The Theology of Michael Ramsey for Today

The Theology of Michael Ramsey for Today

Aartsbisschop van Canterbury

by Jonathan Warren.

“People ask me, sometimes, if I am in good heart about being Archbishop … My answer is ‘Yes’ … But the phrase ‘in good heart’, gives me pause, because after all, we are here as a church to represent Christ crucified and the compassion of Christ crucified before the world. And, because that is so, it may be the will of God that our church should have its heart broken and perhaps the heart of its Archbishop broken with it.” (Ramsey, Church Times, 9 June 1961, quoted in ODNB)

In Monday’s post, I discussed Michael Ramsey’s commitment to ecumenism and his thoughts on conversion to Christianity in the context of his life and ministry. In today’s post, I look at other central themes in Ramsey’s writing – in particular the relationship between Scripture and tradition and the centrality of Christology in Ramsey’s work – and take a stab at his contemporary relevance.

Scripture and Tradition
GR Evans and others have argued that the central question at issue in the Reformation debates was the question of authority – in other words, what constituted a genuine, trustworthy revelation from God [1]. For many centuries now, there has been a yawning chasm between Protestants who insist upon the sole authority of Scripture for the formulation of doctrine and Catholics who have equally insisted upon the necessity of sacred tradition to understand the Scriptures.

Ramsey offers a tremendous gift to the church, and in particular to Anglicans, in reframing the issue of authority in the church. In The Gospel and the Catholic Church, he teaches us to ask: “What is this Truth that has created both the Church and the Bible”? (Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, 103). We worship the person of Christ, Ramsey says, who has given us both his word and his church as the total economy in which to interpret and live it. This means that “Christian knowledge and Christian love lie close together, and Christian theology is not only a detached exercise of intellect: it is the life of the one Body in which truth is both thought out and lived out” (Ramsey, Gospel and the Catholic Church, 121). Worship, embodied, communal life, and the communion of saints are essential to the proper interpretation of the word of Scripture for our time.

The recent convergence on these themes among Anglicans, evangelicals, and Catholics is a phenomenon that Ramsey, I think, would have applauded. The evangelicals who co-authored “Your Word is Truth,” a statement by Evangelicals and Catholics together in 2002, confessed that

We who are Evangelicals recognize the need to address the widespread misunderstanding in our community that sola scriptura (Scripture alone) means nuda scriptura (literally, Scripture unclothed; i.e., denuded of and abstracted from its churchly context). The phrase sola scriptura refers to the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture as the theological norm—the only infallible rule of faith and practice—over all tradition rather than the mere rejection of tradition itself. The isolation of Scripture study from the believing community of faith (nuda scriptura) disregards the Holy Spirit’s work in guiding the witness of the people of God to scriptural truths, and leaves the interpretation of that truth vulnerable to unfettered subjectivism.

At the same time, the Catholic co-authors of the document recognized that they “must likewise address the widespread misunderstanding in our community that tradition is an addition to Holy Scripture or a parallel and independent source of authoritative teaching. When Catholics say “Scripture and tradition,” they intend to affirm that the lived experience (tradition) of the community of faith through time includes the ministry of faithful interpreters guided by the Holy Spirit in discerning and explicating the revealed truth contained in the written Word of God, namely, Holy Scripture.” The balance that the tradition of interpretation of Scripture, scholarly study, and spiritual reading of the Scripture receive in faithfully interpreting Scripture in our day will undoubtedly continue to vary between our respective communions, but the convergence on this point is to celebrated, and it is likely that Ramsey would have rejoiced to see this agreement.

Incarnation and Sacramental Theology

Ramsey’s insistence upon incarnation and the common life of the church made him deeply suspicious of the “excarnate” [3] form of Christianity presented by the evangelicals of his day, which implicitly polarized the spiritual and the material and depreciated the latter. The incarnation and the resurrection were endorsements of the goodness of creation and of God’s intention to perfect it: “The Christian hope is…far more than the salvaging of individual human souls into a spiritual salvation: it is nothing less than the re-creation of the world, through the power of the resurrection of Christ” (Ramsey, Glory of God, 90).For Ramsey, only a powerful sacramental practice could sustain the Christian hope in the restoration of all things in the triune God.

Ramsey’s intensive devotion to sacramental theology is evident in his approach to the radical “death of God” theologies of the early sixties. Ramsey took the aberrations of radical and secular theologies as the call to restate orthodox Christian theology on a more adequate basis, one which took seriously the creation, the story of Israel, the incarnation, cross, and resurrection as God’s method of revealing himself and of reconciling the whole of creation to himself.

Against Thomas Altizer’s theology of absolute kenosis, for instance, in which God becoming flesh was the dissolution of deity, Ramsey illuminatingly responded that Altizer had failed to understand the nature of deity entirely. Implicit in Altizer’s theology was a conception of deity as absolute and unconstrained power and a view of God’s agency that was in competition with creaturely agency. By contrast, Ramsey insisted that “God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” Christ reveals, not exhaustively, but really, the mystery of God’s nature, and this nature turns out to be a Trinitarian, sovereign, suffering love acting to reconcile itself to a broken and fallen creation. God’s sovereignty, in other words, shines through the creation he has made in service of his love: “the glory of God in all eternity is that ceaseless self-giving love of which Calvary is the measure. God’s impassibility means that God is not thwarted or frustrated or ever to be an object of pity, for when he suffers with his suffering creation it is the suffering of a love which through suffering can conquer and reign. Love and omnipotence are one” (Ramsey, God, Christ, and the World, 41). For Ramsey, in the words of Peter Leithart, God’s sovereignty to reconcile the world to himself in Christ means that the central Christian boast is: “our God can die. Can yours?” (Leithart).

Incarnation, the Kenotic Shape of the Christian Life, and Subsidiarity

As Douglas Dales puts it, Ramsey follows Gore and Temple in his conviction that “the Incarnation reveals the inner dynamic of God’s own existence. Jesus emptied himself in service and self-sacrifice, and by this self-emptying enabled the life of the invisible God to flow through him into the lives of all that would empty themselves to receive him” (Dales, “Living through Dying,” 160).

Jesus’s person, which reveals the nature of deity, is also determinative of the nature of the church. It is the church’s nature to be for the sake of others, it’s mission is to pour itself out on behalf of those who do not yet know its Lord: “the Trinitarian communion into which believers are introduced is a life in which all believers have relinquished their own centre in themselves so as to be centred in Christ and in the human other” (Williams, “Theology in the Face of Christ,” 181). The Christian must – as our baptismal commission symbolizes and enacts – be buried and risen with Christ (Rm. 6:4, Col. 2:12). Ramsey, in other words, like Martin Luther, insists that there is no genuine Christian proclamation of the cross without a life lived in solidarity with the cross and to those in the world who are presently among the crucified.

The theology of the cross in Ramsey’s thought, it becomes clear, does not mean devotion to suffering and to the poor in the abstract. Indeed, as Ramsey made clear in The Christian Priest Today, concern for the poor in the abstract could be a false substitute for concern for concrete poor that God has placed in your midst. His charge to the priests under his authority was not accept the poor that God had providentially brought into their lives. It was in individual persons that his priest could see the dignity of the whole of humanity:

Amidst the vast scene of the world’s problems and tragedies you may feel that your own ministry seems so small, so insignificant, so concerned with the trivial. What a tiny difference it can make to the world that you should run a youth club, or preach to a few people in a church, or visit families with seemingly small result. But consider: the glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God. Consider our Lord himself. Amidst a vast world with its vast empires and vast events and tragedies our Lord devoted himself to individual men and women, often giving hours and time to the very few or to the one man or woman. In a country where there were movements and causes which excited the allegiance of many – the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, and others – our Lord gives many hours to one woman of Samaria, one Nicodemus, one Martha, one Mary, one Lazarus, one Simon Peter, for the infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many. (Ramsey, Christian Priest Today, 42)

In a globally connected age, we are aware of every major world crisis, which as both Henri Nouwen and Marva Dawn have pointed out, leads to fatigue and to a “high information to action ratio” (Dawn, 7; Nouwen et al, 48). In this age, attending to the concrete, incarnate persons that God has placed around us and building deep and lasting connections to individual poor persons in our midst is a radically counter-cultural act.

Moreover, the superficial connections we make via social media and Skype seem more enriching and engaging to us than the embodied connections we make in ordinary life. But detached from a robust embodied life, these virtual connections actually cause us to consume people rather than attend to them, and to God through them, and so to treat them as less than persons. Ramsey’s wisdom in attending to the concrete and the particular persons in our community, and in particular in the household of faith, has much to offer to the contemporary church.

Works Cited

Dales, Douglas, “Living through Dying: Suffering and Sanctification in the Spiritual Theology of Michael Ramsey,” in Glory Descending: The Life and Writings of Michael Ramsey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 151-162.

Dawn, Marva, Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003).

Evans, G.R., Problems of Authority in the Reformation Debates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Leithart, Peter, The Four: A Survey of the Gospels (Moscow: Canon Press, 2010).

Nouwen, Henri, Morrison, Douglas, and McNeill, Donald, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (reprint, Image, 1983).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Ramsey, Michael.”

Parish, Helen, Fulton, Elaine, and Webster, Peter (eds.), The Search for Authority in Reformation Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014).

Ramsey, Michael, The Christian Priest Today (reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

Ramsey, Michael, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1949).

Ramsey, Michael, God, Christ, and the World (London: SCM Press, 1969).

Ramsey, Michael, The Gospel and the Catholic Church (reprint, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2009).

Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

Williams, Rowan, “Theology in the Face of Christ,” in Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and His Writings (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

Notes

[1] See Evans; see also Parish, Fulton, and Webster.

[2] This term belongs to Charles Taylor, which refers to the phenomenon in Latin Christianity of “the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more ‘in the head.’” For Taylor, a committed Roman Catholic, “Christianity, as the faith of the Incarnate God, is denying something essential to itself as long as it remains wedded to forms which excarnate” (Taylor, 771).

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