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RIP Robert Farrar Capon

Robert Farrar Capon has gone to be with the Lord. He was an interesting if sometimes frustrating man, and he was certainly a great writer. His books were actually of varying quality, his culinary tastes were at times mischievous in their decadence, but his prose was always full of grace. Perhaps most surprising, given the fact that he was something of a moderate Episcopalian in the late 20th cent. American church, was the overall soundness of his theology. Though he described himself as a “high churchman” and a “Thomist,” he was more simply a Protestant Episcopalian of the rather classic variety. His summation of the Reformation certainly showed it:

The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distilate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.

His book on church history, The Astonished Heart, also revealed a pretty happy view of Luther and the rest, and while it isn’t a perfect book, it is a worthy read.

Another irony, showing the complications of reality, is that while Father Capon was divorced and remarried, he authored the finest book on marriage, parenting, and sexuality that has ever been written from a pastoral perspective. Bed and Board was recommended to me as reading for premarital counseling, and I now recommend it to any young couples who come to me for advice. Several, some from my own church, have told me that it was the first book which presented traditional Christian sexual ethics in a charming and attractive way. It is, unfortunately, out of print (used copies are easily available). Some kind soul ought to return it to the market.

But really, Father Capon’s widest fame is from his cookbooks, and none is better than The Supper of the Lamb. Everyone remembers that meditation upon chopping an onion. I have yet to spend an entire hour on the exercise, but I have to confess that I’ve considered it. There’s also the great description of wine as “water in excelsis,” showing Father Capon’s doctrine of grace as well as his doctrine of creation:

To raise a glass, however, is to raise a question. One honest look at any real thing—one minute’s contemplation of any process on earth—leads straight into the conundrum of the relationship of God to the world. The solution is hardly ob­vious. For something that could not be at all without God, creation seems to do rather well without Him. Only miracles are simple; nature is a mystery. Autumn by autumn, He makes wine upon a thousand hills, but He does it without tipping His hand. Glucose, fructose, and Saccharomyces el­lipsoideus apparently manage very nicely on their own. So much so, that the resolving of the conflict between the sacred and the secular (or, better said, the repairing of the damage done by divorcing them) has been billed as the major problem of modern theology. Permit me, therefore, glass in hand and cooking Sherry within easy reach, the world’s most interrupted discourse on the subject. In vino veritas.

Take the largest part of that truth first. God makes wine. For all its difficulties, there is no way around the doctrine of creation. But notice the tense: He makes; not made. He did not create once upon a time, only to find himself saddled now with the unavoidable and embarrassing result of that first rash decision. That is only to welsh on the idea of an unnecessary world, to make creation a self-perpetuating pool game which is contingent only at the start—which needs only the first push on the cue ball to keep it going forever. It will not do: The world is more unnecessary than that. It is unnecessary now; it cries in this moment for a cause to hold it in being. It was St. Thomas, I think, who pointed out long ago that if God wanted to get rid of the universe, He would not have to do anything; He would have to stop doing something. Wine is—the fruit of the vine stands in act, outside of nothing—because it is His very present pleasure to have it so. The creative act is contemporary, intimate, and immediate to each part, parcel and period of the world.

Do you see what that means? In a general way we con­cede that God made the world out of joy: He didn’t need it; He just thought it was a good thing. But if you confine His activity in creation to the beginning only, you lose most of the joy in the subsequent shuffle of history. Sure, it was good back then, you say, but since then, we’ve been eating leftovers. How much better a world it becomes when you see Him creating at all times and at every time; when you see that the preserving of the old in being is just as much creation as the bringing of the new out of nothing. Each thing, at every moment, becomes the delight of His hand, the apple of His eye. The bloom of yeast lies upon the grapeskins year after year because He likes it; C6H12O6=2C2H5OH+2CO2 is a de­pendable process because, every September, He says, That was nice; do it again.

Let us pause and drink to that. (84-85)

Indeed, we should drink to that, and to Father Capon’s memory. The earth has lost a great writer, but heaven has gained another angel. Good night, Father Capon. We look forward to seeing you again.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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