Sunday, March 23, 2014

Truer words...

An article in the Daily Telegraph dealing with the challenges ahead for Church of England Archbishop Justin Welby elicited the following comment from a reader:
Religion is founded on a notion that it has teachings or scriptures from a divine (supernatural) source, and this source is provides insights into ultimate truths which can not be discerned by mere mortals investigating nature.

Any religious institution which believes it needs to modernise its beliefs is admitting that its beliefs have never had such a divine source - they are man-made and, like all man-made things, need to be modernised periodically.  Consequently, that institution no longer represents a spiritual belief system, but is simply a political organisation which pretends to be founded on spiritual beliefs.

That pretty much sums up the Church of England.
This comment is not only my quote of the day, it may be the quote of a lifetime.  And it reminded me of something I said in a recent sermon:
I have an abiding distrust for what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery."  Chronological snobbery is the notion that the ideas of our own day are better than the ideas of a bygone day just because the ideas are in our day.  Chronological snobbery feels that things are truer because they are newer.

Now there is a difference here: Truth in areas such as science is a matter of discovery.  So, indeed, new discoveries may invalidate previously held ideas and replace them with new ones.  The discovery that the Earth revolves around the Sun, instead of the older idea that the Sun and other celestial bodies revolved around the Earth, is just one example.

I remember when I was young, being at my grandparents’ house and looking up the word “atom” in an old dictionary (from around the year 1900).  The definition said that the atom was the smallest particle of matter and could not be divided.  Well, by then (early 1960’s), even as a child in grade school, I had already been taught about protons, electrons, and neutrons—and, indeed, I knew that the atom could be split with powerful and sometimes destructive force.  In science, new discoveries teach us new truth.

However, in Christian faith and theology, truth is a primarily a matter of revelation, not discovery.  Oh, we may discover new insights out of what has been revealed in Scripture.  But we do not discover new truth that invalidates the clear revelation God has given us.

For example: we will not come to a new discovery in theology that God is an impersonal force, not a Person, that Hell does not exist, that human beings are not sinners because of the Fall, that the atoning death of Jesus Christ is not necessary for salvation—though there are theologians writing, teaching, and holding distinguished professorships who will try to tell you each of those things.  These theologians and denominational leaders and people who follow them believe that theologians today can formulate ideas that make the truth of Holy Scripture, the faith once delivered to the saints, obsolete.

A pointed example from our own day:  Some people want to redefine marriage, and they say that Jesus never said anything that would prohibit doing so.  What Jesus did say that bears on the issue is this:  Speaking to a group who had asked him about divorce, Jesus says, “Have you not read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4-6)

So the teaching of Jesus is that this is God’s design for human sexual relations, and he grounds it in the creation order (Genesis 2:24).  And, sure enough, whether you are Chinese, or Indian, or a member of a tribe living in the jungle, men marry women and women marry men, and that is how we got 7 billion people living on the planet.  Because the creation order is a reality even in cultures that have never been influenced by the Bible.  So when we talk about redefining marriage, we are talking about not merely something that the Church has never done before, we are talking about something that human civilization has never done before.

Observing truth from the creation order that is consistent with the truth of God in revelation is known as “natural law.”  Natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human existence and deduce binding rules of moral behavior.  In jurisprudence it serves as a means by which the laws of given political community or society may be critiqued.

If you follow confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices you may remember nominees being asked what their views were on natural law (such as Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice John Roberts).  You see, there are politicians who don’t want justices who believe that there is a “givenness”—a revealed nature—to the way things are, and that there is a natural order of things with which laws must be consistent.  It interferes with the idea that we can make up laws to do whatever we want.  But I digress.

This chronological snobbery of which I was speaking is irrational because being new is no guarantee of being true.  It’s pure arrogance to think that a thought in my head is better than a thought in the head of St. Athanasius, Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther, just because I live in the twenty-first century and they lived in centuries past.  There is no logical connection between the truth of an insight and the century when God puts it into somebody’s mind.

Many of the theological errors we see today are really the heresies of a past age in new packaging.  So I try to flee every temptation to be a chronological snob.  C. S. Lewis prescribed at least one antidote.  He said that every third book you read should be from outside your own century.  It was good advice.
Numerous commentators have noted, for more than twenty years, that there are two religions in the Episcopal Church.  (Just try Googling the phrase "two religions in the Episcopal Church" to see the copious number of references.)  By extension, this might be said as well for the Anglican Communion.  If one is willing to take a step back and look at the larger picture, is probably most accurate to say that there are two religions today both calling themselves Christianity, and the battle between the two is being fought in every historic Christian tradition.

The difference between these two religions is described succinctly by the comment I quoted from the Daily Telegraph.  It is the difference between what J. Gresham Machen called "Revealed Religion" and "naturalistic liberalism," which, as Machen said, "is not Christianity at all."

How the conflict between these two religions will play out remains to be seen--except I believe I can say with certainty that when, in response to Peter's confession, Jesus promised, "upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," it was not the false Christianity of naturalistic liberalism that he was talking about.

This means that "revealed" Christianity will ultimately be seen as the victor (at least by God, whose verdict alone matters), even if it is the martyr's victory.

The great frustration in the meantime is that there are ostensibly orthodox Christian leaders (be they bishops, seminary presidents, trustees, etc.) who do not realize there is a battle or, if they do, are not willing to fight it if it means martyrdom—or even a loss of temporal position, prestige, or institutional connections.

I don't need to dwell on what our Lord thinks of such worldly compromises and lukewarmness.  Scripture is abundantly clear on that.

But it is, as I say, frustrating to see orthodox Christians ostracized for raising the alarm and to see institutions lost so that their leaders can remain in comfortable slumber.


Undergroundpewster said...

A number of excellent points. I agree that was the quote of the day.

If I ever get a chance, I will have to ask my liberal bishop if he understands that his rationale behind supporting same sex blessings in his diocese is an example of naturalistic liberalism and is not consistent with revealed religion.

Robert S. Munday said...

Pewster, If your bishop is like many I know, he may have to go back and take a course on theology in a conservative seminary to understand the question. Or, actually, he may need to undergo "deprogramming" before he is able to process the information. For decades, most Episcopal seminaries have been teaching their students to have a disdain for the idea of "revealed religion," the same as they have been programming them to reject the doctrine of Christ's substitutionary atonement.

Conversations I have had with the graduates of these other seminaries have been revealing: They didn't know WHY they didn't believe in the revealed nature of Christianity or substitutionary atonement. They just "knew" that those doctrines were "icky," and that it was un-Episcopalian to believe them.

Unknown said...

"The great frustration in the meantime is that there are ostensibly orthodox Christian leaders (be they bishops, seminary presidents, trustees, etc.) who do not realize there is a battle or, if they do, are not willing to fight it if it means martyrdom—or even a loss of temporal position, prestige, or institutional connections." The Word says that we may well suffer martyrdom. Just guess it involves a choice for Jesus.