Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The defining of faith words and a need for clarity in the PC (U.S.A.)

The definition of faith words in the midst of diverse theological beliefs is an absolute necessity or we will talk to each other, perhaps agree, but never understand what the other person has said. Or perhaps we will understand but be afraid to speak the truth. In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we often refer to the issue of sexuality as the elephant in the room, the subject that everyone is ignoring. The truth is the real meaning of our words is the elephant in the room.

Ministering to those in new ‘Christian’ religions such as the Latter Day Saints or Jehovah Witnesses one almost immediately finds the need to understand the other’s definition of words. But not only definitions, one needs to understand the cultural pressure that brought the founder and early leaders of the new religion to carve out different definitions than those held by orthodox Christianity. And then one needs to reflect on why carving out different definitions is destructive.

Jehovah Witnesses: For instance, the Jehovah Witnesses, formed in the late 19th and early 20th century were heavily influenced by the many Adventists of the day, including William Miller, who set a date for the return of Christ. Many groups including the Seven Day Adventist sprang from Miller’s mistake. Another cultural phenomenon of the time was an interest in health food. Both the JWs, who are unorthodox in their theological views, and the SDAs, who are mainly orthodox, are advocates of healthy diets.

The JW will tell you that they believe in the redemption of Jesus Christ. But what they mean is that Jesus died for all and yet there are only 144, 000 who are born again; they will go to be with Jesus in a spiritual body but do not experience bodily resurrection. The rest, those who believe and follow their teaching, will be physically resurrected to live on earth.

This theological understanding developed from the out workings of dealing with Miller’s set date of the return of Christ. Some overcame their experience of disappointment by misapplying biblical verses to the problem. Supposedly, Christ had already come in a spiritual body-his body was not resurrected- and therefore the theology of a divided class of Christians, earthly and heavenly, developed.

Developing in a time when rational thinking was an important part of religious discussions, the JWs rejected the deity of Jesus on rational grounds. They claim Arius as their church father and now will sometimes refer to liberal protestant scholars to bolster their positions.

Latter Day Saints: The Latter Day Saints (Mormons) developed in the early 19th century. They were in many ways a reaction to the religious squabbles among the churches of New England after the second Great Awakening which in part occurred in what is now referred to by historians as the burned over district of New York State.

They evolved in the midst of a culture that was extremely interested in the origins of Native Americans. Some of their teaching is an answer to the question of tribal origins. The early 19th century also saw a great interest in religious and secular communities. One might think of the Oneida Community, the Harmony Society and Brook farm which was at first connected to the Transcendentalist.

Many of these groups attempted to be anti-cultural but instead became very much a part of the cultural milieu of the times. Likewise, the LDS often existed in isolation, sometimes from necessity, sometimes from choice. But many of their heterodox teachings developed in the midst of and because of their isolation under a strong charismatic leader.

Like the JW, the LDS’ view of redemption needs defining to see the difference between orthodox teaching and theirs. They, like the JW, believe that Christ died to redeem all. However, what the Christian sees as redemption is different than what the Latter Day Saint sees. The Christian is redeemed and given new life and the promise of eternal life forever. They will be with Jesus in heaven after death and will be a part of that time when God makes all things new.

But the LDS person believes in a celestial kingdom, beyond any ordinary heaven, open only to those who have lived according LDS tenets. For instance marriage in their Temple and following the new revealed laws of their faith found in other sacred books besides the Bible or even the Book of Mormon. And some enter the celestial kingdom by being baptized by proxy after they have died. The two versions of redemption, although they begin with the same words, redemption, Jesus on the cross, mean almost totally different things.

In both cases, JW and LDS, Jesus is not the ultimate God existing as one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. For the JW he is a god, not the God. For the LDS he is the spirit child of the father, a very separate person, one in will but not essence. So for both he is not the one God taking on human flesh and dying for the sins of humanity. Because of this, redemption is not complete, redeemed humanity does not receive the righteousness of Christ; believers are not united to the bodily resurrected Christ. Salvation entails works, climbing part way up a ladder, as one LDS member put it to me.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Defining words is important when one is in conversation with people who call themselves Christian but hold a different worldview. And this is true even within the PCUSA. Diversity has reached the cracking point.

Just as the JW and the LDS do not believe in the more important doctrines of Christianity, many in the PCUSA have moved away from biblical faith as it has been understood for two-thousand years. The most telling part at the moment is the diverse views of what redemption means. For many speaking of redemption is speaking of an automatic action which includes everyone, submitted to God or not. Supposedly those who have rejected Christ are also reconciled. Redemption is aligned with reconciliation, which it is, but in this progressive view, atonement for sin is divorced from reconciliation.

There are many different directions on the theme of reconciliation. Most radical feminists reject the need for the cross altogether. Many pastors and elders believe the death of Christ was not necessary. While there were a few theologians and Christian philosophers in the past who held this view, it is neither biblical nor has it been affirmed in the history of the Church. So what are the pressures of our culture that have made the cross and the biblical theme of redemption objectionable? And why is the progressive view so destructive?

Our culture is in the midst of romantic idealism. Both nature and the Holy Spirit, or some spirit, have been romanticized. That is, nature is seen as both good and a model of oneness. All things are connected and depend on each other. To transform this view into a ‘Christian ‘worldview there must be a spiritual entity moving all into harmony with one another, including, humanity, animals and the universe in general. For many Progressive Christians the Holy Spirit is that entity.

All are connected by the Spirit and Christ becomes the reconciler of all through the Holy Spirit. Or, in many cases, Jesus is simply a model of inclusive perfection exhibiting the spirit's work in the life of an individual. Within this idealistic viewpoint there is not much room for personal sin. But anything that harms the oneness of all things, whether that is corporate greed or poor environmental practices or something else, is considered evil.

The destructive effect of such a worldview is its failure to deal with personal human sin. Individual morality is ignored as is a transformative redemption. There is no true proclamation of Christ’s redeeming life, death and resurrection. Individuals are left without transformative power in their lives.

And there is another problem. When only corporate sin is dealt with and evil in nature and personal sin is ignored, ‘groups of people’ become scapegoats. The questions about evil that rise to the top of such a society, even a religious society, are answered by pointing to groups rather then pointing to the actual causes and solutions.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as well as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are studies in the differences between such romantic idealism and individual transformation and they both present images of resistance in the midst of the idealism. Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a caricature and a true, but not complete, picture of a society where romantic idealism flourishes.

We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) are living in a deceptive time. We often speak the same language but we, as either orthodox or progressive, mean two different things. We, as orthodox Christians, must clarify every term and then proclaim, without wavering, the true good news that Jesus Christ died to save sinners.

Some books to read on some of these subjects are:

Ronald Enroth & Others. A Guide to Cults & New Religions. Inter-Varsity Press. 1983.

Stephen J. Stein. Communities of Dissent: A History of Alternative Religions in America. Oxford University Press. 2000, 2003.

Paul E. Johnson & Sean Wilentz. The Kingdom of Matthias: The Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America. Oxford University Press 1994.

A Guide to new Religious Movements. Ronald Enroth, Editor. Inter-Varsity Press. 20005.


Anonymous said...

Over many years, I have noticed, for instance, that candidates "hide" behind orthodox words they do not define or explain when making a Statement of Faith. They can safely say, "I believe in Jesus," but not identify what they mean by that. One of the travesties of the present age is to limit Jesus to a narrow definition that suits the 'believer," such as "the historical Jesus," "the theological Jesus," "the orthodox Jesus," etc. I have also seen candidates omit altogether any mention of certain key and foundational truths. The presbyters assume they are so basic as to be axiomatic and therefore unnecessary to mention, when really a candidate does not believe them. Our doctrinal strength has been diluted by the inclusion of a generation of presbyters who have been so open-minded that their brains have fallen out.

Viola Larson said...

Yes, I have seen that happen over and over in our Presbytery. What put this posting in my mind, among other things, was our new vision statement that we are supposed to talk about Saturday.

“The Presbytery of Sacramento imagines a future where people living throughout northern California—from the counties of Siskiyou, Modoc, Trinity, Shasta and Lassen, to Tehama, Plumas, Glenn, Butte and Sierra, to Colusa, Sutter, Yuba, Nevada, and El Dorado, to Placer, Sacramento, Solano and Yolo—all join hands and hearts together in common worship and service to Jesus Christ, our lord and sovereign. And through his mercy, together we build a world that is plentiful, just and beautiful: a living and vibrant witness to the love and power of God, who delights when Presbyterians join their hands, hearts and minds together.”

The first part is not bad, but this: “And through his mercy, together we build a world that is plentiful, just and beautiful: a living and vibrant witness to the love and power of God, who delights when Presbyterians join their hands, hearts and minds together” feeds into the different definitions we hold about justice and also what it means to be in service to Christ. My letter to the committee suggested that God delights when Presbyterians lift up Jesus Christ.

But we are now in such a state in our presbytery because we have not insisted our candidates for ministry hold to apostolic faith.