Where I Am Now, Part 2

So here is basically the conclusion I tried to reach before:

  • The authority of our faith and theology is not found in any revelation but in God himself.
  • We know God through revelation, but the shape of that revelation is not nearly as cut and dry as the Evangelical mindset wants it to be and cannot be equated merely with Scripture.
  • Scripture comes to us through the Church and is interpreted within the body of the Church alongside the tradition of beliefs not found in scripture.
  • To make sense of this sometimes confusing muddle we have to, I believe, start from the most basic, central part of our belief structures.
  • This, I think, is found in the orthodoxy expressed in the creeds.
  • This Orthodoxy then sets the parameters within which the rest of our theology can grow and develop, but it does not dictate theology.
  • In fact, I think it intentionally, allows for diversity.

Just as clarification, this is not to say that scripture is not important to our theology. It is certainly very, very important.  But it cannot be the ultimate foundation because before we can use scripture we have to know what scripture is. The essential point I’m trying to make is that this is not self-evident and therefore there must be some core, some foundation, that is prior to scripture and through which we interpret scripture.  That prior foundation is the orthodoxy of the creeds.

From this orthodoxy stems, I believe, two poles around which our theology is built: the pole of scripture and the pole of tradition.

The point of their being two poles is not to say that one overrides the other or that on some issues we follow one and on some the other.  The point is that through the processes of reason and experience we attempt to find the best harmony of scripture and the oldest, most widely attested (notice the importance of both of these tests, Apostolicity and Catholicity we might say) traditions to formulate an understanding of who we are as God’s people in this world.

This process happens through  a cycle that involves both poles.  It will always be true that we read scripture in light of our traditions.  It should likewise be true that our traditions are informed and shaped by scripture.  It’s the combination of the flowing of influence back and forth, shaped by our reasoning and experience, that gives rise to our theological beliefs.

So from all of that, I’m going to sketch out a very basic framework of where I am in terms of theology at this point in the journey:

The Narrative of Scripture is a Narrative of Redemption.

I think the word redemption is much better than the term salvation< because of the way the latter term is understood in popular discussions.  The narrative of scripture does not lay out a one-time solution to sin, a say-this-prayer-and-get-into-heaven kind of message.

Its not so much about conversion, I don’t think, as about participation in what God is doing.

And what God is doing is working in and through the history of fallen, broken, sinful humanity to restore God’s creation to the state of completed, perfect rest in which it was meant to exist.

The call to make disciples is not a call to fill our churches with converts but to call others to join in the work that God has given the Church- the work of living as though in the Kingdom in the midst of a world that is still opposed to the kingdom, a task we will continue until Christ returns, the enemy is completely vanquished, and the Kingdom is fully established.

The Kingdom and the New Testament

This is the vision the church is meant to live out, I believe.  But when we ask what that exactly looks like logistically we get little help from the New Testament:

  • We know that the practice of the church was to gather together.
  • We know that some in those gatherings spoke as teachers.
  • We know that they sang and prayed together and that they shared in a meal and cared for one another’s needs.
  • We get a few hints about organization- there were some sort of elders who had a major leadership role, some sort of pastoral shepherding role, deacons who served the needs of the congregation.

But beyond that we don’t know much.

It happens, however, that early church traditions cohere very nicely with the picture of the New Testament and fill in that picture quite a bit:

  • Very, very early and almost universally the Episcopal form of church government develops.
  • Along side it is the practice of infant baptism as a rite of initiation for children of Christians.
  • The regular celebration of Eucharist as a feast of thanksgiving for Christ’s death and resurrection and the saying of liturgical prayers based on the Lord’s prayer are likewise an early and widely attested part of the church’s practice.

Denominational Identity

So far everything I have said would, I think, fit very nicely within a Roman Catholic framework of theology.

My Catholic roommate thinks that is wonderful, my Baptist roommate thinks me a traitor (not really, but I am officially the unfaithful Protestant)…

Unfortunately for the RCIA, there are a couple of fairly significant issues for me that prevent me from going all the way to Catholicism.

Some of these include how we understand the sacraments (I’m not sure I buy into the idea that baptism actually forgives sins or that I can agree with transubstantiation).

But chief among these is the issue of Roman Supremacy.

One of the reasons for the split between Eastern and Western Christianity is that in the West, Rome gains authority as the supreme bishopric, while in the East, there is a concept of equality of bishops.

I find a much more compelling case for the equality of bishops than for the supremacy of Rome and also am of the belief that equality of bishops can serve as a great safe-guard against the kind of corruption that emerged in the medieval Catholic Church and prompted the Reformation.

One of the things I have been challenged on both in thinking through theology on my own and in conversations since I have arrived here in New Haven is how to justify my existence as a Protestant, as someone who claims to be Orthodox while remaining part of a separatist group from the standpoint of the two Christian traditions that can claim a history stretching back to the Apostles themselves.

I certainly believe that reformation needed to happen in the western church.

However, I sincerely wish that it could have happened without schism in the Church.

The unfortunate fact of history is that the split did happen and that it can’t be undone at this point.  I am deeply encouraged by the ecumenical movement, but I am not convinced that it will ever result in actual union.

What I do think can be accomplished by the ecumenical movement, however, is a new understanding of the equality of bishops in which orthodoxy becomes the focus of our union and not shared episcopacy.

So for the moment I situate myself somewhere in the Anglican tradition and continue to pursue a better understanding of the orthodoxy I think defines the entire Christian tradition.


4 thoughts on “Where I Am Now, Part 2

  1. Just to throw this out I don’t think you solved your problem in part 1.

    Assume you have orthodoxy which feeds your read of scripture (and canon) and a scripture canon which forms your orthodoxy: O S . Well of course there is an immediate problem of uniqueness. What if there were two orthodoxies which could emerge from the same scriptures.

    O1 S and O2 S. Both of whom work consistently. This system doesn’t give you anyway to choose.And of course there could be more than 2, there could be 3, 4, 10, 100. And that’s even holding the canon consistent.

    You also don’t have anyway to choose between orthodoxy X (Ox) with scripture (Sx) and orthodoxy Y (Oy) with scripture (Sy).

    As another point Very, very early and almost universally the Episcopal form of church government develops. is simply not true. We know for certain there were Christian sects for centuries that reject the Episcopal form of church government, rejected the authority of local bishops. And in terms of bishops that rejected any higher authority that exists today over the whole eastern part of Europe.

    I don’t think you have the easy out.

    1. I agree with you that I definitely don’t have an easy out. Worth noting now before I write my response: this post is from 2 and a half years ago. So what I say now might not be what I would have said in response to you then… not sure how that changes the conversation, but putting that on the table.

      I think in retrospect, upon more study of church history, the statement about the episcopal form of church government (which, just to clarify, did not refer to the Episcopal church but to government by “episcopos” or bishops) might have been overstated.

      I’m pondering your first criticism. As a purely theoretical exercise, its definitely troubling. But I’m not sure its an accurate portrait of the historical situation of the church.

      So lets start with the scriptural problem. This was what got me going in part 1, made me first start to seriously question the evangelical views I had been taught my whole life. There are, in fact, multiple canons. By my count, there are four different canons of the Old Testament claimed by various Christian groups. Interestingly, there is only 1 New Testament canon, but I don’t want to make too much of that. So we have four different Christian canons that have to be worked with: S1, S2, S3, S4.

      The way you present your critique suggests, at least in the way I’ve read it, that S1 and S2 and S3 and S4 are totally independent of and unrelated to one another, which results in the conflict of how to reconcile various orthodoxies with various canons. But that’s not entirely accurate. S2 is actually S1 plus a few other things. And S3 is S2 (which encompasses S1) plus a few more things. And S4 is S3 (which encompasses S1 and S2) plus a handful of more things. There’s a common core to all of the various canons (S1), which I think makes reconciliation a bit easier to work through.

      I’m not saying that totally solves your objection, but I think it makes it a bit less damning than you made it sound.

      Second, the orthodoxy thing. Two thoughts here.

      First, I’m wondering if there’s a definitional problem with your objection. My first thought is to say that by definition, there can’t be competing orthodoxies in the same system of belief. I’m still pondering this, it might be too simple of an answer, but I’m working through it.

      So second, appealing to history again, I think we can make a similar kind of “core” argument like we did with scripture here. Specifically in the ecumenical creeds, I think there is a core of “orthodoxy” that has almost universal acceptance in Christianity. Of course, there are multiple “interpretations” of that core, leading to sub-groups within Christianity that expand on the basic orthodoxy, but I’m not sure there is a competing system of “orthodoxy” proper out there.

      These are my thoughts at the moment, I’m not certain they mitigate your concerns entirely, but I think they help alleviate the burden of them. What do you think, are there glaring holes in my logic?

  2. Interesting. I found this because it somehow got linked from another post, didn’t notice the date.

    By my count, there are four different canons of the Old Testament claimed by various Christian groups. Interestingly, there is only 1 New Testament canon

    I’m not sure I’d agree with your low counts here. For example the Ethiopian canon has Epistle of Peter to Clement, just to pick something that’s clearly “New Testament” and is currently in some Christian canons. If you go early I’d say Paul to the Laodiceans presents a real problem since it shows up in many early lists. Similarly Gospel of the Hebrews, an Apocalypse of Peter….. I’d guess there is something like about 100 canons. But for the purpose of argument about orthodoxy let’s move on and assume there were only 4 with the relationship you propose, though I do admit I’m not following which 4 you are talking about.

    My point about orthodoxy was not that an orthodoxy wouldn’t uniquely define its own orthodoxy but that the same canon could have two competing orthodoxies associated with it.

    That is (O1,S) and (O2,S) two orthodoxies with the same scripture associated with them.

    in the ecumenical creeds, I think there is a core of “orthodoxy” that has almost universal acceptance in Christianity

    Really. Let’s take the doctrine of a bodily resurrection. Absolutely core to the creeds. Virtually every time you poll on it the majority of church going Christians even if you exclude liberals you find only a minority believe in a bodily resurrection. Even today polling people who attend credal churches, not 1900 years ago, you don’t find agreement with the creeds.

    When you go the creeds themselves the history of their own passage I think proves rather definitively that there was no orthodox consensus. In Antioch in 268 the belief that the Father and Son are of the same substance is condemned as heretical, by 381 it is mandatory.

    And all of this is diversity is while still defining Christianity rather narrowly. The narrow definition is actually rather circular sort of definition where one only defines someone as Christian if they believe in the orthodox faith. Just to pick a group associated with Christianity, certainly the Sethians don’t share much of the orthodoxy yet they it’s fairly hard in a non question begging way. If one wants to assure oneself of orthodoxy that sort of question begging won’t do.

    So no, I don’t think there are glaring holes in your logic. I think there are glaring holes in your facts. 🙂

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