Monday, June 25, 2007

On being catholic

The word "catholic" has fallen into sad disrepute amongst evangelicals, who are generally only aware of its use by the Roman Catholic Church. It is generally thought to be the opposite of Protestant, and the older and more accurate meaning - "universal" had been all but lost. This is unfortunate. As a Protestant, and indeed and evangelical, I am concerned that I also be a catholic: and I am concerned that you join me in this concern. Let me tell you why.

1. To be catholic is to be concerned for the whole church

It is all too easy for us to be bothered only about things that happen in our denomination, or amongst the sorts of Christians we like to identify with. Generally speaking, even the most broad-minded evangelicals only extend their interests to other evangelicals. But to be catholic is to be concerned for all those who name the name of Christ - even where one considers them to be in grave theological error. I think we need to spend more time praying for those believers who fall outside our immediate circles.

2. To be catholic is to acknowledge a debt to history

We evangelicals have a bothersome tendency to think that we invented the gospel - or at least that nobody throughout church history understood it quite so well as we do. So we tend to just read books by our contemporaries who say the same things we would say in exactly the same way we would say them. (The more thoughtful evangelicals would date the invention of the gospel to the 16th century, of course, but this is only a little better). To be catholic is to acknowledge the long line of believers through the millennia who have faithfully witnessed to Christ - and not just to acknowledge them, but to read them! The bookshelf is probably the most practical way that the communion of saints manifests itself.

3. To be catholic is to learn from the whole church

Because everything that is really Christian belongs to the church, we can be free to take truth from whatever source it comes - always being discerning and testing by Scripture, of course. So if the Pope has something good to say - and he often does - I can claim that. All truth is Christ's truth, and Christ is given as head to the church which is his body. I often find that the things that challenge me, make me think and grow my understanding of the gospel come from outside my own tradition.

4. To be catholic is to speak to the whole church

Obviously I can't actually address the whole of Christendom. But all too often as evangelicals, our thinking and speaking becomes an intra-evangelical discussion with no intention to engage with and confront others. Worse, it can become an intra-Anglican discussion, or an intra-baptist discussion. And so we become concerned only to confess the faith of our party, only to reform our party, only to grow our party. But to be catholic means to confess one's faith to the whole church, calling the whole church to examine it and, if it is the faith of Scripture, to get in line with it. As a "credo baptist" (horrible phrase, but don't have a better) I declare to the whole church that I am convinced Scripture teaches this: and if I am so convinced, I cannot be satisfied to allow any part of the church to ignore it.

I think the world could do with seeing some more catholic protestant orthodox evangelicals...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Anathema sit?

Adrian Warnock comments here on further developments in the "penal substitution debate". (If you're not familiar with the debate, I posted something about it here).

The question Adrian addresses now is simply this: isn't there a point where we have to recognise that there are people preaching a gospel which differs so substantially from the one that we have discerned in Scripture that we pronounce it to be "another gospel" - i.e. a message quite distinct from what we recognise as the gospel? And if we do so, is it not inevitable that we consider those preaching it to fall under the apostolic curse of Galatians 1:8?

Many people are up in arms about the very idea of Christians pronouncing curses. But the apostle Paul does it. He does it because the truth of the gospel is threatened. He does it because he believes that truth matters. He does it because he is confident that he has heard from God, and therefore confident that those who contradict him have not heard from God.

Now, if there are people out there who don't believe in penal substitution - who don't believe that Christ bore the penalty for human sin on the cross - then they presumably look at Adrian, and me, and many others as preaching a gospel which is different from theirs. If they believe that they have heard the gospel they preach from God in the pages of Scripture, then they must have the courage of their convictions to place us under the apostolic anathema. Then we would know exactly where we stood. We would have two gospels, both claiming to derive from Scripture, and we would be driven back to exegesis and theology to resolve the issue.

But if the other side will not utter the anathema, how can we believe that they seriously believe that they have heard their gospel from God in Scripture?

The anathema is simply this: a serious assertion that we have heard God's Word in Scripture and must obey it, and therefore necessarily we must issue a call to the rest of the church to hear and obey. Far from being arrogant, this is humble obedience and submission to the voice of God. If our opponents are sure that they hear God's Word, let them tell us so. But we must announce the message we have heard, and therefore we must place those with whom we disagree under the apostolic curse.

It is serious. One party is misrepresenting God. One party is preaching their own words as God's Word. One party therefore stands under the anathema. Let us carefully listen to the voice of God in Scripture, and then let us seriously and solemnly (and not without much sadness) take sides.

To do otherwise is to despise the truth.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Thoughts on Isaiah 53

Yesterday we studied Isaiah 53 with Oxford students, and I was confirmed in my belief that this really is the pinnacle of the Old Testament. A few things really struck me.

The first one was that you couldn't make this stuff up. It's just obscure enough that nobody could have looked at this chapter and made up a messiah-myth to match it; but it's clear enough that we can look back from our side of the cross and resurrection and see that it is a beautiful description of Jesus. Brilliant.

The second one was that none of the students we were with could grasp how you could read this chapter and not conclude that Christ bears the punishment due to human sin - that the wrath of God falls on him because he bears our iniquities. Honestly, I could understand how baffled they were - it seems pretty clear to me too, and absolutely glorious. In the apostle Paul's words, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

But the third thing was the thing I wanted to dwell on. Verses 2 and 3 paint a frankly pitiful picture of Christ in his incarnation:

For he grew up before him like a young plant
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Christ came without anything impressive - no great fanfare, no entourage, no obvious glory. In fact, not only was he without the obvious glory of deity, he hardly had the appearance of a man according to the end of chapter 52. There was nothing there to make human beings, who look on the outward appearance, think that this was the Son of God stepped into the world. Christ came not just with humility but with humiliation, because that was the way of the cross, the way in which redemption would be won.

And it makes me wonder. If this is God's modus operandi, why do I see so many Christians who think that if only the church looked more clever/friendly/cool/powerful/miraculous/rational/impressive then surely the world would fall to its knees in worship? Isn't that just the opposite? I wonder why we think this way.

Is it because we have absorbed some of the world's thinking about what works? Perhaps we don't believe that the way of the cross - the way of humiliation - will actually win the world. Perhaps we have bought into the lie of marketing. We have to sell our product, and to do so we have to latch on to those aspects of it that will appeal to our target market. But it is not our product. The gospel is God's "product", and he decides how and when it will be successful. If he decrees the way of the cross, we have to follow it.

I suspect, though, that our motivation is more self-interested than that. The way of the cross - the way of humiliation - is not comfortable for us. If we don't have the cleverest arguments, if we're not the coolest, if our church looks powerless... Well, all that reflects badly on us, and we'd hate to have people think that we were stupid, uncool, unimpressive. And so I hang on to my respectability rather than follow Jesus.

I wonder whether blessing is often withheld from us because we think we know what is best for the gospel and the church, and we follow our way instead of the way of the cross, sticking up for ourselves rather than being humiliated, proclaiming our own rationality rather than accepting the foolishness of the message preached. I wonder what God might do through us if we - if I - would only accept the way of the cross.

The old hymn says: It is the way the Master trod: should not the servant tread it still?