Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lessons from the demise of liberal Christianity

Here are a few good words from Dr. Timothy George, founding Dean of Beeson Divinity School, in response to Ross Douthat's significant and well read article, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved. I am especially enamored of his first lesson -- the intrinsic connection between the vitality of the Church and its theological integrity -- although I would have used orthodoxy in this equation.  We are constantly told (even by missional folks in the LCMS) that you cannot believe like or look like your grandfather's church and still be relevant today.  Dr. George seems to suggest that we cannot merely provide a thin veneer of piety and faith along with the traditional marks of our communion (be they high or low church) and call it Christianity.  But surely his point is equally directed at those who disdain the traditional marks of Christian liturgy and worship in favor of modern and contemporary worship and music.  Biblical integrity means standing within the pale of Scriptures as they have been believed and taught through the ages (might I call it creedal Christianity).  It is the great tragedy of our age that those communions with great heritage and form have distanced themselves from the doctrine of this heritage and with the faith given form in the liturgy.  Choosing a Christianity lite, they have gutted the faith and left it merely a shell of its former self.  You read it...

Three Lessons

What are we as evangelicals to make of these developments? Here are three lessons.

1. There is an intrinsic connection between spiritual vitality and theological integrity.
The debate over homosexual practices within the mainline denominations is not the root cause but only the presenting issue in the devolution Douthat has described so well. At the heart of this issue is a broken doctrine of biblical authority, a loss of confidence in the primary documents of the Christian faith. The patina of pietism and the lushness of a well-rehearsed liturgy are no substitute for what the Thirty-nine Articles calls "the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures." Apart from such commitment, it will not be long before other cardinal tenets of the Christian faith become negotiable, including the Trinity, the full deity and true humanity of Jesus Christ, and redemption wrought through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Two of Chuck Colson's most important books were The Body, a study of ecclesiology, and The Faith, a call for renewed orthodoxy. The church and the Bible are coinherent realities in the economy of grace. One will not long survive intact without the other.

2. The continuing saga and approaching collapse of mainline denominations should prompt us to pray.
Within each of the mainline denominations, there are many faithful believers who have not "bowed the knee to Baal." Often they face harassment, discrimination, and litigation. Pray that they will remain faithful in the face of such assaults, and pray that they will find communities of love and support in what for many will be an increasingly isolated position. Some impatient evangelicals on the outside may be tempted to say, "Well, why don't you just leave?" But breaking with the church in which one has been nurtured in the faith, often from childhood, can be like abandoning one's mother. Like marriage, according to the Book of Common Prayer, such a decision should not be made unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in the fear of God. The words of the apostle Paul are surely pertinent here: "Let everyone be persuaded in his own conscience."
But while we pray for those who remain as faithful witnesses swimming against the tide, we should also lift to the Lord in our prayers those who have responded to the Spirit's leading to establish new communities of faith and ecclesial alignments. There is no place for self-righteousness on either side of this divide. However much ecumenical advance we have made, Protestants of all kinds remain divided from the Roman Catholic Church, the most glaring evidence for which is the lack of a common table to share the Sacrament of Unity. Going back even further, Catholics of the West have been separated from Orthodox believers in the East since the Great Schism of 1054. In the meantime, let us renew our commitment to the quest for Christian unity, even as we find ways to celebrate what Tom Oden called 25 years ago "The New Ecumenism." In all of this we seek to bear witness to God's love and grace in this fragile world.

3. Evangelicals have no room to boast or gloat over the "sickness unto death" in the mainlines.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention are the two largest denominations in North America. Significantly, both groups have resisted pressures for theological accommodation in recent decades. But both face stresses and conflicts of their own, including some of the same temptations that beset mainline Protestants a generation ago. Among progressive Roman Catholics and some evangelicals today the temptation is to imitate the fading ethos of liberal Protestantism, in reaction to "authoritarian" dogma, "conservative" politics, or both. In both cases, the motive is often apologetic if not evangelistic: to win over religion's "cultured despisers" to a kind of vague neo-spirituality. While the intention may be worthy, the results are likely to be disastrous: a social gospel that is all social and no gospel; a church that has nothing to say that secular elites have not already said, and usually said better; a horizontal faith with a penchant for the instantaneous and the disconnected but with no confidence in the overarching storyline of God's redemptive love from creation to consummation. The trajectory from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Shelby Spong is a well-worn path. As Peter Berger once said, "He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon."


Anonymous said...

When my son, (14) learned about Schleiermacher in history class, his first question was, "Was this guy the founder of the ELCA?"

Anonymous said...

Do I understand correctly that the Romans Catholic Church’s insistence on keeping their mass unchanged is a good thing, to be admired, because it shows resistance to theological accommodation? Apparently it is no longer the “greatest and most horrible abomination” which the Smalcald Articles say it is.

That the Southern Baptist Convention will not change their position on infant Baptism and the meaning of the Sacraments, is that also a good thing, because it solidly maintains their tradition?

Well, I suppose anything is better than “liberal” Protestantism. But is that the only alternative? Is it not possible that the Lord of the Church will find a way to have His own will be done in a way that does not necessarily follow the trajectory from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Shelby Spong?

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart