Sermon: A Cross-Shaped Church

Today’s sermon is here: A Cross-Shaped Church

Last week, we began to look around. We let our gaze take in the shape of our church. There’s the nave: the overturned boat inside which the faithful gather on their journey away from the chaos of sin and death and to God’s new creation. The chancel: the place that is separated, that is cut off, that symbolically expresses the place where we’re headed in our little ship. And there’s the transept: the aisle that both links the nave and chancel together and at the same time cuts across to keep them apart.

When the three sections merge in our minds, two shapes are encountered. First, there’s a human shape. There’s a head, shoulders and arms, and a body that together remind us of the cosmic scope of the Christian story. Christianity tells a story about humanity’s place in the world, and the about the God who has placed us here and why. Christians tell a story about the beauty, the wonder, and the power of creative love: the love of God from which the cosmos has come and to which it will return. The love of God that has made each of us a little lower than the angels and filled with dignity.

We noticed another shape, too, though. And this one is considerably darker. Nave transept and chancel also combine to form a cross. The familiar symbol for the faith as a whole and for its founder, the Lord Jesus. What does the cross-shape tell us about the God who is creative love? What does it tell us about the one who, in his own human body, became the person in whom God’s creative love was shown to be a strong and saving love? What does it tell us about the people who claim this story as their own? Those are the questions I would have us reflect on today.

That sounds fairly straight forward, but in fact this reflection is quite hard. Not simply because that’s a lot to fit into 17 minutes (yes, I do time my sermons), but because of our very familiarity of the cross as the symbolic expression of Christian faith. It might be wise for us to remember that it was not always so. In the first centuries of Christian faith, the horrible death of its founder was scandalous—to Jewish and Gentile people alike, whether they were his followers or not. For everyone, the cross was a symbol of the Roman power to take life, not of God’s power to give it. If we were to look for the cross, in fact, we would be hard-pressed find one in the first three centuries of Christian art. Today, after 1700 years of cultural acceptance, the cross is no longer simply a church decoration, it can be found everywhere. And in its omnipresence, it has been emptied of meaning.

If we are going to reflect together on the questions I just mentioned, and do it honestly and authentically; if we are going to wrestle with this hard part of the Christian story, then we need first to recover the scandal that the cross brought upon the first Christians. So let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose behind me on the reredos, or atop the crucifer’s staff, or large and gaze filling, as over the belltower chapel, you were to see a hangman’s noose. How would you respond? Viscerally? Negatively? Certainly you would! I would. Now, keeping that visceral negative lurch in mind, hear these words: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Christ, and him crucified.” (So wrote Paul to that educated, urban, and urbane group of Christians in the city of Corinth, reminding them of the horrific source of their saving hope).

In Corinth, as throughout the ancient world, the cross and its message scandalized Jews and Gentiles both. But early Christians could not excise the cross from their imaginations. It was part and parcel of the faith because it expressed something that actually happened. The one whom they confessed as Lord even over Caesar had been murdered on a Roman Cross. And indeed, they proclaimed, that death, that single event, was the site where the rift between human beings and God was bridged, where God’s enemies were defeated, and creation set right. The cross is thus both an offense, and the bedrock of the good news. Once we lay hold of both ends, the horror and the hope, we will be ready to reflect on the questions that come with a cross-shaped church.

What does the cross tell us about the God who is creative love?

It tells us that this God exercises his power in a way that looks awfully like weakness. The God of the Christian story is creator of all. “Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha olam,” if you’ve ever been to a synagogue or a Jewish wedding or funeral or bar mitzvah, you’ve heard those words. Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the universe. The Christian story cannot deny that any more than it can deny its own Jewish roots. Look at our scriptures—the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible; the books of the New Testament with only two exceptions were written by Jews. But the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, does not exercise power the way we expect a king to do so. God exercises power by refusing to act as his enemies do. God exercises power by submitting to their judgment. God exercises power by going to the cross. God exercises power by giving up his human life.

And that is offensive. At least, it has been to many, many people. Not least, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This story, he said, valorizes weakness and dresses up the base in a false nobility. But of course, the offense is much older than that, isn’t it? What did Peter say when Jesus told the disciples that his way to glory was the way of the cross? “Surely not, Lord! This must never happen to you.” It’s offensive because it looks for all the world like a failure, like the worst of all disappointments.

Except. Except the creative love that is God, that was incarnate in the man Jesus, cannot stay dead. “I have power to lay [my life] down,” says Jesus in the Gospel of John, “and I have power to take it up again,” (John 10:18). The powers are free to do their worst. And Jesus on the cross submits, and yet refuses their word as the last word. He does not fight the enemy on the enemy’s own terms—with an army of angels visiting vengeance on the hordes of hell. He takes all his enemy can throw at him and swallows it in the divine mercy. And in the resurrection, the victory of mercy is announced. The last word is life. That is good news!

What does the cross tell us about the one who, in his own human body, showed God’s creative love to be a strong and saving love?

It tells us that the One who is both God and man knows what it is to suffer. There is a sense, of course, in which every instance of human suffering is unique. Tolstoy expressed it well in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So it is with suffering. Every human being suffers; but each suffers uniquely. And yet, the God of creative love is not remote from such suffering, for in the grand refusal to abandon the objects of his affection, in the grand entrance into our space and time as one of us, he took on all that it meant to be human. He knows human suffering not in some remote way unique to being divine, but because as Jesus of Nazareth, God suffered as a man. So it is that, as the medieval imagination grasped during the plague epidemics that swept across the continent, this was one who knew what it was to suffer, and in some way suffered with them, even still, taking their suffering into his own being and offering it as a prayer for release to his Father.

It tells us, moreover, of the depth of his embrace of the human condition. If he has suffered even to the point of death, then he has left no depth unplumbed. He has taken all of it and made it his own. Whatever has not been assumed, said St. Gregory Nazianzus, has not been healed. What he meant was, the saving work of Christ depended upon his becoming human, his drawing of human nature—all humanity—into God by himself becoming a human being. If any realm of human experience, any space of human action, any piece of human being has not been been embraced by God the Son, then we are not saved. The humbling of Christ unto death, even death on a cross, is the Christian story’s way of saying, there is no remainder. He has embraced it all. And because he has, we are saved. That is good news.

What does the cross tell us about the people who claim this story as their own?

It tells us that we cannot save ourselves. That the fabric that once united God and creation, God and human creatures, has been so badly torn that it cannot be mended from our end. That all our attempts to mend it will finally fail. It makes plain the reality of sin. We’ve run into that word, sin, a couple of times. And perhaps we need to pause here to talk a bit more about it. The great Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge tells of meeting a parishioner having just come from a Catholic funeral for a teenager tragically killed in a car accident. “They prayed,” said the parishioner shaking with rage, “that she be forgiven her sins. This fourteen year old child. Her sins!”

Rutledge goes on to wonder why her parishioner’s imagination had so atrophied that she could not think of a teenager as a sinner. Perhaps it was because she was—like all of us—inclined to think of sin as a list of actions we shouldn’t do. Most fourteen year olds certainly haven’t got too long a list and whatever is on there can be excused because of youth, foolishness, and lack of life-learned wisdom. But the cross makes no allowance for age. It tells us—all of us—that sin has ripped us away from the God of creative love to such an extent that we cannot find our way back on our own. It is a sobering, even odious thought.

Except. Except that it also tells us of our value and dignity, the glory with which we were created. The glory we spoke of last week when we read Psalm 8 together. God will not leave his creation to its own self-willed destruction, and that means, that in God’s eyes we are still the objects of desire, delight, and eternal affection. God will not leave us on the wrong side of the rift. Rather than leave the rift in place and remain alone in glorious perfection, the God of creative love stepped across the abyss, entered into the mess, the suffering, the pain, the entirety of the human condition, embraced it and made it his own. “And he humbled himself,” chanted some ancient Christians, “and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” And Jesus did that so that no one would remain lost, isolated, and alone. So that no one would remain in sin’s prison. But that all would recover their true dignity as the image of God, and their true destiny as sharing as fully as a creature can in God’s creative love. That is good news!

But we’re not quite done yet. I just mentioned an early Christian hymn to Jesus that Paul preserves for us in his letter to the church in the city of Philippi. Here’s a little more of that hymn “who, though he was in the form of God, considered equality with God not something to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave and being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

What a beautiful expression of the cruciform shape God’s love took in the incarnation, ministry and death of Jesus. But let’s look now at St. Paul’s preface to the hymn: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in the Messiah, Jesus.” This mind. The mind that refuses the rights and privileges proper to one’s station. The mind that embraces radical obedience to God, even to the point of death. This mind, says Paul to the Philippian Christians—and to us—is to be in you, too! We serve not only a cross-shaped God, who embraced all that it means to be human for us and for our salvation, but as we do so, and insofar as we do so, we become a cross-shaped people. A people with the mind of Christ.

To love God’s creation even to the point of death, betting on the hope that creative love cannot abandon creation to destruction—now, that is an awfully big adventure! And that is the adventure to which the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth have been called. We are here, in this cross-shaped space, to become just a little bit more conformed to the cross-shape that is the shape of creative love in and for a fallen world. And I’ll talk more about that next week.


Nave and Chancel: The Scope of the Christian Story

Audio is available here: The Scope of the Christian Story

Everybody has a story. What’s yours? All of us are shaped by events, people, places, things. All of us are “storied,” in that sense. Maybe we say, everybody is a story.

Advertisers bet on that. If it weren’t true, they’d be out of work! It used to be that products were sold to us based on what they could do—“Tide keeps your whites cleaner than clean,” or on our preferences: “Eighty percent of people preferred Pepsi over Coke in the Pepsi Challenge.”

Now, advertisers sell us stories. The products are the means by which we make those stories ours. “Give yourself a KitKat. Give yourself a break.” That’s not selling candy; that’s selling the story that you are a hard-working, industrious person who needs a break. KitKat is there to help you.

We are sold stories about what kind of people we want to be and become. We are sold the stories that make us, us. In fact, that’s our culture’s big story. The one that animates everything we do: we are who we are, or we become who we wish to become, through what we buy. We dress it up in radical individualism sometimes, “I am the captain of my fate; I am the master of my soul,” as Henley’s poem Invictus tells us. But if we peel back that liberating layer, we are more likely to see that we are, or we become, the stories the corporations push at us to make a profit.

Christianity is also a story. Sometimes we are tempted to make Christian faith a little story, like the story of KitKat. We buy KitKats because we are hard workers who need a break; we buy organic because we are socially conscious hard workers. And we add just a little Christianity because we are socially conscious hard workers who are open to the mystery of the universe.

But what if Christianity is not a little story? What if Christian faith challenges the “you become what you buy” story? What if it tells another, bigger (and ultimately better and more beautiful) story?

That’s the question that will bubble away under the sermons for the next few weeks and one I want us to come back to every so often. What if the story that we see and hear and act out every Sunday is a story that wants to consume our whole lives and transform us into entirely new and different kinds of people?

Let’s look around. Don’t attend to what’s going on as much as to where you are. Let your gaze take in as much of the space as it can. What do you see? What catches your eye? This space is designed to tell the Christian story. Often, we don’t even know it’s being told or that we are taking it in. And yet there it is. Over the next few weeks, we are going to have a look at the furnishings—the particulars—to see how they tell us different parts of the story. But this week and next, I want us to look at the space itself, to see what it tells us. Let’s look around.

Our worship space is made up of three intersecting areas. The largest space is the nave. That’s where you’re sitting. Its name comes from the Latin word, navis, or ship. St. Peter tells us in his New Testament letter, the church is the new Noah’s Ark that rescues the faithful from the chaos of sin and death and delivers them safely to God’s new creation. If you allow your eyes to follow the pillars up the wall to the ceiling, the nave kind of looks like an overturned boat doesn’t it?

The second largest space is the chancel, where I am now standing. Its name is also Latin—cancelli, which means lattice work. The chancel once separated from the nave by a lattice screen. You might remember its old English name, rood screen. Sometimes it’s called the sanctuary, or holy place, because Holy Communion takes place here.

Last, between nave and chancel, is the transept, a rectangular aisle that cuts across the church. In fact, its name—also Latin—tells you exactly what it does. “Transept” means “across the enclosure.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, I’m not sitting through seven weeks of Latin lessons! Don’t worry. I’m not either. But now you have a sense of shape and the names that go with the shape.

When you take in the three parts together, what do you see ?

Some of you might see a cross. Many churches, from ancient times are or cross-shaped; we’ll talk about being a cross-shaped people next week. But there’s another figure there, in the union of the chancel, the transept, and the nave. Do you see it? A head, shoulders and arms, and a torso. It’s a human being. The Christian Story is a human story.

The Christian story is a big story—a metanarrative is what some philosophers call it—about humanity’s place in the cosmos. Listen to how the Psalmist places human beings in God’s cosmos:

O Lord, our Sovereign,    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.     Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,    to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,    the moon and the stars that you have established;  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,    mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,    and crowned them with glory and honour.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;    you have put all things under their feet,  all sheep and oxen,    and also the beasts of the field,  the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign,    how majestic is your name in all the earth!


The Psalmist takes language usually restricted to kings and princes in the ancient world and applies it to every human being. God has made everything, including every human being. God has crowned every human being with dignity and honour. God has placed human beings in creation in a representative role. Our value is found not in our race, our sex, our religion, our age, our wealth, or on any other way we seek to distinguish ourselves. Our value lies in that God has created us, and in the task to which God has called us. Human beings—every single one—find their dignity not in what we can purchase, but in the fact that each of us has been created by God, to be God’s image in the world.

Every grand story—whether the story told by the Christian faith or by late modern capitalism (the two we know best) or another—answers five questions. In Psalm 8, we find Jewish and Christian answers to the first three.

Who are we? We are God’s representatives in creation.

Where did we come from? We were created and placed by God in a universe of God’s making.

Why are we here? We are here to care for all that God has made.

So it is that the Christian story begins with God’s love. God created an orderly universe and placed us in it for no other reason than God desired that it be so. God loved the universe, and us, God conceived it and us, and God brought it, and us, into being. And in love, God holds it and us in being moment to moment.

This, says Dante, is the love that moves the stars.

And as God’s representatives, this is the love that we are to model. We are to care for creation and recognize and act upon the dignity of every human being, even as God would and does. This is a story with cosmic scope and everyday ethical import. It has not only to do with God’s care for us, but our care for each other and for God’s world.

And that’s a problem.

Because, of course, all we have to do is look at the news to see that human beings don’t treat each other or God’s world with love and reverence; all we have to do is look out our windows to see that nature, while often beautiful, is just as often not. I remember the horror on my son’s face as he watched a raccoon raid a squirrel’s nest when we lived in Norway Bay. How can God be the creator of a universe in which human beings suffer at the hands of others, in which the life of some depends on the death of others?

If the Christian story can make a claim upon our hearts as offering a glimpse of what is Good and True and Beautiful, it must face squarely the fourth question: What went wrong?

The Bible is a book largely about what went wrong. The story that it tells is attuned to human suffering and sin. It is aware of predation, sickness, and death. Last year our seniors’ bible study worked through the Old Testament books of Judges and Ruth, and by the end we were tired of their sometimes horrific realism.

The New Testament contains a book that probably was once a sermon actually preached in an ancient Christian community. It’s called the Book of Hebrews. Its writer, knowing very well that things had gone off the rails, makes this comment on Psalm 8: “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to [human beings].” This is a subdued statement that humans have failed in their calling to love as God loves. It is a brief, but real acknowledgement of evil, suffering, and death. Of all that the Bible gathers together under that little word, sin.

Something has gone wrong. Of that there can be no doubt. But is that it? No. There’s one more big question. How will things be set right?

What stops the Christian story from ending as tragedy is its firm conviction that the God who created out of sheer love will not leave what is loved to destruction. That God will set things right.

Still commenting on Psalm 8, the author of Hebrews tells us where that conviction comes from. “As it is, we do not see everything in subjection to human beings, but we do see Jesus.” The last question is answered not by a theory, but a person. Well, that gets us into next week’s sermon.

This morning there’s just one more point I want to make.

Christian faith is a story about humanity, and its place, your place, in the cosmos God has created. You can read that cosmic scope from the human shape of our building.

But the Christian story is not tidy. It is not tidy, because actual human lives are not tidy. It is complicated and complex because you are complicated and complex and so am I. It does not offer certainty. It does not offer “10 steps to a happy life.” It is a story of your cosmic place mine. A story that insists you and I begin and our end in God’s love. And that is good news.


Christ With Us in a World Gone Mad

Here is my latest column at ChristianWeek. I am very fortunate to be a contributor to this fine publication. If you’re not already familiar with it, take some time to look at its stories and columns. It is an important venue for Canadian Christians to express themselves and listen to each other!

BTW, if the column strikes a chord,  comment, whether there or here!

The Third Year Blues

As I come to my third anniversary at the Epiphany, I find this article quite interesting. I wonder if any others out there can resonate with it or wish to comment on their own experience. I am particularly interested to hear from pastors who made it through. . . . Was this your experience? How did you get through it? Or, how did you avoid it?

The Gifts of Reformational Catholicism

This is a paper I was invited to give to a meeting of the Christian Medical and Dental Society, sponsored by Augustine College, and held at the Laurentian Leadership Centre of Trinity Western University in Ottawa.


On November 8 of last year, the gadfly Presbyterian pastor, theologian and author, Peter J. Leithart created a significant amount of internet controversy, especially in Reformed and Evangelical circles, by publishing the essay, “The End of Protestantism,” on the First Things website, where he blogs regularly.[1] In that piece, he argued that Protestantism—broadly defined as a perpetual, negative reaction to all things Roman Catholic—needs to, and indeed is coming to, an end. In its place, he hoped a Reformational Catholicism would emerge; a position which, without negating the classical emphases of the Reformation, no longer needed to define itself over against Roman Catholicism, but sought more to accentuate what the traditions held in common: the Scriptures, the Creeds, the first 1500 years of Christian faith, and so on.

The ensuing controversy, as so many things are on the blogosphere, was amorphous and largely nasty. Leithart’s critics were many, and most of these felt he had sold the farm. An attempt toward a more constructive reflection on the matter took place as a public conversation entitled “The Future of Protestantism,” held at Biola University in Los Angeles. Co-sponsored by the Davenant Trust and First Things, it featured Leithart as well as responses by Carl Trueman and Fred Sanders.[2] While the content offered by all three speakers was helpful, I couldn’t help but feel that that Leithart on one side and Trueman and Sanders on the other spent much of the evening talking past each other because of different working definitions of Protestantism. Leithart assumed a largely sociological definition that sought to encompass liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum, and all shades in between. He was talking about a movement within history; one that, in his opinion, is now entering its denouement. In his opening remarks, as in his original essay, he expressed the hope—as some have noted, in rather Hegelian fashion—to try to sketch the contours of what would replace it. Leithart’s Reformational Catholicism is to be understood as a great act of Aufhebung, that is,a simultaneous discarding and taking up of the past while going forward into the future. Trueman and Sanders, on the other hand, defined Protestantism both conservatively and doctrinally. It was a system or collection of fairly fixed doctrines that, because they were true, needed to abide and to be defended by any and all perceived attempts to weaken those doctrines. And any attempt at downplaying the differences with Roman Catholicism—and this is clearly what Leithart was up to—needed to be protested.[3]

While the conversation has continued, the positions have hardened and the mutual misunderstanding has only continued. In my opinion, Leithart failed to convince anyone not already sympathetic to his project and the critics failed similarly. Leithart has to my mind drawn a line under the conversation, or at least his own contribution to it, in the recent essay, “Staying Put,” in which he insists he is not about to become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, or, me genoita! (since we talked about skoubalon this morning, I thought I’d through that in), an Anglican. He will stay in his Presbyterian denomination, and continue to advance Reformational Catholicism within it.[4] While several reasons were offered, the most important was theological. In Leithart’s own words:

My main reason for staying put is theological. God is alive, and that means he surprises, and that means he frustrates the silly projections of creatures who can’t see past the horizon. Jesus will unite his church. He asked his Father to make his disciples one, and the Father won’t give his Son a stone when he asks for one loaf. But the united church won’t look like any of the products presently on the market. God is an entrepreneur who is in the business of creating new markets.[5]

I begin this paper with a nod to Rev. Leithart because I am in fundamental sympathy with his project. I think the sociological evidence is incontrovertible: Protestantism—in all its varieties and iterations—is dying in the West. What, 25 years ago, was seen as a liberal Protestant disease that led to some conservative sneers is, today, an epidemic across the spectrum. The United States, like Canada and Europe before it, is losing its faith. This is hardly news. The question that Leithart has asked, and his critics have often missed, is what is going to replace it.

I confess, I do not know. From within my own denomination and diocese, that lack of knowledge coupled with the increasing closing of parishes and “streamlining” of budgets keeps me perpetually unsettled. And when that discomfort approaches anxiety, as it does more often these days, it is hard not to look longingly at Rome for the rest it might offer. With Leithart, however, I do feel the call of God to stay where I am, a priest in a church founded by a King who wanted a divorce, I am a priest in a church now tearing itself apart over marriage, but still a church where at least sometimes, the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments faithfully administered. (Those of you of a Reformed persuasion will note I omitted “discipline faithfully applied,” Calvin’s third mark of the church alongside word and sacrament. That was not an accident. It is also a topic for another paper).

To return to the topic I was assigned, if Leithart is right that, going forward into an uncharted furture is not going to be a matter of individual or group conversions to Rome, but some sort of growing together that preserves the gifts God gave to his Church uniquely through the Reformation, what are those things? In the remainder of this paper, I want to advance three. One doctrinal, one liturgical, and one, political.

  • The Centrality of the Word


Doctrinally, Reformational Catholicism would, I hope, continue to insist on the centrality of Holy Scripture  as a guide for both personal and corporate piety. The writings of the Fathers, the Saints, and so on, as helpful as they might be, must themselves be submitted to the scrutiny of the Word of God.  Of course, this touches on one of the neuralgic questions of the Reformation—do we begin with Scripture or Church?—so I need to start with a couple of qualifications.

First, I am not talking about a particular theory of inspiration or infallibility or inerrancy. These issues have their place in Christian theological reflection. But they are simply not what I am talking about here. I am talking rather about how Scripture is deployed in communities of faith. Is its reading and careful application central to decision-making from the highest level down? Second, I am not challenging the place and importance of some sort magisterial organ of interpretation of Holy Scripture. Here, in my view, the classical Reformation does not depart from Rome on whether there should be such a thing, but rather, on the matters of what such a thing should and does look like, and whether that magisterium must itself from time to time be corrected. The classical Protestant tradition heartily agrees that sola Scriptura does NOT mean that each unaided can interpret the Bible correctly, but would nevertheless affirm that the Scriptures are themselves the organ used by the Spirit of God to judge, purify, and heal his church when it seems to stray.

In short, beginning with the question, “What do the Scriptures say?” is, I think, a gift Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole Church, and one that I hope it will continue into the future.

To unpack just what this gift in action might look like, I direct us to the French-Swiss Reformer, John Calvin, and his understanding of ordination under the Word.

John Calvin broke with the threefold understanding of ordination of deacon, priest and bishop, to affirm instead only two ordained offices: that of doctor (or teacher) and that of pastor. Both offices were further redefined away from sacerdotalism, which by the late medieval era had come to look to many Reformers, both those who remained within and those who either left or were pushed, as a species of magical superstition, and toward a Word centred understanding, which they held to be a needed corrective to late medieval practice.

For Calvin, those called to the office of Doctor were called to the task of training of pastors in the reading and preaching of the contents of Holy Scripture. They were to do so in two ways. First of all, doctors were to write Institutes, which Calvin himself famously did. His Institutes of the Christian Religion first appeared in 1536, and was constantly revised, being republished in 1539, 1543, 1550, and finally in 1559. There is no reason to suppose that the Institutes had achieved some sort of perfection in their author’s mind by their final published edition. Rather, the task of continual revision was interrupted by Calvin’s death. This process of continual revision is important. I’ll say more about it in a moment.

We need to reflect first on Institutes themselves. For Calvin, Institutes were to function on two levels. They were first of all, intended to read for moral formation. Calvin himself makes this plain in his prefatory letter to King Francis of France, a letter which appeared in the 1536 edition, and in every edition thereafter: “My purpose was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[6]

And how did they intend morally to form their readers? By functioning as a hermeneutical guide. This is their second, deeper, operating level. So it is that when one reads Calvin’s Institutes, one does not encounter a systematic theology, per se. Indeed, systematic theology as we know it—a semi-scientific enunciation of Christian doctrine in an ordered way—is a unique creation of the Western Churchfrom second generation of the Reformation. They emerged as a genre as Catholic and Protestant thinkers both sought to vindicate their own theological conclusions over against those of their opponents. And while the Reformed tradition, of which Calvin (with Zwingli and Bullinger) is the source, has produced its share of systematic theologians (for good and ill), Calvin is not a systematic theologian nor do the Institutes constitute a systematic theology. They are, rather, a hermeneutical guideline. They are to make clear the principles by which the contents of Holy Scripture are rightly interpreted, in order that the Scriptures may themselves by properly understood and that, through that understanding, readers might by morally formed.

Of course, Institutes on their own, while helpful, are incomplete. Doctors must train pastors in the application of the hermeneutical principles laid out in Institutes to the text of Holy Scripture. They do so through the writing of commentaries. And again, Calvin is himself a guide here, being a voluminous commentator on Holy Scripture. The purpose of the commentaries was to bring the hermeneutical principles to bear upon the sacred page in order that their contents’ meaning might be made clear. And this might be seen to function both backward and forward—forward into the pastoral tasks of preaching and visitation, which I’ll get to in a moment, and backward into the task of revising the hermeneutical principles in the first place. This is why Calvin’s own Institutes were always under revision. They were always themselves being submitted to the Scriptures in order to make certain that people really were being formed in godliness, and that they were being trained to read Scripture rightly.

This brings me to the second ordained office—that of pastor. Like the doctor, the pastor’s task was primarily directed toward moral formation through the teaching of the contents of Holy Scripture. Like that of the doctor, Calvin conceived that task as functioning in two ways. The difference between the offices had to do with audience and tasks. Where the doctor was charged with the training of pastors, however, the pastor was charged with the training of lay people. Where the doctor wrote institutes and commentaries, the pastor preached sermons and visited his people. Where the doctor was concerned to elucidate the contents of Holy Scripture, the pastor focused on the application of these contents to the everyday lives of their parishioners

Here I think we can move more quickly because the structural similarities of the offices are both deliberate and obvious and also because I intend to reflect on the importance of preaching further on. The sermon is to the pastor as the institutes are to the doctor. The sermon is the general application of the Bible’s contents to the lives of parishioners. The visit is then the space for the specific application in specific situations.

What to take away from this? Not, first, Calvin’s understanding of ordination. As an Anglican, I do think it misconceived. But Calvin does offer the whole church a gift in his insistence that part of the ordained office is teaching, and specifically, the teaching of Holy Scripture. If, furthermore,  the content of that teaching is Holy Scripture, then the goal of that teaching is a biblically literate and shaped laity. The writings of the fathers and the saints, as indeed the writing of the medieval theologians—and Calvin is quite capable of deploying them and not merely as foils—are themselves guides into, and open to the corrections of Holy Scripture. They are not alternatives, or short cuts, to detailed and persistent biblical study. But as Calvin’s own work makes clear, such a study does take place within a community of faith, well-versed in the great tradition, and always on-going. This is the first gift that Reformational Catholicism can offer to the entire church.

  • The Importance of Preaching


A second is an insistence upon the importance of preaching as the activity of the pastor. Again, this can be cast negatively—as a reaction against biblically and theologically illiterate priests and against a sacramentology divorced from the Word from which they received their sense. I would prefer, however, to cast it positively, and say that this should be seen not so much as an attack on sacramental ministry as the attempt to recover preaching and preaching’s place in the saving economy of God. And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Fr. Robert Barron, President of Mundelein Seminary, give the keynote address at the Catholic Media Convention in Denver.[7] When calling his audience to the New Evangelization, he offered six points, all of which are good. But he caught my attention with point #3. “Preach with ardour!” he said to his audience. And I said, “Amen!” to my computer.

We see this throughout the historical documents of the Reformation era. Protestant movements, whether magisterial or radical, were preaching movements. Calvin himself believed that he was called uniquely both to the office of doctor and pastor. And as a result, in addition to the Institutes he continually revised and republished and the commentaries he prepared, he was a preacher. This is even more the case with Martin Luther, whose sermons occupy several volumes of his works. Even church architecture soon spoke of proclamation as the climax of Christian worship, as the pulpit became the focal point of Protestant churches.

I want to highlight just one example from my own tradition—the Canterbury Six Preachers. In 1540, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer responded to Henry’s dissolution of the Christ Church Priory by creating in its place the Six Preachers. Enacted by Parliament in 1541, the six preachers had the right to eat with the dean and canons, to sit in the quire in Canterbury Cathedral, and they were required to preach 20 sermons / year, whether in their own parishes or in a parish dependent upon the Cathedral. And they were to preach regularly in the Cathedral, too. Cranmer’s vision in establishing the Six Preachers, was to stress that the Church of England would be a preaching church. And from 1544 to today, there has been an unbroken succession of Six Preachers. (For those of you interested in Anglican church politics, Archbishop Justin raised eyebrows and some hackles by appointing Rev. Dr. Tory Baucum, of the Anglican Church in North America, as one of the Six Preachers last year).

Of course, I do not deny that much havoc was wrought by some radical preachers—we might think here of the Zwickau Prophets—but abusis non tollit usus. Indeed, the Reformation’s emphasis on preaching led at the time to a preaching renewal also in Catholicism even if only to prevent “conversions,” or to reclaim former Catholics to the One True Faith. Reformational Catholicism would keep this emphasis on preaching and offer it as a gift to the whole church.

One more point before moving on. For some Protestants, preaching is accentuated at the expense of the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist. Again, I would counter that Calvin, who tried to arrange his own preaching schedule in Geneva so as to share in the Great Thanksgiving weekly, again provides a good counter-example. For Calvin, preaching is not a substitute for the sacraments; the sacraments are not simple signs that merely point to that which is properly contained in with and under the words of the preacher. The sacraments are means of grace. Accompanied by the Word, they convey the invisible grace they make visible. For Reformational Catholics, preaching is accentuated as the place where the Christ who claims us as his own in baptism and feeds us with his very life in bread and wine, speaks to us in with and under the words of the preacher. Preaching, in other words, is not some kind of dry exposition of an academic text book. But rather, it is the announcement of the promise of God to save all who believe, and it accomplishes that which it announces when it is received in faith. While it is not a sacrament, it is a sacramental act. And when it is diminished, the mission of the church suffers. For when it is diminished, the laity are left unformed, and the sacraments become mute signs, divorced from the promises they express and contain.

  • The Authority of the Church


Finally, Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole church a reconception of the Church’s authority. I recognize the potential for misunderstanding here, so I am going to proceed slowly and with an extended appeal to example so that we can avoid many potential pitfalls. First, I want to point to a distinction drawn by Oliver O’Donovan, in his book The Thirty-Nine Articles with respect to two kinds of “political” authority: that is, authority which claims to order our common life. These are the authority to command and the authority to convince.  The authority to command is the authority that uniquely belongs, to use the language of the sixteenth century Reformers, the Prince or the Magistrate. It is the authority that comes with the lawful power to compel obedience through the threat (or use) of force. The authority to convince, on the other hand, is that authority that is derived simply from an institutional commitment to telling the truth. It is the conviction of Reformational Catholicism that the authority of the Church is always the latter.

Now, that might seem obvious in the modern era, but it was not always so! And indeed, in parts of the world today, it is not always so.

More on that in a moment. For now, I want to unpack this a little by looking at Article 20 of the Anglican 39 articles:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies and Authority in Controversies of Faith: yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing contrary to Gods word written, neither to may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to Decree any thing against the same; so besides the same it ought not to enforce anything to be believed for necessity of salvation.[8]


The article opens with a strong declaration of the Church’s teaching authority.  But notice how it goes from there to delimit it significantly. The Church’s authority is bounded by Holy Scripture—it cannot ordain that which is contrary; nor can it set Scripture against itself; nor can it teach as necessary that which is not found therein. Moreover, the Church’s authority not self-generated, but is founded upon the prior authority of Scripture. The Church’s authority rests in the fact that the Church is witness to and guardian of these documents.


There are a number of points that might be worthy of comment here, some of which would take us back into the nettle bush of Reformation debate and disagreement. Without denying the importance of such, I want to focus on the positive. At a time when the Pope could command his own armed forces, this article strictly prohibits conformity to the Church’s teaching under compulsion. Also, the Church’s authority to teach or to convince lies outside the magistrate’s authority to command. While the magistrate may be called upon to use the sword to prevent false teaching, or perhaps less dramatically, help the church organize itself in ways and matters that are indifferent to Holy Scripture (See Article 34), the magistrate may not compel the Church to teach what it believes to be false. A contemporary example that might help us make the distinction here. When Canon Andrew White of St. George’s Baghdad conducts pastoral visitations with the help of a dozen armed guards, he is not compelling people to meet with him, or to believe as he instructs them against their wills or conclusions. Rather, those armed guards are necessary for Canon White to conduct what in Canada or the US would be the frightfully uncontroversial task of having tea with parishioners. There, the authority to command is properly deployed at the service of the authority to convince, so that this particular church can organize itself and go about its business.


The Church’s authority lies, simply, in its calling by God to tell the truth. It does not have the authority to command, but instead, the authority to convince. As Pope Benedict himself put it in 2008, the church does not impose, but freely proposes the Catholic faith.


But there is much more than a good reminder here to be careful when getting involved in political ventures to shore up the faith (though there is that). Reformational Catholicism’s call to rest in the authority to convince as a real authority is needed today as an important part of the chruch’s prophetic witness.


Why is this vision especially needed in our own day? In short because our day is one when those charged with the exercise of coercive power, far more than simply policing the public square so that people of deep conviction and good will can civilly conduct themselves therein, want to use that coercive authority to make sure only like-minded people can participate in public debate. This, it seems to me, is the bedrock of the co-belligerence spoken of by Fr R J Neuhaus and Chuck Colson even as they founded Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The Catholic Church—which I pray encompasses both Roman and Reformational Catholics—stands today as a sign of contradiction to such political visions. And it does so not with opposing armies, but with the insistence that the authority to tell the truth is itself a legitimate expression of authority, that as such serves both to ground and to delimit the authority to command, that indeed without it, the authority to command soon devolves into tyranny.


The tyranny I mean is vividly expressed in Henry VIII’s execution of Thomas More and his daughter Catherine’s execution of the Oxford Martyrs. It is striking to me that More, and on the other side, Latimer and Ridley died for a Church free from the coercive interference of princes. The invocation of martyrs here brings one final point into focus: if the church’s witness to the legitimacy of the authority to convince is going to, well, convince, it will have to be consistent all the way to martyrdom. If our witness to the authority to convince is going to be fruitful, it cannot be short-circuited by an appeal to coercive power for the sake of a greater good (we might contrast here the true King, Aragorn, knowing that he must let Frodo go on his errand with Boromir who wants to use the ring to save the city he loves). In this final instance, martyrdom is not a strategy to overthrow tyranny; it is not an attempt to wrest coercive control back through emotional manipulation. Martyrdom—the bearing of truthful witness by laying down our lives—is what is done when there is nothing left to do. It is a radical act of trust in him who is the Truth, and who has told us that he has already overcome the principalities and powers that would take away our lives, and promised that final vindication will be His.




I hope it is clear that my argument that Reformational Catholicism offers to the whole church gifts of word-centred piety, preaching-centred worship, and truth-centred authority, does not imply that contemporary Roman Catholicism lacks these things. I do think that historically, each of these elements was in severe decline in late medieval Roman Catholicism, and that the Reformation reaction against this decline was an expression of legitimate concern for the whole church. Insofar as I see these gifts taken up and received in Roman Catholicism—and I hope it’s clear that I do—I rejoice. Insofar as I see these gifts rejected by those who claim to be the Reformers’ heirs, I weep. In the West, I do believe that the Lord is calling Reformational and Roman Catholics into deeper unity, a unity that will not be the capitulation of one to the other, nor the creation of a new third thing. I believe further that, as has so often happened in the past, the external push toward such unity will be persecution. But that is a subject for another paper.


[1] Peter J. Leithart, “The End of Protestantism,” Accessed May 27, 2014.

[2] See for a recording of the event. Accessed May 27, 2014.

[3] One is tempted to ask how these authors feel about J. Gresham Machen’s similar attempt at rapprochement in the introduction to his classic fundamentalist work, Christianity and Liberalism

[4] Peter J. Leithart, “Staying Put,” Accessed May 27, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion. LCC XX (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 9.

[7] The entire address can be found here:–Barron-s-7-Keys-to-the-New-Evangelization.aspx. Accessed, May 29, 2014.

[8]Book of Common Prayer, ed. Cummings, 679.