THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION
Robert D. Crouse, 1986
NOTE: This article is part of a conference report of the Atlantic Theological Conference (Holy Living: Christian Morality Today, ed. G.R. Bridge), and available from St. Peter Publications.
The title of our paper- "The Ministry of Reconciliation" - seems to commit us to a consideration of the whole of Christian faith and practice, because reconciliation is the beginning, and the end, and the whole meaning of Christian life. In contemporary usage, no doubt, the phrase has rather more specific connotations, referring particularly to the way, or ways, in which the Christian Church deals with the matter of sin and forgiveness; indeed, "the ministry of reconciliation" is often just a synonym for "the sacrament of penance."
Those are legitimate connotations, certainly; and those are matters which demand our serious attention. But it is nevertheless necessary, I think, that we should set them aside for a bit, to begin with, and consider more broadly and fundamentally the whole meaning of reconciliation, because only so can we think of the more specific issues in the right theological perspective. For the ministry of reconciliation is not, in the first place, one of the Christian ministries; it is the whole of Christian ministry. It is the ministry of God, in Christ, making redemption and atonement, making friends of enemies, reconciling the world to himself. That broad perspective should be our starting point.
St. Paul gives us a precise statement of that perspective in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians (5:17-21):Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin: that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.As St. Paul represents it, the ministry of reconciliation is not principally something that we do, but something that God has done for us in Jesus Christ, establishing a new condition, a new status and starting point for us, accounting us no longer enemies and aliens, but friends of God, "heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ." As St. Paul makes evident, reconciliation is justification and atonement through the sacrifice of Christ. By the grace of God, all who are in Christ, by faith, are new creations, born anew, no longer enemies, but friends, and begin to live the new life of that divine and human friendship, which we call "charity."
In a fundamental sense, then, the ministry of reconciliation is finished. Our reconciliation has been accomplished, once for all; for Christ's sake, we are accounted friends of God, and if God accounts us so, so we are. We are reconciled, and we proclaim the word of reconciliation committed unto us: "we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." But, in another sense, our reconciliation is not complete, until our life of friendship, our life of charity, is finally fulfilled in the perfect knowledge and the perfect love of God; until, finally, "we shall know as we are known."
Friendship is not, after all, some static, finished thing, but a condition and a context in which we grow. To put that in more technical theological terms, we may say that justification, although something finished in itself, is also a beginning; it is the condition and the context of the growth we call "sanctification." Reconciliation includes them both - our beginning and our growth in friendship. And it includes, as well, that unity of spirit which is the aim and end of friendship; so reconciliation is, finally, the very life of heaven. Dante puts that beautifully in the "Paradiso," when Picarda explains how the very essence of that bliss is the unity of human wills in the will of God. And thus, the ministry of reconciliation is the whole of Christian ministry, from the beginning to the end.
It is in that perspective of divine and human friendship that we must consider the questions of Christian morality, and the problems of sin and forgiveness. Although law has an important place in Christian life, Christian morality is not essentially a morality of law. That is to say, the moral law, even the revealed law of God, does not reconcile us to God and to one another, nor is conformity to the law, as such, the basic motive of Christian moral life.
The law is, indeed, as St. Paul tells Us1 "holy and just and good." The law has that useful, schoolmasterly role of teaching us our distance, the measure of our alienation, from the righteousness of God. But the law itself can never reconcile us. If our friendship with God were to wait upon our fulfillment of the law, and our meriting of grace thereby, our position would be, quite simply, without hope. Our hope lies, rather, in the fact that God accounts us friends while we are sinners, and freely gives us grace to live the life of charity. That is the charter of our Christian liberty: not to be outside God's law, but to fulfill that law with love.
God, in Christ, has called us "friends," and thus, as St. Thomas puts it, we do the works of his commandments, not from servile fear, but from love. And that willing, free attachment to God's will is the motive force in Christian moral life. God's love is the heart of God's law, and only love will be the fulfilling of the law. "If ye love me," says Jesus, "keep my commandments." One of our collects makes the point succinctly, when we pray that we may love what God commands, and desire what he promises.
Thus, while sin may be understood materially as the breaking of God's law, more fundamentally it must be seen as a discord of will, a betrayal of God's friendship, a betrayal of his charity towards us. That is, of course, the sense of Dante's imagery of hell, when in the "Inferno," he represents the bottom of the pit not with coals of fire (which would suggest the warmth of passion), but with a frozen lake; and the frigid figures there are the figures of traitors, figures of those who betray the ties of love in human and divine community.
Christian morality is not essentially a morality of law; nor is it essentially a morality of those abstract ideal of virtue, personal and civic, so dear to pagan humanism in every age. The moral ideals of paganism are sometimes very elevated, and very fervently pursued. Without that elevation and that fervour1 there would be, after all, no such thing as tragedy in pagan literature; there would be no Odysseus, and no Aeneas. St. Paul, I think, makes that point in the first two chapters of the Epistle to the Romans, when he speaks of pagan knowledge of God's divinity and power, and speaks of the pagan conscience as analogous to the Jew's relation to the written law.
But St. Paul speaks also of the frustration and debasement of pagan spiritual ideals. A morality of ideals comes to the same impasse, essentially, as the morality of law: either the ideal is finite, something therefore infinitely less than the righteousness of God, or else it is forever unattainable. And if it is something finite and attainable, it is essentially fraudulent, for it promises a satisfaction which it cannot ever furnish. We are made for something more than that: as St. Augustine put it, God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in him. Without that end, without that final reconciliation, we are condemned to the bitter frustration which we call "hell." It is despair which is at the heart of that pagan "futility of mind," of which St. Paul speaks, and from that root issues, with inexorable logic, the degradation which he describes. It's not just simple "bloody-mindedness."
The impasse of pagan idealism is eloquently expressed in the tragic poets and philosophers, and in the various religious movements, of ancient pagan culture. Their universal testimony is simply this: the gulf between the pure and perfect good, which is divine, and the realities of finite human life, is eternally unbridgeable, and man is condemned to endless cycles of aspiration and defeat. Gnothi seauton - "know thyself"- said the oracle at Delphi: know that you are a man, and not divine. That is the lesson which the tragic hero learns through suffering. The divine good, says Aristotle, is a life too high for man, although, at the same time, it is the only adequate end of human longing, and man's only final happiness.15 Thus, man is condemned to aspiration. As Keats would put it,Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,There is no reconciliation there. Perhaps it seems merely pitiful to hear Sallustius, one of the last great apologists of pagan idealism, in the time of Julian the Apostate, speak of mediation by means of animal sacrifices; but the tragic dimension is evident in the spectacle of the great Platonic philosophers, such as Iamblichus and Proclus, grasping at chimeras of magic and theurgic practices, in the desperate quest for mediation.
Though winning near the goal.
St. Augustine, recalling his own ascent to, and falling back from, the summit of Neoplatonic contemplation of Good, on the eve of his conversion, sums it all up superbly, when he says, at the end of Book VII of the Confessions:It is one thing to descry the land of peace from a wooded hilltop and, unable to find a way to it, struggle on through trackless wastes. . . . It is another thing to follow the high road to that land of peace, the way that is defended by the care of the heavenly commander.In modern times, pagan moralism lives, in parasitical relation, upon a certain moral capital inherited from Christianity; but the despair is there, often lust below the surface, because the spirit is not in it. And, lest you suppose that I've been squandering precious time on issues irrelevantly ancient, I'll update the picture with just one of countless modern witnesses; the poignant testimony of Franz Kafka: "There is a goal, but no way; what we call way is only wavering." The temptation is to multiply modern witnesses, but that one sentence really says it all.
Christian morality is neither a morality of Judaic legalism, nor a pagan or secular morality of abstract ideals, though Christian moralists, and perhaps even we ourselves, are often infected by such standpoints. Christian morality isa morality of reconciliation through the divinely-given mediation ofthe God-Man, Jesus Christ. That is to say, it is a morality of divine friendship, a morality of charity, which bridges the otherwise impassable gulf between the pure and perfect good and the realities of human life in this world. That is the morality defended, historically, again and again, by Christian orthodoxy, against ancient and ever-modern heresies, such as Arianism and the Christological heresies, which are all (inasmuch as they bear upon the issue of mediation) essentially relapses into Jewish legalism or pagan idealism. It does not help our understanding of these matters, that we seem to have forgotten the practical, moral significance of those heresies.
If the tragedy of ancient pagan, and modern secular morality lies in the discovery that "there is a goal, but no way," and that we must therefore endeavour to conteht ourselveswith what cannot content us, the tragedy of Christian morality is that there is a way of mediation, and we do not recognise or take it. We, with Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, do not dare disturb the universe: "No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." Our tragedy is the betrayal of our calling.
Sin is not just the breaking of God's law, though it certainly involves that; sin is not just a failure to realise the highest ideals of human aspiration, although it certainly includes that too; sin is, more profoundly, the betrayal of a trust, freely given and received, the betrayal of the charity of God, who, by virtue of the Cross of Christ, accounts us as friends. It is that deeper dimension of sin, as breaking the bond of charity, which must distance an authentic Christian morality from both Pharisaic legalism and the drab and dreary moralism or pagan secularity. And it is that more profound perspective which should inform our approach to the practice of penitence, as an aspect of the ministry of reconciliation.
We are sometimes told nowadays (with singular naivete, it seems to me) that Christianity has been too penitential in its character, and that our Anglican tradition suffers from a morbid preoccupation with that theme, especially evident in our liturgy, as yet imperfectly emerged from gothic gloom. We are advised that we ought to overcome that grim and negative fixation, and emphasise, instead, the more positive celebration of the freedom and dignity of Christian men. Penitential grovelling, cringing on our knees, is thought an inappropriate posture for the redeemed community.(I'm reminded of a comment I once overheard at an exhibition of Rouault's paintings, when a disgruntled patron remarked, "I don't know why we can't have a pleasant crucifixion.")
No doubt such a view has a certain superficial winsomeness. Wouldn't you rather celebrate than grovel? And surely, instead of unwholesome brooding over sins, which, after all, are past, we ought to be infusing one another with positive enthusiasm for future good in a brighter and braver world -- perhaps something along the lines of transactional analysis: "You're OK, I'm OK." "O turn away mine eyes," cries the Psalmist, "lest they behold vanity."
At any rate, before we jettison the sackcloth to don the cheerful plumage of more affirmative religion, we ought perhaps to think just a bit about the meaning of our traditional practice. That brings us, at last, to the subtitle of our paper: "Anglican Approaches." But you needn't be alarmed at the prospect of a whole new paper. What I have to say on that score will be hardly more than an extended footnote to what I've said on the general subject of the ministry of reconciliation.
There is no time here to recount the details of the history of Christian penitential practice, but simply to observe that the most striking aspect of the Anglican reforms in this regard was a thorough integration of penitence into the structure and pattern of common prayer. For several centuries prior to the Reformation, penitential practice had been almost exclusively a matter of private confession and absolution, outside the context of the public liturgy. Not only did the Reformers provide a penitential introduction to the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer (for which there was, indeed, some monastic precedent), but made confession and absolution essential elements within the structure of the eucharistic liturgy.
That was a reform of immense importance, because it involved the explicit recognition, liturgically, of the character of sin as the betrayal of that divine charity which we celebrate in the memorial of our Saviours sacrifice, and emphasised the point that the benevolence of that sacrifice is the ground of absolution. Those were not new thoughts, of course - they are as old as Christianity, and certainly not forgotten by medieval theologians - but there was a new and salutary emphasis in the practice. The logic of it is exactly the logic of Christian prayer, of which the Lord's Prayer is the paradigm: that is to say, the recognition of the paternal charity of God, and our faithful attachment to his will and kingdom, must be the context in which our penitence makes sense. If that context becomes unclear, the sense of it becomes muddled, and we fall readily into legalism or moralism.
Thus, for Anglicans, the ministry of reconciliation finds its focus in the Church's public worship, and the practice of private confession and absolution, or the sacrament of penance, becomes supplementary, rather than the general rule. The Anglican Reformers by no means abolished the practice; indeed, the Prayer Book "Exhortations" (p.91) recommend it for the quieting of conscience, "by the means of God's holy word," and as an opportunity for "spiritual counsel and advice." I think there can be no doubt that Anglican practice, while avoiding the dangers of a too routine and mechanical approach to confession and absolution, has been generally too lax in this regard, and that a livelier spirituality in the Church would imply a fuller use of this means of grace, and more ready accessibility to it. The element of spiritual direction involved in "spiritual counsel and advice" would also imply clergy well-trained in moral and ascetical theology. But then, that, surely, is implied in the pastoral office generally.
The moral problems and dilemmas of contemporary Christianity have no easy answers. Certainly, they will not be eased - even psychologically - by a reduction of penitential emphasis; the malaise remains, and is all the worse when not articulated. One may say, with Lady Macbeth:Consider it not so deeplyBut neither that advice, nor "all great Neptune's ocean” will wash out the horrid spot. Reducing penitential emphasis is no solution; rather, we must grow into our penitential emphasis, and understand freshly what it means.
You do unbend your noble strength, to think
So brainsickly of things.
Certainly, we can all point to, and bewail the consequences of, moral decay in our society, for individuals and for institutions, but it is not such circumstances that justify our penitential practice. While attrition, fear of consequences, is better than complacency, an authentic Christian sense of sin arises not from alarm about such consequences, empirically discerned; but only in proportion to our consciousness of the holiness and benevolence of God towards us, and recognition of our betrayals of his charity. We grow in penitence only as we grow in adoration. That is a fundamental principle of spiritual life, and that principle should govern the liturgical and pastoral practice of the Church.
Christians have no magic or theurgic spells to solve the moral problems of our age -problems individual and social - which violently impinge upon our consciousness each passing day, as waves which break over our heads and threaten to submerge us. We have no magic, no theurgic spells; but we do possess the word of reconciliation, committed unto us. We do possess, by faith, God's work for us, God's word to us, made audible to us in Holy Scripture, made sensible to us in Holy Sacraments, if we attend with minds and hearts obedient and penitent. We do possess, if we will, in the community of faith, centuries of wisdom and experience - none of it irrelevant - words and images of sanctity, which come alive for us, if we give them (as to the shades in Homers underworld) our own blood to drink.
We do possess, in faith, an inner space of reconciliation, the knowledge of our justification; an inner space of peace and clarity, in which the Spirit teaches us the patience to look upon our trials sub specie aeternitatis - in the perspective of eternity. As Eliot put it, wehear upon the sodden floorWe do possess, in faith, a vision of the pure and perfect good, which is no mere vision, but our home; a vision in which all the scattered leaves of hopes and prophecies are bound together, as Dante says, into one volume, in the charity of God  -that charity which is already ours, through the Spirit given unto us.
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.
We have many problems, to be sure; but only one of them is really fundamental: that is the demoralising of the Christian mind and heart, when we fall victim to what we call, following the King James version of St. John, "the pride of life," and what St. Augustine, following the Latin Bible, calls ambitio saeculi - "the ambition of the present age." Secular ideals, secular moods, methods and measures, insidiously invade our consciousness, and pollute the very springs of Christian moral life with confusion and anxiety. That is, I think, our one basic moral problem: we lose direction, and we lose heart; we become demoralised, and stand on the border of despair.
The only remedy - and we must trust it - lies in the steady cultivation of faith and hope and charity; holding on to the truth of God in word and sacrament: holding on to the centuries of Christian wisdom and sanctity: holding on to that inner space of peace in which the Spirit guides us; holding on to our vision of that pure and perfect good which is our one and only home; in short, holding fast in the spiritual life, the practical upbuilding of the way of penitential adoration. One text will really sum it up:"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." 
1. Romans, 8:17
2. Cf. the comment of St. Thomas: "Creatio enim est motus ex nihilo ad esse. Est autem duplex esse, scilicet esse naturae et esse gratiae . . . . Oportet ergo esse novam creationem, per quam producerentur in esse gratiae, quae quidem creatio est ex nihilo, quia qui gratia carent, nihil sunt." (Super epistolas S. Pauli lectura, II ad Cor., IV, 192; Marietti edition, p.482).
3. The basic meaning of St. Paul's Greek word for "reconciliation" (katallage) is "changing enemies into friends." According to Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, VIII and IX), friendship (philia), with its three moments of benevolence, beneficence, and concord, is the complete form of moral life, individual and social, but cannot include friendship with God, with is impossible (VIII, 7,1 159a), because there can be neither equality, nor any proportionality. According to S. Thomas, the Gospel elevates and transforms friendship. What man could not expect is granted by the benevolence of God in Christ, justifying man, endowing him with the beneficium of grace, establishing concordia between earth and heaven. This divinely given friendship is charity: "Unde manifestum est quod caritas amicitia quaedam est hominis ad deum" (S. Th., 11,11, Q. 23,1, resp.). It is this doctrine which underlies St. Thomas' exposition of our text from II Corinthians (Super epistolas S. Pauli lectura, II ad Cor., IV - note the terms beneficium and concordia). This is also the doctrine which informs the argument of Dante, in the transition from the "Purgatorio" to the "Paradiso." Dante's mysterious word, "Eunoe," is simply his adaptation of the Aristotelian eunoia = Thomas' benevolentia.
4. On the working out of the relationship between justification and sanctification in Anglican theology (Cranmer, Jewel, Hooker), see Richard U. Smith, "The Prayer Book and Devotional Life," in The Prayer Book (Theological Conference Report, Charlottetown, 1985), esp. pp.14-18. For a strong Tractarian statement of the same principles, see E.B. Pusey, Justification (1853); excerpts in O. Chadwick, The Mind of the Oxford Movement (Stanford, California, 1960), pp.110-116.
5. Dante, Divina Commedia, "Paradiso," III, 79-81.
6. Romans, 7:12.
7. St. Thomas Aquinas, Contra gentes, IV, 22.
8. St. John, 14:15.
9. The Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Easter IV.
10. Romans, 1.19-20.
11. Romans, 2:14-15.
12. Romans, 1:21-25.
13. Confessions, I, 1: "fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te."
14. The logic of that degradation is precisely explicated by Dante in the descending circles of the "Inferno," from despair, through carelessness and violence, to malicious fraud, ending in the ultimate betrayal of the good.
15 Cf. especially Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, X. Typical of much modern comment is that of G.L. Prestige (Fathers and Heretics, London, 1940, pp.38-39): "The classical Greek philosophers . . . were content to neglect the cry of the heart for conversion. . . . Aristotle in particular enjoyed a self-confident hope in the sanity of this present life, and displayed a rather complacent faith in the unaided power of human effort." But Aristotle's conclusions (note 3, above) are essentially tragic rather than complacent. Dante understands this point, and represents it by his placing of Aristotle, "il maestro di color che sanno," with other noble pagans, in Limbo ("Inferno," IV, 131). On ancient Greek religious aspiration, see A.J. Festugiere, Personal Religion among the Greeks (Berkely and Los Angeles, 1960).
16. John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (The Poetical Works of John Keats, ed. H.W. Garrod, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1958, p.261); the poet refers to the painted figures, forever fixed in a posture of approach.
17 Cf. Sallustius, On the Gods and the World, XVI (tr. Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion, 2nd ed., London, 1935, pp.219-20). For Iamblichus' defense of theurgy, see On the Mysteries, 11,4 (tr F.C. Grant, Hellenistic Religions, New York, 1953, pp.176-77).
18. Confessions, VII, 21 (tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin edition, 1961, p.156).
19. Franz Kafka, The Great Wall of China, (tr. Willa and Edwin Muir, (London, 1946), p. 145. Cf. Erich Heller's essay, "The World of Franz Kafka," in The Disinherited Mind (Penguin edition, 1961), pp.175-202.
20. T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," in Collected Poems 1909 - 1935 (London, 1936), p.15. Cf. Dante, Divina Commedia, "Inferno," II, pp.31-32:Ma io perche venirvi? O chi il concede?21. Cf. The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada (Toronto, 1985), p.181: "This (penitential) element was introduced into the first Prayer Book as an element of medieval piety."
Io non Enea, io non Paolo sono.
22. Psalm 119:37. It is sometimes seriously suggested that the current proposals for liturgy represent a fruition of Tractarian ideals; but consider the standpoint of Pusey: "The outward emblems, bread and wine,. . are emblems of nothing but His humiliation, forms of earth, such as He took. They tell us that He, Very God, took upon him a form of earth and that that form was broken; their very breaking speaks His greater humiliation, and that to receive a humble Saviour, we must also be humbled; that we must not look to gain Him for ourselves, but bow ourselves to the earth, and pray Him to have pity upon and give life to our dust." (Parochial Sermons, III, p.353; Chadwick, op. cit, p.196.)
23. As D.M. Baillie observes, "memory of failure, instead of becoming a wholesome sense of sin which can lead to forgiveness, is unconsciously repressed until it becomes a morbid complex, with paralysing effects" (God was in Christ, London, 1948, p.166).
24. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II, Scene III.
25. On the sacraments as God's word made sensible, see Writings and Disputations of Thomas Cranmer relative to the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, ed. J.E. Cox, (Parker Society, Cambridge, 1844), p.41; cf. Roger Beckwith, "The Prayer Book and Evangelical Doctrine," in The Prayer Book (Theological Conference Report, Charlottetown, 1985), pp.78-79.
26. T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton," II, in Four Quartets (London, 1944), p.9.
27. Dante, Divina Commedia, "Paradiso," XXXIII, 85-87:Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna28. Romans, 5:5.
legato con amore in un volume
cio che per l'universo si squaderna.
29. I John, 2:16.
30. St. Augustine, Confessions, X, 30. Cf. R.D. Crouse, "'In multa defluximus': Confessions, X, 29-43, and St. Augustine's Theory of Personality," in H.J. Blumenthal and R.A. Markus, ed., Neoplatonism and Early Christian Thought (London, 1981), pp. 180-85.
31. St. Luke, 12:34.