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Sacramental and creaturely tradition

Rebekah Earnshaw
Wednesday 8 February 2017

There is much here to which I gladly say Amen, but I am yet to rejoin the Catholic fold and so I still murmur.

Professor Lewis Ayres was clear in his stance that the best ecumenical discussions which he has pursued are engaged with strong articulations on all sides of distinctives at their most theological level. In this vein I deeply appreciate his articulation that this sacramental account depends on Christ as the sacrament and the Church as mystical body, and that tradition is a Spirit empowered human act with particular content within this ongoing sacramental and eschatological anticipatory reality. This is the basis for a magisterial tradition which contributes effectively to the salvation of souls. I can see how this follows for Ayres, but without adherence to the initial positions I’m yet to be convinced of the consequences.

This leads me to wonder if Ayres’s thought may be transposed in a Protestant key without sacramentality and without the consequent magisterium of tradition. Do Protestants have the resources for a theology of tradition, which for Ayres is a theology of theology? Professor John Webster believed that a theological account of theology was possible for him and his thought was progressing towards reflection on Christian thinking and the practice of exegetical, doctrinal, and moral reason. (In his presentation Professor Ayres twice referenced the essay he contributed to Webster’s feschrift.)

I affirm many of the theological claims which bear Ayres’s account of tradition forward. In his incarnation, thanks to the hypostatic union and empowering by the Spirit, Christ reveals the Father in a way that no other creature may. The salvation won by Christ brings his people, through the blessing of adoption in the Spirit, into a fellowship which mirrors the perfect triune fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit. The Church embodies an eschatological reality before the nations. The Church participates in a Spirit overseen history in which we wait. The Scriptures call for focused theological attention as the constant referrant by which the living Christ speaks to his Church. Christian thinking, even critical reflection on Scripture, is unfruitful when severed from the ministry of the Spirit and the embodied history of and practices of discernment within the Church in which the Spirit has overseen for generations past.

This leads me to ponder how much work “sacramental” is doing in Ayres’s proposal. My protestant ears heard this meaning an “embodied and lively social and temporal reality overseen by the Spirit” but I fear I have missed a far richer and deeper reality being alluded to. Nonetheless, I wonder if tradition may be characterised as an “embodied and lively social and temporal reality overseen by the Spirit” which is distinctively creaturely (without sacramental nuances) and this remain at all satisfying. (I highly respect Professor Ayres and humbly wonder out loud in what follows.)

Ayres guards his sacramental account from distortion by appealing to the qualifiers: mystery & act and unity & eschatology. For me, the Creator-creature relation is fundamental even here. Creatures acting in a properly creaturely mode retains robust double agency and the inexhaustible mystery of divine action as being itself remains gift. The spatial and temporal finitude of creatures means they find themselves in relation, first with their Creator, and then with each other, in a mode of embodied communal history and practice, which for rational creatures includes the practices of Christian intellect and will. Unity of the Church is thence spiritual union with their Head awaiting eschatological consummation, without this compromising or altering her being as creature. Further, I retain a hesitance to characterise creaturely reality, even new creation reality in the Church, as first and foremost sacramental. I’m very open to being challenged at this point, but at present my concern for “the Christian distinction” remains too strong.

Therefore, I wonder if some of the labour, for which Ayres reaches to sacrament, might be accomplished by creatureliness and indeed new creation creatureliness. Perhaps I might call for historical dogmatic rigour which is not philosophically or hermeneutically naïve based on the ongoing creaturely reality of the Church. A strong sense of the providentially Spirit guided Church might result in a firm but ministerially role for tradition. The properly creaturely Church might nurture spiritual discernment and practices of Christian thinking with rigour in the present while also aware of her past and her future. The creature’s awareness of her dependence on the Creator, the depths of sin, the fullness of salvation, the ongoing ministry of the Spirit, the embodied history of the Church, the hope of life to come, might lead to refreshed discipline in the practices of intellectual humility, generosity, and patience, as Christian thought attends to Dei Verbum.

Rebekah Earnshaw

(Views expressed in this post are my own and not those of St. Mary’s College.)

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