Monday, June 30, 2008

GAFCON: Conference Over, Movement Begun

The Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem has concluded and a Final Statement was issued on June 29 (the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul). The Conference is over but the Movement has begun.

Coming as it did so shortly before the Lambeth Conference in July, GAFCON (at which about two-thirds of the Anglican Communion was represented) caused a great deal of anxiety. In the time leading up to the Conference, the British press was almost relentlessly negative. GAFCON, it was predicted, would be a gathering of angry fundamentalists who would froth at the mouth about the progressive innovations of the Church of England. The key thing to note is that for the British press "fundamentalist" means "a person who takes orthodox Christianity seriously". Within this worldview, there are (thankfully) few fundamentalists in the English or American churches but (unfortunately) their numbers seem to be growing in the rest of the Anglican Communion.
The word most often heard from voices coming from within The Episcopal Church, the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada was schism. GAFCON would be a gathering of schismatics who would compromise the unity of the Anglican Communion. Thus, the three provinces which have done the most to undermine the unity of the Communion worried that GAFCON might undermine the unity of the Communion.
What did GAFCON achieve? While such events are more than statements, the GAFCON Final Statement clearly names what it as the center of the Anglican Communion's difficulties. We have discovered that truthful statements of this kind can not be taken for granted. The phrase from the Windsor Report which has been endlessly repeated is that the actions of the American and Canadian provinces have broken "the bonds of affection" which hold the Communion together. This phrase makes it seem that all that need now be done is for the two offending provinces to issue apologies and offer "we feel your pain" expressions and all will be well. What these two provinces have not grasped (or have not wanted to grasp) is the fact that unilateral action on matters affecting the whole Communion only undermines it. In short, The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada have transformed themselves from being provinces of a communion into being independent denominations (without, of course, admitting that they have in fact left the Communion).
The Final Statement says that what the American and Canadian provinces are promoting is a "false gospel," as gospel which has lost sight of the reality of human sin and the need for repentance. The new gospel of "inclusivity" (the inclusion of people into the Church without expectation of repentance and growth in holiness) is what one might expect from a church which has adapted to a secular culture but it is not the gospel as the Church has historically understood it. The division in the Communion is clearly more than a matter of the question of same gender unions; the division is over a lack of agreement about what the Gospel actually is.
The Final Statement also notes that the Instruments of Unity of the Anglican Communion have failed to exert any meaningful discipline. If the Communion, as currently constituted, can not maintain its integrity, if it can not insure that its own decisions are taken seriously, does this not mean that the Communion is already undone? And does this also not mean that all ecumenical discussions are finally worthless because in the final analysis every province (diocese? parish?) will finally make its own decisions? The Final Statement notes, with remorse, that the 2008 Lambeth Conference has been structured so that no resolution of the Communion's difficulties will be possible because they will be largely unaddressed.
GAFCON has launched a movement, a "Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans" the goal of which is to "reform, heal and revitalize the Anglican Communion and expand its mission to the world". This Fellowship is dedicated to the Anglican Communion's reform but it wisely refuses to make the preservation of the Communion the ultimate purpose. If the Communion is really merely a federation of churches and if it is unwilling or unable to correct a false gospel, why should it be preserved? Perhaps the most radical provision of the Statement is this: "While acknowledging the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury". This is not a rejection of the role of Canterbury but a qualified acceptance of it. Anglicans who find this difficult to accept need to ask themselves this question: How can we insist that communion with the Church's two greatest sees, Rome and Constantinople, is not necessary but communion with Canterbury is?
The Final Statement also calls for the creation of a Primates Council which will begin the work of coordinating the emerging network of Confessing Anglicans. Part of the work of this Council will be to establish a new Anglican province in North America, one that will include American and Canadian Anglicans now under the jurisdiction of other provinces and Anglicans who are not now part of the Anglican Communion.
Much will be made of GAFCON and it will be taken as a herald of many things. Perhaps the most important thing that it heralds is that the center of gravity of the Anglican Communion has decisively shifted from Europe and North America to Africa. For many this shift may be foundation of hope for the renewal and vitality of the Anglican Communion.
Michael Petty+


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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Final GAFCON Statement Released

The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) was in the holy city of Jerusalem from June 21 - 28. Anglican leaders from around the world sought God’s will in the decisions for the Anglican Communion. Read their just completed final statement (excerpted from TitusOneNine):


Praise the LORD!

It is good to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. (Psalm 147:1-2)

Brothers and Sisters in Christ: We, the participants in the Global Anglican Future Conference, send you greetings from Jerusalem!


The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which was held in Jerusalem from 22-29 June 2008, is a spiritual movement to preserve and promote the truth and power of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ as we Anglicans have received it. The movement is global: it has mobilised Anglicans from around the world. We are Anglican: 1148 lay and clergy participants, including 291 bishops representing millions of faithful Anglican Christians. We cherish our Anglican heritage and the Anglican Communion and have no intention of departing from it. And we believe that, in God’s providence, Anglicanism has a bright future in obedience to our Lord’s Great Commission to make disciples of all nations and to build up the church on the foundation of biblical truth (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 2:20).

GAFCON is not just a moment in time, but a movement in the Spirit, and we hereby:

- launch the GAFCON movement as a fellowship of confessing Anglicans
- publish the Jerusalem Declaration as the basis of the fellowship
- Encourage the GAFCON Primates to form a Council.

The Global Anglican Context

The future of the Anglican Communion is but a piece of the wider scenario of opportunities and challenges for the gospel in 21st century global culture. We rejoice in the way God has opened doors for gospel mission among many peoples, but we grieve for the spiritual decline in the most economically developed nations, where the forces of militant secularism and pluralism are eating away the fabric of society and churches are compromised and enfeebled in their witness. The vacuum left by them is readily filled by other faiths and deceptive cults. To meet these challenges will require Christians to work together to understand and oppose these forces and to liberate those under their sway. It will entail the planting of new churches among unreached peoples and also committed action to restore authentic Christianity to compromised churches.

The Anglican Communion, present in six continents, is well positioned to address this challenge, but currently it is divided and distracted. The Global Anglican Future Conference emerged in response to a crisis within the Anglican Communion, a crisis involving three undeniable facts concerning world Anglicanism.

The first fact is the acceptance and promotion within the provinces of the Anglican Communion of a different ‘gospel’ (cf. Galatians 1:6-8) which is contrary to the apostolic gospel. This false gospel undermines the authority of God’s Word written and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the author of salvation from sin, death and judgement. Many of its proponents claim that all religions offer equal access to God and that Jesus is only a way, not the way, the truth and the life. It promotes a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behaviour as a universal human right. It claims God’s blessing for same-sex unions over against the biblical teaching on holy matrimony. In 2003 this false gospel led to the consecration of a bishop living in a homosexual relationship.

The second fact is the declaration by provincial bodies in the Global South that they are out of communion with bishops and churches that promote this false gospel. These declarations have resulted in a realignment whereby faithful Anglican Christians have left existing territorial parishes, dioceses and provinces in certain Western churches and become members of other dioceses and provinces, all within the Anglican Communion. These actions have also led to the appointment of new Anglican bishops set over geographic areas already occupied by other Anglican bishops. A major realignment has occurred and will continue to unfold.

The third fact is the manifest failure of the Communion Instruments to exercise discipline in the face of overt heterodoxy. The Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada, in proclaiming this false gospel, have consistently defied the 1998 Lambeth statement of biblical moral principle (Resolution 1.10). Despite numerous meetings and reports to and from the ‘Instruments of Unity,’ no effective action has been taken, and the bishops of these unrepentant churches are welcomed to Lambeth 2008. To make matters worse, there has been a failure to honour promises of discipline, the authority of the Primates’ Meeting has been undermined and the Lambeth Conference has been structured so as to avoid any hard decisions. We can only come to the devastating conclusion that ‘we are a global Communion with a colonial structure’. Sadly, this crisis has torn the fabric of the Communion in such a way that it cannot simply be patched back together. At the same time, it has brought together many Anglicans across the globe into personal and pastoral relationships in a fellowship which is faithful to biblical teaching, more representative of the demographic distribution of global Anglicanism today and stronger as an instrument of effective mission, ministry and social involvement.

A Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans

We, the participants in the Global Anglican Future Conference, are a fellowship of confessing Anglicans for the benefit of the Church and the furtherance of its mission. We are a fellowship of people united in the communion (koinonia) of the one Spirit and committed to work and pray together in the common mission of Christ. It is a confessing fellowship in that its members confess the faith of Christ crucified, stand firm for the gospel in the global and Anglican context, and affirm a contemporary rule, the Jerusalem Declaration, to guide the movement for the future. We are a fellowship of Anglicans, including provinces, dioceses, churches, missionary jurisdictions, para-church organisations and individual Anglican Christians whose goal is to reform, heal and revitalise the Anglican Communion and expand its mission to the world.

Our fellowship is not breaking away from the Anglican Communion. We, together with many other faithful Anglicans throughout the world, believe the doctrinal foundation of Anglicanism, which defines our core identity as Anglicans, is expressed in these words: The doctrine of the Church is grounded in the Holy Scriptures and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular, such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. We intend to remain faithful to this standard, and we call on others in the Communion to reaffirm and return to it. While acknowledging the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Building on the above doctrinal foundation of Anglican identity, we hereby publish the Jerusalem Declaration as the basis of our fellowship.

The Jerusalem Declaration

In the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit:

We, the participants in the Global Anglican Future Conference, have met in the land of Jesus’ birth. We express our loyalty as disciples to the King of kings, the Lord Jesus. We joyfully embrace his command to proclaim the reality of his kingdom which he first announced in this land. The gospel of the kingdom is the good news of salvation, liberation and transformation for all. In light of the above, we agree to chart a way forward together that promotes and protects the biblical gospel and mission to the world, solemnly declaring the following tenets of orthodoxy which underpin our Anglican identity.

  1. We rejoice in the gospel of God through which we have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because God first loved us, we love him and as believers bring forth fruits of love, ongoing repentance, lively hope and thanksgiving to God in all things.

  2. We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.

  3. We uphold the four Ecumenical Councils and the three historic Creeds as expressing the rule of faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

  4. We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.

  5. We gladly proclaim and submit to the unique and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, humanity’s only Saviour from sin, judgement and hell, who lived the life we could not live and died the death that we deserve. By his atoning death and glorious resurrection, he secured the redemption of all who come to him in repentance and faith.

  6. We rejoice in our Anglican sacramental and liturgical heritage as an expression of the gospel, and we uphold the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as a true and authoritative standard of worship and prayer, to be translated and locally adapted for each culture.

  7. We recognise that God has called and gifted bishops, priests and deacons in historic succession to equip all the people of God for their ministry in the world. We uphold the classic Anglican Ordinal as an authoritative standard of clerical orders.

  8. We acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family. We repent of our failures to maintain this standard and call for a renewed commitment to lifelong fidelity in marriage and abstinence for those who are not married.

  9. We gladly accept the Great Commission of the risen Lord to make disciples of all nations, to seek those who do not know Christ and to baptise, teach and bring new believers to maturity.

  10. We are mindful of our responsibility to be good stewards of God’s creation, to uphold and advocate justice in society, and to seek relief and empowerment of the poor and needy.

  11. We are committed to the unity of all those who know and love Christ and to building authentic ecumenical relationships. We recognise the orders and jurisdiction of those Anglicans who uphold orthodox faith and practice, and we encourage them to join us in this declaration.

  12. We celebrate the God-given diversity among us which enriches our global fellowship, and we acknowledge freedom in secondary matters. We pledge to work together to seek the mind of Christ on issues that divide us.

  13. We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.

  14. We rejoice at the prospect of Jesus’ coming again in glory, and while we await this final event of history, we praise him for the way he builds up his church through his Spirit by miraculously changing lives.

The Road Ahead

We believe the Holy Spirit has led us during this week in Jerusalem to begin a new work. There are many important decisions for the development of this fellowship which will take more time, prayer and deliberation. Among other matters, we shall seek to expand participation in this fellowship beyond those who have come to Jerusalem, including cooperation with the Global South and the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa. We can, however, discern certain milestones on the road ahead.

Primates’ Council

We, the participants in the Global Anglican Future Conference, do hereby acknowledge the participating Primates of GAFCON who have called us together, and encourage them to form the initial Council of the GAFCON movement. We look forward to the enlargement of the Council and entreat the Primates to organise and expand the fellowship of confessing Anglicans.

We urge the Primates’ Council to authenticate and recognise confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy and congregations and to encourage all Anglicans to promote the gospel and defend the faith.

We recognise the desirability of territorial jurisdiction for provinces and dioceses of the Anglican Communion, except in those areas where churches and leaders are denying the orthodox faith or are preventing its spread, and in a few areas for which overlapping jurisdictions are beneficial for historical or cultural reasons.

We thank God for the courageous actions of those Primates and provinces who have offered orthodox oversight to churches under false leadership, especially in North and South America. The actions of these Primates have been a positive response to pastoral necessities and mission opportunities. We believe that such actions will continue to be necessary and we support them in offering help around the world.

We believe this is a critical moment when the Primates’ Council will need to put in place structures to lead and support the church. In particular, we believe the time is now ripe for the formation of a province in North America for the federation currently known as Common Cause Partnership to be recognised by the Primates’ Council.

Conclusion: Message from Jerusalem

We, the participants in the Global Anglican Future Conference, were summoned by the Primates’ leadership team to Jerusalem in June 2008 to deliberate on the crisis that has divided the Anglican Communion for the past decade and to seek direction for the future. We have visited holy sites, prayed together, listened to God’s Word preached and expounded, learned from various speakers and teachers, and shared our thoughts and hopes with each other.

The meeting in Jerusalem this week was called in a sense of urgency that a false gospel has so paralysed the Anglican Communion that this crisis must be addressed. The chief threat of this dispute involves the compromising of the integrity of the church’s worldwide mission. The primary reason we have come to Jerusalem and issued this declaration is to free our churches to give clear and certain witness to Jesus Christ.

It is our hope that this Statement on the Global Anglican Future will be received with comfort and joy by many Anglicans around the world who have been distressed about the direction of the Communion. We believe the Anglican Communion should and will be reformed around the biblical gospel and mandate to go into all the world and present Christ to the nations.

Feast of St Peter and St Paul
29 June 2008


Blogger St. Peter's Tracts for the Times Moderator said...

Because the final statement released by the Primates of the Global Anglican Future Conference is so imporant, it warrants publishing here.

June 28, 2008 at 11:14 PM  

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Anglican Communion's Moment of Truth

One way to get a sense of what the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) is about and of what is wrong with the Anglican Communion is to read Archbishop Peter Akinola's opening address to the conference. Now taking place in Jerusalem, GAFCON is being attended by about one thousand Anglicans from all over the world, including about three hundred bishops representing some two-thirds of the eighty million member Anglican Communion. Archbishop Akinola puts his finger directly on a fact that many American and Canadian bishops seem determined to ignore: Anglicanism is slipping into theological incoherence and this is tearing away at the fabric of the Communion because the Communion no longer possesses a common faith. Akinola argues, convincingly, that the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be in denial as well. If the Anglican Communion is simply an umbrella covering what are really radically different understandings of the Christian faith, can it really last much longer? Should it really last much longer?
As Akinola notes, the force which pushed the Communion into open chaos was the decision of the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church to grant consent to the consecration to the episcopate of a divorced man living in a sexual relationship with another man and to authorize American dioceses to "experience and explore" rites for the blessing of same gender unions. These actions were taken despite pleas from all over the Communion and despite the resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that the Church had no authority to do either of these things. The Anglican Church of Canada soon took similar actions.
Since 2003 attempts have been made to deal with the communion breaking actions of the American and Canadian provinces with these provinces insisting that they want to remain part of the Communion but not wanting it to mean very much. In October, 2003 there was an emergency meeting of the primates at Lambeth Palace which issued a communique which declared that no province has the unilateral authority to decide matters which affect the life of the whole Communion. In 2005 the primates met at Dromatine (Northern Ireland) for the purpose of hearing from the American and Canadian provinces a theological rationale for their actions. (Note that the Americans and the Canadians acted first and then thought about it theologically only after the fact.) The issue was taken up again at the primates' meeting in 2007 in Tanzania and the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops was asked to clarify its position. Now, five years on, it seems that neither the Episcopal Church nor the Anglican Church of Canada actually intend to take the discipline of the Communion seriously and to change their courses. They have, in effect, declared that they are members of the Anglican Commnuion but retain the freedom to believe and act as they see fit. This explains the enormous frustration of Anglican leaders such as Akinola who says that "we have found ourselves in a world in which Anglican leaders hold on to a form of religion but consistently deny its power." The deep division in the Communion can be seen in the fact that while many American and Canadian bishops see the matter at hand as simply involving sexual ethics, Akinola and the organizers of GAFCON see it as being much broader and deeper: "Our beloved Anglican Communion must be rescued from the manipulation of those who have denied the gospel and its power to transform and to save".
Anglicanism has come to a moment of truth. The real question that needs to be asked and answered is this: Is the Anglican Communion really a communion and does it really mean anything? On the American and Canadian accounts of things, the Anglican Communion is really a loose federation of denominations which share a common heritage and cooperate on occasional projects but it can not be said to be a communion in any meaningful sense. While Anglicanism has presented itself and thought of itself as a "branch of the catholic Church," on the American and Canadian accounts of things this can not be the case. The American and Canadian provinces are now but hollowed out shells of a church, largely devoid of theological substance and in steep numerical decline. Strangely, these two provinces seem miffed that the rest of the Communion's provinces do not want to follow their lead.
GAFCON really, as Akinola put it, a "rescue mission". The Communion needs to be rescued not from homosexuality but from something far worse, from becoming an empty ecclesiastical shell, a "communion" which can only maintain its unity by agreeing to check all substantial Christian belief at the door. Put another way, the only way to make the American and Canadian provinces happy is to admit that Anglicanism really means nothing at all. Some thirty years ago, Stephen Sykes, who taught theology at Cambridge and served as Bishop of Ely, warned us about all this in his small but important book The Integrity of Anglicanism. There Sykes noted "The integrity of the communion is in question, because it appears to be offering the propositions of the Christian gospel as topics for debate and discussion, rather than to be witnessing to the mighty act of God in Christ." The time for going on and on about how wonderful and beautiful Anglicanism is and how it has charted a "middle way" is now over. The choice now is between void and a Church in visible continuity with the catholic Church.


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Saturday, June 21, 2008

"Live With Eternity Not Far Away"

Book Review: Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Eerdmans, 2008)

D.A. Carson's point of departure for this book is H.Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, published some fifty years ago and still regarded in some circles as a classic. One need not have read the Niebuhr volume to appreciate Carson's work since he provides a summary of it and a fairly extensive critique of what he sees as the weaknesses of Niebuhr's position. In Christ and Culture Niebuhr proposed a typology of ways of understanding the relationship between Christianity and culture: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, the Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ the transformer of culture.
Much has happened since Niebuhr. Not only is there now a vast literature on what culture is but there is now much uncertainty as to what Christianity is and, finally, whether truth exists. Carson finds Niebuhr's work now completely outdated because it is too simplistic. For Carson, Niebuhr's typology is too neat and does not recognize the fact that in relating to culture the Church will find herself making use of all of Niebuhr's types simultaneously. Carson's fundamental criticism of Niebuhr, however, is that he is insufficiently informed by the full range of biblical theology and therefore tends to be weak on the "Christ" aspect of "Christ and culture". Carson's case is well made drawing as he does on his own substantial work in the area of New Testament studies.
But Carson is not simply interested in correcting Niebuhr; he is quite clear about the fact that no scholar will ever write the one book which will forever settle the issue simply because our culture is changing so rapidly. The chief interest here is to begin thinking about how the Church should relate to the culture shaped by democratic capitalism with its incessant technological innovation and increasing relativism.
Carson's position is not easily summarized because he ranges over a large area and interacts with a vast body of literature. But his concerns are fairly clear. He is concerned that unless the Church is committed to the basic narrative of Scripture, she will end up simply being overcome by culture and effecting little or no change. For him, the basic narrative of Scripture involves the reality of creation, fall into sin, providence, Jesus' atoning death on the cross and resurrection, the gift of the Spirit and the final victory of God. These both individually and collectively provide the Church with a point of reference. Of particular importance is the fact that no culture, political system, economic system or society can be considered to be perfect or even fully Christian simply because the Church looks for her completion in the consummation of God's work. What this means for Christians is that they will always live in tension with the world around them, finding some elements of their culture valuable while other elements simply must be resisted. Since our destination is the City of God and not the city of New York (or Paris or London or...) we will never be fully at home in the city of the world.
As Carson makes clear, in order to navigate whatever culture they happen to live in, Christians will need to have developed theological skills to interpret the biblical narrative so as to interpret their culture. While this effort will look different in different locations, Carson thinks it will have a certain shape: "Christian communities honestly seeking to live under the Word of God will inevitably generate cultures that, to say the least, will in some sense counter or confront the values of the dominant culture. But to say the least is not enough. Christians thus shaped by Scripture envision a church that not only counters alternative cultures but also seeks sacrificially to serve the good of others--the city, the nation, common humanity, not least the poor" (p. 143).
One of the most helpful features of this book is Carson's discussion of what he sees as the four most powerful features shaping our culture today: secularism, democracy, freedom and power. Each of these forces is neither wholly good nor bad and so with respect to each much discernment is required; much depends on which aspect of each is being emphasized. If secularism means, as it now does for many, the liberation of man from God and the establishment of human mastery over creation and the human person, then secularism and Christianity can not be reconciled. While there is much to admire in democracy, Carson reminds us that for Christians democracy is not the cure for all the world's ills nor can it be said that the goal of the Church is to promote it as if this were the Church's ultimate purpose. While Christians are called to be good citizens, contributing to the common good, the state (even if democratically elected) has no ultimate authority over us. While there is much value in freedom, much depends upon how this is understood. Is freedom simply the freedom to exercise our autonomous wills? For Christianity this is more sin than it is something to be desired. Those of us who do live in democracies can not see democratic freedom as being our ultimate goal, because our "ultimate hope...can never rest in the freedoms that democracy seeks to institutionalize" (p. 136). Just because a culture is democratic does not mean that it is Christian. Finally, Carson sees our consumer society driven by the notion of personal power--each purchase is promoted as an exercise of power and display of self-importance. As Christians, we will always have our desire for personal power limited by the doctrine of God: "The doctrine of God reminds us that we are not ultimate: God is. The doctrine of creation tells us we are not our own: we are responsible to the One who made us" (p. 143).
While the question of relating to culture in the proper way is a vexing one, Carson reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus has immediate relevance for all our decisions: it reminds us that we "live with eternity not far away" (p. 223). For Christians, our interaction with culture is a serious business because for us all that we do is supposed to about our service to King Jesus who is sovereign over everything, including politics, economics and culture. This certainly helps bring things into focus.
Michael Petty+


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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Consolation of the Saints

In a sermon entitled "The Visible Church An Encouragement to Faith," preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and published in 1836, John Henry Newman says something that I have long felt but have had difficulty articulating. Newman notes that being a Christian is a difficult business in that we not only have to struggle against our own sinfulness but also, as if this were not enough, we have to struggle with the world. As he puts it, we are not only tempted to take up the pretence of religion rather than the substance but also we are faced with the difficulty of living in a "Christian country" (Newman was referring to Victorian Britain) where many actually "live to the world". Under such a set of circumstances we can find ourselves lonely, isolated and discouraged. If we do not find our own lives discouraging at times, plenty of discouragement awaits us from the world. How can we maintain a witness?
Newman's answer to this question is that we can find reassurance and consolation in the visible Church. Here Church means not so much buildings or institution but the living communion of people in which and through which the risen Christ is at work through the Holy Spirit. Newman's sermon is based on Hebrews 12:1 which reminds us that we are "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses". The isolated Christian quickly becomes the discouraged Christian and the unfruitful Christian.
Thinking about this, I took a look at the some of the feast days which are appointed for the month of June. What I found was enormous encouragement. Just think about it. There are the feast days of some great early Church theologians such as St. Justyn Martyr (June 1), St. Cyril of Alexandria (June 27) and St. Irenaeus of Lyon (June 28). These men struggled to present the new faith to a pagan world and did so successfully. There are feast days for some of the really great evangelists such as St. Boniface (June 5) who brought the Gospel to Germany and St. Columba (June 9) who helped to evangelize Scotland. There are feast days for martyrs who chose to be killed rather than renounce their faith: St. Justyn Martyr and St. Alban (June 22). There are also feast days for three apostles, St. Barnabas (June 11) and St. Peter and St. Paul (June 29). Here in the span of single month I am able to be reminded of the various and powerful ways that God has been at work in the lives of fellow Christians.
The saints are people in whose lives we are able to see the risen Christ at work; they are living witnesses to his resurrection. When we celebrate the saints we are reminded that the Resurrection is not simply a doctrine to be believed but a reality which changes us and our world.
By taking the saints seriously we are freed from our entrapment in the present and our own pressing concerns and are given a new orientation: "The man of this world lives in the present, or speculates about the future; but faith rests upon the past and its content. It makes the past the mirror of the future. It recounts the list of faithful servants of God, to whom St. Paul refers in the text, and no longer feels sad as if it were alone." Newman was absolutely right. The saints reminds us that by God's grace God's people have successfully met the challenges that faced them and this gives us the encouragement that we may do the same.
Celebrating the saints is celebrating the work of God in and through a diverse range of people. It reminds us of our true place and position. We are not isolated individuals struggling on our own but we are members of the Communion of Saints and from this we get "a peculiar kind of consolation, counteracting the influence of the world that is seen". When I am tempted to be faithless I can remember St. Alban and his martyrdom. When I lack courage I can think of Peter and Paul. When I feel perplexed I can remember Irenaeus battling heresy and paganism. There is a huge consolation to be found here and it is a gift of the Lord.
Michael Petty+


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Michael,

Thank you for your commentary. Your message was just what I needed this week.

Queenell Fox

June 21, 2008 at 9:28 AM  

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Evangelization Through Cultural Change

Book Review: A Civilization of Love by Carl Anderson (HarperOne, 2008)

Carl Anderson is dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America and has written a challenging book based on the teaching of Pope John Paul II. In short, Anderson wants to evangelize the world by changing its culture. Anderson's book is a testimony to the fertile legacy of John Paul II who through a series of brilliant encyclicals encouraged Christians to live out the fundamental Christian principles of charity and solidarity and in so doing to create a "culture of life" that would replace the "culture of death". John Paul II, largely misunderstood by the media, called for radical discipleship as the best form of evangelization.
Being Roman Catholic, Anderson has an acute awareness of global Christianity and his whole program is framed by one fact: Two-thirds of the world's Christians now live outside North America and Europe which means that the vast majority of Christians live in poverty. For Anderson, this fact raises serious questions about the commitment of Western Christians to solidarity in the Body of Christ and to the Christian practice of self-sacrificial love (classically referred to as charity). Anderson has the radical notion that the chronic problems of corruption, international debt, poverty and lack of education and health care can be most effectively addressed by Christians acting in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who live in poverty.
The core of this book is Anderson's explication and application of John Paul II's Christian anthropology, what his biographer George Weigel has termed a radical Christian humanism. The basis of this anthropology is the doctrine of the Trinity. The fact that the very being of God is constituted by a communion of persons indicates something profound and essential about human persons: Human life rightly lived and ordered is a life in communion with other people and the basic element of this communion is love. Love is, of course, a rather overworked word and has suffered from being sentimentalized and trivialized to the point where it now is used as a synonym for "tolerance". John Paul II understands love in its radical sense: The three persons of the Trinity share a common life and exist in a relationship of complete self-giving. God himself is the perfect embodiment of solidarity and charity. If human life properly lived is life in communion, this has important implications for our understanding of freedom. Freedom is not merely the freedom to left alone or the liberty to satisfy my own wishes but the freedom to love. Here John Paul II especially draws upon St. Thomas Aquinas to say that real freedom is precisely the freedom to love others self-sacrificially.
Anderson is clear in pointing out the bankruptcy of much contemporary thinking about human nature which is largely naturalistic. Against this he sides with John Paul II in thinking that "only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light" (p. 24). Only in the light of Christ is real human self-knowledge possible. The Church is that community in which God's order of life marked by solidarity, charity and responsibility are embodied. For Anderson, the truth of this view of human life is demonstrated in its being lived out. The whole of Christian discipleship is contained in this anthropology. An anthropology which sees people as essentially individualized centers of will who create themselves by their own actions and consumer choices will largely make discipleship impossible and will subvert the Church's witness. (This is an aspect of John Paul II's teaching that many Protestant churches desperately need to hear.)
Anderson lays out a rather comprehensive program for the changing culture. In this space I can not provide a full outline of his agenda. What I can do is to highlight three chapters of the book which I think are especially important.
Anderson devotes a chapter to an exposition of John Paul II's "Christian personalism," a Christian philosophy which animates his important book The Theology of the Body. Christian personalism holds that the proper dynamic of life is to move beyond the narrow confines of our own self to acknowledge the absolute value and worth of each individual. (The media had a hard time with John Paul II because this view led him to a determined opposition to abortion and to determined efforts to defend human rights.) The cornerstone of Christian personalism is "that it is neither we ourselves nor society that has established [human] worth. Rather it is God who has done so, and he has done so through love" (p. 39). In the Incarnation God establishes the dignity and value of the human person. This becomes the central principle in the Catholic commitment to family life, peace, human rights and social justice.
Anderson also devotes a chapter to the ministry of lay Christians. Here he makes it clear that while lay Christians may have "secular jobs" their vocation is very much religious. In their work and family life lay Christians are called to re-order the world as a witness to the kingdom of God and this means they have a central role in the work of evangelization. Key in this discussion is the notion of the gift of self: "Gift of self means everything we are given--every talent--is given as a gift. Every moment is a chance and opportunity for conveying love" (p. 56). This is not just a matter of "doing good" but a matter of reflecting and projecting the love of Christ. The fundamental way in which this is done is through the practice of charity: "Our service of love is what enables Christ to speak to us--not only in how it physically brings us in contact with the poor but also and especially because it conditions us to receive and welcome his words. It takes humility and love on our part to listen to Christ" (p. 61). For Anderson, what should animate the witness of the laity is the huge privilege of believing in Christ.
Anderson also devotes a chapter to the family, referred to in Roman Catholic social teaching as the "domestic church". This involves more than "family values". The family is the school of charity. It begins with the covenanted love of man and woman who step out of the confines of the self to form a common life, one in which affection is deepened into charity--self-sacrificial love. Marriage involves the vocation of bearing and raising children and this must be seen as a religious vocation, a vocation as serious as the ordained priesthood: "In bearing and raising children, a married couple reflects the creative power of God himself. In this way the family is its own culture of life and culture of love and becomes the essential building block of the civilization of love" (p. 74). Quoting John Paul II, Anderson notes that "family life becomes an itinerary of faith and in some way a Christian initiation and a school of following Christ" (p. 74). Anderson recognizes a crucial truth: The family can be the greatest bulwark against a selfish materialism or one of its principal supports--it all depends upon the vocation of the parents.
Anderson has much more to say about work and globalization, about reclaiming business as a Christian calling and about the anti-life assumptions underlying abortion and euthanasia. He has done the Church a great service by applying the profoundly Christian philosophy of John Paul the Great to some of our most pressing problems. And he has also reminded us who live in a confusing and challenging time of the central message of John Paul II: "Be not afraid!"


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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Are You A Fundamentalist?

The word "fundamentalist" is being used with increasing frequency, not only by secular commentators but also by Christians. The meaning of this term has now been stretched far beyond its original usage. The term was originally used to designate a conservative movement within Protestantism which began in the early part of the last century. While the controversies surrounding the theory of evolution had a great deal to do with the birth of the movement, it derived its name from an insistence on "the fundamentals" such as Jesus' virginal conception and bodily resurrection, the inspiration of Scripture and the historical truth of biblical miracles, most of which were being called into question by what came to be known as "liberal protestantism". Despite this, fundamentalism is now exclusively identified with the conviction that Scripture must be interpreted literally.
Today, the term fundamentalist is increasingly being applied to any orthodox Christian, any Christian who dissents from the spirit of the age. And the New Atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have essentially made it a synonym for "Christian". What is going on?
We need to recognize that as it is used now the term fundamentalist has more rhetorical than descriptive value. Today there are Christians who have aligned themselves with he spirit of the age and who therefore like to think of themselves as sophisticated. For such people, the only reason why someone might dissent from the spirit of the age is ignorance and this ignorance manifests itself in a "literal interpretation of Scripture". At a time when the ideal in religion is vagueness bordering on vacuousness, "fundamentalist" now designates anyone who believes something relatively definite and permanent. The great divide in the Church today is not between fundamentalists (in the classical sense) and liberals but between those who see Christianity as a substantial body of doctrine which demands the assent of heart and mind and those who see Christianity as a series of compromises with the spirit of the age. Fundamentalism now refers to any type of Christianity which might change one's mental habits and lifestyle.
The great trick of calling a fellow Christian a fundamentalist is that you can shut him or her down without having to actually responds to what is being said or argued. The fear of being called a fundamentalist can act to keep us in line with he spirit of the age because none of us wants to be thought ignorant or narrow minded.
But isn't it those who are using the term as threat or verbal weapon who have the really narrow minds? There is far more to the interpretation of Scripture than the choice between "literal" and "symbolic" readings. One can come to the conclusion that, for example, the practice of abortion is wrong without thereby being a "literalist". And is it not narrow to think that our own culture (with its mixed blessings) is the font of all wisdom? Tradition is not the dead weight of the past but the living wisdom of the past which God has imparted to those who came before us.
In a sermon entitled "The Religion of the Day" (preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford and published in 1834), John Henry Newman makes some incisive comments on religion in Victorian Britain which apply to our own situation today. For Newman, the "religion of the day" is a Christianity whose rougher edges have all been smoothed down and whose demands have all but been eliminated: "...those fearful images of Divine wrath with which the Scriptures abound...are explained away. Everything is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first of sins." For many Christians ( both liberal and conservative) the Creed has been reduced to the affirmation that God is nice and we should be nice too. Newman put his finger on the central issue of both his age and ours when he that "we have not from a love of the Truth, but from the influence of the Age". Looking around at the prosperous and seemingly Christian nation which was Victorian Britain, Newman could say that "I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion than at present it shows itself to be. Not, of course, that I think the tempers of mind herein implied desirable...but I think them infinitely more desirable and more promising than a heathen obduracy, and a cold, self-sufficient, self-wise tranquility."
In John Wesley's day, the term "methodist" was a term of derision indicating someone who took their Christianity a little too seriously. Wesley seized the term and made it a badge of honor. Perhaps the same thing may happen with the term fundamentalist.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

People have used "names" to cast others in highly disadvantaged spots for a long time. If we listen closely to shouts of "bigot!", "chauvinist", "walking saint", "goody-two-shoes", and others of like ilk, we can gain some measure of the darkness of the souls around us. We find a need for prayer for them and I begin with "May God have mercy on your soul!"


June 11, 2008 at 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never thought of myself as a fundamentalist, and I've never thought of myself as ignorant. I have never had a desire to be sophisticated, but rather innocent as a child. It's sad to see the spirit of the age turning toward religious sophistication - after all, isn't that what the Greeks and Romans did? If believing in something definite and permanent makes one a fundamentalist, then I must be one and am thankful to be one!

June 11, 2008 at 12:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never thought of myself as a fundamentalist. But, if believing in something definite and permanent that doesn't change with every wind that blows and if the religion that I practice and believe in calls for a change in one's mental habits and lifestyle, then, I must be a fundamentalist. So what are the folks on the other end of the spectrum....bargain hunters?

June 11, 2008 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger Betty said...

“ Jesus said unto him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your MIND.”
-Matthew 22:37

Christianity is not all emotion, it also involves thinking, knowing and understanding. Loving God is not a mindless act. In our relationship with God, this is a command from Him, not an option. Our intellect is not excluded in our relationship with God. He has given a sound Mind to use. It is of God. God who loves us and desires our heart and soul-felt love in return, created us in His image. He includes our Minds in this love relationship. He wants us to UNDERSTAND with our MINDS, Whom we are loving and why.

This is an eternal and fundamental truth.

June 11, 2008 at 11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt 22:37 Jesus replied:"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 2:38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 2:39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Matt 2:40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Aren't we trying to be like Jesus? Can we succeed? No. Jesus was human and God and the HS resided in him (after baptism and before?)
But we are all made in God's image and the HS resides in us too.
Matthew continues with Jesus words "the first and greatest commandment ..."
But this would mean that we must love ourselves first. What a delimma?!?! We are all such fallen sinful creatures. Created in God's image yet full of sin (original sin b'c we also have free will). So we try very hard to love ourselves and not to become prideful after all this is sinful too. Some days it is easier to love ourselves than on other days! When we love ourselves we are better able to love our neighbors as ourselves and serve God to his fullest.
It is very comforting to serve when we remember all this. And when we feel the joy of Christ who goes before us and knows our sins before we even commit them. Thank you Michael and the saints that serve and try to remind us of this each day. Thank you to those who serve with such peace and humble spirits.
We are the body of Christ. All we can do is to try our best to live into this ideal!

June 20, 2008 at 2:44 PM  

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Martyrs and the Mission of the Church

A Homily Preached on the Occasion of the Feast of the Martyrs of Uganda,
June 3, 2008

On June 3, 1886 thirty-two young men who were pages in the court of King Mwanga of Buganda (now Uganda) were burned to death on the king's orders. All thirty-two were recent converts to Christianity and they were burned to death because the king had the suspicion that in becoming Christians these young men had embraced a loyalty higher than himself. These martyrs were preceded in death by Bishop James Hannington, a Church of England missionary bishop, who was also martyred by King Mwanga on October 29, 1885.
The martyrdoms produced precisely the opposite effect from the one the king had in mind; far from repressing the Church, the martyrdoms planted new seeds for the Church and a key point was quickly and dramatically made: Christianity is not a white man's religion. The indigenous Anglican Church of Uganda was born and it is now one of the largest provinces of the Anglican Communion.
Perhaps King Mwanga had a better insight into the nature of the Christian faith than do most Christians living in Europe and North America. The king correctly understood something about the Christian faith that we often miss: to become a Christian is to embrace a loyalty higher than nation, tribe, family, political party or interest group. Mwanga, like the Nazis after him and the Romans before them, correctly perceived that there is something potentially dangerous about the Christian faith and it has something to do with the fact that the one to whom Christians are called to be loyal was executed as a political criminal. In a very real sense Jesus really was a political criminal, perhaps the ultimate political criminal, because he looked beyond the empire of Caesar to the Kingdom of God and no human political structure likes to be shown up as radically imperfect and temporary. Mwanga probably knew that once his people started to believe in King Jesus they would soon begin to compare King Mwanga to him and this simply would not do.
Now, you may be thinking that because we do not live under Caesar or the Nazis or King Mwanga the Martyrs of Uganda might serve as an inspiration for us but that they can offer us no direct lessons about our own situation. After all, we live in what some like to call a "Christian nation' (a Christian nation in which only about 32% of us go to church) and our presidential candidates like to be photographed on occasion coming out of a church (the values thing, you know).
But here is something to think about: The Daily Telegraph (London) recently reported that three evangelical ministers who were witnessing to their faith in a Muslim section of Manchester were threatened by police with arrest on the grounds that such activity constitutes a "hate crime". In a western democracy whose national Church is the Church of England it may be a hate crime to evangelize Muslims.
I mention this incident not to conjure up images of a Muslim Britain in which Christianity is banned by law and to move you to paranoia or, at least, anxiety. I mention this incident to remind us that while we often think of democracy as the best form of government and while we often offer thanks for a country in which we have freedom to worship, it is important to notice that democracies don't especially like the notion of being shown up as radically imperfect and temporary any more than King Mwanga did. Those of us who live in democracies do not live in the Kingdom of God and we need to think carefully about the fact that we are tolerated so long as we do not insist that what we believe somehow constitutes a standard by which our cultural norms and prejudices are to be judged. Christianity is to be tolerated so long as no one insists on applying it to anything that really matters. The liberal Catholic politicians who support abortion despite the teaching of the Catholic Church and the conservative Protestant politicians who live in opulence and are supported by preachers who live in opulence all say the same thing when the contradictions of their situation is pointed out: After all, religion is a private matter and they occupy positions of public trust.
My purpose here is not to get us worked up about the secular drift of America, the advance of Islam or about relativism, postmodernism, liberalism or some other abstraction. My purpose is to call our attention to the fact that we as a Church are losing our ability to understand and appreciate martyrdom. Most Americans, and even many American Christians, now associate martyrdom with suicide bombers and so now martyr has become a synonym for "religious fanatic" (for some people this is a redundancy). But in losing our ability to understand martyrdom we are losing our understanding of what the Church is.
Hebrews 10:32-39 helps us to understand the connection between martyrdom and the Church. This text is addressed to Christians who are undergoing persecutions of various sorts and for whom martyrdom is a distinct possibility. Hebrews 10:34 is of particular importance. Speaking to Christians who have had their homes and possessions plundered by angry pagan mobs, the letter says "and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one". What makes suffering for the Gospel and dying for the Gospel meaningful is the fact that those who do so bear witness to the fact that there is a possession more grand than any earthly possession and a possession more valuable than life itself and that is the possession we have in our Lord through whom we are inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Without this conviction the witness of the Church is nothing.
Later on in Hebrews 11, in the course of recounting all the Old Testament heroes who died without seeing the promises of God fulfilled, the letter says "These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they are strangers and exiles on the earth. For people that speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland...they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11:13-14, 16). God is not ashamed to be addressed by those who by their way of life and way of death bear witness to the fact that they have a loyalty beyond politics, a homeland beyond a nation and an inheritance beyond earthly possessions.
The witness of the martyrs is absolutely necessary for the Church in affluent America because it calls us back from our fundamental temptation: the temptation to settle down to comfort, the temptation to put comfort before risk and pragmatism before Truth, the temptation to allow the Christian faith to be a veneer applied to a thoroughly secular and prosperous life. The martyrs remind us that the life and witness of the Church can only be founded on the Truth and that apart from this Truth we are of no use to God and of no use to the world. The martyrs remind us that there is a fate worse than death--an easy conformity to the world's notion of the "good life" and a path of endless compromise with the spirit of the age.
In his wonderful book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton provides a description of why pagan Rome persecuted the Church: "It [the Church] was resented, because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war. It had risen out of the ground to wreck the heaven of earth of heathenism. It did not try to destroy all that creation of gold and marble; but it contemplated a world without it. It dared to look right through it as though the gold and marble had been glass. Those who charged the Christians with burning down Rome with firebrands were slanderers; but they were at least far nearer to the nature of Christianity than those among the moderns who tell us that the Christians were a sort of ethical society, being martyred in languid fashion for telling men they had a duty to their neighbors, and only mildly disliked because they were meek and mild." Can we look through the gold and marble of our own day as thought it were glass? This is what the martyrs of all times and all places have done and their witness continually nourishes the Church of which they are the crown jewels.
Michael Petty


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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June 4, 2008 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger St. Peter's Tracts for the Times Moderator said...

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June 5, 2008 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger St. Peter's Tracts for the Times Moderator said...

You may find the audio of this sermon on the St. Peter's Anglican church website at

For further Sermons and Teachings, please visit

June 5, 2008 at 10:07 PM  

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Bart Ehrman's Problem

Review of God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer by Bart Ehrman, (HarperOne, 2008)

This book has two intertwined purposes, to show that the Bible offers no real answer to the question posed by suffering and evil and to provide an apologia for Ehrman's agnosticism. Such is made clear from the very beginning: "I have now lost it [faith] altogether. I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian. The subject of this book is the reason why...I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with he facts of life (pp. 2-3). Having come from a fundamentalist Protestant background, Ehrman is now an agnostic: "I think that if there is one [a god] he certainly isn't the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition" (p. 4).

These two intertwined purposes, it seems to me, account for the book's rather uneven quality. With regard to the first purpose, Ehrman attempts to maintain the mental posture of the historical critic and, thus, he tells us that "It is a matter of using our intelligence to assess the merit of what the biblical author's say" (p. 17). With regard to the second purpose, Ehrman tends to cast aside intellectual precision and to lapse into an agnostic mood. "The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable" (p. 6). Having made the intelligent judgment that the Bible offers no real answers (and, indeed, that its answers are generally ridiculous), Ehrmancan't quite get out of the postmodern mood: "I should stress that it is not the goal of this book to convince you, my reader, to share my point of view about suffering, God or religion. I am not interested in destroying anyone's faith or deconverting people from their religion" (p. 17). I am willing to take Ehrman at his word but it seems odd to lose one's faith, write a book showing that the Bible's response to suffering is incoherent and finally ridiculous and then hope to have no effect on readers. If Ehrman believes that his position is true (which he clearly does), should he not want others to share it?

One of the ways in which this book is uneven is in its lack of intellectual precision. Ehrman can be quite precise when discussing biblical texts and yet when he turns to the question of suffering there is a distinct lack of clarity. Almost from the beginning he dismisses the theological and philosophical writings on this issue as "either intellectually unsatisfying, morally bankrupt or practically useless" (p. 18). Which writings? Why unsatisfying, bankrupt or useless? This seems particularly dismissive in that Ehrman never clarifies what he means by suffering which, of course, can include everything from the normal aches and pains of everyday life to the moral horrors of torture and genocide. It appears that for Ehrman the insolubility (a word which needs clarification but which he devotes no attention to) of the problem of suffering is not so much a conclusion but a premise: "For me, at the end of the day, the philosophical problem called theodicyis insoluble" (p. 122). Does this mean that we should simply accept that the existence of suffering can not be reconciled with Christian convictions about God? For Ehrmna, this seems to be not so much the conclusion of an argument but a premise based upon a mood (however justified it may be). It is interesting (and highly suggestive) that Ehrman seeks to drive a wedge between the Bible and later traditions of Christian theology and then to discount the latter. It is also interesting that while being quite critical of "Enlightenment" views of theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering and evil with a God of infinite goodness and power), he ultimately embraces the Enlightenment's solution to the problem: "The pain done to human beings by human beings is not caused by a superhuman entity. Since human beings misbehave and hurt others out of their free will (which does exist even if God does not), then we need to intervene ourselves and do what we can to stop the oppression, torture and murder" (pp. 122-123)

The first biblical approach to suffering which Ehrman takes up is the notion that the cause of suffering is divine punishment, a view he sees present in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament in particular. For Ehrman, this literature offers a definitive answer to the question of suffering: "To a person, the prophets maintained that Israel's national suffering came because it had disobeyed God, and it was suffering as a punishment" (p. 31). While he acknowledges that the prophets were addressing their own specific situation and not attributing all suffering at all times and in all places to divine punishment, Ehrman, oddly, ignores this in the course of the book and goes on to make the prophetic perspective on suffering an iron law which does explain all suffering at all times. This is another of the book's uneven features. While insisting that the Bible offers a variety of answers to the question of suffering, Ehrman does not allow them to speak in concert but, rather, examines each individually to see if it offers the answer. Predictably, each "answer" comes up short and so we come to the conclusion that the Bible offers "no answer to the question of suffering".

Ehrman beleives that the prophetic view of suffering extends into the New Testament and that it is the foundation of the doctrine of the atonement: "The Christian doctrine of atonement, and salvation for eternal life, is rooted in the prophetic view that people suffer because God is punishing their disobedience" (p. 85). While this is partially true, it requires much more theological elaboration than Ehrman allows and he goes on to consider divine punishment as the sole cause of suffering. He repeatedly refers to this view as "the classical view of suffering" and then concludes that "the classical view of suffering just didn't work for me, as an explanation for what actually happens in the world" (p. 96). The mode of argumentation has dictated the conclusion in advance.

The historical books of the Old Testament offer yet another answer tot he question of suffering for Ehrman. Here the answer is that the cause of suffering is the sinful actions of other people; suffering is rooted in human inhumanity. This is an obviously promising approach to the problem--too promising from Ehrman's perspective. At this point he abruptly concludes that this view involves convictions about human freedom which do not play a prominent role in the Bible. Really? (Again, severing the Bible from later traditions of Christian theology works to Ehrman's advantage.) Besides, Ehrman says, we can't believe that God somehow involved in human sin for this would mean that there would be nothing we could do about it. This seems to short circuit the issue nicely.

Ehrman next takes up the notion of redemptive suffering which involves the conviction that God can and does work to bring good out of evil. This discussion is prefaced by Ehrman's declaration that "I no longer believe in a God who is actively involved with the problems of this world" (p. 126). Once again, the premise determines conclusions. Ehrman can see no sign of God's activity in the world. Unfortunately, he offers no argument for this view--as it now stands this is simply part of the agnostic mood. Of course, the notion of redemptive suffering is central to the New Testament and to Christian doctrine. He concludes that this view is absurd first by insisting that it involves affirming that all suffering is redemptive all the time (it does not) and second by ex cathedra judgment: "I especially, and most vehemently, reject the idea that someone else's suffering is designed to help us" (p. 156). For him, the idea that the suffering of one person could enoble another is simply "offensive and repulsive" (p. 156). Why? I would certainly not claim that all instances of suffering are redemptive but on what basis does Ehrman conclude that such a notion is absolutely impossible? Apparently on the basis of his own dictum.

In the books of Job and Ecclesiastes Ehrman finds a much more congenial atmosphere (because he believes that they agree with him). Here, he says, we don't find suffering attributed to divine punishment or human sin nor do we find notions of redemptive suffering. (At certain points one gets the impression that Ehrman is simply philosophically opposed to the notion of God.) What doe we learn about the cause of suffering in these two books? "The answer t suffering is that there is no answer, and we should not look for one" (p. 188). In a sense, the Bible actually does provide an answer to the question of suffering, the "answer" which appears to be Ehrman's premise: "My own suspicion is that the Teacher was right, that there is no afterlife, that this life is all there is. That should not drive us to despair of live however. It should drive us to enjoy life to the uppermost for as long as we can and in every way we can" (p. 194). Belief in a benevolent and omnipotent God can not be reconciled with experience but a moderate Epicureanism certainly can.

The final biblical answer to the question of suffering that Ehrman considers comes from the apocalyptic tradition. For this tradition, the world is in the grip of cosmic evil powers and liberation will only come with the direct intervention of God. This is the tradition behind the books of Daniel and Revelation and such figures as Jesus an Paul. For this tradition, the mystery of evil and suffering can only be understood in the light of God's ultimate victory. Given that Ehrman has already made it clear that he does not believe in a God who intervenes in history, it comes as no surprise that he finds apocalyptic theology to be inadequate. His rejection finally comes down to this: "I have to admit that the apocalyptic is based on mythological ideas that I simply can not accept" (p. 259). This, of course, is not an argument but a premise or assumption derived from the agnostic mood: "there is no God up there, just above the sky, waiting to come 'down' here or to take us 'up' there" (p. 259).

Where does Ehrman leave us? As I have already indicated, I think he leaves us simply with a mood, a mood of mild agnosticism which is one of the defining features of postmodern culture: "The solution to life is to enjoy it while we can, because it is fleeting. This world, and everything in it, is temporary, transient, and soon to be over" (p. 276). Oh, and we really should do something about people suffering. It is not clear to me how Ehrman gets from this postmodern Epicureanism to a program of vigorous concern about the suffering of others. I find it disappointing that after supposedly tearing down the edifice of biblical theology Ehrman should come to such a shallow position. It appears to me that Ehrman holds Christianity to a higher set of intellectual criteria than he holds his own agnosticism.

After heaping scorn on Christian hope as "just wishful thinking, a leap of faith made by those who are desperate both to remain faithful to God and to understand this world" (p. 270), Ehrman goes on to embrace the notion that by finally embracing the pointlessness of the universe we will be spurred on to deal with suffering with unprecedented generosity and effort. What he does not seem to realize is that his agnosticism simply makes "the problem of suffering" disappear for in a pointless universe suffering is not suffering but only "the way things are" and they way they will always be. While wanting to leave Christian faith behind he still remains within the Christian worldview.

The problem of suffering is a very real problem but in the final analysis all this book does is to sneer at Christian hope while providing no real answers of its own--perhaps because it has none.

Michael Petty


Blogger drycreekboy said...

Hello Fr. Michael,

There are some words being lost from your text when you post. You may have a technical issue to look into.

I think a lot can be said to and about Ehrman, but from your review two things spring to mind. First, he does not appear to clearly distinguish between the problem of evil as an intellectual problem, and as an existential one. That is an important distinction to make in evaluating whatever rational difficulty the reality of evil presents for the Christian faith. Second, is he really serious when he says that abandoning hope in the supernatural will spur us to solve the problems of the world's suffering here and now? Come on. If I lost my faith I'd be busy building empires and gathering pleasures. Most of the human race would do the same.


June 3, 2008 at 3:17 PM  

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