Friday, June 22, 2007

Handed Over and Delivered - Response to Alastair

Alastair has posted his thoughts on denominationalism in a couple of posts. His enlightening post is well thought out and worth a read to anyone interested in history or ecumenism. I do think that his post highlights some points of disagreement that I think the church as a whole should discuss more carefully. It concerns the nature of the church, and it serves as the spring board and foundation for the rest of Alastair’s posts. He begins with this:

When Christ founded His Church, He founded it to be a growing and maturing, rather than a static and unchanging entity. Primitivist ecclesiologies are suspect for this reason. The NT pattern of the Church is normative in certain respects, but is designed to be outgrown in others. Christ wants His Church to become more glorious with age and a reversion to the more simple worship and structures of a past age can be a step in the wrong direction.

Here Alastair clearly gives us his view of the church. The church was created immature and in need of growth or sanctification, if you will. The church we see in the NT, and OT for that matter, are normative and a guide but meant to be left behind like a child leaves behind print for cursive writing.

Alastair continues by giving us his view of history.

In the OT we see God directing the flow of history for the purpose of maturing His covenant people. He moulds and transforms His people through a number of powerful events and experiences. He builds up His people and then breaks them down, in order that they might be refashioned into something newer and more mature.

I agree that God directs the flow of history, and that history is about the covenant people of God. What I disagree with is the view of history that Alastair carefully unfolds in the rest of his post. I do not believe the pattern of the Bible is one of breaking down in order to build up into something bigger and better as if the church were 6 Million-Dollar Man who was broken down, but rebuilt into something better.

What I am arguing for is a view of the church that sees the church as the center piece of history, but does not see the church as fundamentally immature or in need of growing and maturing. I believe that God has given the Church all it needs in Christ and the Spirit. We do not need to mature past the apostles. Instead, we should imitate them as they imitate Christ, to paraphrase Paul. God’s direction of history is not one of breaking down in order to rebuild it better and more mature, but the history of the church is one of God ‘Handing Over and Delivering.’ This is the pattern I see laid out in the Bible, perhaps no where more clearly than in the book of Judges. The people (read the church) did what was right in their own eyes (read abandoned God), and God handed them over to their enemies. Then the people cried out to God (read repented and returned to God), and he sent them a deliverer. Then came peace until the people repeated step one. Some interaction with Alastair’s biblical work here is in order. Alastair argues:

He reforms the people under the leadership of Moses and elders and then later forms them into a priestly nation around the worship of the tabernacle. He settles them in the land as a group of tribes under the leadership of judges. Later He breaks apart this order in various ways. The tabernacle order is gradually dismantled and a united kingdom is formed under Saul and David. God later causes the kingdom to be split and begins to form new communities around the prophets. . . . Through this process the people of God changed radically and became something quite different from what they were at first.

With respect I disagree. First, I do not think this completely fits with the history given to us in the Bible. I agree that Moses and elders ran Israel, but I disagree that they were removed or that the forming of Israel into a priestly nation removed the elders from leadership at all. Do we not see Joshua rule with the elders of Israel (Joshua 23:2, Judges 2:7)? Not just elders but judges as well (Joshua 24:1). The Judges do not replace the elders of Israel either as we see them operate (Judges 11:5, 21:16, Ruth 4:4). We even see the elders during the United Kingdom (1 Samuel 15:30, 2 Samuel 3:17, 1 Kings 8:1). Even in the Divided Kingdom we see the elders (2 Kings 23:1). I fail to see the breaking down of this order at all.

Second, I do not think Alastair’s proposition does justice to the proclamation of God about one of these changes. Listen to what Samuel says when they end the time of Judges and institute the time of the United Kingdom. "But you have today rejected your God, who Himself saved you from all your adversities and your tribulations" (1 Samuel 10:19). This hardly sounds like a beneficial breaking down of an old order to be replaced with a new one of deeper trials and knowledge of oneself and of God. In fact, this appears to fit my understanding of ‘Handing Over and Delieverance’. Read the entire speech of Samuel at the coronation of Saul in 1 Samuel 12. He recounts the way God Handed Over and Delivered, and then goes on to say, "If you fear the LORD and serve Himi and obey His voice, and do not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then both you and the king who reigns over you will continue following the LORD your God. However, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, the hand of the LORD will be against you, as it was against your fathers" (I Samuel 12:14-15)

Third, I think there could be confusion in Alastair’s argument between the Church and the Kingdom of Israel. As we all agree both a state and a church existed in OT Israel. The government of the state changed, but the government of the church did not. Neither the judges nor the kings had any priestly role. They did not offer sacrifices, nor did they operate the tabernacle nor the temple. The few times that we see the political leaders interfere in the church, we see God condemn it as sin. Gideon and Uzziah come to mind as good examples. Saul murdering the priests also serves as a good illustration that the Kingdom of Israel and the Church were not one and the same. How the unfolding of a different form of government for the state of Israel leads to a radical growth for the church needs to be explained before Alastair’s theory can be adopted.

One might be wondering how does this affect anything. Well, I think the difference between Alastair’s model of a Church Growing into Maturity and my model of a Church going through ‘Handing-Over and Deliverance’ has several implications. Not the least of which is a rejection of Alastair’s argument that "a reversion to the more simple worship and structures of a past age can be a step in the wrong direction". When the church repents and is Delivered, they are returning to the Faith once delivered to all the Saints, not growing into a newer more mature understanding of themselves and God. The problem with the church and with us is sin, not immature ignorance. Again look at the book of Judges. The people sinned by whoring with false gods, and what they needed is to repent and return to the one true God. No development can be seen in their theology after each of these experiences. Look at David in I Samuel 11-12 and Psalm 32 and 51. David did not need to mature and learn something new about God, he just needed to return to God and repent of his sin. David knew adultery was sin. All Israel knew adultery was a sin. Yet David sinned, was Handed Over and repented and was Delivered. The same pattern that I believe runs through the pages of both the Old and New Testaments. Alastair applies his view:

If we truly believe that God’s guidance of history hasn’t ceased and that He is still moulding and forming, breaking down and reforming, His people through historical events we will have new perspectives with which to view these sorts of events.

I do believe that God continues to guide his church, but I do not follow the ‘Breaking down in order to mold into something better’ paradigm. Thus, Alastair and I are going to evaluate Church History through a completely different lens. Alastair’s paradigm makes him reject the idea that the Reformation was simply a rejection of false innovations in doctrine and practice and a return to a more Biblical model of the church. Such a view for Alastair is too simplistic, and reality is more complex. On the other hand, if Alastair’s historiography is wrong, then so too is his understanding of the Protestant-Rome split during the Reformation. Thus, the debate about the Reformation, future Ecumenism between Rome and Protestantism, as well as any denomination is wrapped up in one’s view and understanding of history. Sadly, many of the modern debates (like Federal Vision) are underpinned by differing historiographies. It is a subject that really could use more debate, refinement, and discussion. I know that I could sure use it.