Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Christ of God

Today is the feast of the Confession of St Peter, wherein we remember the event recorded for us in the synoptic gospels in which our Lord asked his disciples "What's the word on the street about me?" and then "Who do you say that I am?" and Peter gets it right: "You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God."

I have two observations--one in passing, and the other in more detail:

First, this has been a hot-button incident in the Catholic-Protestant debate in western Christianity. The Church of Rome cites Jesus' response to Peter--"You are Peter ("Rocky"), and on this rock I will build my church"--as the foundation of its claims for papal supremacy. Many Protestant apologists have countered with something like "It's not Peter but Peter's faith that is the foundation of the church." I'm not going to get into the exegetical maelstrom, but this much seems evident: Whether it's Peter or Peter's faith that Jesus is talking about here, the New Testament makes it clear that Peter is "first among the apostles" (language of today's BCP collect). He isn't just one of the bunch; he stands out. Making the connection from Peter to the office of Bishop of Rome is a project in itself, but the burden of proof rests on those who would deny that there is a "Petrine" ministry in the Body of Christ.

Secondly--this is ultimately, of course, a feast about Jesus, not about Peter. "Who do you say that I am?" is probably the most important question any person or community can answer. Last week in my parallel universe (aka the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv) I had an exchange with a senior priest from a mainstream Episcopal diocese. This is part of what he had to say:

"I understand the Doctrine of the Incarnation to mean that God is to be found 'embedded' in all of creation--which includes current culture (wherever that is to be found); I think that phrase 'the scandal of particularity' probably applies here."

To which I replied:

"The faith of the Church with regard to the Incarnation is that the infinite and eternal God took finite and temporal human flesh in *one* person--Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary. That is the 'scandal of particularity.' Without further nuancing, what you have articulated strikes me as pantheism, or, at best, panentheism. To be sure, there are certainly corollaries that have traditionally been drawn from the fact that the Word became Flesh, corollaries that have to do with what has been called the 'sacramental principle,' that is, that God apparently, as a matter of 'habit,' so to speak, chooses to use matter and form as vehicles of knowledge and grace. But that is considerably less comprehensive than your statement that 'God is to be found 'embedded' in all of creation.'"

To which my interlocutor replied, in part:

"I do think that god [sic] inhabits 'culture' (a word I take to decribe the totality of the world we live in in the broadest possible terms) and that, as god has declared us good, so god declares all creation - all culture (who else but god - through human agents -is to be credited for creating 'culture'?) - god declare all creation to be ultimately good. God's incarnational activity is modeled by Jesus, but Jesus is not the only manifestation of god's incarnational activity [emphasis added]."

At that point it seemed that continuing to engage him on theological substance would soon invoke the law of diminishing returns. But what he is stating is heresy, pure and simple. (I'm not saying that he is personally a heretic, a distinction that, while subtle, is important.) It cannot be reconciled with the Nicene Creed, among other things. I find it poignantly ironic that I and others who wholeheartedly believe and teach the faith of the Episcopal Church are desperately trying to hang on to the fringe of the institution, while this priest and others who openly teach contrary to that faith swim comfortably in TEC's institutional mainstream.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

2 comments:

jean said...

"God's incarnational activity is modeled by Jesus, but Jesus is not the only manifestation of god's incarnational activity"

After having read all the interviews, I believe this statement concisely encapsulates the PBs view on incarnation

Brandon said...

When I was in Seminary and heard others making these sorts of statements, and questioned them on the intellectual basis of their arguments, what I got was often an amalgam of pop psychology, a limited appreciation of Eastern religions, and pure American Autonomy. As was your experience, people who derive their faith from something other than the Holy Scriptures, the Fathers, the sacred disciplines of historic Christianity, and intellectually credible discourse are bound to sink into some form of Natural Religion or magic. We have been here (or something very much like here) before in Anglicanism (Deism). It is a tragic place, indeed.

Too many of the contemporary Episcopal Church’s reigning party leadership, if faced with Christ’s question today (which they really are, as are all disciples every day, of course), would be unable to answer with “John the Baptist,” or “Elijah,” or “one of the prophets,” let alone with Peter’s saving response. Rather, they would have to retreat into the sophistry and “brie-and-chablis” gibberish of your interlocutor.