Who is God?

This was the short/written version of my sermon for Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018.

 When it comes to religion, this is the question behind every question.  The very concept of ‘theology’ is precisely the matter of exploring this question.  Who, or what, is God?  Every religion and philosophy has its own process for working through its theology.  As far as we are concerned, Christianity is a religion of revelation.

We do not believe and teach that our faith is something that was, or even could have been, figured out by any person or group of people, nor that it can be decisively proven to others.  Rather, we believe what we believe because of God’s direct action and activity in revealing himself to us.  For, if God was someone we can figure out on our own, he cannot be that impressive.  The infinity of the divine must condescend to us if we are to know anything sure about it.  That is what God has done, time and time again.  As the epistle to the Hebrews begins, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (1:1-2).

Old Testament Theology

Our OT lesson from Exodus 3:1-6 tells us of one such encounter.  Regarding the burning bush:

  • It is a theophany; an visible manifestation of God’s presence. The miraculous fire that doesn’t burn, the voice, the angel, each are indicators of divine activity.
  • Many see here the pre-incarnate Christ. There are several instances in the Old Testament of “the Angel of the LORD” speaking as if he were God himself. This has often been interpreted to be specifically God the Son, taking the appearance of man, who would later take on the very flesh of man in the womb of the Virgin.
  • For example, St. Athanasius taught from this passage that God the Word revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush to foreshadow his eventual incarnation. He’s called the Angel of the LORD because he is the angel or messenger of the Father who reveal’s the Father’s will, and what’s more, he is the Father’s will, his only-begotten Son.
  • There is here also a possible picture of the Trinity. God the Father speaking, God the Son appearing like an angel, God the Holy Spirit as the fire.
  • On a side note, the instruction that Moses take off his shoes was a warning concerning God’s holiness. It was a temporary command, not one that would be mandated for all proper worship of God. This concern for the approach to God’s holiness would soon be resolved with the establishment of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, and finally in the person of Jesus Christ.

Later in this encounter, beyond what was read this morning, God’s name is revealed to Moses: “I am”, “I exist”, etc.  This is a word that is as difficult to pronounce in Hebrew as it is to translate into English.  For centuries we’ve used the name “Jehovah” to approximate God’s Name, but that not only uses the wrong vowels but also mangles the consonants from the original language.  For the majority of our Bible translations we’ve simply stuck with “LORD” or “Lord GOD” in all capital letters to denote when God’s name is being used.  This is in accord both with Jewish tradition of never pronouncing the Name aloud, as well as early Christian tradition in using the translation “Kyrie”, which is Greek for “Lord.”  Complications aside, its approximate meaning is “I Am,” in various possible tenses.  This is very important for understanding who God is: God is the One Who Exists.  Everything else is derivative from that.

I also want to bring to your attention part of the Shema, a Jewish prayer drawn from the introduction to the Decalogue, and other places: “The LORD your God, the Lord is one.”  When you combine this with the name “I Am”, you get what theologians call the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity.  This doesn’t mean that God is simple to understand, it means God is simple in the philosophical sense: he is not made up of parts, but is a single unity.  God has no body parts, he has no organs or biological systems, no gender, no cells, or any physical matter which can be analyzed and separated into more basic components.  Intangibly this is still true, God is not made of emotions or ideas or ingredients.

  • God is one, first and foremost.
  • Everything else (love, holy, just, wisdom, creator, etc.) are attributes of the One Who Is. So, while we can study or meditate on these things individually, we cannot truly understand God as any of them on their own. They are attributes of the One, not parts of a whole.
  • Along these lines, throughout the Old Testament, God is revealed to be like many things to his people: a Shepherd, a king, a father, a husband.
  • All of these things are made more clear and real in Christ, who says that he is the Good Shepherd, etc…

New Testament Theology

Okay, so mentioning Jesus brings us into a tricky situation.  We now have two, plus the Holy Spirit for a total of three, apparent ‘faces’ of God that coexist and interact.  This is no more a challenge to the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity than the fact that the One God has many attributes and names or titles.  But it does merit further consideration and searching of the Scriptures for us to make some sense of it.  The word that we eventually came up for it is “Trinity.”  God is three-in-one and one-in-three.  It feels like a paradox to us mere mortals, but it’s simply the only way to preserve the divine simplicity he revealed in the past, and the multiple faces that he hinted at in the Old Testament and showed us most clearly in the New.

Thus the doctrine of the Trinity: one God, three faces, or persons.  The Father is God.  The Son is God.  The Holy Spirit is God.  And yet they are not three gods, but one God.  The Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct from one another, yet are one being.  They aren’t parts of God, but are each fully God.

This is a point where other religions that preach one God really attack us.

  • Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Oneness Pentecostals, etc. often use knee-jerk arguments to catch us off guard: “why so complicated?” or “how does X and Y reconcile?” These are primarily emotional arguments, anti-intellectual. They have failed to wrestle with the text of Scripture and receive the help of Christians who have come before.  And so instead they have invented doctrines that they claim are simpler and more honest with the text of Scripture, deceiving themselves and planting the seeds of doubt in true Christians who listen to them.
  • What they, and we, need to understand is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not an invention of the early church, nor even an invention of the New Testament. It is merely a clarification of what God has always been revealing about himself to his people throughout history.
  • Another classic example: the Trinity is present in Genesis 1’s creation story: the Father speaks, the Son is the Word that creates, and the Spirit “hovers over the waters,” ready to enact the Word. Could this be interpreted differently on its own?   But it’s not on its own; it’s bound up with the rest of the Torah, and the Old Testament, and with the New Testament, into one Bible.  With the mounting evidence of the entirety of Sacred Scriptures, there is no other interpretation left: according to what God has revealed to us therein, God is Trinity in Unity, and Unity in Trinity.

This makes for an important side note: never listen to the testimony of one witness in defiance against all others.  If one person teaches something in contradiction to the continuous line of Christian teachers before him, you know he is a false prophet.  If one passage of Scripture seems to teach something in contradiction to other parts of Scripture, then the interpretation is wrong.  This is a simple and basic warning, but even the most intelligent people can fall into it.  All you have to do is nurture a profound respect for a particular person, or an insistence on a particular interpretation of a favorite Bible verse, and boom, you have a gateway opened up to land you in a cult of someone else’s or your own making.  Always, always, check your teachings and ideas with the teachings and ideas of others!

Concluding Notes

What do we do with the doctrine of the Trinity?  First and foremost, we know God.  It is the most marvelous gift of the Christian faith and religion that we might know God, not from afar, but intimately.  Even though God is beyond our ability to know him fully, beyond our comprehension, it is a precious thing that he shown us himself so closely that we’ve actually had to invent a word to describe him.  We believe the doctrine of the Trinity not simply because that’s what the Early Church and the Bible tell us to believe, but because that is the closest estimation we have of God’s very identity.  If you would love God, you must know God!

And the close second, this enables us to worship God.  Just as you must know God in order to love God, so you must also know God in order to worship God.  Oftentimes, when it comes to religion, people want to emphasize something else: one might want to talk about the Gospel, one might want to talk about the Church or “community,” one might want to talk about justice, or another, the love of Jesus, or another, human perfection in the divine.  But all of this is literally meaningless unless we deal with the very first question: who is God?  If you don’t know who God is, how can you talk about being saved, or joining his community, or imitating his justice, receiving his love, or becoming holy?

The greatest beauty of Christianity is that we are a people who know God.  We recognize that God is “incomprehensible,” that we cannot completely wrap our minds around him; even all of heaven and earth cannot contain him.  Yet we gratefully receive his gift of self-revelation.  “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. That Son, Jesus, reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-3), and ten days later sent his Spirit that we might “taste the heavenly gift, and become partakers of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 6:4).

Ultimately, this is a divine mystery: that is, we know it to be true, though we cannot understand it completely.  At the end of the day, let it simply be said, “the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.”

Let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Augustine of Canterbury

Saint Augustine of Canterbury was a missionary sent from Rome to England in the year 595.  Great Britain and Ireland had heard the Gospel in the first century, and even had representatives at some of the Ecumenical Councils from the 300’s on, but significant decline had taken place.  In the year 410, the Roman Empire retreated from Britain, and the Angles and Saxons invaded a few decades later, bring a new era of paganism to the isles.  The centuries-old Celtic or British Church survived, but had limited success in converting the Germanic invaders; thus it was time for a fresh source of evangelism.

Pope Gregory the Great sent an apostolic band led by an Abbot named Augustine to establish a monastery in Kent, where the local Anglo-Saxon king had married a Christian woman.  A foothold for the Gospel was recognized, and the opportunity was seized.  Sure enough, King Æthelbert granted the missionaries some land in the town of Canterbury, and he was soon baptized on Christmas Day in 597, along with a reported crowd of thousands.  Augustine himself was consecrated Bishop to oversee the newly-planted Anglo-Saxon churches, and he received additional support, both in money and manpower, from Rome in the following years.


Bishop Augustine of Canterbury died soon after, in 604, and was succeeded by other members of his original group.  The strong start and sure foundation that he laid out, however, quickly earned him the status of a Saint, and he has been celebrated ever since as the first Archbishop of Canterbury and the Apostle to the English.

His legacy, on a personal level, has been overwhelmingly positive.  English Christians, and Anglicans across the world, revere his role in re-establishing the church we call ‘Anglican’ and founding its spiritual home in Canterbury.  He is of special importance to those of an Anglo-Catholic persuasion, too, due his both symbolic and literal role as a link between the specifically Anglican heritage and the broadly Catholic heritage that our tradition enjoys.  In the Anglican Church in North America, there is a small society of priests named after Augustine: the Fraternity of Saint Augustine of Canterbury.  To some degree it is the ACNA’s version of the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal church and abroad: a group dedicated to teaching and continuing the Catholic faith as received within the Anglican tradition.  Saint Augustine of Canterbury is commemorated also in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.

His legacy, on a more immediate level, proved a little tricky.  Conflict eventually arose between the newly-planted Anglo-Saxon churches and the older churches of the Celts and Britons.  Wrangling over the seniority of bishops, who has jurisdiction where, and even the validity of the Celtic Church’s ordinations took over fifty years to work out.  Other liturgical traditions, too, proved difficult to reconcile, particularly the dating of Easter.  There was a period of time when the Celts and Anglo-Saxons had misaligned liturgical calendars, and it took time to work out whether to “correct” the Celtic quirks with the more widespread Roman practice, or to maintain the integrity of local practice over against a foreign import.  Fortunately, most of this was settled in 664 at the Synod Whitby.

Augustine is remembered with a feast day on the day he departed this life, May 26th.

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Saint Brendan the Navigator

Saint Brendan the Navigator, commemorated on the 16th of May, was an Irish priest and monk who lived in the late 400’s and early 500’s.  He was well educated by the early monastic missionaries on the island, and traveled across the British Isles founding more monasteries from which the evangelistic mission would continue to spread.

(It is frequently assumed that monasteries are static places of contemplation where nobody comes in or out, everyone is silent, and there’s no impact on the world.  While some monastic institutions are indeed places of silence, devoted entirely to prayer, there was in fact a major movement of monastic communities that inspired locals to come and see, participate, learn the Scriptures and the liturgy, and send out new clergymen, missionaries, and monastics to continue the project elsewhere.  For the British Isles and much of Northern Europe, the Gospel was most effectively spread by the foundation of monasteries and the growth of villages around them!)

What makes Brendan stand out from the rather large collection of evangelistic priest-monks is a document about him, The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot.  In this story, Brendan is inspired by the story of another monk and sails West in search of “The Island of the Blessed,” perhaps the lost Garden of Eden.  A sea monster is encountered along the way, and new lands are discovered across the ocean.

A great deal of ink has been spilled over the nature of this story.  Is it pure legend and myth?  Is it a religious allegory, using familiar nautical language to speak of the challenges of the Christian life?  Is it based on a true story of early Celtic monks discovering North America?

Saint Brendan enthusiasts have built currachs, the sort of boats used there and then, and traveled to North America.  They argue that the travel details recorded by Brendan’s Voyage proved useful for Christopher Columbus’ own journeys across the Atlantic a thousand years later.  It is a point of pride, for some, to claim that Irish Celts were the first Europeans to reach the New World, a millennium before Columbus and 500 years before the Vikings.

In lieu of hard evidence, it may be reckless to assume Brendan’s success on that front.  What we can appreciate, however, is the voyaging spirit of early saints like him.  They sailed the treacherous seas, literal and spiritual, in pursuit of the better life, for the glory of God, and for the spreading of the Gospel.

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Review: Surprised By Oxford

I’m not sure I’ve ever read an autobiography before.  I almost entitled this post “Surprised By An Autobiography,” but that’ve been a bit pretentious.  There are a lot of “Surprised By…” books: C. S. Lewis was surprised by joy, N. T. Wright was surprised by hope, I’m sure there are others.  And now I’m finding Carolyn Weber was Surprised by Oxford.  To be honest, the only reason I read this book was because my in-laws loaned it to my wife last summer, and between having a baby and starting pharmacy school she had absolutely zero time to read.  Eventually I felt bad it was still sitting in our living room, got a little curious, and finally took a look inside.  Despite clocking in over 400 pages in length, I managed to read it within a couple weeks.

My hesitancy, I suppose, was founded on my general experience of popular Christian conversion testimonies: they tend to be rather cliche, almost predictable at times, appealing to a narrative that someone like me (who grew up with the faith and never left and returned) just can’t relate to.  Thankfully, the author (Caro, as she lets us use her nickname throughout her story) is a very intelligent woman who knows good literature and writing, and avoids the overdone tropes.  The general arc of her story is a familiar conversion narrative, but the insight she provides into her heart and mind throughout the process is very thorough and mature.


She starts out as a highly accomplished English/literature student from Canada who receives a full-ride scholarship to Oriel College at Oxford University.  She had nominal exposure to Catholicism as a child, but no experience of “committed Christians” as she tends to call us.  Not until she meets “TDH” – the Tall Dark Handsome American theology student – and he shows her what a gracious, patient, loving, intelligent, and serious Christian looks like.  The circumstances of their meeting and the situation that basically forces him to admit (and subsequently explain) his faith in the Gospel are pretty funny, and Caro does not spare us any of the snark and suspicion with which she initially regarded him.

The book, with plentiful flashbacks along the way, walks us through her first year at Oxford starting with Michaelmas Term (late September through December), Christmas break at home, Hilary Term (January through March), Easter break staying in England, Eastertide Term (April to June), and the Trinitytide (summer) ending.  I was struck by how quickly and thoroughly she was introduced to the Gospel in the academic year, and the impact it had on her for the following months before she fully accepted it as true.

During those months she reminded me of a couple friends I’ve known, who are not Christians but have a decent understanding of Church History and the basics of Christian teachings, and act as slightly-surprised apologists for us against the more ignorant Christian-bashers out there.  If you’re going hate Christians and revile the Bible, at least know what they believe and understand what’s written therein, right?

In Caro’s case, she’s a formidably well-read woman who knows how to read critically and intelligently, so the Bible proves a captivating read for her as she pores through it over the course of the book.  We don’t get a lot of insight into her thoughts on her early Bible-reading, which makes sense because it’s probably hard to untangle first impression memories with the insights of later re-reads.  Instead we are treated to her mental and emotional struggles with the nature of God, the nature of truth, and the deeper significance and fulfillment of life and love.  She’s specialized in the English romantic poets of the 19th century, so it makes sense that that’s the angle from which she primarily wrestled with Christianity.  It both challenged and affirmed the way she looked at the world.

Overall Thoughts

Negatives: her beautiful and frequent literary references will probably go over a lot of people’s heads.  I’m not very well-read (despite the impression I often give), but I’ve at least heard of a lot of famous authors and writings, so I could kind of keep up with the ride, so to speak.  But to appreciate her and her story more fully, it’d be helpful to have a stronger background in the literature in which she walked and lived.  There were also a couple immature judgments on the importance of right doctrine in selecting a church to attend, and her comments on Baptism were painfully reductionistic, but those issues can be attributed in part to the fact that she was a brand-new Christian at that point, and that she seems to have been largely shaped by the “non-denominational” tradition which itself is highly reductionist in tone.

Positives: As the endorsements on the cover attest, Caro’s story is almost perfectly free of cliches.  It’s an honest story, and interesting story, and (I dare to presume) worth sharing with friends who aren’t Christians.  It won’t hit them over the head with Bible verses and theological propositions, nor will it bore them with predictable proof arguments for the existence of God.

As for myself, in reading this, I was reminded, both in heart and mind, of the reality of God’s love and grace.  I even felt I shared in her sense of inadequacy compared to the several accounts of seemingly-perfect Christians around her – how could I ever measure up to the too-good-to-be-true pictures she painted of those first believers that showed her the beauty of Christianity?  (And let it be noted that she didn’t delve into their flaws very much because she didn’t get to see those parts of their lives at the time; and the book was already going to be long enough!)  I was reminded that I need to reground my spiritual life on thanks and praise; it is just and right so to do, after all.

And, to end on a lighter note, I spent seven weeks at Trinity College, Oxford, for a summer program back in 2007.  It was nowhere near as intense or as involved as her graduate-level studies, of course, but it gave me a visual taste of what she she described throughout her book.  So not only did I enjoy this book on a religious level, but also culturally and experiential it brought up some very good memories.

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St. Julian of Norwich

Saint Julian of Norwich was an ordinary medieval women of some social status and means.  She was born in England around 1342, and had a severe illness at thirty in which she received last rites and had a series of sixteen visions of Christ.  She wrote about her visions, Revelations of Divine Love, shortly afterward, and near the end of the century wrote a longer treatise explaining them in greater detail.

For most of her life, after her near-death experience, she lived as an anchoress.  An anchorite (male) or anchoress (female) is sort of a cross between a monastic and a hermit.  As the name suggests, one is anchored to the spot, living in a small cell block attached to a church.  As an anchoress, therefore, she lived simply, singly, on the charity of others.  She had a window into the church building through which she could hear Mass and receive Communion, and a window to the outside through which she could speak with visitors and offer spiritual wisdom and advice.  Near the end of her life she was visited by another medieval woman who came to be remembered as a Saint, Margery Kempe.

Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love is the first known book written by a woman, in English, and comprise what many consider the height of English mysticism.  Mysticism was a movement in the late medieval church that was largely a reaction to scholasticism – where some got (arguably) needlessly brainy about the faith, others would gravitate to the ineffable mysteries of Christianity.  This sort of dynamic can be seen repeated in many places throughout history, including our own day: a more intellectual, or ‘stuffy religion’ in the mid-20th century paved the way for a more emotive ‘Jesus movement’ in the late 20th century.  To this day there are whole traditions of Christianity, especially in America, that de-emphasize doctrine and theology in favor of the mystery and the emotion of God’s love.  Every movement and reaction has its strengths, weaknesses, fair contributions, and extremes, of course.

Among Julian’s writings, one of the most beloved refrains is this: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  In a context steeped in the seriousness of sin, and a grave abhorrence to its damning results, Julian (like many mystics) meditated beautifully upon the immense love that God has for us.  She even described God’s love in motherly terms – a move rarely employed in Christian writings, as there are very few such references in the Bible.  Her prayer refrain, “all shall be well,” was an affirmation that God will bring good from any situation, no matter how evil or sin-stained it may be.

Her commemoration is on May 8th, the day her visions began.

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The Bible is a book of Fulfillment

This is part six of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…

Despite having been written by many different authors who lived in a range of time up to 1,400 years long, there is a remarkable unity and coherence to the Bible as a whole.  Though an anthology of spiritual writings of varying style and function, the Bible’s overall message (or metanarrative, as some call it) is consistent; it is not just a collection of God’s interaction with humanity, but a progression of God’s activity working towards a particular moment in history: the Gospel events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In part, this is enabled by the Christian interpretive process, or lens: Jesus taught his disciples to understand the Old Testament as prefiguring him.  In part, this is enabled by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Prophets, and all the writers of sacred Scripture.

As such, one of the very important things to keep in mind while reading the Bible is this metanarrative, this cumulative building of the story of God and his people.  The Old Testament looks forward to the New, the New Testament acknowledges the Old.  As Saint Augustine says, “the New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed.”  Thus the Bible can be said to be a book of fulfillment: what is anticipated in the older writings is realized in the newer.  This dynamic can be discerned on literally every page of the Bible, so just two books shall be considered for demonstrating this: the book of the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.

Isaiah is the first of the “major prophets”, so named because of the length of their books (not because of their greater importance than the minor prophets).  His book falls roughly into two parts.  Chapters 1-39 deal with the immediate situation of the kingdom of Judah in Isaiah’s day, and its near future.  Chapters 40-66 look further ahead, to the coming exile to Babylon and return to Jerusalem.  Chapters 34-39 function as a sort of transition from the first to the second sections, mostly relating a narrative of Isaiah’s interactions with King Hezekiah, very similar to what is found in the book 2 Kings.  Since the early 20th century there has been scholarly debate as to the precise authorship of the second half of the book; theories have been put forth suggesting that a tradition or school or prophets started by Isaiah continued compiling and adding to his writings for a couple generations after his death.  The evidence for this is not conclusive, however, and the traditional position of regarding the entire book the work of Isaiah continues to hold its own amidst critical inquiry.

Regardless of authorship, and regardless of which part of the book one inspects, prophecies of Christ abound.  Many of the most famous Old Testament prophecies of Jesus are contained in this book: “the virgin will give birth” in chapter 9, the Suffering Servant in chapters 52 and 53, Jesus’ “mission statement” in chapter 61.  In ordinary reading, footnotes can sometimes be bothersome and distracting, but when reading a book like Isaiah, it can be very helpful to pick up a Bible with cross-reference footnotes or margin notes; it shows you, as you read, some of the major connections to the New Testament.

On the other side of the Bible, the Gospel according to St. Matthew is perhaps the most conscious, among the four gospels, of its Old Testament precedent.  Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus up front, making it a natural choice for the first book of the New Testament.  Throughout the book, Matthew makes several explicit observations: “this was done to fulfill the words of the prophet…”  The other three Gospel books certainly imply these Old Testament links, but Matthew seemed to make it a significant feature of his writing.

Switching from the detail to the larger picture, Matthew’s Gospel is written with a larger scheme in mind.  It is essentially chronological in its sequence, alternating between narrative passages and sermon compilations.  It is structured in a basic chiasmic pattern, a literary device in which the beginning and end are parallel with one another, and all the parts in between are also parallel with one another, working all the way to the center (typically labeled as ABA, or ABCBA, and so on).  Sometimes this structure is employed to highlight the point in the center, and sometimes just for literary elegance.  In this case, the center of the pattern is the third sermon compilation, about the Kingdom of God, which seems to be an apt central point to be highlighted because it deals with the Gospel mission of the Kingdom and includes one of his classic Old Testament references.

From the more famous and obvious example of Isaiah and Matthew, the reader can learn to recognize the links between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  A Study Bible, or other Bible with cross references, is a valuable tool in discovering these sorts of links.  The limitation of this feature, however, is that they tend to be specifically text-based, that is, when a particular word or quote is re-used.  The links between the Old and New Testaments are much richer when themes, images, and ideas are taken into account, and very few study references adequately account for all of them.  Responsible reading, teaching, and preaching, rather, best brings out the fact the Bible is a book of fulfillments.

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Archbishop Michael Ramsey

Arthur Michael Ramsey was born in Cambridge in 1904, entered ministry in the Church of England in the 1920’s, and went on to be the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, from 1961-1974.

His memory is perhaps emphasized rather differently by different people today.  Some remember him as an Anglo-Catholic, others as an Ecumenist, and others as a Christian Liberal.

As an Anglo-Catholic, he brought the long-standing tradition of English Christianity to the fore in his writings, giving voice to centuries of Christian teachers in his own life and ministry.  He was able to draw connections with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, and he emphasized the distinctiveness of the Anglican tradition apart from the rest of the Protestant world.

As an Ecumenist, he developed positive relations with many other churches.  He was the first Anglican to preach a sermon in Saint Patrick’s (Roman Catholic) Cathedral in New York City, he began to restore Anglican-Orthodox dialogue that the World Wars and Iron Curtain had cut off, he appeared on stage with Billy Graham at one point, and he served as the President of the World Council of Churches from 1961-1968.

As a Liberal, Archbishop Ramsey may be considered a mixed bag in hindsight.  He was tentatively accepting of the ordination of women, he (unpopularly) advocated for the decriminalization of homosexuality, and he held at least a tentative hope of salvation for virtuous nonbelievers.

Apart from such partisan labels, Archbishop Ramsey is perhaps best-loved among seminarians and clergymen for his little book The Christian Priest Today, in which he shares gems of insight into pastoral ministry, prayer, and spirituality.  Speaking of the high priestly prayer of Jesus, he wrote:

When we say “he lives to make intercession” we note that the verb εντυγχανειν which we habitually translate “intercede” means literally not to make petitions or indeed to utter words at all but to meet to encounter, to be with someone on behalf of or in relation to others.  Jesus is with the Father; with him in the intimate response of perfect humanity; with him in the power of Calvary and Easter; with him as one who bears us all upon his heart, our Son of Man, our friend, our priest; with him as our own.  That is the continuing intercession of Jesus the high priest.

The double images of being with God on behalf of others and being with people on behalf of God sheds a glorious light on the natural connection between verbal prayer and lived-out prayer.

Because Archbishop Ramsey held to a few beliefs that remain controversial to this day, it is unlikely that he will ever be labeled a ‘Saint’ in the fullest formal sense – the Anglican tradition has no means by which canonize official saints – but his memory among us is such that he has been honored with a commemoration in the calendar of the Anglican Church in North America: April 24th, the day he departed this life in 1988.

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