This is the second of three reflections on hierarchy. Part one is here.

By Christopher Wells

Digging deeper into the origins of hierarchy, one comes to a most basic sense of the Greek arché, namely, beginning or origin. This aspect of the term traditionally oriented Christian thinking in this field as a call to sacred order in and after God’s initiative. “In the beginning,” Genesis 1:1 says with reference to God’s creating, which the Church takes as proof of God’s eternity, since he was there before the start, so to speak. For Christians, furthermore, God is always already a trinity of persons. As we read, his spirit “swept over the waters” at the outset (1:2), after which he starts to speak the world and its creatures into existence, day by day (1:3ff.).

St. John specifies that God created all things through the Word, to such an extent that the very being and life of creation is founded, and apparently perdures, “in him” (John 1:3-4). The author of the letter to the Hebrews corroborates this picture with reference to God both creating and “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1:3). And Genesis singles out human beings as made in God’s “image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26), which fits with the incarnate Word’s particular interest in “the light of all people” (John 1:4). This light of God may be seen by human creatures as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb. 1:3), a singular glory “as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

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We find here many hierarchies, many layers of holy order: of holy provision and gift in the creation and redemption of the world; of holy power, with which comes responsibility, even accountability. Only God creates, and therefore can call all things to their proper end, meting out both justice and mercy. Only God can defeat death and, by his Spirit, raise to new life (Rom. 8:11). In turn, all of creation, knowingly or not, answers its creator-as-redeemer in the very words and things given by God in the first place. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). St. Thomas Aquinas calls this the “stamp of divine knowledge, which is one and simple, yet extends to everything” (Summa theologiae I 1, 3 ad 2).

To be sure, intentional response is a mark of faithfulness for human creatures bestowed with free wills. The Marian fiat models a particularly fitting ready agreement and entry into the trinitarian drama, a voluntary acceptance of having been cast in a critical role. As she perfectly puts it in christological terms: “may it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Through this word and enabled by it, as St. Paul insists, obedient disciples hear and answer the call of God by grace, for “faith comes by hearing, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

The metaphor of verticality that we associate with hierarchy — the symbolic placing of people and things above and below one another — makes sense in this context, both as a recognition of the way things are and as a calling forth of complementary response. All of Scripture is shot through with this imagery, which inculcates humility and awe before God, as a goad to worship.

In the ancient depiction of the Te Deum, the whole earth, all angels, “the heavens and all the powers therein,” the apostles, prophets, martyrs, and the Church throughout the world sing together the Sanctus, as a grand liturgical demonstration of the fact that heaven and earth are “full of the majesty of thy glory.” And human beings are entrusted, in turn, with “dominion over” all the other creatures on the earth, and all plants and trees, acting in the Lord’s stead as overseers — bishops, of a sort — who will be asked to report back from time to time (Gen. 1:26ff.; cf. Mark 12:1ff.).

One aspect of the trinitarian picture here bears careful consideration, as it strikes to the heart of hierarchy as both gift and call. In David’s prophetic utterance “by the Spirit,” amazingly reiterated by Jesus as the subject of the statement, “the Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’” (Matt. 22:43-44; Ps. 110:1). Jesus broaches this messianic prophecy with the Pharisees in a wonderful piece of scriptural scholasticism, but the intra-trinitarian dynamic is noteworthy.

By David’s lights, God the Lord, the one God, speaks to his son as a Lord as well, thereby demonstrating an ordered equality between them. The equality is critical if Jesus is to be taken as God, but so too is the order, and implied obedience, of Son to Father. As the early Church concluded about such passages, if the three persons of the Trinity are identically God, the Father nonetheless must still be the source, in some sense, by dint of distinction from his Son. Thus, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” Logically, begetter must precede begotten. In this way, the hierarchical relation of Father to Son unfolds the work of God in time as, at once, gratuitous and inviting of a response from the faithful that will mirror the Son’s filial piety.

This same trinitarian pedagogy may be mapped with reference to St. Paul’s wisdom Christology (see 1 Cor. 1:24), which recalls God the Lord’s creating of wisdom “at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” Thereafter, Wisdom is “beside him, like a master worker” to help establish the heavens and the earth (Prov. 8:22, 30). “I was daily his delight,” says Wisdom personified, “rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (8:30-31).

Here we have, in effect, the back story of Wisdom’s long career, setting the stage for the most-dramatic surprise of incarnation, which both follows from the foregoing and could not have been predicted. In the pellucid picture of Philippians 2, writ as an exclamation point on Christ’s exemplarity: “though he was in the form of God, [Christ Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself” (2:6-7). The humility and humiliation of his subsequent Passion serves as an outworking of obedience (2:8) to the Father and as a model of faithfulness set forth for our imitation, on the way to being swept up into a glorious hierarchy of divine worship. In Paul’s grand summation:

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)

Cleaving to this Christ-formed pattern, we discover the evangelical edge of hierarchy, its Christian appropriation and transformation. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” but not so the incarnate God-man Jesus. Rather, as he demonstrates, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (Luke 22:24-27). Hereafter, Christian hierarchy can only be known by the countercultural confrontation of cruciform wisdom, offensive to Jews and simply nonsensical to Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23). The sacramental life of the Church walks straight out of this upside-down world of God’s self-offering in Christ, “by whom and with whom and in whom” we, in turn, present ourselves, our souls and bodies, “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] reasonable worship” (Rom. 12:1). Holy order yields holy communion with the Word of God incarnate and crucified — lifted up, in every case, to the Lord (John 12:32).

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of The Living Church Foundation.

About The Author

Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.

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