Thursday, July 22, 2010

Vatican cardinal says lack of shared communion his greatest regret (ENI press release)

One of the personal highlights of my participation in the current series of international bilateral conversations between the Baptist World Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has been the session of last year's meetings in Rome in which Walter Cardinal Kasper participated, sharing with us his own perspectives on the successes, failures, and ongoing challenges of the ecumenical movement and candidly responding to our questions. Kasper, who recently retired as president of the PCPCU, echoed much of what he shared with us last December in a July 22 press interview given while a guest of honor at an assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Stuttgart, Germany July 20-27. Below is a press release issued by Ecumenical News International (Geneva) summarizing the interview.

Vatican cardinal says lack of shared communion his greatest regret

Stuttgart, Germany (ENI). The recently retired senior Vatican official responsible for ecumenical affairs has said his biggest regret during his tenure in Rome is that he did not achieve an agreement on a common communion with Protestants.

"Today, there is a lot of convergence. So, we got closer to each other but we could not achieve the final breakthrough. I regret it very much but you cannot push the issue," said Cardinal Walter Kasper, who retired on 1 July as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

"The main thing that I did not achieve is the sharing of Holy Communion," Kasper told ENInews in an interview in Stuttgart, while attending, as a special guest, the 20-27 July assembly of the Lutheran World Federation.

Kasper, now 77, became president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 2001; he had served the previous two years as its secretary. Originally from Germany, Kasper is a former professor of theology in M├╝nster and T├╝bingen, and was bishop of Stuttgart from 1989 to 1999.

Soon after he became secretary of the Vatican's unity council, Kasper took part in the signing on 31 October 1999, Reformation Day, of the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" between the Roman Catholic Church and the LWF. This aimed to overcome condemnations, dating back to the 16th century, between the papacy and reformer Martin Luther and his followers.

However, sharing in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the central Christian sacrament that commemorates Jesus' last meal with his disciples, remains a point of contention. Catholic teaching prevents Protestants in most situations receiving communion from Catholic priests, and says Catholics should not receive communion in Protestant churches.

"Of course, I regret it very much because I know the concrete problems in families, and between good friends and partners," said Kasper. "I know what these problems are but I cannot jump over the whole existing doctrine. It is a problem that still exists but I think we also achieved some things. Maybe not consensus but convergence."

Kasper's words echoed those of LWF president Mark S. Hanson from the United States, who earlier in the day told a media conference that the Lutheran commitment to ecumenism will not end until Lutherans can share the Eucharist with other churches.

"We must continue the dialogue about theological issues that still prevent us from communing together," said Hanson.

The LWF president had been asked if he could envisage a day when a married couple in which one partner was a Catholic and the other a Lutheran could share in communion together with the blessing of both churches. Hanson responded by saying that it is the lay people of the churches who are driving and sustaining these conversations, and he acknowledged the "grassroots ecumenism" that is alive among lay people.

"If Roman Catholics and Lutherans can feed the hungry together, wouldn't it be good if they could be fed at the Lord's Table together?" Hanson said.

Kasper said in an address to LWF assembly delegates, "In the last years, we have been harvesting the fruit of the dialogue. I was more than surprised to see such a rich harvest, and that we have achieved much more than we could even dream before. There has been no ecumenical winter."

Still, he acknowledged that there is an unfinished agenda and that this should be the reason to continue the search for unity. "We can no longer afford to stick to our differences," Kasper told delegates.

In his ENInews interview, the former Vatican official stressed that dialogue and debate should continue. "I think for both sides it is the same thing. You must be patient, and you must be impatient at the same time," he said with a smile.

Kasper explained that he thought it may have been easier for him to engage in ecumenical discussions, since he had experienced division at first hand in the land of the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, thus setting in train the breach with the Catholic Church.

"The Reformation started in Germany. We are at the origin of the Reformation, and therefore Reformation and relations with Lutheran Evangelical people are a concern for us because it divided us for many centuries. It still divides families today," Kasper said.

He noted that he had studied and later taught theology at German universities that each had two theological faculties, one for Protestants and the other for Catholics.

"So, ecumenical relations belonged to our life. One has many Protestant friends. I was bishop in this diocese, which is half Protestant and half Catholic," he said. "It is a normal reality for us, and I think this helps us a lot to understand the other angle, and to understand the urgency to work for unity and communion."

In an interview in November 2009 in Wittenberg, where Luther worked and lived, Kasper noted, "We have learned a lot in the last 50 years. At the university, I spent a lot of time teaching about Martin Luther, and I have learned from that experience too."

In his Stuttgart interview, Kasper acknowledged that some sections of the Catholic Church have difficulties with such ecumenical developments but said he had the backing of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Looking back at what has been achieved in terms of ecumenical progress in the last decade, Kasper said it would not have been possible without friendship with his counterparts from other traditions. He said a deep friendship had developed between him and the Rev. Ishmael Noko, the Zimbabwean-born LWF general secretary.

"Personal friendship and personal relations are fundamental to ecumenical work and for pastoral work because without personal relations, personal friendships and trust you can do nothing; it is the basis of all. Then, when you have friendship, if there is trust you can also speak about the differences and you can also achieve good results," Kasper said.

Introducing Kasper to LWF assembly delegates in Stuttgart, Noko said, "You embody in your soul the spirit of ecumenism. You have been an encourager, when obstacles seemed insurmountable, and a truth teller."

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Monday, July 19, 2010

C. Clifton Black on "Trinity and Exegesis"

A welcome contribution to theology done for, in, and with the church is the burgeoning body of recent literature advocating theological approaches to exegesis (e.g., Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds., The Art of Reading Scripture [Eerdmans, 2003] and the new Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series). Another from among the company of biblical scholars making such proposals is C. Clifton Black, Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. His article “Trinity and Exegesis,” also from the current issue of Pro Ecclesia (vol. 19, no. 2 [Spring 2010], pp. 151-80), is a useful addition to these efforts to recover and practice the church’s distinctive way of reading Scripture.

Black’s thesis “is that a remapping of ‘biblical theology’ as scriptural theology invites forthright reclamation of the church’s canonical resources, especially its doctrine of the Triune God and an appeal to its regula fidei” (p. 151). Before applying his proposals to the test case of interpreting Ecclesiastes, Black offers for consideration the following ten theses regarding the relation of the doctrine of the Trinity to the interpretation of Scripture:

Thesis 1: Considered reflection on the Triune God is appropriate to exegesis that attends to the Bible’s first-level theological character.

Thesis 2: If, as the historic church has confessed, the Trinity is a faithful and true expression of the God whom it worships, then that doctrine inevitably bears on the church’s understanding of the Bible as Holy Scripture, its inspiration and sanctification, prior to its disciplined exegesis.

Thesis 3: Even as theology arises from worship, the native habitat for a Trinitarian approach to Scripture is the church and ancillary communities, like schools of theology, whose special vocation in service to the gospel is the strengthening of the church’s ministry.

Thesis 4: No academic exegete is required to practice scriptural interpretation as herein characterized, nor is every student required to study the Bible as Christian Scripture.

Thesis 5: For Christian theological exegetes, Trinitarian doctrine is the most comprehensive and integrative, hence least sectarian, framework within which to read Scripture.

Thesis 6: The components of a Trinitarian confession—the integrity of persons who voluntarily respect the space among one another in loving freedom—suggest a salutary framework within which to consider the variety of biblical texts, the diversity of interpretive methods, and the inevitable divergence among Scripture’s interpreters.

Thesis 7: A Trinitarian hermeneutic does not abjure historical criticism en bloc. It embraces and opens up historical investigation, even as it challenges historicism’s fatal imperialism.

Thesis 8: A Trinitarian approach to exegesis is eschatologically pregnant, affirming God’s freedom to explode interpretive obstacles and to guide Scripture’s readers to fresh, truthful insights.

Thesis 9: By its nature Trinitarian exegesis of Scripture involves the interpreter intimately. Properly construed, the relationship is not merely that of “subject matter” and “investigator”; it is, rather, nothing less than that of “Lover” and “beloved.”

Thesis 10: So understood, scriptural theology recognizes no insuperable division between scholarly and devotional reading, even though a different emphasis may be appropriate in different communal settings.


In the final paragraph of the article, Black offers the following encouragement to Trinitarian exegesis:

For those who do return to a more classical approach, unafraid of bringing scriptural interpretation into focus by means of that lens with which the church has traditionally concentrated its worship, then the task of exegesis will look very different....No longer will the expositor be the clinical observer of an ancient artifact. Instead the exegete will engage both text and its audiences with the kind of love instantiated in Christ; the art of craft of interpretation, as of every human activity put to good use, will be enlivened by the Holy Spirit to praise their Creator (p. 180).

I think he’s right.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson on Elisabeth Behr-Sigel’s Orthodox arguments for the ordination of women

The question of the ordination of women to pastoral ministry has been debated extensively in my own Baptist tradition. While such discussions are often thoroughly exegetical, they have rarely been robustly theological. The effort to determine what the Scriptures teach and how that relates to their readers’ cultures then and now is of course inescapably theological, but Baptist contestation of the question has not adequately engaged its relation to the relevant systematic loci of Trinitarian theology, Christology, and theological anthropology, not to mention the problem of the relation of Scripture and tradition in theological hermeneutics and theological method. (Recent efforts by some conservative Baptists to invoke Trinitarian theology in defense of “complementarian” readings of the role of women in church and family life, though certainly theological, are in my opinion not the best examples of what I have in mind.)

However, an article in the current issue of Pro Ecclesia (vol. 19, no. 2 [Spring 2010], pp. 129-50) by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson—a Lutheran theologian at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasburg, France whose lesser claims to fame include an endorsement of Ecumenism Means You, Too—is suggestive of some ways in which the question might enjoy a more deeply theological exploration among Baptists and other biblicistic Christians. “Tradition, Priesthood, and Personhood in the Trinitarian Theology of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel” treats these theological dimensions of the arguments in favor of women’s ordination put forth by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (1907-2005), a lay Orthodox theologian who remains the most significant Orthodox woman to make such a case (in which she is joined by some significant male Orthodox theologians mentioned in Wilson’s article). Wilson points also to the relevance of these aspects of Behr-Sigel’s thought for the ongoing debates in other communions. Some key snippets from the article follow.

Some Orthodox arguments against the ordination of women to the priesthood have disavowed the possibility of doctrinal development within the tradition. But Wilson writes regarding Behr-Sigel:

Her proposal to this conversation within Orthodoxy is the idea that the gospel itself takes time to do its work. Even while she described herself as “patiently impatient,” she did not assume that the gospel would have fully transformed society within a century of Christ’s resurrection, setting the parameters of possibility forever after. Again and again she used the metaphor of the gospel “leaven,” slowly raising and enlightening ancient pagan societies. In her judgment, it has taken twenty centuries for the gospel’s leaven to permeate relationships between men and women. The secular women’s movement is the long-time-in-process outcome of Gal 3:28.

Therefore, one need not infer either that the church has faithlessly suppressed women’s calls, or that God has neglected the cries of women all along. The gospel works in and through history. It takes time. It does not (and perhaps cannot) change everything all at once. This approach to the church is more historical and less platonic—a change in understanding Behr-Sigel called for—as well as more ecclesial and less individualistic. In short, God may indeed not have called women to the priesthood before; yet God may indeed be doing so now, for the good of the whole body of the church, and through the slow and steady transformation of the gospel leaven (p. 136).

Wilson also explores Behr-Sigel’s response to arguments against the ordination of women that are based the assumption that maleness is integral to the priest’s “iconic resemblance to Christ,” which as Wilson notes is now (though not earlier in the tradition) “the decisive [argument] in Orthodox opposition to the ordination of women” (p. 140):

This line of thought, of course, still assumes a distinct symbolism of male and female, aligning the masculine with Christ and the feminine with the church. Behr-Sigel herself rejects this symbolic usage. If one were to insist on the symbolism, she contends, there is still no reason not to ordain women and thus permit them Eucharistic leadership. But far better, in her judgment, is the abandonment of the distinction between masculine and feminine roles in the liturgy, and thus in the priesthood, altogether.

Behr-Sigel emphasizes one other aspect in the Orthodox understanding of the priest’s role in the liturgy. It is truly not the priest who acts. He “lends his tongue and hands to God,” a phrase of John Chrysostom frequently quoted by Behr-Sigel. Why then, Behr-Sigel proposes, could a woman not lend her tongue and hands to God? And why should God not make use of them?

This in turn has implications for the iconic understanding of the priesthood. It is not maleness that makes for an image of Christ. As Orthodox soteriology demands, Christ is full and complete humanity,
anthropos, assuming the flesh of men and women alike in order to restore it. Both men and women must be icons of Christ because the humanity of both has been assumed by Christ, as in Gregory of Nazianzus’s famous dictum, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” All matters of symbolism aside, the very Christology of the church demands the recognition of women as images of Christ. Given the polyvalence of symbols, as Behr-Sigel observes, the refusal to ordain women now suggests the very opposite—that women are not adequate icons of Christ. The result is to leave both their humanity and their salvation is doubt (pp. 141-42).

Finally, Wilson in dialogue with Behr-Sigel takes up the question as to whether the spiritual callings of men and women are defined by gender:

The ramifications of [personalism in Valdimir Lossky’s anthropology] match with Behr-Sigel’s mature position on the place of women in the church. The nature of any given woman is not a limiting factor in her capacity to serve the church. It is not alien to who she is, but it does not contain her, either. She is like to God (the Trinity as a whole or the Holy Spirit in particular) not in any particular set of feminine qualities resulting from her nature. She is like to God, she is God’s image, in her self-transcendence, as a person. Therefore, Behr-Sigel’s growing intuitions that “women’s charisms” represent a false trail recognizes that the very attempt to elevate women in their distinctive femininity is precisely to deny them their common personal humanity. Women are not a set of charisms. They are persons with a variety of charisms who, again, transcend the nature of which they are an instance (p. 149).

A hypostasis is nothing more or less than an instance of an ousia. Gender does not exist as such, but gendered humans do; they are hypostases of shared human ousia, whether they are male or female. Inserting gender into the ontological scheme (whether in place of ousia or hypostasis) obscures actual persons, concealing them within their gender. In short, the hypostasis must be the person, not the person’s gender. That is the proper Trinitarian analogy. The person is not accordingly alienated from his or her own gender. But neither is he or she contained by it.

It matters little whether the attempt is to introduce “feminine” language for God and defend “feminine” ways of being in the church, or to preserve “masculine” names for God on the assumption that God has distinctly “masculine” traits. Each attempt comes to a different conclusion, but they are
methodologically indistinguishable. Both start “from below” with assumptions about what qualifies as masculine or feminine. Both emphasize gender to such an extent that personhood is lost. The whole sweep of Behr-Sigel’s thought moves to the conclusion that this approach is a dead end, for traditionalists and revisionists alike. Any attempt to invoke the “feminine” (or the “masculine”) always ends up reducing women (and men) to mere instances of their natures, rather than self-transcending persons in God’s own image. In truth, men are persons and women are persons, because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are persons, too (p. 150).

Now that’s the kind of theological reasoning I’d like to see applied to the debates over women’s ordination in Baptist and other biblicistic free church traditions.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Baptists Today guest commentary "A Time for Exchanging Ecclesial Gifts" now available online

For those interested, the January 2010 issue of Baptists Today in which my guest commentary "A Time for Exchanging Ecclesial Gifts" appeared (see my earlier post about the article) is now available online in PDF in the "Public Back Issues" archive on the Baptists Today website.