... actually, I don't know if it will turn out to be the one less travelled by :)
A social media exchange during the week gave me a bit of a revelation - not the sort where one learns something for the first time, more the sort where something becomes much, much clearer.
It is something like this:
I think I am evangelical (more on that below**) but there are evangelicals who think I am a false teacher. Why do they think that (apart from the fact that we disagree on some matters)?
The social media exchange highlighted that there is an evangelical approach to Scripture which goes like this:
- Scripture, despite its varied genres, diverse contexts (of original writing and contemporary reading) and multiple authors, provides us with clear teaching which may be expressed propositionally.
- These propositions, once set out, on some agreed lines by authoritative evangelical teachers, construct a sound body of irrefutable, unchangeable, even unchallengeable teaching.
- Should one such proposition or set of propositions come under pressure, there is either staunch, unyielding defence [so, in some quarters, propositions re homosexuality]; or, there is deft logical footwork to slightly revise such proposition or set thereof [so, in some quarters, ordination of women; remarriage of divorcees].
- Interestingly, where there is such slight-but-acceptable revision, there is NEVER any determination (within that quarter of evangelicalism) that the un-revised are now "false teachers": there seems to be capacity within such an evangelical section to live with "two integrities" on the matter (e.g. on ordination of women; or remarriage of divorcees).
- Someone (e.g. me) who disagrees with one (let alone more) of certain propositions is, logically, a false teacher - a person posing as a teacher of the faith who, in fact, teaches a denial of the truth. [So, in certain quarters of Anglican evangelicalism, difference on propositions re homosexuality incurs the false teaching charge but difference on ordination of women or on remarriage of divorcees does not.]
- I suggest that this approach both builds an impressive body of interlocking propositions while seemingly lacking a "self-awareness" that these inter-locking propositions are a human construction which lacks the authority of Scripture (because Scripture does not set down a mandate to so construct; because such construction may contradict another, plausible construction from Scripture; because the NT in particular does not purport to be a set of materials for constructing a new body of law for God's new people; because an outcome of the construction seems at odds with the example of Jesus). [See below for elaborations*].
- Such construction may, however, have some other authority behind it: "this is the logical implication of what Calvin wrote" or "this is required by the canons of the Church of England" or "this is what the Diocese of Y has determined is the policy of Y."
I want to suggest another evangelical approach to Scripture. It goes like this:
- Despite its varied genres, diverse contexts (of original writing and contemporary reading) and multiple authors, Scripture provides us with clear teaching which may be expressed propositionally and in other ways (e.g. through familiar stories such as the Good Samaritan which challenges every hearer every time to not only think about the proposition, Love your neighbour, but also to develop new and renewed understanding of who our neighbour is);
- Teaching from Scripture is only "clear" when it is universally received; without universal reception it is "not yet" clear. If, within evangelicalism, there is agreement about "clear teaching", that agreement may be proposed to the wider church; but if the wider church does not receive it as "clear teaching," then evangelicals should carefully reflect on what it means to adhere to that teaching, to promote and attest to that teaching, and possibly to separate from the church which will not receive it. (Here "possibly" concerns what disputed teaching, if any, justifies separation, because there is no clear teaching in Scripture concerning which matters justify breaking the unity of the church.) It could be that a time will come when evangelical clear teaching will be universally received. It could be that evangelicals will be proved wrong. It could be that evangelicals will simply remain in an ongoing dispute with other parts of their churches - a critical question then being whether there is freedom for evangelicals to continue to teach what is not universally received.
- Scripture is unclear on many matters and evangelicals who treasure Scripture happily acknowledge this; and even apparent clarity can be shattered under new circumstances. John Stott and his teaching is a kind of "gold standard" for Anglican evangelicalism yet his personal conviction was that he should be a pacifist in the context of World War 2 - a war many other British evangelicals fought in. Who was right about what Scripture taught? Presumably both Stott and his non-pacifist evangelical colleagues both thought Scripture was clear on the matter. Logically, doesn't that mean that Scripture is unclear about such matters? Has such lack of clarity held back Anglican evangelicals since WW2 from teaching boldly, confidently, and with clarity what they believe Scripture teaches? No! On the shattering of apparent clarity under new circumstances, consider the impact of Darwin and evolutionary biology. The clear reading of Genesis 1 re a literal six day creation has had to take one of two pathways: continue as though no new circumstance affects that clear reading (so, Creationism) or adapt (so, much but not all evangelicalism, including, in my experience, nearly all Anglican evangelicalism). More divisive, of course, has been the shattering of clear understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12 as forbidding women teaching and exercising authority in congregational life - shattered by the rise of women as equal of men in social consciousness. Much of the evangelical world has given way on this matter, but vicious conflict still remains (e.g. within the Southern Baptist Convention: google the name "Beth Moore"), as well as quieter conflict (e.g. within Australian Anglican evangelicalism). We could continue with other examples such as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the use of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, schools of interpretation about the last days. The humility of evangelicals when asserting that this or that is "clear teaching" should be very evident; but is it?
- Scripture is a basis for conviction more than clarity. What evangelicalism has been pretty good at is respecting differing Scripture-based convictions. John Stott's pacifism (as I understand it) was respected by those who disagreed with him; and he respected those whose convictions were different. Is the great question before evangelicals in the 21st century whether we can set aside the pursuit of "clear teaching" with its consequential logic that those who disagree are "false teachers" and renew our acquaintance with conviction, respect for conviction, and a will to work with those who differ in conviction from our convictions? On which matter, a fellow Kiwi blogger, Trevor Morrison, offers a first post in an intriguing series, "Defending the Faithful," bringing to life a very old evangelical conflict from the 19th century! I hope it goes without saying that my argument for convictional teaching more than clear teaching does presume some evangelical clarity about shared orthodoxy: that we are credal Christians, and if Anglicans, then faithful to core elements of being Anglican. But on such bases we might stand together, despite our differing convictions.
- Scripture is our foundation and we keep returning to it so that our convictions are challenged and re-challenged, not least that any theological constructions we build on the basis of our convictions are challenged: is the edifice something Jesus requires of us? Is its character consistent with the character of Jesus Christ? I have run out of time this week to elaborate, though some of the elaboration is in the paragraphs above and some in the appendix below. But, relevant to such a point, I link you to a stirring essay by Wolfhart Pannenburg, "When everything is permitted" - an essay which I see as a challenge to my own convictions ... if not to yours!
- Perhaps putting this another way, evangelicals seek to live according to the authority of Scripture while being realistic and honest that Scripture in many of its parts requires interpretation which raises many challenges about method of interpretation and about securing agreement about interpretation, all of which invokes a sound understanding of church history (which is, effectively, a history of the interpretation of Scripture!) and of theology (for all readers of Scripture, including evangelicals, bring presuppositions to their reading).
ELABORATIONS RELATING TO ABOVE*
- As example of two human constructions, note the kind of evangelical construction I am observing above and the Roman Catholic construction on sexuality: both end in pretty much the same place on homosexuality but each disagrees with each other on remarriage after divorce (evangelicalism does not have the "annulment" pathway which the Catholic construction gets to), yet both constructions work with a strongly literal approach to reading the relevant texts of Scripture).
- Examples of human constructions ending at a point which seems at odds with the example of Jesus (even if it begins with the words of Jesus) include, with respect to evangelicalism, that construction which determines that because of differences over homosexuality, a church should split, despite everything about Jesus' example of inclusion and reaching out to excluded, marginalised people implying that Jesus does not support schism over homosexuality; with respect to Catholicism, whatever Jesus intended by his teaching on divorce, it seems at odds with the Jesus who breaks bread with Judas, and shares many meals with sinners, that a remarried divorcee should be excluded from communion.
**Am I an evangelical? Well, I continue to:
- bring matters of faith and practice to Scripture so that decisions about faith and practice conform to Scripture and are in some manner coherent with Scripture;
- bring matters deemed "tradition" to Scripture for assessment;
- accept without reservation that all things necessary for salvation are found in Scripture;
- preach and teach that Christ died on the cross for our sins, an atoning, once and for all, complete sacrifice, that we might be forgiven by God, and that Christ was raised to life, that we might be raised to eternal life in unmediated and unending fellowship with God;
- preach and teach that a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is both possible and a prayer of commitment away from beginning for each and every human being.