Theological Triage – Maintaining Unity

Today I had the privilege of guest hosting another Dividing Line broadcast and brought what I believe to be an important teaching on first order and second order doctrines. As the quote attributed to Augustine says, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

We experienced some audio difficulties during the first two minutes of the show but after that there were no further sound issues.

Reflections from an AME Prayer Vigil

richardphillips-03Pastor Rick Phillips has written a short piece entitled “Reflections from an AME Prayer Vigil.” It is well worth the read.

Last evening I was greatly blessed, together with many members of the congregation I serve, to participate in a prayer vigil for the nine victims of the racist attack on Emmanuel AME in Charleston. The service was held at Allen Temple AME Church about a half mile from our church in Greenville, SC. I hope and believe that our presence played a positive role in ministering to our aggrieved fellow Christians. I know that we were spiritually uplifted and encouraged both by our reception and by the service itself. Nothing that happened in this service surprised me, since I have long held a high opinion of the spiritual vitality of gospel-centered black churches. But it occurred to me that others may not have had many experiences of this kind, and that readers might be informed and encouraged by the following reflections:

1. The importance and value of crossing boundaries that separate Christians from one another. I have not had much interaction with AME churches and my many connections with African American Christians are mainly limited to those who share my commitment to Reformed theology. I live in a part of the South in which blacks and whites generally get along but seldom interact, in part because of the distrust that African Americans have with good reason developed towards whites. Sincere invitations to the African American community to attend our events have met little success, which has taught me that the burden is on white Christians to reach out personally across the racial divide. Our attendance at the AME prayer vigil thus resulted from my driving over to their church on Friday morning to personally express love and sympathy and to inform them of our prayers. The result was a warm, brotherly conversation with a pastor from the AME church, who expressed his thanks and offered to call me to confirm the prayer vigil’s timing. I had missed a service the previous day – the morning after the murders – which had been terminated by an anonymous bomb threat. Lamentable as that was, it did provide me with an opportunity to attend the rescheduled event last night. I came, along with some members of our church, simply to join in worship and prayer. What I did not expect was an invitation for me to speak and pray at the service. What a blessing and reward I received for the simple act of personally driving over to extend Christian love, and how eager my fellow believers were to receive it! Continue reading

The Unity of the Church

sproul_02In an article found at the ligonier website, Dr. R. C. Sproul writes:

In the seventeenth chapter of his gospel, the Apostle John recounts the most extensive prayer that is recorded in the New Testament. It is a prayer of intercession by Jesus for His disciples and for all who would believe through their testimony. Consequently, this prayer is called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. Christ implored the Father in this prayer that His people might be one. He went so far as to ask the Father that “they may be one even as we are one” (v. 22b). He desired that the unity of the people of God — the unity of the church — would reflect and mirror the unity that exists between the Father and the Son.

Early in church history, as the church fathers were hammering out the cardinal doctrines of the faith, they wrestled with the nature of the church. In the fourth century, in the Nicene Creed, the church was defined with four adjectival qualifiers: one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic. These early saints believed, as Scripture teaches, that the church is one, a unity.

We know that the prayers of Christ, our High Priest, are efficacious and powerful. We know that the early church experienced remarkable unity (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32). Yet the church today, in its visible manifestation, is probably more fragmented and fractured than at any time in church history. There are thousands of denominations in the United States and even more around the world. How, then, are we to understand Christ’s prayer for the unity of the church? How are we to understand the ancient church’s declaration that the church is one?

There have been different approaches to this. In the twentieth century, we witnessed the rise of relativistic pluralism, a philosophy that allows for a wide diversity of theological viewpoints and doctrines within a single body. In the face of numerous doctrinal disputes, some churches have tried to maintain unity by accommodating many differing views. Such pluralism has frequently succeeded in maintaining unity — at least organizational and structural unity.

However, there’s always a price tag for pluralism, and historically, the price tag has been the confessional purity of the church. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Protestant movement began, various ecclesiastical groups created confessions, creedal statements that set forth the doctrines these groups embraced. In the main, these documents reiterated that body of doctrine that had been passed down through the centuries, having been defined in the so-called ecumenical councils of the first several centuries. These confessions also spelled out the particular beliefs of these various groups. For centuries, Protestantism was defined confessionally. But in our day, the older confessions have been largely relativized as churches try to broaden their confessional stances in order to achieve a visible unity.

There has always been a certain level of pluralism within historic Christianity. The church has always made a distinction between heresy and error. It is a distinction not of kind but of degree. The church is always plagued with errors, or at least members who are in error in their thinking and beliefs. But when an error becomes so serious that it threatens the very life of the church, when it begins to approach a doctrinal mistake that affects the essentials of the Christian faith, the church has had to stand up and say: “This is not what we believe. This false belief is heresy and cannot be tolerated within this church.” Simply put, the church has recognized that it can live with differences that are not of the essence of the church, matters that are not essentials of the faith. But other matters are far more serious, striking at the very basics of the faith. So, we make a distinction between those errors that impact the being of the church — major heresies — and lesser errors that impact the well-being of the church.

Today, however, the church, in order to achieve unity, increasingly negotiates central truths, such as the deity of Christ and the substitutionary atonement. This must not be allowed to happen, for the Bible calls us to “the unity of the faith” (Eph. 4:13), a unity based on the truth of God’s Word. Believers who are trying to be faithful to the Scriptures know that the New Testament writers stress the need for us to guard the truth of the faith once delivered (Jude 3; 1 Tim. 6:20a) as well as the need for us to beware those who would undermine the truth of the Apostolic faith by means of false doctrine (Matt. 7:15).

The Christian faith is lived on the razor’s edge. The Apostle Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). We need to bend over backward to keep peace and maintain unity. Yet, at the same time, we are called to be faithful to the truth of the gospel and to maintain the purity of the church. That purity must never be sacrificed to safeguard unity, for such unity is no unity at all.

What would “Unity” look like?

Carl-TruemanCarl R. Trueman is a Christian theologian and church historian. He is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History and holds the Paul Woolley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. He asks all the right questions in an article entitled so may it be!’ seem somewhat curmudgeonly. Thus, when Peter Leithart opened last week’s discussion on the future of Protestantism by lamenting ecclesiastical disunity and expressing a desire for a visibly united church, there was an audible murmur of support and appreciation from the audience. I knew immediately I would emerge over the course of the evening as the nay-sayer.

I agree with Peter that unity is much to be desired. But two questions remain for me after the discussion and the various blog posts: What does this unity look like? And how do we get there? Claiming that God can slay and resurrect the church is true enough. He can also cure cancer by a mere act of his will. But, if diagnosed with such, I am still going to drive to the hospital to receive chemotherapy.

Peter offered an attractive and humorous vision of church unity, involving (among others) hierarchical Baptists, disciplined Anglicans, jolly Presbyterians, and practitioners of paedocommunion existing in harmony. The vision was humorous, though intended as more than mere jest, I think. The problem is that it cannot possibly be realized (and that not simply because the idea of a jolly Presbyterian is self-referentially incoherent): There can be no visible institutional unity in terms of liturgy or theology between Baptists and Paedobaptists, let alone between Baptists and practitioners of paedocommunion. Thus, the question: What will this unity look like in practice?

Peter did present a more practical vision of local churches talking and fellowshipping together. That already happens in many places, so I suspect he actually wants more, something with a definite liturgical and institutional expression. If that is the case, then numerous other questions arise, the first of which I posed on the night of the discussion: Where do we draw the boundaries for this fellowshipping into unity? Peter’s response seemed to be that we set the borders in terms of Nicene/Chalcedonian orthodoxy. That is a good answer in some ways, though it does appear to demand the relativizing of everything subsequent to that (and thus that Roman Catholics and Protestants regard that which gives them their doctrinal distinctiveness as basically negotiable).

That answer also leads to further, more pointedly practical questions: When do I close my church down and tell the people there to start attending another Nicene/Chalcedonian church in the locale? What precise criteria do I use for making that call? When does my church’s continued existence become an act of divisive schism (a question easy for Roman Catholics to answer, but what about Peter?). The town where I pastor has a Roman Catholic Church of impeccable Nicene orthodoxy. Do I serve any good purpose as a Presbyterian in that place? And if I do serve such a purpose now, what exactly is that purpose and when will I know that it has come to an end? (As an aside, this also points to the fact that, while Protestantism cannot be reduced to doctrine, doctrine is fundamental to its present identity and, indeed, to its very reason for existence in the first place).

There are questions here for Fred Sanders, too. At some point in the discussion, he stated that we should rejoice that the Eastern Orthodox Church spreads the knowledge of the Trinity. Indeed we should. But how much should we rejoice? Rejoicing in word only is not really rejoicing at all. Joyful action must surely be part of it. So do we rejoice to the point that Protestants cease to plant churches in parishes with Orthodox congregations? If not, why not? Or do we rejoice to the point where we even close down established Protestant churches in such parishes? The prioritizing of the doctrine of God over against the doctrine of salvation which seems explicit in Peter’s Nicene proposal and perhaps implicit in Fred’s attitude to Eastern Orthodoxy, is a move that I cannot make without ceasing to be Protestant and giving up all that makes me doctrinally distinctive. But should I nevertheless do so? Are the doctrinal differences over salvation simply not important enough for me to keep my church doors open when there is an Eastern Orthodox church across the street?

Discussions of church unity are so often an example of incontestably admirable aspirations combined with a complete lack of practical suggestions. Discussions of the future of Protestantism can tend that way too unless we ask the basic pragmatic questions of what we want to achieve and what steps we must take to achieve it.

Unity

“Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow.

So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.” – A. W. Tozer – The Pursuit of God [1948] (Wilder Publications, 2009), p. 63.

Buses and Ambulances

“till we all come to the unity of the faith” Ephesians 4:13

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” – Augustine

The high amount of injury and bloodshed amongst the people hurled under proverbial buses has caused great concern to me recently.

I would just make the point that the reformation slogan of “Semper Reformanda” or “Always Reforming” is a very good one. The Reformation was never just a snap shot in time, but a desire for all Christians and the Church at large to be mastered by the God-breathed word of God until all thought and doctrine was bibline.

I for one, am so glad that succeeding generations have weighed up some of the things the Magesterial reformers have said and written and decided that they were wrong – plain wrong – on some things. For example, some of the worst things ever said about the Jews, come from the lips and pen of Luther. That indeed is a terrible tragedy.

Luther was a father to German hearts the way Lincoln was and is to the people of the United States. It could be argued that Germany’s history with anti-semitism could be traced back directly to Luther’s writings. It gives me no joy at all to say so, but that is a fact. As much as we love these heroes of the faith, only Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith for the people of God. Yet we embrace these men even though we may strongly disagree with them on some things. Believe me, for a Jew, Luther’s rhetoric is very problematic, and I have had many a conversation with Jewish people where when the name of “Luther” came up, the conversation was basically over. Yet centuries on, I am happy to embrace Luther as my brother in Christ and fellow laborer in reformation and am thankful to God for his ministry.

I say all this because many seem to want to claim the title of “reformed” only for themselves. Some Presbytereans seek to outlaw Baptists as not being reformed, and so on. Cessationists want to do that with the likes of Piper, Grudem, Storms, D. A. Carson and so on. Without trying to be funny, I just think cessationists should just “stop it!” None of these men individually or not even all of them collectively are infallible (just like Luther or Calvin) but I think we are a sad, sad bunch of people if we do not allow these men (and others like them) to be included under the umbrella of “reformed,” because of our differences concerning spiritual gifts.

The issues are indeed important, but lets keep talking to one another, and not divide over these things, when what we share in common FAR outweighs our differences. If you can look at a D. A. Carson and say “I dont want you in our circles because you wrote a book about spiritual gifts and exegeted 1 Cor 12-14 in a way I dont agree with” – be my guest – go ahead.. but you wont find me cheering you on.

I thank God very much for my reformed cessationist friends and am happy to embrace them as co-laborers in reformation. I hope others on the other side of the aisle in this debate can do likewise in reciprocity.