Dialogi Adversus Pelagianos/Arianos

A few days ago my patristics professor reported on social media that she had just left a service where she had “heard a pitch perfect ‘Arian’/’Pelagian’ sermon by an elderly liberal pastor at the local country church (Jesus was sent to be perfect and you must be too). I haven’t felt that crushing despair in decades, but was so impressed by his consistency.”

My professor’s report reminded me of any number of conversations I have had recently with institutional heads and administrators searching for ways to streamline instruction for holy orders. “All seminarians need not be scholars.” “All seminaries need not focus on scholarship.” So true. And, yet, in order for this to hold true, clergy not called to scholarship need to listen to the spirit speaking through those who are. This is the clear implication of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth, where, in three tightly argued sections (1 Cor. 12-14), the Apostle urges members of the community of faith to rely upon the gifts exercised by others.

If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. They eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving greater honor to the inferior members, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice with it (1 Cor. 12:14-26).

As seminaries pare back their curricula, which parts of the body should administrators eliminate? Which parts are “less honorable”; “less respectable”? Of which parts have we no need?

When community members called to holy orders step up to the pulpit (or, more commonly, when they step to the front of the nave), we rely upon them to exercise their office; to bring the Word of God to the community. I am led to believe that this calling cannot be confused with displaying rhetorical skill or eloquence; though both of these are doubtless helpful. Rather, in our (Anglican) tradition, I am led to believe that this gift and calling bears some relationship, on the one hand, to the liturgy and, on the other hand, to the specific texts that follow in the course of the liturgical calendar. The liturgy, as found in the Book of Common Prayer, aims to unite every parish with every other parish around the globe, but also to bring each parish into communion with all parishes throughout time and space. Through the liturgy we not only announce, but embody, one holy catholic and apostolic Church — the communion of saints throughout all time. It is only within this catholic context that we come to the offices of any specific service. Why?

Mssrs. Arius (256-336) and Pelagius (360-418) were terribly well educated, bright, very good speakers and writers, who enjoyed encyclopedic command of sacred writ. Neither set out to divide the Church or introduce heresy among her ranks. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that their grasp of the faith was consistent with how the communities of faith in which they were baptized and to which they then ministered understood the gospel. They were simply perfecting and passing on what they had heard and understood from those by whom they were taught. What is more, I would be the first to admit that, absent any guidance to the contrary, the Bible lends itself to both an Arian and a Pelagian reading; which is to say, Arius and Pelagius offer us plausible interpretations of sacred writ. Fair enough.

All of which makes perfect sense until we come to the Creed. The Creed reminds us that our relationship to the divine is not only vertical; it is horizontal. Or, if you prefer, the Creed reminds us that we believe in one God Who is not exhausted by the First Article of the Creed, Who is not only “maker of heaven and earth,” but is also “incarnate from the Virgin Mary,” “made human,” “was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” “suffered death and was buried”; and Who is “the giver of life” Who has “spoken through the Prophets.”

This, of course, is the offensive side of our faith. No one is offended when we proclaim God’s perfection. No one is offended when we note human inadequacy. And no one is offended when we suggest that we should strive to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). The offense comes from divine weakness and death.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

Incarnation is offensive in its own right. Yet divine suffering and death make it doubly so. But it gets worse; much worse. For, it would be one thing if, following divine resurrection and ascension, we could then give ourselves over to an immediate, direct, apophatic experience of the divine through a spirit given to each of us, individually, without ever again having to know “Christ from a human point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16).

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:16)

All we need to do to see God’s spirit is look at our own spirit. No more flesh required. No more offense.

But, what if we see God only by seeing one another? What if we are the Body of Christ? And, what if we are the Body of Christ not only here and now, but also from Pentecost to the eschaton? In that case, reading God off of my own spirit is not only ill-advised; it is impossible; for the divina locus, in that case, is not — precisely not — in me, but in us; and not in us, here and now, but in us throughout time and space: in us during war and death and suffering and hunger and pain and sorrow. This is where God is.

Thus the offense. Just as Arius imagines that Jesus gradually escapes from/redeems his humanity, winning through his suffering a title he did not originally enjoy (Phil. 2:9-11); so Pelagius imagines that we too can win that same title, having that mind in us that was also in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5). The flesh — embodiment — will give way to through suffering to something better, more perfect. The Incarnation was a mere stepping stone, a vehicle, a fast-track, to disincarnation.

If, on the other hand, we must “discern the body” (1 Cor. 12:29); and if discerning the body means something more than meditating upon the Holy Sacrament or, still worse, private self-examination, then attending to the Church catholic is not optional, but necessary. Attention to this universal Body and to the gifts distributed and exercised through the Spirit among its members is not optional: not escaping the Body, not transcending it, but discerning it.

When an individual called to holy orders, in exercise of her or his spiritual gift, clearly articulates a message that violates the Spirit that has been heard in the Church for almost two millennia, it is, at the very least, evidence that this individual needs discipline and further instruction.

I am thankful that when I attended seminary I enjoyed access to a full palate of lectures and seminars taught by highly esteemed scholars, churchwomen and churchmen. I am thankful that I was sufficiently instructed to know when I was at risk of entertaining heretical positions. I am far less certain that such is the case today. Cuts have to be made. Efficiencies need to be realized. Which “weak” or “less desirable” parts will be placed on line, outsourced, or furloughed? Not all who are called to holy orders need to be scholars. So true. And, yet, no seminarian should ever be granted a degree who has not discerned the Body, or who, knowingly or not, is so poorly instructed in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church that belief in it is pure nonsense.

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