Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stephen Neill Emends the Sermon on the Mount

Appreciating the Sermon on the Mount is challenging enough as it is, but there is one part of the sermon that always puzzled and disconcerted me. It's Matthew 5:21-22.There was an understandable teaching in there, but something about it seemed somehow twisted.

Jesus says this:
Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Now this saying always left me squeamish; it was not in the same vein as Jesus's other 'You-have-heard-but-I say-to-you-teachings. The other sayings of similar form first set out teachings of the Pharisees, always teachings that are some combination of the true Law and their own human traditions.. These pharisaical statements concern outward behaviour. Jesus tells them something else. The Pharisees are concerned only with the sinfulness of the outward behaviour; Jesus tells them that God is concerned also with the inward attitudes that motivate that behaviour. Not just adultery is sinful, but also the lust that begets it. God looks at not just the letter of the spirit. His standards for our inward conduct are in one sense even tougher than the jot-and-tittle rules that the Pharisees enforce -- Jesus's rejoinder to His critics who say he is a loose teacher, a subverter of the Law. But Christian conduct is not a matter of dutiful grudging adherence to a set of burdensome rules, but of God-pleasing conduct resulting from regeneration and spiritual growth as we become more and more like Jesus.
Bishop Stephen Neill put it better than I can in his book The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961:
This is not at all the kind of thing that we should expect Jesus to say; this legal logic-chopping is not in the least in the style either of his utterance or his thoughts

Bishop Neill thought he had the solution. He was one of the great orthodox Anglican figures of the 20th century. He maintained a clear attitude of reverence for Scripture with a comprehensive knowledge of modern Biblical criticism. Now the doctrine of inspiration says only that the Biblical books as written by their authors in their original manuscripts were inspired by God. There is no guarantee that these manuscripts have been copied correctly and transmitted to us without error. The huge number of textual variants discovered over the centuries make such a guarantee impossible, indeed confirm there was no such guarantee. Most modern textual emendation results from new discoveries, a correction of a word owing to recognition of some ancient error in copying or to some discovery of a more likely meaning of some word whose meaning in New Testament Greek has always been unclear. In Matthew 5, Neill suggests, there was a slightly different type of error. The ancient copyists transposed the order of the phrases. The words after "judgment" should be moved up, ahead of "But I say unto you". Now the Sanhedrin and Hellfire teachings so much in the style of the Pharisees are in the right place. To the typical Pharisaical condemnation of outward behaviour, the warning that anyone guilty of murder, or insulting or abusing a brother is condemned, "[t]he answer of Jesus then stands in its brief and lapidary splendour -- 'everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to the judgment of God".
I should very much like to circulate this interpretation among every orthodox to be found and see how many of them reject it on the grounds that the rearrangement of verses constitutes a sinful tampering of Scripture. Those who do so would be like the Pharisees, burdening the people with a teaching that is an unwholesome mixture of the Law and human teaching and tradition, one often maintained bot for its truthfulness but for its use in condemning others and showing them to be less serious and devout than they are.. Sometimes we must be reminded that we need to do more than just boast of the doctrine of the reliability of Scripture in order to contrast ourselves with the lowly liberals. We need to know what it actually holds, that we might be free to pursue a better understanding of Scripture, and thereby grow in our knowledge of God.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

C. S. Lewis's "Malcolm on Prayer" -- Letter 1 on Liturgy

As much of a C.S. Lewis fan as I am, it's odd that I haven't until now got around to reading "Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer". Somehow I acquired some funny ideas about it decades ago. It wasn't published until after Lewis's death, and I acquired the impression that it was one of those books literary executors will put out after someone dies by slapping together any few pages of fragmentary documents they can slap together out of the deceased's file of Bad Ideas And Abandoned Projects To Be Forgotten. I also got the impression that there was a real Malcolm and thought that the letters might be filled with discussions of this Malcolm's difficulties with the trams not running according to schedule and how hard it is to get a proper cuppa tea nowadays. Skimming Google reviews, it seems one otherwise serious reader somehow did get the idea that these were real letters addressed to Malcolm Muggeridge.

The letters are mostly about private prayer; but in the first letter Lewis chooses to discuss the "almost nothing to say" he has about liturgy. In 6 short pages he touches on every major theme and controversy which the Anglican Church worldwide has, unbeknownst to Lewis, struggled with over the last 45 years.

As ANiC and ACNA begin the process of deciding what they are to do about their diverse liturgies, this is an appropriate time to look at what Lewis has to say about the subject. Lewis had much to say for uniformity in liturgy:
I think our business as laymen is to take what we are given and make the best of it. And I think we should find this a great deal easier if what we were given was always and everywhere the same.
To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications amd complications of the service.

Lewis was spared in his own lifetime the years of liturgical experimentation that led to the creation of the various books of alternative services. Any week one might come to church and find in the pews some grubbily photocopied version of a new experimental rite that the liturgicists were "trying out". Those days are over now. The main danger in this area comes from those who believe that language simplifications, scrubbing of theology, and forced artificial informality are, along with tambourines, rock bands, strobe lights and liturgical dance, the way to attract young people to church. The continual failure of such methods to do any such thing never deters such folks. The main sufferers from this disease are parents unwilling to face the facts that their teenagers are not anxious to go to church because they are not Christians. And in any case, as Lewis says, people do not go to church to be entertained. Lewis identifies another of the defects of continuing liturgical novelty:
Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question, "What on earth is he up to now?" will intrude.
The crucial question about liturgy is: why have one? This is relevant to ANiC because of its heavy charismatic influence and the charismatic emphasis on spontaneity and ecstatic expression. The charge of such against liturgy is that worshippers merely sleepwalk through a service, mouthing familiar terms in an exercise of empty formality. In Letter 1 Lewis puts the other side:
"Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best -- if you like it "works" best--when through long familiarity, we don't have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance....The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.
A typically brilliant summing up of a position -- but are there not many things our attention is focused on during a service besides being simply and directly on God?