All Saints Company took form to support churches’ worship and common life in our time. We began work at Yale University in 1974, and founded St Gregory of Nyssa Church in 1978. For forty years we have researched and created a fresh approach to Christian mission, relying on recent scholarship and our critical experience. Through this process core values have emerged to guide us. They may be distinct from other religious practices, yet they are as ancient as our scriptures, and as universal as human life. As we completed our leadership at St Gregory’s, we defined these values in conversation with church members, clergy, and friends, to share with any who may find them useful. In this series on the core values that define the work of All Saints Company, I will explore our theories and motives behind the work we continue to expand.
1. We treat scripture as a conversation instead of ideology
2. We realize tradition as creative instead of nostalgic
3. We hold reason as balance instead of inevitability
4. We pursue evangelism using desire instead of shame
5. We realize transcendence through affection instead of fear
1.We treat scripture as conversation instead of ideology
Scripture presented honestly, problems and all, offers possibilities for enlightenment and change of life stronger than doubtful certainties can give. God has conversed unceasingly with humankind wherever and whenever humans have lived. The bible supplies a brilliant record of God’s conversation with the Hebrew people, upon which New Testament writers and all Christian theologians depend. There modern bible criticism discovers an evolving historical dialog drawn from diverse sources that ancient editors conserved or adapted, sometimes integrating them and sometimes not. Today sermons, classes and prayers must acknowledge that diversity, offering our people what the bible properly offers, and enabling them to choose by their own evolving values, just as biblical writers anciently did. What the Hebrew editors began, we continue.
Since the works of Origen in the third Christian century, Christian theological method has started from commentary on scripture: a priority which Luther re-covered during the European renaissance, and which sets our theological talk apart from nearby religions’ methods—Jewish or Muslim, for example—that start from tradition and turn to scripture for confirmation.
As a case in point, the issue of universalism has pertinence today. Is our religion alone true, and others misleading? Hebrew scripture expresses both exclusivist and universalist views, each with a history that moderns must know and weigh. Paradoxes appear within a single school: one prophetic text proclaims that idols can do nothing but lead the nation to destruction; while a later prophetic text warns that God leads all peoples, including Israel’s idolatrous enemies, and affording Israel no moral stock to bank on. The bible’s openness to ideas from nearby Egyptian and Persian religion—some appropriated, others trimmed close—sets a complex pattern for modern Christian dialog with other world religions, where God’s conversation with all humanity shows up in ways we must respect. Early Christian apologists indeed argued that God’s truth appears everywhere, while Christ’s life, teaching and death enable us all to recognize it.
Nevertheless the bible’s theology often moved in one direction excluding others, as the Hebrew editors weighed in heavily, constructing biblical orthodoxy from so much ancient material. For example, they reprinted twelve times the theology of Joel 2:13, that God is loving, longsuffering and forgiving, above earlier revanchist warnings. Too many later preachers have instead quoted more primitive judgments away from the bible’s final edited context, creating a condemning God after their own image. Outside their deceptive fundamentalist company, such an angry “Old Testament God”—exactly what the bible’s own editors replaced—rightly arouses public disgust today.
Furthermore in the case of New Testament texts, Christian teachers are uniquely pressed to explain biblical evolution and its historical uncertainties. Our fifth century Council of Chalcedon agreed that Jesus was not merely inspired, like Paul or John or other biblical writers; Jesus speaks with God’s own voice. No other major religion allows any teacher such authority. Twentieth century historical critics may have alarmed some Christians by debating what words truly come from Jesus, and who authored other words attributed to him. But this scholarly work enables us to hear the bible better than most of our forebears could. While critical tools have reduced our secure catalog of Jesus’ words, at the same time they have made other biblical voices clear. We can hear, understand and weigh these too, much as we weigh the voices within Hebrew writings.
Today our scripture editions, sermons, hymns, and prayers must acquaint our congregations anew with inspired writings as we have come to understand them—and for more than apologetic purposes. As Roman Catholic scholar Ralph Kiefer said: “the Word of God is not the bible; the Word of God is what God says to the Church when the bible is read.” Our liturgical reading and reflection can invite people directly into the whole conversation that God has carried on with biblical peoples, and with the human race altogether. As always, this conversation belongs to God; Christian scholars and poets and preachers only seek fresh ways to open our people’s ears and voices until all can hear, and hearing, live.
This is part 1 of 5 in Rick Fabian's Core Values Series describing the theology behind All Saints Company, the founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church.