American Evangelicals

The Holy Family in American Politics

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph do not play very visible roles in US politics.  “For God and Country” is a slogan that makes the rounds in some circles, but the nature of that God is left unspecified (perhaps beyond typically excluding Muslims).  The dearth of direct appeal to Jesus even in conservative American politics, to say nothing of the silence about his mother and step-father, makes it all the more surprising that the Holy Family has been dragged into political debates twice in one month.  The nature of those invocations, and their historical and theological confusion, reveals the cynical pragmatic secularism driving the use of these religious ideas at this political juncture.  Christian complicity in these invocations threatens the intelligibility of the gospel message to outsiders. (more…)

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Corban, Religious Reasoning, and Being a Git

In Mark 7, Jesus got into a religious argument with some Pharisees and lawyers.  They accused his closest followers of loose living, not being respectable and doing what they’re supposed to as good, observant Jews.  Jesus accused them of nullifying God’s word to support their notion of respectability.  That’s a heavy charge.  The issue here is how they were reasoning about corban.  We need to see what corban is, then we need to see how the Pharisees got to their position on the matter, and finally we shall see how easy it is to imitate them. (more…)

Loves Covers a Multitude of (Theological) Sins: Doctrine and Ecumenism

As regular readers here well know, I care a lot about Christian ecumenism (or, I would prefer to label it, “catholicity”).  I also care a good deal more than most about doctrine.  These two are often thought to be in conflict, but I don’t think they need to be.  In preparation for a discussion I will lead with some of the people of my church, I drew up a list of assertions explaining my position about why “catholicity” is obligatory, and possible without sacrificing doctrine.  Any of these can be expanded, and I would welcome feedback on anything that seems to lack clarity, charity, or verity.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) (more…)

“Same God” for Muslims and Christians? False Starts

Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East.  With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God.  In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way.
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Peter’s Amicus Brief

In a local Bible study group, we just read 1 Peter, and this time through I was struck by how consistently the theme of judicial persecution of Christians remains near at hand through the whole letter.  Indeed, seeing more of the letter in light of this consistent theme forced me to revise my understanding of several passages.  These re-assessed verses include every reference to suffering in the letter, as well as two very famous verses, the one most often cited by Evangelicals as the clarion call for apologetics (1 Peter 3:15) and the one warning about the devil’s activity (1 Peter 5:8).  I thought I’d chart here some of this new (to me) reading of Peter’s letter in light of persecution. (more…)

A Tale of Two Priesthoods

It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God.  Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy.  Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders.  As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says.  There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.

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Religious parking lot layouts

Peddling stereotypes is intellectually irresponsible, usually offensive, and occasionally funny.  Along those lines, here is a list of parking lot layouts for various religious groups, in no particular order:  (N.B. outside of America, “parking lot” is usually pronounced “car park.”) (more…)

Once Saved, Always Calvinist?

One doctrinal formula which Calvinists bandy about and non-Calvinists like to mock is “once saved, always saved.”  Like almost all doctrinal formulas, this one is shorthand for a longer assertion.  It’s easy to expand it to “once a person has been saved, that person cannot lose his or her salvation.”  But that formulation still presumes that we know what we’re talking about when we say someone “is saved.”  Although this language is often used, especially among American evangelicals since the 19th C, I don’t think “saved” can meaningfully be used as an adjective as it always is, or even as an absolute verb (i.e. a verb without additional specification of the predicate).  Now, some folks who know their Bibles really well will immediately point out that the apostles used the word “saved” in various contexts without adding additional specification (Eph 2:5 and 8 come to mind).  But we must always ask, in every context, “What is the subject of the sentence saved from?”

Since the notion of “once saved, always saved” has come up recently in a few places, I thought I would re-post here an (edited) email I wrote back in 2010 in answer to a question from a friend.  First, his question:

What does it mean to be “saved”? Is it a once-and-for-all thing, or a lifelong process, or what? A fellow who grows up a believer and manifests all the signs of a Christian and then in, say, his late teens turns away from the faith: is he saved?

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Obligatory Ecumenism

A friend at another blog linked to an important article about ecumenism, which I wanted to discuss here.

(First, a note to the reader: after today this blog will be Out to Lunch, probably for the next couple weeks, as I take care of some physical world tasks that need doing, and I will be without internet access for part of that duration and with very little free time for even more of it.  Some readers may feel that the posts have been out to lunch for a while now, but this is not an admission of doctrinal error…)

I particularly appreciated Dr. DeVille’s points #5 and #7 (with honorable mention to #6).  Top-level ecumenical contact may often elicit a “who cares?” from the people in the pew.  After all, what could such contact possibly accomplish?  At this stage, perhaps the best it can accomplish is to provide a model for friendship and cooperation to all Christians.  The biggest obstacle to ecumenism is not what so-and-so did to such-and-such back in the X century (whether that’s 431 or 538 or 1054 or 1204), nor even disagreements about ideas and practices (though such disagreements are real).  The single biggest obstacle to real church unity is a nebulous congregational sense that those people over there are not like us.  I have been asked, in all sincerity, whether Catholics and Evangelicals worship the same God (and the person was very reassured when I gave a positive answer).  And the best way to allay misconceptions is to get to know people.  (This works equally well for allaying misconceptions about anything, for example racial differences, Islam or other religions, and political partisan differences.)  Such conversations can (and perhaps should) start off away from the topic at issue and just involve getting to know another human being.  And after you discover that the other person does beautiful handicrafts, or likes the same sports team you do, or has a funny sense of humor, or has excellent taste in wine (or books or music), in other words, after you discover that the other person is a human being, then you can approach the topic at issue with the curiosity to discover how is it that your new friend thinks differently than you.  Dr. DeVille gives other very easy suggestions in his piece, so you should go read it.

But Dr. DeVille’s most important point point is #7.  Ecumenism is not optional.  In addition to our Lord’s prayer in John 17 which he cited, my mainstay is the only command which Jesus added to the Law: “34 A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that just as I have loved you you may love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).   Dr. DeVille makes the point that church division hinders Christian witness, because God is one, so why aren’t we?  This was exactly my experience.  Before I became a Christian (over a decade ago now), I had a ready answer to any Christian friend who asked why I was not Christian: “Those Christians are so divided they don’t even know what they think about anything, so why should I join them and add to the muddle?”  But God had grace and mercy on me in my blindness, and he dragged me to himself; only after I was there did I see that there is a deeper unity among all true Christians which transcends denominational structures and differences of dogma (which is not to say that either structure or dogma are inherently unimportant!).  I am grateful for God’s grace, and I continue to pray for my family members and friends from that period to find, or rather be found by, the grace that I have.  But I also wish to take practical steps to make it harder for people like me to use visible Christian divisions as an easy excuse not to believe.  Christians are already one, in the one Holy Spirit of God, but we need to live visibly in light of this fact.  Ecumenism is obligatory, not only for pope and patriarch, but for all people.

Why does ecclesiology matter?

My mom tells the story that when she was a child, she was not allowed to eat anything which contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce, as they were probably harmful.  This is the same way some Christians feel about ecclesiology: they can’t say it, so it must not be good.

Ecclesiology is just the concept of what the Church is.  We all have an ecclesiology, even if only implicit.  Is the Church a formal institution or an informal association of people?  Is it a holy witness to the truth or a messy hospital ward for sinners?  Is it the a tax-exempt charity or a political action committee?  Or none of the above?  There are many different ideas about the nature of the Church.

Do these ideas matter?  In a sense, not nearly as much as other areas of Christian belief.  Jesus never said, “You are blessed if you believe X, Y, and Z about the Church.”  Nor did Paul write, “If you believe A, B, and C about the Church, you will be saved.”  The central message of Christianity is that God became incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to redeem the world and fix the mess that we all have made by his death and resurrection.  Christianity first and foremost proclaims Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and is doing.

But “not nearly as significant” as the most significant single event in the history of the universe is a far cry from “insignificant.”

Some might point out that ecclesiology remains perhaps the most contentious and debatable area of Christian belief, with more disagreement than agreement on the subject between Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics.  And if the churches have got on well enough without a clear consensus on the subject (unlike, say, the doctrines of the Trinity or Christology), then ecclesiology must not be the most essential.

But again, “essential” is not the same as “significant.”

Ecclesiology makes a difference to many areas of our understanding of Christianity.  Here, I will take just one example: ecclesiology determines how we evaluate which religious events are good or bad.  In particular, whether a Christian who is not of your group is an ally or a rival, whether you should celebrate or abominate their successes, and whether you regard their ideas are stepping stones or snares, are all questions of ecclesiology which have a large impact on how we live in a society with multiple Christian denominations.  A number of examples will clarify the case.

John of Monte Corvino was a Franciscan missionary to China in the early fourteenth century.  At that time, there were a significant number of Eastern (non-Latin) Christians in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and because he did not regard their churches as in any way valuable or conferring salvation, he focused his efforts on converting them to his own Latin Christianity.  According to his account, he succeeded in converting a prominent statesmen who belonged to the Church of the East, namely King George of the Onggut, and cherished high hopes of leading most of that people into submission to the papacy.  By doing so, he elicited strong opposition from the clergy of the Church of the East, and he complained that they were attempting to prevent him from saying mass or baptizing anyone.  (It is not simply ironic, but rather a reflection of the ecclesiology of his church, that back in Europe and in the Crusader states his fellow Latin clergy sometimes likewise hindered other Christians from celebrating church services.)  His actions and his complaints make sense, if he took a narrow interpretation that outside of his (Latin) Church there could be no salvation.  But from an ecclesiology which values ecumenical cooperation (and since 1994 the Vatican has acknowledged that the Church of the East is not teaching Nestorian heresy, as they had previously thought), these strategies are back-stabbing and sheep-stealing.  What looks like Christian love and missionary zeal, from one ecclesiological perspective, appear instead as arrogance and hypocrisy, from another.

In 1548, Luther’s followers were in crisis.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a staunch supporter of the papacy against “Lutheran heretics,” had defeated the Protestant princes in the Schmalkaldic War, and he decreed religious uniformity throughout his realm by ordering all people to go back to mass.  The only concessions to the reformers were communion in two kinds (bread and wine for laity) and clerical marriage.  A revised version the following year explained the doctrine of justification by faith in a Lutheran sense, thanks to the input of Philip Melanchthon, and was more acceptable by some, though not all, of Luther’s followers.  Melanchthon argued that the Roman mass itself was adiaphora, neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and therefore obedient attendance was permitted.  His critics, including Matthias Flacius, said that nothing idolatrous (as they viewed the Roman mass) could be adiaphora, and a split developed between the “Philippists” and the “Gnesio-Lutherans” (the name means the “True Lutherans”), which would only be healed a generation later, after both Melanchthon and Flacius were dead.  Was Melanchthon correct to be willing to compromise with the Roman Catholics?  Certainly not, if they had nothing to do with Christ’s true Church, as the Gnesio-Lutherans claimed.  Were the Gnesio-Lutherans right to break away from Melanchthon and other “compromisers”?  Only if preserving the “purity” of their church was more important than unity with Christians who thought differently on these points.  (It is ironic that there was a controversy over adiaphora, literally “things that don’t matter.”)

A third example: Rev. Billy Graham preached an evangelical Protestant message of salvation by faith in Christ from the late 1940s to the early 21st century.  His revival “crusades” in a location were organized by clergy in that city or area, who would then direct follow-up efforts with new converts and incorporate them into their churches.  These clergy would often sit on the platform behind Graham while he preached.  Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Graham’s “crusades” made two inclusive moves.  He racially integrated the clergy on the platform, and he invited Roman Catholic clergy to participate in the revivals.  These views were not universally popular, and he earned a lot of criticism from more conservative Protestants, especially for encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the Roman Catholic Church.  Ecclesiology again determines whether Graham was right or wrong to cooperate with Catholics.  If the Roman Catholic Church is simply the bondage of demonic idolatry, as some of Graham’s critics assert to this day, then sending would-be converts to Christianity to them is to short-change them of salvation.  (Lest you think I’m making this up, here is one webpage critical of Graham along these lines, and by no means the most extreme.)  But if the Roman Catholic Church is a valid church through which people may experience Christ’s redemption, then Graham’s cooperation with them is another instance of his evangelical priority to work together to spread the good news of Christ’s love and redemption.

Ecclesiological issues inform many of the debates between liberals and conservatives in most major denominations.  Among Protestants, the liberal/conservative divide for the past century and a quarter has frequently lined up over the issue whether the Church should seek to ameliorate the world or should seek to rescue sinners out of the world.  (Some are increasingly realizing that this need not be an either/or.)  Among Roman Catholics, the division between sede vacantists and papal loyalists turns on whether recent popes and the Second Vatican Council have started promulgating falsehood or have merely exercised their divine right of doctrinal definition.  Among papal loyalists, the divide between liberals and conservatives includes the question whether the Church should change to accommodate modern notions of progress and mores, or whether the Church should timelessly hold its essential teaching in defiance of contemporary social developments.  In order to navigate these debates, and to rejoice in those things which honor our Savior, Jesus Christ, we need an ecclesiology which is accurate and astute.  May the Holy Spirit guide his Church into all truth, as our Lord promised.