McCabe's theological social-linguistic anthropology

The Oxford Dominicans have been enjoying more publishing success as they have cleared out the desk of the great Herbert McCabe O.P. (that’s Order of Preachers, Thomas Aquinas’s Dominican teaching order). Herbert McCabe taught without bothering too much about publication, but a crucial work that he did send to the publishers is ‘Law, Love and Language’.

Here Herbert McCabe shows us that ethics is about all human action and interaction, and that we are intrinsically in conversation, all our action is response to others, and this economy of response determines our environment too. There is no split here between nature and culture (between ‘is’ and ‘ought’). There is no particular need to attribute anything here to Aquinas or Wittgenstein, for McCabe is simply saying that we are not disembodied beings isolated from another in an inert or neutral or hostile world. McCabe’s argument is simply good Christian theology, so he shows that we are not only embodied, but social and linguistic beings too. McCabe’s version of ethics as all human action is therefore very much bigger than the usual accounts of morality investigated through a small number of difficult moral problems. Herbert McCabe replaces our modern dualist account of language and life (for every thing, a word timelessly exists, so language is simply the correspondence of word to thing) with a more supple dynamic (‘aristotelian’) account which allows that what we do really alters who we are, what there is and how we relate to it. What we think of things and how we name them is not just the (post-)modern power game of the individual. We inherit and inhabit our social world along with how we think of it, as we live and interact in interlocking sets of language-speakers and communities. This deflates the (post-) modern Cartesian view which makes naming an act of power by the individual who is above all relationship and responsibility. The effect of his book is to show how in hock we are to the disembodying pull of Cartesian thought, for which turns we are essentially a demonic eye that hovers above the world. In other words, McCabe has recovered important aspects of theological anthropology and the doctrine of creation.

I’ll post some snippets from Law, Love and Language. You’ll thank me.

Maximus: participation 2

In such a person the apostolic word is fulfilled. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17.28). For whoever does not violate the logos of his own existence that pre-existed in God is in God through diligence; and he moves in God according to the logos of his well-being that pre-existed in God when he lives virtuously; and he lives in God according to the logos of his eternal being that pre-existed in God… In this Way he becomes a ‘portion of God’ insofar as he exists through the logos of his being which is in God and insofar as he is good through the logos of his well-being which is in God; and insofar as he is God through the logos of his eternal being which is in God, he prizes the logoi and acts according to them. Through them he places himself wholly in God alone, wholly imprinting and forming God alone in himself, so that by grace he himself ‘is God and is called God’. By his gracious condescension God became man and is called man for the sake of man, and by exchanging his condition for ours revealed the power that elevates man to God through his love for God and brings God down to man because of his love for man. By this blessed inversion, man is made God by divinization and God is made man by hominisation. For the Word of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.

Maximus Ambiguum 7

Why I wrote 'The Eschatological Economy' 2 – Sacrifice

The Eschatological Economy

In The Eschatological Economy I wanted to show that there are interesting reasons why modern society wants to believe that the concept of sacrifice is vicious and outmoded. Modernity is not only mistaken about this, it is concealing something about itself. Christians certainly need to rediscover a clearer and more trinitarian account, because the concept of sacrifice is central to the gospel and cannot be removed without loss. Jesus Christ is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’. My own professor, Colin Gunton, wanted to show that the concept of sacrifice makes sense, but he found it hard to show how. Many other theologians, like the New Testament and patristic scholar Frances Young in her ‘Sacrifice and the Death of Christ’, were saying that ancient people sacrificed, we don’t, so it difficult or even impossible for us to make sense of Christian doctrine, in terms of sacrifice at least. I was amazed to find Karl Barth saying the same thing (Church Dogmatics volume IV.1 p.275). Frances Young and Karl Barth were puzzled because they understood sacrifice as propitiation (placating a fierce judge), which seems to suggest that pain must be experienced, which is very close to saying that God demands the pain. The problem was that the concept of sacrifice had become linked in Augustinian theology to a doctrine of God that was more pagan (Stoic) than Christian.

It is part of the creed of modernity that we have left all our earlier violence and superstition behind. Just as Christianity surpassed paganism, the modern worldview believes that modernity has now surpassed Christianity. The belief that one system and one age gives way to another that is superior, is itself a ‘replacement theology’, or supersessionism. It believes that we used to be religious, but now we are not. It is up to the Christians to pop this balloon, and point out that one religion (Christianity) has been swapped for another (modernity) but it is still an open question which religion is better. Christians have to say that if a society, like ours, gives up Christianity it has not gone beyond Christianity, but simply gone back to the default position and become pagan again.

See The Eschatological Economy at Amazon.com or at Amazon.co.uk or at Eerdmans

Windsor: prayerful teaching ministry

The place of Christian leaders – chiefly within the Anglican tradition, of bishops – as teachers of scripture can hardly be over-emphasised. The ‘authority’ of bishops cannot reside solely or primarily in legal structures, but, as in Acts 6.4, in their ministry of “prayer and the word of Godâ€?. If this is ignored, the model of ‘the authority of scripture’ which scripture itself offers is failing to function as it should. The authoritative teaching of scripture cannot be left to academic researchers, vital though they are. The accredited leaders of the Church – within the diocese, the bishop(s); within the Communion, the primates – must be people through whose prayerful teaching ministry the authority of God vested in scripture is brought to bear – in mission within the world and in wise teaching to build up the Church.

Windsor Report on the future of the Anglican Communion paragraph 58

The Church is the public of the Holy Spirit

By understanding theological discourse as a church practice determined by the salvific-economic mission of the Holy Spirit in doctrina and the core practices, we overcome the false alternatives between freedom and being bound, between theology being self-determined or being externally determined. Only in the Holy Spirit and in genuine poeisis of communion does theology as a church practice participate in God’s liberum arbitrium [freedom]. Only by remaining bound to God’s economy of salvation does it step into the ‘freedom of the children of God’, becoming thus a discipline commensurate with its object. For only within its distinct pathos does it become capable of truth.

The ecclesial koinonia is to be understood as a soteriological work of the Holy Spirit grounded as such in the communion of the triune God, a communion which through its own presence engages its salvific activity in the koinonia and indeed binds itself to the koinonia by beginning to draw the latter into the divine life. The ‘other’ side of the church as the work of the Holy Spirit is also that the triune God has bound his communion to the ecclesiastical koinonia … In its pathos the church is the actualizing agent of the salvific-economic mission of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. In this sense the church needs to be understood precisely as the public of the Holy Spirit.

Reinhard Hütter Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice

You could try Hütter’s more accessible Bound to be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethicsm and Ecumenism. It is not only state of the art, but it is full of joy.

Christ and his people at St Mary's 2

At the Sunday eucharist at St Mary’s, our discipleship sometimes appears in the intercessions. These tend to be led by a small number of lay members of the congregation who learned their faith in Sunday school in the West Indies forty years ago. Their intercessions are the Word of God and the gift of God to us still. They know how to pray, and their prayers teach how to pray, and in the course of these prayers we learn a little about our Master, and as a result we learn something about who we are. Because the organist has taught the congregation to come in on time, each ‘Lord, hear us’ receives a proper crisp ‘Lord, Graciously hear us’. You can’t drift too far off in intercessions because your response is continually required. Every part of the service is antiphonal, so the whole congregation is at work, and all this repetition brings slow comprehension, very slow in my case.

St Mary’s follows Common Worship and the Revised Common Lectionary. This means that the Word of God we hear week by week provides some of the narrative logic of the gospel. This week’s readings follow on in some respect from last week’s. The great advantage of this is that we are not dependent on choices made by our own clergy. Of course we get their platitudes from the pulpit. Typically sermons begin with a rambling anecdote, come back to one aspect of one of the New Testament readings (ignoring the other NT reading, the Old Testament and psalm – see, four pieces of Scripture altogether), and then wobble towards some trite apercu about the way ‘we’ are today. But I really don’t mind sitting through the sermon, with its embarrassed English inconsequential and often contradictory moralizing. I willing sit through twenty minutes of nonsense in order to have the forty-five minutes of liturgy, with the huge amount of the Word of God that Common Worship contains, with all its sentences, licks and riffs – so I can hear it, say it and sing it in full congregation.

Sermons that follow a theme or expound a book of the bible are fine in an evening worship-and-teaching service. If I was vicar I would move Sunday evensong back to Saturday evening. Then we could say that Saturday evensong was the prelude to the through-the-night prayer meeting or liturgy that culminates with full church sung eucharist on Sunday morning. In non-feast (‘ordinary’) times of year I would have the whole preaching-teaching-worship service followed by pizzas, dance, more guitars-and-drums modern worship racket until the young people wore themselves out.

After five years with this basically very middle-class congregation, I know that it is Christ who serves himself up in the sermon and in the cup. He serves us in the strange form of these embarrassing performances. It is not that Christ hides himself in the gabbled and uncomprehending reading of Scripture and embarrassed serving of the cup, but that he makes himself plain in there in these cringe-inducing performances. He makes himself present and available here for us all, not only in the obvious disciples, whom even I can identify, like those who lead intercessions well. He makes present in the – to me – hidden way represented by those who despise an evangelical faith, though they are our leaders, and who prefer to dive down every culture-de-sac of middle-class imported spirituality and activism. Not only are these the ones I have to break bread with, but they are the cup I have to drink in order to drink with him, and share in him.

Windsor: Scripture at the heart of worship

For scripture to ‘work’ as the vehicle of God’s authority it is vital that it be read at the heart of worship in a way which (through appropriate lectionaries, and the use of scripture in canticles) allows it to be heard, understood and reflected upon as God’s living and active word. The message of scripture, as a whole and in its several parts, must be preached and taught in all possible and appropriate ways. It is the responsibility of the whole Church to engage with the Bible together; within that, each individual Christian, to the fullest extent of which they are capable, must study it and learn from it, thoughtfully and prayerfully. Within this context, the Church’s accredited leaders have a responsibility, through constant teaching and preaching, to enable the Church to grow to maturity, so that when difficult judgments are required they may be made in full knowledge of the texts.

Windsor Report on the future of the Anglican Communion paragraph 57

The Son turns around the regress of man

In teaching the coherence of all things around the incarnate Word, Irenaeus was safeguarding not only the integrity of Jesus but the integrity of every particular. Whereas the gnostics saw in the redemptive work of the logos ‘the separation of what was unnaturally united,’ Irenaeus saw in Jesus the reunion of what was unnaturally separated.

Irenaeus placed heavy emphasis on the Christ-event as the climactic moment in a long history of God’s approach to man. Only after a protracted period of preparation does the Word appear among us – not as a retort to the old covenant or its deity, but as that very deity in person…. It is under their tutelage (the prophets) that we are slowly readied to receive him, for he does not come to us unannounced. When he finally does come of course a great threshold is crossed and a new age begun; under the tutelage of the incarnate one, in the communion of the Spirit, we ourselves may now advance towards God…. But we have missed an important turning if we proceed to operate on the premise that the incarnation takes place at the point where mankind as such is truly ready for God, where sacred history can therefore broaden out at last into universal history. …As Irenaeus sees it, our evolution has actually become our devolution the Son does not appear at the middle of history, then but at the end; not somewhere near the top, but at the bottom. The Son comes to offer his summing up just where it is necessary for history to begin all over again.

Douglas Farrow Ascension and Ecclesia

He ascended into heaven

Everything is changed by the ascension of Christ. The ascent of man is complete, in this man. Jesus Christ has gone to God the Father. But he has not left us and the incarnation is not ended. A human sits with God. Christ is with the Father and with us. We have not returned to the stand-off and enmity between God and man. One of us has at last broken through to heaven. This human being now sits at the right hand of God, and is forever divine and human. He is our man, there, so the incarnation continues now forever. One of us has gained admittance to the palace and throne room of the great King. That Christ is with the Father does not mean that he is not with us. It does mean we do not control how he is visible or available to us.

Jesus is no longer available to us as a single figure we can be alone with. He is no longer in our grasp, but we are in his grasp. We grabbed Christ, but could not hang on to him. He grasped and holds on to us. He is holy, spiritual, with the glory of his whole company. Christ has now attached us to the people of God. They, or rather, we, stand in a line that stretches back through the door of the palace, where he sits with the Father, outside across the courtyard and out into the world. This procession stretches all the way from there to here, where we are. We are part of the procession that stretches from the Son and that loops around, and connects up, all the world. Our leader is at one end, we at the other. We do not see him, but for him this procession is one with him, is part of him. The whole procession, and all the people in it, us included, are made impregnable by his protection. His Spirit holds together the whole long train of the people of the Son and makes them holy so that they are increasingly able to look forward to his coming again in great glory.

The (RCL) readings for Ascension day are

Acts 1:1-11
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

Psalm 93
The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved; your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting

Ephesians 1:15-23
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Luke 24:44-53
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Ascension and ecclesia

But what if the Church which hears (the Ecce Homo) begins to forget the absence?…worse than the world’s ignorance of Jesus’s absence…is the Church’s failure to proclaim the absence clearly, to witness in its every act of worship that it really is ‘looking for his coming again with power and great glory’. Not the ascension itself but the ascension and parousia together, constitute the Ecce Homo! which in the eucharist is heard and repeated. Martyrdom, as the Apocalypse teaches, is the truest manifestation of Jesus’s heavenly session. A doctrine of his departure that is not a doctrine of his impending return is a doctrine capable of converting absence into presence without martyrdom.

Douglas Farrow Ascension and Ecclesia.

Farrow’s book is in my top ten. I haven’t yet found anything like it, and it informed a great deal of The Eschatological Economy. Andrew Burgess The Ascension in Karl Barth or Gerrit Scott Dawson Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation are more introductory, and Burgess has a chapter on Farrow.