Update #3 from Oxford University

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Oxford University.
Photo of a classroom

My classes are all in this room.

Here’s an update on Wednesday to Friday last week for both courses: The church always needs reform and No faith in religion?

I’m sharing selected points of interest from the courses. I look forward to having time to reflect on both the readings and the classes to draw some conclusions, which I will then work into future blog posts.

The church always needs reform

This course was taught by Father Henry Wansbrough, a Benedictine monk and impressive scholar who has served on papal commissions and was the general editor of the New Jerusalem Bible. He is a great example of a humble man. With his intellect and experience (he worked at Vatican II), his answers to challenging questions were always restrained and reasonable. He also surprised me with opinions that were not what I expected. For instance, he agreed with many of Luther’s critiques. He also modelled receptive ecumenism quite well, which I’ll explain right away.

Receptive Ecumenism

Receptive ecumenism is the willingness to listen to others to see what you might have missed, to correct where needed, to learn from others, and to enrich your faith.

We may not agree with everything the other person asserts, but we should be humble and accept the possibility that we ourselves may not have everything right either. Shouldn’t we want to be as true to Christ as possible? If we can be better Christ-followers by picking the good out of someone else’s ideas, shouldn’t we? For instance, we may be so focussed on one part of our faith that we’ve missed out on another.

Original sin

The Eastern church has a much more optimistic view of humanity than the Western church. We both see humanity as made in the image of God, but in the East the Fall was more of a stumble than a fall. When toddlers stumble while learning to stand and walk, we know that the stumbling is a natural part of growing up, and we encourage them to try again. We don’t punish them for stumbling. In the same way, the East sees the Fall as humanity’s natural stumble. As another professor once said, Eastern Christians believe the image of God in us is still whole, but is covered in mud. It has been marred, not broken. They have no concept of original sin because Augustine was not read in the East. The Orthodox believe we are still fundamentally good people beneath the dirt. Christ cleans off the mud and restores our goodness.

The Western church has a much more pessimistic view of humanity. The image of God has been broken by the Fall and needs to be made whole again. The Fall was a willful rebellion, not a stumble. Now we are fundamentally bad, born in sin, and under condemnation. Christ rescues us from our badness and makes us new and whole again through his atonement for our sins.

Papal Infallibility

Papal Infallibility was confirmed in 1870 at Vatican I. It has only been invoked twice, but both times it related to doctrines of Mary and both uses had the effect of making rapproachement with the Protestant church more difficult. The two doctrines are:

  1. The Immaculate Conception of Mary – 1854, before Vatican I, but the concept of papal infallibility had been around for a long time: This doctrine states that Mary herself was born without sin.
  2. The Assumption of Mary – 1950: The doctrine that when Mary died, her physical body was taken to heaven.

To speak infallibly, the pope must explicitly state that he is speaking ex cathedra. Otherwise, he speaks with an authority that should be given both weight and deference. However, and this was surprising, there is no requirement for Roman Catholics to obey him. He can be disobeyed if conscience demands it, but Father Henry says anyone doing so should feel uneasy about it. Disobedience should not be lightly done.

Vatican II

Vatican I was all about power, specifically the pope’s power. Vatican II was quite different. It was all about service. Some of the new thinking that came out of Vatican II includes:

  • Bishops are vicars and legates of Christ, not of the pope. The pope has no control over the bishops, and those bishops no longer rule their dioceses; they serve them.
  • The church is a Messianic, holy people, a priestly community; not an ecclesial organization.
  • Infallibility is no longer at the centre of the papacy; leadership is. So popes since Vatican II have taken more of a global leadership role based on moral suasion. They have travelled extensively and promoted world peace. Pope Francis is focused on pastoral sensitivity and mercy over justice.

Historical accuracy of the Bible

When Abraham bought the land for a tomb, it says in verse 17 that the purchase included the trees that were on the land. This has apparently puzzled scholars for a long time. Why would the trees be mentioned? Surely they were included with the land!

The reference to trees was considered an unexplainable peculiarity. But then, fairly recently, other land purchase agreements were discovered from that time period and area, and all of them mention that trees are included in the transaction. A small detail shows that the Bible is right!

Evening lecture by Diarmaid MacCulloch

We had a special evening lecture on the Reformation. Diarmaid MacCulloch was introduced as the world’s foremost Reformation scholar. He said that Medieval Europe (500 to 1500 AD) was an oddity in the history of the world. There was one religion, one leader, one basic political unit, which made for one culture on the continent. This has never happened before or since, anywhere in the world. The Reformation, which created divisions and ultimately a plurality of Protestant streams, simply returned Western Europe to a normal state.

The difference between those who stayed with the Catholic church (now the Roman Catholic church) and those who became Protestant comes down to which aspect of Augustine’s work they put priority on:

  1. Those who stayed Catholic followed Augustine’s thought on the church, with an emphasis on obedience.
  2. Those who became Protestant followed Augustine’s thought on grace

On ecumenism, MacCulloch said it is good to work together and eliminate hostility between Christians, but it is a waste of time trying to merge organizations.

The demographics for the future of the church are worrisome, but there are many surprising stories throughout Christian history of incredible advances when the future looked bleak. I’ve read elsewhere that in Medieval times the church had been reduced to a rump in Western Europe and seemed doomed, and then it exploded with rapid growth. MacCulloch referenced South Korea and India as modern day examples of explosive growth of Christianity in unexpected territories. Christianity is the religion of the oppressed and has much to offer today’s world.

No faith in religion?

The content of this course doesn’t lend itself to summary reporting. We discussed some very heady topics like ontology, epistemology, and a process to help congregations figure out what their strategies should be. There was also an excellent Bible study on Jesus’ last words and how they reflect the agendas of the Gospel writers. Each of these is way too big to fit into a summary post like this. However, a few points and quips are worth repeating and do stand on their own.

  • Whatever the church teaches, the teaching should be reflected in how the church manages the institutions of the church.
  • God loves you as you are, and loves you too much to leave you as you are! I’m sure I’ve heard this before, but it is so good and worth repeating.
  • An interesting connection between a prayer and a promise. The books of the Hebrew Bible appear in a different order than in ours, and the Hebrew Bible ends with 2 Chronicles. So the Hebrew Bible’s last words are a prayer for the faithful person going into exile: “May the Lord his God be with him.” The last words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, which was written for a Jewish audience, are “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The prayer has been answered with a promise!
  • We go to church for the sake of the God who is present and the people who aren’t.

This course was about distinguishing faith, which is powerful and liberating, from religion, which is the institutional expression of the church. The conclusion is that religion, how the institutional church operates, needs reform to become more empowering. It must help Christians engage in lay ministry and serve their communities. The church hierarchy should be servants to the laity, in the same way as Vatican II changed the focus of bishops from ruling to serving.

Next Week

I’ll be taking two courses on Christian Faith and Modern Thought, and C S Lewis and the Christian Imagination. I’ll post as I can.

Series Navigation<< At Christ Church: I heard a great story today!At Oxford: Food for thought >>

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