Friday, 22 July 2011

Gene: Trinitarians, Arians and Unitarians

Here, apparently, is another use of the Anglican Covenant: to weed out the unorthodox Anglican bishop etc. over time. Not immediately - the Covenant won't have that effect - but to raise the standard, over time. The spur to this thought is some comments of Bishop Gene Robinson of The Episcopal Church upsetting one New Zealander, when he said, as reported:

Sharing his views on gays and lesbians in the church, the role of religion in public policy and whether non-Christians can go to heaven, Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, conducted an adult faith forum Sunday at Episcopal Church of the Advent in Louisville.

"I know Jesus to be the son of God," he told a group of about 50 people, "but what a small, limited God we would have if that was the only manifestation. I think Christians should stay away from spiritual arrogance and show more love, mercy and zeal for justice."

He called on audience members to present an alternative to the activism of the religious right, saying, "I believe that there's a positive role for religion in the world, and we've already seen what not to do."


...last year [he] announced he planned to retire in 2013, citing the emotional toll the controversy had taken on him and his family.

Asked by an audience member how he'd spend his time, Robinson answered, "I'll use it to talk about the living God, get to tell more un-churched people that God is alive and well and wants a relationship with us."

I have gone for as much relevant in the report as possible, whereas Down Under Peter Carrell quotes less and is pretty sure what Gene Robinson implies by such wording - that Jesus Christ is not unique.

Later on, in response to Mark Harris, the Down Under man gets imaginative as he wants the Covenant to help deliver a new Anglican Church:

Those who do not take theology particularly seriously would be free of engaging with annoying people like me. Those like me who have been getting increasingly agitated by the lack of serious theology in the Anglican Communion would stop annoying people who want to be free to move Anglican-ly where the Spirit takes them.

Naturally the Covenant would be at the heart of this new Anglican church: it is a very good document which takes theology seriously. Incidentally, there would be no confusion as to which Anglican thing was which. The Anglican Communion which remained would be free to call itself by that name. This new church would unashamedly be known by its short title 'The Anglican Church'.

It would have a very clever and up to date magisterium: a collection of seriously theological Anglican bloggers would discuss each and every issue which arose, in a spirit of free enquiry within the scope of the Covenant. Part of the genius of this magisterium is that, across the globe, it would be at work 24/7, and it would incur no costs, being a voluntary workforce :)

Allowing for the humour and imagination, he implies that those who would see change do not take theology seriously. But the significant point is that, I suggest: that the Covenant it is that creates a new Anglican Church, and not that the Covenant preserves the Anglican Communion.

Of course there is an arrogance here that only the conserving take theology seriously. I take theology seriously and as far as I am concerned, the Greek culture interpretation of Jesus as the Christ as in the Bible is of a self-limiting God, one that enables itself to be specifically understood, revealed and specific, to be for example self-giving at a time of one man's forced death. This is quite a different approach than that of Islam and a God that does as it pleases without any boundary.

I'd be surprised if many an Anglican preacher stays within the boundaries of a one time created orthodoxy. Gene Robinson's comments were, even if he had said 'Son of God' and nothing else, compatible with a number of theological positions. After all, there was a turnover community of Christians for a few hundred years expressing a number of positions before orthodoxy was defined, many of whom had various views about Jesus's divinity and humanity, and some of whom believing in Jesus's divinity thought he was the first born of creation through whom all things were made (after Arius). That was a pretty unique job given to Jesus Christ, and the 'escalation to divinity' of early believers did not assume the Trinity at all.

These days in many an Anglican church you might hear something like this: that Jesus 'so acted' that he indicated what God should be like and is like, and his resurrection by God is the 'story' that indicates the hope that God gave to underline the definitiveness of Jesus, and the activity of God in this and with us, to underline the unity of the believing community, is that which we call the Holy Spirit.

This is also quite biblical but as a means to defend the Trinity is pretty weak. In fact it is classically Unitarian. The human Jesus is God's chosen prophet, indeed his supremely chosen prophet and the only means fully to reach God. Very Pauline! The term Holy Spirit is an interchangable wording with God - rather modal - and it is Unitarian.

Gene Robinson might have said 'God the Son' instead of "son of God" (Son of God is also consistent with rabbinical Judaism and with Unitarianism), but even if he had said 'God the Son', it still allows for natural theology and other means of confirming revelation. I still take Gene Robinson to be an Evangelical in theology. He is only socially liberal. But these days, terminology is loose from all over the shop.

For the record, of course I do not think Jesus was unique. I think he was a Jewish rabbi talking to his own folks. Paul, who would have been present in Jerusalem at the time Jesus was killed paid no attention to such events then. The later 'salvation faith' that Paul and early followers developed, changes Jesus's end of a Kingdom theology into a kind of funnel means and ends. It becomes a cross-cultural religious renewal, towards universal appeal, and is yet relative to all of that and the cultures that follow. It is difficult to 'strip away' mythological elements from an ongoing story, in that if you do so for the resurrection then you do so for Jesus's own end-time views. You end up with a sort of Jesus Seminar stripped of context Jesus of ethical sayings. Nevertheless, I do not (and nor do most folks) believe in resurrected bodies or end time nonsense (except cosmic), and do not share these carriers of beliefs. So Jesus is definitive of nothing in particular, but is just 'interesting' even if better in ethical grounding than, say, Muhammad. All these prophetic figures are 'interesting' in one way or another, and can be so taking theology just as seriously as any Evangelical Christian. We don't, these days 'follow' but make up our own minds.

I happen to think that the Transylvanian Unitarians have beliefs closer in many ways to the early Christians than do many Christians today, but I don't share the beliefs of either of these. Actually, in some ways, Jehovah's Witnesses are closer to the early Christians in that they also believe in the rapidly coming end. But I don't believe in any boundary either that marks out 'scripture' from non-scripture. I take it that the subjective revolution in religious belief and authority breaks out of all these constraints and produces a situation where there is no need to play games with any prophet's uniqueness or otherwise.

I hear those who say, "I believe in the Trinity because God is a social God and represents love between persons." What? Is that the best some (liberals) can say? Even the pre-Christian Jews oscillated between emphasising the plurality of God and the unity of God; classical Unitarians have also understood the plurality of God within the unity of God. Unitarians have known that when God acts the correct term for use is 'Holy Spirit' - God's wind, so to speak.

I can be just as critical of the looseness of some liberals as Peter Carrell, but not all liberals are so loose. Advice I once took from an Anglican priest in Derbyshire was, "You can be Unitarian in the Church of England but you can't be non-realist." This was a view later confirmed, in effect, in North Lincolnshire, when I was encouraged to try 'Real Absence' instead and realised I was, on the God thing, non-realist. To be Unitarian in the Church of England does mean to uphold the definitiveness of Jesus, as do the catechism Unitarians of central Europe. To be Arian in the Church of England (a Reformation Arianism, which is more simply the subordinate divinity of Jesus; worry not about pre-existence) has no difficulty with mentioning Jesus as 'son of God' and certainly will be the nearest 'Son' that God has because of that divinity.

The cut off point of Anglican inclusion is loose these days also because for some to jump to the Quakers or (Anglo-American) Unitarians when they want to be definitive about Jesus is to lose the culturally identifiable ability to be definitive about Jesus. If I'd wanted to stay definitive about Jesus I'd find the Unitarians to be too loose in terms of plurality. I do actually seek more plurality; if I didn't I'd still be attending the C of E and say 'I follow Jesus pure and simple'.

And 'Pure and simple' is another way to give up claiming definitiveness never mind uniqueness.

By the way, it is no accident that the main oppositional thrust against the Anglican Covenant is pro Anglican diversity. This is because these Anglicans include theologically those who say the old language doesn't add up any more in terms of clear labelling, and so included are a variety of old style trinitarians, Arians (though they are not called this any more - trinitarians in drag perhaps) and definitiveness-types.

The fact is that even if language is tightened up and people are clear, there is still space for revelation elsewhere. In my serious theology, revelation is a problematic of the subjective and postmodern: the word 'revelation' does not carry reliable directional meaning. We can't take a press report as the means of bashing Gene over the head again, as indeed you can hardly use a more refined use of terminology to bash Gene over the head again. I even think Rowan Williams wants it both ways.

On which point, I hardly think the Anglican Covenant will make much difference; it might have some filtering effect over time, but then the more detailed creeds and promises to uphold to bishops have that effect don't they, and these are not so effective after all.


Peter Carrell said...

I cannot get particularly enthused to explore Unitarianism and comment on its many theological discourses. It always intrigues me, Adrian, why you are so enthused about Anglicanism!

Anyway, thank you for taking an interest in what I said :)

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Because I was an Anglican, a number of times, starting in 1984, and there are historically grounded overlaps between Anglicanism and its variations and Unitarianism and its variations and a traffic across the boundaries.