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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Pithy Theology

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

Professors tend to be long-winded.

(I'll give you a moment to collect yourself after absorbing that shocking news.)

I can't think of another profession in which someone as a matter of common practice gets to speak for a solid hour—or three hours, as I do most Monday nights, for my once-a-week course on Ethical Reasoning. (By the time I get to hour three, I'm pretty sure I could say anything and the weary students would just write it down, poor things.)

It therefore came as a bracing challenge to be asked to keep my ideas to a paragraph—maybe two—when I started guesting on radio shows thirty years ago.

And TV interviews? I was once trying to explain to NBC Nightly News in the U.S. just why presidential candidates Al Gore and George Bush were both shifting in their campaign rhetoric from the typical references to God to specific references to Jesus. I gave the briefest possible answer I could, and received this encouraging reply.

"Yes, that was just fine, Professor." Experienced interviewers are usually so gracious, "But—" Ah! Here come the "notes"—"we need it even briefer."

"How brief?" I asked, instantly full of dread.

"Well, your answer was thirty-seven seconds long. Can you get it under twenty-five?"

When I turn, as I do most mornings, to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, I am grateful for, if also amazed at, Thomas Cranmer's unparalleled economy and accuracy of expression. The great Archbishop of Canterbury compacts theology into such astonishingly small spaces—while rarely sacrificing clarity and usually including a truly amazing range of content.

The collects—set prayers that bring together or collect our thoughts on a matter, usually in the form of a petition on behalf of the Church—conclude in a formula that never gets old because it says so much.

The collects address the Father with doxology and then pose the day's request. Those elements vary a lot. But the collects always land on the figure of Jesus—and then the Trinity—thus:

—All we pray and all God the Father does for us is mediated somehow ("by," "in," "through," "to," "for") "Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

Without forcing things and without trying to be exhaustive, let's unpack what Cranmer, using the Bible's own compact speech, says in this formula.

• What God does for the Church, God does via Jesus— "God saves."

• Jesus is the Christ, the great Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of the World.

• Jesus is ours.

• Jesus is ours as Lord—as rabbi to our discipleship, as ruler to our servanthood, and as patron to our clienthood.

• Jesus lives. (That idea is new every morning.)

• Jesus lives with the Father—vindicated, glorified, powerful.

• Jesus reigns. (Take that, alternatives!)

• Jesus reigns with the Father—the Source of all creativity, power, and goodness.

• The two are together in the Holy Spirit—who is also given to the Church as our indwelling Companion, so we, as Jesus prayed in John 17, enjoy union with the union of God.

• The three are yet one God. (Don't forget the great lesson to Israel: Only one God, this God, our God.)

• God the Trinity lives and reigns for ever and ever.

Christology, soteriology, sovereignty, politics, Trinity, providence, eschatology—all in one elegant little phrase.

Be clear about Jesus, and be focused on him! Be assured of God's dominion! Be appreciative of your fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit! Be hopeful of the direction and outcome of all things!

(No wonder each collect concludes with "amen"!)

How Cranmer could compose much prose like this—such felicity, exactness, balance, lucidity, and power—is truly one of the wonders of the Christian literary and liturgical traditions. You certainly don't have to be an Anglican to get, use, and be refreshed by it, and I hope you will.

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