Thursday, July 18, 2019

He has spoken

I'm re-reading a bit of John Owen at the moment (On the true nature of a gospel church - volume XVI of his Works, for those following along at home).  Owen is very definitely of his era: a scholastic theologian, meaning that he pushes for precision in every point and is very careful in his analysis; in particular, he milks the Scriptures for every drop of truth he can see in them, and works hard to bring those truths into relation with one another.  It sometimes makes for tedious reading (okay, okay, John - you've made your point), but I basically like it.  There is something in the scholastic instinct which to my mind honours God, by seeking the coherence of his words and works.  "Fear of scholasticism is the mark of a false prophet", as Barth remarks in CD I/1.

Behind Owen's rigour there lies the conviction that God has spoken, and still speaks through the Scriptures; and therefore whatever question is raised in the church it is to the Scriptures that we ought to turn.

I think we've lost that conviction a little bit, or perhaps a lot depending on what circles you move in.  My guess is that it happened like this, although I freely admit I've made no effort to check whether history maps on to this analysis.

In the olden days (that is to say, the 16th and 17th centuries), the three convictions that (1) God has something to say on all points of Christian doctrine, that (2) it is in principle possible with the aid of the Spirit to hear what he says from Scripture, and that (3) it is our absolute duty to listen to, trust, and obey God in every detail of what he says led to the long confessional documents that characterise that era.  These confessions reflect a belief that God has something clear and certain to say about, for example, the extent of the atonement, the precise mode of church government, the proper administration of baptism (to whom, when and how), even the role of the civil magistrate and the limits of state power.  They are, as I mentioned long documents.

The failure to come to a consensus on many of these points in Protestantism, with the multiplication of church associations and the writing of ever more lengthy doctrinal statements, undermined over time the central convictions.  Of course no Protestant - no Christian! - could easily sell out point 3: we certainly have to hear and obey God in everything he says.  But convictions 1 and 2 begin to waver, or at least to function less vitally in the church: perhaps God has not spoken to every detail, perhaps it is not possible for us to reliably read off every detail of what he has said from Scripture.  Of course some theological positions were never committed to these assumptions - to be an episcopalian, for example, you have to assume that the church is given wide latitude to form its own church government, and that means assuming that God has not given direction on the matter (or at least, that he has not done so in Scripture).

Modern evangelicalism is characterised by, amongst other things, its desire to bring Christians who are committed to the Bible together.  This is often achieved by drawing a dividing line through theological issues, splitting them into primary and secondary.  The aim of this division was not, originally, to undermine the claim that God speaks into all sorts of doctrinal questions; the aim was to clarify which doctrines came so close to the heart of the gospel message that to distort or abandon them was to ruin the church's faith and witness.  Those doctrines are classified as primary.  Others, judged less close to the heart of the matter, were judged secondary.  We can talk and argue about them, but we shouldn't divide over them, at least not completely.  (Everyone accepts that practically it is difficult to run a church without agreeing on, for example, who are the proper subjects of baptism; but congregations which disagree on this could still co-operate in mission organisations and local outreach, for example).

This is helpful and commendable; nobody wants to go back to the divisiveness of early modern confessionalism, I hope.  But I suspect that over time it has undermined further our already wobbly convictions.  If we're working with these people, worshipping with these people, it becomes harder to think that their disagreement with us over 'secondary' issues is a matter of them not hearing properly what God says on the topics in question.  It is easier to say that God has not spoken, or at least that he does not speak clearly, on these subjects.  That gives us latitude to fudge them without any sense of disobedience on our part, or any apprehension that our good co-evangelical friends are disobedient.  But this naturally leads to the idea that these 'secondary issues' don't really matter: if they did, God would speak clearly on them.  So rather than work hard (and scholastically) to hear God, we shrug and let everyone go his own way on these things.

The fundamental problem here is that we have stopped listening to God.  That means, in practice, that we are doing what lies in us to prevent the Lord Jesus from governing his church.  (Thankfully, what lies in us is really not very much).  Out of fear of awkward chats, and a disinclination to work hard, think carefully, and be precise, we have done our best to shut out the voice of God.

But he has spoken, and because he has spoken he is speaking; and no topic is beyond the scope of his sovereign speech.  Might it not be better to try to hear and obey him?  If it leads to us having to acknowledge frankly that we think others, whilst we see them as in many ways faithful brothers and sisters, have failed to hear and obey - would that be the end of the world?  And might it not even be helpful if it exposes us to the same sort of critique from them?  Might we not together expect to hear God speak more clearly as we mutually rebuke and exhort each other?

I hope for a future with more scholasticism in this sense, more rigour, more fiery theological debate between people who acknowledge one another to belong to Christ's faithful.  I hope for a future in which God's word rules God's people.  I hope for a future in which the Lion's roar is heard clearly again.

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