The Gospel and the Catholic Church by A.M. Ramsey: An Appreciation and Discussion Part Three Michael Newnham and Duane W.H. Arnold
The Gospel and the Catholic Church by A.M. Ramsey:
An Appreciation and Discussion
Michael Newnham and Duane W.H. Arnold
Michael Ramsey was rooted in history. For him, it provided safeguards against “over spiritualizing” certain Christian truths. For instance, while accepting that there is a mystical quality about the meaning of unity when applied to the Church, he also warns against clinging to one’s own experiences and being “ensnared into an individualism and self-satisfaction which belie the truth about the one Body”. For Ramsey the truth of Church unity is grounded in the “historical events of the life and death of Jesus in the flesh” and “the importance, to the individual member or group, of realizing that the one Body existed before his own conversion and has one continuous historic life in which he is called to share”.
Duane: Michael, what Ramsey describes above is almost the antithesis of what we find in much of American Christianity today. That is, we exalt the individual and celebrate the singular nature of our own church as being “wholly unique”. In fact, these are often the concepts used in marketing a new church plant or in “rebranding” an existing community of faith. Why do you think the “one historic life” has been forgotten?
Michael: That one is easy…it hasn’t been taught.
Americans have a very loose connection to history anyway…we are a “looking forward, not back” nation. Add to that the high and holy place of the entrepreneur in our culture and there is little room for an ancient faith.
When I was in training for the pastorate with an evangelical denomination there was no mention of church history and when it was spoken of, it was with deep suspicion.
There are thousands of pastors and millions of congregants whose knowledge of church history extends back to about 1968…the same time that true Christian doctrine was codified as well…
Duane: So, do we call it ignorance or do we call it willful neglect? For myself, I think that arrogance is involved. It is similar to what C.S. Lewis wrote in an Introduction to Athanasius’ ‘On the Incarnation’, that there is always a prejudice against the old, in favor of the new and the modern. Moreover, the new and the modern belongs to “us”; that is, it is our possession to share and/or market as we desire. On the other hand, to enter into and be part of a “continuous historic life” calls for humility and the acceptance of something that is beyond our ability to fully possess on our own. It can only be the possession of the whole community of faith, past and present. Ramsey wrote that anything that comes to us from that “one continuous historic life” is a gift, and “to possess a gift is to feel no pride of possession”. Michael, Ramsey made the claim that we “learn the Gospel anew by learning the Church”. How do you understand that claim?
Michael: I’m not sure how we look at the current state of affairs from a historical standpoint. We are dealing with evangelical churches that sprang out of the Jesus People revival and revival changes the rules. There were lots of untrained pastors sent out from churches that were traditionally anti-historical and anti-intellectual. It was a terrible shock to me the first time I realized that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Many of those churches were successful and successful people rarely question their methods or message. That is slowly changing as the older guard ages out of the ministry. As to Ramsey’s statement… it means first and foremost that there can be no “complete”understanding of the Gospel outside the historical, universal, church.
Duane: I actually think we ended up being hit on two or three sides. As you say, in the late 60s and into the 70s we have the rise of a new manner of evangelicalism, much influenced by a youth movement that tended to be “ahistorical”. At the very same time, you had mainline Protestant churches chasing what it meant to be “modern”; that is, in step with modern culture and mores, which also tended to be ahistorical. Added to this, the Roman Catholic Church was implementing the reforms of Vatican II, often with a vengeance! The sum total of of this shift was to loosen the historical moorings of people of faith. As time went on, we had outliers like Peter Gillquist who embraced Eastern Orthodoxy and my old friend Bob Webber who made his way to Anglicanism, but they were few and far between. Actually Bob and I became friends because we looked to each other for mutual support! There simply weren’t many others. Ramsey used to say, “The catholicity of the Church is an utterance of the Gospel”. How do you link the Gospel with the Church?
Michael: To quote Ramsey, “Here then is a complete setting forth of the meaning of the Church; the eternal love of Father and Son is uttered in the Christ’s self-negation unto death, to the end that men may make it their own and be made one. The unity in a word means death. The death to the self qua self, first in Christ and thence in the disciples, is the ground and essence of the Church.”What is the Gospel but the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ? The key here is that we don’t just believe that these events happened, we are part of an ongoing reality of death and resurrection. “…To be identified with Christ’s death in such a way that they think of themselves no longer as separate and self-sufficient units, but as centred in Christ who died and rose again… as the inclusive head and centre of a new humanity, wherein a new creation of God is at work. “We are found alive in Christ by dying to self, both individually and corporately as the Body of Christ.” This obliterates triumphalism and lust for power and celebrity…where those things are found there is the spirit of Anti-Christ.
Duane: I think part of the problem is that we spiritualize these matters and apply these categories to the inward life of the individual believer, thereby divorcing them from the Church, the body of Christ. Even if applied to the church, we think of these matters as applying to some amorphous inward ideal. I think this is where Ramsey’s insight is really important when he writes, “… The inward and the outward are inseparable, and the Church’s inward meaning is expressed in the Church’s outward shape and structure as the ecclesia wherein the parts depend upon the whole.” In other words, what we do and how we function matters and cannot be divided into the “spiritual” and the “practical” which, in our time, has become the norm for many communities of faith.
We will continue this conversation in future installments. If, however, this discussion interests you, please feel free to enter into the conversation through your comments. The book, ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’ by A.M. Ramsey, is available through Amazon in both print and digital formats. Either can be accessed through our Amazon Associates link.