Friday, May 26, 2006

Irenaeus on the Church of Rome

"Since in this work it would take too long to list the successions of all the churches, we will consider the great and very ancient church known to all, the church founded and established in Rome by the two glorious apostles Peter and Paul. By showing the tradition received from the apostles and the faith proclaimed to men, which comes to us through the succession of bishops, we refute all who in any way, whether from madness or vainglory or blindness and mistaken thought, gather together beyond what is right. In fact, it is with this church, by reason of her more excellent origin, that every church must necessarily be in agreement--with this Church in which the tradition that comes from the apostles has always been preserved by everyone" (Adv. Haer., 3, 2).

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Unpacking "The Gift of Authority": Toward an Anglican View of Papal Primacy

While a full reading of ARCIC II's "The Gift of Authority" (TGOA) is well worth the effort, and necessary for a full appreciation of this important issue, alas, the nature of the blogosphere is such that we can only effectively handle soundbites. TGOA is a lengthy document, but certainly the most controversial, and most important, section is paragraph 47 (see my last entry below). The following is an attempt to unpack its meaning.

(1) The affirmation of a "specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth" afforded to the Bishop of Rome goes beyond the primus inter pares role that the Eastern Orthodox are willing to acknowledge. Eastern Orthodoxy merely affords a primacy of honor to the Pope; TGOA affords a universal primacy that is exercised as a specific ministry for discerning truth.

(2) By affirming such a role the Anglican partners in this dialogue have made a huge post-Reformation concession, though not one that is necessarily inconsistent with the understanding of the "undivided church of the first millennium," at least not in the West. Western theologians as early as Irenaeus have recognized the Church of Rome's special guardianship of the apostolic faith; regional churches and even Patriarchates have made final appeals to the Papacy on points of controversy and doctrine throughout the first millennium; and even the ecumenical councils were not deemed to be so until ratified by the Bishop of Rome. (It is interesting to note that Eastern Orthodoxy has not presumed to hold an ecumenical council since the Great Schism.)

(3) The statement leaves enough "wiggle room" for the Anglican partners in this dialogue, on the one hand, to affirm this special ministry of discernment for the Bishop of Rome, while, on the other hand, leaving the question wide-open of whether or not the Bishop of Rome can legitimately "pronounce from the chair of Peter" on behalf of the whole Church while the Church is in its present state of division and separation.

(4) This point is especially brought home in the restriction that TGOA places upon such "solemn definitions," namely that "any such definition is prounounced within the college of those who exercise episcope and not outside that college." (Notice the designation "those who exercise episcope." Why didn't they just say "bishops"? My hunch is that this is the closest that the Roman Catholic partners could/would come in acknowledging Anglican ministerial orders.) Be that as it may, it is worth noting that this restriction is at considerable variance with the teaching of Vatican I, which affords the Bishop of Rome the authority to speak of himself in speaking for the Magisterium.

(5) Under such conditions, namely the Pope speaking authoritatively within the college of bishops of a united Church, the Anglican partners in this dialogue have made another large concession: such pronouncements are "wholly reliable," and thus implicitly irreformable, which could indeed be argued (as the Roman partners invariably did argue) is but "papal infalliblity" writ small.

(6) HOWEVER (and this is a big however), by affirming that papal pronouncements have "no stronger guarantee from the Spirit than have the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils" TGOA perhaps has left the door wide open for the Anglican argument that councils "may err, and sometimes have erred" (cf. Article 21). If it's good for a council, it's good for the Pope.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Agreed Anglican/Roman Statement on Papal Primacy: ARCIC II's "The Gift of Authority"

47. Within his wider ministry, the Bishop of Rome offers a specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth, as an expression of universal primacy. This particular service has been the source of difficulties and misunderstandings among the churches. Every solemn definition pronounced from the chair of Peter in the church of Peter and Paul may, however, express only the faith of the Church. Any such definition is pronounced within the college of those who exercise episcope and not outside that college. Such authoritative teaching is a particular exercise of the calling and responsibility of the body of bishops to teach and affirm the faith. When the faith is articulated in this way, the Bishop of Rome proclaims the faith of the local churches. It is thus the wholly reliable teaching of the whole Church that is operative in the judgement of the universal primate. In solemnly formulating such teaching, the universal primate must discern and declare, with the assured assistance and guidance of the Holy Spirit, in fidelity to Scripture and Tradition, the authentic faith of the whole Church, that is, the faith proclaimed from the beginning. It is this faith, the faith of all the baptised in communion, and this only, that each bishop utters with the body of bishops in council. It is this faith which the Bishop of Rome in certain circumstances has a duty to discern and make explicit. This form of authoritative teaching has no stronger guarantee from the Spirit than have the solemn definitions of ecumenical councils. The reception of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome entails the recognition of this specific ministry of the universal primate. We believe that this is a gift to be received by all the churches.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Question of Papal Primacy

[A very interesting take from Archbishop Keshishian of the Armenian Apostolic Church on the ecumenical obstacles of papal primacy. Enjoy!]

By establishing a church in Rome, Peter naturally exercised his personal prerogatives, and the spirit of Petrine privilege remained attached to the local church of Rome. But this never implies a divinely instituted universal jurisdiction for the Bishop of Rome. In the position of the Roman Catholic church I see three problematic elements:
  • First, the very concept of individual succession carries with it, ecclesiologically speaking, a fundamental contradiction: how can the Bishop of Rome embody, either potentially or actually, two episcopal authorities, namely local and universal? One is led to think that the office of Rome is absorbed in the universal trans-apostolic office. If it is so, then the claim of Vatican I for universal jurisdictional power lacks any ecclesiological foundation.
  • Secondly, the bishops, individually or collectively, are not successors of individual apostles but the apostolic college as a whole, and they receive their ministerial power directly from Christ. Therefore, the chair of an apostle or apostolic succession, that is the sedes (the chair), and the sedens (its occupant), must be differentiated. This is very important. For example, the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria is the chair of St. Mark; but the Patriarch of the Coptic Church is not the successor of St. Mark. Again, St. Thaddaeus and St. Bartholomew are the founders of the Armenian Church; but the head of the Armenian Church does not claim to be a successor of these apostles. This is true of all the churches which are founded by the apostles.
  • Thirdly, there are Catholic theologians who still firmly maintain that the pope claims universal jurisdiction not only as the successor of Peter, but also the Vicar of Christ. This further complicates the problem.

--Orthodox Perspectives on Mission, p. 70.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

What do you think: Are the Non-Chalcedonian Churches Catholic?

[The following excerpt is taken from Archbishop Aram Keshishian's paper given at the fifth Pro Oriente Consultation, 18-25 September 1988, in Vienna, Austria. Four unofficial theological consultations between theologians of the Oriental Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church had already taken place between 1971 and 1978, at the invitation of Pro Oriente, an ecumenical foundation of the Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna.]

Chalcedonian Christology has occupied an important place on the agenda of our discussions. An agreement has been reached on the following points.

  • The same apostolic faith was affirmed as the 'common basis' of our faith.
  • The decisions and teachings of Nicea, Constantinople, and Ephesus were accepted by both Churches.
  • The Nestorian and Eutychian teachings were rejected as heresies.
  • The existing differences in theological formulations, interpretations and emphasizes have to be understood in the light of Nicea and Constantinople.
  • The mystery of Christ remains inexhaustible and ineffable. It transcends human perceptions and expressions. Constant and common efforts need to be made to have a more comprehensive grasp of this mystery.

...Having said this, the Oriental Orthodox Churches maintain unequivocally that:

(1) The first three ecumenical councils are the foundation of our Christology, and, as such, they cannot be altered or added to. Chalcedon is only an interpretation of Nicea and Constantinople. The Chalcedonian formula is not a credo but only a theological statement.

(2) The physis of Christ is both human and divine with all the properties of the two natures without mixture, confusion or separation. The human and divine natures do not act separately, but always together, inseparably united in one person. The hypostatic union of two natures makes them one. They are separated in thought alone. 'We confess the oneness of two natures' which, in fact, is not a numerical one, but a united one.

(3) Terminology remains a major problem in Christology. Chalcedonian controversies proved that the same terms and formulations often had different meanings and implications in different cultural and theological contexts. Chalcedon affirmed 'en duo' out of fear of Eutychianism. The Oriental Orthodox Churches held firm 'ek duo' over against the Nestorian tendency. Two sides used different terminologies for different concerns. Their intention, however, was the same: to maintain intact the teachings of the first three ecumenical councils against the invasion of Nestorianism. The words of Nerses the Gracious, a twelfth-century Armenian theologian are, indeed, challenging: 'If "one nature" is said for the indivisible and indissoluble union, and not for the confusion; and "two natures" as being unconfused, immutable and indivisible, both are within the bounds of Orthodoxy.'

--Archbishop Aram Keshishian, Orthodox Perspectives on Mission (1992), pp. 89-90.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Oriental Orthodox take on Unity and Catholicity

Since the thread on defining Anglicanism is winding down I plan to turn to the issue of papal primacy -- undoubtedly a fair issue to raise in light of Anglicanism's claim to a catholicity grounded in the understanding and practice of the undivided church of the first millennium. It is beyond dispute that the Church Catholic of the first millennium, both East and West, acknowledged the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as primus inter pares; and a consistent Anglican Catholic will not only acknowledge this, but is compelled to grapple with the issue.

In preparation for this I have been re-reading a book I picked up in England some ten years ago entitled Orthodox Perspectives on Mission (1992) by Archbishop Aram Keshishian, at the time Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Lebanon. The good Archbishop has a lot of insightful things to say about the dialogue taking place between his communion and the Roman Church and the place of papal primacy in any future reunion.

As an Anglican I find myself strangely in sympathy with the Oriental Orthodox (non-Chalcedonian, a.k.a. Monophysite) churches -- a feeling almost akin to a kinship with them. Now before I'm misunderstood let me reassure my readers that this kinship has nothing to do with an affinity of Christological perspectives. Rather I suspect that the reason for this felt-kinship is that the history of controversy, separation, and mutual recrimination between the Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox (i.e., Chalcedonian) communions in the East mirrors in many respects Anglicanism's relationship with the Roman communion in the West. As a result of similar "black sheep of the family" circumstances, the non-Chalcedonians, like Anglicans, have been compelled to take a hard look at the sad history of discord within the body of Christ and, in my opinion, soberly acknowledge what neither of the two largest branches of the Christian Church have been willing to acknowledge, namely that the divisions in the Church of Christ on earth are real, not apparent.

I leave you with a quote from the good Archbishop that resonates with my own thoughts expressed here in my blog:

"...Unity is not a man-made reality, but a gift of God which can only be received, and, if lost, rediscovered. Therefore, the unity of the church is neither merger nor theological consensus, but the restoration of eucharistic communion in the apostolic faith.

"With such an understanding of unity the Oriental Orthodox Churches believe that the one church has never ceased to exist. The unity of the church has been only obscured due to historical circumstances. The Oriental Orthodox Churches understand themselves as faithfully continuing the apostolic tradition of the one undivided church. They believe, however, that the fullness of the apostolic communion 'has always to be manifested more fully, and this in company with all other Christians at work in the world.'"

--Orthodox Perspective on Mission, p. 85.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Toward an Anglican definition of "Catholic": my attempt

In my short definition in an earlier post I described Anglicanism as the British expression of the catholic and apostolic faith as manifested in and mediated through the Church of England, et al. I realize that the two terms "catholic" and "apostolic" beg further clarification.

The second term is the easier of the two to define and to demonstrate historically. To be "apostolic" is to possess a demonstrable and continuous historical link of faith and practice from the time of the apostles onwards. Anglicanism recognizes herself as apostolic, while not denying it of others, claiming the ancient roots and uninterrupted history of Christianity in Great Britain from apostolic times as her own unique story.

On the other hand, "catholic" is harder to nail down for Anglicans, particularly because of how the term has been employed in the post-East/West schism era (i.e., since 1054). Hence, Rome and Byzantium employ the term "catholic" more or less exclusively of their own respective communions, identifying both their pre- and post-schism development co-terminously with it. As a result, Rome and Byzantium since the schism have developed quite disparate understandings of what it means to be "catholic" that are mutually exclusive. We all know, at least in broad strokes, the end result of this sad millennium-old game of semantics between East and West: e.g., for the Roman, there is no "fullness of the catholic faith" without papal supremacy and infallibility; for the Orthodox, no catholicity without, say, full-blown Eastern iconology (just to name but one obvious example).

Anglicanism, on the other hand, did not come of age as a separate and independent tradition until the constitutional changes took place in the 16th century that made its "going-it-alone" posture inevitable. This is the most important factor that must be taken into account in understanding the Anglican definition of catholicity. Simply put, prior to her independent existence, the Church of England possessed at least two shared catholic identities: (1) pre-East/West schism -- a catholic identity in common with the undivided church; and (2) post-schism / pre-Reformation -- a catholic identity in common with the pre-Counter Reformation Roman Church.

For better or for worse, Anglicanism at the same time appropriated into its apostolic life and witness a strong Protestant character, which, on the positive side of things, meant a conscious return to the biblical witness in the reformation of its life and witness. (We could talk a lot about the negative side of this, but we won't here.) However, the Church of England did not go the sola Scriptura route of its continental counterparts in defining the terms and parameters of her perceived catholicity. Rather she consistently defined catholicity in terms of the Church of England's conscious continuity and identity with the understanding and practice of the undivided church (i.e., the first shared identity above) where such was consistent with the witness of Holy Scripture. This was the natural course for the newly liberated Church of England to go, for in leaving the moorings of Rome, she admitted to the deficiencies of the second shared identity.

This perception of catholicity was expounded by her first apologists -- Jewel, Hooker, and Field -- and has remained an indelible characteristic of Anglican identity ever since. Were the opinions or judgments of these men, or of the Church of England, or of her most eminent divines down through history, or of the worldwide Anglican Communion of subsequent generations, always "catholic" or even correct on every specific issue addressed? No, of course not. No Anglican would ever make this claim. The strength of Anglicanism is that, unlike the Roman and Eastern Orthodox bodies, it admits of no system of distinctively Anglican theology that is co-terminous with what it means to be "catholic." What is catholic within Anglicanism is what is shared with the undivided Church of the first millennium -- EVEN IF ONLY IMPLICIT. This means that catholicity within Anglicanism is something that is self-consciously lived into and realized in each generation of Anglican faith and practice, with each generation ideally contributing to a further and better explication of, and yes, even a discovery of, what it means to be catholic.

Of course, this task would be much easier if it were done in relation to all those who claim the name "catholic."

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Anglican and Orthodox Differences in Ecclesiology

I found this helpful statement, which I think captures the heart of the issue, in an article by Fr. John Daly, a former Episcopalian turned Eastern Orthodox. The link is provided below:

"...While we agree that the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, we are not agreed on the account to be given of the sinfulness and division which is to be observed in the life of Christian communities. For Anglicans, because the Church under Christ it is the community where God’s grace is at work, healing and transforming sinful men and women; and because grace in the Church is mediated through those who are themselves undergoing such transformation, the struggle between grace and sin is seen as characteristic of, rather than accidental to, the Church on earth. Orthodox while agreeing that the human members of the Church on earth are sinful, do not believe that sinfulness should be ascribed to the Church as the Body of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit."

(Problems of Ecclesiology between Anglicans and Orthodox in the Dublin Agreed Statement, 1984. See

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Okay, here it goes: My Definition of Anglicanism

Long Answer: The sum total of the historical, spiritual/theological, and political/constitutional factors and influences that formed, shaped, and continues to guide the British expression of the catholic and apostolic faith, particularly as this expression is manifested in and mediated through the historical succession of the Church of England and of all her descendent, apostolically-constituted churches and jurisdictions throughout the world.

Short Answer: The British expression of the catholic and apostolic faith as manifested in and mediated through the Church of England and her descendent, apostolically-constituted churches and jurisdictions throughout the world.

Until next time.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What is Anglicanism? Part 2

Some great discussion ensued in the comment section of my last entry on this question, which I fear will come to an end once I publish my own thoughts. I hope this won't be the case. So please feel free to comment, criticize, or even to help me out in my attempt to define what essentially amounts to an abstraction of the concrete experiences of those of us who belong to the great Anglican family of churches. But, alas, I'm not going to give my answer just yet! First, I wish to comment on two approaches that deserve consideration:

(1) Anglicanism as a Reformation Tradition. This view understands the Reformation formularies (e.g., BCP, Articles) along with distinctive Protestant teachings (such as justification by faith alone and sola Scriptura) as being of such normative and essential character to the definition of what it means to be an Anglican that Anglicanism itself could not exist without them. While many who think this way will readily acknowledge a degree of continuity with the pre-Reformation Church of England, and even see such as a virtue, there is nonetheless no real sense that such continuity (e.g., historic succession of bishops) is of the essence of Anglicanism, let alone of the essence of the Church itself.

(2) Anglicanism as the Ancient Catholic Faith Restored. This view is a bit more difficult to nail down in a brief summary, because its proponents may take widely different paths to reach the same end. For instance, I suggest that this view is common to both the old Non-Juring party and the early Tractarians, though they approached and answered the question in quite different ways. Lately, Andrewes' formula -- 1 Bible, 2 Testaments, 3 Creeds, 4 Councils, and 5 Centuries -- has been revived in some Anglican circles (particularly those who aspire to be traditional Anglicans) to champion the idea that Anglicanism holds out the best hope in modern times for those looking for a church of patristic faith and practice. The claim is made that Anglicanism is a tradition unencumbered by the accretions of both Rome and Orthodoxy while at the same time free to pick and choose features from one or the other or both!

The estimation of the Reformation will vary greatly among those embracing this second approach, depending on particular prejudices for and/or against. However, it is worth noting that in the end it was the intellectual demise of this second approach in Newman's mind that compelled him to leave the Church of England for Rome, and brought an end to the Tractarian phase of the Oxford Movement.

Now these two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Anglicans have a penchant for mixing and matching. I used to run in circles that were quite comfortable with maintaining the co-existence of both approaches. However, I do think that it is more common to see individual Anglicans give emphasis either to one or the other . For many years I espoused, promoted, and taught the second approach, while playing down, as much as I could, the first.

Until next time.

P.S. The image above is the commemorative stamp of the baptism of King Ethelbert of Kent by St. Augustine of Canterbury in 597 which came out in 1997.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Question to my readers: What is Anglicanism?

I'm currently teaching a course on Anglicanism over three weekends for another seminary (other than the one that employs me full-time). We just finished the first weekend seminar on the early period of the Christian History of Britain (up to 1066). At the beginning of the seminar I raised the question to my students: what is Anglicanism? Periodically throughout the seminar we paused in the historical overview to ponder this question and how we might articulate a comprehensive definition. Over the course of the next two seminars we will continue this discussion, but I don't plan to answer the question for them, though of course I will continue to guide them in their attempts to come up with an answer. They will see this question again on the final examination. I thought it might be fun to open this question up to a wider audience. So what say ye? What is Anglicanism? What does it mean to be Anglican? This should be fun.

Until next time.

P.S. The image above is the Shrine of St. Alban, first martyr of Britain.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sacraments as Language, II

…Perchance if Sacraments ever do enter into the discussion of Christians (which they often do in seminaries) so caught up are we modern Christians in re-hashing the old controversies which tragically divided Christendom in the 16th century that we miss the utter simplicity of them. This is because we have forgotten how to speak our "mother tongue."

Consequently we are accustomed to think of the Sacraments in one of two outmoded, if not unhelpful, paradigms. The first is…the objectivist model. The objectivist model places emphasis on the sacraments as operative means of salvation, captured in the somewhat infamous Latin phrase ex opere operato. Here we are encouraged to think of sacraments in mechanical ways, quasi-automatic in their effects. Grace is "produced" by them, or is seen as a product of their administration. Baptism is described in terms of implanting a "germ" or "seed" into the soul; and Holy Communion as a "medicine", "potion", or "remedy" for good spiritual health. Questions which focus on the validity of form, matter and intent, not to mention the proper ministers to celebrate them, pre-occupy polemical dialogue and debate both between and within various churches. Sacraments are viewed as necessary "channels" of grace, and inevitably the efficacy of the Gospel is very limited and exclusive – for only those who receive sacraments receive grace. It is not only necessary to go to church to be saved, but one must go to the right church to be saved.

Equally disturbing is the subjectivist model, spawned by reaction to the abuses of a Medieval Church in the throes of an addiction to a sacramentalism grounded in the objectivist model. Here emphasis is placed on the subjective sincerity – whether doctrinal, moral, or spiritual – of those who actively celebrate and partake of the sacraments. If there is any profit to be had or effect that takes place in the sacraments it wholly depends on what the participant brings to the Table (pun intended!). Baptism and the Lord's Supper – ordinances commanded and instituted by Christ himself – are at the mercy of the individual's sincerity. But…how "hearty" must our repentance be to convince God that our repentance is sincere? How "true" must our faith be before it rings true to God? The tendency is towards "Pelagian rigorism," which is precisely why the subjectivist model fails so miserably to lead a person to Christ.

Abuses associated with both models, the fruition of taking them to their logical extremes, is no doubt the primary reason why the sacraments have fallen into a general state of disuse and abuse in the modern Western Church. The objectivist model subjugates subjective (i.e., personal) response, rendering it redundant as a result. The subjectivist model subjugates objective effect (i.e., operative grace), denying it altogether in the process. Both tendencies are akin to the failure of the modern Western Church to understand the DISTINCTION IN UNITY of person and nature – a distinction altogether grounded in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. In the objectivist model, personhood is sacrificed on the "altar" of nature. In the subjectivist model, nature is sacrificed on the "altar" of person.

As a result, we fail to appreciate (ironically) the one thing to which both sides seem to pay lip service: that the salient point of the Sacraments is the gratuitous communication of God in Christ to believers, along with the corresponding faith response of believers to God in Christ – hence, Sacraments considered as language and dialogue. In fact, I will go further in my definition of the term "Sacrament": Sacraments are Divine-language incarnated in tangible, created matter – water, bread and wine. Is it any wonder that the ancients described them as "visible words"? The ancient faith and universal consensus of the Church has always affirmed that the Sacraments which the Church celebrates in faith necessarily have a spiritual efficacy which we call "grace," precisely because they are grounded in the truth and the event of the Incarnation – the "hem" of Jesus' garment. Why is this? It is God in Christ who meets us in them, because he promised to meet us in them. It is Christ who clothes us in the baptism of his own death and resurrection; Christ who bids us to feed upon his own glorified flesh and drink his glorified blood. It is only when the Sacraments are once again considered in terms of language – the medium of true relationship and real presence – that we can begin to rescue them from both abuse and disuse in the modern Church.

Sacraments as Language

The recent discussion on language and grammar incited by my last entry is reminiscent of a lecture that I gave a few years back in which I defined the Sacraments as "Divine-language incarnated in tangible, created matter (water, bread, wine)." For the Church, I argued, Sacraments are the fundamental vocabulary of our "Mother Tongue." Here's an excerpt from the conclusion of my paper relating to baptism:

One of the first things that all new parents do at the birth of a child is to cuddle and comfort that child with the "coos" and gentle re-assuring sounds of their voices. It does not matter that the baby in their arms cannot define the words spoken or even that it will ever remember that particular moment. All that matters is that someday our children will understand. They will not only learn to recognize the voice of the parent they will also learn how to speak the parent's language, and consequently the language of the parent will undergo a transformation to become the language of the family. Someday they too will be parents and cuddle and comfort their own children with the "coos" and gentle re-assuring sounds of their voices; and the cycle will be repeated generation after generation, "even unto the end of the world."

In Baptism in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, even when it takes place in the earliest moments of a child's existence (for those of us who practice infant baptism), God speaks to us in Divine "coos" and re-assuring words. It does not matter that we cannot yet understand what He says, or even whether we will ever be able to recall that particular moment. The only thing that matters is that one day we will understand: that it was at this very moment that our Father told the world "This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased"; that a Husband rejoiced with his spotless Bride over the birth of another child and its inclusion in the family; that our Mother, the Church, held a child to her breast and promised in the power of the Spirit to love, nurture, and protect that child from harm's way.

Monday, May 01, 2006

A brief reflection inspired by C.S. Lewis' understanding of language and metaphor

My thinking, indeed my whole theological method, has been driven lately by the idea of metaphor. As C.S. Lewis argued in his essay Bluspels and Flalansferes all language is incurably metaphorical, even that language intended by its speaker to be straightfoward and objective. It is just such an observation that led Lewis to believe that the more intentional we are in our use of metaphor the more meaningful our language is. Hence the poet speaks more meaningfully than the philosopher.

If I may borrow this observation, I would suggest that the liturgist speaks more meaningfully than the theologian. Both have their place in the church, but the discipline of theology involves the employment of reason to discern truth in the attempt to achieve objectivity. In doing this the successful theologian must attempt to minimize metaphor for the sake of simplicity in the hope of attaining clarity. On the other hand the Church through its liturgy, with its intentional use of metaphor, attempts to incarnate multiple levels of meaning that can never be completely comprehended or totally exhausted by reason. Simplicity is not the goal, nor is it ever the goal, of true incarnational worship. The Church through its anamnesis, or "effectual reenactment," of the story of redemption (the "true myth" of God using Lewis' meaning here) taps into a reality that cannot be detected by the senses or by empirical investigation -- all the more indicative of the importance of metaphor to en-flesh the truth of God. For this reason the Catholic priority of prayer over creed is essentially correct: the rule of prayer (lex orandi) is indeed the rule of belief (lex credendi).

Until next time.