Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Denominational Unity, the Gospel, and Historiography

I want to post one more interaction with Alastair on the subject of Denominational unity that I began in this last post. The most recent post by Alastair illustrates well the difference between Alastair’s view of the church and God’s work in history, and mine, as well as illustrating a few troubling points about the Schaff-like historiography followed by Alastair.

First the difference this post illuminates is one of ecumenism. If the idea is that the church breaks apart and then builds back up with a greater understanding then one must look for a way to build back up the breaking down that has occurred in the fracturing of denominations. One must even find a way to build back up the broken relationship between Protestants and Rome. Alastair does just that through finding a definition of the term ‘gospel’ that can include both Rome and Geneva. Alastair claims:

All of this said, the gospel is not primarily a message about how individuals can go to heaven when they die, but is the proclamation of the advent of God’s kingdom in history.

Thus, Alastair can advocate unity around the gospel and dismiss the differences between how one gets to heaven in the Roman church and the Protestant churches. Now, I am not saying that Alastair does not care about justification by faith. I am not saying that Alastair denies justification by faith alone. I do not want to be misquoted. What I believe Alastair is saying is that we ought not to view a denial of justification by faith alone as a denial of the gospel.

I should take a minute and state that I do agree with Alastair that the term ‘gospel’ is much broader than just individual salvation. I do think it is about the Kingdom of God, the King Jesus, and about the triumph of the kingdom in the end when all are judged. But, I do think this includes the idea of salvation. After all a message about a heavenly kingdom without a message of how to get into the kingdom is hardly good news. Jesus in John 3 is amazed when Nicodemus does not know how to see and enter the kingdom. Thus the message of being born again in fundamental to the message of the kingdom.

Second, I think one of the troubling points about Alastair’s view of history rears its head in this post. Alastair earlier claimed that looking back in history for guidance is wrong because that church was less mature. In this post, Alastair advocates going back to Early Church Creed and their definition of the gospel. Although not stated, I believe it is a logical conclusion that Alastair believe in a unity based on the Ecumenical Creeds of the Early Church as do men like Andrew Sandlin. The inconsistency between the statements really needs to be addressed. If the early church was a less mature church, why should we use their definition of gospel? I should state here that I disagree with Alastair about the definition of the gospel in the early church creeds. Alastair claims the early creeds define the gospel as about the Kingdom coming in Christ, who fulfilled Scripture, and delivered his people from the present evil age. I am not going to enter into a long interaction with the Early Creeds, I simply do not believe the creeds in question set out to define the gospel. All of the early creeds were written to address specific heresies that had arisen. The Apostle’s Creed is the only possible exception and it was written to be a baptismal confession, not a definition of the gospel.

Still, the one question remains for Alastair and those who follow that line of thinking. If the church is maturing as time passes why argue for unity based on the lowest common denominator? Why argue for unity based on the most immature statements (according to their historiography) that exist? Why not argue for unity only on the basis of the latest theological development and level of maturity? Alastair’s view of history drives him to view innovations in theology as steps forward, as growing maturity. Yet, his view of history also pushes him to rebuild what has been broken, such as the unity of the church, anyway possible. Alastair and those with him need to claim unity based on the past and wisdom of the past all while asking us to put away the wisdom of the past and embrace the new, mature thinking.

I for one would rather have a different view of history. One that embraces history, embraces unity on the basics of Christianity that have been embraced throughout all ages of the church, and sees the Church created in full maturity just as God created Adam and Eve and the whole world as a fully mature world.


Andrew Duggan said...

Thanks for the nice defense of biblical ecclesiology.