Lent Course 2006: The People of God

Unit One - A Brief History of God

Let us begin by trying to distill where we as Christians agree and disagree about God.

A good starting point is a question originally formulated by the philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716) which now commands wide respect amongst theologians across the Christian spectrum: God is the answer to the question why is there something rather than nothing.

Immediately we have to qualify this by saying that the language of God is a reasoned response using human means to describe an entity wholly outside the reach of human language. The god of philosophy is a necessary concept which tries to explain human existence in terms outside human determinacy. The God of religions also has to be described in this philosophical language but it is articulated in faith. Christians disagree about the balance between faith and reason in their approach to the concept of God.

God as God, rather than a god, is believed in by the three 'Abrahamic' faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which all hold that God created all being; this is their answer to Leibniz' question. The three Abramic religions also hold that God has communicated in history through a special relationship with the Jewish people which is recorded in the Jewish scriptures which are held to be special by both Jews and Christians (who refer to this corpus as the Old Testament) and which provide source material for the Islamic faith.

Christians believe that God is love; that we were created graciously in love that we might love God freely. What distinguishes Christians from Jews and Muslims is set out in the ancient Creeds of the Church, formulated in the 4th and 5th Centuries as meticulous reactions to heresies. In essence, these say that God's self communication in love (as the Creator, known as "God the Father") became concrete in history in the person of Jesus Christ (the Redeemer, known as "God the Son") who was wholly divine and wholly human in one person (hypostasis). They believe that this incarnate manifestation of God:

Christians further believe that these events presage a perfect union between God's self communication with human beings and their loving response (Heaven or "The Kingdom"); but they disagree on how this will take place and who will be so blessed: some Christians believe that all who respond to God's self communication will reach this ultimate, spiritual goal; others believe that this is reserved for Christians; and others still that it is reserved for certain kinds of Christians (sometimes self-termed "The Elect of God").

Christians vary in their understanding of the events in the life of Christ and their significance: some accept the events in faith but see them as mysteries; others have formulated highly detailed explanations of what these events mean for us now. This difference is most manifest in the emphasis Christians variously place on the incarnation of Jesus Christ on the one hand and his passion and death on the other. The former emphasise the bridge between God as divine and God as human, making concrete in history God's self communication to us and our inner drive, from God, to love God, which culminated in the resurrection which constitutes an irreversible offer of total fusion between God and humans. The latter emphasise the complete irreconcilability between the perfection of the divine and the intrinsic sinfulness of the human which has been remitted through the sacrifice of the Redeemer's life on the cross. Thus, Christians are divided on the issue of the relationship between the divinity of God and their own humanity in positions which could hardly be further apart.

Christians believe that we can only relate to God the Creator through the Redeemer and that we know of both through Word and Sacrament under the guidance of the Sanctifier. They believe that God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sanctified (The Trinity) are all of the essence of the one, true and living God. They are traditionally referred to as three 'Persons' but might more helpfully be thought of as attributes ("just as all words change their meaning through time (Vico 1668-1744), the word 'Person' has evolved from its Greek understanding to an almost opposite contemporary meaning: a psychological self identification in autonomy"). While Christians agree that all three attributes are of the one essence they disagree about the way in which this is worked out (the Filioque controversy which split Western and Eastern Christianity).

Christians believe that the writings about The Redeemer (in the New Testament) are organic successors to those of the Old Testament; but they disagree both about the content of scripture and how it is to be understood. All believe that scripture, however, defined, is the Word of God in a special way; but whereas:

Christians believe that the gift of the Redeemer to the world was the Church which worships God through the ascended Redeemer, in the power of the Sanctifier, through Word and Sacrament. Christians agree that they are all part of this Christ-given Church but disagree about the institutional nature of the Church. Christians believe that the purpose of the Church, the body of Christ, the whole people of God, is to worship God and to bear witness to God in Word (the Scriptures) and Sacrament.

The nature of the Triune God, the hypostasis of the Redeemer, the basic events of the life of Jesus, the relationship between the Sanctifier and Christ's Church and the ultimate goal of being united with God, are all credal statements. The definition of scripture is, paradoxically, a matter of tradition within the Church and is not credal; and so the Church, in an act of self fulfilment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, resolves to adhere to the Word of God which it has itself defined. The nature of sacramentality is derived from Church-defined scripture.

Sacraments are physical manifestations which invoke God's special presence with the people of God in the body of Christ. Christians disagree about what constitutes a sacrament but most accept Baptism and the Eucharist, though they disagree about the eligibility to participate in these; they are broadly in agreement on Baptism as the sacrament of initiation in the Church; and they broadly agree (with the exception of the theological descendants of Zwingli whom we will discuss in Unit Three) that God is uniquely present in the sacrament of the Eucharist but they disagree about how this takes place. There are a multiplicity of disagreements about the other five sacraments in which some Christians believe.

Superficially at least, this looks very depressing. In essence, Christians today seem most easily to agree about those things which are most difficult to define, the mysteries of creation, redemption, resurrection. Because they disagree about both the content and significance of scripture they consequently disagree about the meaning of these mysterious acts of God; and they disagree about how we continue to live in the life of God in the Church through sacraments.

At a deeper level, however, such a degree of disagreement is natural, we might say necessary. Because theology is concerned to complete the impossible sentence: "God is" and because, therefore, all theology is provisional, it is bound to test the uttermost human power of expression.

This state of affairs should act as a caution against theological presumption. Those theological formulae which present the greatest problems are those which have best stood the test of time because of the intrinsic difficulty of arriving at better formulations; whereas those matters which relate to God which we find easiest to formulate are those which have generated the greatest degree of controversy. This fits properly with the idea that we try to improve where we can.

How these improvements are made, how theology is formulated under the guidance of the Sanctifier and accepted by believers in a God-given and self imposed act of faith, is embodied in the history of the Church. Some Christians have accepted that what they believe should be defined by those in ecclesiastical authority although they have disagreed about what constitutes that authority; others have believed that the civil power has been given special sanction by God to define belief; others still have accepted various combinations of the two. This last position is true of the Church of England to which we now turn.

Contrary to popular belief, Henry VIII went to his death believing that he was a good Catholic; his 'break' with Rome was no more serious than that of many nationalist kings before him (at one point Popes had been house arrested in Avignon by the French kings). Under Edward VI, Archbishop Cranmer wrote two Prayer Books, successively more protestant, the second of which became the core of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662.

The Elizabeth settlement of religion had to keep the traditionalists and the 'Puritans' under one national church; this meant making all kinds of accommodations about scripture, sacramentality, the episcopate and the priesthood in the context of a vernacular Bible. This settlement stood almost intact until our own times. There was a period of stagnation from the end of the Civil War until the end of the 18th century at which point there was an Evangelical revival which had a great influence on the Catholic revival of the mid 19th century which, in turn, influenced the Eucharistic revival of the mid 20th century; but only the last of these finally pushed the Church of England into legislative and liturgical change.

And so, because of the singularity of its history, the Church of England is peculiarly a microcosm of wider Christian pluralism. Whereas many churches have become doctrinally tightly knit around sets of propositions, The Church of England has historically contained people holding almost all the positions outlined at the beginning of this Unit. We have traditionally been a church of theological tolerance, perhaps out of 'political' necessity and indifference rather than out of a positive spirit of liberalism; we have accorded a place to reason alongside scripture (giving us the famous three-legged stool of scripture, tradition and reason) as tools for our understanding of God and our relationship with God); we have not been theocratic and only briefly accepted the complete hegemony of the civil power in our theological determinations (Erastianism); and in spite of an unusually high degree of liturgical determinism through the Book of Common Prayer we have managed a degree of diversity which has steadily widened without threatening the over-arching fabric of our Church.

It is against that perspective that we should judge contemporary issues. Having survived as a Church in spite of our major differences over the nature of Eucharist, redemption and grace, are we in danger of splitting over issues none of which are of the first order?

What we need to do is to compare and contrast the magnitude of the issues which have traditionally divided Christians with the current divisive issues treated in more detail in Units Three, Four and Five. We will need to ask ourselves whether any of these issues, but particularly women bishops or Civil Partnerships, are proper causes of schism.

What has disturbed our coexistence? Here are five suggestions:

We need to consider the fundamental paradox of liberalism that it forges the instruments of tolerance by which the intolerant overthrow it.

The reaction to controversy within the Church often looks more political than theological. Faced with our current difficulties, should we fight like politicians or simply live our truth, even if this means that the control of the Church and its resources pass into the hands of biblical fundamentalists?

This drastic option brings us to a brief consideration, at the end of this Unit, of the question of where we, as the people of God, fit with all the other people of God. Some people think that we should do nothing major in our Church unless the leadership of other Christian denominations agree with us (we will look at this issue in Unit Four); other people think that our reformed, national status allows us to do what we wish under the guidance of the Sanctifier (subject, in some cases, to Parliament). When we are thinking about changing our doctrine, how far should we think about the positions of other denominations?

Finally, and we should dedicate most time to this in our discussions, most people believe in some form of Ecumenism. What do we mean by this; and is there some difference between unity, unification and uniformity?