Tag Archives: Austin Farrer

On the Objectivity of Revelation

Revelation isn’t indisputably obvious. It cannot be straightforwardly read off of history, nature, or culture. One must be taught to see revelation. What can this mean? Why think that’s the case? How is it learned?

1. R. P. C. Hanson on the historical record of disputes over the content of revelation

It is … quite clear that the process [of defining orthodoxy] was a process of trial and error. Almost everybody changed their ideas in some way during it. A satisfactory vocabulary, a clear and constructive way of thinking, only gradually emerged. Men learnt by experience, by controversy, by seeing their own mistakes and the mistakes of others. This is how orthodoxy was reached in the fourth century. It is probable that this is the way that orthodoxy is always achieved. There must be a preliminary period of confusion, of groping, of uncertainty. Diverse and clashing views must be given expression. Conference, conversation, perhaps even confrontation, are an unavoidable part of the process.

From The Making of Orthodoxy, (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 153-4.

2. N. K. Verbin on the logic of revelation’s mode of perception

One important feature that distinguishes different perceptual phenomena from one another is the role of a conceptual scheme, of language and a particular type of training and education in some perceptions but not in others. On that score, we can distinguish the perception of objects and colors from the perception of beauty, courage and God. While the perception of objects and colors does not presuppose the mastery of a language and is, therefore, naturally applied to animals, the perceptions of courage, beauty and God presuppose the mastery of a language, and are therefore restricted to people who master the relevant conceptual scheme. While we describe dogs as seeing other dogs, cats and birds, we do not ordinarily describe them as hearing the beauty of a sonata, nor do we describe them as perceiving the courage in an act. The role of a conceptual scheme, of culture, and of a particular type of education within such perceptions reveals the manners in which such phenomena incorporate a different although related conception of “experience.”

Perceiving God, whether through a mystical union, or in the more ordinary experience of seeing God in the beauty of the universe is an experience which presupposes a complex conceptual scheme, a particular type of training and education. As such, it is not applied to animals nor is it applied to little children before they speak. Neither dogs nor babies are ordinarily reported as having mystical experiences. In respect to the role of language, training, and education in our ability to see God, religious perceptions fit better among perceptions of beauty and courage than among perceptions of objects and colors. […]

It is important to notice that trusting the mystic’s experience is not simply a matter of trusting a person’s testimony concerning the features of an object that one was not in a position to observe. Rather, it is more like the case where one is asked to trust another person’s testimony of her perception of an (aspect of) an object or situation that one did perceive, but perceived differently, under a different aspect. The atheist is asked to mistrust her own perception of the world, and to trust the mystic’s way of perceiving the world.

Both the mystic (theist) and the atheist inhabit the same world. They may be participating in the same battle, parenting the same sick child, looking at the same sky, or reading the same book. Unlike the mystic, the atheist does not see the world as revealing of God’s design; she does not see the heavens telling the glory of God, nor does she see God in a cloud. She does not hear God speak to her in the verses of the bible. She does not see floods and earthquakes as God’s Will, nor does she see unexpected victories or recoveries as miracles. She sees cancer, madness and death as the marks of the meaningless and purposelessness of human existence. What reason does she have to trust the mystics’s way of seeing the world when she sees a universe in disarray? What would it be like for her to trust the mystic’s testimonies while she continues to see the world as she does? Calling her deprived, condemning her way of seeing the world as sinful or ungrateful, comparing her inability to see God to color blindness or to a lack of musical ear does not amount to a reason.

from “Can Faith be Justified?” Faith and Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 4, (2001): 505, 510-11.

3. Austin Farrer on the theologically laden character of reason and nature

What [was once taken] to be natural religion was deeply indebted to Christian faith. It was supposed to derive from a view of the world and of man, simply as we see them to be. But these natural realities had been looked at so long with Christian eyes, that they had taken on a Christian sort of look. People could not distinguish naked fact from inveterate interpretation. An old man may find it intolerable to revisit his college, because (he says) the staircases are full of ghosts. The ghosts are not there; but he cannot see the walls and banisters, without expecting the footfall of friends long dead. In some such way the vaunted Age of Reason could not see a natural world, unhaunted by the ghost and echo of ancestral faith.

All reasoning from nature towards God is the recognition of God displayed in his handiwork; it is a reasoning from God to God, from God seen in nature to God considered in himself. If God is not seen, or half seen, in the beginning of the argument, he will not be seen at the end of it either.

The saving events are seen as such only if they are accepted as the acts of God, and the acts of God are not appreciated as such by a mere flat historical judgment, as are the acts of Caesar or Napoleon. They are spiritually discerned. […] Now it is obvious from painful facts of history that the discernment of the divine action in the redeeming facts is not a matter of a simple sensitivity for spiritual things, like the fineness of ear which enables those who have it to hear the cry of bats. We do not either simply appreciate the divine in the facts or else simply fail to appreciate it: we interpret it, and we may do so inadequately or erroneously; and no mere historical expertise or scholarly soundness in settling the human facts will assure a correct reading of the divine meaning. It is had by faith, and faith is the possession of the Church.

All of this evidence is addressed to faith, and to nothing but faith.

from The Essential Sermons, (SPCK, 1991), 193, 36; and The Truth Seeking Heart, (Canterbury, 2006), 39, 86-87.

Commentary on the above: The grammar of revelation is such that it is patient with dispute.  (Think John 20.) Neither what revelation we perceive, how we perceive it, nor the means we have to talk about it are incontestably secure. For some this opens the door to faithlessness. For others it bespeaks the possibility that there may yet be more that can be learned about God. I’m tempted to say that the lesson is that perception of revelation is rather like an aesthetic judgment, in that it’s both subjective and universal. I hesitate to commit to that move, though, because (1) it’s best practice not to couch theological categories in such a non-theological idiom. And (2) Rowan Williams has expressed reservations about the danger of over aestheticizing our understanding of the presence of God due to a latent egoism underneath the supposition. To say the least, this is a topic to which I hope to devote further thought.

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On St. Paul and the continuity/provisionality of the Law

1. Ben Witherington III

Paul believes that the story of Moses and those involved in the Mosaic covenant is not the generating narrative for Christians, whether Jew or Gentile. […] The story of Moses, like the Mosaic covenant and the Mosaic Law, […] was a story meant to guide God’s people between the time of Moses and Christ. But once the eschatological age dawned though the Christ event, the Moses story could no longer be the controlling narrative of God’s people, precisely because now is the era of the new covenant. [40]

Paul is no antinomian, and freedom in his view does not amount to exchanging obedience to the Mosaic Law for a condition in which no objective restrictions or requirements are placed on one’s life. [49]

By what rule or standard will the Christian community live and be shaped? Paul’s answer is that the community is to be cruciform and Christological in shape. It is to follow his example and the pattern of Christ and walk in and by the Spirit. [42]

In his [Paul’s] view the Mosaic Law […] will and should be reflected in the life of the Christian believer, not because Christians have placed themselves under the Law and committed themselves to obey it all, but because the Spirit produces the essential qualities the Law demanded in the life of the believer. To put it another way, the eschatological age is the age of fulfillment, and the essential requirements of the Mosaic Law are fulfilled in the life of the Christian “not because they continue to be obligated to it but because, by the power of the Spirit in their lives, their conduct coincidentally displays the behavior the Mosaic law prescribes. In this verse then, Paul is claiming that believers have no need of the Mosaic law because by their Spirit-inspired conduct they already fulfill its requirements.” […] Not surprisingly there is considerable principle overlap between the Mosaic Law and the Law of Christ since God has given them both. But this does not mean that Paul sees the “Law of Christ” as simply Christ’s interpretation of the Law. Indeed not. The phrase Law of Christ first and foremost refers to the cruciform and resurrection pattern of the life of Jesus, which is to be replicated in the lives of Christ’s followers by the work of the Spirit and by imitation. They are to clothe themselves with Christ and immerse themselves in his life and lifestyle. This pattern of a crucified and risen Savior is not enunciated in the Mosaic Law and certainly not enunciated there as a pattern for believers to imitate. The Law of Christ also entails various teachings of Christ, both the portions of the OT he reaffirmed during his ministry and the new teachings he enunciated. It furthermore involves some early Christian teaching such as we find in Galatians 6, including Paul’s own paraphrasing and amplifying of the teachings of Christ. Thus, Paul’s answer to the question “How then should Christians live?” is […] “Follow and be refashioned by the Law of Christ” and “walk in the Spirit.” [44-5]

from The Problem with Evangelical Theology, (Baylor, 2005)

2. Austin Farrer

It is plain that to him [St Paul] the Bible is ‘the Law,’ buttressed by its traditional outworks. If, in his view, the Old Testament did anything, it imposed a Law, and this was God’s purpose for the while. But now the Law has fallen foul of Christ, crucifying him as a law-breaker. So much the worse for the Law; its right is at an end, and the old Covenant or Testament gives place to the New. Indeed, if we look carefully at the Law, we see that it carries in it the mark of its provisional character and the promise of what will supersede it. Not that the servants of God are henceforth lawless; they do what the Law requires, not through conformity to Law, but through devotion to Christ.

from The Truth Seeking Heart, (Canterbury, 2006), 12.

P.S. from Oswald Bayer on Luther and the Law

Luther continually stressed the fact that the law should not be preached to Christians insofar as they are justified by the gospel. But it should be preached to them insofar as they are sinners and still belong to the old world. […] This Lutheran confession [The Formula of Concord] constantly comes back to our old nature when stressing the validity of the law. For “the old Adam…still clings to” the Christian. This old Adam is a simple quarrelsome, “stubborn, recalcitrant donkey” that always wages war against our new nature. There is no real difference between a justified Christian insofar as he is still the old human and an unbelieving and unrepentant non-Christian! The one law is for believers no less than unbelievers.

from Living by Faith, (LQB, 2003): 67-8.

Austin Farrer on petitionary prayer

It is difficult to keep grace, not to get it, and there is always more. There are other things more genuinely difficult in prayer; for sometimes we are deeply concerned to have what is not ready set out for us to carry away, such as health in sickness, success in an undertaking; and here it is a matter of discovering what God has given us to carry off: we begin with what we want, but in praying, and not perhaps the first time, discover what God has designed to give. And, in the end, this is never worse, for through all his gifts rightly taken, he gives himself at last.

from The Brink of Mystery, (SPCK, 1967), 170.

Austin Farrer on the priesthood

It is useless for a Christian apostle or a Christian bishop or a Christian priest to pretend he has nothing to give, no spiritual gift to share with his friends; or what is the good of him? He dare not deny his commission. Has not Christ promised to bless the preaching of his word, and the ministry of his sacraments? Confess to me and you shall be absolved, listen to me with faith and you shall hear God speak; I bring you the sacrament in my hands, it is the Body of Christ.

from The Essential Sermons, (SPCK, 1991), 14.

No one’s calling or profession shows them up as a priest’s does. And indeed, as I began by saying, there is nothing to prevent a priest from being a very ordinary man; most priests must always have been so. Being a priest does not make a man more helpful to his fellow-Christians in matters of wisdom or kindness; what it does do is give his fellow Christians a right to his services. It might well be (to take another case) that the woman next door to you had greater gifts for teaching small children than the school-mistress; but that doesn’t mean you can expect her to teach your little family for you. You’ve a right to the school-mistress’s services; she’s given herself over to be eaten alive by the children of the place. And so with the priest: go on, eat him alive, it’s what he’s for; you needn’t feel shy of devouring his time, so long, of course, as it’s to fulfill a need.

Or again, in matters strictly of religion. Anyone may be a better Christian than the priest, more holy of life, more deeply versed in prayer. But the priest has a special obligation to lead a devout life, to study divinity, to pray; and so to be fit to give some help to his fellow-Christians in these supremely important concerns. Other people may expound the faith, and speak or write in Christ’s name, more wisely and more competently than the priest. They may do such things, and even do them better; the priest must: he must keep the congregation supplied with its staple diet: he must keep giving them some word from God.

I’ve been talking all this while (have I not?) about the priesthood as ‘they,’ as though I wasn’t one of them. But of course I am, and I’ve been thinking about my own office. And as I talk to you I hope that you will be listening to me as to a priest — that is, you won’t just be pulley my (no doubt inadequate) remarks to pieces, but that you’ll be listening for something from the voice of God, spoken over my shoulders; for God commends to you, surely, his new-made priest, for you to take him to your hearts; to receive from him the blessings with which he has been entrusted

from The Essential Sermons, (SPCK, 1991), 103.

Austin Farrer on the eucharist

“As a college chaplain celebrating early morning Eucharists, Farrer set himself the discipline of preaching a homily no longer than the lectionary Gospel text, while the congregation remained standing. Here is one such ‘Farrergraph’:”

This sacrament is not a special part of our religion, it is just our religion, sacramentally enacted. It is whatever Christ is, and Christ is everything to Christian people. In particular, he is the supreme bond between us. Everyone of you communicating is bound to his neighbor by this, that the same Christ who lives in one, lives in the other. You care for your fellow Christian as you would care for Christ, and that in you which does the caring is also Christ. Christ in each cares for Christ in all when we communicate together. The same bond unites us with the saints in paradise, who make up by far the greater part of Christ’s people, and with our departed friends who may not yet be in paradise, but for whom we care and for whom we pray.

from The Truth Seeking Heart, (Canterbury, 2006), 125

Austin Farrer on the end

Our knowledge of God now is the promise and the foretaste of heaven: apart from this present knowledge of God, we should have no clue to what heaven will be; for heaven is God. But it’s just as true the other way about – without the heavenly promises God has given us, we should hav no understanding of our present life with God. How could we make sense of the journey if we didn’t know where the road leads? Unless the promise of heaven was shown us, how should we guess that the fitful gleams of spiritual light which visit us here flowed out from the steady and irresistible dawning of eternal day?

Compared with the sight of God in heaven our present glimpses of him seem little, or nothing, indeed; and yet they are not altogether nothing. Even today, when we pray, the hand of God does somewhat put aside that accursed looking-glass, which each of us holds before him, and which shows each of us our own face. Only the day of judgment will strike the glass for ever from our hands, and leave us nowhere reflected but in the pupils of the eyes of God. And then we shall be cured of our self love, and shall love, without even the power of turning from it, the face that is lovely in itself, the face of God; and passing from the great Begetter to what is begotten by him, we shall see his likeness in his creatures, in angels and in blessed saints; returning at long last the love that has been lavished on us, and reflecting back the light with which we have been illuminated. To that blessed consummation, therefore may he lead all those for whom we pray, he who is love himself, who came to us at Bethlehem, and took us by the hand.

from The Essential Sermons, (SPCK, 1991), 203

Austin Farrer on religion

Religion is not self-improvement, or decent conduct or emotional worship. Religion is fidelity. ‘Promise unto the Lord your God and keep it,’ says the psalm. But the fidelity which is the soul of religion is not our fidelity, it is God’s. We give ourselves to him in no reliance on our trustworthiness. Experience has taught us what we are. Our confidence is that God’s faithfulness will prevail over our faithlessness, that he will recall us, that he will not let us go. Our broken resolutions witness against us, but he renews to us daily the miracle of his forgiveness, because he is faithful to his friends. ‘What,’ says St Paul, ‘if some have proved faithless? Shall their faithlessness frustrate the faithfulness of God? It shall not be.’ And he thus expresses the unchangeableness of God’s mind towards us. ‘If, being enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, how much more, being reconciled, shall we be brought through safely by his life.’

from The Essential Sermons, (SPCK, 1991), 170.