Fundamental to any genuine renewal of Christian life in our church and in ourselves must be a renewal in the essential Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, 'a trinity of virtues and a unity of grace,' whereby our souls are conformed to the life of God the Holy Trinity. These virtues are gifts of God by his Word and Holy Spirit for our salvation, and they are nurtured in our lives by our exercising of them. In our current situation there has been a significant erosion of faith, with a concomitant emptying of hope, and weakening of charity. Our faith must be renewed by a new attentiveness to God's Word revealed, and our hope and charity must be renewed by continual conforming of our wills to the will of God in the activity of prayer.
In all this we are supported by a rich tradition of wisdom and devotion, ancient and modern, ecumenical and Anglican. It is particularly important now that we should not fail in hope; if we remain steadfast, all our troubles and confusions will, in God's good providence, be a blessing to us, because they will be the means of refining and purifying ourfaith and hope and charity.
Early in the fifth century, perhaps in the year of our Lord 420, a young man by the name of Laurentius asked the great North African bishop, Saint Augustine, to provide him with a handbook, setting out the essentials of Christian faith and practice. We still have the bishop's response: a very substantial little book called Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope and Charity, in which St. Augustine works through the Pauline trilogy of Christian virtues (1 Cor., 13) in the form of meditations on the articles of the Apostles's Creed and the petitions of the Lord's Prayer, because, he says, 'Faith believes and hope and charity pray,' and 'these are the things which must be chiefly, nay solely, sought after in religion.'
Such a direct and simple statement of essentials strikes us, perhaps, as quite remarkable; and especially so if we recall to mind the very complex and troubled circumstances of the Christian church in St. Augustine's time. Christianity was by then the religion of the empire, but there was little comfort or security in that, for the empire was rapidly falling into ruin, vexed by corruptions within and invaders from without. Ten years before the Enchiridion was written, the city of Rome itself had been sacked by Alaric and his Gothic invaders; ten years after the Enchiridion, St. Augustine's own episcopal city of Hippo would be besieged by invading Vandals, while the aged bishop lay dying within the walls. 'The mind shudders', said St. Jerome, a contemporary of St. Augustine's, 'when dwelling upon the ruin of our day', but that shudder finds no echo in St. Augustine's statement of essentials. Just as there is no worldly aspiration there,'so there is no dismay at worldly ruin'.
The world was, indeed, in ruins, and the Christian church, within itself, was also painfully divided. The Arian heresy, which denied the truth of the Holy Trinity in an effort to conform to the most sophisticated thought of the age was still widely influential. New controversies about the humanity and divinity of Christ were in the making, and the Pelagian and Donatist controversies, which raised extremely difficult questions about the Christian moral life and the efficacy of divine grace, were in full spate in St. Augustine's own North African church. But although the saintly bishop was capable of trading hot polemical phrases with the best of them, in the Enchiridion he adopted and promoted what St. Paul, at the end of I Cor., 12, calls the 'still more excellent way' -- the way of the essential Christian virtues of faith and hope and charity. And, inasmuch as these virtues are not just a matter of hearing,' but also a matter of living, St. Augustine reminded Laurentius that "it will not suffice to place a small manual in one's hands; rather, it will be necessary to enkindle a great zeal in one's heart."
I have begun with this little historical digression, not because I wish to belabour the thought of parallels between the ruin of St. Augustine's time and the ruin of our own although I do think that there is scope for interesting and instructive comparisons in matters both intellectual and moral, and every current newspaper, perhaps especially every church newspaper seems designed to elicit mental shudders. But what I want to suggest, rather, is the importance, especially in such times of chaos and confusion, of concentrating our attention and focusing our energies positively upon the essential principles of Christian spiritual life, which that great doctor and apologist of the Elizabethan Settlement, Richard Hooker sketches so admirably when he speaks:
...concerning Faith, the principal object whereof is that eternal Verity which hath discovered the treasures of hidden wisdom in Christ; concerning Hope, the highest object whereof is that everlasting Goodness which in Christ doth quicken the dead; concerning Charity, the final object whereof is that incomprehensible Beauty which shineth in the countenance of Christ the Son of the Living God....'
In those great virtues, says St. Zeno of Verona, 'the foundations of the Christian life subsist', and St. Augustine with a bold image, remarks that the whole 'machinery' of the Sacred Books exists precisely for the up-building in our souls of that faith by which we believe what we do not yet see, and that hope and love whereby we look for, and long for, and reach out to embrace the very substance of the gracious promises of God. Taken together, these virtues represent the whole work of redeeming grace in our lives, God's presence and indwelling in our souls by his Word and Holy Spirit. Thus, the great Franciscan theologian, St. Bonaventure, basing his thought on St. Augustine's doctrine of the created image of the Holy Trinity in the threefold powers of memory, understanding and will within the unity of human personality, puts the matter in this way:
Just as in man's creation, the image of God was created in a trinity of powers with a unity of essence, so in man's recreation the image of God consists in a trinity of virtues with a unity of grace. Through these virtues, the soul is borne upward to the supreme Trinity in a way which corresponds to the attributes of the three Persons. Thus, faith, by believing and assenting, leads to the highest Truth; hope, by trust and expectation, leads to the loftiest Height; charity, by loving and desiring, leads to the highest Good'
A trinity of virtues, and a unity of grace: by faith our understanding is redeemed by the eternal Word revealed; by hope, our feeble will is fortified by the Holy Ghost, the Comforter; and by God's precious gift of charity, our whole being is united to that eternal Good which faith discovers and hope expects. A unity of grace: in their trinitarian pattern these three virtues which constitute the very substance of our spiritual life are interrelated inseparably. Where there is not faith, hope is empty; but where there is no hope, faith itself is dead. And where there is no faith discerning what we do not yet see, and no hope willing what we do not yet possess, there can be no bond of charity uniting us to God and to one another in him. William of St. Thierry, a great twelfth century spiritual teacher, commenting on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, makes the point succinctly: 'Faith inits progress is hope, and in its perfection is charity."
The Christian church in our time is sorely vexed, distressed by intellectual and moral confusions, and increasingly divided. The spirit of the age, the potentia saecularis -- the power of the unbelieving, unhoping, unloving world - seem to press insistently upon us. It is quite possible, of course, to exaggerate our current troubles, and while we are in the midst of them, it is difficult to see them in true perspective. Perhaps ours are neither the best nor the worst of times; and indeed, in the wisdom of God's eternal providence the times which seem to us the worst may be the best. After all, the road of salvation is journey through the wilderness; and, as Karl Barth remarks, 'faith which presses onward and leads to sight does not wait for sight in order that it may believe. It believes in the midst of tribulation and persecution." St. Paul makes that point emphatically in Romans 5, 3-5:
... we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
We know ourselves to be set in the midst of dangers; that recognition is, of course, the whole reason of such a conference as this. In the light of the word of God, we seek to make sense of our situation, and we try to understand what is God's will for us as individuals and as a church. If we do that earnestly and prayerfully, surely our very tribulations will be a blessing: our faith, so often pervaded with secular assumptions, will be purified of worldly conformities; our hope, frustrated by failed ambitions and disciplined by worldly defeats, will learn to look solely to the promises of God; and our charity, all worldly eros crucified, will find its rest in God.
Fundamental to any genuine renewal of Christian life in our church, and in ourselves, must be renewal in these essential virtues, in which the whole substance of our spiritual life consists. Our only real enemies are the infidelity which erodes our faith, and the temptation to despair, which would contradict our hope. Faith and hope are the basis (the preambula, says St. Thomas), and when they are destroyed, our charity also is uprooted and destroyed.  These virtues are gifts of grace in us, but it is our part to persevere in them and exercise them continually, for it is only thus that they will live and grow in us. A great seventeenth-century Puritan divine, John Owen, speaks with the voice of the whole tradition of Christian moral theology when he says:
Frequency of acts doth naturally increase and strengthen the habits whence they proceed. An in spiritual habits [e.g., faith, hope, love] it is so, moreover, by God's appointment .... They grow and thrive in and by their exercise ... the want thereof is the principal means of their decay.
Our exercise of faith is principally our attentiveness to the Word of God revealed, audible in the words of Holy Scripture and visible and tangible in Holy Sacraments; our exercise of hope is primarily our activity of prayer, which is, as St. Thomas Aquinas aptly says, 'interpretative of hope.' Our faith is nurtured and supported by centuries of devout and learned meditation on the Word of God, and our hope is supported by patterns of prayer certified by the holy lives of saints and martyrs and the faithful witness of humble men and women from one generation to another. All that is the gift of God the Holy Spirit; all that belongs to our heritage as Anglicans, and therein lie great resources for renewal.
Anglicans in particular possess in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, and its traditional lectionary, a superb system of spiritual direction, faithful to the Word of God revealed, and attentive to the profoundest human need. I think that nothing has been more destructive of spiritual life among us than the pernicious persuasion that this heritage, ancient, ecumenical and Anglican, is somehow outmoded and inappropriate in the present time. That persuasion, and the widespread destruction of theological and liturgical tradition which it implied have resulted in confusion, failure of confidence, and a weariness and lethargy which in the souls of many border on despair, that most dangerous of all sins. Our spiritual health depends crucially upon a recovery of hope.
In the Middle Ages, Christian artists sought to set before Christian people the essentials of Christian faith and life in a language of pictures, executed in glass, and wood, and stone, constituting a kind of Biblia pauperum - a Bible for the poor. Thus, for instance, on the facade of the vast and magnificent thirteenth-century cathedral of Amiens, just at the side of the central portal, beneath the great figures of Christ and his Apostles and Prophets, the artist has carved in medallions, in bas-relief, at eye-level, representations of the Christian virtues and their opposite vices. Leading the procession, of course, are Faith and Hope, and Charity, with their opposites: idolatry, despair and avarice. but let's look more closely at Hope. There she is, seated upon the rock of faith, because faith is hope's only solid ground. Her hand is outstretched towards heaven, from which we see descending the crown of righteousness. Beside her stands the golden banner, symbolic of Christ's resurrection, which is hope's unshakable assurance. In the series of the vices, hope's opposite is despair, represented by a woman all alone, piercing her breast with her own sword.
Our Christian hope is surely established in the promises of-God; our despair is all our own, and of our own making. But hope is no Pollyanna; Christian hope is always, and must always expect to be embattled in this world, tried and troubled, always reaching out towards a good not yet possessed. For St. Paul, the great paragon of hope is Abraham, who 'contrary to hope, believed in hope (Romans, 4:18-21); Abraham who saw in Isaac the fulfillment of God's promise that his seed would be blessed; Abraham then called to bring that son to the altar of sacrifice; Abraham torn between earth and heaven. Yet, 'contrary to hope, he believed in hope.' "That is to say" comments Henry Bullinger:
...there he had a constant hope, where notwithstanding he had nothing to hope after, if all things had been weighed according to the manner of this world. But hope is a most firm and undoubted looking after those things which we believe: so that we see that the apostle did make faith manifest by hope, and by the certainty of hope did declare the assured constancy of faith.
We know not the day nor the hour of hope's fulfillment; nor do we know the precise manner of it, nor the form it will take. We can only sow in hope; the harvest is God's business, and he will give the increase. 'But you must know', says Meister Eckhart, in his wonderfully paradoxical way, 'that God's friends are never without consolation, for whatever God wills is for them the greatest consolation of all, whether it be consolation or desolation.'
1. Augustine, Faith Hope and Charity, tr. L. Arand, 'Ancient Christian Writers', No. 3 (Westminster, MD., 1947). Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas followed precisely St. Augustine's example in designing his own Compendium of Theology, tr. C. Vollert (St. Louis, 1949).
2. Augustine, Enchiridion, U, 7.
3. Ibid., 1. 4.
4. Jerome, Epistle 60.
5. Enchiridion, 1, 6.
6. R. Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I,xi,6.
7. Zeno of Verona, Tractatus, 1, 36, De spe, fide et caritate, 1, 1.
8. Augustine, De trinitate, VM, 4, 6.
9. Bonaventure, Breviloauium, Pt. 5, c.4, n.4; cf. J.-G. Bougerol, La theologie de la esperance aux xiie et xiiie siecles (Paris, 1985), vol. I, p. 267; on the doctrine in Augustine, cf. R. Crouse, 'In multa defluximus: Confessions X, 2943, and St. Augustine's Theory of Personality', in H. Blumenthal and R. Markus, Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought (London, 1981), pp. 180-185.
10. William of St. Thierry, Exposition on the Epistle to the Romans, ed. J. Anderson (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1980), p. 85 (on Rom. 4:18-19).
11. The phrase comes from St. Thomas Aquinas, Super epist. s. Pauli lectura, II, ad Thess., c. 2, lect. 2, 49.
12. I have explored this theme, from Genesis to Dante, in Images of Pilprimage: Paradise and Wilderness in Christian Spirituality, (Charlottetown, 1986).
13. K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans. tr. E. Hoskins (London, 1933), p. 154.
14. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones de malo, Q. 2, a. 10, ad. 2.
15. As quoted in J. 1. Packer, A Quest for Godliness.The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Ill., 1990), p. 199.
16. On sacraments as the Word of God sensible, cf. Thomas Cranmer, On the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Lord's Supper, in Writinps and Disputations of Thomas Cranmer relative to the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, ed. J. E. Cox (Cambridge, Parker Society, 1844), Vol. 1, 41.
17. Summa theol. II, II, 17, 2, obj. 2; cf. II, II, 83, 1 ad 1.
18. See especially the papers by R. U. Smith, 'The Prayer Book and Devotional Life', and D.P. Curry, 'Doctrinal Instrument of Salvation: The Use of Scripture in the Prayer Book Lectionary', both in The Prayer Book (Theological Conference Report, St. Peter Publications, Charlottetown, 1985).
19. On despair (desperatio) as most dangerous, cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol., ii-ii, Q. 20, a. 3, resp.
20. Cf. E. Male, The Gothic Image. Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, tr. D. Nussey (New York, Harper Torchbook, 1958), pp. 112-115 (with illustrations).
21. H. Bullinger, Fifty Sermons Divided into Five Decades, Decade I, no. 4, ed. T. Harding (Cambridge, Parker Society, 1849), Vol. 1, p. 88.
22. Eckhart, Counsels on Discernment, 11, in E. Colledge and B. McGinn, eds., Meister Eckhart. The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense (New York, 1981), p. 259.
R.D. Crouse, 1996.
The Rev'd Dr. Robert Crouse, Retired Professor of Classics at the University of King's College and at Dalhousie University, Halifax Nova Scotia, is an Honourary Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Saskatchewan, and Honourary President of the Prayer Book Society of Canada, and a former member of the Canadian Anglican Primate's Theological Commission.
When first printed here on this webpage, it was intended to be the first of a series of articles written to explain the Prayer Book lectionary, the heart of the Prayer Book system, to our members and to the wider Church. Published in the PBSC Newsletter, #36, July 1996.
For more by Fr. Crouse, try:
- "Feed My Sheep"-- The Consecration of a Bishop
- Anglican Spirituality & the Book of Common Prayer
- Baptism, Confirmation & Holy Communion
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