Sunday, October 3, 2010

Where I Am Now, Part 2

So here is basically the conclusion I tried to reach before:

The authority of our faith and theology is not found in any revelation but in God himself.  We know God through revelation, but the shape of that revelation is not nearly as cut and dry as the Evangelical mindset wants it to be and cannot be equated merely with Scripture.  Scripture comes to us through the Church and is interpreted within the body of the Church alongside the tradition of beliefs not found in scripture.  To make sense of this sometimes confusing muddle we have to, I believe, start from the most basic, central part of our belief structures.  This, I think, is found in the Orthodoxy expressed in the Creeds.  This Orthodoxy then sets the parameters within which the rest of our theology can grow and develop, but it does not dictate theology.  In fact, I think it intentionally, allows for diversity.

Just as clarification, this is not to say that scripture is not important to our theology.  It is certainly very, very important.  But it cannot be the ultimate foundation because before we can use scripture we have to know what scripture is, and the essential point I'm trying to make is that this is not self-evident and therefore there must be some core, some foundation, that is prior to scripture and through which we interpret scripture.  And that prior foundation is the orthodoxy of the creeds. 

From this orthodoxy stems, I believe, two poles around which our theology is built- the pole of scripture and the pole of tradition.  The point of their being two poles is not to say that one overrides the other or that on some issues we follow one and on some the other.  The point, I think, is that through the processes of reason and experience we attempt to find the best harmony of scripture and the oldest, most widely attested (notice the importance of both of these tests, Apostolicity and Catholicity we might say) traditions to formulate an understanding of who we are as God's people in this world.  This process happens through  a cycle that involves both poles.  It will always be true that we read scripture in light of our traditions.  It should likewise be true that our traditions are informed and shaped by scripture.  It’s the combination of the flowing of influence back and forth, shaped by our reasoning and experience, that gives rise to our theological beliefs.

So from all of that, going to sketch out a very basic framework of where I am in terms of theology at this point in the journey:

The narrative of scripture is a narrative of redemption.  I think that word is much better than "salvation" because of the way the latter term is understood in popular discussions.  The narrative of scripture does not lay out a one-time solution to sin, a "say this prayer and get into heaven" kind of message.  Its not so much about conversion, I don't think, as about participation in what God is doing.  And what God is doing is working in and through the history of fallen, broken, sinful humanity to restore God's creation to the state of completed, perfect rest in which it was meant to exist.  The call to make disciples is not a call to fill our churches with converts but to call others to join in the work that God has given the Church- the work of living as though in the Kingdom in the midst of a world that is still opposed to the kingdom, a task we will continue until Christ returns, the enemy is completely vanquished, and the Kingdom is fully established.

This is the vision the church is meant to live out, I believe.  When we ask what that exactly looks like logistically we get little help from the New Testament, though.  We know that the practice of the church was to gather together, that some in those gatherings spoke as teachers, that they sang and prayed together and that they shared in a meal and cared for one another's needs.  We get a few hints about organization- there were some sort of elders who had a major leadership role, some sort of pastoral shepherding role, deacons who served the needs of the congregation, and beyond that we don't know much.

It happens, however, that early church traditions cohere very nicely with the picture of the New Testament and fill in that picture quite a bit.  Very, very early and almost universally the Episcopal form of church government develops.  Along side it is the practice of infant baptism as a rite of initiation for children of Christians.  The regular celebration of Eucharist as a "feast of thanksgiving" for Christ's death and resurrection and the saying of liturgical prayers based on the Lord's prayer are likewise an early and widely attested part of the church's practice.

So far everything I have said would, I think, fit very nicely within a Roman Catholic framework.  My Catholic roommate thinks that is wonderful, my Baptist roommate thinks me a traitor (not really, but I am officially the unfaithful Protestant)…  Unfortunately for the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), there are a couple of fairly significant issues for me that prevent me from going all the way to Catholicism.  Some of these include how we understand the sacraments (I'm not sure I buy into the idea that baptism actually forgives sins or that I can agree with transubstantiation).  But chief among these is the issue of Roman supremacy.  One of the reasons for the split between Eastern and Western Christianity is that in the West, Rome gains authority as the supreme Bishopric, while in the East, there is a concept of Equality of Bishops.  Honestly, I find a much more compelling case for the equality of bishops than for the supremacy of Rome and also am of the belief that equality of bishops can serve as a great safe-guard against the kind of corruption that emerged in the medieval Catholic Church and prompted the Reformation.

One of the things I have been challenged on both in thinking through theology on my own and in conversations since I have arrived here in New Haven is how to justify my existence as a Protestant, as someone who claims to be Orthodox while remaining part of a separatist group from the standpoint of the two Christian traditions that can claim a history stretching back to the Apostles themselves.  I certainly believe that reformation needed to happen in the Western Church.  However, I sincerely wish that it could have happened without schism in the Church.  The unfortunate fact of history is that the split did happen and that it can't be undone at this point.  I am deeply encouraged by the ecumenical movement, but I am not convinced that it will ever result in actual union.  What I do think can be accomplished by the ecumenical movement, however, is a new understanding of the Equality of Bishops in which Orthodoxy becomes the focus of our union and not shared episcopacy.  So for the moment I situate myself somewhere in the Anglican tradition and continue to pursue a better understanding of the Orthodoxy I think defines the entire Christian tradition.


  1. Alex,

    I'm a graduate student in England and I've just stumbled across your blog while reading a few different articles on the current Rob Bell debate. Very interesting blog! Reading your account here, your story is very similar to mine in many ways: non-denominational but broadly evangelical background, studied theology/biblical studies and became dissatisfied with(whilst not entirely rejecting)that background and grew closer to a Barthian view of authority/revelation. I suppose that the danger of this is the possibility of sliding into pure subjectivity, without any objective or axiomatic position. The suggestion of the Apostle's Creed as a core 'orthodoxy' has some merit, but even there you'll get different interpretations. What does it mean to say that Christ was resurrected, for example? The current Rob Bell debate is a case in point: a universalist position can fit (I would suggest)within the apostle's creed, and also within scripture and tradition, and yet so too can its opposite. If our authority is to be found primarily in God, rather than a source such scripture or tradition, then we're often just left in uncertainty, as He generally just isn't that accessible. When it comes to a theological debate where both sides of the argument can be supported in scripture, tradition, and our own experience of God, is that a signal to accept uncertainty, or should we try to make the best judgment we can? That's where I'm unsure, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Anton! Very interesting question, one that I've been working through, at least to some extent, lately in several posts on Hermeneutics.

    What I guess I would say in direct answer to your question is that I'm not sure this is an either/or situation. It is certainly true that within the bounds of authority or Orthodoxy as I have laid them out there is a very wide range of possible opinions. To that extent, I think we have to accept some degree of uncertainty if for no other reason than humility- there are some really smart people who think very differently about these issues, I can't make a definitive claim to "know" with any "certainty" what the answer is. Yet, that statement does not (or at least, I don't think it does) prevent us from making a best judgement. Holding our beliefs open to the possibility that we are wrong and that someone will convince us otherwise some day does not mean that we don't form a belief at all. We do the best we can with our understanding at a given time and then continue to grow and learn and see where that leads us.

    Does that make any sense?

  3. I think there's a great deal of wisdom in what you're saying (and I certainly agree that there's a need for humility when it comes to these sorts of questions!). A related issue is that of how to manage disagreements within the church. Essentially, at what point do we have to stop agreeing to disagree on something? This is particularly pertinent in England with the various divisions in the Anglican church here. For example, some people within the church disagree with the ordination of female bishops but are willing to accept them in the church for the sake of maintaining unity, whereas other who oppose female bishops see this as going a step too far, and can't see how they can remain within a church which allows them. Regardless of whether or not women should be allowed to be bishops, and I can see strong arguments for both sides, there is the further question of how far doctrinal or theological agreement can or should be sacrificed in favour of unity within the church. When it comes to personal theological opinion, there's certainly something to be said for recognising uncertainty and trying to make the best judgement possible at that time; when similar issues arise in a corporate setting, it gets even more difficult.


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