Monday, August 8, 2011

Complacency About Disunity

I am always intrigued on this blog when I write something in favour of Christian unity and find responses have an overall tendency to remind me how difficult Christian unity is. We are divided on truth, on praxis, and have little or no hope in this life of achieving greater unity than we already have. That's the gist of responses. And they are reasonable responses because, let's face it, there are some difficult barriers to Christian unity around. Rome's unwavering "submit to the Bishop of Rome, join our communion and we will be in communion with you" is very difficult to see changing in the foreseeable future. Realistically my vision for an ecumenical cathedral for Christchurch city in this coming decade is going to be very hard to persuade Protestant churches to commit to, let alone persuade my Anglican colleagues to agree to let go of "ownership" of our current cathedral, and impossible to envision our Roman and Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers in Christ coming on board with, save for a miracle. Even then some might say that miracles can happen but the impossible takes a little longer.

And yet is this what we are to settle for? Does Christ enjoy our complacency on Christian unity, that is, that we cannot do anything about our disunity and just have to get on with living out a fractured Christianity?

Here are the words of Scripture which particularly unsettle me when I contemplate the difference between denominational realities and God's will:

"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:7-10).
I realise that one implication of these words is that Christian unity is not our work but God's work and in the fullness of time God will complete that work. But that would still leave us with the historical fact that we Christians have greatly contributed to the amount of work God has to do to unite all things in him because we have divided many things in Christ!

Every Sunday many Christians say in our churches in Christchurch "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church."

Well, the Spirit has spoken through Paul in Ephesians! Are we listening?


carl jacobs said...

Peter Carrell

Your problem I think is that you are approaching the problem backwards. You have pre-judged who should be included in this unity, and are engaged in an effort to find a definition of 'Christian' that matches your pre-judgment. Instead, you should define what you mean by 'Christian', fit the boundary according to that definition, and let the chips fall where they may. That's why the very first comment I made to you was 'Define what you mean by the Gospel.' That's also why you meet resistance. You are operating from a blurred definition of 'Christian' and people are trying to get you to sharpen the definition.

There are two ways that true unity cannot be achieved:

1. By means of common Organization.

2. By means of doctrinal ambiguity.

Those lead to blurred distinctions of essential differences, and people instantly react. The essential component of Unity is a Common Creed. It is not found in the mere words of the Creed, but in shared the meaning of the Words. There is no way around this. To achieve unity, you must begin with doctrinal markers that set out the essential elements of the Christian Faith.


Bryden Black said...

Thanks for citing Ephesians Peter.

Are you (and others here, like Carl) aware of:

In One Body through the Cross -The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, eds Carl Braaten & Robert Jenson (2003)? Plus its accompanying collection of papers, The Ecumenical Future (2004). I have a review of it if folk are interested (2 pages, 1180 words). It is very helpful indeed.

That said, after many years in an ecumenical marriage, I have to conclude that one of the things we shall all have to respond to ‘up yonder’ with respect to Church unity is just this: as with the apparent intractability of the Jewish response to their Messiah, so the very wisdom of God will also deal with the Church’s failure to live out its genuine New Covenant existence. For again and again, we have sought to bolster our ecclesial realities down the centuries by reverting to OT type forms, one way or another. Just so, our judgment will enhance ever so God’s unique mercy - Rom 11:32 one more time, ringing the changes re Jew/Gentile with RC/Ang/Bap/Syrian/Serb/Copt/whatever. [It also helps to have had Romans in the RCL these past Sundays ...!]

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Carl and Bryden for thoughtful comments.

Nothing is easy here!

I can only go part way with you Carl in what you say: it seems to me that you are setting up a recipe for permanent disunity.

The questions I am interested in (re what you write) are how wide a definition of Christian can we sustain, and how ambiguous can doctrine be? Narrow definition and tighten on ambiguity and we are into ever narrowing descriptions of the true church.

The New Testament itself offers a fair amount of width on definition: follower, believer, filled with the Spirit, in Christ. It is also interestingly ambiguous on doctrine: witness the way in which Calvin and Luther are at odds with each other; the way in which much Protestant and Catholic debate is conducted these days in terms of what Scripture means; and the kind of intra-Protestant debate we witness when (say) Piper and Wright debate.

Does 'church' need to include one of the above pairs and exclude the other? Can it include both?

I hope so!

Brother David said...

Peter, I think that you leave yourself open for Carl to return and quote that "narrow is the gate and straight is the way that leads to eternal life." So define it narrow and anyone who cannot fit through the gate is too broad, and likely bound for hell anyway.

Peter Carrell said...

Even Carl, David, I think would recognise that not all who particioate in church services are saved! Otherwise I will run the risk ...

carl jacobs said...

Peter Carrell

I am not seeking after an ever narrowing definition of the church. I am seeking after a coherent definition of the church. In fact, I listed several items on which believers legitimately disagree on a previous thread. Hence the question to you: "What is the essential content of the Christian faith?" What are the boundaries that define both what a man must believe and also what he must not believe?

In the desire to achieve unity, there is an inherent temptation to define a Christian as someone who sincerely holds to a collection of beliefs that can be at least tangentially tied to the clauses in the Apostles Creed, and who expresses those beliefs with a specific set of words and rituals. That is not, not, not an adequate definition. There is also a temptation to define a Christian as one who has a self-defined experiential (and therefore subjective) relationship with Jesus. That is also not, not, not an adequate definition. These are precisely the incoherencies that I wish to see driven out of the church. I am not interested in propagating a religion of pluriform "truths." If you allow me to believe what I want, but demand in return that I legitimize all other beliefs no matter how mutually exclusive, then I want no part of it. Christianity claims access to knowable exclusive Truth. Because we are right, other people are wrong. Fatally wrong. We can never retreat from that and still maintain the Christian faith.

The church is a place for believers. The question becomes "Believers in what?" God? Well, no, the demons believe and tremble. Jesus? No, the Mormons claim to believe in a polytheistic pagan Jesus, and so they have no part of the faith. They do not even know the One they claim to worship. And you see we have already crossed into the area of doctrine. "Believer" implies "belief" implies "content." A "believer" believes "something." What is that something?

I know why you want to avoid this issue. You can't. To know God is to love God's truth. He is not silent. He has spoken, and man may know with sufficiency what He requires. We are not locked in a world of epistemological darkness & doubt where men eternally grope after questions that have no answers. We are not lost in subjective isolation with an unknown god. We therefore can draw boundaries and say "This is the Christian faith, and that is not." Now, the hard fact is that there are lots of churches out there that look and sound Christian, but are in fact wolves pointing men along the wide road to hell. ('Cough' TEC 'Cough'). It is the responsibility of every Christian to identify those wolves and oppose them. It should therefore manifestly not be our desire to include them in any form of Christian unity.

There is nothing unique here. This is all standard stuff. It is the basic conflict all through the Anglican Communion. People who believe certain essential things run up against others who hate those certain things. Those others want the boundaries in the church broadened to allow for mutually exclusive beliefs on Christian essentials - at least until they take power. It is a conflict of presuppositions and it has no reconciliation.

So I would urge you once again to avoid ambiguity. Set out your boundaries. What is the essential content of the Christian faith? What must a man believe and what must he reject if he is properly to be called a Christian? Unless you answer those questions, you will never find the answers you are looking for.

who understands quite well that the church is not the Church.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Carl,
I do not think I am at all avoiding some general definitions of being Christian which most Christians subscribe to, and yet which are quite exclusive. Thus, I have proposed subscription to the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds as a necessary affirmation for someone to be Christian. This excludes all Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, Jews, Christadelphians, pagans, etc.

I am wary of pushing too hard on the 'You say you believe these creeds but say things which make me wonder if you do really believe them.' That intrudes quite a subjective element into our judgement of one another in a number of cases (but not all ... I think the published writings of (e.g.) Spong nail down heterodoxy if not heresy).

The lines between those who (allegedly) do not love God's truth and those who do, between 'This is the Christian faith' and 'This is not' can be harder to draw than we may at first sight think. Part of my learning in Christian theology has been to recognise that a 'liberal' Christian may believe more than I thought at first prejudged sight, and a Roman Catholic may understand the gospel better than I do and have a more profound grasp of Scripture undergirding that understanding than my Protestant-heritage had predisposed me to believe. Thus I am a bit wary about drawing some lines for fear that I draw them too quickly with too little understanding of my brothers and sisters in Christ; even as I am quite willing to draw the line between those who will publicly profess the creeds and those who will not.

Bryden Black said...

Carl & Peter,

I am most sympathetic to what is being attempted here, as I try to listen to both your approaches.

It reminds me though of Stephen Sykes’ The Identity of Christianity: Theologians and the Essence of Christianity from Schleiermacher to Barth, something of a classic these days and of course out of print. For here he correctly shows the issue of “identity” is more than but certainly includes questions of creedal belief, which is usually viewed in a somewhat cognitive and/or propositional manner. Yet, the Creed, as the Great Symbol of the Faith, is often SUNG ... How does that simple observation begin to shift our approach to it?!

SS is clear Christian identity is far more than just creedal, as I say. His Part Three is essential (pun intended!). There are issues of: (1) conflict inherent in the Christian faith and down its history. So what do we make of this feature? What do we make of the different kinds of conflict and/or reasons for conflict? How do we engage it in such a way that fragmentation is not the inevitable outcome? Then (2) we have the entire matter of “inwardness”. Famously, there’s ER1's business of “windows into men’s hearts”. But that just exemplifies the entire dimension of Christianity’s “heart”: whether Pauline (2 Cor 3/Rom 12:1-2), or Ignatius of Antioch’s, or Gregory of Nyssa’s, or Augustine’s, or Abelard’s - or finally Schleiermacher’s (to note some of SS’s list). So; we have both external, institutional elements to consider, and inward, faith elements. Finally (3) there are naturally features to do with power and/or authority. Nor is it of little surprise that SS now supplements what he wrote in 1984 with his more recent, Power & Christian Theology (2006). Nor are we to miss the multifaceted nature of this element of power, from Jesus’ own announcements and demonstrations, through Paul’s great Corinthian treatises, via Gregory the Great or Aquinas, or Luther and Calvin, or Reformation options re human conscience and Christian liberty, or RCC’s Counter-Reformation; etc. The Ang Comm’s present power struggles are hardly new - sadly; and they involve both theological and spiritual sophistication as well as plain naked wrangling!

One could continue. Yet I simply encourage a reading, marking, etc. of SS’s very helpful pair of texts. They enable this entire discussion to get some serious traction, and in a way moreover that does actually allow some degree of real closure. Just so, SS’s chs 10 & 11, plus 2006. Although I fancy readers of this blog will no doubt have their respective ‘takes’ on just this material/these suggestions ...! Enjoy!!

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Bryden!

carl jacobs said...

peter carrell

Part of my learning in Christian theology has been to recognise that a 'liberal' Christian may believe more than I thought at first prejudged sight, and a Roman Catholic may understand the gospel better than I do and have a more profound grasp of Scripture undergirding that understanding than my Protestant-heritage had predisposed me to believe.

This is a fair point. And yet it seems to me that you have implicitly assumed a standard in your comment. Consider your phrasings. "...believe more than I thought at first prejudged sight..." Since all people believe many things, I interpreted this to read "...believe more of the truth than I thought at first prejudged sight..." And again: " ... may understand the gospel better than I do and have a more profound grasp of Scripture ..." RCs do have an understanding of both Scripture and gospel. Again I read this to mean: "...may understand the true gospel better than I do and have a more profound grasp of the correct meaning of Scripture ..." So even your qualification appeals to a hidden standard to which men must be subjected.

Yet my concern is not so much with this kind of issue. It is rather related to people who will affirm a clause in the Creed in such a way as to deny an orthodox understanding of the Creed. I have read the works of people who will begin a sermon in the name of the Risen Christ and then proceed to deny the bodily resurrection in the same sermon. What do you do with such people? They pass your test. They will affirm every article of the Creed, and yet they deny the central truth claim of the Christian faith.

The man who says "Christ is risen but spiritually" is not a Christian. The man who says "Christ is risen but metaphorically" is not a Christian. Unity cannot be achieved with him. And yet how would you avoid it by a simple appeal to the Creeds?


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Carl,
I can imagine what I might do in some situations within my power (e.g. not invite X to preach in my church). I am not sure what I would do if X and her congregation are desperate for a building to meet in and ask if they can use my church on a Sunday afternoon (yes, to an extent, that is "within my power" to say "no"; but there are other issues to consider around hospitality, sharing and so forth: if X is a Christadelphian it is easier to say "no", but if a fellow Anglican, a little harder).

You are raising a very good question in a very clear way.

Brother David said...

What is the bodily resurrection Carl? And how does that relate to St Paul regarding resurrected bodies, bodies that obviously are capable of very much more than just the abilities of a resuscitated body.

carl jacobs said...

Brother David

It means He was dead, and His body was put in a tomb, and He departed the tomb once again alive and in that body on the third day. If you looked in that tomb today, you would not find His remains because the tomb is empty. Now do I know the specifics of resurrection? No, but then nobody else does either. Does God require the original body? No, in most cases it doesn't exist. But if God can fashion Adam from the dust of the Earth, then He can refashion me as required. So I don't worry about it.

The more interesting question is this. Why do people go to such great lengths to deny the bodily resurrection? Why do they seek after anti-supernatural explanations? That's the question that should be explored. The answer will quickly lead to heterodox theology.