C. S. Lewis: An Appreciation

(I have been asked by a former student to write a short appreciation for C.S. Lewis as part of the roll out for Logos Bible Software’s new C.S. Lewis Collection. Here is what I wrote).

I spent a good deal of my early adulthood avoiding C. S. Lewis. After my childhood enthrallment with Narnia, I largely left the Oxbridge don behind. The reason was simple: everyone else was suggesting I should read him. So, I didn’t. There was more to it than that, of course, but not much. I tried dipping in to Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, the Space Trilogy, and other works, but none could hold me like the adventures of the Pevensie children in the wonderful land between the lamp post and Aslan’s country. So, why am I here writing an appreciation?

The answer is simple. My appreciation has grown out of Lewis’s ability to speak to people who don’t care a whit about Christian faith; his ability to prod the un-churched to reconsider the claim that the “spiritual” or “religious” worldview might not be such obvious claptrap after all. While Lewis is considered passe by many in my church, he seems to be enjoyed by students in my religious studies classes at the local university. So for example, The Problem of Pain occupies a major spot in my syllabus for a course on Sin and Evil and if students come, as they often do, to think the issues are there too tidily described, I send them to A Grief Observed.  Similarly, The Four Loves starts the second semester of a year-long course on the nature of human love. That book’s devastatingly simple thesis, that human loving, although multivalent, is transformed and becomes more fully itself through an encounter with the Love that is God often offers students an opportunity to reflect on the transcendent in a way that unites intellectual, volitional and emotional elements for the first time.  Lewis, perhaps because he was an adult convert from the naturalistic worldview many of my students have simply inherited and never had the opportunity to query, seems uniquely able to make them pause and reconsider whether religious faith in general and Christian faith in particular deserves a first hearing and then, perhaps, a second.

In short, Lewis is able to stand between the two worlds of naturalism and theism in a way that many of on both sides of the gulf are not. He simply takes my students by the hand and leads them first to Plato, and then to Augustine or Aquinas, and finally to church. And all the while he asks them whether they would not be wiser to think through their metaphysical commitments carefully before they declare one way or another. He patiently and calmly assures them that the questions they have about transcendence, God, and even Christianity are neither brand new nor unanswerable and has the unique ability to set out classical Christian answers without rushing a reader to a decision. Because there is no compulsion to be found, whether rhetorical or other, they seem more willing to journey with him.

I have heard some readers criticize Lewis for being too dated and too certain to be of much value for a contemporary audience. It is obviously that case that many passages bear the stamp of an Oxford don writing in the mid-twentieth century, and sometimes longing for a world much older. But I have yet to find that to be a problem for my students, who seem willing to suspend moral judgments for older authors until they’ve gotten to the nub of what they have to say. As for his certainty, it is again true that Lewis does not adopt the perspective of an author on the margins of faith. He would regard this, I think, as a fundamental dishonesty with the reader. He writes as someone convinced. He is not, however, a bully who comples or cajoles agreement. My students, again, know the difference and welcome someone who writes with conviction without belittling them in their disagreement.

C. S. Lewis’s turn has come round again and we are better for it.

Do You See? Praying with The Virgin of the Sign

Virgin of the Sign

My favorite icon of Mary is “The Virgin of the Sign,” or the “Platytera,” and it is one I find myself praying with often at this time of year. Its first name is taken from Is. 7:14 (this shall be a sign unto you: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son. . .). The second, meaning “wider” expresses the mystery of the incarnation: the womb of the Virgin is now home to that which cannot be contained, namely, God the Son.

Mary is the central figure, standing with her hands raised in the orans position of prayer. The Christ figure enclosed within her is not a baby, but often appears as an older man, his right hand raised in blessing while his left often holds a scroll. Clearly, this is not a realistic depiction, but a deeply theological one. But what does it mean to convey?

Christ is, in his incarnate person, the salvation of the world. He both brings and is the blessing of God for the human race. He comes to teach God’s truth (the scroll). His depiction as an older man reminds us that he is older than the ages; from the instant of his incarnation in the womb of his mother, he is God made flesh. And she carries no mere human fetus, but he who holds the stars in place. Her womb is now platytera ton ouranon: more spacious than the heavens.

Which turns us to Mary herself. She is far from the troubled teenager whom Luke describes; still less a pawn in the male machinations around her as in Matthew. She is serene; her gaze untroubled. Her prayerful pose suggests public worship (not just private devotion). Sometimes, her gaze is directed past the viewer, to some unknown distant point. Most often, however, she (along with Jesus) looks directly at the viewer with an air of expectation. She seems to ask the viewer, “Do you see?”

What are we meant to see? I think we are to see, first of all, narrative of descent and ascent.

By descent, I mean that God comes to us in the frailty of human nature. The Virgin of the Sign reminds us that God is a God who stoops. Enclosed within the Virgin’s womb, God the Son takes on all that it means to be human because he really is her Son. He looks at us with her eyes. And yet, the One descended to us in this way remains the One who holds the stars in place. Mild, he lays his glory by, we have sung again. And he does.

By ascent, conversely, I mean that God ennobles human nature by taking it up into himself. Many Christians locate themes of ascent, unsurprisingly and properly, with Easter or Ascension. But they are here, too. It is the presence of God within her that ennobles Mary, that raises her from a terrified teenager to a Byzantine Empress. And such is the destiny of all who believe. All human nature has been redeemed for all human nature has been assumed by God the Son.

The Virgin of the Sign thus invites us into the mystery of the incarnation so wonderfully expressed by St. Athanasius: “He became what we are so that he might make us what he is. . ..” (On the Incarnation 54.3).

Further and more radically, the Virgin of the Sign suggests that there is no God except the God who comes to us in the Virgin, and that the route to him is somehow through her. “Do you see?”

If you wish to find God, she says to us with her beckoning gaze, here is God. Neither remote nor uninvolved in the human condition, the only God there is has taken human nature and redeemed it. Mary, ennobled and exalted by the gracious descent of God the Son, is the sign of his saving work. A Jewish peasant girl has become “platytera ton ouranon” for no reason other than the gracious initiative of God. And it is in this grace that God makes himself known. Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see! Hail the Incarnate Deity.

If you would come to this God, Mary finally says, you must come to him through me. Catholic and Orthodox readers, and some Anglicans, will find this uncontroversial enough. Others will pause. But, in effect, Mary is merely repeating what she has just said, except in reverse. She is not simply an historical accident—somebody had to be Jesus’s mother. In grace, she is the second Eve whose let it be to me undoes the sin of our ancient parents. Mary thus reminds us that our encounter with the Lord is never solitary or direct. It is always mediated in and through that community of which she is the first and preeminent member: the Church.

As I pray with this icon, I remember that the Creator is not far, for his transcendence is such that it can hide itself in humanity. As a human being, he discloses both God’s glory and humanity’s destiny. I remember that there is no God “behind” the God I meet in the Gospel, who draws me into deeper fellowship with him as I enter deeper into the fellowship of God’s people.

I see through a mirror dimly. The Virgin of the Sign kindles in me the hope that one day, I will see face to face.


The preceding essay appears in the Epiphany 2015 edition of The Anglican PlanetIt appears here with permission of the editors.

Pope Francis: Revisiting an Old Column. . . .

I was checking out ChristianWeek this evening and started looking through some old columns of mine. Here‘s one I wrote just before the election of Francis. In my column, I expressed a hope for reformer from the Global South, who could say something especially to Pentecostals in Latin America and who would speak out on Christian persecution in the Muslim world. I guess I got that one mostly right.

On Slavery

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said,

‘If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons,

the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

(Numbers 11:4-6)

At its most recent meeting, Sudbury City Council passed a motion to de-regulate store hours entirely. Within 2 days of the vote, our local SuperStore announced that it would be the first 24/7 store in Greater Sudbury. I have not commented on the matter up to now, except to say that I voted against this in the referendum included on the ballot in the last municipal election. Well, now that the matter is settled, the battle lost, I’d like to highlight a couple of silly reasons attributed to those of us who voted in opposition, then explain why I did vote the way I did and finally, what I will do to express my deep concern that this is a mistake.

First, the non-reasons. I need to highlight these because throughout the campaign, people who opposed the measure were caricatured as “anti-choice” and “religious zealots.” Both charges are false. I did not vote to oppose the change because I am anti-choice, but because retail workers, among the most vulnerable workers in our economy, need to have space to make choices. The deregulation of store hours effectively removes some of those choices by now making every hour of every day a potential work hour, controlled by someone other than retail workers, namely their employers. Second, I did not vote to oppose the change because I am a religious zealot. I do care about this issue in part because I am a clergyman, but not because I desire to force my faith on anyone who does not want it.

Now the reasons. The first one is a desire to protect a vulnerable segment of workers in our community, namely, retail workers. I have no desire to take away their choice to work, nor to prevent them from being paid a greater hourly wage for working difficult hours. I doubt, however, that the people who work retail have the freedom to regard the question of whether or not to work a graveyard shift with such dispassion. Because of the crap wages they are already paid, some will feel compelled by “market forces” to “choose freely” to work such shifts. I can’t see that as a good thing. An employer might not be saying, “work these shifts or I’ll fire you,” but the market exercises control over all of us in much more subtle and insidious ways. And those ways are every bit as compulsive to their victims as they are unseen by many of us. In deregulating store hours, our city council has promised our most vulnerable workers “meat and fish” but at the cost of “making bricks without straw.” (That’s religious language, of course. It comes from the Exodus narratives in the Old Testament and I’ll come back to that in a minute). For now, I want to say that there is a general principle in the religious language here that has to do with markets. The deregulation of store hours effectively says, there is no time that is not potentially work time. The market will decide whether a worker gets leisure space or when or how much. But if the market is deciding, then workers aren’t. And if workers aren’t then, all the while using the rhetoric of choice, we’ve taken choice away from them.

Now, to the religious language, and the second reason. I don’t expect WalMart or Superstore workers to come flocking to church because I spoke out against 24/7 shopping. I grimly note that that battle was lost long ago in hockey arenas across the country. My concerns have nothing whatsoever to do with protecting my own turf. But, the critics are right to point out that it is a religious argument. Here’s my response: So what? If my faith teaches me to care for the poor and disadvantaged and vulnerable, how is that a bad thing? And why is it ruled out of public discourse before hand? My concerns flow out of my faith, and are directed toward care for the community, not putting bums on pews. What is often missed, here, is that the pro-market arguments are every bit as religious. They speak of “the market” as having agency. The market will decide. The market will regulate. Let the market preserve freedom of choice. How the hell (yes, really) can “the market” do those things? The market can only do those things if, in some way, it is given personal agency by those who serve it. Hmm. A disembodied person who demands allegiance and who makes decisions for people. Sounds like a divinity to me. And an enslaving one at that. It seems to me that the pro-market arguers must explain why their arguments are not finally religious in just the same way mine are, why it is not the case that our arguments simply happen to serve different deities.

So, I continue to remain opposed. I will no longer be shopping at SuperStore. And as the list of 24/7 retailers grows, so will my list of places I will not patronize. It is a small and finally meaningless gesture. My grocery bill is not going to affect anyone’s bottom line. But for the sake of my conscience, I have to keep one day in seven when someone will not have to serve me. Because everyone deserves a Sabbath. Everyone deserves a rest from work. And I cannot see how this isn’t a return to Egypt, an embrace of slavery.

Ordinary Heroism

calvaryThe movie Calvary tells the story of Father James Lavelle, a good—that point must be stressed, a good—Irish Catholic priest. In the opening scene, in the confessional, Father Lavelle hears a story of horrific abuse, perpetrated by another priest whose crimes have been made unpunishable by his death. The “penitent” then announces that he will kill Father James instead. He has chosen Father James to die precisely because Father James is a good priest. It is a fitting irony; the innocent will die in place of the guilty. Father James is told that he will die in one week, on the beach—if he shows up.

The rest of the movie is the Passion Week of Father James Lavelle. Played by Brendan Gleeson (perhaps best known as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter franchise), Lavelle is a man whose large physical stature stands in sharp contrast to his diminished presence in the community. What use is a priest when a community has given up on God? What does he do? He does what he always does. He visits. He advises. He consoles the living and buries the dead. Above all, he worships. And the days tick off one after another until, in one of the last scenes, Father James is on the beach, there to meet his own Calvary.

Father James is a hero. In contrast to all the heroes, super, semi, and otherwise that parade across our TV and movie screens, though, he is utterly ordinary. He is a man who hopes, who doubts, whose faith is sorely tested. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, he is set in town that sees little need for him, would rather be rid of him. (In one heart-rending moment, he is the victim of a father’s vicious suspicion for simply walking beside a young girl. We understand and sympathize both with the father and with Father James. They have both been shaped by an evil they did not make). And whether the townspeople want it or not, he does, day in and day out, what he always does. That makes him a hero.

He is a hero to all of us in parish ministry wrestling with how to minister in a world of increasing stresses, decreasing expectations and waning professional influence. His heroism does not lie in some gift or technology that the rest of us do not possess. His cassock does not imbue him with magical powers. He is a hero because he gets on with the job. He is a hero because refuses to abandon the way of the cross, but instead follows it even to the beach, to his own Calvary.

Father Lavelle is also a parable for Christians now living in fading sunlight of faith in the West. Here we are, hurrying hither and yon: sociologists writing, and Christian leaders reading, article after article, graph after graph, about millennials and nones and somes and dones and together making suggestions about what we can do to get people back to church, or interested in Jesus, or to reconsider faith. All the while we know that nightfall is beyond our control.

Maybe, just maybe, what we need to do is to stop the futile attempt to fix things and instead, to get on with the job of preaching the Gospel, serving the sacraments, visiting the sick, advising the discomfitted, consoling the living and burying the dead. Maybe the future of the church in Canada lies not in superheroic strategies of rejuvenation, but the ordinary heroism of living our faith simply and fully, all the while recognizing that suffering comes not in spite of doing so, but because of it.

Maybe it’s time to stop avoiding our Calvary and like our Lord, set our faces like flint toward it in the hope that there will be a Sunday morning after.Fr Lavelle


(A version of the preceding piece will appear in the January edition of ChristianWeek (www.christianweek.org). Please support them with a click or a purchase)

Regensburg Revisited (Forthcoming in ChristianWeek)

On September 12, 2006, then Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg, where he was once professor and rector. Entitled, Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, it quickly became known as “The Islam speech,” for one small portion

Here’s the quote that garnered so much attention: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Benedict was quoting Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, to illustrate the fundamental incompatibility of violence and conversion. Thus, Benedict continued quoting the Emperor: “Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….” (You can read the whole speech here: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html).

What followed was by every estimation, a media frenzy. Pouncing on Benedict’s alleged intolerance and ignorance of Islam, many of his opponents ignored his big idea: this was a speech about the need for tolerance and steeped in a knowledge of Islam that surpassed the vast majority of those who opined about it.

Here’s what Benedict’s critics missed: this speech was an offer to Muslims to help them find, from within their own tradition, the resources they needed to affirm tolerance, pluralism, and the distinction between faith and civil society. The Catholic Church, said the Pope, had needed almost two centuries to think through these issues, and was in now a place to help accelerate the process in another faith tradition as a result.

Could Benedict have made his point in a less provocative way? In hindsight, no doubt the answer is yes. Could the pundits have actually taken time to read and digest what was said so as to offer informed criticism? Again, of course. Either way though, recent events around the world and in our own country, have vindicated both Benedict and Benedict’s address. For what we are watching unfold in North Africa and the Middle East with increasing alarm is a civil war within Islam that is spilling over into the non-Muslim world because of geopolitical, economic, technological and migratory realities.

The questions driving the conflict are the ones that concerned the previous Pope in his Regensburg address. Will Islam (a faith of 1.1 billion people that resists easy pigeonholing) be able to come to terms with the modern world? Or, will those Muslims who wish instead to enshrine, by armed force, a mythical eighth-century caliphate win? What the Pope offered in his address was a deep meditation on the need for faith (any faith) to be reasonable, and the need for faithful people to commit themselves to reason in faith’s pursuit. What he opposed was a vision of God’s transcendence that severed any connection between God and the world such that God’s “commands” could not, indeed should not, be reasoned through but only obeyed.

The Regensburg speech, then, was the deployment of one tool—the philosophy of religion(s)—in a larger theo-political effort. It is not the only tool. The others include economic, social, political and, yes, military options. This is the struggle that will define the 21st century. It will define our world as the Cold War defined that of our parents. As Benedict well knew, the majority non-Muslim world has a vested interested in hoping that those Muslims arguing from the resources of Islamic faith and tradition for a pluralistic understanding of their faith’s place in the world will carry the day. Any help they can be given should be given.

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 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,” http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/11/the-end-of-protestantism. Accessed May 27, 2014.

[2] See http://www.davenanttrust.org/projects/the-future-of-protestantism/ 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,” http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/05/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: http://www.wordonfire.org/WoF-Blog/WoF-Blog/March-2014/Fr–Barron-s-7-Keys-to-the-New-Evangelization.aspx. Accessed, May 29, 2014.

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

His Blood Be On Us. . . .

This past Sunday, we listened to  St. Matthew’s Passion (26:17 – 27:66) as a dramatic reading. And once again, the haunting, horrifying words of 27:25 rang out in our nave: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.'” They are both haunting and horrifying as simply part of the story–the mob moving with one mind toward an end and with a purpose that shock, willingly drawing into the consequences of that purpose the innocent. Even worse, the words are haunting and horrifying for the use to which they have been put throughout Christian history: the justification of Anti-Semitism from its crudest acts of murder to its most refined attitudes of exclusion. So I want to begin by commending the women who prepared the reading for not excising that part of the text. Rightly, it belongs there. Rightly, it was read. The question now, though, is what do we do with it?

Perhaps the first thing to do is to see that we are all implied in its judgment. “His blood be on us and on our children,” is not a Jewish rejection of Jesus as much as it is the world’s rejection of Jesus. Jesus has been betrayed and abandoned by his disciples; he has been rejected by the religious leaders; Pilate has by now washed his hands of him. Jesus is alone. And the crowds who hailed him have, on the pain of failed and finally false expectations of a political deliverer, turned on the one whom they begged to save them (“Hosanna–save us now!”) and called for him instead to be crucified. We are all implicated, Jew and Gentile, in the death of Jesus. And the curse voiced in Matthew is one we have pronounced on ourselves. There is no place to blame the Jews or the Romans or whomever, as though the drawing of such a moral line would save us from indictment. Had we been there, we would have done no differently. Indeed, in some way, we were there and we are complicit in the death of the Son of God. And so that curse is the curse of all of us on all of us. We have called down innocent blood on ourselves. We stand with Cain, murderers from almost the beginning.

The second thing, however, is to notice that, in the Gospel of God, this curse is transformed into a plea. For while it is true that in this curse, this curse we bring on ourselves in order to pass the sentence of death upon the Lord of life, we stand with Cain, it is not true that Jesus thereby stands with Cain’s murdered brother, Abel. After Abel’s murder at the hands of his brother, God tells Cain that Abel’s blood “cries out from the ground,” (Genesis 4:10). It cries out for justice. It cries out for revenge. Such that the ground itself curses Cain and God must intervene and so “mark” Cain that his life would be spared (Genesis 4:15). Creation so rebelled against the murder of Abel that Cain could settle no where until he had distanced himself from creation by building a city. This is a story of the first founding murder, the sacrifice that leads to sociality. Cain murders his brother; Abel’s blood cries out for justice; Cain’s “mark” is to build a city for his own protection. The city Cain builds is thus both a reflection of God’s and creation’s judgment on his sin and a statement of God’s mercy in protecting Cain from creation’s vengeance.

The blood of Jesus, however, is unlike the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24). It speaks a new and better word, not a call for vengeance, or for justice, but for mercy. For this blood, as the New Testament book of Hebrews puts it, is the blood of the sacrifice that ends all sacrifice, the blood that breaks the annual cycle of atonement, the blood that is spilled once, and for all. The blood that cleanses not simply our bodies, but our consciences too. This blood marks those who follow Jesus. By it, we are made citizens of a new city, the city that will replace the city of Cain, the City of God (Rev. 21:1-7).

So it is that in the grace and mercy of God, our judgment upon God’s Son becomes God’s judgment on us. And where our judgment, my judgment, is murderous, God’s judgment is, even in the reality of its wrath, gracious. His blood be on us and on our children. In the transforming power wrought by a transposition of subjects–from Abel to Jesus–these words have ceased to be a curse and become instead a plea. A personal one. His blood be on me and on my children. Here, and here only is my deliverance from the curse of Cain and the vengeance of Abel. Here is the founding sacrifice on which the true city, the eternal city, is built. Here is where violence and vengeance end.

Questions about the Good Samaritan UPDATED

Recently on Facebook, a friend (a real, live friend, not a fb friend) posted a link to a Gospel Coalition blog about The Good Samaritan. I’ve linked so you can read it. The author, Tullian Tchividjian, offers a neo-Calvinist reading of a pretty traditional (one finds it from the fathers forward) interpretation of the parable in which the parable is read as a response to the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” rather than, “Who is my neighbor?” On this reading we are to identify with the broken and beaten and robbed man in need of rescue by Jesus, who is, in turn, the Good Samaritan. (More elaborate allegorical interpretations on this line associate the Innkeeper with Saint Paul, the Inn as the Church, and the priest and levite as failed Jewish law keeping, tradition, and/or religion). My friend accused the post of eisegesis, non-sequitur, and most seriously, antinomianism. Could be. I will say that I did not, and do not, find Tchividjian’s reading convincing, regardless of the nobility of its pedigree

Having said that, however, I must depart from my friend’s (and if not his, then certainly most of those who followed-up on his fb page) reading, in which the parable is told as a straightforward response to the lawyer’s second question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is the one we are most familiar with (and the one that Tchividjian himself works against in his blog post). The parable is taken to mean, your neighbor is anyone you meet who is in need of help, regardless of race, religion, or any other socially defining boundary. Religious purity or holiness are not legitimate reasons to avoid entering into the lives of others to offer tangible expressions of aid. With Jesus command, “Go and do likewise,” we are all commissioned to be “Good Samaritans.” I depart from this reading, simply because, that’s not what the parable says either. For that reading, the reading that compels the crossing of all boundaries for the sake of neighborly aid, the “everyone is your neighbor” reading, to flow most smoothly, the man who is beaten must be the Samaritan in need of aid, not the one doing the aiding. The hook of the parable, however, is that it is a Jew who received aid from a Samaritan, that the outsider ‘gets’ neighborliness in a way the insiders do not.

So I find myself (having done almost 0 work on the passage) not drawn to either interpretation because I don’t think the parable intends to answer the “eternal life” question or the “neighbor” question. It aims, I think, to change the question altogether. What say you?

Update: Quite a kerfuffle over here (not sure if the link will work or not) over my query. I think Fr. Lee Nelson has persuaded me that the reversal of roles sharpens Jesus’ indictment of the lawyer for even asking the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The parable is not an answer as much as it is an indictment of the lawyer’s hypocrisy. To quote Fr. Lee, “even a Samaritan dog would treat a man dying in the Judean desert better than you hypocrites.” In other words, the question is itself a sign of disobedience to the commandment.