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Skillen on Newbigin (and the Benedict Option)

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Internet chatter on the Benedict Option – conceived as creating new “monastic communities” plodding on as a counter-cultural force in a post-secular society – is rife these days. There is a palpable sense that given recent governmental moves in Western societies that severely restrict religious freedom in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular, the only option is to opt out of the public sphere and build new communities where Christian virtues may be freely practiced. Read here here, here and here. In this blog, it was discussed here.

But here’s why the Benedict Option may be missing the point about what it means to have effective Christian witness even under such challenging times:

Dr. James Skillen, writing in response to Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s view that to develop a Christian society, “lay men and women” need to develop a “lay theology” for various fields of public life, says thus:

Then the apostle Paul writes to various churches and challenges them to live wholly in Christ, he frequently addresses believers in their capacities as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and citizens (or subjects) in the political realm. But in those capacities Paul does not address them as lay men and women, implying that their identity in those roles is as ecclesiastical nonprofessionals. A “husband” is not a church lay person needing a theology for being a husband; he is a member of the body of Christ who has, among many different Christian responsibilities, that of being a husband. In this capacity, it is not as a church lay person that he needs a theology for loving his wife, but rather that he needs to understand God’s will for his role in marriage.

Precisely here, it seems to me, we should think not of applying some ecclesiastical truths to non-ecclesiastical areas of life, but rather, of taking seriously the way the gospel restores and illumines the meaning of God’s good creation. John’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and the letter to the Hebrews, for example, all begin by stating that the incarnate Son of God is the one in whom, for whom, and through whom all things were created. The creation is revelatory of God and connected to the Son of God prior to the incarnation and the organizing of the church. The good news of the Jesus Christ is, among other things, that creation has been recovered and is being restored so that it will finally come to fulfillment in the City of God.

The body of Christ is a communion of reborn creatures – of the renewed image of God. Marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life. In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words clay persons should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

The development of a Christian society, I am suggesting, comes not from a theology for Church lay persons but from obedience of the whole body of Christ in all areas of creaturely life where its members bear responsibility as they learn to live completely unto Christ. Of course the whole creation holds together in Christ, so the meaning of marital love, of economic stewardship, of public Justice, of medical healing, and of so much more hangs together in one meaningful creation, which has been distorted by sin but Judged and redeemed in Christ. The redeeming work of Christ redirects hearts and lives in all areas of life. Along with sound Christian theology, then, there should emerge sound Christian philosophy, obedient Christian political practice, healing Christian medical practice, and so forth. The adjective “Christian” in each instance refers not to theology as something added to an otherwise indistinguishable mode of worldly life, but indicates the genuine redirection, recovery, renewal of life among those led by faith in Christ. The Christian “way of life” should, in other words, appear different from the secularist way of life, the Muslim way of life, and so forth.

What will often be necessary as Christians seek to fulfill their earthly responsibilities in all areas of life are Christian organizations of parents, of farmers, of laborers, of academics, of citizens, and so forth. The purpose of such organizing should not be so Christians can isolate themselves or try to create a perfect community on the edge of civilization, but rather to develop consistent Christian practices in each area of life as they live side by side with people whose ways of life are directed by faith in other gods. The body of Christ is the people of God, lifting up all of creation’s treasures in every realm of existence in praise to God, looking and pointing ahead to the Christian society that will finally be revealed in its fullness when the Lord returns[emphasis supplied].[1]

What Skillen is saying here is that Christians are called to witness to the world in the context of their many differentiated responsibilities: as husbands and wives, as professionals in various fields, as members of a church, as members of a Christian NGO, as citizens of a particular country, as members of a Christian labor union or a political party. Christians take part in and help shape a creational order that Christ has renewed and is renewing – an order that is revelatory of God’s will and purposes. Thus, in the context of the redemptive work of the Gospel, the body of Christ is a communion of re-born creatures – of the renewed image of God – for whom “marriage, family life, farming, commerce, music, civic responsibility, and everything else in creation have genuine revelatory meaning that is disclosed in the exercise of human responsibility in each area of life.”

He adds:

In each of these capacities the Christian person’s identity is not that of a lay Church person but that of family member, farmer, trader, musician, or whatever. The exercise of proper and righteous responsibility in contrast to misdirected responsibility in each of these areas will come as a result of the renewal of life in Christ. Consequently, the words ‘lay persons’ should be a designation applied to Church members who do not hold ecclesiastical office, and should not be used to describe the roles people have in non-ecclesiastical areas of life.

Christians cannot live in isolation from the world if they are to give justice to their differentiated responsibilities that they exercise as part of the redemptive work of the Gospel – and such work requires faithful Christian practice and presence across their various endeavors and roles.

[1] Is there a place for Christian politics in America? notes from a lecture given by Dr. Skillen to a philosophy class at the University of the Orange Free State in South Africa (2012). The lecture is a response to the work of Bishop Leslie Newbigin, a path-breaking missiologist. I am grateful to Dr. D.F.M Strauss, at whose initiative the lecture was made, for making available the notes to me.

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Written by Romel

January 12, 2016 at 3:43 am

Neville on the Creator-Created Distinction

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When I bought Robert Cummings Neville’s book God the Creator: On the Transcendence and the Presence of God (a 1992 re-issue of his landmark 1960s book) 10 years ago, I couldn’t make heads or tails of  it. The other day, I pulled it out of a shelf of my small library and re-read it again. On pp. 97-98, I came across the passage below, and recalled for me recent exchanges I’ve had with friends far and wide on the question of Divine Simplicity as propounded by proponents of the AAA (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas) tradition:

 

Creation_of_Adam“1. The creator-created distinction is between two terms, one of which, A, is in itself independent of the other, B, whereas B in itself is dependent for its whole being on A. If B is an actuality with both essence and existence, “whole being” would express both of these. If B is a collection of things, B1,B2….B4, such that the things are really distinct from each other, the “whole being” of each item would be its essential and conditional features harmonized in its de facto unity.

xxxx

 

2. The A term in the creator-created distinction must have conditional features; that is, features it has in virtue of B. But the term “conditional features” is not used here in the same sense it was used in describing real distinctions. Although it indicates in both case the thing has in virtue of another thing, B does not give A these features from without as one really distinct thing gives conditional features to another distinct thing, since B is dependent for its whole being on A. Rather, as A gives rise to B, it gives itself these features. Its giving rise to B is a self-constituting with these features. “Having conditional features in virtue of” is a form of dependence; but it is a second level kind of dependence. That is, A does not have conditional features in virtue of the fact that B gives rise to it; rather A, gives itself the conditional features in giving rise to B. So A’s conditional features depend upon the same act of A that B depends on.

a. This acknowledges our previous conclusion that being-in-itself gives itself features in creating the determination of being. Unless this were the case. The determination of being could in no way say anything about being-itself; there would be no such thing as transcendence because there would be nothing sufficiently close to being-itself for it to transcend. That being-itself has conditional features would seem to imply that it has essential features, as is the case with something really distinct from a determination of being. Yet all features, because they are determinate, must be conditional to being-itself, since they are all created. We saw in our argument for creation that the creator cannot in himself be determinate.

Although being-itself does not have essential features, there is still a contrast between essential and conditional, for it’s the character of conditional features, in their very determinateness and hence contingency, to bespeak their dependence upon what is essential. There would be no conditionals without the essential. To point this out is to refer to the essential by way of the conditional feature of being creator of the conditional features.

b. The conditional features constitute the nature of God in relation to the world. This, in fact, is the only sense in which God has a “nature”, where ‘nature” has the connotation of determinate features. Except as creator, in connection with the world he creates. God is not determinate even in terms of a divine life. Those thinkers who say, for instance, that the Persons of the Trinity make up the divine life as it is in itself rightly point to the presence of God in the conditional features but wrongly ignore the creation involved in begetting between the Persons. Those who sharply separate this divine life from the created world do not see that this establishes a real distinction between God and the world that would condition the former as much as the latter.”

3. Although A has conditional features in virtue of B, since B is dependent for its whole being on A, Ain itself must be independent of B. The contrast between A’s in-itselfness and its conditional features is not the same as that between the essential and the conditional features of a really distinct thing. Within the creator-created distinction, nothing positive can be said of A’s in-itselfness; to say that A in itself is independent of B is to say only the negative thing that A in itself has no determinations with respect to B. All the determinations A has with respect to B are the conditional features it has in virtue of B’s dependence on it. If B determined A in-itself, it would be necessary to A’s very being in itself. If this were so, then either (I) B would be of the essence of A and the distinctions between them only conceptual; or (2) B could not be wholly dependent on A, for thing can be wholly dependent on something else and still e necessary to that on which it depends, unless B already exists, whereupon it bears on A only conditionally. A’s self-constitution such that it gives rise to B entails that B’s wholly dependent status not touch A in itself; since A’s giving rise to B is a self-constitution, A’s identity in itself with its self-constituted conditional features is not a problem. To deny the independence of A in itself is to claim that the distinction between A and B is only conceptual, not real.  [emphasis supplied]

PS : what surprised me were the many congruences I found between the propositions Neville makes here and those that the reformational philosopher Roy Clouser makes in his works, especially in his Myth of Religious Neutrality( Notre Dame U Press, 2005 ed.)

Written by Romel

September 24, 2014 at 9:39 am

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