“Proficiency” and doctrine

I have read this second chapter of Christian Proficiency more than once, with much time in between… perhaps tonight I can pull it together a little.

Thornton again refers to factories in the introduction to the chapter. Was there really a time when the factory was a positive model for society?

The point is that, just as a factory worker benefits from knowing whether his assembly line task is contributing to a sewing machine or an airplane, so too a Christian worker (any Christian) benefits from understanding the theology behind the work of prayers and readings and sacraments.

Thornton goes on to say that the fundamentals of our faith point to and even require this sort of efficient proficiency he is writing about. He’s talking about the trinity — the unity of three persons in one godhead; the incarnation — the unity of God and humanity in Christ; and the church — the unity of Christ and his people. These concepts provide the structure for the rest of the chapter.

Trinity

We intuitively know that God must be both transcendent — bigger than us, far beyond us, higher and greater than what he has made — and immanent — near, accessible, available, sympathetic, involved. Without Jesus, the second member of the trinity, it is hard (Thornton says impossible) to connect these two attributes of God.

With only immanence, we get religious or philosophical systems (including Christianity-based ones) that are focused on earthly life, morals, and ethics and which, however wise their advice may sometimes be, are ineffective at making people behave as they ought. These systems usually fail to adequately (or at all) address the fact of evil. With only transcendence, we get systems (including Christian-based ones) that try to avoid or ignore or renounce the world altogether, which doesn’t exactly help with evil either. “The one tries to influence the world for good and fails, the other is not interested in the world at all: neither is very efficient” (6).

Trinitarian Christianity, on the other hand, has both transcendence and immanence. “[I]f Christianity will have nothing to do with the idea of the human world’s self-improvement, neither does it teach its total depravity: it speaks of redemption” (7).

It is interesting to me that Thornton uses that exact phrase of “total depravity.” Is he making a jab at Calvinism? In my understanding of Reformed theology, total depravity just means exactly what Thornton was saying, that the world cannot save itself but needs God to redeem it.

Incarnation

The doctrine of incarnation is that God came to earth and took the form of a person. Jesus was — and remains — fully and perfectly both human and divine. “[B]ecause he is God he has the power of redemption, because he is man he is in a position to use it” (7).

The humanity of Jesus means first that he is like us in all things except sin, and second that he is the first of a new kind of human — one no longer heir to original sin and all the distortion that goes along with the fall.

Christians can share in this new humanity — not by working harder in our ethical or doctrinal endeavors, but by being made new creations in Christ — something God accomplishes for us. (Our ethics and doctrine both matter; but God’s work precedes them.)

Thornton next argues that it is the sacrament of baptism by which God makes Christians out of ordinary people.

The baptized soul can “lose his faith”, refuse the sacraments, give up prayer, and constantly commit the most scandalous sins; which would make him a very bad and inefficient Christian, but a Christian nevertheless (10).

This is Thornton’s answer to such accusations as that this person is not really a Christian at all because of such-and-such a scandal, or that Christians aren’t better than other people — it is not what a Christian does that makes her a Christian, nor what she believes, but that she has been baptized — made a member of Christ with the tools to participate in his work of redemption, whether she uses those tools efficiently, inefficiently, or not at all. In this sense it is a mistake to define a Christian in terms of devotion, piety, and the like.

I am not quite sure what to make of this section of the chapter. That a Christian is one who is in Christ seems plain enough, and that a Christian made by God remains a Christian despite lapses of all kinds seems encouraging and fits with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. But that baptism should be such a concrete and definite thing? Is this a doctrine of baptismal regeneration, anathema to the Reformed, along the lines of the Federal Vision, a controversial movement among the Reformed?

What IS baptism? Symbol only? Hope only? Familial intention only? The “inclusion in the covenant family” that really does something but nevertheless does not actually guarantee the salvation of the baptized? Or is there a chance that Thornton’s idea — assuming it is an Episcopal idea and not original to him — is correct?

I was baptized as a baby in a mainline church. I came to faith in that church and moved on to nondenominational evangelicalism, including the belief that baptism is for those who choose faith and is therefore not appropriate for babies. Thence to a brief sojourn with some lovely Pentecostals, then to Reformed theology (via the Presbyterian Church in America) which we have felt quite at home with for many years — and with whom we came back to infant baptism. Our understanding of the doctrine, with the help of our pastor Steve Froehlich, was enough to persuade us, but not solid enough for us to articulate very well. Now here with the Episcopal church and Thornton, we have infant baptism still, but differently. I’d like to hear Steve and our current priest, Fr. John Schramm, discuss the Presbyterian and Episcopal understandings of this sacrament…

Church

Because Christians are in Christ, members of him, they are his Body — which is the church. In becoming new creations, Christians do not become less human but more strongly and perfectly human; the personality is not destroyed, and the person remains in the natural world. Christians participate in Jesus’ redemptive work, both on the supernatural level through prayer and sacrament, and on the earthly level through such things as charitable acts. Earthly acts alone are not sufficient, but depend on the supernatural.

It is useful to think of a body as needing exercise, food, rest, and so on; the church is the same way. And just as a physical body needs a balanced diet and discipline in exercise and such, so the church needs to be balanced and disciplined in its use of prayer (exercise) and sacrament (food). And just as the various parts of a physical body work together, so the prayers of each individual Christian add up to the total prayer of the church — and it is this contribution to the work of the church that makes any individual prayer valuable. It is through the work of the church, as one body, that redemption flows to the world.

Thornton reiterates that the amount of devotion, the height of feeling, is not the standard by which effective prayer should be judged. Whether the prayer is offered in dull routine or in ecstasy, it is still offered and the work is still done. He means to be encouraging in this — no one need feel inadequate or worthless because of inconstant devotion: as long as one prays, one is working.

I am still not sure what I think of this idea of routine prayer as keeping the church machine oiled and working… I really don’t like a factory image for Christian living. Would it be good to pray more? Yes. And would it be good to pray according to some kind of structured plan such as the daily office? Sure, why not? Is that the only or best way to pray? I suspect not… but I’m not entirely sure. Is prayer devoid of feeling really okay? I suppose — and yet, I don’t think it’s the way it’s supposed to be. Sure, we don’t need to go chasing feelings or trying to conjure them up — we can pray no matter how we feel. And I guess that’s ultimately Thornton’s point — not that he advocates unfeeling routine dull prayer, but that he encourages us not to give up praying just because it’s unfeeling, routine, and dull.

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One thought on ““Proficiency” and doctrine

  1. I wonder… when Thornton defines a Christian as a baptized person, does he mean that a baptized person is a saved person? Or would he say that a person can be a Christian AND unsaved? Or is “saved” a meaningless concept for him?

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