Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wednesday with Wesley: Unity and Schisms (the very Late Edition)

Ok, let me start of by saying I know it is Thursday not Wednesday. I had wanted to post this yesterday but just did not get the chance too. So if you will allow, I consider this the very late Wednesday edition.

Since I have been thinking about essentials and unity I thought it would be fitting to post portions of John Wesley's sermon On Schisms. Certainly Wesley having had to wrestle with the call by many to separate from the Church of England would have some insightful things to say on the subject.

Wesley starts off his sermon trying to define the word schism landing on the following definition "A causeless separation from a body of living Christians". He based his sermon on three passages in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 1:10, 11:18, 12:24-25). Wesley than asks...
I shall be thankful to any one who will point to me any other place in the inspired writings, where this word “Schism” is to be found. I remember only these three.
With the aid of computer linked lexicons and concordances (that were lacking in the 18th century) we can quickly find a few more verses , but the meaning still remains clear, divisions are destructive.
And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. (Mark 2:21)
Wesley warns us to be on guard against schisms...
It is evil in itself. To separate ourselves from a body of living Christian, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength, nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows could, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of he Spirit in the bound of peace. It is therefore contrary to all those commands of God, wherein brotherly love is enjoined: To that of St. Paul, “Let brotherly love continue:” — that of St. John, “My beloved children, love one another;” — and especially to that of our blessed Master, “This is my commandment, That ye love on another, as I have loved you” Yea, “By this,” saith he, “shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another.”
...I will make the case my own: I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have do desire no design to separate from it, till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate form it without delay. To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to others doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation, by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with. But, setting aside this case, suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate from it without any such necessity, I am just chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evils consequent upon that separation.

I have spoke the more explicitly upon this head, because it is so little understood; because so may of those who profess much religion, nay, and really enjoy a measure of it, have not the least conception of this matter, neither imagine such a separation to be any sin at all. They leave a Christian society with as much unconcern as they go out of one room into another. They give occasion to all this complicated mischief. and wipe their mouth, and say they have done no evil! Whereas they are justly chargeable, before God and man, both with an action that is evil in itself, and with all the evil consequences which may be expected to follow, to themselves, to their brethren, and to the world.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Salvation Essentials... or what is a Christian

In 1863 Charles Spurgeon preached a sermon called "The Root of the Matter" in which he dealt with the essentials of being a Christian. Thanks to the PyroManiacs for posting some of his sermon, which I found in its entirety here.
The tree can do without some of its branches, though the loss of them might be an injury. But it cannot live at all without its roots—the roots are essential—take those away, and the plant must wither. And thus, my dear Friends, there are things essential in the Christian religion. [...] But there are some distinct truths of Revelation that are essential in such a sense that those who have not accepted them cannot be called Christians. And those who willfully reject them are exposed to the fearful anathemas which are hurled against apostasy. (emphasis added)
There are doctrines that are so essential that they define Christianity. I want to lay out what those are, but before we define what these doctrines are we should first attempt to define the term "Christian". Using the Scriptures I would offer up the following definition - a Christian is an adopted member of God's family (Mark 3:34-35; Romans 8:14-16,23,9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5, Ephesians 2:19).

Using our definition of a Christian as someone who is a member of God's family then certainly a belief in God whose family we hope to become a part of (Hebrews 11:6) must top the list of "distinct truths of Revelation that are essential". Surprisingly a Barna study showed...
Seven out of ten adults (70%) say that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing creator of the universe who still rules it today. That includes the 93% of born again adults who hold that conviction.
It was surprising to see that 70% of adults in America believe in the Creator God of the universe (understanding that this may include ideas about a God that is not based on the Scriptures). However one has to wonder what those other 7% of "born again" believers think about God.

Another important fact from this definition is that we are adopted into the family of God. The fact that there is an adoption implies that we do not start out as members of God's family but rather as orphans. This fact should bring two questions to mind 1) why are we orphans and 2) how does one become adopted into God's family.

There are a set of essential doctrines that answer the question why we are orphans. We are orphans because we are all sinners (Rom 3:10,23) and God is holy and requires us to be holy as well (Lev 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15-16). Without understanding that fact we can move no further (and in a single blog entry on essentials we can only dive so deep on this). John the Baptist - the forerunner of Jesus - made the paths straight by making it clear to people that they were sinners because without this understanding we have no need for a Savior. The problem was that the Jews at that time were relying on the fact that they were related to Abraham and thus were in a sense already in the family of God. They did not realize that sin prevented them from being part of that family. John came so that they might repent (change their mind about what they currently believed and accept the fact that they were sinners).

There are a set of essential doctrines that answer the question about how we are to be adopted. Paul in writing the first letter to the Corinthians lists the essential truths that make up the gospel message...
15:1 Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, 15:2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. 15:3 For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, 15:4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures,
Here we are presented with two essential truths - that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. Using the Roman Road as our guide we have already seen that we are sinners (Rom 3:23) who are orphans that are separated from God. However God loves us and graciously offers us forgiveness through Jesus who has died for our sins. It is through His sacrifice that we are reconciled to God (Rom 5:8,10-11)and thus adopted into the family.

Jesus death on the cross allows us to be forgiven by God and this fact necessitates both the humanity and Diety of Christ. The humanity of Jesus allows Him to identify with us and enables Him to suffer and die for our sins. The Deity of Christ is required so that being sinless He could be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (Isa 53:9; 2 Cor 5:21). If Jesus were not Deity how could He be sinless? If He were not sinless how could He pay the penalty for our sins? It is the fact that Jesus was the perfect Passover Lamb that makes it possible for His death to atone for our sins. Yet a Barna study surprisingly demonstrates that many do know accept this essential part of the gospel...
Although a core teaching of the Christian faith is the divinity and perfection of Jesus Christ, tens of millions of Christians do not accept that teaching. More than one-fifth (22%) strongly agreed that Jesus Christ sinned when He lived on earth, with an additional 17% agreeing somewhat. Holding the opposing view were 9% who disagreed somewhat and 46% who disagreed strongly. Six percent did not have an opinion on this matter.
At this point I have tried to establish the core set of essential beliefs for being a Christian trying to show how they all tie together. Taking any one of them away would alter the gospel message.
  • Belief in God.
  • Belief that we are all sinners.
  • Belief that God is Holy.
  • Belief that Christ was both human and divine.
  • Belief that Christ died for our sins.
  • Belief that Christ was raised on the third day.
These make up the "essential[s] in the Christian religion such that those who have not accepted them cannot be called Christians. Does accepting them however make one a Christian? There is one more thing that is required.
  • Belief that we are saved by faith alone, apart from works (sola fide)
Spurgeon includes this essential in his sermon. As does John Wesley who in 1741 preached a sermon that tackled the question "If it be inquired, “What more than this is implied in the being altogether a Christian?” I answer,..."
There is yet one thing more that may be separately considered, though it cannot actually be separate from the preceding, which is implied in the being altogether a Christian; and that is the ground of all, even faith. Very excellent things are spoken of this throughout the oracles of God. “Every one,” saith the beloved disciple, “that believeth is born of God.” “To as many as received him, gave he power to become the sons of God. even to them that believe on his name.” And “this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” Yea, our Lord himself declares, “He that believeth in the Son hath everlasting life; and cometh not into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life.” (emphasis added)
It is not just understanding and agreeing with a set of doctrines (the head knowledge) but also the will/heart that trusts and places confidence in these truths - faith (Heb 11:1) - that causes one to be adopted into God's family.

This post was a followup to one on essentials and unity a few days ago.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What is Essential?

One of my favorite theology blogs Parchment and Pen has done a series of posts on trying to identify and get people to think about the essentials on Christianity. The goal is for people to rethink when unity should be broken or more importantly when it should not. The theme is the popular quote:

“In Essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”

This is certainly a principle made in Ephesians 4:3 that tells us to

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Last year Michael posted a test, which I recommend you take - it will make you think and that is a good thing.

Today his blog entry groups several doctrines into various "buckets" based on essentiality.
  • Essential for Salvation
  • Historic Orthodoxy
  • Traditional Orthodoxy
  • Denominational Orthodoxy
  • Important but not essential
  • Not Important
  • Speculation

As I wrestle through this task I found Michael's wise suggestion of 4 criteria to consider helpful - primarily this boiled down to 1) is the doctrine clearly taught as central in Scripture and 2) is the doctrine something believed as central universally and historically by the church.

I understand what he is driving at on that second point as Augustine used this principle in identifying the canon of Scripture as laid out in "On Christian Doctrine" Book 2, Chapter 8:

Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal.
The idea here would be that when in doubt about the interpretation and essentiality of a doctrine consider "the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches" - here catholic means universal and not Roman Catholic. Using this approach is why the book 1st Clement is not part of the NT Canon - some held that it should be but apparently not the greater number or more authoritative churches.

The historical orthodoxy bucket is clarified as being "what has been believed by the historic Christian church for the last two thousand years, no matter what tradition" as well as it being held as a central belief. In the blog the later date priority of Matthew over Mark, and the authorship of Matthew and 2 Peter are not placed in this group even though they were believed by the historic Christian church because they are not considered central doctrines. In my mind this bucket can become subjective since it is not whether a doctrine can be shown as universally held historically that puts it in the bucket but also whether it was considered a central part of the message of Christianity as well. So is the date priority of Mark worth breaking unity over - no, but it was historically held. I agree that what is historically important should influence our thinking and for me the major creeds jump to the front as candidates for centrally held historic doctrines. If the doctrine was part of a creed it was likely central to the Christian church.

However as one places doctrine into buckets the traditional orthodoxy/denominational orthodoxy become essentially the same and could have been combined into the "important and essential/worth dividing over" - at least in my opinion as I think through my own set of beliefs and there essentiality. Why? Because first it is at this level of doctrine where the divisions tend to take place (just look at the items placed there on the blog) and thus are where unity is broken. This would make these doctrines "important and essential" to those holding them regardless of the source (historic, tradition, denominational etc).

For example the doctrine held by the RCC - bucketed as "traditional" and stated on the blog as "[b]elief that both Scripture and unwritten tradition have ultimate authority as they are interpreted by the Magisterium" is certainly not an essential belief for salvation (or historic though the RC would disagree) but is certainly important enough to break unity over since the source of authority (Scripture or Magisterium), the nature of authority (infallible or not), who has authority (elders or Pope/Bishop) and even the source of truth are not held to be the same. This would naturally make governing and teaching the church in unity a near impossibility.

Another doctrine listed as traditional is the "[b]elief that justification is through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone", which would be part of the essential for salvation list for me regardless of where the doctrine is placed in a historic/traditional/denominational sense. Same for the doctrine that "Christ is the only way to salvation" (which was placed in the historic bucket) this is an essential for salvation for me too. See my comment #23.

I do see the point and importance of identifying where a doctrine comes from historically, however the main source of truth is Scripture. History certainly can provide an excellent guide when one is wrestling with what one believes and whether or not it is worth dividing over but once one is practically trying to put them into buckets from a salvation and unity/division point of view I see these "extra buckets" of tradition/denominational as less useful.

Certainly I think we could all consider expanding our sphere of unity in our theological debates and stances but there are some issues of practicality as well as importance that probably must be considered as well if a church is to conduct itself in an orderly manner that strengthens the body (1 Cor 14:26,40). For example the gender of the teacher and baptism,in my opinion, are not essential for salvation. However the gender of a teacher and the age and beliefs of a baptismal candidate could well cause serious problems in a local church if there is wide spread disagreement in these areas.

Kudos and blessings to Michael at the Parchment and Pen for putting this series together and hopefully my comments on the buckets he proposed will be taken for what they are - which is what that I found them useful as I work through the test he proposed. But hey even if your list of essential buckets may vary I am not willing to divide over it...