The Gospel and the Catholic Church by A.M. Ramsey: An Appreciation and Discussion
This is Part 1 of a discussion we posted a while back… we’ll repost all three parts to further recent discussions…
The Gospel and the Catholic Church by A.M. Ramsey:
An Appreciation and Discussion
Michael Newnham and Duane W.H. Arnold
+Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, remains a towering figure in Anglicanism, even though a great deal of his theological vision has been set aside by adherents of that tradition in recent years. Much of that theological vision was articulated in his first book, ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’. Published in 1936, when Ramsey was sub-warden of Lincoln Theological College, the book centers the Church, liturgy, worship, tradition, and ecumenical relationships in the Incarnation of Christ. He also addresses evangelical and catholic expressions of the faith and likewise finds them reconciled in the Incarnation.
It is a book that calls for careful reading and reflection. Even so, it is a book that I unfailingly recommend to those interested in, or new to, Anglicanism. I find various people’s reactions to the book are telling. For instance, I suggested the book to a very new Anglican (out of an evangelical holiness tradition) who had been ordained in a new Anglican body with very little education, preparation or training. When I later asked him what he thought about it, he replied, “Oh yeah, it’s all about being a via media…” I immediately realized that in all probability he never actually bothered to read the book. On the other hand, I gave it to my friend Michael Newnham and received a much different reaction. Now, as some of you may know, Michael began his journey as an evangelical and made his way to the Reformed tradition, eventually encountering J.I. Packer as an Anglican representative of that theological school. A few weeks after recommending the book to him, I asked Michael what he thought of it. After a moment of silence, he said, “I’m not sure, but it has turned my world upside down…”
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to have a conversation in order to explore that theological world that has been turned “upside down”.
Duane: Michael, let’s start off with the obvious. What do you mean when you say that Ramsey’s book turned your theological world upside down?
Michael: A little background first… I was deeply steeped in two things…the Reformed tradition and (what I perceived to be) an inordinate amount of personal suffering. Everything was read through those rather powerful filters. Ramsey presented a theology that was neither Reformed nor Arminian, but truly biblical and especially sacramental and Incarnational. I did not know how to read what I was reading, nor how to properly parse it with my available filters. Ramsey parsed it for me with this; “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 then in the disciples, is the ground and essence of the Church.”
If you begin there, the journey of faith looks radically different than it does within a systematic theology. My journey would begin to look radically different after internalizing this one truth.
That, though, was just the beginning.
Duane: For me, the genius of Ramsey was that he recognized that everything in Church life and doctrine is, in some manner, an extension of the Incarnation. More than that, the whole of the Incarnation, from the Annunciation to the Resurrection and beyond is a singular manifestation of God’s glory. When I was an evangelical in my theology, I tended to view “Christ among us” as a series of events – Birth, Miracles, Sermon on the Mount, Death, Resurrection, Ascension – all different singular events. In this scheme of things, it was the Cross that was preeminent. What was important was to have a proper theological understanding of what took place when Christ died on the Cross. Along with much of Western theology, the Resurrection, Ascension and all the rest were almost afterthoughts. As I read Ramsey, I began to realize that it was all of a whole. From Christ “the lamb slain before the foundations of the world” to Bethlehem, to Golgotha, to the empty tomb, to the Ascension, to the Church, to the Sacraments, to the Parousia… they are all aspects and extensions of the Incarnation. All are expressions of the singular glory of God manifested in Christ. This view owes much to Eastern Christianity, but Ramsey skillfully integrates the best of East and West in this book.
Now, I remember you relating to me that one afternoon you were reading Ramsey at the skateboard park. You told me that there came a moment when you set down the book and you said to yourself, “I don’t know anything. I have to start over again.” With all of your learning and study, what compelled you to have this reaction?
Michael: It was the realization that all those years of study had left me without a robust theology of the Incarnation, which is like trying to balance a house on the ground without a foundation. I couldn’t just add a theology of the Incarnation to what I already knew…the structure had to be rebuilt from the ground up. That is the process I’m in right now…and the construction is ongoing…
Duane: And, I might add, that rebuilding not only provides a different way of approaching theology, it also causes us to see the very nature of the Church and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, in a different light. It’s not just getting the facts or history right, it’s understanding what they signify. As Ramsey wrote, “History and fact have their significance in what lies beyond them. Like the Incarnation itself, the Eucharist is the breaking into history of something eternal, beyond history, inapprehensible in terms of history alone”.