Why Traditional (Canonical) Christianity?

Which Christianity?  By whose authority?  These are important questions for Christian believers today, but they’re not new to our time.  Even a surface reading of the New Testament will reveal the presence of a variety of Christianities in the early days after Christ.  One of the earliest Christian documents, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, is written to churches who were being influenced by a form of Christianity other than the one Paul had brought to them.  He appeals to them to stick with the Christianity they had received through his preaching.

What was the basis of Paul’s appeal?  Why should they stick with his version of Christianity?  Paul’s argument is threefold.  First he recounts a plausible and, in those days, verifiable story of his having corroborated his version of Christianity with that of the early Christian leaders who actually knew the historical Jesus.  He goes so far as to recount a story of his having corrected Peter based on an understanding of Christianity they held in common.  Again, given the early nature of Galatians Paul’s story about confronting Peter was theoretically verifiable.

Second, Paul appeals to the experience mediated through the message he preached.  It was his gospel that brought the reality of God’s presence into their lives.  He readily bases the credibility of his message on the nature of the life it produces.  His gospel produces the fruit of the Spirit–a life of love, joy, peace and other desirable qualities.

Finally, Paul presents his gospel as the fitting culmination of the story of the Hebrew Bible.  The message of Christ he preached was a satisfying explanation of God’s true intention for humanity begun in the promise to Abraham to bless all people through him.  Jesus as the Christ is a fitting fulfillment of that promise.

Ever since then there has been a body of believers who have held to this version of what it means to be Christian.  They have based their beliefs upon documents which are in tune with this basic understanding of the meaning of Christ.  These documents form of corpus often referred to as the canon or rule (our New Testament along with the Hebrew Scriptures).  Canonical Christianity remains the dominant form of Christianity in the world today.  Traditional Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches are forms of canonical Christianity.

The reasons for holding to this version of Christianity remain the same.  Its origins are plausible and in part verifiable.  Early Christian hymns and creeds embedded in the New Testament letters point to an early core message held to be the message of the apostles.  Those who submit to this message find that through it they receive the Holy Spirit and the life that Spirit brings.  Finally, this story of Jesus is a satisfying understanding of the larger story of God’s purpose for Israel and the many smaller stories of how God works in the world as recorded in the Hebrew Bible.

Canonical Christian communities are composed of those who willingly receive the authority of the texts which mediate the message described above.  They are voluntary associations produced by the preaching of the gospel.  A common feature of these communities dating back to the book of Galatians itself is a desire to preserve the message they’ve received.  Hence, the emphasis on right belief.

It is common nowadays to interpret this concern for right belief as a power play (a suppression of alternative voices in a quest for power).  The Da Vinci Code is a popular expression of this theory.  It’s hard to see, however, what worldly benefit early Christians got for holding the message of Paul and those like him.  As best we can tell it meant being ostracized, ridiculed, physically harmed, suffering financial loss, and sometimes being killed.  Hardly the stuff of power!  More likely is the reason they themselves give.  They actually believed that the message they received brought people into a living fellowship with God producing an abiding sense of identity, security, and meaning, and they didn’t want that message lost.

By contrast, canonical Christians, find current proposals for alternative versions of Christianity lacking in spiritual power and far too speculative in their understanding of Christian origins.  They see no need for a new Christianity when the old continues to be so highly satisfying both intellectually and spiritually.  What is needed, they contend, is greater faithfulness to the message that has been given once for all in the received canon of Scripture and has proven itself so spiritually fertile for over two millennia.


Proclaiming the Limits of Science

Moral certainty is a concept of intuitive probability. It means a very high degree of probability, sufficient for action, but short of absolute or mathematical certainty (Wikipedia).

The folly of our time is the quest for scientific certainty in all areas of life.  This just can’t happen.  The world doesn’t work that way.  We accept this in things like the court of law where the standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt”.  We recognize we could never render judgments if the courts depended on the standard of certainty used by science and math.  That’s just not the world we live in.

But when it comes to other areas of life we seem to want the “assured results of science”.  This has been disastrous in the areas of faith and morals.  At one time people understood that these areas are to be treated more like the court of law or the study of history than the search for scientific truth.  They realized some things can’t be known the way science knows things.  They accepted their limits as human beings.  In biblical terms, they acted with humility.

In my last post I noted that the Christian claim is that God has chosen to be known not through science but through his Spirit speaking to people.  He prefers the spiritual.  He is God.  It’s his prerogative.  Christian apologetics must make it’s stand on this truth.  It must call people to humility.  It can do this by pointing out the limits of the scientific method.

Christians can also do what Carmen LaBerge counseled those attending the National Convocation of the Evangelical Association.  Christians can demonstrate the power of a beautiful life.  While God does not offer signs of his presence in the sense of empirical, scientific evidence, he does offer the world the sign of his people.

Jesus said Christians would be the salt and light that causes people to glorify their Father in heaven (Matthew 5.16) and that people will know they are his followers by their love for each other (John 13.35).  Moses said to the Israelites that if they would follow God’s laws the world would take notice (Deuteronomy 4.6).  None of this has the power to convert people, of course, but it does open doors for witness and for hearing the word which alone gives life to the dead.

Likewise, it’s as we live out our faith, really live in accordance with what we believe, that we grow in the conviction that what we believe is true.  There is an inner and outer witness, the inner witness of the Spirit and the outer witness of a life that is right (is the way God meant it to be).  Confident in the kind of moral certainty this gives (see definition above) we can live our lives in peace, assured of God’s embrace, and this kind of peace is highly attractive.


It’s God’s Show, Not Ours

If God is God then he is sovereign, meaning he’s in charge.  He sets the terms.  He determines when and how he’ll be known.  Christians claim he has chosen to be known spiritually.  These things are “spiritually discerned”, Paul writes (1 Cor. 2.14).  Nothing offends modern people more than this.  They demand that God make himself known in the way they decide, when and where they want.  God must be known through signs (scientific evidence) or else there is no God.

The result is that many people write off the existence of God.  He does not fit their predetermined “plausibility structure” so he can’t be.  They have sovereignly determined how God would be known if there is a God.  They stumble over the stumbling block.

How are Christians to respond?  First and foremost by rejecting the assumption that we can set the terms of our relationship with God.  We must purge ourselves of this notion and refuse the temptation to provide the signs people want (as if we could!).

Speaking at the National Convocation of the Evangelical Association, Larry Taunton mentioned a road trip he took with Christopher Hitchens.  I was struck by what he said they were doing.  They were reading the gospel of John.  This was on purpose.  Taunton’s hope for Hitchens was in the word of God, that God would use his ordained means to reach the heart of a staunch atheist.

This has to be our approach.  We need to be true to what we believe to be the case and not let the world set the terms of engagement.  God’s going to do it his way anyway, better to follow his lead and not the world’s.  “It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1.21 NKJV).  It’s God’s show, not ours.

Does this mean we abandon all apologetic strategy?  Do we simply throw the word at people?  No, we can learn to be “wise like serpents and harmless like doves” (Matt. 10 16).  But our wisdom must be in learning how to gain a hearing of the word, trusting that ultimately the word does the work (Luther).  Our strategies must align with God’s sovereign will.

In future posts I’ll speak more on apologetic strategies and God’s ordained means of revealing himself to people.

The Wrong Kind of Certainty

Recently I responded to an article in our paper by a local pastor.  I sent a letter to the editor.  You can read the pastor’s article here and my letter here.  I wrote a little more in a discussion on my Facebook page.  I think it’s worth posting here.

In an attempt to be generous to Pastor Martin and others like him, I think he is mistakenly seeking a kind of certainty that just isn’t right when it comes to matters of history and of faith. The way he references modern scholarship it’s obvious he’s seeking the “assured results of science”. But the fact is there will never be those kinds of assured results. The history of Jesus research bears this out. Every scholar has her or his version of who Jesus really was. Each has their reasons and can defend their picture of the historical Jesus based on certain assumptions and readings of history.

Christianity was never meant to be based on the supposed certainty of the scientific method. Christians claim that it is God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit who confronts people and convicts them of the truth. The Spirit does this through the means of grace, the word (about Christ) and the sacraments (the visible word about Christ).

This encounter with the Spirit produces faith and opens spiritual eyes, enabling Christians to see things in the historical research that others don’t/can’t see, much like a doctor can see things in an x-ray film that the layperson can’t see. Likewise, an unbelieving scholar has a perspective that filters out things, blinding them, even as Jesus in the gospels says it will.

Believing scholars can put forward a plausible and defensible picture of the historical Jesus that makes sense of the historical material and shows how it is in tune with the Jesus of the Bible. This isn’t what we base our faith on however. Being apostolic we believe it’s the personality captured in the New Testament witness we’re meant to know. He really is Jesus, alive and speaking to us in the present. He is the same person as the historical Jesus.

So historical evidence and other things, like the way our faith illumines our experience of how the world works, serve to confirm and strengthen our faith but they’re not the basis of our faith–and that’s where I think Pastor Martin and people like him go wrong.

A True Encounter with Christ

sac01My understanding of the sacraments is deeply shaped by what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians.  There he will warn the Corinthians not to partake of the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner.  To get them ready for that warning he goes back to Israel’s history and uses that history to help them understand what the Lord’s supper is.

He shows that the Old Testament people had sacraments even as we do.  John Calvin calls them the “ancient sacraments” (see his commentary on 1 Cor. 10:4).  I believe Calvin is correct here in saying that these ancient sacraments convey the same benefits as the New Testament sacraments. 

What is interesting is how Paul describes them.  He says, “and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).  “Was” is the operative word.  Like the word “is” that Martin Luther clung to in the words of institution (this is my body), “was” indicates something.  It says Christ was present.  He was present not according to the faith of the recipients but according to God’s purpose.

All this says to me that faith does not make the sacrament but receives it for salvation.  Unfaith receives it for judgment.  This means baptism (as a sacrament) is a true encounter with Christ, according to God’s purpose.  It isn’t primarily about us and our faith.  We receive our baptism.  We live by the power of that encounter, and when we do we’re doing nothing less than putting our trust in Christ and his finished work.  This is sacramental Christianity, which I believe is biblical Christianity.

Stay Objective

The difference between the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments and the Reformed understanding is that the former would emphasize the objective effectiveness of the sacraments, while the latter would interpret the sacraments more as symbolic actions (The Protestant Faith, 230).

ESNAlogoThe words of Lutheran theologian George Forell quoted above would seem to be unfair to many Reformed people, but at the heart of his critique is the separation of the Spirit from the Word and Sacraments made by traditional Reformed theology.  The test of this is baptism.

The Lutheran answer to whether you’ve made contact with Christ is simply this, look at your baptism.  If you’ve been baptized you’ve made contact with Christ.  Accept it.  Believe it.  (In essence, put your faith in the finished work of Christ.  You’ve already made contact with it when you were baptized, and God means it for you.)

Traditional Reformed people bristle at this idea of baptism, revealing their true understanding of sacraments.  Behind this is the Reformed doctrine of predestination and all that follows from it.  With the external word must come a secret, inner call of God that goes only to the elect.  This move empties the word and sacraments of their objective character.  They become empty symbols.  What matters is the secret call.  It is not enough to look to your baptism or to the external word.  You must look for something inside yourself.

Lutheran Juergen Ludwig Neve says it well,

The Lutheran Church cannot agree to such a distinction between the external and the inner Word. It destroys the universality of grace and makes Salvation through Christ uncertain. If that distinction is to be accepted, then the efficient promise of the Gospel is not the foundation of hope for the individual Christian, but that foundation is a secret election (Calvinism), or it is the subjective experience of a revival (Armianism).  (The Lutherans in the Movements for Church Union, 172).

This Lutheran intention is evident in our Evangelical Catechism and even more evident in the words of its primary compiler, Andreas Irion.  About the Lord’s Supper he writes,

When, therefore, the signs and the means are there and the Word of God is added, then they are consecrated and they are offered as the Body and Blood of Christ to those who eat whether these are worthy or unworthy. Both, then, receive the same [emphasis mine] (from Irion’s “Erklaerung”, published in 1897 quoted in Neve.  Irion’s son popularized this work as Evangelical Fundamentals, part 2 which says very much the same thing).

So once more we see what’s Lutheran in our United Lutheran-Reformed catechism, but what’s Reformed?

Left open when it comes to communion is the manner in which we receive the presence of Christ.  The word “manner” is used often in the literature of the German Evangelicals and signifies a break with the purely Lutheran position.  It means simply holding to the words of Scripture and trusting God’s promise that in communion we encounter Christ in his finished work on the cross.  He is truly there for us.  The manner of his presence isn’t essential.

This position would be considered Reformed by Lutherans, and I’m fine with that.  Mine is a United Lutheran-Reformed faith.  I affirm the Lutheran intention of an objectivity to our faith, a looking outside ourselves to God’s word and sacraments, while leaving open how that happens.

In my next post I look at the biblical teaching that influences my understanding of sacraments as objective means of grace.

Where the rubber meets the road

“Jim” had gone down to the altar to receive Christ.  He prayed the sinner’s prayer but was he really a Christian now?  He wasn’t sure.  He didn’t see any bright lights.  His heart wasn’t strangely warmed.  How could he know for sure that he was a Christian?  After all, other people had such profound experiences.  He sincerely doubted that he was born again.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road in these posts on my “predominantly Lutheran with some Reformed influences” faith.  The Lutheran answer to Jim’s question above is simply this, trust the word.  Faith looks away from self to an external word.

The Swedish Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulen writes,

If the strength and intensity of religious feelings were made the basis of certainty, it would rest on something human, just as much as is the case when certainty is predicated on man’s moral transformation and his ethical qualifications (The Faith of the Christian Church, 92).

He quotes Martin Luther,

“This is the reason why our theology is certain: because it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside of ourselves, lest we rest upon human strength, conscience, feelings, character, our own works . . .”

Again Aulen writes,

It is just as impossible to depend on “experiences” (sensu, persona) as it is to build on our own works, on “work righteousness.” In contrast to any such argumentation Luther points to the divine revelation, to “the word and promise of God” (Ibid.).

Again the Bible teaches us to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, not on an experience.  We must be born again, that’s for certain, but the only born again experience the Bible knows is that we feel our need for Christ and place our trust in him.  If we have done that we are born again.

Of course, there is a difference between saving faith, which is personal trust in Christ, and mere head knowledge, what Luther called historical faith, meaning mere assent to the facts of the history of Christ.  But saving faith doesn’t look to the self and its feelings.  It looks away from itself to Christ.

This objectivity of the word as the basis for our faith is the key to understanding what’s Lutheran in our United Lutheran-Reformed church’s beliefs and practices.

Stay tuned for more to come.  I haven’t yet gotten to what’s Reformed about our United Church faith.