Conversion and Ritual

In a fascinating essay on St. Augustine’s conversion, Thomas Finn argues for the importance of ritual. The narrative of Augustine’s conversion is sometimes told exclusively in terms of his garden experience at Milan in 386AD, and indeed Augustine himself calls that event his conversion (Confessions, 8.12.30). However, taken on its own the garden experience sets a pattern for understanding conversion that centers on an instantaneous decision of faith. Finn, however, argues that Augustine’s Confessions shows a conversion narrative inImage which a decisive moment initiates a long ritual journey. Augustine’s garden experience, on Finn’s reading, was part of a much larger narrative that began in his youth and carried forward into the ancient process of the catechumenate.

The central decision [Augustine] faced was not whether to believe but whether to present himself for initiation, which he decided to do in the summer of 386. Well before that…his mind was made up about the content of Catholic belief. No, the problem was to become, to enter. Although it is not customary to read the Confessions as the account of a ritual or liturgical journey, it is clear that Augustine’s conversion was neither sudden nor limited to the garden in Milan. Rather, it was a process that began with his inscription in the catechumenate as an infant in November 354 and ended when he laid aside his white baptismal garment on the Sunday after Easter, April 25, 387: a thirty-year journey from first-born to new born. To be sure, his journey was not the journey of every ancient convert, but the ritual process that assured Augustine’s conversion, mutatis mutandis, attended the conversion of everyone, at least every documented case, who become a Christian in late antiquity. The case of Augustine establishes with clarity that conversio goes beyond the turned of one’s mind to the turning of one’s self, for which, at least in antiquity, ritual was indespensable. The ritual process was the normal means in the religions of antiquity to form and to reform the self in a community whose ideal was transformation (“Ritual and Conversion: The Case of Augustine,” in John Petruccione (ed), Nova & Vetera: Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patric Halton (1998), p. 161).

This is interesting to me because Augustine’s garden experience is often the paradigm for Protestant evangelicals. Continue reading

What do we mean by “the Christian life”?

We promised some excerpts from our forthcoming book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life, so here we go. An obvious question is simply what we mean by the construction “the Christian life.” To what does it refer, what is its range of meaning, and from where does one draw to fill out its content? This is taken from the Introduction:

‘The Christian life’ is theological shorthand for redeemed human existence in communion with the triune God through union with Christ in the Spirit. That is, it names the temporal experience of ImageGod’s eternal purposes for fellowship as they are realized in human beings according to God’s grace. To state it yet another way, to address ‘the Christian life’ is to speak about the character of reconciled and renewed human existence. God’s gracious purpose to conform fallen people to the image of Christ takes shape and fulfills itself in time and space; this is the Christian life.

Putting it this way points out the rich doctrinal nexus within which the doctrine of the Christian life is situated. While the primary reference of ‘the Christian life’ is the lived experience of Christian identity, as a doctrinal locus it stands dogmatically related to other areas of Christian witness such as the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and providence, Christ, the church and the final consummation (to name a few). Being so related, the doctrine of the Christian life is informed and illumined by a whole series of theological claims about God, such as his relation to created reality, his reconciling works and the human activities which arise from them. In turn, those other doctrines are likewise informed and illumined through the doctrine of the Christian life. Our approach thus articulates a theology of the Christian life in terms of the whole of the Christian confession rather than just one dimension.

Lent for Academic Theologians

What are the dangers of academic theology for the theologian? This is something I often think about, so I was keenly interested when I stumbled upon this Lenten meditation from a theologian at Notre Dame. The entire post is worth reading here, but this bit in particular stood out to me.

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate Doctor of Divinitya bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Let me add a few thoughts.  It seems to me that one of the principal dangers for the academic theologian is their  vocational self-understanding (by “academic” I mean a theologian, like myself, whose work is formally and primarily, though not exclusively, carried out in the university). What frames the meaning and fitting practices of their vocation? Continue reading

Puritan Prayers: The Trinity

Valley of VisionWith the PhD thesis officially submitted, I’m hoping to eek out a few blog posts now. My wife recently gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional reflections. It has been a joy to read thus far for several different reasons.

Probably the most significant aspect of it for me is its way of reminding me of who God is and why it is such a blessing to have a place among the saints. Even when devoting oneself to the doctrine of God in systematics, one can never take in enough thoughtful pastoral statements about the goodness and wisdom of God. These nourish and stabilize our faith (certainly mine, at least).

The meaning of the name of the volume is glimpsed in the opening prayer:

You have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold your glory….Let me learn by paradox…that the valley is the place of vision….Let me find thy light in my darkness…thy glory in my valley.

The book is excellent not only for personal reading but also as a resource for crafting pastoral prayers to be used in corporate worship. Here is a longer portion of the prayer entitled “The Trinity”:

O Father, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have given me to Jesus, to be his sheep, jewel, portion; O Jesus, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have accepted, espoused, bound me; O Holy Spirit, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued my stubborn heart, made me one with him forever. O Father, you are enthroned to hear my prayers, O Jesus, your hand is outstreched to take my petitions, O Holy Spirit, you are willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication. O Triune God, who commands the universe, you have commanded me to ask for those things that concern your kingdom and my soul. Let me live and pray as one baptized into the threefold Name.

The book of course isn’t designed for the lenten season, but it does include a series of morning and evening daily prayers as well.

Abiding in Relationships

Ben Quash’s 2013 Lent Book, Abiding, is a beautiful meditation on the Christian life. Here is an excerpt from the chapter, “Abiding in Relationships.”

ImageHuman relationships will sometimes fail – often in small ways and occasionally in big and terrible ways. The Christian confidence is that no failure that is enacted by the embroiled human will can outrun grace. The Christian belief is that our abiding in relationship with God and one another is a ‘work’ that prospers only because God first abides in relationship with us. And God can bind all things – including the times, the seasons, and our fractured lives – not because God is one solitary and almighty will, but because he is faithful, and makes covenants, and gives himself, making an ‘us’ that will abide for eternity because it is established in the power of this infinitely responsive love (p. 128)

Sanctified by Grace is coming (finally!)

Kyle and I have been working for several years on a theology of the Christian life. In fact, we started the project while office mates and quick friends at the University of Aberdeen. We are verySanctified by Grace_cover_March62014 happy to say it is done and will be published in the early summer by T&T Clark! (you can preorder here) In the meantime, we are going to post some excerpts to whet your appetite.

The following is from the book jacket:

Books on the Christian life abound. Some focus on spirituality, others on practices, and others still on doctrines such as justification or forgiveness. Few offer an account of the Christian life that portrays redeemed Christian existence within the multifaceted and beautiful whole of the Christian confession. This book attempts to fill that gap. It provides a constructive, specifically theological interpretation of the Christian life according to the nature of God’s grace. This means coordinating the triune God, his reconciling, justifying, redemptive, restorative, and otherwise transformative action with those practices of the Christian life emerging from it. The doctrine of the Christian life developed here unifies doctrine and life, confession and practice within the divine economy of grace.

Drawing together some of the most important theologians in the church today, Sanctified by Grace achieves what no other theological text offers – a shared work of dogmatic theology oriented to redeemed Christian existence.

Letters to a Church Father

I tried something in class yesterday with wonderful results. In an upper level theology letter writingcourse we came to the end of several days grappling with writings from a handful of early church figures on the topic of Christology: Irenaeus, Arius, Athanasius, Apollinarius, Gregory of Nazianzus,  Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril of Jerusalem. We had walked through these readings together, and along the way I  sprinkled our conversations with background information, pointed out doctrinal connections they might not have seen, and drew their attention to particularly salient points.

Yesterday, as we pulled the threads together, I asked my students to write a letter. “Chose one of these ancient figures and reach back across the centuries” I told them. “They, like us, sought to contend for the Gospel – can you express to them how their Christology benefits you today? And they, like us, did so imperfectly – even if you disagree with their Christology, could you receive them as a legitimate conversation partner?”

Their letters were immensely encouraging and showed theological maturation on many different levels. The points of agreement and disagreement between the ancient figures did not go unnoticed, and many were able – without being asked in the assignment – to articulate the rationale which motivated the arguments. They drew wisely upon relevant biblical material, were sensitive to their place within the tradition of faith, and showed surprising maturity related to the pastoral issues connected to the doctrinal debates. These are all good and show the development of the technical skills required for theologians, but, frankly, more encouraging to me was the tone of the letters.

“Bravo!” I said to them today, “My young theologians, you sought to genuinely hear from these figures, to enter into dialogue with them, and not merely stand over them.” For instance, many more than I expected wrote to Apollinarius, Continue reading