Musings on mere Christianity and ‘A Reforming Catholic Confession’

My Christian identity, from school days onwards (that’s quite a while now!) has been shaped by a commitment to a broad, inclusive evangelicalism.

There are other ways to say this (and I know these phrases can mean different things to different people):

  • an ecumenical evangelicalism
  • generous orthodoxy
  • non or inter-denominational Christianity
  • mere Christianity
  • catholic Christianity

I guess that commitment was shaped early on by mentors and leaders who led me to faith and discipled me. Northern Irish Christianity gets a lot of bad press, but my experience was of a warm hearted faith fostered in local church and para-church organisations.

That instinct for holding to the centre has been reinforced over the years in at least three ways – two positive and one negative:

i. Experience

Some have questioned whether such a thing as evangelicalism even exists … Friendships forged with Christians from many traditions and backgrounds – in work, in ministry, in different churches, in travel – is evidence that it does. Evangelicalism is an ethos as well as a commitment to core Christian doctrines. Seeing the reality of others’ love for God, love for the gospel, love for each other and love for the world among Christians of many different hues is a powerful testimony to the lived reality of that evangelical ethos. The Christian faith is more than knowing truth; it is coming to know God through faith in his Son and by being made alive by his Spirit. Those ‘in Christ’ are united in him and thus to each other. That unity finds expression on common concerns –  in prayer, in study, in worship and in mission together. I work in a place where this unity around common priorities is visible every day –  and it is good. It speaks of the unifying work of the Spirit and the universal application of the gospel to all people.

ii. Theology

That instinct has also been interrogated and analysed theologically – in a PhD on evangelicalism, in writing, research, reading and teaching. The more I go on as a Christian, the more I am convinced that the Scriptures tell a theological story that is coherent, understandable, powerful and true. It is the core story, with the person and work of Jesus at the centre, that we need to focus on and unite around in dialogue with the Great Tradition of the Church catholic.

iii. Schism

Another thing I am more convinced by as I go on as a Christian, is how scandalous division is among Christians who claim to be committed to the evangel. By division I do not mean only where churches divide and split, but where Christians who manifestly agree on the important stuff choose not to work together, not to speak well of each other, to ignore each other and sometimes directly to compete with each other.

I can understand this at an intellectual level – it is usually around what I call an ‘affinity issue’ rather than a core doctrine of faith. An affinity issue is one which marks out a particular sub-grouping of evangelicals. For example, it might be a particular view of the gifts of the Spirit, or of the structure of church leadership, or a stress on a particular aspect of the atonement, or mode of baptism and so on. Commitment to affinity then trumps commitment to a broader unity. Working with those most like you is most comfortable and ‘safe’ after all. You create and forge your own alliances and tend to circle in the wagons tighter than the broad circumference of mere evangelicalism.

But, to be honest, I don’t understand this mentality at a theological and experiential level. Theologically it seems to question the sufficiency of the gospel. Experientially it seems to question the work of the Spirit.

All this leads in to a REFORMING CATHOLIC CONFESSION just published as part of the 500 year commemoration of the Reformation and signed by a wide spectrum of well-known (mostly American) evangelicals. For a quick glance at the signatories, that spectrum embraces Reformed, Arminian, Pentecostal and others .. If I was to make a critical comment, it would be the overwhelmingly American and Western and male make up of those involved in its drafting. A commitment to global evangelical unity needs to reflect that breadth in its formation.

But it is well worth reading and I’d be happy to sign it. It leaves affinity issues to one side as much as  possible in articulating the core implications of the Reformation Solas.

Their motive is given thus:

One of the best ways to commemorate the Reformation is to remember the Reformers’s original vision for Catholic unity under canonical authority. This original vision has sometimes been forgotten not only by the heirs of the Reformation, but also by its critics, who often fixate on the divisions within Protestantism. Thus, a number of leaders from across the Protestant spectrum have come together to honor the original vision of the Reformers by demonstrating that, despite our genuine differences, there is a significant and substantial doctrinal consensus that unites us as “mere Protestants.”

Point 9 of ‘The Explanation’ expands on this motivation:

In sum, the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

In Point 10 it states

… in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

Point 22 expands on this pursuit of a generous broad evangelical ethos

We recall and commend John Wesley’s plea that Protestants display a catholic spirit, a call for right-hearted believers to give up their prideful insistence on their right opinions in order to establish right relations with others whose hearts and minds are set on following Jesus according to the Scriptures. We resolve to rededicate ourselves to dialogue in, with, and for the communion of saints, and not to settle for thinking and doing things separately that we can in good conscience think and do together, for the sake of our common witness to the one church of Jesus Christ.

Amen to that.

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What have evangelicals to learn from Catholics?

 

vaticanI’ve been working my way through a very thorough book by an evangelical scholar on Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in order to write a review of the book for a journal.

This post isn’t primarily about that book, but it did raise a question. The structure of the book was a point by point assessment of official Catholic doctrine. It was fairly done. The author brought out commonalities as well as differences. There were substantial numbers of both.

Overall, the approach was to analyse and assess RC doctrine from a particular (Reformed) evangelical perspective. The thrust of the book was to conclude that despite many areas of agreement, there are multiple substantial areas of disagreement that should preclude any notion that the Reformation is over or that evangelicals and Catholics should cooperate in mission and witness.

Again, that conclusion is not what this post is about. It is more about a lingering question I was left with. It wasn’t asked in the book because it tended to be assumed that evangelical doctrine and practice is the yardstick by which to evaluate other systems. The critique was all flowing one way.

What has evangelical faith and practice got to learn from Roman Catholic faith and practice?

This is a self-critical question. It assumes that ‘we’ haven’t got it all right. It is open to learn from others. It implies a certain humility as we look at ourselves, our level of Christ-likeness, our churches, and our often disunited factions.

Despite that last sentence, this is not asking for a long list of the failures or weakness of evangelical faith and practice, nor is it asking for a similiar list of Catholic weaknesses. It’s framed postively …  So another way of asking this is

What for you are the ‘best’ aspects of Catholicism from which evangelicals can learn and be reformed by?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (5): the sexual revolution and Christian marriage

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

OK,  some thoughts on marriage in this little mini-series set off by reflecting on allegory and the Song of Songs.

Contemporary Western attitudes to marriage are complex and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is legally and socially less significant – a lifestyle choice ignored by increasing numbers of people. Yet, on the other hand, it is a status vigorously pursued as a legal and human right for those formerly excluded from a male-female heterosexual understanding of marriage.

Much confusion arises from different understandings of what marriage actually is. Modern views of marriage are, at key points, historically novel – radically so. Yet, such has been the cultural success of the modern concept of marriage, that it has swept all before it – including much Christian understanding and practice of marriage. The result has been that much Christianity in the West lacks the theological resources to imagine marriage, sex, and the body in radically counter-cultural ways.

So what is this dominant modern view of marriage? It is shaped by at least two major innovations:

Innovation 1: A revolution in the understanding of sex

  • celibacy is incomprehensible (our previous post)
  • being sexually active is an essential part of being human; repression of who we are sexually is harmful and oppressive
  • sex is an activity detached from reproduction. (This is technically possible only in the blink of an eye historically. Remember that for the early church fathers sex was only legitimate if done for procreation. Sex for pleasure was a venial sin).
  • Detachment from procreation frees sex to be a leisure activity – primarily a source of pleasure, fun and self-expression.
  •  Thus sex becomes an end in itself – a source of personal self-fulfilment and expression of identity
  • Modern sex is therefore deeply linked to modern consumerism – it is no accident that sex is used to sell pretty well anything.

Innovation 2: Romantic fulfilment

  • Everywhere in a thousand ways Western culture affirms that the path to individual fulfilment is through authentic romantic love
  • Such love is equal, sexual, intimate and exciting. It is the Other who meets our needs and us theirs. It is ‘us’ and then the rest of the outside world.
  • This vision of romantic love is also new historically – never before in human history has happiness, meaning, fulfilment and purpose been so invested in one relationship.
  • The stakes are high – if the relationship doesn’t deliver exalted hopes then its future is in serious doubt
  • Rising divorce rates suggest that our ‘all or nothing’ investment in marriage / the ‘perfect one’ / ‘true love’ as the ultimate source of identity, happiness and future hope is unrealistic and unsustainable. There are sadly a lot of broken dreams out there.

How has this framework impacted marriage ?

At least two ways:

1. You might think that it would undermine marriage and you would be right.

Marriage rates in Ireland are still high, but on the decline. Many places in the West are far ‘ahead’ in this trend. This makes sense – logically marriage is an optional extra, unnecessary to a fulfilling relationship. For increasing numbers people the thinking is, why bother?

Easier and quicker divorce also follows – if it is not working out, then get out. (I’m speaking big picture here. I’m well aware that many try heroically and self-sacrificingly to make a marriage work and it still fails with associated enormous heartbreak. It takes two to make a relationship function. But the trend is a devaluing of marriage as a life-long commitment).

2. If marriage is only about fulfilment, love, romance, sex, mutuality and happiness then gender also becomes logically irrelevant.

The reshaping of marriage in the West has been about the rights of two individuals ‘in love’ – so it matters not if you are heterosexual or homosexual or somewhere else on a spectrum of human sexuality. This explains the social revolution of the West’s rapid adoption of same-sex marriage. The speed that traditional norms have been abandoned is indicative of how firmly entrenched a romantic individualist view of sex and marriage has become.

Notice though that children are secondary to this pursuit of authentic love. In contrast to a historic, traditional understanding of marriage as the context for conceiving and raising children, the West’s reshaped understanding of marriage has largely detached it from procreation.

This also means that there is now no logical boundary to the pursuit of the perfect relationship. At the moment marriage is limited to two people, regardless of gender in an increasing number of Western nations; it is hard to see why Western culture will not widen its social experimentation to include other forms of ‘pure love’ – love between free, equal consenting adults in whatever arrangement they find fulfilling.

[Can’t remember where I read someone raising the ironical point that the West’s shifting views of sex and marriage, while totally alien to Islam, makes it difficult rationally to resist the argument for polygamy to be legalised. This both on the grounds of ‘free choice of consenting adults’ AND on the grounds of tolerance & inclusion of other ways of life.]

Challenges facing Christians

I said earlier that in the face of the West’s revolution in understanding of sex and marriage, that much Christianity is struggling to articulate a vision for and practice of marriage that is counter-cultural. That’s a big claim and these are blog musings – but what do you think?

I wonder if we are so impacted by Western culture’s revolutionary understanding of sex and romance that these implications follow:

  • adoption of same-sex marriage by many churches and denominations in the West – eg the Scottish Episcopal church vote in 2017, the similar direction of travel of the Church of Scotland, continuing deep divisions in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the USA etc etc.
  • assimilation of Western romantic individualism that marginalises the idea of marriage as a life-long covenant commitment. Here’s a favourite quote from Stanley Hauerwas talking about a minister doing a marriage preparation course and thinking it

..… interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.

  • a subtle revolution in Christian understanding of and practice of divorce. I know this is a painful and complex area and this is not meant in a judgemental way. But it is here that a Christian understanding of marriage should be most counter-cultural. However we understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on divorce, it is crystal clear that it is a disaster; it should be practiced with the utmost seriousness and in limited circumstances. An easy divorce and remarriage policy and divorce rates similar to that of the wider culture would be signs that the church is losing its vision for Christian marriage. [For a very helpful resource on this see the work of Dr David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House here.]
  • A marginalisation of the practice of celibacy. As I said in this post, while associated with some bad theology, celibacy was the default ‘best option’ in church teaching and life for hundreds of years. It is clearly the New Testament’s preference. Yet today, singleness is not valued as at least an equal option to marriage. While studies vary and stats are unreliable, it is also pretty clear that rates of pre-marital sex amongst young Christians are climbing due to enormous cultural pressures.

Question: do you think celibacy losing credence within the church as well as being incomprehensible outside it?

Of course, describing these trends is easier than saying how best to respond.

Four challenges come to mind:

i. At the very least these are issues we need to be talking about, thinking about theologically, and articulating in teaching and preaching an authentic Christian vision for sex and marriage..

ii. Too often the first response of the church has been to resist and oppose changes in the law enacted by secular governments as a way of ‘protecting’ marriage. Too often absent, has been a first response of looking at ourselves – how church practice and beliefs around sex and marriage have been profoundly formed by Western individualism and consumerism. It is when the church practices sex and marriage well that it will have most impact, not when it takes the Christendom option in a post-Christendom culture of fighting and losing legal battles in the courts.

iii. Almost finally! – there is a need to combine teaching and practicing that vision with listening to people who do not fit within modern church assumptions about the default best option being heterosexual marriage with 2.2 children; singles, people with same-sex attraction, people self-identifying as LBGT+ etc.

iv. Finally finally – let’s return to the Song of Songs. The two lovers are ‘perfect’ – their pristine love captured in beautiful lyrics. We don’t read of them getting older. We don’t read of imperfect lovers making mistakes and failing to love well. Theirs is a wonderful picture of idealised love. It both gives us an inspiring vision and reminds us that our lives and relationships are inevitably marked by sin and selfishness, and our sexual lives are no different. So in all our thinking and teaching about an ideal Christian vision for love, sex and marriage, we also need to practice forgiveness, compassion and tons of grace.

Comments, as ever, welcome.