Tradition, Change, and the Spirit of God: 1 John 4:2-6

23 May 2007

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Some time before the birth of The Wingèd Man, I read AKMA‘s assertion that “The Spirit is doing something new” is insufficient theological basis for some of the sweeping changes that have occurred in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church in the last few decades.  Women priests, women bishops, women primates (!), acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trasgendered people, the ordination of deacons, priests, and bishops in long-term same-sex relationships, and even the consideration of the possibility of blessing same-sex relationships undoubtedly present a huge break with Tradition.

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said or that would surprise people familiar with the Anglican/Episcopal churches and their troubles.  I try to treat the readings in the BDP as a crude, poorly executed lectio.  The above quote was part of the reading for today, and it very much struck me as I read.

I agree with AKMA that Episcopalians and Anglicans who support the full inclusion and acceptance of women and non-straight people in the church and in the clergy need a better theology.

I, personally, point to the Incarnation —”that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”— as a key to the theology which makes these reforms possible, with Pentecost, when the Spirit descended upon the Apostles and Mary, as a complement to it.  Clearly, the Incarnation transforms all flesh and makes this possible now that were not possible before, and the Spirit will indwell wherever it will, sometimes in places we often overlook.  How often do we not remember that Mary received the Spirit on Pentecost, too?

I wonder who is the “we” of the passage; presumably it is John and his fellow Apostles.  Looking closer, it seems that it means the whole Church.  The passage says “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world,” followed by a contrast between where “They” are from and who “We” are from.  This “we” is not a “royal we” nor a collegial reference to the apostles and their successor bishops.  This is a reference to the Church as a whole, irrespective of orders.

“Whoever knows God listens to us”: is this a Scriptural exhortation to dialog?  If we want to show that we know God, do we need to listen to our opponents?  At the same time, do they need to listen to us?  No, of course, unless we truly know God, too.

It troubles me when God is not at the center of things, as he is often not in the Episcopal Church these days, on both ends of the “Episcopal row” to use the Young Fogey‘s term.  Sometimes the church focuses too much on itself, on its “rightness” and not on its truth, to do what it was meant to do: usher in the Kingdom of God, however that will look.

I get the sense that a better theologian and biblical scholar could make more and better use of this verse, but I get the sense that this portion of 1 John and this epistle as a whole could be central to the ultimate reconciliation and unity of the Church(es)

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6 Responses to “Tradition, Change, and the Spirit of God: 1 John 4:2-6”


  1. Testing this com-box…


  2. Maybe breaking this into parts will send it through…

    Thanks for the mention and link!

    A conservative Presbyterian gentleman and high-school history teacher – very smart – once said to me there is one issue that Christians can and should unite and divide over: belief about the Eucharist. He reckoned that’d leave three churches, Catholic (complete change of the elements into Christ’s body and blood), middle way (Lutheran and classic Anglican) and Protestant (Communion is only a symbol).

    “The Spirit is doing something new” is insufficient theological basis for some of the sweeping changes that have occurred in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church in the last few decades.

    Seems fair and magnanimous of AKMA to admit that.

    That’s why these changes are non-starters for Catholics and other orthodox-Christian churchmen. The arrogance of the liberals is in going through with them anyway. I summed up the Anglican/Episcopal row in a quotation I blogged recently: ‘if you claim to be only a part of the church (as I learnt early on as a Catholic churchman) don’t act like you’re the whole’. Which IMO the Episcopal Church has been doing for the past 30+ years. Arrogant unlike the maligned Blessed Pope Pius IX, who contrary to legend saw himself as tradition’s servant: when asked to add St Joseph’s name to the Canon of the Mass, not even a matter of faith or morals, he said ‘I can’t! I’m only the Pope!’

    Which is essentially the last few Popes’ answer to the question of women’s ordination.


  3. Secunda pars: To be fair, turning AKMA’s admission around, Orthodox Bishop Kallistos (Ware) and others, including a good friend and unofficial theological adviser of mine, have admitted that although the church shouldn’t try to change the apostolic ministry many of the arguments against women priests academically aren’t very good.

    The trouble is the arguments for it, again, are non-starters for Catholics. To us they’re self-refuting: ‘Jesus didn’t found a church and the apostolic ministry is of human not divine origin for the good order of the church, not essential.’

    (In that case I’ll stay in on Sundays.)

    I’ve summed up my view on the matter in this Catholic way: larger church > everything else. Misogyny is nothing to do with it.

    Once you accept that premise the arguments of the Popes – about equality versus complementarity for example – slot into place.

    The way women’s ordination was pushed through in Anglican churches and the arguments given for it (tradition matters except when, like, you know, it doesn’t) have effectively destroyed my home – cut it off perhaps for ever from the long-wanted goal among Anglo-Catholics of reunion with the larger church (most notably Rome and the Orthodox).

    The Catholic Movement in the Episcopal Church and Church of England is finished, a loss I’m just old enough to have seen play out.

    So for the past 30+ years people like me have made our submissions to the larger church individually, taking our Prayer Book language (not necessarily Prayer Book services!) and our tolerant conservatism – more an Anglican (or just English) ethos than confessional, 39 Articles Anglicanism, which is too Protestant – along with us as best we can.

    We wanted corporate reunion, to bring that tradition intact to the larger church and the world. We thought it was worth keeping.

    Mainline liberal Protestants can be lovely people. I can see them all eventually merging into one denomination. By being born Anglican I didn’t sign on to be one though.


  4. Tertia pars: As for ‘acceptance of gays’ and ‘full inclusion’ one needs to define terms. For example most AC priests I’ve known have not been straight – no surprise to anybody acquainted with Anglicanism! As I like to say ‘all are welcome to come and pray in a Catholic church’. The real issue is not orientation, which is just like any other temptation (‘I was born a pyromaniac; how dare you deny me the right to act as God made me?’), but behaviour, which is a matter of choice and if a wrong choice a matter of sin. Also, speaking of ‘inclusion’, a Catholic parish does just that; a gay parish does not, by definition.

    You can be an improbabilist (as opposed to an impossibilist) about women’s ordination and be Catholic. Homosex is a non-negotiable issue for Christians, no matter how many conservative congregations get sued out of their buildings.

    That history teacher and I would agree that lowest-common-denominator unity – ‘as long as we all believe in Jesus’ – seems appealing but doesn’t work. In England it was called the Elizabethan settlement, which sort of worked as long as the police and the army forced it on the English (both RCs and the founders of Tripp’s church rebelled), and which you and I now see crashing down as the Anglican Communion flies apart.


  5. P.S. Earlier I blogged Andrew Bartus’ article about Catholic sacramentalism contrasted with Protestant ‘knowledge-based’ religion. Catholic substance vs Protestant principle revisited. I’ve mentioned in some com-boxes that among ethnic born Orthodox, who are usually entirely sacramentalist, the question of women’s ordination hardly ever comes up.


  6. Fogey, thanks for the comments. It’ll take a while to digest, and honestly I don’t feel that qualified to comment on a lot of this.

    About “full inclusion” and “acceptance of gays,” I agree with you to an extent. “All are welcome to come and pray in a Catholic Church”: true in my experience. And a “gay parish” is exclusive, not inclusive; this exclusivity, I would say, is unChristian.

    But when I say “full inclusion” and “acceptance” I do mean acceptance of same-sex relationships and an inclusion of people in such relationships in the clergy. It butts against tradition and traditional interpretations of Scripture and sexual morality.

    The Incarnation, though. The Incarnation, as I see it, radically transformed humanity. Transformed it so radically, we don’t even fully understand how transformed humanity is by it. Couple that with recent understandings of how sexuality is hardwired within us —evidence that would seem to indicate we are, in part at least, sexually determined physiologically— and I have a hard time excluding gay people in committed relationships from the clergy.

    I realize this can become a slippery slope: we have many things that are hardwired within us that are negative and we need to avoid. I’m not sure I have an answer for this argument. But it’s where I stand right now. I can do . . . not much else.

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