconciliation with John of Antioch Laetentur Caeli, I suppose it is. Both of these fifth-century bishops are accepted as authoritative by the imperial church and are regarded as Fathers of the Church by modern Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, and non-heretical Protestant churches.

But their entire corpora are not entirely compatible, despite what Justinian tries in his reading of Cyril as a supporter of two-nature Christology.

Moving forward a couple of centuries, what about Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)? Again, I am not sure that the Cyril of On the Unity of Christ and some of Maximus’s arguments about the operation of Christ’s two wills in the Garden of Gethsemane are perfectly compatible.

Moving beyond christology, Augustine (d. 430), who is actually considered a saint by the eastern churches, teaches a dual procession of the Holy Spirit, that even Maximus agreed to in a way, although its offspring, the filioque in the creed, is a major point of division between the eastern and western churches. Yet here they stand, part of orthodox (note the lower-case O) tradition.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) taught the Apocatastasis, the idea that all will be saved (patristic universalism). He is considered a Father in both East and West, although many reject this teaching. The ecumenically popular Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) also taught this.

Western accounts of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity tend to start with the doctrine of God and His unity; in the East, they tend to start with the persons and the threeness. This is a generalisation, but it does tend towards a different feel and different emphases in our presentations of dogma. Yet these presentations, whether by Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390), are all orthodox though they differ.

Or consider the fact that our tradition includes alleged ‘Semi-Pelagians’ as saints (Faustus of Riez) alongside Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine.

Theological orthodoxy is not monolithic. Many other very specific cases could be found, but these will do. It is worth keeping these realities in mind as we ponder the great richness of the tradition that has brought us to where we stand today.

How evangelical Anglican churches drive people like me away

My wife and I have just moved to England, and after seven years enjoying the Presbyterian world of the Free Church of Scotland, I’ve been looking forward to soaking in some Anglican worship when we get here. Being believers of an orthodox bent, we found ourselves an Anglican church for yesterday that billed itself as ‘evangelical’.

We may as well have gone to the Vineyard.

Nothing against the Vineyard, necessarily. We worshipped with them a couple of times in Glasgow.

But I’ve been looking forward to plugging into liturgy — BCP or Common Worship — to a form of worship that is not tied to my emotions or those of the leader at the front, to rich prayers rooted in Scripture and tradition, to a community gathered around word and sacrament.

There was nothing ‘Anglican’ about this group of Christians, expect, I suppose, that they are part of an Anglican episcopal structure and believe the 39 Articles.

It’s frustrating for someone like me who identifies as Anglican and evangelical to belong nowhere. I’d rather go to a church that doesn’t make any claims to Anglicanism than to the Baptists with Bishops. We had the same problem in Scotland, in fact.

It’s also frustrating because there is a movement among a lot of the non-Anglican evangelicals to rediscover liturgy, tradition, beauty, hymns, discipline. Yet here, in the homeland of Anglicanism, Anglicans have sold their birth right and live in the same cultural amnesia that American and Canadian evangelicals are just now recovering from!

And so where to go?

I don’t know.