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Orthodox Theologian Responds to Sanders - by Ephraim Radner

Orthodox Theologian Responds to Sanders - by Ephraim Radner

In conversation with Dr. Robert Sanders

by Ephraim Radner

I always appreciate Dr. Sanders taking what I say seriously enough to devote to it the kinds of thoughtful, careful, and faithful analysis that he does here. Disagreements in this case do not constitute, at least from my side, a matter of moral conflict. Thus, I am thankful for his essay.

Furthermore, I agree with most of the particular points he makes in trying to counter some of my larger claims - that the Church would indeed, within the context of drawing Eucharist and Kingdom of God together in an intimate way, seek to exclude "notorious sinners" (to use the Anglican phraseology) from communion and so on, Judas (in his personal and figural character) among them; that eucharistic discipline is deeply rooted in the Church's life from the beginning; that repentance is the gateway, as it were, to our full participation in the Chruch's life. And most especially, I share most of his judgments regarding the Episcopal Church's own general and substantive error in teaching, life, and discipline, a reality that demands of us the most rigorous and acute response of faith and life.

However, I think he deeply misunderstands the wider context in which I have attempted to articulate a "theology of staying put". He seems to think that this context represents a kind of general or even absolute vision of the Church and of salvation history. Thus, he looks in the index of my recent book, and sees that the Cross is mentioned many times, but the Resurrection not at all. How can this represent anything other than a truncated version of the Gospel? he wonders. Of course, he is right if this were what I was trying to do - sketch out a complete theology of salvation or even of the Church of Christ.

But that is not at all what most of my writing is about these days. I have been trying my best to understand, not "the Church" in her fullness, but the "broken Church" in her divisions and failures. (This is given in the title of the book which Dr. Sanders discusses.) Thus, anything I have tried to say about, e.g. communion, eucharistic fellowship, repentance, heresy, and the rest, has been framed within the context of this place and time ("the present", not the future) in which, I believe, we live: divided, confused, often antagonistic, self-justifying, self-promoting, self-deceiving church bodies. This represents, as I understand it, almost the nadir of Christian faithfulness. And more to the point, it is one in which we are all - myself and Dr. Sanders too! - implicated and caught, in such a way as to obscure our reading of Scripture, our perceptions of the truth, and yes, even our ability to "repent".

Of course, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox cannot accept this understanding of our present situation - one that includes us all, all Christians everywhere, of every denomination and "communion". The fundamental corruptibility of the Church of Christ into self-deceiving "churches" seems to contradict their sense of trust in the current authorities by which they live and govern their corporate and individual lives. Nor do most Protestant groups find this reading of the moment acceptable; for it robs them of their sense of escape from the sins of others into a place of protected purity.

How, indeed, does one live in a sinful "church", in the "broken Church", as someone who cannot hide? That is the main question I have been struggling with for years. Some of my best friends are fleeing ECUSA for other denominations; some are "breaking fellowship" with errant (and often arrogant) leaders and colleagues (myself, I guess, included); some are giving up and burrowing down. These are all options. I do not think they make any generally applicable sense, however, in the present moment (although they may make sense for this or that individual, for a host of personal reasons). For in the present moment, we are all guilty, our churches are all guilty (in many different ways, of course, but sharing some basic forms), and most of our motives are guilty.

I do, however, believe in the promises of the Gospel, given in Christ, who subsumes and fulfills the whole of the Scriptures of God. And so I have tried to scrutinize these Scriptures, to see where the Lord speaks to us, to find this moment we are in uttered and described and transfigured by the hope of Jesus Christ, who speaks through them all and who gathers all time to Himself. (In other words, I believe in the prophetic gifts of the Scriptures to tell us who we are today and thus how God's promises must carry us - this is part of what I mean by "providence".) And this is where, if you will, the "index" under "Cross" seems filled with references - references that are scattered through Israel and the Nations, through the last centuries, through America, through ECUSA, and pulled together in the walk of Jesus through the hills of Palestine on the way to Jerusalem and His own temporal ending. The ecclesiological question of today, that is, seems to be lodged in Jesus' own, posed to His disciples in, say, Mark 8:34-37, or John 12: 24-25: losing life for the sake of finding it. This is what sinners do who would follow their Lord. where?

But, you see, I doubt very much if "Resurrection" is really susceptible to "indexing" in a book about human history. Of all things - if it is a "thing" at all - it represents the "gift" of God, who brings life from the dead, and calls into being those things that are not (cf. Rom. 4:17; 1 Cor. 1:27-28). It represents the actual invention of life, not some character within it, to be picked out and analyzed. The Resurrection is not a "principle" of history, whose form we find scattered about the references of time as we flip through her pages. It comes always as something we neither control nor predict. (Yes, the Lord Himself predicts! But how do we hear this?) Thus, St. Paul in fact, when he describes the Eucharist in 1 Cor. 10, does not at all speak of the Resurrection - not because its association with the Holy Communion is non-existent, but because it is given, not asserted: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (10:26).

In any case, I suspect that Dr. Sanders is more comfortable approaching these matters from a kind of ideal perspective, where the connection between this church - wherever we may find ourselves - is quite direct to "the Church". Hence, prescriptive directions and evaluations can be made about things like "communion" and "repentance" and "the Kingdom of God" in the Eucharist and so on, that are valid as criteria of discernment for all time among all peoples and in all situations.

That is certainly a noble hope, and as a theological task, it has both had its place and continues to attract its acolytes. It is not wrong to pursue even, for in doing so, one can apply to the present some kind of comparison against which the realities of the moment's confusions emerge monstrously.

But that is not what I am after, and frankly, I am doubtful that, having done this, one becomes very clear about the next step we are called to make in God's good calling. For although we must, for instance, look to Nicea and her canons (and I have read them too!) as a kind of judgment upon us (that is, they have their "authority" in a particular mode), I cannot see this church today (nor other churches) as capable, historically and figurally, of being represented by the church of Nicea in her integrity (such as it was) in any direct fashion. To be restored to a "Nicean" status must take a good deal more - oh, so much more! unimaginably more! - than getting our eucharistic fellowship rules sorted out in ECUSA or this or that Anglican denomination. How shall we proceed in our effort to deal rightly with error in our (divided) church? Dr. Sanders thinks we need to stop sharing the Eucharist with erring bishops, clergy, and people. Fine. But who will decide? Each of us on our own? One bishop, and not another? A primate in Africa (even though another primate in Africa continues to be in communion)? One diocese, but not another, even though each is led by a bishop considered (by some groups, if not all others) to be "orthodox"?

Dr. Sanders is right that we need to think hard about all this! But it will take a lot more than getting the columns lined up correctly, and sorting people out among them.

But on a practical level, Dr. Sanders and I are probably working in the same direction anyway. With the Anglican Communion Institute, I am laboring mightily, in conjunction with a broad range of bishops and Anglican Primates, to work for an ordered and consensual "discipline" to be exercised within our Communion and local church. Some of this may or may not involved eucharistic fellowship. Still, I have no idea if that will work, for there is little precedent of late that Christian leaders - even the "orthodox"! - can actually work together, and can give way in love and faith for this to happen. Although I suspect chaos, I hope for peace in God's truth and mercy.

But this touches, perhaps, upon our differences - in style, if not in substance. I feel myself, not only because I am a sinful creature, but precisely because I am a member of a broken Church, an unfaithful Israel, a crucifier of my Lord's body - I feel that I cannot trust my own powers of theological acuity and judgment, especially when it comes to fixing the ills of the Church, her leaders, her teaching. Rather, I too need to be brought to a place of healing and redemption, exactly in the present, in the midst of a sinful church, in relation to erring brethren and false teachers. This whole moment of my church's agony represents the refashioning of my spirit too, in ways I cannot quite formulate in advance, strategize by the numbers - whether through an index or a plan of action. I hear Dr. Sanders telling me to "get it right!" now, get the pieces in the right order, make sure the edifice is fashioned as it should be (which one?). But instead - I am speaking for the present, not for all time, not systematically, not as the voice of Catholic of Protestant Christianity, not as the exponent of Thomas or Barth or Balthasar - I hear the Lord say to His disciples (and I am standing and listening, though I hang my head), "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered" (Mat. 26:31). This is what He does.

The purpose of this kind of figural hearing is not to construct upon its basis an entire theology that is valid across all borders (a problematic hope, in any case); the purpose of this hearing is to recognize that the present is one in which the Lord is at work (Jn. 5:17) - striking, scattering, speaking to us even now - and thus offering us the hope for that "pouring out of a spirit of compassion. looking on him whom they have pierced" and thereby "opening the fountain" of life (Zech. 13:7; 12:10; 13:1); that is, "after three days."

END

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