Monday, October 27, 2008

Why Words Matter

“Those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary...”
-Saint Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit 1.2
Words matter. Language matters. When Basil the Great defended the truth of the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the fourth century, he began by asking his opponents to listen closely to both scripture and tradition. He was insistent that both he and his opponents attend not only to every word of the Bible, but also the writings of the fathers, and even the words of the liturgy. In matters of theological controversy no syllable was insignificant. In Basil’s mind if a person spurned “fundamental elements as insignificant trifles,” then such a person would “never embrace the fullness of wisdom” (On the Holy Spirit 1.2). Quite simply, for the clarity of theology and the fidelity of the Church, words have always mattered. This was true in Basil’s time, and it is true for us today.

Words matter today, for we live in a shifting world wherein language and meaning transforms and changes with digital speed. Today the meanings of words and figures of speech slip through our hands. This has always been true of humanity since at least the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). As Christians, we need to recover the significance of our language. We need to scrutinize our words. We need to do this because, fundamentally, we are believers of the Word, and in the Word is truth.

To illustrate this need, all we have to do is read the present rhetoric of peace used by the leaders of the Episcopal Church. The Presiding Bishop, for example, gives a moving description of peace in her book A Wing and a Prayer which, like the will of the Father, dizzyingly invites everyone. For her, people of all races and classes and abilities are welcome into the peace of the Church, even those “who haven’t been baptized...Muslims and Hindus, pagans and practicers of voodoo” (p.90). For Schori, the Church is a place not only of radical inclusion but also mutual dependence, care, and respect. It is a “vision of the city of God on earth, a community where people are at peace with each other because each one has enough to eat, adequate shelter, medical care, and meaningful work” (p.33). For her, the “baptismal covenant does not distinguish between Christian and others...and it doesn’t say anything about religion, gender, age, sexuality, nationality, and so on and so forth” (p.34). This is indeed a vision of equality, cooperation, and respect remarkably exhaustive and demanding, all with an attractive sheen of the prophetic.

Many in the Episcopal Church share her vision. Gene Robinson, for one, thinks similarly. Yet, as Robinson’s argument in his book, In the Eye of the Storm, shows, peace thus described is determined by something other than Christ. For Robinson, peace is the product of secular politics determined by the alleged cultural majority. As he says, “if I argue for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered people in society, I must do so on the merits of my argument, not on a claim that my understanding of God is right and true and compelling for everyone...not on any reading of a sacred text to which I subscribe (p. 27). Robinson is describing peace built on something other than Jesus as he is scripturally proclaimed in the Church. It is peace constructed on principles found elsewhere, vulnerable to the concocted desires of a superficial culture—such is perhaps the clue to Robinson’s summing up spirituality with the question, “What do you want?”(p.75) instead of the more theological “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Schori secures her similar vision in something other than Jesus too. For her, “intellectual assent and belonging are vastly different things” (p.97). Peace, in this case, rests upon something imaginably larger than Jesus. For Schori and Robinson, traditional claims about the divinity of Jesus can still be spoken, but they sit in a rhetoric which subordinates Jesus to the service of a peace described by something else. This is evident in the way Robinson understands the interpretation of Scripture. He describes Scripture as the “primary source of our knowledge of how God works in the lives of human beings to bring them to abundant life and everlasting salvation” (p.75) but which always sits under the judgment of a rather curious selection of “tradition” and “reason” defined by Robinson as “the authority that presents itself in our own lives”(p.60). For him, reason is less akin to earlier classical conceptions as is it to the force of history and majority rule. Robinson asks, “Did God complete self-revelation in holy scripture, or does God continue to reveal God’s self, throughout history?” (p.58) His answer is clear: “God is still actively involved in ongoing revelation over time, even in our own day” (p.59). Revelation here is no longer identified with the Church but with the progress of history, conceived as the unfolding of an ideology revealed in the opinions of conventions. They can still talk about peace and Jesus, but it is clear that Jesus must fit within an idea of peace they have already constructed. Jesus must fit into their world.

This explains Schori’s “awfully small box” comment to Time in July 2006. Likewise, this gives context to Robinson’s slippery statements about the mediation of Jesus when he says, “While I believe Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, I don’t believe he is the sole revelation of God’s self to the world.” For him, peace determined by Jesus must be subordinated to some allegedly more universal notion of peace. “After all,” he concludes, “the challenge before us as citizens of democracies is to define our rights and responsibilities to one another no matter what our beliefs are (p.16).

Both Schori and Robinson still use the traditional language of christology, yet their use of this language sits within a different world all together. Jesus, for them, certainly is a way to the divine and to peace as it is defined by them, yet he is no longer the “all in all” mediation described in Ephesians 1:23. The inclusion and peace described by Robinson and Schori must not be founded “on any reading of a sacred text to which I subscribe” (p. 27). Rather, what matters, as Schori says, is sharing in a “vision of the dream of God” (p.97), a vision described by something other than Jesus and the Church, something, as Schori suggests, “embedded in the Millennium Development Goals...God’s vision of homecoming for all humanity” (p.165). Such is the mundane and Christ-less peace envisioned in much of the Episcopal Church, and this, above all wrangling over sexuality and ordination, is the fundamental heresy we are fighting.


Fr. Christopher Cantrell SSC said...

Well said Fr. J.

Sarah said...

Jesus said, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."

We are not the ones to decide who is going to share in the heavenly banquet and who is not (or even who is righteous and who is not). We are told in the Bible that even Jesus will not make that decision. God Himself will "separate the sheep from the goats." In a field where good seed was planted someone overplanted weeds among the wheat. We are to let the wheat and the weeds (the righteous and the unrighteous) grow up together.
We are not to dig up the weeds among the wheat. I cannot help but think this applies to all facets of life, even in the church.

I fear that when your people try to "separate the weeds from the wheat" on November 15th, you will also be disturbing and uprooting some of the good wheat seeds, causing them to wither away and die.

Jesus said,"Whoever causes one of mine to stumble would be better off with a millstone around his neck and thrown into the sea."

Be it on your own heads. I hope you know what you are doing.

The Rev. Christopher P. Culpepper said...

Dear Sarah,

In response to your reply to Fr. Whitfield's article, I would offer three suggestions:

1. Please review the Creed, which says, "He [Jesus - who is God!) will come again to judge the living and the dead."

2. Please read more of your Bible, which also speaks of church discipline (Matthew 18). I don't read anywhere in Fr. Whitfield's article that he has judged the eternal state of someone's soul.

3. Finally, I read in your reply a desire for the church to be one. I hope you will direct those energies more positively in helping us with constructive ecumenical dialogues with the Roman and Orthodox communions - heck, even our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters, etc....

Fr. Christopher Culpepper+

Fr. Joshua Whitfield, SSC said...


Thank you for your comments. Yes, I share your evident desire the unity of the Church, and I share the heartache so evident in your comment.

However, adding to Fr. Culpepper's response, we must always remember that Christian unity is always based on truth, more specifically upon a rule of faith which is the proclamation that Jesus is who he says he is and that he died, rose, ascended and will come again. The unity of the Church is built on this message. This is what I am suggesting has been jettisoned by so many of our leaders.

Also, to push back slightly, I think you would do well to read the Scripture more closely. Beginning with Matthew 18; 1 Cor. 5 and 6; 2 Cor. 5; 1 & 2 Timothy; and if you continue to read into early Christian literature (e.g., St. Ignatius of Antioch; St. Cyprian of Carthage), you will discover that the Church has always kept hold of the responsibility to speak of the divisions which exist among those who hold to the rule of faith and those who do not. The Church is simply speaking what is already true--that those who have rejected Jesus are outside of the Church. On my parish website, I have a rather extensive essay you can download on just this topic called "The Pauline Peace of the Church" ( It has never been the case that the Church is without the means to distinguish right teaching from wrong teaching. In short, I would respectfully suggest that you are misreading the New Testament.

But to your very respectable point about staying with those whose morals we disagree with. My essay was not speaking about that. The innovations in sexual practice within the Episcopal Church have bothered me for a very long time, and to be honest the sins of heterosexuals the most. Yes, we are called to be patient with understanding while keeping hold of the countercultural demands of the Church's call to sexual witness. However, these concerns are secondary to the great theological heresy which has taken hold of the Episcopal Church for years. This is what I was writing about.

And last, this is not judging. As Fr. Cupepper suggested, I have not pronounced on the eternal destiny of anyone. I think it beautiful that the Church has never done that. What we are doing is giving witness to the Church of Jesus. We are calling the Episcopal Church back to her vocation by these very extraordinary and biblical means. Believe it or not, what the Diocese of Fort Worth is doing is the most radical appeal to unity the Episcopal Church has ever seen.

My prayer is that our desire for Church unity will be rewarded beyond our wildest dreams.

Sarah said...

Here is the Bible verse I was referring to when I made my earlier comment about God being the judge. What I meant was perhaps not exactly what I said, as I meant to say that Jesus does the will of the Father, not His own will. Therefore Jesus pronounces God's judgement upon us on the last day.

John 5:30
(Jesus said,)"I can do nothing on my own accord. I judge according to what I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me."

as a response to point #2, I do not think the writer has "judged someone's soul," as much as he is judging the collective opinion of the Episcopal Church at large. There are many and diverse positions taken by the members of the Episcopal Church. In fact, there are many conservatives, such as yourself who for the moment call themselves members of it. It is an insult to lump all of the members of that body into a group and say they are ALL heretical, revisionist, or unorthodox.

Promoting a division will cause people to Fall away from the church, some because they suddenly lose friends (who leave for other churches) or simply feel uncomfortable or confused with the actions taken by the convention. Make no mistake, you have a huge responsibility here. You are the guardians of the faith, and I fear that the guardians are about to leave their guard posts which will cause some of the sheep to stray.

The Rev. Christopher P. Culpepper said...

Dear Sarah,

Your argument is compelling and correct only, if I may say so, it is your perspective that is askew.

In actuality, it is TEC that has promoted division within its own province, as well as within the wider Anglican Communion, which has caused people to fall away. People within TEC are already leaving for other churches, and have been! Remember, the population of TEC has been reduced by OVER HALF over the last 30 years. Surely you would agree that this is an implicit indication that something is inherently wrong! Other provinces within the Anglican Communion have declared themselves in a state of impared communion with TEC - another sign that something is wrong! Therefore, as guardins of the faith, our huge responsibility is to do exactly what ecclesiastical discipline requires - correct the confusion caused by TEC - which, curiously, is the one point you continue to overlook and ignore in responding to our essays. Perhaps you'd care to respond to this part of Scripture as well.

To press the point of "diverse opinions", TEC has issued the ultimatum of "comply, or else..." to our diocese. What room is there in this mandate for the "diversity of opinion" you suggest we are all able to hold in TEC? Of course, this does not begin to address the fact that this "diversity of opinion" concerning the nature, person and work of Jesus has led us to our present Christological crisis - the substance of Fr. Whitfield's article in the first place.

It is one thing to have diverse opinions over which ice cream tastes best; it is another thing altogether for TEC to collectively promote an opinion that is contrary to Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Indeed, were one to follow your reasoning on the "diverse opinion" line, one might easily conclude that there are many paths to God - which, in fact, is exactly where the leadership of TEC is! Surely as a Christian you see the problem with this.

Further, I must take issue with your assertion that we have "lumped" everyone together in TEC to say anything. The issue is with those in our ordained ranks who are promoting false teachings, causing the sheep to stray. Again, the discipline issue remains untouched by you, as it has been by TEC for decades now - John Shelby Spong, Ryder, etc....

Finally, it seems (one of) our differences boils down to this: where you see that we are "judging the collective opinion of The Episcopal Church at large", what is more accurate to say is that TEC has contradicted Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which has prompted this situation. Thefore, we are not "judging" TEC; TEC has judged itself against the Anglican Communion. We are acting in accordance with the collective opinion of the Anglican Communion. Our prayer and hope is that throug this process TEC will repent and do the same.

Again, you are right when you earlier asserted that Jesus said, "Whoever causes one of mine to stumble would be better off with a millstone around his neck and thrown into the sea." We take this "huge responsibility very seriously. We are simply trying to do our part to ensure that, so far as it depends upon us, we prevent that from happening by not allowing TEC to press down its false teaching any longer. In this wise, I suppose it will be "on our own heads" as the Anglican Communion is in the proces of a self-correction.

To be sure, it will be a joyful day indeed when the leadership of TEC realizes what it is doing to its own province and to the wider Communion, takes a critical look at itself, and comes back to the fold.

Hudson T. Doerge said...

So often I've been asked by friends to explain, "What's really going on in Fort Worth?" While I feel I was able to give a satisfactory response when asked, never have I put it or heard it put so clearly or simply: "Such is the mundane and Christ-less peace envisioned in much of the Episcopal Church, and this, above all wrangling over sexuality and ordination, is the fundamental heresy we are fighting." Wonderful post, Fr. Whitfield.