Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Unity in the gospel: it is not about lists!

A helpful set of questions re unity has been posed by my friend and colleague, Bosco Peters:

"Is it just possible that it is the attempt to list off, in ever tighter "detail" "beliefs" rather than living the way Jesus lived that inevitably leads to ever greater division and has always done so? And that, hence, the search for lists of agreed beliefs is not going to lead to unity?"

I suggest, in response, that it is not difficult to answer both questions affirmatively while acknowledging a further question lies within the citation: what does it mean to live the way Jesus lived?

It is not just that we need to quickly set aside a whole lot of things that Jesus did which no serious follower of Jesus thinks we need to do (live as a first century Jew re religious practices; live as a first century Palestinian re cultural mores; undergo the baptism of John; only celebrate eucharist once in a  lifetime), but also that we are faced with (at least) two things to ponder carefully.

First, doctrine has mattered to followers of Jesus at certain points in Christian history in which difference has not been about 'lists'. Arians, for example, were serious, devoted followers of Jesus. But something in the following was troubling to the point of dividing rather than unifying. (As I understand it) Arians would not follow the orthodox to the throne of God and worship the Son as one with the Father. Or, to take a more recent example, Mormons are 'latter day saint' followers of Jesus, but something in their following of Jesus is troubling to orthodox Christian followers of Jesus, and so we are not united by merely following Jesus together.

Secondly, doctrine should matter to followers of Jesus in at least this sense: doctrine is about teaching and teaching was what Jesus did! Far from 'doctrine' being pitted against or simply distinct from 'following Jesus', we should ask how doctrine serves and supports our following of Jesus because it lays out and clarifies what Jesus taught (both directly in his lifetime and through the Spirit of Jesus working in the apostles beyond his resurrection). Eucharistic and baptismal doctrine, for example, should deepen our understanding of both Jesus' commands to 'do this' and to 'baptise' and of the support baptism and eucharist provide for our life in Christ. Ecclesiology - as great a dividing set of doctrines as any!! - essentially sets out what it means to be followers of Jesus together.

Well, much more could be said here. My present theme is 'unity'. My point here is that if doctrine as conceived in this church and in that one is dividing us, rather than uniting us as followers of Jesus, then it is very likely that we have developed an understanding of doctrine in relation to following Jesus which is itself divided from discipleship. A root and branch reform of doctrine which ties doctrine to discipleship so that doctrine serves our living like Jesus would greatly assist our reunion as Christians.


Anonymous said...

"Is it just possible that it is the attempt to list off, in ever tighter "detail" "beliefs" rather than living the way Jesus lived that inevitably leads to ever greater division and has always done so? And that, hence, the search for lists of agreed beliefs is not going to lead to unity?"

These questions are wrongly phrased and (for some) epistemologically naive. Christians are *not* meant to "live the way Jesus lived"; he is the unique incarnate divine-human Savior who forgave as God and who died to take away our sins. Nor is Jesus to be followed as Muslims seek to follow the ahaditha of their prophet.
But if you do wish 'to live as Jesus did', then you should be performing miracles regularly and preaching urgent repentance in the fce of imminent judgment. When did you last preach on hell?
The recurrent danger of liberal Christianity (but not exclusively that brand) which appeals to Jesus' "lifestyle" (as currently reconstructed - Bultmann? Sanders? Borg?) is its self-righteousness and works-righteousness.
Al M.

Andy S said...

Isn't the "list" that contains the fundamental Christian doctrine the Nicene Creed - setting aside for now the "Filioque".

And doesn't St Vincent of Lerins suggest that when faced with novelty in Christian Doctrine to

(1) To test it against the Scriptures

(2) To test it against how historically the Church has viewed it.

(3) To see how the wider Church views it. That is to look beyond your local parochial region and see how it is viewed in the wider context of the Church.

So you might want to ask how Rome views it, how Alexandria views it, how Constantinople views it and how Moscow views it. And in the context of the Anglican Communion how Lagos sees it.

Now surely if the novelty under consideration is correct then the Holy Spirit will have guided all to adopt it but if it is incorrect it is probably some other Spirit that I will leave unnamed behind it.

And disharmony and division must surely follow.

liturgy said...

A few points, Peter, that might help this thread forward (or not?):

Did Jesus really only celebrate eucharist once in his lifetime? Or, rather were meals central to both his life and teaching – and rather naturally, he, knowing his friends would continue his practice (hopefully) now said to do this in his memory, promising his ongoing presence as they did this?

Mormons: yes, following the Vincentian Canon, the (IMO) very, very small agreement on “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” would include monotheism – Mormons are polytheistic, so, although we might work collaboratively with them, as we might with good people of other religions, there may possibly be an edge? But I’m not so sure how neat that edge is – is baptism an edge? Is the search for defining an edge as fraught as the search for a list of agreed doctrines?

Arians: I would suggest many, lets just stay within the organizationally unified, Anglicans – many (very many?) regular church-goers, I posit, if asked without being given options, would probably come up with an Arian position. I would even dare to suggest that one or two (or 3?) Anglican clergy in our province just might not be able to articulate the distinction between Arianism and orthodoxy, and might themselves, unintentionally (?) hold to an Arian-type position. All this without affecting the organizational unity of the province.

My point: the correlation between agreed list of beliefs, even what you and I might agree are quite fundamental, and organizational unity is not as close as might be thought – unity just might lie somewhere else…

In any case current unity may not correlate along organizational (denominational) lines – your own self-identification as “evangelical” – for many such a self-identification leads to unity across denominations more than within them.

Cammie Novara said...

"First, doctrine has mattered to followers of Jesus at certain points in Christian history in which difference has not been about 'lists'. Arians, for example, were serious, devoted followers of Jesus." I am delighted by the truth in those words.

Anonymous said...

"Did Jesus really only celebrate eucharist once in his lifetime?"

As far as we know (what the Gospels tell us), yes. The Passover Last Supper was not (simply or primarily) a haburah fellowship meal; it was specifically tied to the imminent event of the following day: 'This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.' If Bosco thinks Jesus did this every passover, Dan Brown would like to hear from him.
That some Anglican clergy may be Arian in their Christology is not really surprising, given the lax standards of theological education that have existed in places. Of course, Arianism was extremely popular for centuries after Nicea, being the religion of choice (or compulsion) of the barbarian tribes that sacked Rome and conquered Spain and North Africa (thanks, Ulfilas!). The conversion of the Visigoth Reccared I of Spain to the Catholic (Trinitarian) faith in the late 6th century was turning point, but the Jehovah Witnesses have led a revival in our time.
A distaste for classical theology and hard thinking will usually lead to radical simplification. Arianism was a good creed for simple soldiers.
Al M.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Thanks for recent comments. I will ponder them and try to respond; but travel/work exigencies mean it may be a day or so!

liturgy said...

Is “L M” merely trolling here, Peter, with a pseudonym after your improved comments policy, or just being plain stupid in suggesting that I think Jesus instituted the eucharist every Passover? In the sense of Eucharist as a memorial of Christ’s death LM is clearly just plainly confused, as s/he regularly, baitingly appears on your pages: Jesus never even once celebrated the Eucharist in that sense. It is s/he that needs to contact Dan Brown, not I. OK – so I bit: Troll 1 – blog 0.

Andy S said...

I've been thinking about this and there is unity in the Gospel and has always been.

Every single instance of Christian division I can think of has been driven by worldly agendas with Theology used as an excuse.

Does anybody think the Christian in Lisbon is divided from the Christian in Athens by the Filioque.

The chances that either even knows about the subtle theology that underlies this dispute is about zero - no? Its quite unlikely my hypothetical pair even know there has ever been a dispute over the creed.

The real dispute that drove the Great Schism was attempted Papal authority over the Eastern Bishops and the depredations of the Latin Crusaders I think.

Delicacy prevents me bringing forth the birth of Anglicanism but we all know it wasn't a theological dispute that initially separated the Church of England from Rome.

Christ said the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church and despite the rifts it hasn't. Good Christian people exist in all denominations, members of the True Church.

We need to be careful not to be dividers.

This verse seems appropriate in light of the ructions tormenting the Church in this age

Romans 12:2

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

Anonymous said...

My language was too concise for Bosco so I'll spell it out. S/he seems to suggest that Jesus 'celebrated eucharist' on several occasions, but the very language ('celebrated', 'eucharist') is anachronistic, while Jewish fellowship meals sharing food and friendship were not the same as what Jesus uniquely did at the Last Supper: a proleptic sign of his own imminent death with the passover mazah and cups. This is what the Christian eucharist recalls: not fellowship meals but the Last Supper. I *didn't* say that Bosco thought 'Jesus *instituted* the eucharist every Passover'; s/he should read more carefully and avoid conflating meals and the eucharist (although the Lord's Supper did take place within the agape meal). I don't think Bosco would agree with this, but this has been a common angle in some forms of modern liberalism, which is uncomfortable (to say the least) with the sacrificial character of the Lord's death and prefers to focus on a slightly schmaltzy horizontal inclusivity ('You share your bread' etc).
For the avoidance of doubt and the satisfaction of pedants: Jesus (AFAWK) didn't baptize anyone, and he didn't "celebrate the eucharist as the memorial of his death" (how could he? he was still alive! and I don't think Emmaus was a 'eucharist'). But he did command his church to do both. So following his commands rather than 'living his way' is the business of his Church.
Al Mynors

liturgy said...

If only John Calvin, or Karl Barth, or Thomas Aquinas had advised God in the inspiration of the scriptures they would be far tidier than the rather messy ones we have inherited, and beliefs could be tidily, neatly listed off. The Eucharist would have only a single meaning – in fact we could dispense with the actual multi-valent symbolism of the Eucharist and have it mean just one single clear thing. Let’s just mentally recall Christ’s death – which is the sole point isn’t it, and dispense with the rather distracting, messy, concrete, down-to-earth real bread and wine completely – it’s so unEnglish anyway, especially in these days of health issues. Christ’s meal ministry and perennial mentioning of meals in his teaching would then not distract from that single, simple focus. Better organized scriptures would also have sorted the four institution accounts to be more consistent, and as there would not be any natural continuing of Christ’s practice of meals, it is currently really annoying that Christ’s command to do this occurs only with certainly in one of the four. Also the mention of Jesus baptizing in John 4:1 is so untidy and as we know for certain that Jesus never baptized anyone, we can either follow good liberals who never take John seriously anyway, or we can follow the tidied up approach as per above and have Calvin, Barth, and Aquinas make sure that Jesus doesn’t mess up our pretty theories by acting so out of character with our pet theology.

Anonymous said...

The filioque clause (which I think I believe in) cannot rightly be a cause of division as it was never agreed to by the undivided church. It was enough for the Cappadocian fathers to affirm the full deity of the Holy Spirit - otherwise we are on a road back to Arianism.

Not that orthodoxy of belief is sufficient of itself. to declare the truth is also to admit the limitations of our understanding (finitum non capax infiniti) and our ignorance of God's ways in the world. A more expansive and properly challenging vision of the people of God is hinted at in the conclusion of 'The Last Battle', where Aslan tells Emeth (Heb. 'truth') the
Tash-worshipping Calormene, that "I and Tash are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him." This is not the same as universalism or pluralism but rather Christo-inclusivist. A similar vision is spelled out by writers like Harold Netland.
Al M.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately for St Thomas and Calvin, they both lived long before Reitzenstein and Bultmann, so they didn't have to waste time and ink refuting mystery religion theories about the eucharist. Barth did live during the time of both, but he was always a systematician rather than a biblical scholar. Barth was always brilliant and often wrong, sometimes at the same time. Jesus' 'foodways' are interesting, but I don't see how they tell us about the meaning of the Lord's Supper, whereas St Paul (who takes apostolic precedence over his students Calvin, Thomas and Barth) authoritatively does (1 Cor 11:26): it is the sacrament and memorial of our redemption. We must not 'overload the table' with ideas from elsewhere or we will end up making no distinction between believers and non-believers - or even between dogs and humans.
John 4:2 suggests the meaning of v erse 1 is causative.
Al Mynors

Peter Carrell said...

Wow, intereting line of commments here since I last acknowledged comments. For what it is worth, I agree with Bosco that meals were a significant feature of the course of Jesus' ministry; so not surprising that at the end a specific command-and-promise was given about his followers eating and drinking in memory of him ... thus also no surprise that John's theological gospel should include a long discourse on the nurture of life in Christ through eating his flesh!

liturgy said...

Thanks Peter, you have my point exactly. John, of course, having this discourse, does not even see the need of having a Last Supper institution story. The discourse is commenting on a sign in which Jesus took, gave thanks, and shared - essential eucharistic actions. It is as if that sign story and the discourse following is John's institution narrative.


Anonymous said...

But John does have, uniquely, the footwashing account; and if John 6 is eucharistic-liturgical in reference (and not just an extended metaphor in the style of the Johannine 'I am' sayings - light, vine, door, way, good shepherd etc), it is equally tempting to read the footwashing as John's Last Supper metaphor for the work of the cross (John 13:8), comparable to the proleptic symbol of eating bread and drinking wine: the death of Christ 'feeds' us and 'washes' us.
Meals were central to the social life of the ancient world, so it's no surprise they played a large role in Jesus' ministry. Some of them could be a bit unsettling on hosts (Luke 7:36-50).
Al M.