What is evangelical catholicism?

The term evangelical catholic suggests a certain approach to Christian faith that attempts to be both gospel-centred and rooted in the historic tradition of the church.  On the one hand, it may refer to Catholics who are keen to maintain a focus on the task of the proclamation of the gospel.  On the other hand, it may refer to protestants who want to recover a stress on the importance of tradition in shaping the claims of Christian faith.

One way to find out what contemporary evangelical catholicism is about would be to look at the work of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and its journal, Pro Ecclesia.  This centre was founded by Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten, two Lutheran scholars who have attempted to emphasize “the catholicity of the Reformation.”   Among their basic convictions is the claim that “The Reformers did not set out to create a new church.  They aimed to reform a church that lived in continuity with the church the Creed calls “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”” (The Catholicity of the Reformation, vii).

They would be keen to argue that, although many protestant groups have shun the term “catholic,” there have always been evangelical catholic movements within the protestant churches.  As they state on the CCET website, their goal is “theology that is catholic and evangelical, obedient to Holy Scripture and committed to the dogmatic, liturgical, ethical and institutional continuity of the Church.”

The idea of “evangelical catholicity,” however, is not limited to a small group of scholars associated with this particular centre and its journal.  The late Donald Bloesch, who leaned slightly more towards the evangelical side of the spectrum than many who would identify themselves with evangelical catholicism today, nevertheless shared similar convictions.   His two volume Essentials of Evangelical Theology concludes with a section entitled “Toward a Catholic Evangelicalism,” which argues:

In constructing a fresh theology for our day, we need to regain continuity with the historical roots of the faith as well as renew our fidelity to the biblical and evangelical witness.  This means an opening to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as well as new appreciation for the Reformation and the post-Reformation movements of spiritual purification, Pietism and Puritanism…The theological options today are liberalism or modernism (whether in the guise of neo-Protestantism or neo-Catholicism), a reactionary evangelicalism or fundamentalism, and a catholic evangelicalism, which alone is truly evangelical and biblical (Essentials of Evangelical Theology, vol. 2: 283).

Bloesch was writing in 1979.  But fifteen years before that, Albert Outler was using these two adjectives together as a way of describing John Wesley’s distinctive theological voice, and recommending it for our consideration as a viable option for today.

Outler describes Wesley as

…one who had glimpsed the underlying unity of Christian truth in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions and who had turned this recognition to the services of a great popular religious reform and renewal.  In the name of a Christianity both Biblical and patristic, he managed to transcend the stark doctrinal disjunctions which had spilled so much ink and blood since Augsburg and Trent.  In their stead, he proceeded to develop a theological fusion of faith and good works, Scripture and tradition, revelation and reason, God’s sovereignty and human freedom, universal redemption and conditional election, Christian liberty and an ordered polity, the assurance of pardon and the risks of “falling from grace,” original sin and Chrisitian perfection.  In each of these conjunctions, as he insisted almost tediously, the initiative is with God, the response with man.

One might apply a faintly fuzzy label to this distinctive doctrinal perspective: evangelical catholicism.  Its most important immediate source in Wesley’s thought was the Anglican theological literature in which he had steeped himself at Oxford and in Georgia.  Its deeper wellspring was the Bible and its interpretation by the ancient Fathers of the Church.  From his great mentors in piety (Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis, William Law, Henry Scougal) he learned that faith is either in dead earnest or just dead.   From the great scholars of the seventeenth-century revival of patristic studies (William Beveridge, Robert Nelson) he learned the intimate correlation of Christian doctrine and Christian spirituality.  From the “latitudinarians” (Edward Stillingfleet, Gilbert Burnet) he learned that the church’s polity is more validly measured by its efficacy that its rigid, dogmatic “purity.”  To all these shaping forces he added the decisive influence of his own sustained immersion in the piety and wisdom of the early Christian fathers: Ignatius, Clement, Macarius, Ephraem Syrus, and others.  His theological reading and reflection scarcely slowed over the span of six decades – but it was constantly controlled and guided by his practical concerns.  He was always striving to clarify his message and to communicate it to the people of his day and age.  The result is a distinctive theological perspective, that merits serious consideration, even in another age and atmosphere (in the Preface to John Wesley (Library of Protestant Thought), New York: Oxford University Press, 1964: iv-v).

(My friend and colleague Andy Edwards told me that he thinks this is the first time the term “evangelical catholicism” was used.)

I consider myself to be an evangelical catholic, or at least that’s what I aspire to be.  Evangelical theology, if it is not nourished by the deep roots of historic orthodoxy, can end up going off in all sorts of strange directions.  At the same time, there are important insights from the Reformers, the Pietists, the Purtians, the Great Awakenings, and later evangelicals, which need to be preserved and upheld.   A catholicity which is not evangelical risks becoming triumphalistic; an evangelicalism which is not catholic risks repeating the errors of history.

The irony for me personally is that I did not come to these theological convictions through being raised in a Wesleyan church (which I was), but though the influence of my own teachers in theology at Wycliffe College (one of whom is the current editor of Pro Ecclesia).   It is only now, looking back as someone who has come to see the value of the historic faith and practices of the church through the centuries, that I can appreciate John Wesley as a fellow evangelical catholic, from whom I still have much to learn.

Book Review: The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister’s The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life is part of the Ancient Christian Practices series, published by Thomas Nelson.  Chittister, who has an excellent reputation as an author and speaker, is well qualified to write on this subject: as a Benedictine sister, she lives as part of a community whose life is profoundly shaped by the seasons of the traditional liturgical year.

The book is accessibly written, with 33 short chapters.  The first eight chapters cover introductory topics, while the rest of the book is shaped around the liturgical year itself, beginning with Advent and continuing through Orindary time, with a few other topics interspersed as she goes.

Chittister sets the liturgical year in the context of the life of discipleship.  Observing the Christian seasons is not simply a way to mark time, but it is a way to “attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ” (6).  By allowing the liturgical year to bring the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ before us again and again, we learn what it means to follow Christ:

From the liturgy we learn both the faith and Scripture, both our ideals and our spiritual tradition.  The cycle of Christian mysteries is a wise teacher, clear model, and recurring and constant reminder of the Christ-life in our midst.  Simply by being itself over and over again, simply by putting before our eyes and filtering into our midst the living presence of Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem doing good, it teaches us to do the same (10).

This is possible because the liturgical year “immerses the Chrisitan in the life and death of Jesus from multiple perspectives” (27).  Worship, then, is not simply about us expressing our feelings to God, or about celebrating what God has done. Worship is also formative; it shapes us in our faith and our life with Christ.  I fully agree with Chittister on this point, that the liturgical year can and should be “a catechesis as well as a celebration, a spiritual adventure as well as a liturgical exercise.”

I do have some concerns with Chittister’s approach to the liturgical year, but before idenitfying some of them, I’ll say a bit more about the content of the book and its strengths.

Chittister notes that the liturgical year is not simply about the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, and so on, but also includes Sunday observance, Ordinary Time, and (in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and some protestant traditions) the cycle of saints’ days.  She offers some good insights about the message of the different seasons – far too many to note in this short review.  But I since Advent is fast approaching I can give some examples from those chapters.

First of all, Chittister reminds us that, historically speaking, Advent was not the most important season of the liturgical year, and Christmas was not even celebrated until the 3rd century in Egypt, and even later in other regions (28).  While Christians today seem to place the greatest emphasis on Advent and Christmas, it was Easter which historically formed the centre of Christian liturgical observations.   She speaks of Advent as being about “three comings”: the birth of Jesus, the coming of Christ in our midst today, and the final return of Christ, and asks us to consider our own spiritual growth by asking ourselves which of the three we are waiting for (64-66).   She also covers the traditional themes of the four weeks of advent, before spending a chapter reflecting on the basic character of Advent as a season of joy.

There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from this book, particularly for those of us who are evangelicals and are not steeped in liturgical tradition.  I personally hope that many evangelical churches will embrace the liturgical calendar, at least to a greater extent than they do at present.  While the observance of the various saints’ days is not likely to fly outside of Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican circles, following the major seasons in the church year can provide a way to root the focus of our preaching and teaching more consistently in the narrative of God’s saving action in history through Jesus Christ.

My concern with Chittister’s approach relates to the theological presuppositions that she brings to the table.

First, as a matter of emphasis, she seems to lean very heavily on Christ’s role as an exemplar for us, without a strong enough emphasis on the cross and resurrection as Christ’s work on our behalf.   It’s not so much that she denies the latter, but I was sometimes bothered by what she was not saying.

For example, she says that  “Jesus embodied what the role of the cross was to be in the life of us all”  (15).  While I certainly believe that all Christians are called to take up their cross and participate in the cruciform life of Christ, I wouldn’t say that Jesus’ death was simply the embodiment of what we are all called to be.  Surely his death was more unique than that – the one, full and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world!

She continues in this vein,

It was, if anything, a sign to us of our own place in the scheme of things, in the order of the universe, in the economy of salvation. Now, it was clear, every capacity for good, every effort  of anyone, every breath of every human being had significance…Now it became obvious: if the life of Christ was to continue here on earth, it must continue in us.  Such an astonishingly piercing assessment of who Jesus really was and what that implies for those who call themselves Christian constituted a momentous breakthrough in the human awareness of the panoptic significance of the individual spiritual life (16).

It seems to me that Chittester is identifying Jesus as the greatest example of human spirituality – a person who inspires us to exercise our capacity for good.  Perhaps I’m being unfair, but as I read the book I was thinking that, for Chittister, it is not the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus, but the realization of a more fundamental category of human potential that she thinks is the most important thing.  In other words, it is not the saving work of Jesus Christ which is most fundamental, but the significance of the individual spiritual life, which is revealed in Jesus and enabled through our participation in him.

Another quote emphasizes this last point:

Finally, it is in coming to know the Jesus whose life was fine-tuned to the voice of God within him and whose death came out of unremitting commitment to the will of God, whatever the cost, that our own life is shaped and reshaped (41).

Here she frames the death of Christ as “unremitting commitment to the will of God” – a true statement, but one which is de-particularized in such a way that it becomes an example of that to which all human beings are called.  Rather than the once for all sacrifice in our place, Christ’s death becomes the greatest example of doing God’s will.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to say that Christ’s death is, in one sense, an example of what it means to do the will of God no matter the cost.  But I think that this emphasis can go astray if insufficient attention is given to the radical uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the sufficiency of his work on our behalf.  We are called to follow after Christ, but that is about us being conformed to Christ’s likeness, not Christ illustrating a general standard of what it means to follow God.  Rather than God incarnate, condescending to rescue humanity, Jesus becomes framed as the one who shows us “what it means to be a human on the way to God” (58).    In her own words, this perspective turns the story of the death and Resurrection of Jesus into “the call to recognize the resplendency of humanity” (47).   I see this as a skewing of the gospel narrative, turning it into the story of humanity’s ascent to God, rather than the story of God’s rescue of humanity.

Secondly, I felt that Chittister’s perspective was underwritten by a kind of mysticism.   By this I mean that she seemed to presuppose that God is already always within us, and that our ultimate destiny is absorption into God and even into creation.  She writes, near the beginning of the book:

The seasons and feasts, if we are open and alert to them, lead us deeper and deeper into the self, beyond the pull of the present, higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe (6-7).

I want to retain Luther’s insight that salvation is something that comes from without, not from within.  We do not have the resources within ourselves to find salvation.  We need the external Word to speak to us, and the Spirit to indwell us.  But even this indwelling does not mean that we are called to go “deeper and deeper into the self.”   Finally, becoming “one with the universe” does not seem to me to be a particularly Christian aspiration.

I hope I have not misinterpreted Chittister’s message, but I found these aspects of the book to be at odds with my own convictions.

This review is already getting too long, so I’ll stop there.  If you want to learn about the liturgical year, this book provides a short, readable introduction, and contains some interesting perspectives.  But I would urge the reader to be aware of some of the theological presuppositions that Chittister brings to the table.

Disclosure : I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions I have expressed are my own.

Leaving the graveclothes behind

A while back I was preaching on the raising of Lazarus, and I got thinking about the narrative shape of this passage of scripture (John 11:1-43).

From a dramatic perspective, the climax of the story of the raising of Lazarus comes at the end, when the dead man walks out of his tomb after four days.  But from a revelatory perspective the real climax of this story comes in verse 25, unexpectedly, as Jesus is talking with Martha.

When Martha, anxious to see Jesus and no doubt exasperated by his two day delay, runs up to Jesus on the road outside of town, she says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus’ first answer is “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Martha has a completely orthodox (if somewhat distant) hope that one day she will see her brother again – that he will rise on the great Day of the Lord which is to come.  But Jesus’ next statement reveals to her the deeper truth about resurrection:

I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

Life comes from God, we all know that.  And it is a mistake to think that we can know and enjoy apart from God, who gave us life.   Later, in John chapter 17 Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  To know God is to participate in his life; and to know Jesus is to know God – he is God incarnate.

Therefore, resurrection is not some remote benefit that we get because we believe in God; Jesus is not a ticket to heaven; he’s not giving out resurrection gift certificates, so that we can cash them in when our number is up.  No, resurrection is a personal communication of Jesus himself, who is the divine life; if we are raised, it is not because we have obtained resurrection as a benefit, but because we are joined to him who is the resurrection.

Paul says, “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom 6:5).    Even more poignantly Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

Jesus’ gift to Martha, though I’m not sure she understood it at the time, was to show her that his plan was not simply to raise Lazarus from the dead, but to unite him, and her, and all of us, with himself, so that we might truly share in the love that he shares with the Father and the Spirit.  By being united with him who is resurrection and eternal life, we can know that death will not have the last word.

Why do I think Jesus statement to Martha is more of a climax than the actual raising of Lazarus?  The proof is in the grave clothes.

This is a seemingly strange detail to the story.  If Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead, why couldn’t he remove his grave clothes?  Why did have to ask others to do that for him?

The grave clothes remind us that there is a difference between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus.  When Jesus was raised, the grave clothes were left behind.  The disciples found them in the tomb.  It was a once and for all resurrection.  He now and forever lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit, one God.  When Lazarus was raised, on the other hand, it was only to die again.  Tradition has it that Lazarus lived for thirty years after Jesus death.  But he did eventually die.   What Jesus did for Lazarus was a truly great miracle, but it was only a pale reflection of the resurrection of Jesus.

That’s what Jesus is saying to Martha.  Lazarus will rise again.  But I am the resurrection.  And one day you will understand that by uniting yourself to me, you have a far greater hope; right now you are just wishing that you brother would have survived his illness;  but that is only a temporary hope, a deferral of death until a later date.  My resurrection, on the other hand, will bring complete and permanent healing.  We will leave those grave clothes behind, once and for all.

Signs that make me laugh: UK edition

This is long overdue – it’s been way too long since I posted some funny signs.  Samantha and I were recently in the UK for a holiday, and I spotted these gems.

First, a Scottish pun:

You’d think the Scots would be an unwelcoming bunch, since they’ve embrace the thistle as a national symbol.  But we found them to be quite friendly. This is from the Royal Mile, in Edinburgh.

Here’s a winner from town of Windermere in the Lake District.  No, “booze” does not mean something else in Britain.

This sign makes me laugh now that I’m at home and no longer have to drive on roads that are 6’6″ wide.   At the time, I was terrified.

I’m not sure who thought this would be a good name for a park.  Of course, the “Christ” here is Christ’s College, Cambridge, not Jesus Christ.  Still makes me laugh.

Hmm…that font and colour scheme looks familiar.  Guess they haven’t caught up with KFC’s new branding.  Somewhere in London, spotted from a double decker bus.

I guess there are finally enough Canadian ex-pats in London to keep this place going!