Why I Won’t Convert

In the wake of my post “Honouring Mary as Protestants,” I found myself drawn into an amicable Reformed-Orthodox dialogue of sorts on Orthodox-Reformed Bridge.  In the discussion, I was challenged to explain my rejection of the idea that any tradition preserved intact and entire the timeless essence of true Christianity–did this not make me postmodernist, rejecting the objectivity of truth?  Was this not just an excuse for Protestant subjectivism, picking and choosing my own little mix of traditions as I saw fit?  In my replies, I summarized my view on the relationship of Protestantism and tradition, and why I see the call to “submit” to “the Church” as a cop-out, fuelled by a desire for easy solutions to doctrinal corruption and division.  The following is adapted from those comments: 

I am not a “postmodernist”–I do not think that all we have are “fragments of the Gospel.” I believe that the Gospel once delivered to the saints is a rock upon which the Church is built, and from which it can never depart. I believe that the heart of that faith remains constant over the millennia, but as history moves forward, the Church grows (and occasionally backslides) in its understanding of that faith, and that, so profound is the truth to which we are called to witness that no single formulation of it can claim to have captured it fully; on the contrary, all we can claim is to have testified to an aspect of it, and must be ready to consider that other Christians, or other eras of the Church, may have testified to another aspect, which we should not immediately rule out simply because it doesn’t line up exactly with our own. I also believe that under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church is advancing, and that we can be confident that on the whole, our grasp of the truth of God in Christ will grow rather than shrink.

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

 

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them. 

It’s hard to see how this can be dismissed as “convenient selectivity.” To my mind, this posture is a far more difficult and uncomfortable one than that which seeks the comfort of some ossified and de-historicized tradition that will decide in advance all questions, so that we can simply rest on, say, the determinations of the first 700 years of the Church (or some idealised compendium of them), without having to wrestle with the Scriptures ourselves.

The critic may respond that this makes us each into our own popes, listening to no authority but ourselves. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it requires us to listen to authority even more. Instead of simply taking one set of authorities from one period of the Church, we have to take seriously the authority of Augustine, of Athanasius, of Gregory Nazianzen, of Anselm, of Gregory Palamas, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Hooker, of Newman, of Schmemann, of John Paul II, of our own parents and pastors and all those that God has put into our lives. We have to do our best to listen respectfully to all these voices, instead of just one or two, and to submit our own judgments to their greater wisdom, seeking to find harmony when they disagree with one another, and when we cannot harmonise, making painful decisions about who to follow. And let me tell you, this is a hard thing to do. It cannot, in any case, be rightly done in an individualist, me-and-my-Bible way, but only in constant dialogue with other Christians, waiting patiently for the Spirit to guide us through the wisdom of our communities.

I should add, moreover, that this should always be done from a standpoint of submission to a particular tradition in which one has been called, using the language and categories of that tradition as one’s starting point and interpretive grid. For me, that’s the Reformed tradition. I have all kinds of problems with that tradition, but that’s where God has put me, and I believe therefore that I am called to, as much as possible, critique and revise that tradition where necessary from within itself (while listening attentively, as I have said above, to other voices from Church history), not by constructing a personal postmodern smorgasbord that contains pieces of all traditions but the heart of none.



What is Liberalism?

What does it mean to be theologically liberal?  The term, like all terms used pejoratively more often than not, is frightfully slippery.  To my American evangelical friends, the line to liberalism is generally crossed somewhere around denying literal six-day creation.  After that point, for many, there’s a pretty straightforward progression running to allowing women deacons, then allowing women ministers, then condoning homosexuality, then ordaining homosexuals (with a denial of the historicity of Scripture thrown in somewhere along that line).  On the other hand, I know and respect a minister here who would be fine with all of the above, but would not at all consider himself a liberal.  For him, the difference is that for him, God is at the center of everything, whereas for the liberal, Christianity is basically humanism with God as a sideshow, an assistant, an important additional factor.  Or, to put it more dogmatically, the difference is perhaps over the deity of Christ; if everything depends on God, then Christ must be God, but if it’s mainly about being a good human, then no need for Christ to be anything more than that.  

This ambiguity is a bit surprising because it’s not as if “liberal” were merely a pejorative term, one of those things that everyone calls everyone else but no one admits to for themselves.  There are millions of Christians who would enthusiastically identify themselves as “liberals” and would wear it as a badge of pride, and there have been for decades.  But the battle-lines have not always been the same.  Originally, they were mainly theological: a liberal was someone who denied fundamental doctrines like the resurrection of Christ, the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the rest.  Now, these yardsticks don’t seem particularly important, and debate seems to center around ethical and gender role questions.  Some might at first suppose that the shift is just one of a retreating battle line–liberals consider their doctrinal innovations already established, and now they’re moving on to other issues.  But that is clearly not the case; many of the people pushing for ethical liberalism are a very different group than the earlier group pushing for doctrinal liberalism, and are indeed often doctrinally orthodox on those earlier disputed points. 

Conservatives might want to say that the common element, the fount of liberalism, is a denial of Scriptural inerrancy and sufficiency.  Once you let that go, then liberalism of one sort or another will follow.  But I’m not so sure anymore if this is as simple and neat a solution as it seems.  For one thing, there are many Catholics who would not hold to a Protestant doctrine of Scripture, but would insist on the ability of tradition to supplement Scripture, an attitude that it seems might open the floodgates of liberalism; but many of this persuasion are staunchly conservative.  Moreover, if we once allow that there is a diversity of genres in Scripture, a simple appeal to Scriptural inerrancy is not so simple.  For instance, I might confess that I believe Scripture is entirely authoritative and without error in what it wishes to teach us about doctrine and practice.  I might just argue that certain portions of Scripture do not aim to teach us doctrine and practice directly, or in all the same way.  Job, for instance, may be intended as an edifying story, not a historical account.  What if I’m convinced that the same is true about Genesis?  Is this liberalism?  What if I believe that Genesis is a perfectly authoritative story, just not perfectly authoritative history, because it was not intended to be history?  Couldn’t I say I am actually taking the Bible more seriously than the fundamentalist, because I am willing to pay serious attention to the variety of genres it presents to me?  Likewise, I might take the Bible with full seriousness, yet argue that some of its particular ethical commands were intended only to be particular, to apply to a certain context, and that they do not apply in other, later contexts.  (For instance, most evangelicals effortlessly do this with things like the usury prohibition.)

Perhaps we could propose something like this as a distinguishing criterion: If someone honestly desires to apply and act on what they take the Bible to be saying to them, they are not a liberal, but if someone says, “Yes, I know that the Bible intends to say to us X, but I think it’s wrong and I will do Y,” then they are a liberal.  The problem, of course, is that this reduces everything to intentionality, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  If someone honestly believes that the Bible’s warnings on homosexuality do not mean to condemn modern homosexual couples, are they not a liberal?  The problem becomes more pressing when we consider dogmatic questions, like the deity of Christ.  If someone honestly believes that Scripture doesn’t teach the deity of Christ, and thinks they are taking Scripture with full seriousness, do we not call them a liberal?  

Alternatively, we could make the criterion straightforwardly credal–if you affirm what is in the Nicene Creed without reservation, you’re orthodox; if you want to amend it, you’re liberal.  But that of course leaves us with the dilemma that much modern “liberalism” is ethical, not dogmatic, and the creeds have nothing to say about ethics. 

I confess that I do not have a clear answer to this question.  Perhaps a clear-cut defintion isn’t necessary, but it would be nice to be able to pin it down more precisely than common parlance seems to.  I welcome answers that any readers might want to suggest.