Per Caritatem

Rowan Williams’ little book on the church, Why Study the Past?  The Quest for the Historical Church, is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the historical and theological complexities of the continuity and discontinuity of the Church.  As usual, Williams does not offer overly facile solutions, nor does he tell a triumphalist story in which the Church marches forward untainted, having never soiled herself along the way.   Rather, Williams admits the various failures of the Church—from the early fathers Rowan Williamsmisogynistic tales to historic Protestantism’s “embarrassing record of collusion with uncritical nationalism” (73) to the Church’s overall failure on the issue of slavery.   Nonetheless, Williams does not leave one in despair.  He emphasizes throughout that the Church is founded and sustained by divine action, particularly one divine action which is both “a set of historical events and an eternal act, the self-giving of the Son to the Father in the Trinity” (96).  If the survival and resilience of the Church depended solely on humans, the story would have ended some time ago.  Thankfully, it doesn’t; yet, Christians must be active and continue to put themselves, the Church and the world into question.  We must study our past, our tradition, our Scriptures, (and, as St. Thomas taught us, truth wherever it is found) bringing to light our failures and learning how to translate what is true, good and beautiful into our present contexts.  Williams, attentive to the interplay between historical contingencies and the ways in which history “makes” us on the one hand, and the reality of transcultural (yet contextually-applied) truths on the other, denies that we are stuck in a hermetically-sealed present or unable to break into a hermetically-sealed past.  As he explains,

To engage with the Church’s past is to see something of the Church’s future.  If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth.  If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun.  And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours.  That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible.  T.S. Elliot, faced with the glib modern claim that ‘we know so much more than our ancestors’, riposted, ‘Yes; and they are what we know.’ As was said in the first chapter, we must become aware of our hidden debts for who we now are (94-95).

If only Williams’ critics would actually read his works with care.


As Rowan Williams explains, Scripture is narrative, but it is a particularly interesting kind of narrative, since it “weaves together history and liturgy” (On Christian Theology, 7).  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not only talked about, but he is spoken to.  He is praised; He is worshipped in song and poetry; He is addressed in prayer.  Not only in Scripture and the liturgy, but also in works like Augustine’s Confessions we find this interplay of speaking about God and speaking to God; yet, in each of these instances the discourse involved is open to the other and willing to be attentive to and challenged by what the other has to say.On Christian Doctrine by R. Williams

The language of worship ascribes supreme value, supreme resource or power, to something other than the worshipper, so that liturgy attempts to be a “giving over” of our words to God (as opposed to speaking in a way that seeks to retain distance or control over what’s being spoken of:  it is in this sense that good liturgy does what good poetry does).  This is not to say that the language of worship itself cannot be starkly and effectively ideological; but where we find a developing and imaginative liturgical idiom operating in a community that is itself constantly re-imagining itself and its past, we may recognize that worship is at some level doing its job.   That is what the overall canonical structure of Jewish Scripture puts before the reader; and insofar as the New Testament portrays the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as something which opens up an unprecedentedly direct and undistorted language for prayer, praise, “sacrifice”, and so on it is to be read as reinforcing the same point.  The integrity of a community’s language about God, the degree to which it escapes its own pressures to power and closure, is tied to the integrity it directs to God (7).

Our words about God are not final, not comprehensive, but ought to remain open-ended and receptive of new meanings (not just any meanings of course), just as we remain open to what the Word has to say to us.  The words we hear in Scripture and in the liturgy may require us to amend, alter, or give up not only certain ways of being but also certain ways of speaking (about God, others and our world).  Thus, the theologian must resist, to borrow a Nietzschean metaphor, a tendency to allow his/her theological discourse to become a columbarium, and hence, a language of death, rather than words of life.  Or as Williams puts it from a slightly different but related angle: “Language about God is kept honest in the degree to which it turns on itself in the name of God, and so surrenders itself to God” (8).


As Robert Sokolowski explains in his book, Eucharistic Presence:  A Study in the Theology of Disclosure, in the Eucharist past and future are made present.  That is, past events of salvation history such as the Jewish Passover, but especially the Christ-event and future eschatological realities are brought together.  Sokolowski then offers a beautiful reflection on our union with Christ in death.Eucharist Icon

[W]e in the Eucharist anticipate our own death as to be joined to the death of Jesus.  Our death becomes part of the divine mystery, part of the great saving actions of God, because it can be identified with the sacrificial death of Christ.  […]  The celebrations of the Eucharist at which we assist are like so many rehearsals of the one transition, the one exodus that is reserved for each of us, the one offering in which we no longer sacramentally but bodily participate in the death of the Lord.  As Jesus acted toward the Father in his death, so we are enabled to make our death an act before God, an act in which life is changed, not taken away. […] Our death, which is the horizon marking off the edge of our life, becomes a particular image of the final restoration of all things in Christ, an image of the death of things that is now to be understood as a transition into the kingdom of God.  The Eucharist thus presents a double future to each of us as we participate in it:  it presents our own entrance into the death and Resurrection of Jesus, and it presents the more remote setting in which everything will be restored in the kingdom of God.

These enactments of past are future are all woven into the Eucharist we celebrate in the present.  The celebration of the Eucharist is surrounded by temporal ripples through which past and future things are refracted.  The Eucharist does not give us merely images or signs of what is past and future; it presents these things as past and as future to us now. The Eucharist involves memory and anticipation, but it does not involve them as mere psychological states; rather, it reenacts and preenacts things God has done and will do  (104-5).

Sokolowski, a few pages later, says that the Eucharist is from one perspective something that takes place in time.  That is, it takes time to celebrate it; yet, “it also overcomes time as it reenacts an event that took place at another time.  In doing this, the Eucharist calls time into question.  It claims to go beyond time and thereby indicates that time and its succession are not ultimate.  It makes time to be an image; it makes succession to be a representation.  Thus the Eucharist, in its reenactment of the past and anticipation of the future, also enacts for us the context that encloses past, future, and present:  it enacts the eternal life of the God who could be all that he is, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world and its time were not [!].  The Eucharist engages, and perpetually reminds us of, the Christian distinction between the world and God” (107).


Jeremy Begbie continues to impress me with his creativity and theological astuteness.  Listen to the following passage on the Christian God who freely creates and freely loves. 

“We have seen that for the Christian, the world we inhabit can never be seens as just there, a naked fact, to be treated as a neutral boundary or (worse) as something that is basically an impediment to a fulfilling life.  The cosmos did not have to be.  It is made freely, without any prior constaint or necessity superior to God’s nature or will.  It is given, and given in the rich sense:  as an expression of divine love, the love that is God’s own trinitarian life (Resounding Truth, p. 212).”

Begbie then discusses by way of a passage from Leo Spitzer’s work, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, the differences between a Pythagorean and a Christian view of music.  As Spitzer explains, the Pythagoreans identified “the cosmic order”  with music, whereas Christian philosophers identified this order with love.  (Or in the case of St. Augustine, combined and tranformed the conception into “loving order” (ordo amoris).  Finishing out the passage, Begbie writes, “[t]here is a huge difference betwen regarding the harmony in which musical sounds are grounded simply as a bare fact or as an outpouring of love” (Ibid., p. 213). 


Jeremy Begbie, in his book, Resounding Truth:  Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, presents a nice definition of theology, viz., theology is “the disciplined thinking and rethinking of the Christian gospel for the sake of fostering a wisdom that is nourished by, and nourishes, the church in its worship and mission to the world” (p. 19).  Begbie then begins to unpack each part of his definition.  With regard to “disciplined thinking and rethinking,” Begbie emphasizes that theology involves intellectual effort; however, the intellectual activity in view is not a kind of detached, merely cerebral endeavor that fails to affect our willing and acting. Rather, this theological thinking touches every aspect of our humanity and is “inextricably bound up with story (the narrative shape of faith), symbols of various sorts (such as the sacraments), and practical action in the world” (p. 19).  Second, by “of the Christian gospel,” Begbie means “the announcement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Triune Creator, the God of Israel, has acted decisively to reconcile the world to himself.  Here is theology’s raison d’être and its loadstar-theology is not a free-floating speculation, but it is disciplined by this gospel and seeks to interpret the whole of reality from this center” (p. 20).  The theologian then ultimately has to answer to his God-a God who is living and personal and actively engaged in the lives of his creatures.  Given that the heart of Christian faith centers on union with the Father through the Son by way of the Holy Spirit, true Christian theology then cannot be done apart from prayer, worship, and submission to Scripture.  Third, by “for the sake of fostering a wisdom,” Begbie wants to stress the practical orientation of theology. Here Begbie appeals to the wisdom literature of the Bible in which to become wise “means being able to discern what is going on in specific, down-to-earth situations and to judge what it is right to say and do in those situations in a way that is faithful and true to God” (p. 20).  Lastly, with the phrase, “nourished by, and nourishes, the church in its worship and mission to the world,” Begbie speaks to the importance of the communal dimension and ecclesial context of theology.    “Theology that seeks a wisdom true to gospel, […] cannot take flight from this community [the visible Church]-fallen, compromised and shabby as it is and always has been. […] Theology’s first calling, I would contend, is to help build up the people of God, to shape the Christian community for the sake of its worship and mission to the world” (pp. 20-21).  


John CalvinWhat was the only chapter topic never altered in the many revisions of John Calvin’s Institutes?  Was it predestination?  No.  Was it his discussion of human depravity in our postlapsarian state?  Wrong again.  It was his discussion of prayer, which is also the longest chapter in the Institutes.  As Billings explains in his excellent book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift:  The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, Calvin opens his chapter on prayer “with a Trinitarian portrait of prayer’s significance” (p. 110).  When a person has been brought to see his or her need of Christ, which is a need for something other than what one is, a gift is bestowed-the revelation and gift of Christ Himself.   Describing this gift  as he begins his discussion of prayer, Calvin writes:


The Lord willingly and freely reveals himself in his Christ.  For in Christ, he offers all happiness in place of our misery, all wealth in place of our neediness; in him he opens to us the heavenly treasures that our whole faith may contemplate his beloved Son, our whole expectation depend upon him, and our whole hope cleave to and rest in him.  This, indeed, is that secret and hidden philosophy which cannot be wrested from syllogisms.  But they whose eyes God has opened surely learnt it by heart, that in his light they may see light (Institutes, 3.20.1, trans. Ford Lewis Battles).