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What Episcopalians Believe

What Episcopalians Believe

by Samuel Wells

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Episcopal identity tends to focus on history and worship, and sometimes on ethics-but "cradle" and new Episcopalians-plus seekers-will benefit from having a brief, accessible summary of the
Christian faith as seen through an Episcopal lens.
There are two underlying convictions behind the book: first, that ecumenism is at the heart of the Episcopal faith.


Episcopal identity tends to focus on history and worship, and sometimes on ethics-but "cradle" and new Episcopalians-plus seekers-will benefit from having a brief, accessible summary of the
Christian faith as seen through an Episcopal lens.
There are two underlying convictions behind the book: first, that ecumenism is at the heart of the Episcopal faith. Episcopalians are well placed to offer themselves as a place of convergence between Roman
Catholics and Protestants, and even between Roman Catholics and the
Orthodox. Secondly, in the current conflicts both within the Episcopal
Church and between the Episcopal Church and some of its Anglican
Communion partners, there is no fundamental difference in doctrine.
The book is an attempt to portray what all parties have in common.

The book includes four parts:

The Faith-outlining notions of Trinity, Jesus, Israel, Holy Spirit, Church,
Creation, Kingdom, and salvation.
Sources of the Faith-Scripture, tradition and reason.
The Order of the Faith-Worship, Ministry, Mission.
The Character of the Faith-English legacies, American dreams, Global dimensions.

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Morehouse Publishing

Copyright © 2011 Samuel Wells
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8192-2310-4

Chapter One

The Faith

Introduction: The Triune God

God is in Christ. This central statement of Christian belief crystalizes a number of distinct, but related, convictions.

First, the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, living in Galilee, dying and rising in Jerusalem, embodies everything good, beautiful, and true that comes from the inmost being of God. Jesus is the centripetal goal to which all searches for truth must look, and Jesus is the centrifugal force from which all goodness flows. If one wants to know who God is and what God is like and how God acts, Jesus is the touchstone of any answer.

Second, Christ is not just from the heart of God: Christ is God. Our notion of God is shaped, or reshaped, in the light of having seen God in Christ. God is the same God that is revealed in the Old Testament and known to the Jews—the one God. But God is also made known in Christ, and that is a different, but closely related, notion of God, which thenceforth governs all perceptions of God.

Third, it is not just that God was in Christ, when Jesus was walking around Galilee in the first-century. God is in Christ today. That not only indicates a conviction that Christ is risen from the dead, but, given that Christ returned whence he came, it suggests a third dimension of God that does not have a human body, but makes the risen Christ present in people and actions and events of God's choosing. Jesus spoke of God as one with whom he had an intimate, familial, unbreakable bond: he used the language of father and son. But he also spoke of there being a regular, perpetual presence of God among his followers after he had returned to his Father. This presence was one of comfort, counsel, and advocacy, whom we call the Holy Spirit.

Thus God came to be known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a relationship of three "persons," distinct from one another, yet in one "substance"—sharing one being. They are equal with one another, yet each has different roles; even in these different roles, however, the whole of God is present in each one. The first of the Thirty-Nine Articles states that "there is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

Concerns have been raised in recent years that this language is unhelpfully male. It can be (and has been) wrongly invoked to affirm patriarchal models of human relationships. There is no doctrinal justification for associating gender with God. Jesus' own usage, however, argues for retaining the traditional vocabulary, and as yet no alternative has emerged that retains both the personal and the interdependent dimensions of the Trinity. So this most central element of Christian belief, the name of the triune God, remains an unresolved area.

Transformation in Christ

The heart of the Christian faith is that God came among human beings as Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is God, fully present to humanity, and humanity, fully present to God. Jesus expressed the full possibility of being human, and made known the full reality of God. The coming of God in Jesus broke down the dividing wall between God and humanity, and the false separation between one human being and another—and, indeed, the whole creation. This coming is the central moment in history: everything before it was a preparation for it, and everything since has taken place in the light of it. This transformation may be perceived in four dimensions, as follows.

First, it is perceived in Jesus' incarnation and birth. Jesus "was made man," in the words of the Nicene Creed; in the words of John 1:14, "The Word became flesh and lived among us." This means Jesus was fully human, fully divine, and yet was one person. The Chalcedonian Creed of 451, which expresses most explicitly the union of Jesus' human and divine nature, states that Jesus is "to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son." In other words Jesus was and is a single person: but in that single person lies both a divine and a human nature, which are not blended but remain distinct.

One important way in which this conviction is expressed is in the doctrine of the virgin birth, which maintains that Jesus was born of a union between the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, and that neither Joseph nor any other man was involved in Jesus' conception. Hence the Chalcedonian Creed states that Jesus was "begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood." This doctrine emphasizes that salvation is entirely God's initiative. The term for "birth" in the original Greek of Matthew 1:18 is "genesis." This hints that the conception of Jesus—not specifically in Mary's womb, but God's decision never to be except to be for and with us in Christ—is the beginning of all creation, of all life, of all salvation, of everything that matters. Thus the creation itself was a kind of virgin birth, because it was creation from nothing, and it was brought about by the Holy Spirit. And the virgin birth was a new creation, or perhaps even the original creation, because it too was brought about in some ways out of nothing, by the action of the Holy Spirit.

Another dimension of this belief in God's enfleshment in Christ is the delicate balance between the ways Jesus Christ is like humanity and the ways he is not. The Chalcedonian Creed states simply that Christ is "in all things like unto us, without sin." The second of the Thirty-Nine Articles adds, however, an extra assertion: that Jesus truly suffered. The Nicene Creed makes a similar claim when it recalls that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate." If Jesus is to be regarded as fully God, he cannot sin, for God is "perfect in power, in love and purity," as the hymn puts it. But if Jesus is to be regarded as fully human, he must suffer. The notion, known as "docetism," that Jesus only appeared to be human, and therefore could not experience human suffering, and thus only seemed to suffer on the cross, is a distortion of Christian doctrine that theologians have long sought to eradicate. Showing how Jesus entered wholly into human experience, yet was without sin, and exploring how Jesus suffered in a way that expressed, rather than took away from, the perfection of God, have been two projects close to the heart of Christology since the beginning.

As we shall see in chapter four, Jesus' incarnation has been a particular emphasis of Episcopal theology, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Second, there is Jesus' ministry in Galilee. Despite constituting the majority of the narrative in all four gospels, this has never become the subject of controversy in the way other aspects of Jesus' life have. Thus, for example, the Nicene Creed omits his ministry altogether; and the Thirty-Nine Articles make no mention of it either—it is not even to be found in Article XXXV among the list of subjects of approved homilies. Yet such silence reflects consensus rather than neglect.

After Jesus was baptized by John and commissioned by the voice of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit, he faced a time of testing and temptation. Then he emerged to proclaim the reign of God and call disciples. The number of disciples—twelve, the same number as the tribes of Israel—reflected the way Jesus was reconstituting the people of God. This was also expressed in his ministry of teaching, in which, like Moses, he gave the people a way to live faithfully under God; and in his performance of miracles, enacted parables in which, like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus showed his oneness with God and his sovereignty over the human body and the forces that oppress it, such as sickness, hunger, and mighty storm. He also attracted controversy, and in his disputes with the religious and social authorities of his time, forthrightly proclaimed the righteousness of God that transcended their limited and self-serving perceptions. Thus Jesus declared the present and coming reign of God in his teaching, demonstrated it in his miracles, and demanded a response by calling people to follow him.

Third, there is the account of Jesus' passion and death. The gospels record that during his ministry in Galilee, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, anticipating that his arrival there would presage his violent death. His challenge to the religious and social authorities of his day, demonstrated beyond question in his cleansing of the temple, and either implicit or explicit in his teaching and healing, provoked a plot to have him executed by the Romans. The crowds that had applauded his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey turned against him days later and called for him to be crucified. Jesus died one of the most agonizing deaths imaginable, slowly asphyxiated while suspended by nails driven through his hands, all the while mocked and reviled by his persecutors and deserted by most of his disciples.

The death of Jesus is the focal moment of Christian devotion, in a way that transcends the precise historical circumstances that surround it. The crucifixion, it seems, is what happens when the profound and utter goodness of God comes face-to-face with the fickle and faithless machinations of humankind. The tremors resulting from the first tree, of Adam in the Garden of Eden, finally emerge in the second tree, of Jesus on Calvary. But somehow the horror of the cross lies deep in the purpose of God; hence the day of its commemoration is known as Good Friday. This goodness can be traced in two further Old Testament passages. One is the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, where Abraham is called to give up his only son but is delivered when God sees his obedience and tells him to offer a ram instead. Jesus is seen as both the obedient son and the sacrificial ram, who dies in the place of others. The other passage is the servant songs of Isaiah 40–55, where Israel comes to see its vocation as suffering in order to reconcile God to the world, especially in Isaiah 53, where the language of being "led like a lamb to the slaughter" quickly became identified with Jesus' journey to the cross.

On a simply human level, Jesus did not need to go to the cross. He was an innocent man who could have found plenty of ways of avoiding the attentions of those who meant him harm. He made a free choice, just as hearers of his story ever since have made a free choice whether or not to recognize his suffering as God's gift to them. The poignancy of this free choice is most visible in his tortured prayer in the garden of Gethsemane: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want" (Matthew 26:39). His violent death was nonetheless almost inevitable, since, on a spiritual level, humanity seems incapable of tolerating profound goodness for very long, and, on a practical level, Jesus seems to have been unwilling or unable to cease his public ministry, which made him a perpetual source of exasperation to the authorities. Among many features of Jesus' suffering and death, the following have attracted particular attention:

Jesus' vicarious suffering as a sacrifice. It is hinted at in the gospels (the term "ransom" in Mark 10:45, for example) and made much more explicit in Paul's letters that Jesus died for the sake of sinners—whether Israel, or all whom God has chosen, or all people, or all creation. Here lies the significance of Jesus' death coinciding with Passover, since the blood of the lamb signalled the angel of the Lord to pass over the houses of the Israelites in Exodus, and accordingly the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, causes God to pass over the people's sins. It's not clear precisely why Jesus' death causes God to "pass over" human sin, but the echo of the Passover lamb is frequently evident in the New Testament.

Jesus' nonresistance and forgiving demeanor as he went to his death. The words, "He saved others; he cannot save himself" (Mark 15:31) and "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34) perfectly express the irony and the pathos of Jesus' defenseless death. Jesus, in an extreme working-out of the logic of the incarnation, was handed over into the mercy of the merciless. Having started his life with his arms bound by a loving mother in swaddling clothes, he ended it with his arms nailed down by enemies on a cross: but still he loved his enemies as much as he loved his mother.

The isolation of Jesus, not just among human beings, but even, perhaps, in the heart of God. Jesus' words from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" have sometimes been interpreted as expressing the profound alienation of Jesus, even within the eternal and unbreakable mutual indwelling of the Holy Trinity. Whether this truly means there was a cross in the heart of God from the foundation of the world, or whether this is a grief and sorrow Jesus bore on behalf of sinners for a precise period of time, is not an easy question to resolve. (It could also be that, since Jesus is quoting Psalm 22, which ends positively, the words are actually a coded declaration of hope.) Regardless of the exact import of the words, they are a searing challenge to recognize the depth of human alienation from God, the extent of Jesus' identification with the human predicament, and the limitlessness of God's commitment to redeeming the world, even to the point of letting this alienation penetrate God's inner being.

The Thirty-Nine Articles insist, "As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell" (Article III). This is noted in some versions of the Apostles' Creed, in the words "He descended into hell" (other versions say, "He descended to the dead"), but it is not mentioned in the Nicene Creed. The scriptural witness for this doctrine is slight, but the point is chiefly to address the complex issue of the salvation of those who had died before the coming of Christ. This suggestion, that Christ "harrowed" hell, a tradition in many places recalled in the liturgy of Holy Saturday, is a gesture toward resolving the anomalies that arise when salvation is restricted to those who believe, including the eternal status of those who, for a host of reasons, never had the chance to hear the gospel.

Fourth and last, there is the question of Jesus' resurrection and ascension. The resurrection of the incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ, is the focus of Christian faith, the historic beginning of Christian worship, and the foundation of Christian hope. This is because it represents—or achieves—God's sovereignty over sin and death, and shows that the conflict embodied on the cross is resolved forever. In the resurrection of Jesus, Christians see the promise of their own resurrection and the restoration of all creation.

A number of factors make the resurrection a complex doctrine. The gospel accounts do not narrate the resurrection itself in the way that they narrate Jesus' crucifixion and death. They simply describe Jesus' appearances to Mary and the disciples. The precise moment and manner of the resurrection remains veiled in mystery. Meanwhile, Jesus' resurrection appears to be a unique and unprecedented historical event, suspending conventional laws of nature and almost defying description. While Jesus is recorded as raising Lazarus (John 11:1–44) and the widow's son at Nain (Luke 7:11–15), his own resurrection is different because his bodily form, while still bearing the marks of the nails (John 20:25–27), is capable of sudden inexplicable appearances and disappearances (Luke 24:31–36). Some believers, while wishing to affirm God's sovereignty over sin and death, have found the notion of such a unique, bodily resurrection hard to endorse. It has been quite common in such circles to make a distinction between spiritual and bodily resurrection, with an approving nod to the former.


Excerpted from WHAT EPISCOPALIANS BELIEVE by SAMUEL WELLS Copyright © 2011 by Samuel Wells. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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