Sacraments, Scripture, and Wisdom in the Pursuit of God

By Armando Ghinaglia

But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. (1 Cor. 2:7)

Here is Wisdom;
this is the Royal Law;
these are the lively Oracles of God.
(Coronation service of Queen Elizabeth II)

In his 1828 landmark dictionary of the English language, Noah Webster wrote that wisdom is “the knowledge and use of what is best, most just, most proper, most conducive to prosperity or happiness,” what a later editor condensed to “the use of the best means for attaining the best ends.” Framed this way, the pursuit of wisdom requires us to answer two related questions. How do we know the best ends and the best means to those ends? And what are the best ends and the best means to those ends?

22 Papers,
12 Schools,
3 Winners

The ninth annual Student Essays in Christian Wisdom competition attracted 22 papers from 12 Anglican seminaries and divinity schools in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

The Rev. Armando Ghinaglia of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale won the top prize with his paper, “The End of All Our Exploring: Sacraments, Scripture, and Wisdom in the Pursuit of God,” which TLC is pleased to publish in this edition.

Second place — Philip Zoutendam, Duke Divinity School, “A Satisfying Wisdom: Beauty, Order, and Atonement in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo.”

Third place — David Bagnall, Westcott House, University of Cambridge, “‘Grounded in kynde’ — ontological processes in Julian’s Shewings.”

We are grateful to the judges of this year’s competition:

  • Stewart Clem of Valparaiso University
  • Claire Colombo of Seminary of the Southwest
  • Zachary Guiliano of TLC and its weblog, Covenant
  • Cole Hartin of Wycliffe College
  • Vicentia Kgabe of College of the Transfiguration, Grahamstown, South Africa
  • Eugene Schlesinger of Santa Clara University
  • Kara Slade of Trinity Church, Princeton, and the Episcopal Church at Princeton

As Christians, we may answer the second question straightforwardly in concert with generations past: the best end is God. Thomas Aquinas argues that the “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence,” the “very Essence of the First Cause” (S. Th. I-II, q. 3, a. 8). Augustine prays to this First Cause in aching words: “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions I.1). “The end of all our exploring,” writes Eliot, “Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time” (The Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”). Our end is our beginning, that place of rest where the Lord God first breathed life into creatures fashioned from the dust of the earth, the place where Christ will be all in all, the place where “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). That end helps us summarize the organizing principle of all history, both as cycle and as linear progression: “He was made man that we might be made God” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54).

But before we arrive at that end, we must undertake our own journey. What vehicle can take us to that place — to innocence of sin, to newness of life, to streams of living water — or even carry us safely through this place — through its changes and chances, through temptation and wickedness, through pestilence and violence, through tribulation and prosperity alike? None but God, who by his Son Jesus has shared himself with us and reconciled us in the flesh, and who by the Holy Spirit raises us up in Jesus and leads us into all truth. Love bids us welcome, and love guides our hearts and paves the path that we walk by faith.

As fleshly creatures, we live out this journey by visible and outward signs. In baptism, the Holy Spirit prepares a dwelling place eternal for himself in our hearts as we are washed outwardly, and in the Eucharist, Christ offers us his body and blood under the forms of bread and wine as we recall his saving work. At their best, all other sacramentals and signs serve to direct us along the same pathway as these two sacraments: a life characterized by a true and lively faith.

Notably, this account of wisdom proceeds directly from what we know by faith — from belief in a God whom we have not seen (John 1:18). Some might qualify this account by calling it specifically Christian, lest we discount other wisdom traditions, but as with the Scriptures, we may be so bold as to declare that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding” (Ps. 111:10, 1979 BCP). To make the Christian claim that there is one God and one Lord Jesus Christ —

[who] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything (Col. 1:15-18)

— is to claim Christ as the beginning and end of all things. Just as a sonata would make no sense as sonata were it missing a section, so too would our understanding of creation — including anything we might want to call wisdom — make no sense as a whole without Christ as its beginning and its ending (cf. Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 88). In the modern period, it is common to contrast the claims of faith and those of reason, and so exclude a Christian account of reality. But in the New Testament, the principal dichotomy is between faith and sight (ibid., p. 78). In adopting this dichotomy, we may observe that to start our exploration of wisdom with God in Christ is to begin with what emphatically is, even though we cannot see our end with our eyes in this life.

This leads us back to our first question: How do we know the best ends and the best means to those ends? For most, our learning must come from elsewhere. When it comes to the Christian faith, we know what we know because others have told us so. That we cannot see it for ourselves makes it no less true: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).

The raw material for this how lies in Scripture insofar as we read it as pointing through Christ to God. The words of Scripture are the norm by which we measure our faith — the rule, the canon, “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Scripture offers us the only sure guide we have to the saving works that lie at the heart of the motion of history we profess in our journey in Christ toward God. Scripture does not give us baptism, Eucharist, or other sacramentals in the sense that it brings them into being by its mere commands. But without Scripture, the witness these things offer would be severely compromised in our time. There is no other deposit of faith, no other firm foundation, than the words of Christ, which have come to us through the Scriptures (Matt. 7:24).

If the raw material for the how lies in Scripture, then the last portion we must deal with is how we shape that material into something meaningful, how we put the pieces together to make the right image. Here again we begin to move toward wisdom more broadly, with its concern for parts and their relation to ends. A twofold risk arises here. The first is to make the wrong image from the parts, whether from willful ignorance or from evil intent. For a contemporary example, look no further than government officials’ use of Romans 13 to support practices along the border that Christians across the political spectrum have roundly condemned as immoral.

The second, related risk is to regard Scripture as raw material in the same sense that marble is raw material that a sculptor shapes as she wills. In his writings against the Valentinians, Irenaeus inveighs against this perspective, noting that one may “disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures” which should otherwise appear as “a beautiful image of a king” that “has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels” (Against Heresies I.8.1). The order and connection of the Scriptures does not arise from human art or skill. Were that so, it would be difficult indeed to speak of any “misreading” of Scripture whatsoever. Rather, the Scriptures’ order and connection derive from their singular end, which is Christ. As Richard Hooker articulates in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:

The main drift of the whole New Testament is that which St. John setteth down as the purpose of his own history; “These things are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is Christ the Son of God, and that in believing ye may have life through his name.” The drift of the Old that which the Apostle mentioneth to Timothy, “The Holy Scriptures are able to make thee wise unto salvation.” So that the general end both of Old and New is one … (I.IV.5)

The Holy Spirit who spoke by the prophets and leads us into all truth works in our hearts so that when we approach the Scriptures with humble hearts, asking the same questions as the psalmist and as the Ethiopian eunuch ¾“Who is he, this King of glory?” and “About whom does the prophet say this?” ¾we may hear Jesus’ words in response: “I am he” (Ps. 24:10; Acts 8:34; John 4:26).

Where does all of this leave the Church, that great hospital for sinners and ship of salvation? Divided on earth, the Church has itself come to express the earthly divide between faith and sight. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church, not because it is outwardly so, but because Christ wills it. As Christ prays to the Father, visible unity in the sacramental body is a sign “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). Disobedient to this command though we may be, God has nonetheless entrusted us with the riches of his goodness — with the sacraments, as the Prayer Book catechism notes, as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” and with the Scriptures, as the Church of Scotland moderator reminded Queen Elizabeth at her coronation, as “Wisdom,” “the Royal Law,” and “the lively Oracles of God.” While we await Christ’s return in glory, the Church continues in the mission of God by administering the sacraments and proclaiming the gospel, declaring to all peoples the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Insofar as it puts its trust in God, it shall not fall (Ps. 21:7).

That God should entrust such fragile, earthen vessels with heavenly riches only confirms his decree: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Cor. 1:19). The heart of Christian wisdom lies in the pursuit of God — or more aptly, in God’s pursuit of us, for “in this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). There are no traditions that can point us to better ends or better means, no greater wisdom than that which God himself has ordained: Jesus Christ and him crucified for the life of the world.

The Rev. Armando Ghinaglia is a student at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

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