Ordination, Pneumatology and Ontology, Part 1

by Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources, Discipleship Ministries
Convener, The Ordinal Task Force, and Editor of the Ordinal for The United Methodist Church

Big, big words.

Especially the second, one, "pneumatology," right? I mean, unless you're into systematic theology, when's the last time you ever used that term? And unless you're a philosopher, theologian, organizational theorist or liturgy geek, when's the last time you ever used the word "ontology?" And when you used either one, did anyone else in the room understand what you were talking about? Did you, really?

And to put ordination and pneumatology and ontology into the same phrase-- isn't that what Roman Catholics and Orthodox would do? Why in the world would a Protestant, much less a United Methodist, try to do that?

Well, let me tell you why this United Methodist does that.

It's all about the middle term-- pneumatology-- the study of the work of the Holy Spirit-- and how that informs what I think is a biblical ontology, as opposed to a Greek philosophical ontology, that does begin to enable even United Methodists to make ontological claims, and not just functional claims, about the nature of the Christian life and of the church, and consequently about what is at stake in ordination.

And, by the way, all of this is already present in our current ritual of ordination, and pretty much has been since we inherited its underlying form and function from the Church of England via John  Wesley and the actions of the 1784 Christmas Conference.

We'll get to all of that later in the series.

But right now I want to get actually to the third term-- ontology.

Why "Ontology" Weirds Us Protestants Out

Ontology, the study of being, weirds out Protestants in large part because pretty much all of our roots as Protestants (including our Anglican heritage) has been about separating ourselves from what we perceived to be an over-commitment to Greek philosophy in the theology and practices of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Now let me say this. We were not wrong. Rome really had wedded itself to Plato and Aristotle at that time, and ended up doing that even more explicitly and profoundly in some of the final documents and decisions issued by the Council of Trent (mid-16th century). Transubstantiation was one of those. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans and Anabaptists alike cried foul on making this a doctrinal necessity precisely because the very structure of the argument was utterly Aristotelian (with, as we shall see, a Heraclitan and Platonic background), and nowhere to be found in scripture. Anglicans, and Methodists (who adopted much of the Anglican Articles of Religion) went so far as to say, "Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions" ("Of The Lord's Supper," Anglican Article 28, Methodist Article 18). \

The heart of the objection to transubstantiation is ontological. The claim in the Roman Catholic doctrine was that the substance, the very being (hence, ontology!) of the bread and wine was changed in or by the celebration of this ritual. Since our Anglican and Methodist forebears could find no support for this idea in scripture, they threw out that claim wholesale.

The problem is they thereby, though perhaps unintentionally, tended to throw out any and all ontological claims the church could make about itself, if not as a matter of official policy, at least as a matter of "guilt by association." The association was something like this: Rome is bad for insisting on a Greek philosophical grounding of core doctrine. And the kind of Greek philosophical argument used in transubstantiation is an ontological one. Therefore it's all bad-- Rome, Greek philosophy, transubstantiation, and, with it, ontology.

What I'd like to posit is that the Bible actually has very robust and rich ontological traditions that aren't Greek, and that actually could and (I will suggest in this series) should inform our conversations about sacraments, ecclesiology, and especially within the latter, ordination. In other words, rather than taking simply a "we don't talk about ontology and ordination in the same sentence except to deny any connection between them," what I want to take on in this series is how a recovery of biblical images of being/Being may not only enable us to talk ontologically about these things again, but indeed to re-invest them with far richer theological imagination.

But to get there, I recognize it's probably important to start with the foundations of the Greek tradition we're (rightly!) weirded out about.

Heraclitus, Plato, and Anxiety about Ephemerality

I wish to start by making a claim I expect to be challenged on a bit by lovers of the Greek tradition, but I will make it anyway. At the heart of the Greek philosophical tradition lies a persistent and deeply rooted anxiety about ephemerality.

Perhaps the most-quoted line from the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus is "Twice into the same river one cannot step." In asserting this, Heraclitus was not simply talking about rivers and the fact they were constantly changing. He was really talking about the nature of reality itself. He was saying there was in fact no constancy, no stability, not even an illusory stability in anything we can see or experience in the material world. And for him, this was a huge problem, the most dreadful sort of problem. Because without stability, there could be no real order, and without order, we were left to nothing but chaos.

This is certainly an anxiety-producing conclusion, if the the material reality, as we observe it, were all that existed. But, he says, since we also observe some kind of order in this constantly changing material world, that implies there must be some ordering principle, some Reason that gives coherence to all of this. And that Reason he called Logos (in Greek, logos can mean word or reason). Still, since the material world is only and always flux, despite the presence of the Logos, we cannot rely on the material world for true knowledge (i.e., knowledge of that which actually enables life and civilization) unless we know the Logos. If we know the Logos, we have true and worthy knowledge available to us. Even if we do not know the Logos, though, it remains the case that the Logos is what gives us an "indelible character" and establishes our fate as material beings in an ever-changing material existence.

Already in this account of Heraclitus's philosophy, we see the framing of the terms and some of the language that will subsequently inform the ontology of Plato and through him Aristotle and much of the rest of the classic philosophical Western tradition. We see already here the outlines of an ontology grounded in what Plato and Aristotle will call "substance" or "essence" (Being) as the source of the Ideal (Plato) or Real (Aristotle), an ontology in which materiality and changeability are marginalized as shadow (Plato, Parable of the Cave) or "accident" (Aristotle). The only thing that matters is what matters eternally, and the only thing that is eternal is Logos or Being itself.

Nephesh Hayah and the Delight of God

Biblical ontology starts in a very different place. There is no anxiety at all about ephemerality. Rather, there is delight in it! In the creation narrative of Genesis 1, God keeps calling these "living beings" (nephesh hayah) into existence, and saying about them, "This is good!' This word "living" (nephesh) both in Hebrew usage and especially in the context given in the first creation story is precisely focused on what keeps moving around, squirming, teeming, changing. And God keeps saying about all of this, "This is good!"

Finally, at the creation of human beings, among a number of other forms of "nephesh hayah," at the end, when all is created, God's affirmation of all of this, including all of this intrinsically material and changeable stuff, is "This is very good!" (tov meod!) All of it. Everything. Every thing. Every nephesh hayah, including but not limited to humans, and everything else, too. And humans, given the image of God whether male or female, they were included.

So what is the image of God? What can we learn about it in Genesis 1? What does God look like that could be passed on to us? We never see the Creator who speaks, but we do see the Spirit of the Creator from the very beginning. And what is the Spirit doing? Moving-- hovering-- ever-flowing over the face of the ever-moving, ever-stirring, ever-changing waters. So if we are to infer anything about the meaning of imago Dei from the story in which it occurs, what we must infer is that God is known precisely in change and creative interaction. Change, ephemerality, is not a bug-- but perhaps one of the most prominent features of God and creation, and perhaps the feature that gives it so much of its exceeding goodness.

Biblical ontology then, this notion of living being that bears the image of Being (God), is thus as far from anxiety and as close to delight in movement, variety, flux, change and the variations of matter and flesh as it can possibly be. Our very life from God's breath-- Spirit ever-moving over the ever-moving waters-- even our contingency-- all delight!

Next: Incarnation and the Outpouring of the Spirit