Friday, January 8, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Bullseye, part 2

I can't believe it's been a month since I last posted here. The stupid thing is that I've had four or five ideas for interesting posts of moderate length, and yet did not put fingertip-to-keyboard because I promised that my "next post" would address specific items of ecumenidom. Like anybody would have even cared.

But, here I am, true to my word, darkening the bullseye. I was rather surprised at how nice everyone was last time around--maybe because most of the "true reformed" folks had already un-friended, un-followed, and dis-fellowshiped me (see last post). Anyway, if you're a "Rome as the Whore of Babylon" type, no need to bite your tongue for my feelings' sake. Let's get it lively in here. And if you're a "we need Luther to interpret Paul" kind of cat, you're really going to think me some sort of suspect quasi-Christian in a minute.

So anyway, the two things I left hanging:

1. The Baptist connection to my ecumenism. This may seem weird, since most Baptists today are über-separationists. And when you read our definitive (at least in my opinion) confession, the 2nd London (1677, 1689), there is a reference to the pope being Antichrist.

But I'm thinking more about the practical aspects of early Baptist life in America. In Rhode Island (before it was Rhode Island), two cooperating settlements--Providence and Newport--were the first places in America where Christians of different stripes lived together in harmony. Quakers, Baptists, Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, and even more obscure sects, all living together without flogging, banishing, beating, burning at the stake, etc.

Now, I realize that this has more to do with the separation of church and state than how one defines the church, but I see it as a metaphor for a spirit that was present within many early Baptists. Despite their religious toleration and the spiritual benefit of the doubt that goes along with the doctrine of Soul Liberty, the Baptists did not sweep religious differences under the rug. They debated. Week after week, you could find public debates (as well as many private conversations) about the important differences in doctrine between these very different traditions. The ecumenism (if it can be called that) present in Providence and Newport was not a "thin ecumenism" (the lowest common denominator type), but a "thick ecumenism," which acknowledges and debates differences, but does not see non-essential divergences as default communion-breakers.

Even going back further to English Baptist history (the beginning of our movement, despite what the silly "Trail of Blood" Baptists try to claim), we see a tendency toward a broader view of the church. In 1673, John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim's Progress) wrote, “The church of Christ hath no warrant to keep out of the communion the Christian that is discovered to be a visible saint of the word, the Christian that walketh according to his own light with God.” Again, Bunyan didn't sweep these differences in doctrine under the rug. Like many early Baptists, Bunyan was an accomplished debater and, like many early Baptists, he had his area of expertise: debating Quakers.

Likewise, William Carey, the father of modern missions (and the man who baptized our beloved Ann and Adoniram Judson) was pushing for a worldwide ecumenical meeting, in which all Christian groups were recognized and represented as early as 1810. To the over-Jack-Chicked, Left Behind crowd, this sounds like Mystery Babylon the Great just waiting to happen. But to a Baptist with a high view of Christ's historic Church, it's a logical and (if approached correctly) beneficial idea.

2. Communion Despite Differences in Soteriology. So here's where I'm going to plant myself on several people's skubalist. I believe that when we get to heaven, we will find people of many varying soteriologies there (soteriology is the doctrine of salvation), all having been bought by the blood of Christ. No, I'm not suggesting some PoMo "all paths lead to God" nonsense. I affirm all of the Words of Our Lord as true, including his statement, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me." Yes, it is only through Christ that any fallen human can have any hope of salvation. But throughout Christian history, many different traditions have described this salvation by Christ in many different terms and with oft-conflicting concepts.

There's the obvious difference of Calvinist and Arminian (the issue of whether man's will plays any role in his salvation). The "true reformed" folks would have us believe that any non-Calvinist is a heretic (a Pelagian of some rank) and, therefore, not saved. Greg Fields has (I believe correctly) identified this as a new form of Calvinist Gnosticism. Who could ever read the works of John Wesley and then declare him unregenerate? It's beyond me. And I believe Satan gets giddy over these attitudes. After all, a house divided against itself will fall.

Alright, you say, but even I would have to admit that the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are doomed, blasphemous abominations, and that any unity with them is simply the work of a compromising, worldly spirit and another step down the path toward a one-world-church...right? Pffft. Wrong.

I believe in and preach substitutionary atonement; divine election; salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And while I'm happy to make a righteous judgment (κρίνω) about the Arminian view of salvation (and that judgment is: they're quite wrong on the details), I will not judge the individual (κατακρίνω) because Jesus himself warned us against doing so (Mark 9:39-41, Matt 13:29), as did the Apostle Paul (Romans 14:4). For this reason, when I encounter Christians who worship in churches that affirm the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Athenasian Creed, the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, his death for our sins and resurrection for our new life, his ascension, and his coming again...well, call me nuts, but I think of them as Christians. And I have no problem worshiping with them in our interdenominational Good Friday service or welcoming them to our table when we observe the sacrament of Holy Communion.

I tell sinners and self-justifiers to repent and believe, to flee the coming wrath of God. From my pulpit, I preach a Protestant, Calvinistic understanding of salvation. I don't sweep differences under the rug. Like my early Baptist forebears, I have the debate, the discussion, the exchange. But if a Protestant understanding of Sola Fide is absolutely essential for a church to be considered a Christian church, then there was no Church on earth for at least 1,000 years. In fact, if agreeing with Luther or Calvin on all matters soterological is the criterion for salvation, then, while we Calvinists love quoting St. Augustine and claiming to have an "Augustinian view" of salvation, Augustine himself is certainly in hell.

Even if we make substitutionary atonement the lynch pin (while I absolutely do believe it is grounded in Scripture and is the most biblical way to look at the cross), almost no one spoke of it at all until Anselm of Canterbury (born a thousand years after our Lord's ascension). Do we assume that he was the only true Christian on earth at that time? I'm afraid I cannot. Jesus' promises vis a vis his Church were just too many and too far-reaching.

Am I making a plea for watering down doctrine based on history rather than Scripture? No. In fact, I don't want us to water down doctrine at all. I am making a plea for embracing the tension that is present when we recognize that the Church is bigger than our own movement. The tension I feel between my Calvinist soteriology and the Church unity that Jesus himself prayed for, between my confessionalism and my ecumenism. This tension is going to involve acknowledging that growing along side the wheat is some chaff. It involves deciding where non-essentials end and the beating heart of the Gospel begins, and doing so in a way that recognizes the unfathomable depth of God's grace,shuns all neo-gnosticism, and does not make me and my movement the default yardstick.

How you do it is for you to figure out. I'll just point you to that old maxim, which has been attributed to everyone under the sun: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. I believe that's a good starting point.

But, at the end of the day, there will always be theological tension there (as there should be). Embrace it.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

4 reader comments:

JB said...

This makes me think of when you and Marcie from Alpha got into a big debate about Catholicism at Big Boy.

ZSB said...

All serious theological debate takes place at Big Boy.

Erin said...

Excellent post. I'm proud that you are my pastor.

All Saints Episcopal Church said...

Many of my extended family are Catholics. Many of my parishioners "believe" they are Catholics (even though I point out it is the PROTESTANT Episcopal Church in America). What disturbs me about the whole "whore of Babylon" idea is that politically, my very conservative Catholic nephew and niece have much more in common with very conservative evangelicals. And they are such dear, naive innocents, that they have no idea those same conservative evangelicals believe they are doomed to hell.

I think we should all stand where we stand, in our limited, human gropings toward understanding of God. And we should be clear about where and how we differ from one another. But I do trust that all those of us who place ourselves in the shadow of the cross are redeemed by that cross, AND the manner of that redemption is God's business first, and mine least and last.