The Fire of the Word by the Anglican Priest, Rev. Chris Webb
I recently read The Fire of the Word: Meeting God on Holy Ground, by the Anglican priest, Rev. Chris Webb (published in 2011 by InterVarsity Press, Illinois). What a fantastic book! In speaking about it he says, “I wrote The Fire of the Word to help you fall in love with the Bible again, to give you a fresh perspective on this beautiful book.” And he was successful. His book will be of great assistance for those who regularly read the Scripture and will be a great remedy for those who have left the leatherbound love letters of God in some corner to gather dust.
In one section of his book Rev. Webb offers some surprising insights about Bl. John Duns Scotus and the absolute primacy of Christ as key to encountering Christ in the whole of Scriptures – from Genesis to the Apocalypse. However, before I launch into this, let me take a moment to underscore a fundamental point which Rev. Webb makes about reading the Bible. He makes a distinction, one which I had always insisted upon in my 7 years as the Director of Postulants and continue to insist upon as a superior, spiritual director and preacher: namely, that “Bible study” and praying the Bible are not the same thing. We can study Sacred Scripture and all of theology for information (as “theorists,” as Webb puts it), but we should primarily approach the Sacred Page for transformation (as “lovers”). Why? Because these are God’s love letters to us… personally. Our informational reading can and should lead us to a personal, transformational encounter with the living God Himself. Our head knowledge must be geared towards the union of the heart with Him, what St. John of the Cross would call the “transforming union” of our souls with Jesus the Beloved. After all, doesn’t St. Paul himself write in this fashion? “For I betrothed you to one Spouse, that I might present you a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2); and again, “He who cleaves to the Lord is one spirit with Him” (1 Cor 6:17).
This insight should also apply to our study and reflection upon the absolute primacy of Jesus; namely, grasping the primary position of Christ in God’s creative design as the “chief cornerstone” (Eph 2:20) should lead us to encountering Him as the “Alpha and Omega” (Apoc 21:6) of our own personal lives. We should study and contemplate the mystery of Christ in order to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you were called” (Eph 4:1); in a word, theology for the sake of sanctification.
The vantage point for reading Sacred Scripture
Rev. Webb points out that in our human experience we are often blind to what is really going on because we lack the right perspective for understanding it. That perspective is what makes it possible to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together in a coherent fashion. Consider his example:
This also happens every time we read a detective story or a mystery novel. At first we are confronted with a seemingly unfathomable sequence of events: some violent crime, perhaps, or a spectacular theft. A diverse collection of characters are caught up in the orbit of these events, each with their own pecularities and problems. We know, as we read, that at least one of these people is involved in this crime–perhaps some shocking murder–but which one? And how? As their tangled tales begin to unravel we find ourselves suspecting first one person, then another; in a well-written novel (rather unlike real life) we may eventually find that almost everyone has had the motive and opportunity to commit the murder, and the complexity is overwhelming. But the great detective, of course, is not as nonplussed as we are. Just when everything seems insoluble a revelation strikes as some vital clue is uncovered. The final scene is set and in a dramatic denouement the detective unmasks the villain, showing how the trail of evidence leads uniquely to him or her, while explaining all the red herrings and blind alleys. And we, hopefully, close the book with a feeling of rich satisfaction, nodding sagely as we way to ourselves, “Of course–it all makes sense!”
Now imagine going back to the book for a second time. Returning to the first page, we already know how the entire story will unfold. When we first meet the murderer, we know he is the murderer. At the first mention of a vital clue, we already know its significance. Hints are dropped about dark secrets–but we already know what those secrets are. For us, the whole book has changed. The story still unwinds along the same course; the detective still reaches the same conclusions. But our reading is so different. Events and remarks we hadn’t noticed the first time take on a fresh significance. Characters emerge in a new light. We have been given an oracular knowledge: we still may not understand everything, but we have seen enough of the way this story unfolds to grasp it more fully than those who participate in it. We see what the detective and the other characters cannot see, what even a first reader of the text cannot see. We have the key.
What if we could read Scripture in this way? This was the beguiling idea which enchanted the minds of some of the greatest thinkers, writers and biblical scholars in the history of the church. And no one articulated the ideas that lay at the heart of their thinking more compellingly than a young Scottish priest named John Duns Scotus. (pp.127-129)
You have to admit, Rev. Webb sure has a gripping way of driving the point home! And the point is this: If we have the key to the entire history of the universe, if we know the “mystery which has been hidden for eternity in God” (Eph 3:9; cfr. Col 1:26; Rm 16:25; 1 Cor 2:7; Eph 1:9; etc.), then we can see all of creation and all of its history from a new, more accurate perspective. And this is precisely what the doctrine of the absolute primacy of Christ does for us. It gives us the key to open up and penetrate the whole of the Bible, the whole of salvation history, the whole of creation, the whole of our life. For those who are not familiar with this doctrine, it might well be “a Copernican revolution,” to use the phrase of Dr. Mark Miravalle, which radically changes our perspective. It may become the secret to unraveling the ultimate “detective story” of divine revelation and give us an entirely new angle on salvation history, from Adam to the Parousia, from creation to its consummation. The absolute primacy of Jesus is the vantage point for reading Sacred Scripture.
The Subtle Doctor
After describing the unique historical context of Bl. John Duns Scotus’ arrival at Oxford University, Rev. Webb writes:
Even in this rarified atmosphere, John quickly established himself as one of the most brilliant minds of his generation. Probably only in his early thirties when he began giving lectures–maybe even his late twenties–he showed a precocious genius for philosophical analysis. His ability to work with the most obscure and abstract concepts, to draw keen distinctions and to develop a wide-ranging web of ideas into a complex but coherent philosophy later earned him the nickname Doctor Subtilis, the “subtle doctor”–a name not always applied in a complimentary fashion. John could be so hard to follow, some of his later critics convinced themselves that his apparently impenetrable writing was simply a smokescreen covering the mundane thinking of a mediocre mind. But history judged them to be wrong. John Duns Scotus is now celebrated as one of the most fascinating, if difficult, of all medieval thinkers. (pp.129-130)
It is important to consider Bl. John in this light, and not be misdirected by the derogatory use of his name in punishing misbehaving or less intelligent students as the “dunce,” or the unfounded accusation that he is the “father of Voluntarism,” an error which the Blessed would abhor outright. Pope Benedict XVI has held up the life and teaching of Bl. John Duns Scotus as vital and important for the entire Church (see his Wednesday Audience text of July 7, 2010 and even the video in English).
What was the primary motive of the Incarnation?
Rev. Webb goes on to examine Scotus’ treatment of why “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). He writes:
Among the contemporary theological questions that fascinated John was this: Why did Christ become a human being? (That’s a question which may not seem to have much to do with reading and interpreting the Bible–but, as we shall see, the implications of John’s response cut right to the heart of the way we approach Scripture.) Thirteen hundred years before John began teaching, a Jewish child had been born in the most humble of circumstances in the back streets of Bethlehem, itself an insignificant town in a minor Roman province. For centuries the Christian Church had taught that this child was God incarnate, the immeasurable deity responsible for all creation somehow compressed into a tiny human form. What could possible have motivated God to take such an extraordinary step: to allow himself to become so vulnerable, so limited, so small? Of all the ways God could have chosen to interact with humanity, why this one? (p.130)
The author briefly describes the “textbook answer” of St. Anselm: man offended the infinite majesty of God; therefore, to redeem man’s infinite affront it was necessary that there be a God-Man. “In short, Anselm said, Jesus came on a rescue mission to save the lost” (p.131).
He then continues:
But John profoundly disagreed. Not with every part of Anselm’s thinking: he didn’t take issue with the idea that Jesus’ sacrificial death on Calvary brough salvation for humanity. But he did question Anselm’s ideas about what motivated God to become human in the first place. How is it possible, John asked, that the most wonderful event in human history–when God stepped into the material cosmos in physical form, sharing our life with us, revealing himself to us as never before, coming into close communion with ordinary people in a way they could never have imagined–how could this magnificent intervention into history have been prompted solely by the most appalling and degrading human truth: our utter sinfulness? How could the greatest good be caused by the greatest evil? To believe that Jesus came and saved sinners is a central Christian doctrine, John said. But to believe that he came only because we had sinned is monstrous. It suggests that we somehow forced God’s hand, cornering him by our depravity into his single most beautiful expression of love…
John looked at the entire universe and the great sweep of history across the millennia, and began with a simple assumption: this is all about Christ.
All creation was made for Christ, John taught, echoing an idea we already find in Paul’s earliest letters: “in [Christ] all things in heaven and earth were created… all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1:16) (p.131-132)
“There was always going to be an Incarnation”
After citing the poetic, biblical expression of this truth in Proverbs 8:27-31, Rev. Webb wraps up his synopsis, saying:
And from the beginning, John asserted, it was God’s intention that Christ should take human form, living among those in whom he so delighted and participating directly in the created order…
But there is an important implication in all of this: there was always going to be an incarnation. Human sin changed the nature of that divine participation: certainly without the Fall there would have been no need for the brutal events of Good Friday. But our brokenness did not provoke Bethlehem. Sin is not the fundamental fact of the universe, the primal reality of our existence. Christ is the foundation, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The cosmos is shaped around Jesus. We are made in his image. He is the determining force behind all reality, all history, our entire human experience. And he is the goal, the destination, the endpoint toward which all history tends. In short, said John, Jesus is everything. (pp.132-133)
Indeed “our brokenness did not provoke Bethlehem,” but it did cause Calvary. In other words, the Incarnation was willed by God quite apart from any consideration from sin; whereas the Redemption was willed as the foreseen remedy to sin. After reading Rev. Webb’s clear and inspired explanation, I would invite you to read Scotus’ own words in his Opus Parisiense (or Reportatio Parisiensis). “Be not afraid!” His writings on the absolute primacy of Christ are not as difficult as, for example, his concepts of haecceitas or the formal distinction.
Let me conclude with a quote from Fr. Frederick Faber from his classic book Bethlehem:
What then was the first aspect of creation in the divine mind, if we may use the word “first”, of that which was eternal? There may at least be a priority of order, even though there be no priority of time. There is precedence in decrees, even where there is not succession. The first aspect of creation, as it lay in the mind of God, was a created nature assumed to his own uncreated nature in a Divine Person. In other words, the first sight in creation was the Babe of Bethlehem. The first step outside of God, the first standing-point in creation, is the created nature assumed to a Divine Person. Through this, as it were, lay the passage from the Creator to creatures. This was the point of union, the junction between the finite and the Infinite, the creature blending unconfusedly with the Creator. This first-born creature, this Sacred Humanity, was not only the primal creature, but it was also the cause of all other creatures whatsoever. … Its predestination is the fountain of all other predestinations. The whole meaning of creation, equally with the destinies of each individual creature, is bound up with this created Nature assumed to a Divine Person. (Philadelphia: The Peter Reilly Co., 1957; pp.26-27)
Blessings to you and your loved ones!
fr maximilian mary dean, F.I.