Rob Sturdy: Thomas Cranmer’s Sacramental Theology and Engaging Postmodern Nihilism

20 12 2011

 This paper principally deals with Thomas Cranmer’s sacramental theology and its special benefit in engaging postmodern nihilism. Thanks to the folks at Trinity Church for letting me pursue advanced academic studies and a special thanks to Colin Burch for providing editorial review.

For several centuries now the philosophical worldview of the Enlightenment has been the dominant defining and structuring element in the West.  At its core, it can be described as essentially secular or rigidly materialistic.  Here secular, or rigidly materialistic, means “nature is all there is and all basic truths are truths of nature.”[1] Thus the secular worldview dictates that the deepest experiences of being a human such as embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience, human political community, etc., are natural phenomenon and can only be explained naturally.  It has been noted, however, that explaining such complex phenomenon purely in materialistic terms devalues and delegitimizes the phenomenon themselves.  As Douglas Wilson, in a recent debate with Christopher Hitchens, noted, if love, hate, the yearning for justice, equality etc. are purely natural phenomenon, they have no more legitimacy than a chemical reaction in a can of Coca-Cola.[2] Milbank, Ward and Pickstock argue in their introduction to Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology that it is this devaluing of complex phenomena that has created the “soulless, aggressive, nonchalant, and nihilistic” materialism of contemporary society.[3]

In an attempt to reinvest the material world with some legitimacy and meaning, theologians in the Anglo-Catholic stream of the Church of England have put forward the theological framework of participation, which essentially posits that a phenomenon has ultimate meaning to the extent that it shares some of its traits and derives them, albeit imperfectly, from God.  And though the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy argue that only transcendence expressed through participation can uphold these complex phenomenon “against the void,”[4] Radical Orthodoxy nevertheless fails on a number of points to safeguard the concreteness of such things as embodied life, gender, temporality, etc., thus leading those who share the concerns of Radical Orthodoxy to seek an alternative solution.

One alternative to Radical Orthodoxy within the Anglican Tradition can be found in the Reformed doctrine of the extra-Calvinisticum, which gives expression to Thomas Cranmer’s sacramental theology.  Cranmer’s sacramental theology is similar to Radical Orthodoxy’s doctrine of participation on a number of points; nevertheless, there is at least one significant point of departure.  That point of departure is the extra-Calvinisticum, a Christological doctrine often narrowly associated with its namesake, John Calvin.  Briefly put, the extra-Calvinisticum is the theological conviction “ that the immutable God became man without diminution or loss as regards any of his attributes” joined with the conviction that the “existence of the second person of the Trinity et extra carnem.” [5] To put it more simply, the extra holds to the ubiquity of the divine Word, the local presence of the physical body of Jesus contained in heaven, while emphasizing the unity of the two in the person of Christ.[6] This paper will argue that Cranmer’sextra-Calvinisticum gives shape to his sacramental theology in such a way that it succeeds in safeguarding the very interests of Radical Orthodoxy.  This will be demonstrated by a critique of the shortcomings of Graham Ward’s essay “Bodies,” followed up by an analysis of Thomas Cranmer’s Answer to Stephen Gardiner Concerning the Sacraments.  If Cranmer’s sacramental theology can be shown to succeed where Radical Orthodoxy has failed, the usefulness of a long dead and oft neglected theologian can be revived to engage postmodern nihilism at its most critical shortcomings. Read the rest of this entry »

Rob Sturdy: Imago Dei A Worshipping Image

19 12 2011

In the essay below I make a case for a doxological reading of human nature based upon Reformed texts

“The central theological framework of radical orthodoxy is ‘participation’ as developed by Plato and reworked by Christianity because any alternative configuration perforce reserves a territory independent of God.”[1]  This excerpt from Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology demonstrates both the breadth of the agenda of Radical Orthodoxy as well as the mechanism through which RO seeks to accomplish its goals.  Briefly put, RO reads the history of Western cultural movement since the Enlightenment as an ever increasing secularization. Overtime, the abstract philosophy behind the secularization of the West worked itself out in a dangerous nihilism, systematically devaluing embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience, human political community etc.[2] A revaluing of such things, argues RO, will take a framework that both denies the secular as well as grounds the immanent upon a platform that can give it ultimate meaning and eternal stability.  This is done through RO’s theological framework of participation, which understands the material world as suspended from the transcendent in the same manner that a bridge is suspended above the nothingness beneath it.

At first glance, the Reformed tradition shares many of the same concerns of Radical Orthodoxy.  Both repudiate the isolation of the material, stepping beyond the secular in favor of a created order that derives its significance and depth from God.  However, as James Olthuis observes “whereas the intentions voiced by Radical Orthodoxy are ones that the Reformed tradition fully shares, we differ significantly on how best to make good on these intentions.”[3]  The significant difference on how best to go about stepping beyond the secular and revaluing the immanent hinges upon RO’s commitment to participation and the Reformed commitment to the notion of covenant.  “Participation for Radical Orthodoxy and covenant for Reformed theology function as the central theological frameworks or organizing principles by which these theologies understand the Christian faith,” writes Justin Holcomb in his essay ‘Being Bound to God’, yet he also notes that these two frameworks are not mutually exclusive.[4]  His conclusion that this is a false dichotomy is shared within the RO ranks.[5]

While Reformed theologians have been sweeping in their indictments of participation it is it is partly due to the perception that participation belongs exclusively in the realm of platonic philosophy rather than in the world of Biblical theology.  After all “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?  What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?  What between heretics and Christians?”[6]  Well, if we (if Tertullian himself!) were honest, Athens does and always has had much to do with the church.  As Holcomb notes, Tertullian himself could not avoid philosophical categories, nor could such modern Reformed Theologians as Karl Barth keep from building sweeping theological systems under the influence of Martin Buber and Soren Kierkegaard.[7]  The Bible itself often speaks in borrowed categories whether from a particular location in history or from philosophy.  We are after all embodied beings.  For God to communicate with us at all He must use language, practices, and signs that are already in place in culture in order to make himself understood.[8]  This does not free us from an uncritical appropriation of pagan signs, language and philosophy which subsumes Christian theology under such things reducing the significance and distinctiveness of its message.  But, and this is very important to add at this point, neither does it free us from dismissing such things outright simply because the church has become aware of them through the contributions from the pagan world.  Read the rest of this entry »