Contemplative Apostolic Theologians: A Quote from John Webster

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If the Pastor-Theologian’s job is to proclaim Christ and his Gospel in every aspect of his life, i.e., to know the one big idea, (see: The Pastor-Theologian as A Hedgehog) then the Pastor-Theologian will need to approach the task of theology in a particular way. The quote below summarizes this way quite well.

Towards the end of his essay “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” John Webster offers this reflection on the dual discipline of the theologian in the church as both contemplative and apostle.

Theology is an aspect of the church’s intelligent participation in the order of peace. We are rational creatures whose actions are to be regulated by the intellect so that we may come to enjoy what Augustine calls ‘the well ordered harmony of knowledge and action which constitutes… the peace of the rational soul.” In fulfillment of this, theology is both contemplative and apostolic. Contemplative first, because whatever it may offer to the church derives from sustained and disciplined and unselfish attention to divine revelation in its limitless depths and scope; everything depends upon contemplative absorption in God and the gospel of peace. Apostolic second and by derivation, because the rule of charity in the church requires that gifts by communicated, not hoarded, such that theology is part of the flow of love, what John Owen calls a ‘contribution of supplies of grace, and light, and help of obedience, unto other members of the body. Theology, then, serves the church in its imperfect state by attending to and speaking about the God of peace and the peace of God. (Dominion of the Word, 164).

For Pastor Theologians, the discipline and drive towards contemplation is always called out to be apostolic, to be for the church in love. In ministry, it is tempting to be either contemplative, or apostolic, but pastor theologians must train themselves to be both a contemplative and apostle.

In meditating on this quote, I want to distinguish between contemplation and theological contemplation. Theological contemplation involves submission to God and his Holy Scriptures, sanctified reason, rigorous inquiry, prayer, studiousness, and intellectual engagement with the subject of theology: God and his works. Contemplation as a prayer discipline is a sub-genre of theological contemplation, where the pray-er seeks to engage in quietly being present to and meditating on Christ and his scriptures)

To be a contemplative theologian is to attend Christ and his Gospel in a disciplined, open, patient, and humble posture. As I wrote in another blog (The Patience of God in Theology and the Parish), theology takes time and patience. And more than time, the communication of theology and its hearing involve submission to the Triune God. We must read, talk, walk and think at God’s pace, because, in our very thinking, reading, talking and walking, Christ is actively sanctifying our thoughts and actions through the Holy Spirit. Theology must be contemplative and in being so it must be disciplined and submitted to the one we contemplate. It must be absorbed in, enthralled by, and rationally disciplined in exploring the depths of the God who creates and redeems us. All that is to say that theological contemplation, for the Pastor-Theologian is a vital task for the church (What that looks like in detail, will be worth considering in another post).

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Yet, theological contemplation must lead to apostolic preaching and teaching, because the very person theologians contemplate is love and pushes us towards the love of God and others by sharing the fruit of rigorous theological contemplation. Further, the theologian invites and hastens the body of Christ into the contemplation of God through their teaching, preaching, writing, and living. Contemplation is not for oneself only, though one must be changed by it for it to truly benefit others.

Note that according to Webster, the apostolic is grounded in the contemplative, and cannot be had without it. This is a severe rebuke to the church which almost always values doing over being. Christianity is grounded, not in our action, but in our reception of God’s saving triune action for us, it is grounded in the Gospel of Christ and Christ who is the Gospel.

Pastor-theologians are focused on one thing: Christ and his Gospel, and for us to be contemplative apostles, we must contemplate the mystery of the Gospel: God of peace and the peace of God.

Thankfully, Christians throughout church history have exemplified this pattern of Contemplation and apostolic ministry. In a future post, I will share one example of this way of theology in the life of Augustine of Hippo.

L’Abri: A way of life for the Church? Part 1

This blog post is the first part of a series of reflections on my experience with L’Abri and how its vision can help the church in the 21st century. For more on L’Abri: http://labri.org/ 

Francis Schaeffer’s thoughts and writings were the warp and woof of my high school years and my life today. Francis’s book, True Spirituality, punctuates my memory as a turning point in understanding the Christian faith. I still regularly listen to an album of Bach cello solos I heard at an L’Abri Fellowship conference. But above all, the vision of L’Abri as a place of hospitality, prayer, and gospel living is in my mind almost daily.  It was only natural that I would eventually find myself at L’Abri.

After graduating from Taylor University, I went to L’Abri England to explore my vocation and calling. What I experienced was a peculiar way of life: a life that sought to live the Good News of Christ in the everyday habits of hospitality, honest conversation, and practiced community. Francis founded L’Abri in Switzerland with this vision and purpose: “To show forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God” (Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri, 15-16).  This vision worked itself out in several ways, but most striking to me – and the point I want to reflect on for the rest of this post – is the total dependence on God as a way of witnessing to God’s existence.

Francis did not shy from the radical truth claims of Scripture. But what he did, that so few people do, is live them. I can’t remember where I read this, or if it was something that someone said at L’Abri, but it struck me as a perfect description of L’Abri: it is the Gospel intentionally on display in the lives of everyday people. This display included meals together, lots of tea, open, honest, and life-giving conversations, and a Tuesday morning time of prayer.

Every Tuesday morning the community would gather and pray for its daily, weekly, and yearly needs. They don’t ask for help; they don’t advertise their needs, they pray and trust that God will provide, and God does. This belief in God’s good, loving, and providential provision for everything, I suggest, is one of the most significant witnesses to God’s existence that L’Abri offers. Their prayer-filled trust in God’s provision endures as a witness to God’s existence under the suffocating weight of secularity’s imposition of a world voided of transcendence.  L’Abri witnesses to the rest of the Church and the world that there is a God who is real and actively at work in the ordering of all of life, including the provision of food and basic needs.

L’Abri’s radical reliance on God to provide everything needed, when compared to the Scriptures, is not very radical at all. It is made strange by the fact that so few people live this way. So few people live in total reliance on God for their daily needs. The question that continues to prod me is whether the Anglican Church could live in a way similar to L’Abri?

Since we are both submitted to the same God of the same Holy Scriptures, I desire to say yes; the church can live such a witness. I dream of seeing the Church as a place where God’s existence is demonstrated through its’ life and work; God’s existence demonstrated through lives that are entirely dependent on God for everything. What would that look like in the church? It would mean a profound change in our vision of the good life and our sense of purpose in life. It would mean being oriented towards God and his kingdom, not our wants and consumeristic desires.

I am convinced that we must begin with knowing and believing in the God who provides for what we need. This means we must both seek his face in prayer and take a good look at how we define what we need. But believing and knowing is not enough, we must put into practice the habits of praying for what we need. What would it look like for a church, at their vestry, to honestly and earnestly pray for their needs?

What would it look like for a church to pray and truly rely on God for its financial and material needs, and for the people God wants in the church? What would it look like if we prayed for our daily needs and did the small tasks of faithfully trusting God to provide in our every day lives? If we believe God is the God who he says he is, then we must be on our knees in prayer for his good provision and direction. I really can see no way around it. What is the end goal of this trust? Nothing less than the witness to God’s reality and existence.

I struggle with trusting God the way that the people at L’Abri do. But I also see no other way forward; I believe the way that L’Abri prays is the way the church should pray. “We pray that God will plan the work, and unfold his plan to us (guide us and lead us) day by day, rather than planning the future in some clever or efficient way in committee meetings” (Schaeffer, L’Abri, 16). Some may object that this leads to passivity, I would suggest that it does not. Because when we rely on God to provide everything we need, that includes the energy, will, strength and ability to do the next thing in front of us. We pray that God will provide for everything, and he will.

One afternoon I joined a veteran L’Abri Worker for a cup of green tea. As we looked out his window on the English countryside sipping our tea we talked about life, the sacramental nature of reality, and the absolute good providence of God. I confess to him that I was struggling to trust God, the worker pointed me to Philippians 4:6-7 as a passage to meditate on.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

This passage stays with me because I saw it lived out L’Abri.
I believe that the way forward for the Anglican church in America today is living with this kind of faith, trust, and hope; a total abandonment to God’s loving care and providence. This way of living, unlike any evangelistic strategy, will demonstrate the existence, love, and power of our Triune God.