Monday, January 16, 2006

Infused vs. imputed grace and homiletics

I admit it would be brilliant to bring these concepts into conversation. But I only admit that because I am not in fact going to do that in this post. Actually, this is more of a signpost towards a couple of good posts elsewhere.

First, a new friend here at Cambridge, Simeon, is weighing in on a debate about infused versus imputed grace. One post is here, another here. I think there is a previous one I haven't seen. Oh, and Al Kimel posted in reponse here.

(I'm not sure just how to simplify the issue without oversimplifying it: It sort of comes down to, can we as Christians truly grow in Christlikeness after baptism? There's more to it, though. This is a debate that is associated closely with the Reformation, which partly explains why I'm not the sharpest on it, as I have focused on other things.)

I'm not sure that a lot of new ground is being covered in this current debate, and I'm not precisely sure where I land on the issue. So far, I tend to fall on the side of infused grace (that we truly grow in Christlikeness), but my deeper suspicion is that it's a false dichotomy, and that we need a broader (not vaguer, but broader) perspective to faithfully render the way that God works with his creation. (I must admit as I write this that I have only skimmed the various posts in the argument to this point. Perhaps I'll have something better to say on this topic later. Or perhaps (yes, please!) I won't have anything else to say.)

But even if it is not ultimate, it is an interesting debate nonetheless and, hey, it's a friend working through the issues so what's not to support?

I also ran across an interesting and helpful post on homiletics, entitled the Art of the Homily. It was written by Father Philip Powell, a Dominican priest. Some excellent points there; also in his post on the mechanics of the homily. Helpful stuff for people already preaching, contemplating or training for ordained ministry, or engaged in listening to, thinking about, and responding to (?) sermons on a regular basis.

The only question I would raise, which was also raised in the comments, is about his dictum: "5). Questions are good…if you answer them." He clarifies in the response to the comment that he specifically intends the sort of mostly-vacuous rhetorical question (“What would you do if given the chance to heal the sick”?) that sometimes preachers use to end a sermon, questions which dissipate as quickly as they are raised. I think he's quite right about that, I think that's usually an ineffective move.

On the other hand -- and I'm no longer responding to the post here, but going beyond it -- I don't think the sermon is always supposed to be about "answering questions", or needs to be careful to never (never!) raise a question without answering it. (I admit that if you raise a question and don't answer it it has to be intentional, not just out of sloppiness.)

But to tell a story without explanation, or raise a question that haunts us and our hearers, which goes beyond admitting of a simple or (especially) a pat answer, that can't be reduced to a "principle for living": that, my friends, can be some real preaching. And it can more faithfully render our subject than boiling things down to principles or pat answers.

The Bible gives us some good examples of just these sorts of stories.

The Akedah -- the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham -- is one such text that (at least; I'm not sure about others) the ECUSA Eucharistic lectionary hears once every three years. Good Friday (and Palm Sunday) is another.

The power of these texts is that they raise haunting questions for us, questions that won't leave us alone; they resist our easy categorisation. They can't be settled either by easy mastery (well, it obviously just means that God was testing Abraham's faith, no problem), or even by easy denial (well, we see here that Jesus can't be God incarnate, so let's get over it, huh?). (Please understand, I am not suggesting questions that are merely raised to befuddle the hearers, or demonstrate the cleverness of the preacher, or any other such tedious or faithless device -- these would also constitute "mastery" of the text.)

They invite us to wonder, meditation, maybe even fear. But the texts are not satisfied with glib explanations; who are we to be satisfied with them? It seems rather that we are called to model faithful living in the face of them, faithful living without easy or pat answers, trusting (not promised, but trusting) that one day, as we are drawn further into the love of the Blessed Trinity, these questions will be eclipsed -- or, perhaps, be no more.


Blogger Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP said...

Fr Jason,

Thank you for the great response to my short piece on preaching. My gripe with questions is that they are gimmicky when used merely as rhetorical filler. Of course, serious questions, substantial questions are always a good idea. I hope my posted homilies demonstrate that I am very much in the Dominican tradition in this way. And, by the way, I'm a Dominican not a Paulist! :-)

Thanks again...Fr. Philip, OP

Tuesday, January 17, 2006 5:42:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Fr. Philip:

Thanks for coming by the Street; thanks also for posting such helpful thoughts on preaching on your blog.

Yes, I agree with your point on gimmicky questions -- and the way they often constitute a "cheapy" way to end.

And I'm sorry to have gotten your order wrong, a dumb mistake but easily corrected.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006 8:32:00 PM  

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