Do mention the war

Last week I was on an ecumenical pilgrimage (which means each day we walked somewhere) reflecting on war, justice and peace. This was organised by our diocese’s German partners, the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland, and included most of their other partners from Finland, Sweden, Tanzania and the USA.

Two things, I think have struck me in particular. The first is the seriousness with which Germans in particular treat their history. Far from this being a case of “don’t mention the war”, the commitment to “never again” grows out of making sure there are monuments to the war built in to city architecture and curriculum alike. For example, they ensure that sites of atrocities are maintained and used in acts of remembrance as well as for school visits. The pictures below show a memorial to a local massacre at Gardelegen from the closing days of WWII, and the adjoining cemetery where the victims are buried. We were there on 13 April, the 61st anniversary of the atrocity.

Memorial 2 Memorial 3

Then there are the Stolpersteine. These “stumbling stones” are built into the pavement at sites where Jews were last know to live (or work, in the case below of the Mayor, Herbert Goldschmidt) before being taken to the death camps. The idea is that these stones catch people in the middle of walking around in daily life, and make them momentarily check themselves and remember. There are now 53,000+ such memorials around Europe.

Stolpersteine 1 Stolpersteine 2

Alongside this history of war, there is more recent history. Magdeburg, where we were based, is in the former DDR. The German peace movement, on both sides of the frontier, really took off in the 1980s, when Pershing missiles were brought to West Germany, and SS20s to East Germany. They protested against a divided country in which a nuclear civil war was a visible possibility on their own soil, brought about by the two superpowers which controlled their respective alliances.

This gave most of those we met from the peace movement a commitment to pacifism, rather than simply to peace. It also gave many of them, I think, a memory of the glory days when they actually made a difference, which may not be helping them look at the world as it now is.

Coming from a church which has officially embraced a just war tradition, I found their experiences and views challenging, even if I continue to disagree with them. It was less their arguments and more what they have lived through, and worked for, which made their views challenging because hard won from life’s experiences. It was peaceful means (as well, of course, severe economic pressure) which brought the wall down, engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union, and delivered reunification.

One of the things I take away from the discussion is this: it’s far too easy for us to mistake a relatively quiet and comfortable life (such as most of us Westerners currently enjoy) for peace. A quiet life at home, without justice for the world’s peoples, is only an illusion of peace. There are too many people, not least the thousands of refugees currently seeking safety, who need the real thing.

Supererogation is a very big word

Ever since I was child, I’ve loved words, and can still remember the first big word that fascinated me, thanks to the hymns at my parents’ church — consubstantial, as sung in a number of doxologies. Nicene Christianity, provider of big words to small boys. Another of those wonderful big words is provided by the fourteenth of the Church of England’s articles — supererogation. It’s not as exciting as it sounds.

XIV. Of Works of Supererogation
Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

Those who’ve read the immediately preceding posts in this series will realise that I don’t think any kind of numerical reckoning up of works to gain salvation, or indeed, any fundamental opposition between grace and works as abstract concepts, have actually got much to do with what St Paul was on about.

So the theme continues. The context within which the article is conceived is a framework from its own era, not Paul’s; despite this, the main point of the article is important. Faith in God, conformity with Christ, the life of the Spirit are aspects of relationship. Doing what is right is meant to be a pattern of life, not a question of whether to put in overtime, or knock off at the end of the day, secure in having earned one’s salary.

I don’t think Aquinas would have dissented from that at all. His discussion is more subtle. If I have understood him rightly, there are certain good works which are explicitly commanded: one’s duty is clear, and doing them has comparatively little to do with character, though it may shape virtuous character. Then there are good works which are not commanded per se, but are either encouraged as attitudes, or spring out of a virtuous character – a character shaped by the working of grace. It is these latter that are “works of supererogation.”

The fundamental distinction – if this is correct – is between the good that is specifically commanded, and the good that is not required, but is nonetheless part of the true vocation of those whom God calls. I am not well versed enough in the history of the period to know how or to what extent Aquinas’ teaching had become corrupted (or misunderstood) by Luther’s time, or to what extent Luther is actually attacking this view in order to maintain the absolute incongruity and undeserved nature of grace.

Interestingly the article quotes Luke 17:10, the conclusion of a brief parable. “When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants”. This quotation seems to be something of a Reformation trope and occurs also in a different context in the Augsburg Confession (article 6) where it bolsters the idea that human works can’t earn justification.

In Lukan context, the quotation appears to mean something subtly different. The disciples have responded to Jesus’ teaching on the necessity for repeated forgiveness of others by asking for more faith. They see forgiveness of this magnitude as something almost impossible to ask of them. Jesus tells a parable, treating such forgiveness as a matter of routine duty. What we might see as a matter of supreme virtue, God treats as an everyday act of obedience. It is a rather different line from either Aquinas or the articles. It suggests human and divine judgement may differ significantly about whether something is a matter of great virtue. It undercuts any classifying of good deeds according to human calculus.

Intriguingly, and not entirely tangentially, the language of supererogation appears once in the Vulgate, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan’s final words to the innkeeper are translated “quodcumque supererogaveris ego cum rediero reddam tibi – and whatever you require in addition, I will repay you when I return” (Luke 10:35). In one sense it sums up the Samaritan’s attitude: he will do more than is required. The contrast is with the expert in the law, who wants to know exactly what must be done to fulfil the command “Love your neighbour as yourself”. How is one to know when one has fulfilled this obligation? For Jesus, this is the wrong question: the parable makes clear that the right question is “Who can I be neighbour to?” And the implicit answer is “Anyone in need.”

God’s requirements are essentially limitless while the work of creation and redemption remains to be fulfilled. In their very different ways, Aquinas and the articles are not far from this basic point of our Lord’s. In the end, God’s work is not to demand a basic minimum of good deeds, but rather to turn sinful people into holy ones, the bad into good, and worthless slaves (unprofitable servants in the language of the AV) into honoured children and heirs.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

Saying goodbye to a mean-minded God?

feedthehungryEvery now and then I wonder why I started this series. Today is another such day, because I find the thirteenth of the Church of England’s articles of faith so viscerally unattractive. (I hope that my sense of repulsion has not totally affected my judgement!)

XIII Of Works before Justification
Works done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin.

I have already argued in previous posts in this series that this whole discussion on faith and works is carried out on entirely the wrong basis, and neither the overarching concepts of the late mediaeval / early modern debate nor its specific formulations are historically well rooted in Paul’s writings, or indeed other parts of scripture.

Somewhere behind this article lies the fundamental assertion that one cannot earn God’s grace and love, nor bootstrap one’s way to salvation. Let’s take that as read. That assertion, although expressed differently by Jews and Christians, and indeed historically by Catholics and Protestants, seems to me to be central to the biblical vision. The overarching sweep of the scriptural story stresses God’s prior initiative and our lives as needing to be responsive: how else can a story of Creator and creature be told?

However, somewhere along the way, that positive affirmation gets lost in the wording of this article. Entangled in late mediaeval constructs, it (along with some other expressions of Reformation thought) obscures that central theme, while blaming the mediaeval schools for the obscurity. It turns God into some kind of morally deficient judge of a defective past creation, instead of the gracious sustainer of present creation, whose loving determination is to bring all created being to its redeemed consummation.

The mercy of a God who judges all human deeds abhorrent, unless they are performed by those that same mercy has brought to believe in Christ, is scarcely mercy at all. In fact, whatever the article actually says, that can’t be the totality of the Anglican reformers’ view, since they accept the salvation of the the faithful people of the Jewish covenants before Christ.

Going further, it seems to me that they have no real and practical concept of non-Christians, and neither make provision for, nor develop a theology of, God’s mission in the world. The assumption they make, living in a Christian commonwealth, is that every citizen is either believer, heretic or apostate. The root assumption is that everyone is baptised. This article probably needs to be read in that light as talking about what activates that baptismal seed within them: doing good deeds because we wish to be loved, or doing good deeds because we have discovered that we are loved.

In today’s world, however, that Christendom assumption is plainly nonsense, and so the wording of the article seems even more nonsensical, if not simply appalling. If we truly have a vision of God’s creative and redemptive work (two different perspectives on the same gracious and loving purpose of God) focused and known in and through the sacrificial love of the Son of God who shares our humanity, then no person lives, speaks and acts without the grace of God sustaining their being, or themselves ever being less than the determined object of God’s love.

How one comes to recognise that grace, and the ways in which people respond to that grace, are different questions for which the Church continues to need to work on its theology of mission — understood as embracing creation and redemption as its methods, and the perfection of new creation as its goal.

It seems to me, for example, that some atheists have been very palpable gifts of God’s grace to me, some by their friendship, and the goodness I have found in them, others by their protest against distorted pictures of God the church has wittingly or unwittingly perpetrated, others again by their pursuit of truth in the light of their reason and courage, in the face of a church that has not liked the challenge of uncomfortable truths.

I am not prepared to say that these are not good deeds pleasing to God. And I am certainly not prepared to say that these are anything other than the working of God’s grace (however much my atheist friends may dislike that assertion). I hope and pray that they might (somehow, somewhere, somewhen) come to know how to name the God of that grace with gratitude, but ultimately that is God’s business and theirs. In the meantime, mine is to bear witness to the God who makes himself known in Jesus of Nazareth, exploring ways to name him in word and deed which others may find both comprehensible and compelling.

In the light of my experience, some of the more generous reflections of our tradition, and above all a more hopeful reading of scripture, I have rather more sense of God as the one in whom we all live and move and have our being, who will not be so easily frustrated in his creative purposes, and who above all delights far more in his diverse creation than the wording of this article suggests.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

Works: what are they good for?

The twelfth Anglican article is one of several dealing with that hot topic of the Reformation, the relationship of faith and works. In the previous two posts I’ve noted my view that Paul is not, in fact, talking about the same things as the Reformers, and that view inevitably forms the backdrop to my comments.

XII . Of Good Works
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

It seems that the Anglican Reformers are worried that if people accept the idea that nothing we do can earn God’s favour (outlined in the preceding articles), then they may feel there’s not much point in trying to do good. Because they have collapsed Paul’s very specific “works of the Law” into generic “good works” they were able to find a similar view opposed in their reading of Paul:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? (Romans 6:1-2 NRSV)

For Paul this is largely a rhetorical strategy; for the Reformers it seems to be a real fear. Once you’ve stressed, as they did (articles XII and XIII are really the wrong way round) that good works can’t earn God’s favour, and in fact, aren’t really good at all, it can be difficult to assert the place of them in Christian life. Insisting on their uselessness before conversion, they have a harder task to make them useful after conversion – and, we have to remember, that conversion is largely theoretical. Their experience is framed by a Christian commonwealth in which most works accomplished by most people come after (infant) baptism.

However, we may be grateful the Anglican reformers avoided the error of, for example, the statement of the Westminster Confession, that “Good works are only such as God has commanded in His holy Word”. Instead they allow more attention to be paid to the art of moral discernment and judgement as itself a gift of the Spirit, and the work of the biblically informed mind. The Anglican Reformers did not believe that for a thing to be good or right it had to be commanded in Scripture.

Despite the apparent wording of the article, it is far less the case in scripture that good works come naturally to those who have faith. It is rather more the case that, living by the gracious love of the covenant God, the people of God seek to live lives of loving faithfulness in return. Practices of prayer, acts of love and spiritual disciplines are about how a person cultivates their life so that what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit might grow.

Paul, at least as I read him, believes that faith implies and encompasses faithfulness, and that the Spirit engenders and empowers virtuous character and good deeds. We can be thankful that the article affirms that right faith and righteous living are meant to go hand in hand, even if the means by which it gets there, and the way it expresses it, are rather strange. The mystery is that anyone ever thought (or more likely were thought to think) otherwise.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)