Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

A little something for the Catholic cats and pigeons to have fun with:

Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine.

Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit. “God, who in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers” (Heb 1:1), “uninterruptedly converses with the bride of his beloved Son” (Dei Verbum, 8). We are called to make this voice our own by “reverently hearing the word of God” (ibid., 1), so that our life as a Church may progress with the same enthusiasm as in the beginning, towards those new horizons to which the Lord wishes to guide us.

– Pope Francis: The dynamic word of God cannot be moth-balled

Rowan Williams on theological education

Call me theologically naïve, or ignorant, or not well enough read, but I simply do not understand some of the criticisms directed at Rowan Williams. Archbishop Williams is a person of deep faith and prayer, of contagious love for Christ, for the Scriptures and tradition which bear witness to him, and for Christ’s church, and who for decade after decade has been among the church’s finest public theologians (and poets!), producing first-rate scholarship with exemplary integrity and gospel-spirited passion, and helping a new generation of Christians to find the words and posture to understand and bear witness to the deepest realties of their faith in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Moreover, his literary and spoken output alone – books, radio interviews, lectures (his 2011 Holy Week Lectures on Lewis’ Narnia are outstanding), reviews, articles, etc. – not to mention his gracious and steady leadership of the Anglican communion, leads me often to wonder if there are not two equally-brilliant and identical twins that Mr & Mrs Williams named ‘Rowan’ sometime last century.

Put differently, I keep an eye open to read and digest everything he writes. And why not, when it is so edifying and educative, and models a way of doing theology so worthy of emulation, if not entirely uncritically so. But there’s one lecture that I’ve missed, until now – his CEFACS lecture, given some years ago at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies in Birmingham. So thanks Jim for pointing me to it, not least because the lecture attends to a subject in which I have some serious investment, namely theological education.

In that lecture, Williams invites us to think about theological education by way of the analogy of a musical education: ‘Just as, in relation to musical education, I might be reasonably sure of being able to identify what a musically educated person is like. I would know what sort of skills to look for and listen for in that case. Now I want to suggest that a theologically educated person is somebody who has acquired the skill of reading the world, reading and interpreting the world, in the context and framework of Christian belief and Christian worship … That means that a theologically educated person is not someone who simply knows a great deal about the Bible or history of doctrine but somebody who is able to engage in some quite risky and innovative interpretation, and who is able, if I can put it this way, to recognise holy lives. Because I think that the skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship’.

Then, drawing upon the work of Thomas Aquinas and the example of God’s revelation to Moses, Williams proceeds to argue that ‘theology is inevitably, consistently to do with human lives, not in any sense that excludes theology having to do with God – far from it: but in recognition of the fact that because God is not an object lying around for examination, God’s impact upon and the difference God makes to human lives is where we are bound to begin. The word of God, the self communication of God is always bound up with the actual and concrete transformation of human situations – corporate and individual … From the vantage point of Christian theology that should not surprise us at all. Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation’.

And later on: ‘Theology begins when something in the human world and human lives has struck at such depth that we need language more than just the conventional language of human agency and historical forces. Theology arises then when the world looks new. One of the saddest things that can be said about theology is that it has become stale; that it no longer speaks of transformation. Because the impulse to do theology arises when the world looks different from what you thought it was. The New Testament is riveting, exasperating, exhausting, inexhaustible because it is the work in progress of the people whose world is in “in the business” of being reformed, reshaped’.

And here is the point – the challenge, if you like – for those engaged in theological education: ‘Theological education is bound … to be regularly a matter of looking at the patterns of human lives. Theology has a great deal to do with biography and with history – the Bible containing many examples of both. It is out of those narratives, out of those stories and transactions that the ideas emerge and I would venture to say that a bad theological education is one which never gets you from the ideas to the narratives; and a good theological education is one that pushes you inexorably from the narratives to the ideas’. One thinks here of James Wm. McClendon Jr’s fine book, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can remake Today’s Theology, or of the work of Ray Anderson whose entire project is an outworking of the conviction that ministry precedes theology.

And that is why, Williams reminds us, contra Nietzsche, ‘theology is inevitably a component in the business of Christian discernment’, and good theology is concerned not to ‘set out to give you a map of another world but a set of instructions for this one’. And that is why, Williams notes, ‘theology is an uncomfortable partner in the academic enterprise … An uncomfortable partner in the enterprise because universities on the whole do not set themselves the task of educating people in the discernment of holiness. Why should they? And yet there is something in the level of critical questioning which theology ought to bring to the intellectual enterprise overall that is essential to intellectual health’.

These introductory points made, Williams then turns to some of the particularities of theological education in light of the definitions he has introduced. And here he wishes to speak about bible study, doctrine and church history.

Regarding the first of these, bible study, Williams is adamant that theological education ‘is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible’. Why? Because ‘the Bible is the primary record of the primary difference God makes. It begins, of course, by recording the greatest difference of all – the difference between things being there and things not being there and associates that with God. And in Christian scripture that primordial difference between being and non-being is latched on with an enormously ambitious theological pun at the beginning of St John’s Gospel latched on to the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who makes the difference between being and non-being within the world’s history. But the narrative of Hebrew scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, evolves in a series of upheavals. The uprooting of Abraham from his native land, the release from slavery of the people of Israel, the betrayal and exile that follows the abandonment by God’s people of God’s justice, the restoration of the people around more liturgy. And within its contours we are not allowed at any point, I think, to come too quickly to a generalised version of what all this is about and who this God is. We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative’.

Williams then encourages us to adopt a particular posture when we turn to Christian scripture:

‘Be patient, don’t assume the end of the story is come. God is a God who upturns the conventions and the ideas and the images we have and he does it centrally, focally, forever, in the life and death of Jesus. We watch them again as Christian scripture evolves, we watch people in that new landscape trying to find the words for it. To say that is not in the least to say that the Bible does not tell us the truth. The way the bible tells us the truth is by showing us how God’s reality, in its freedom and majesty, impresses itself upon human life. We read the impress, we read the impact, we begin to understand who it is that we are dealing with and that is as true of the New Testament as of the Old. Frequently as I read Paul’s epistles I read the impatient, inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God’s spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul’s God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying “I don’t know where this is going but …” as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9–11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, “O the depth and mystery of God”. And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don’t know where to go but God does. Now that means, I think, that a person who is educated in reading the Bible is a person who, you can say theologically, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has been brought into that relationship with the God of the Bible which allows them to recognise in the language of the Bible their own faith and their own narrative. And that is something rather different from quarrying the Bible for little bits that happily remind you of how you feel. That is not biblical theology. It may be a useful form of apologetical psychology but it is not particularly theological. But to find in that language, that narrative, that register of exploration, something of the faith that transforms your own life; that I think is to see what biblical understanding is … The Christian comes into the biblical world – a strange world, a world in which images and ideas and words are not always what you expect. But the education of the Christian in the biblical world is an education in the skills of analogy and connection … That means that being a biblically educated person is a great deal more than knowing the texts’.

Williams turns next to the matter of Christian doctrine, rejecting the kind of doctrine-as-finished-product approach so often associated with theological education, and proposing instead a notion of doctrine as ‘the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy’. ‘We can’t tell all the truth’, he says, ‘we can tell the truth consistently, we hope intelligently and then once again … come to the point when we say that is as far as we can go but we have done the work’. A ‘doctrinally educated person therefore is … somebody who can see what sort of human anxieties, aspirations, tensions, prayer, love, sin and grace led people to think it mattered to talk about Jesus in this way, to talk about God in this way, to talk about the Sacraments of the Church in this way. It was not a word game. It wasn’t a way of passing the long winter evenings’. Williams cites Barth and Bonhoeffer as examples of what it looks like to do theology in this way, i.e., in a way that takes the contemporary location seriously, in a way that seeks to profess Christ in a new and different space.

Williams then comes to the matter of education in church history, a subject with he has written very helpfully on before (see, for example, his wonderful book Why Study The Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church), and a subject which, he observes, ‘has tended sometimes to be a little bit of a Cinderella subject in theological education’. He continues:

‘When it has been done people don’t always quite see why it is done, whether there is a theological reason for doing it. It becomes another bundle of anecdotes. Facts about the past which may or may not be interesting, probably not very. Stories about people far away, speaking foreign languages with strange names with very bizarre ideas. Now I don’t think that will do as an approach to Church History because one of the things that comes out of being a biblically educated and doctrinally educated person is some sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. That is to be part of a community which has no spatial or temporal boundaries but in which every participant has something to give and something to receive … Those odd people in the text books are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ, and frequently you would much prefer that they weren’t. Almost as much as you would prefer that some of your contemporaries weren’t! But these are people in whom Christ is given to you’.

He argues that the difficulty with teaching church history is that the subject frequently falls apart into two equally unhelpful poles: ‘There is the kind of Church History which looks at the past as answering the questions. That is the story, that is how we got here and it all ends happily because it ended with us. And there is the kind of Church History which says we have to be deeply conscious of the absolute cultural gulf that separates us from everybody before 1550 or 1700 or 1981 or whatever. Both of those are unhelpful simply as historical method but they are totally insupportable as theological method’. And so part of the challenge, he goes on to say, ‘is being able to cope both with the continuity and with the gulf. These are people deciding to be disciples of the same Lord that I try to follow. These are people speaking of that discipleship in categories that are so strange that it will take me a lot of patience to learn what they say and listen to it effectively. Yet both those elements are true and essential in the process’. Not only is the position that nothing important happened between the NT and now (or between the first and the fifteenth centuries) ‘intellectually shabby and indefensible’ but such a view is also ‘spiritually impoverished’, for whether we like it or not, God has graced us with ‘a very, very large number of companions on the journey. Each one of whom will have something distinctive to say however well I hear it, however easily I digest it’. And here Williams returns to the question of reading the Bible, noting that ‘an educated reader of the Bible is also somebody who knows how to read the Bible in company – in company with other Christians now, in company with Christians through the ages’, in the company of the Christian community ‘and to find education and discipleship in that process’.

Finally, Williams makes the point that as alarming, pre-modern and unattractive as it sounds, one indispensable, if not largely forgotten, theological virtue is obedience. Naming Barth as ‘the greatest theologian of obedience in the 20th century’, Williams defines obedience in theology as ‘that absolutely faithful attention to the otherness of what you are dealing with, that springs you from the trap of your own preoccupations and preferences. Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedience to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth’.

‘What obedience means for us’, he continues, ‘is a far tougher, far more complex matter to work out. And yet’, he says, ‘a theology that does not somehow tackle that issue of obedience somewhere along the line as part of the education we are talking about, will fail to be theology. And that is an obedience, of course, which challenges great deal of what we often mean by the term’. Williams then provides some examples of what he is talking about, examples which underscore his claim that obedience is far from what we often associate with terms like passivity or docility: ‘Whatever obedience means there, it does not mean docility. Obedience can mean again Paul throwing down his pen with exasperation and say “I don’t know what more to say; it is too big for me to speak of” – that’s obedience. It’s St Thomas Aquinas saying at the end of his life saying, ‘all I’ve written seems like so much straw compared with what has been shown to me’. It is Luther throwing his inkpot at the devil. It is Barth wonderfully, at the end of a deeply boring and conventional parish mission, designed to make everybody feel a great deal worse, decided as he tells us to preach a sermon on little angels with harps and sheets of music. Because he felt he had been listening for a week to a mission all about how ‘I’ ought to feel and not about how God was, therefore he wanted to turn the whole thing back to praise, and that’s obedience’.

Linking this back to the subject of theological education, Williams concludes by noting that obedience properly belongs in the very DNA of any theological education worthy of its subject, for such education is about ‘passionate intention to what is there, to the extent that I am changed by that attention, and set free by it from other pressures to conformity’. And he then offers some specific words to his own Anglican Communion, words which I venture to say are pertinent to the entire body of Christ: ‘We have a very long way to go in making our Anglican church a coherent, communal, obedient, renewed family of congregations. And yet we share the reality given in Christ by our baptism, the reality of Christ’s body. The theological education we need, I believe, in the Communion is something which will make that come alive for us, which will make us literate in reading scripture and doctrine and church history, which will deepen in us those skills of discernment that we need in respect of our own calling and the calling of others, which will set us free from being simply an ecclesiastical organisation preoccupied with policing itself in various ways which will perhaps make us a more effective servant of the world into which God calls us. The world in which God invites us to recognise him, respond to him, praise, be glad in him, a world which is on the way to becoming that new creation which is really the context, the locus of any theology worth the name’.

On the Creeds – and Doctrines – of the Church

This is the boldest statement that I have ever read on the Creeds of the Church:

‘We may have ground for believing the Creeds of the Church to be the most perfectly balanced and harmonious expression of the truth whereof our earthly knowledge is, or will be, capable. Yet when we struggle, as in the language of the Athanasian Creed, to express the relations which have been exhibited to us in the eternal Godhead through the use of the words ‘Person’ and ‘Substance,’ or ‘upostasis and ousia; or when we thus profess our belief in the Person of the Holy Ghost, ‘The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding,’ need we fear to own that the instruments which, perforce, we make use of upon earth, even in the Creeds of the Church, are necessarily imperfect instruments; the power of conception imperfect; the power of phrase and imagery imperfect also; and that their sufficiency of truth (though not their correctness meanwhile) is so far temporary that it is limited to earth and to time; and that, in the perfect light and knowledge of the presence of God, the perfectest knowledge represented by them will be superseded and absorbed, while the glosses and materialisms with which, in various ways, we may have been unconsciously clothing them to our own imaginations, will be – not superseded only but corrected, and, it may be, reproved? Moreover, if the truths represented in the Creeds are wider and deeper than our conceptions of them, we can admit that there may possibly be particulars in which, even now, the experience of spiritual life may deepen and enlarge the meaning, to us, of our Creeds; as, for instance, the words heaven and hell may present to us ideas differing, in the direction of more correctness, from those which they presented to some of our forefathers. It is not that the Creeds will be some day corrected. It is not that we shall see hereafter how false they were, but how far the best conceptions which they opened to us, the best, that is, that our earthly faculties were capable of, lagged in their clumsiness behind the perfect apprehension of the truths which they had, nevertheless, not untruly represented; but which we then shall have power to see and know as they are. The truth which is dimly imaged for us in the Creeds, will never belie, but will infinitely transcend, what their words represented on earth’. – Arthur Lyttelton. ‘The Atonement’, in Lux Mundi: A Series of Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation. (Edited by Charles Gore. London: J. Murray, 1890), 256-7.

Now contrast this with a comment recently made by NT Wright at a seminar at the University of St Andrews:

‘The idea that doctrines are portable stories is of course already present in the classic statements of Christian doctrines, that is, the great early Creeds. They are not simply check-lists which could in principle be presented in any order at all. They consciously tell the story – precisely the scriptural story! – from creation to new creation, focussing particularly of course on Jesus and summing up what scripture says about him in a powerful brief narrative (a process we can already see happening within the New Testament itself; not only in the obvious places but also when Luke, for instance, decides to telescope Paul’s defence together as in Acts 26.22f: ‘saying nothing but what Moses and the prophets said would take place, that the Messiah must suffer and that, by being the first to rise again, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.’)’ … You can, in fact, join up all the dots not only in the classic early creeds and most of the later ones (for instance, the post-Reformation Confessions and Articles) and still be many a mile away from affirming what the biblical writers, all through, were wanting people to affirm. You can join all the dots and still produce, shall we say, a thistle instead of a rose, an elephant instead of a donkey. Or whatever. To take a rather different but related example, if I come upon the letters BC written down somewhere, only the larger context, the larger implicit narrative, can tell me whether they mean Bishop’s Council (if it’s a note in my diary), British Columbia (if it’s a note of my cousins’ address), Before Christ (if it’s in a notebook about ancient history), or the two musical notes which bear those names (if it’s about the end of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony). Implicit narrative is all; and if you affirm a doctrine but put it in the wrong implicit narrative, you potentially falsify it as fully and thoroughly as if you simply denied it altogether.’