Chris Green

Waiting Without Justification: Broodings on Vocation in Conversation with Merton’s Letters

The Hidden Ground of LoveA guest post by Chris Green

Last summer, I read a collection of Thomas Merton’s letters, The Hidden Ground of Love (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1985). I was affected most deeply by some of Merton’s responses to the letters of then up-and-coming feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, exchanges that took place in 1966 and 67, near the end of Merton’s life—he died in December 68—and at the beginning of Reuther’s career.

The correspondence begins with Ruether’s letter of August 12, 1966. She is grateful to have heard of Merton’s appreciation for an article she had recently published, and wonders if she might send him the manuscript of her work, The Church Against Itself. Their earliest letters are warm if lively exchanges, the friendly back-and-forth of kindred spirits. He’s direct about his struggles with Catholic hierarchy—“I do wonder at times if the Church is real at all … Am I part of a great big hoax?”—and he always writes under the assumption that she shares his vision and his experience. Early in 1967, however, Ruether delivered a few stinging criticisms of the monastic life. In the following few letters, he writes with an edge, attempting to correct what he takes to be her fundamental misapprehension of his vocation. At points he stops just short of out-and-out rebuke. Still, he never hides the fact that her criticisms open old wounds in him, wounds that obviously have not healed and are not healing.

For example, in a letter dated 19 March, Merton remarks how he finds himself wanting to shake off his monastic orders, to make his way out to the “big-time struggle” in the world beyond his hermitage. Bluntly put, he wants to be “more effective” in real-world matters. He nonetheless insists that he cannot abandon his given way of life. To do so, he insists, would mark a “real betrayal of the Kingdom.” In his experience, most if not all of the monks who abandon the monastery in hopes of making a more significant impact in the wider world soon lose their way entirely. So, in spite of himself, he knows he’s not going to up and leave his post.

A few weeks after (in a letter from 9 April), Merton seems to reach a kind of resolution, writing that he’s convinced he must pursue his own way, “marginal and lost” as it is, without any rationale or apology. The monk’s life, he says, is not supposed to be explained, only lived.

But judging by the letters that follow, he hadn’t really convinced himself.


Taken as a whole, these letters suggest that even after a quarter century of immersion in the monastic life, Merton could not rest in his calling. We sense, in and under his words, an agonizing unsettledness. If just for a moment he seems to have found his footing—some surety about what he’s bound to do and why it’s good for him to do it—the very next moment the ground drops out from under him. What troubles him most, it seems, is a nagging sense that he’s not living truthfully, that somehow he’s been deceived and so is deceiving others. In one of the March letters, Merton had admitted to Reuther that his previous responses weren’t adequately honest, and that her criticisms, inaccurate as they may have been on some points, had nevertheless struck a nerve. He acknowledges the depth of his uncertainty:

Problem: unrecognized assumption of my own that I have to get out of here. Below that: recognition that life here is to some extent (not entirely) a lie and that I can no longer just say the community lies and I don’t. With that: sense of being totally unable to do anything about it that is not a feeble gesture. But the genuine realization that this is my vocation, but that I have not yet found the way of being really true to it. Rock bottom: I don’t know what is down there. I just don’t know.

The monastic life, he acknowledges bluntly, is “an idol.” Not that he despises his fellow monks. They are “idiots,” he knows, but they remain nonetheless God’s idiots—and just so are his brothers, his responsibility. He recognizes that it’s his vanity that aches to belong to “a really groovy worldly in-group,” and he knows better than to surrender to such temptation. The solidarity required of him begins with loving these very idiots, many of whom have given themselves over to what he can see as this idolatrous form of the monastic life. Such a life, which he cannot but experience as “exile, humiliation, desperation,” he knows is nonetheless the chosen way for him—and better than whatever alternatives he might find for himself.

Again, however, Merton’s resolution, such as it is, holds only for a little while. After a few months, the language of despair surfaces again:

I hang on in desperation to what I think I have been called to, trusting not in it but in the mercy of Christ, who knows better than I that it isn’t real, but that it is at least a choice. And there don’t seem to be more meaningful ones around, for me, all things considered.


What sustained Merton through all of this “exile, humiliation, desperation”? Not mere resignation—although he certainly sounds fatalistic at times. No, I think he had in his depths some small but lively hope that God was in fact using his unsettledness somehow for his (and others’) good. He trusted, even against hope, that through this disquiet God was working to deliver him from damning fantasies and pretentions, saving him from delusions about the effectiveness of his work and from “wish-dreams” about the community to which he was called. He wanted to live free of such idolatries. And I think he tried at least to offer that kind of hope as a cry for mercy.

Maybe there is a kairos coming, but I have no notion where or when. I am in the most uncomfortable and unenviable position of waiting without any justification, without a convincing explanation, and without any assurance except that it seems to be what God wants of me and that this kind of desperation is what it means for me to be without idols—I hope.


Frederick Buechner has said that we find our vocation just at the point that our “deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” For some people, perhaps, that turns out to be true. But at least for a few of us, vocation is not nearly so gladdening or fulfilling. For some of us, finding and living our calling feels at least at times like protracted martyrdom.

If that seems unnecessarily dire—or “unhealthy,” as we are wont to say—we should perhaps recall the Lord’s response to Paul’s desire to have his “thorn” removed (2 Cor 12.7). I suspect that some of us simply cannot remain true to the gospel in any serious sense if we do not at least at times find ourselves “thorned” into desperation, if we are not riled by a sanctified and sanctifying discomfort. Like Merton, we won’t be free to find the truth of our calling—or to learn how to be true to it—without also facing how untrue it all feels to us. Maybe we’re never going to move into our vocation until we learn what it means to wait without justification or assurance in the fires of idol-destroying desperation? Perhaps such endurance becomes possible only as we’re wasting away on the margins of what seems most important? Maybe it’s only in exile that we find our way?

The Beauty of Holiness

LambA guest post by Chris Green

Ps. 96.7-9
1 Thess. 4.3
Heb. 12.15

God means to make us holy. As one of our texts put it, “This is the will of God: your sanctification.” But what does this actually mean? What exactly is it that God wants for us? Simply this: to make us like Christ. St Paul says it directly; we are predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son. Sanctification, then, names the process by which the Father, working in, with, and through us by the Spirit, accomplishes this work of making us like the Son, our humanity through and through glorified by sharing together in the Triune life.

Making us like Christ requires a healing of all that sin has corrupted, disfigured, and destroyed in us. And it requires a reordering and reenergizing of our loves and habits of body, mind, and spirit so that we come to live lives worthy of the gospel. Such radical renovation of our lives depends upon our being baptized in and filled with the Spirit—made to partake of the divine nature, as St. Peter has it—so that we come, over time, to take on Christ’s divine-human likeness. Only in this way are we made apt for God, neighbor, and creation. Only in this way are we made truly ourselves.

If we aren’t careful, however, our talk about holiness will slide into nonsense—or something worse. In many people’s minds, the call to holiness is a call to a certain kind of moral rigor. To be holy is to be “good” in an extraordinary, perhaps even superhuman, way. For me, this kind of perversion is exemplified by Bro. Wright, a cranky old man from the church my family attended when I was kid. Bro. Wright—it’s impossible to overstate how pleased I am that this happened to be his name—believed that he was “fully sanctified,” and so not only couldn’t sin but also couldn’t even be tempted to sin. Every December 31st, during what we called the “watch night” service, he would testify that if he had the year to live again he would do nothing differently. I don’t need to tell you that he was unbelievably distant, mean-spirited, condescending. No lie: he sat to the side of the sanctuary, in a metal folding chair, and presided over the services. In the end, not long before he died, he became so weary of dealing with the rest of us that he quit coming to church altogether.

Of course, Bro. Wright—or, more accurately, my memory of him—is a caricature. Still, I suspect that many of us recognize in this sketch an image we know. Perhaps we recognize something of ourselves? Regardless, it’s safe to say that if we’re thinking of the saintly life as one that leads away from the ugliness and inconvenience of life together, then we have utterly misunderstood the gospel. Sanctification moves us always deeper in, more toward the center of community, in the world as well as in the church.

The Fourth Gospel teaches us that Jesus is the one who prays for us to be where he is, interceding for us to have a home in his nearness to the Father. To be like Jesus, then, is to be “with God,” to abide “in the Father’s embrace,” and precisely in that place to open our lives for others, especially those most removed from God—the godless, the ungodly, the godforsaken. Christ prepares for us a place in the Father, the room he himself is. “I go to prepare a place for you,” he promises, “that where I am, you may be also.” He is the Father’s house, and as we become like Christ, we too become roomy, opened more and more for others to find their place in God through us. To be where Christ is, is to embody the mind of Christ, as Philippians 2 describes it; that is, to refuse to fixate on or take refuge in our personal relation to God, but instead to go on emptying ourselves, in myriad ways, in the unpretentious care of our neighbors and enemies, becoming obedient, day after day, to the cross we’re bound to bear.

The horizontal beam of this cross is the otherness, the strangeness, of our sisters and brothers, outside and inside the church, and all the difficulties their strangeness causes for us and for them. As Bonhoeffer says, “Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not merely an object to be controlled.” The vertical beam is the otherness, the strangeness of the God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are beyond our thoughts. Enduring this manifold strangeness, we identify ourselves with Christ in his intervening, atoning agony and just so find ourselves taking on his character. Look again at Hebrews 12. The holiness to which we are called, the holiness without which we cannot see the Lord, is a holiness we are called to make possible for others. “See to it,” the text says, “that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” See to it that the weak are made strong, that the lame are healed. See to it that bitterness can take no root. See to it that Jacob and Esau live at peace.

Intercession, then, is the surest mark of holiness. Like Abraham, we intercede for Sodom—not only for God to spare their lives but also for God to forgive their sins. Like Moses and Aaron, we stand in the midst of the rebels—the very ones calling for our demise—and resist the divine judgment against them. Like Christ, even as we are dying, falling into the abyss of godforsakeness, we cry out for our oppressors’ forgiveness. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” A.W. Tozer famously said that the most important thing about us is what comes into our minds when we think about God. That’s not quite right. The most important thing about us is what comes into our hearts when we see the sins of our enemies. In the end, the sheep are known by how they see—and see to the needs of—the goats.

Finally, I want to return to the language of the “beauty” of holiness. In what ways is holiness beautiful? In just the same way that Jesus himself is beautiful. The beauty of holiness is the unrecognized, undesired beauty of the Suffering Servant who suffers for others’ salvation, his life utterly expended for theirs. As we become like him, we too will be despised, held in no account, as we, like and with him, bear others’ infirmities, carry their dis-ease, making their wounds our own, letting their iniquities fall upon our heads. Oppressed and afflicted, we will hold our tongues, and find ourselves again and again led like lambs to the slaughter. For his sake, we are sure to be killed all day long—and precisely in these moments to know ourselves to be “more than conquerors.” It is this beauty that will captivate the world, so that they’ll say of us, “they have been with Jesus.” By this the world will know that we are his disciples. What more could we want or ask for?

[Chris’ recent book, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom, was reviewed here]

Lovers, Watchmen, Chorus: a sermon on Song of Songs 3.1–5 and 5.2–8

Song-of-SongsA guest post by Chris Green 

Anytime I preach from Song of Songs I’m reminded of a “gift” my mother gave Julie and me not long after we announced our engagement: a 12-part sermon series from Song of Songs on love-making and the art of marriage. We were, as you’d expect, traumatized by such a graphically “literal” reading; but rest easy—what I’m offering today is a typological reading.

More seriously, I’m struck by the resonance of a theme—or chorus of themes—I’ve heard spoken in our chapel services this year (for example, in sermons by Jonathan Martin, Dr. Gause, Dr. Martin, Chris Brewer, Michael Pogue, and Dr. Cheryl Johns): the invitation into the holy, transfiguring Presence of Christ—holy because he alone transfigures; transfiguring because he alone can share with us his holiness. We have been invited again and again to tryst with him in the garden of agony, to know him in the fellowship of his sufferings, to be melded into him, as a branch is one with the Candlestick. I trust whatever I say today will be heard as a voice in that choir.


Reading Song of Songs is a bewildering, at times impossible, venture. On a close reading, the text turns out to be an impenetrable tangle of characters, exchanges, and metaphors/images—a “thick darkness.” At times, the text slides into apparent meaninglessness, or at least becomes unreadable. As Paul Griffiths says, “Almost everything … is puzzling and disconcerting. The Song’s reader must look for help, first elsewhere in the Song and then elsewhere in Scripture.”

Why would God give us such a text? Perhaps precisely because God means for us to acknowledge our helplessness, allowing ourselves to be forced into the desperation necessary to see all things new. Perhaps because it is only in our shared struggle to make gospel sense of the written Word of Scripture that we are ourselves being made apt for transfiguration into the image and likeness of the living Word, Jesus Christ. Seeing that, we know this “thick darkness” of meaning as in fact a form of the radiant darkness enthroned on the Ark—it’s not without reason that ancient Jewish and Christian readers described the Song as the Holy of Holies of Scripture—, a darkness that makes us aware of our blindness and just so begins to open our eyes, ever so gradually, to the rising light.


When they’re read side-by-side, a pattern emerges from these two scenes. The lover, abed at night, is consumed with longing for her beloved, whom she names “The-One-Whom-My-Heart-Loves.” She dives out into the night to find him. She encounters the watchmen, who prove of no use. Her desire is ultimately unmet, and in the end the chorus is invoked to act. Of course there are variations: for example, in the first scene, her longing is awakened by her own fantasies; in the second, they are stirred by the beloved’s attempts to break into her rooms; in the second scene, she does not find her beloved at all; in the first scene she does in fact find him—only to fall asleep before they can consummate their love. But there’s something about this pattern of frustration that demands our attention. Why the seeking? Why the not-finding? Why the finding-and-losing? Why the failings of desire? Because Jesus is not only the one whom we desire; he is also the one who must educate, master, our desires. We desire the wrong things. So he has to teach us to desire the right things. We desire the right things wrongly. So he has to teach us to desire the right things the right way. As our lives are more perfectly aligned with Christ’s, we find ourselves desiring more than our nature can in fact receive. So we must be transfigured into his likeness, sharing in his divine nature, so we can be made capable of truly enjoying the infinity of God’s love.

As these scenes illustrate, Christ both draws near to us, awakening our desire, and withdraws from us, hiding himself, frustrating that newly-awakened desire. But make no mistake: he does it all for our good. As Song 2.14 makes clear, he longs to see our face even more than we can desire to see his—but we do not yet have faces to face him; our eyes cannot yet behold his glory.

We belong to Jesus and he belongs to us. But we cannot “hold” him, cannot keep him in our “mother’s house,” in whatever reality we’ve know as “home.” If we would be strange with his saving strangeness, we cannot domesticate him, drawing him down to the size of our lives. Instead, we must be ever increasingly enlarged until we are conformed finally to the full measure of his stature, filled to overflowing with the fullness of his life. To that end, he says to us, as he said to Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me!” He does not want to be as we remember him, or as we wish or imagine him to be. He insists, for our good, on being all the Father knows him to be for us. Until the End, therefore, we must ever be pursuing him in the Spirit, always reaching out to apprehend that for which we have been apprehended; never grasping, always being held.


The watchmen—or “sentinels,” as one translation has it—play a major role in these scenes. In the first scene, they ignore the woman’s cry. In the second scene, they abuse her for her forwardness. Some readers have taken them as types of the prophets, whom God uses to chastise God’s people. But I see them as religious figures who regard themselves as gatekeepers entrusted with the preservation of a certain “order.” Concerned with keeping the status quo—and confusing it with the Kingdom—they, like Eli did with Hannah, fail to discern the difference between the disordered passions of those dominated by the “flesh” and the Spirit-inflamed longings of the God-intoxicated. Like the Pharisees, they fail at the most basic level to understand that this God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Mt. 9.10-13).

The text says that while the lover was seeking her beloved, the sentinels “found” her. Clearly, then, they are no longer searching for the beloved. They have reduced themselves to watching out for rule-breakers, for those they identify as bandits or outlaws. In truth, they have abandoned their “first love” (Rev. 2.4). Now, they love their “city” and its “order” far more than they love the one who dwells always outside the city gates (Heb. 13.12-14), the one who befriends sinners and dies with thieves.

“Watchmen,” of whatever kind, trade in perverse notions of holiness. As Jonathan Martin put it, they are more concerned with standing up for Jesus than with standing with him. We, however, should be those who recognize that Jerusalem shall be inhabited as a city without walls (Zech. 2.1ff)—and so has no need of sentinels, at least not of this kind.


We need to be like the daughters of Jerusalem. Unlike choruses in classical Greek drama, this chorus of “young women” is engaged with the characters and not only the audience/readers. Again and again, they ask questions of the lover and her beloved. In 5.9, they ask her the question: “What is your beloved more than another beloved?” And, hearing her ecstatic response, make the decisive offer (6.1): “Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?”

They can ask such a question and make such a promise because they see her differently than the watchmen see her. They see her as “fairest among women.” In fact, they see her exactly as her beloved sees her. In this, they show us the true nature of Christian being: to know one another rightly is to see one another as Christ sees us. As St. Paul says, we know no one “after the flesh” any more (2 Cor. 5.16). Let this, then, be our prayer: in our seeking may we find not only The-One-Whom-Our-Heart-Loves, but also one another. For, in finding one another, we begin to become the people who can know as we are known.

[Chris’ recent book, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom, was reviewed here]

A Review of Chris Green’s, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper

Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord's SupperChris E. W. Green, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom (Cleveland: CPT Press, 2012). ISBN: 9781935931300

Reading this study meant jumping some hurdles. First, while it may well say something embarrassing about me and my reading habits, it is not very often at all that I pick up a book of theology and get almost half way through it without recognising more than a handful of the names mentioned therein. Then again, I don’t read a lot of historical theology concerned to tell a particular chapter of Pentecostalism’s story. Consequently, there were times when reading this study by the young Pentecostal theologian Dr Chris Green (the Assistant Professor of Theology at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland) that it felt something like what I imagine it may have been like to visit a foreign country in pre-flying days where even if you recognised something of the language upon arrival there was simply no escaping that you were a long way from home.

And then there was the inkling that a book on Pentecostals and the Lord’s Supper represents something, to say the least, of an oxymoron. But Green has convinced me that while Pentecostals do still have ‘an “allergic response” to the sacramentalism’ (p. 35) of higher church traditions and their ‘sacramental baggage’ (as Amos Young calls it), it was not always so. Indeed, Green goes to considerable length, and depth, to build precisely such an argument, the presentation of which appears to serve his own apologetic purposes and assists him to avoid the cheap and undue polemics so often associated with wider discussions on the Supper.

The book proper begins with a helpful survey of the scholarly literature in which Green documents what Pentecostal scholars have said and are saying about the sacraments in general and the Lord’s Supper in particular. He begins by noting that while it is widely believed – both within and outwith Pentecostalism – that Pentecostals have attended little to sacramental thinking and practice, and that while Pentecostals have often spoken about the sacraments in predominantly negative terms, ‘this is far from the whole of the story’ (p. 5). Surveying the work of a long list of some 40 Pentecostal theologians – from Myer Pearlman, Ernest Swing Williams and C.E. Brown writing in the 1930s and 50s, to figures such as Simon Chan, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Jamie Smith and Daniel Tomberlin working more recently and whose work represents something of a ‘“turn” to the sacraments among Pentecostals’ (p. 71)  – Green ably catalogues the development and state of Pentecostal theological reflection with regard to the sacraments generally and the Eucharist in particular. He draws attention both to the diverse paths that Pentecostal sacramental theology has taken – it is not an overly unified story – as well as to ‘some common ground’, namely an eschewing of any ‘magical’ views of the sacraments, and a shared allergy of ‘the dangers of liturgical formalism and clericalism’ (p. 72).

Green then turns our attention, in Chapter 3, to a careful and comprehensive reading of the early Pentecostal periodical writings from 1906–1931, attending to the breadth within the movements (e.g., the Wesleyan-Holiness and Finished Work ‘streams’) under the Pentecostal umbrella, and identifying the contours, convictions and habits that characterised early Pentecostal sacramental theology and practice. He concludes by noting that

It is impossible to appreciate early Pentecostal spirituality generally, or their sacramentality specifically, unless one discerns that they arose from a form of imitatio Christi. It was a following of Jesus ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ that fired their experience of the sacraments. They observed the ordinances of water baptism, Holy Communion, and footwashing as occasions for encountering and imitating the risen Jesus and mediation of the grace of divine transformative presence. These rites were never merely ceremonial or memorialistic, although their rich symbolism was not lost on the practitioners. The evidence indicates first generation Wesleyan-Holiness and Finished Work Pentecostals experienced these rites as ‘sacred occasions’, unique opportunities for the Spirit to work in the community. (p. 178)

Green also notes that early Pentecostals ‘did not find themselves compelled to explain the metaphysics of Christ’s presence in the Supper, even though plainly many of them did believe that Christ himself was present to the church through, or at least with, the observance of the Meal. For them, the Lord’s Supper was never merely a memorial feast. Numerous accounts of dreams or visions about the Supper illuminate in an inimitable way how formative the Eucharist was for early Pentecostal spirituality’ (p. 179).

With the literature and historical surveys complete, Green turns then to outline his own constructive proposal beginning, in Chapter 4, with a careful reading and commentary on a number of the key Bible texts, before turning, in Chapter 5, to assemble his own theological vision for a Pentecostal theology of the Supper. Green’s stated intention is to draw ‘heavily on the texts’ “effective history”, allowing what the texts have meant to other Christian readers, pre-modern and contemporary, to influence the shape of [his] own reading’ (p. 3). Matters of hermeneutics and the relationship between Spirit and Word are handled with a watchful and responsible eye, and readings of some key texts (especially Acts 2.41–47, 1 Corinthians 10.14–22 and John 6.25–59, etc.) unearth some creative and theologically mature results. On 1 Corinthians 10, for example, Green consistently and convincingly argues that the Supper ‘shows itself to be one of the ways in which Christ’s body is “there” for the church’ (p. 202), that it is a meal which makes the Community, and which forces on the Community the responsibilities of love such as creativity, humility and longsuffering patience. He suggests too that ‘it is helpful to see the church’s receiving of the Lord’s Supper as a romantic gesture, as a gift between lovers, a tryst with Christ who is jealous for his bride, and a way in which Christ, God fleshed, is bodily present to and for his church’ (p. 207). From the Johannine material, he concludes that because the Gospel teaches us that what happens to us in our sacramental encounter with Christ is beyond human understanding, that it remains too beyond our capacity to answer how it is possible, it also reminds us that the willingness to remain in eucharistic communion with Christ even in the face of confusion marks the decisive difference between those who believe in him and those who do not. Indeed, Green suggests that the mysteriousness of the meal makes possible the articulation of the abiding faith of believers. Furthermore, he proposes that Paul, Luke, and John – in addition to the communities for and to whom they spoke – understood the church’s celebration of the Supper as in some sense a continuation of Jesus’ own ministry, a re-enacting of Jesus’ life of sweeping, boundary-violating hospitality and his atoning death for the life of the world, while all the while pre-enacting the future messianic feast as well. Certainly, Green is, to my mind, correct to consider the Eucharist as both a ‘missionary meal that precisely in its strangeness draws all people to Christ’, and a meal which ‘precisely in its mysteriousness reveals God truly’ (p. 242). He does not neglect ways that the Supper also represents a sounding of divine judgement, even while resituating and re-narrating not only the Church but all creation too into the ‘one story of creation and redemption and consummation, the story of Israel and the church and the world for which they are called as God’s ambassadors and collaborators’. Insofar as the Supper is the promised location in which God in God’s gracious freedom is present in the power of divine love, the Supper is for us ‘the “present tense of Calvary”, and in some sense is also the present tense of all the feasts of God’s people, past and future, including of course the eternal messianic banquet’ (p. 241).

Chapter 5 represents the book’s theologically most constructive chapter, and is concerned with discerning and proposing a theologically mature Pentecostal theology of the Supper. Here is Green in full flight, attending in some detail to those issues that he adjudges to be especially important to Pentecostals. These Green identifies early in the book as ‘questions of how God works in and through the church’s celebration of the Communion rite and how Christ and the Spirit are personally present and active in the eating and drinking of the Eucharistic bread and the wine’ (pp. 3–4). Here he is also concerned with issues of praxis, and with forms of Eucharistic practice which are both recognisably catholic and distinctively Pentecostal. Against the perception – or reality – that many if not most distinctly Pentecostal theologies of the sacraments have tended to be carried out in exclusively baptistic terms, complete with an imbalance on the Supper’s memorialist dimensions and even being spoken of as ‘mere ordinances’, Green reminds his readers that this has not always been the case, and he proceeds in this chapter to bring ‘the fathers and mothers of the Pentecostal movement’, the exegetical work undertaken in the previous chapter, and dialogue partners from both within and outwith the Pentecostal tradition(s) to put forward a ‘constructive and revisionary proposal’ for a theology of the Supper, concerned to ‘remain true to the biblical witness and [to] the Pentecostal tradition’ (pp. 244–45). Along the way, Green attends to many of the familiar themes associated with theologies of the Supper – e.g., the Supper as Divine Lex, the Supper as thanksgiving, Supper as anamnesis, Supper as covenant renewal, Supper as a location for Spirit-led discernment, Supper and healing, Supper as divine-human dialogue, Supper and soteriology, Supper and sanctification or ‘moral formation’ (p. 312), Supper and theological method, Supper and mission, Supper and worship, Supper as a sign and foretaste of eschatological feast or what Green calls ‘an ontologically-transforming proleptic share in the metaphysics of the life everlasting’ (p. 271), etc. – and he does so in ways that betray a mind that is well read and conversant with the issues, with courage to identify practices and ideas that are problematic, and with a genuine concern for the church and her faithful witness to the Word of which she is a creature. The section on the metaphysics of the Supper, in particular, echoes rich Jensonesque tones, skilfully accompanied by John of Damascus and Sergius Bulgakov. It is Green’s contention that ‘Christ is really, personally, and bodily present in Communion because the Father wills it and the Spirit makes it so for the sanctification of the church on mission in the world. In the Eucharist-event’, he believes, ‘the Spirit “broods over” the cosmically-enthroned Christ, the celebrating congregation, and the elements on the Table, opening the celebrants to the presence of the risen Jesus who the Spirit makes in that moment bodily present for them with, in, and through the thereby-transfigured bread and wine’ (p. 282). Green also believes that short of the beatific vision, Christ’s ‘embodiment at the Father’s right hand includes the Eucharistic bread and wine, the preached Gospel, and the sanctorum communio’, and [that] these last serve as sacraments – effective signs in the present of the future eschatological state of things’ (p. 283). So, contra Herbert McCabe, Green contends that bread and wine are ‘both-at-once’ natural objects and eschatological objects. Put otherwise, bread and wine ‘remain natural objects that have been eschatologized’ (p. 285).

On the question of hermeneutics, Green argues that ‘the charismatic and Eucharistic community as it communes in the Spirit with the totus Christus is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. As a result, it is in the context of the community’s Spirit-baptized and Spirit-led Eucharistic worship that believers learn best what Scripture is and is for, and over time learns the habits necessary for reading faithfully, with an ever-deepening appreciation for Scripture’s “fuller sense”. All the many other faithful uses of Scripture, whether scholarly or devotional, pastoral or evangelistic, should be judged in this light’ (p. 296). And on the question of how the Supper relates to Christian worship, Green is concerned throughout, and appropriately so, to ‘guard against the flattening and hardening of the sacramental celebration into mere ritual’ (p. 319). He is equally concerned that ‘the Eucharist-event should be recognized as the hub of the worship service … as the hearth around which all the other liturgical furniture is arranged’ (p. 316). Fair enough, but just how the Supper is to be both ‘framed and undergirded by Pentecostal practices, such as the altar call, “tarrying”, prayers for healing, testimonies, and footwashing’ (p. 317) is not spelled out, readers being left to work out on their own how such practices ‘underscore the communal reality of Communion’ (p. 318).

The study concludes with a description of major contributions and an invitation to further research.

My enthusiasm for this book does not mean that there are not things therein that disappoint or distract. Here I will note just three: The first concerns the scattering throughout of Latin and Greek phrases. Where such are necessary – and this, I suggest, is on a much rarer occurrence than we find here – some translation should have been provided, particularly for the benefit of those readers unfamiliar with the terms. As it stands, it may just be for many readers a distraction from and hurdle within the main flow of the writing.

Second, there is, from time to time, a creeping Pelagianism at work in this essay. Perhaps just one example will suffice. At the conclusion of Green’s stimulating and fruitful exegesis on some of the key New Testament texts, he suggests that ‘these texts teach us that the sharing of a common loaf and cup is truly the Lord’s Supper for us only as we faithfully respond to the Word of God that comes to us alongside, through, and as the sacred meal’ (p. 242. Italics mine). Not only does such a claim seem to be somewhat at odds with what Green has stated elsewhere in the book (for example, on p. 285: ‘the reality of Christ’s and the Spirit’s shared presence in the Supper does not wait on our believing (in) it. Christ is there by the Spirit, whether we believe it or not’. Italics mine.), but short of interpreting such statements in a more explicitly trinitarian framework, and that particularly in ways that highlight the vicarious humanity of the Son and the revelatory work of the Spirit, such claims on their own threaten to undermine or deny the depths of the twofold movement that God makes possible when and as the baptised gather around broken loaves and generous helpings of pinot noir.

Third, while Green’s essay has been strengthened significantly via (mostly) judicious engagement with voices from across the ecumenical amphitheatre, it is disappointing and unfortunate that there is relatively little engagement therein with the best of the Reformed tradition (to be sure, he draws briefly upon the work of Michael Welker, Jürgen Moltmann and J. Rodman Williams), and that for a number of reasons. Not only is the Reformed a project with considerable sympathy at countless points with that brand of Pentecostalism Green is keen to encourage, but also because such a conversation may well have served to bring some needed clarity around the issue I raised above regarding whatever creeping Pelagianism may exist. I wonder too whether if Green had drawn more on the Reformed (and especially upon John Calvin and, perhaps, George Hunsinger) and less on the Anglicans, the Orthodox and Robert Jenson (upon whom he relies heavily in the final chapter), the thesis would have been considerably better served and the book’s reception among Pentecostals better attend to Green’s own apologetic intention.

These three caveats aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Pentecostals – and not only Pentecostals – will be much blessed, challenged and inspired in the reading of this fine study, a study that is indeed intended ‘first and foremost as a conversation starter for the Pentecostal communities’ (p. xi). To be sure, some readers both from within and outwith that ecclesial tribe may lament that the volume lacks hard critique of current Pentecostal practice, and that Green’s presentation is so revisionist that one can only really read here a ‘Pentecostal’ theology of the Supper by underscoring the word ‘Toward’ in the title, but that would be most unfair, for Dr Green has served up a great dinner here, and I suspect that his readers will no doubt find themselves as I do – in his debt. Now let the conversation begin!

An End to All Endings? Reflections on Rowan Williams’ Critical Theology

A guest post by Chris Green

In his Pro Ecclesia review of Williams’ On Christian Theology, Robert Jenson observes—and calls into question—what he believes is Williams’ ‘obsessive fear of closure’. As Jenson sees it, the Archbishop is attempting at every turn to ‘enforce theology’s function as critique, and especially as self-critique’, as if ‘keeping the questions alive’ in a state of ‘indefinitely sustained puzzlement’ were the raison d’être for Christian dogmatics. Jenson suspects that such a use of theology, for all the good it might do, is finally inadequate because it is for all intents and purposes useless for the life of faith. Or, to put the same point another way, Jenson worries that Williams’ methodology is useful only for theological de(con)struction and not for ‘building up’.

I don’t quite agree with Jenson. For one thing, even assuming that Williams is obsessively afraid of ‘closure’, such interminable self-criticism is useful to the life of faith at least in this way: it helps guard against presumptive and trite God-talk—and that is no small gift. For another, Williams can and sometimes does talk in adoring, even confident ways. Nevertheless, I don’t entirely disagree with Jenson. Or, to put it another way, I think Williams at least sometimes puts himself at risk of exaggerating the obscurity of revelation and the difficulty of thinking and living Christianly. Whether he intends it or not—and I’m fairly certain he does not—the Archbishop can be taken to mean that Christian theology is a finally useless enterprise.

For example, he suggests in OCT that ‘puzzlement over “what the Church is meant to be” is the revelatory operation of God as “Spirit” insofar as it keeps the Church engaged in the exploration of what its foundational events signify’ (p. 144). Read in one way, this claim means only that the Spirit’s work is to chasten theological hubris. Read in another way, however, it effectively circumscribes the Spirit’s work, as if the Spirit’s role were merely disruptive. Such a theological mode has the effect of keeping Christian thought endlessly ‘up in the air’ and so incapable of arriving at any dogmatic stability, which, as Jenson quips, leads us to say not ‘I believe!’ but ‘I wonder…’ It’s telling, I believe, that Williams speaks of the creeds as only the ‘least inadequate’ way of talking of God.

Of course, Williams wants to make it ‘harder to talk about God’ (OCT, p. 84) precisely to protect the church and the world from destructive misunderstandings of God and misappropriations of theological justifications. Much like St John of the Cross, he refuses ‘infantile dependence on forms and words and images’ (WK, p. 189) precisely because he knows the danger of ‘premature harmonies’ (OCT, p. 50). He wants to ‘save the theologian from a captivity to trivial optimism … and lying cliché’. So far, so good. But at some point does it become too difficult to talk about God? How do we not all fall finally, everlastingly silent?

For the Archbishop, God is ‘a stranger in the most radical way possible’ so that faith is ‘the receptivity of the self before the ungraspable mysteriousness’ (WK, p. 188) of God’s ‘alien sovereignty’ (WSP, p. 114). In describing the theology of Gregory of Nyssa, Williams remarks that ‘God is what we have not yet understood: the sign of a strange and unpredictable future’ (WK, p. 66). Perhaps this is a defensible summation of Nyssa’s speculations, but it might defensibly be read as a distortive amplification of God’s otherness and unknowability.

At times, the Archbishop’s theological reflections sound quasi-masochistic. For example, he returns again and again in his work to the idea that the ‘inner readiness to come to judgment’ (OCT, p. 32) is the mark of the true disciple. In WK, he claims that ‘the greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked and left speechless by that which lies at the center of their faith’ (p. 11). If he means that this ‘readiness to come to judgment’ is one of the marks of genuine faithfulness, then I agree wholeheartedly. I would argue, however, that it belongs to a complex of other readinesses that together constitute the form of faithfulness. In other words, openness to judgment is genuinely Christian only insofar as it is wedded to the humble audacity—to take up the S. Bulgakov’s idiom—also to receive blessings and to offer judgments in Christ’s name.

So, in conclusion, it seems clear that Jenson’s criticisms hit near the mark. At least in some of his work, Williams seems to exaggerate the gospel’s incomprehensibility and disruptiveness. Perhaps his theologizing suffers from an overdetermined theologia crucis? But thankfully Williams does not do all of his theology with a hammer. He knows that ‘the concern is not to inscribe disruption at the heart of the Christian story’ (WSP, p. 44), and that Christ is ‘the root of our security and our insecurity alike, promise and judgment, end and beginning’ (WK, p. 77). As he himself says, the Christian life simply does not make sense ‘without some confidence in the possibility of the reality of our own transformation in Christ’ (OCT, p. 28). Even if Williams sometimes talks as if he’s forgotten it, not all confidence is trivial. Oddly, perhaps no one has said this better than Williams himself:

If the Christian way were simply an experimental spirituality loosely inspired by a dead foreigner, we should no doubt be spared a lot of trouble; we should also be spared the transformation of the human world by God’s mercy in Christ. As it is, theology remains hard, for theologians and for their public, but the fact itself indicates the occasion or unstinted gratitude, celebration and—as we have seen—wonder at the sovereign work of grace. ‘The wrath of man shall turn to thy praise’; so, too, should the complexities and the turmoil of theology (On Doing Theology).

A final, anticlimactic word: so much depends on how Williams is read. In OCT (pp. xii-xv), he speaks of three styles of theology. Accordingly, readers of Williams must be careful to always hear even his ‘critical’ theology as both ‘celebratory’ and ‘communicative’. Otherwise, we play back in monophonic mode what is necessarily heard stereophonically.