Saturday, April 21, 2007

Magee, Jesus, a Funeral, and the Resurrection

If you've read my musings on previous posts, then you'll know that I'm keen on a philosopher by the name of Bryan Magee, and that I think his book 'Confessions of a Philosopher' is a gem. As I was preparing for a funeral on Friday I found myself recalling some of the things Magee recounts in relation to his reading of the New Testament (and of the Gospels, it seems, in particular). After summing up his (perhaps rather idiosyncratic) interpretation of the Lord's teaching, he concludes:

[T]he fact that there was anyone at all going around preaching things like [Jesus preached] two thousand years ago in a desert area of the Middle East is, to say the least of it, surprising...[W]ithin the limitations of morality he goes as deep as anyone was to penetrate for the better part of two thousand years. When it comes to tellingness of moral insight, a question like 'What will a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?' is unsurpassed. (pp 355-356).

Well, I hardly disagree. But what got me thinking was that this same Jesus, whose moral teaching is so striking that it has undeniable power for anyone who cares to listen to it, also said things like this:

In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (John 14:3).

A great moral teacher who gives a personal promise of eternal life. He speaks with such authority when it comes to good and evil that I can't believe that he lies about heaven and hell. And yet this word of promise about the Father's house he gives privately, to his chosen disciples.

It makes me think about the mystery of the Resurrection of the Lord. His empty, open tomb was there for all to see. Accessible. Perplexing. Ambiguous in its meaning. But the Lord revealed his glorified body only to those whom he chose to be his witnesses; and he explained the meaning of his death and resurrection privately. And yet even his own hand-picked disciples, beholding his glorified body with their eyes, and hearing his words with the ears, could still doubt (Matthew 28:17).

The Resurrection seems almost as unbelievable as death.

The funeral I was taking was for a woman who had died in her mid fifties. She was a very active person who was evidently greatly loved by her family, friends, and workmates. Six weeks ago she was fine, but was quickly taken by very aggressive brain tumors (NB Nick Lindner, if you’re reading, Kate Drummond was this woman’s neurosurgeon). It was hard to believe that her body was in the coffin at the front of the church. Or that her body is now in a box six feet under in a cemetery at Spring Hill. Or that I will also die.

Lord Jesus, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Naked Rain Dances

On Thursday night I was briefly interviewed by a journo from the Herald Sun (a Melbourne tabloid). She wanted to know if we up here in the dry country were going to heed Malcolm Turnbull's (an Australian politician's) advice and start praying for rain. I was in a freewheeling sort of mood, and this is what ended up in the paper on Friday:

IF Malcolm Turnbull says Australians need to start praying for rain, church leaders in country Victoria reckon everyone needs to start catching up on them…
Bendigo Lutheran Pastor Fraser Pearce, whose parish stretches to Castlemaine and Seymour, said constant prayer would continue.
"But there haven't been any naked rain dances or anything," he said.
"We also pray for our politicians to have wisdom, I wouldn't like to be in their position at all."

Well, as I said, no naked rain dances. Yet.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sasse and the Lord's Supper

Sasse’s ‘This is My Body’ is a book that I first read (on the recommendation of the formidable Zdenko Zlatar) while studying history at the University of Sydney. It’s a book that I’ve returned to repeatedly, each time with a deeper appreciation of Sasse’s scholarship. It’s also true that each time I’ve returned to the book I have felt more acutely questions that seem to be unresolved in the Lutheran tradition. So, for example, have a look at this gobbet from chapter four:

‘Here lies the fundamental difference between the Lutheran and the Roman understanding of consecration…For Luther it is the word of Christ, and nothing but his word, which is the cause of the Real Presence of the body and blood in the Lord’s Supper; there is no secondary cause. The minister to whom the consecration is reserved is the minister of the Word and the Sacraments, the appointed administrator of the means of grace; he is not, however, a priest in any other sense that that which regards all believers as priests because they are members of the priestly people of God.’ (p137)

When I read Sasse on this point (and indeed whenever I read the Confessions and the Lutheran Fathers on transubstantiation) I feel a certain shame at my relative ignorance of Aristotelian philosophy. I assume that when Sasse uses the term ‘secondary cause’ he is employing it in a technical, Aristotelian sense, and I fear that I can not repeat accurately and in my own words exactly what Sasse is getting at. It is apparent that this insistence that there is no 'secondary cause' has its genesis in polemic against the views of certain late medieval Catholic theologians (I would assume particulalry as these views relate the priesthood to the sacrifice of the mass), and may be primarily rhetorical, rather than theological, in its force. Nevertheless I have a question that such an argument provokes in me, and to which I cannot find a clear answer in the Formula, Chemnitz, or in any writings from Lutheran theologians that I’ve had the opportunity to study. It’s this: what is the place (if any) of the body of the minister in the Lord’s Supper?

I’ll explain what I mean: In the Lutheran tradition the focus in the Lord’s Supper is on the Words of Institution not as historical report, but as the performative words of Christ that effect what they say they will effect: the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (although the word ‘change’ needs to be understood with some care so as not to give the impression that the Lutheran church has a particular theory as to how this change is possible, and so as not to give the impression that the bread and wine cease to be bread and wine). But in all this the fact is that the performative words of Christ need to be spoken, to be somehow incarnated. From the point of view of the Augsburg Confession, the one speaking the words should be ‘rightly called’. But this, at least to me, immediately suggests that there is something other that the words of Christ that effect the change of the bread and wine; that is, that the words are spoken by a rightly called person.

Let’s say someone in the Lutheran church wanted to maintain that in fact any baptized person could, in an emergency, celebrate the Lord’s Supper (and, insofar as it was an emergency, be somehow ‘rightly called’). Presumably they would assert that the person should be baptized. Then it would be the word spoken by a baptized person that would effect the change in the bread and wine (and not simply the word). Let’s say they would not even insist on this, but that they would simply assert that it would need to be a person (and not, say, a synthesized voice) proclaiming the words. Then it would be Christ’s word spoken by a human being that effected the change in the bread and wine. But if they would not even insist on this, then what? What in the Confessions would provide a convincing refutation of someone wanting to propose a disincarnate ministry?

According to the Augsburg Confession Christ instituted the Ministry for the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, so that justifying faith may be obtained. The Ministry is an office that needs to be filled. But can we say, from the Confessions, that Christ necessarily calls particular people - that is, particular human beings- to the Ministry, or is it conceivable that the Confessions allow for a disembodied Ministry? If the Word and Sacraments could be delivered by other than human agency (say, by sophisticated robots), would this be problematic from a Confessional point of view? In the Confessions, what is the place (if any) of the body of the minister in the Lord’s Supper?

Now there’s a strong theme in Lutheran theology that the Lord’s Supper needs to be celebrated according to Christ’s institution, and I can see that a strong argument could be made that Christ instituted the Sacrament to be celebrated by human beings – that the Lord handed the leading of the celebration of the Holy Supper into the care of human beings (and indeed, some might add, male human beings), not robots. Fine. It’s just, if we make this argument, can we then go on to say that there is no secondary cause of the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper?

Well I’m thinking about it, and would welcome comment.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Back Again

Well, I'm back again after Easter, with nothing much to Blog about just yet. Blogging (and, for me, reading blogs) can be addicative; the Lenten 'fast' from blog reading and writing was refreshing, but I'm enjoying having a look at what's been put our there since I switched off on Ash Wednesday!

Good to see that Peter Holmes has a site. What happened to Marco's 'Confused Anglopapist'?

Any other new sites I should be looking at?