DISAGREEING AGREEABLY IN CHURCH:
(Balancing the principles of authority and freedom)
by Barry Willbanks
February 2, 1998
Last updated on November 28, 2010
My theme is simple: differences are inevitable, but divisiveness is optional. Unfortunately divisiveness is a popular choice. A multipliticty of sects, cults, movements and denominations give shape to our personal and interpretative differences. Convictions are often the seeds that sprout into contentiousness.
Justifying divisions is easy. We just compare what "they" say with what "we" say "the Bible says." Our wily flesh can use even our religious convictions to justify disturbing attitudes toward our brothers. We forget to cherish our brothers because we cherish our ideas so much. By assuming our convictions are congruent with God's, we are tempted to convict others of being either ignorant or outside the faith. This predisposition of the flesh must be monitored. It must be resisted rather than assumed to be a righteous defense of the faith. Any fleshly predisposition to act as a righteous "defender of the faith" must be stifled by the spirit of love for brothers in the faith.
On the other hand, truth is not an inconsequential trifle. Our Lord said it is the truth which sets men free. Many wise and noble men have died for the truth. The Scriptures tell us to resist those who "teach false doctrine" (1 Timothy 3:3) as well as to "guard the good deposit" of revealed truth which was given by the apostles (2 Timothy 1:14). We are to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15).
Louie Evans recently counseled evangelical Presbyterians to recognize the distinction between discipline and judgmentalism. "To call one to God's created order is not judgmentalism which rejects and demeans. When it is fair and caring and based on truth, discipline is an expression of love." /note01/ Love does not enable destructive behavior or ideas. "Love...is willing to allow stress in a relationship, willing to challenge, even willing to let another leave, for that often provides the pathway for return." /note02/
What a delicate balance! How do we hold to the importance of the truth and monitor our flesh, a master of deceit? Both religious societies and their members find their identify in their understanding of the truth. So, the problem of balancing freedom and authority /note03/ is never banished for long even within Christian fellowships. Dissension in churches is seldom between one who loves the truth and another who loves lies. /note04/ Most contentions, at least in the Christian community, arise from a combination of different interpretations coupled with a failure of character. The first, of course, is obvious, but the failure of character is seldom acknowledged. The one who truly loves the truth may be morally less honorable than the one who loves his error. "If I...can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, ...but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:2,3).
So, how can truth survive in an atmosphere of distributed authority and competing truth-claims? Should tolerance be our chief virtue or is it a capitulation to relativism? Is there a middle ground? How can we defensibly balance our community's truth and the right of other groups who are persuaded differently? How do we balance our brothers' freedom and integrity with our own? Such are the questions that Christians and their groups can expect to wrestle over. And there are plenty of issues to stir up discussion: inerrancy, creation science, gender equality, abortion, baptism by immersion, appropriate candidates for ordination, predestination, Christian "rock music," tongues-and-prophecy, modern day apostleship, etc.
In light of these facts, our title seems like an oxymoron. How can we disagree agreeably? When you think about it, there are limited ways to disagree. We can disagree without caring. We can disagree with hostility. Or we can disagree agreeably. The first two are character failures. Only the last is morally commendable. To disagree agreeably--in love--does not mean we abandon discipline and accountability. Let me then cite reasons why we must learn to disagree agreeably.
1. A mature sense of reality
requires disagreeing agreeably.
We can, of course, fantasize a universal fellowship without disagreements. But in the real world we deal with strongly held differences. Our diverse cultures, languages, traditions, temperaments, and world-views simply make constant consensus an illusion. The learned will not see things as the unlearned see them. In fact, the learned debate differences among themselves just as fiercely as the unlearned among themselves, with even finer distinctions. The young will not see things as do the old. A recent convert may not see things as the veteran saint sees them. Regardless of who we are we only "know in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is part of maturity to be aware of our limited resources and conditioned experiences.
Myles Berg gave me the analogy of our personal computers. It's not easy for all computers to talk to all other computers. Some have different operating systems. Not all have the same software or compatible versions of similar software. The inter-linking hardware can distort or garble the transfer of a message. The complexity of protocols to rout, queue, print, and format data from one computer to another is one area where the proverbial "rocket scientist" is actually necessary. Sometimes even when computers succeed in transferring data, portions are lost or distorted. The margins or fonts or colors are revised or even garbled. But, of course, human beings are far more complex than computers. No wonder we see, hear, and thus explain our faith--and its Scriptural resources--differently.
Perhaps it is easier to live in the truth than to know the truth. Knowing the truth is always from within a particular community. But communities are amazingly different. Our knowledge of the truth is not dispassionate, objective, or in itself. We know it passionately, subjectively and in the experience of it. No wonder Jesus is described by so many metaphors. He is larger than the truths about him. No wonder Scripture is comprehended so diversely. It is larger than our views about it.
So in the realm of ideas or virtues, we cannot escape differences. We measure piety by different standards. We grasp truth with different concepts. We read Scripture with different eyes.
Even when the object of truth is the same, we have differences. Everyone has heard of the blind men trying to define what an elephant is like. Their descriptions are ludicrous because each is grasping a different appendage. It is the same with Christ and the Scriptures. Our feelings and thoughts may be passionate, but the Reality is always greater and different than our limited grasp. In this realm, we have only two choices: to disagree with or without respect of our brother's faith. We can and should respect another's faith even when we disagree with his understanding. Whether we recognize it or not, our common Christian posture is "faith seeking understanding." /note05/
In a recent issue of Christianity Today, John Stackhouse, Jr. offered an intriguing article entitled "Fighting the Good Fight (A Plea for healthy disagreements)," /note06/ He was not advocating bickering, but he was promoting proper arguments that invite the parties to scrutinize their logic and evidence. As they respond to one another in team-like assistance, each is ratcheted closer to the truth. Each prospers even while differing. Unfortunately, however, "when confronted by those who differ with us, we have just reached for the stick, confident that we already knew the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so all that remained was conquest of the enemy. Contrary to the biblical injunction (James 1:19), we think that we don't need to hear; we love to speak; and boy, are we quick to get angry." /note07/
I recently heard Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, speak at an event celebrating the school's fiftieth anniversary. At this occasion, hosted by a Catholic seminary, Dr. Mouw mentioned some remarkable statistics about the school's demographics. The (then) current students represented 80 nations, many races and ethnic groups. Faculty and students from over 100 denominations and church traditions have shared at Fuller. With this kind of representation, the school could be a multicultural Babel. But it is not. It is more like a multicultural Pentecost. A Pentecost is not the picture of a placid séance where everyone quietly thinks his own thoughts. It is not the picture of a battle zone where everyone screams the commands of conflict. But it is a picture of a complex family that studies and debates strongly felt differences yet gathers around a common table of fellowship. Friendships and congregations can be like that too.
We are accountable in our search for understanding. We ought to hold others accountable also to search out the truth. But, we must not insist that they must arrive at where we are. If they stand for Christ, we have a unity, even if it is sometimes dysfunctional. We must practice grace with our "erring brothers," because there are no others. Just as there is "none righteous, no not one," /note08/ so there are "none always right, no not one."
Is the Bible a prescription for United Notions? Some believe that Christians will be united in faith and practice when we all mutually submit to the authority of Scripture. It is a worthy goal to be sure. Certainly the Bible should be honored. But this confidence is historically, sociologically, and psychologically naïve. Fallible men will never find united notions by pledging to accept the authority of the Bible. We might be united in our respect for Scripture, but common respect is not the same as common views. Unity will never be achieved by intellectual congruence short of eschatological transformation. We will all one day bow the knee to Christ as Lord (Philippians 2:10,11), but that is an eschatological occurrence. To expect an unruffled agreement about the Bible's manifold ingredients in the ordinary world of men and things, is asking for the impossible and inessential. To demand consensus only invites the opposite of what it seeks.
We have to learn to accept the fact of life that people experience and conceptualize the Christian faith and its ramifications in different ways even while using the same Scriptures and loving the same Lord. While teaching is meant to unite people in the same mind, /note09/ it simply does not happen in a macrocosmic way. In a small group of homogeneous persons, perhaps it can. But Christianity has to embrace more than that.
Even the most learned teachers, like average men, interpret and explain Christian truths differently. Why else do we have so many creeds, denominations, sects, etc? Do (we) really think that other Christians disagree with (us) only because those Christians are either too stupid to see the obvious truth..., or too stubborn to admit the truth we see? We might profitably consider the possibility that God has broken forth truth out of his Word that challenges the established categories of our mode of Christian thought. /note10/
This is not to suggest that all ways are equally valid. Why would anyone hold an opinion passionately if just any opinion would suffice? All rational believers acknowledge the existence of ugly distortions caused by ignorance, arrogance, or other weaknesses. Ignorance may be from youthful inexperience, inadequate education, or even genetic limitations. But even intelligence has not proven itself to be a trustworthy protector of the faith. The best and brightest theologians have not given us a consensus. In fact, the world of scholarship is a constantly changing menu of confusing arguments. It is the work and pleasure of scholars to debate differences. Sometimes it is done gentlemanly. Sometimes it gets nasty. Arrogance, as well as its fellow traveler, ignorance, plays a part in human differences.
An American Ambition: The Restoration Movement. When I was a young man I belonged to an admirable Christian movement which had two valued ends, the unity of the church and the restoration of Biblical faith (what we believe) and practice (what we do). /note11/ Whatever may have been the rhetoric, it appeared to me that restoration was valued most. It was viewed as the means to unity. In this movement, unity was seen as the natural consequence of everyone getting the faith and its practices right. In other words, if everyone would simply agree to believe and practice the simple teachings of Scripture, then we would be united. We wouldn't need the human creeds, denominational confessions, or sectarian divisions; we would be one in mind and expression.
This American frontier movement arose in the 19th century, a time brimming with confidence. That generation trusted common sense philosophy. The optimism of social Darwinism engendered an assurance that the future would bring success to Restorationists' goals. For awhile it was the fastest growing sect in America.
It did not intend, of course, to be a sect; it aimed to be the end of all sects. The noble plea--"In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; and, in all things, love,"--seemed a sure prescription to unity. Unfortunately, the expressed ideals produced a less commendable result. The grand ambitions were soon clouded by strident new divisions. Today this movement--memorialized in the Christian Church (Disciples) denomination, the acappella churches of Christ, and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ--is hardly, if at all, a force for contemporary reformation. Perhaps the noble plea is a clue to its inadequacy. By putting love last, the implication is that if we can agree on all the terms of faith and opinion then we will love each other.
At the beginning of the reformation, it was assumed that everyone could agree on what are the matters of faith and the matters of opinion. By giving up denominational traditions (creeds, confessions, practices), the New Testament would be a sufficient guide. Everyone would believe what is taught in Scripture alone. Everyone would also be free to make inferences from what is taught to form private opinions that would not be binding on others. But, of course, there is the rub.
The problems are obvious: (1) Who decides what are the matters of faith, and (2) What are the specific interpretations that must be held about them? Even when a subject is agreeably classed among the "matters of faith," there was no certainty that individuals would interpret it alike. In fact, anything so weighty as a "matter of faith" seemed to provoke a tenacious arrogance that disrupted the unity it professed to seek. Restoration did not prove itself a successful prescription for unity. Could it be a result rather than a means? /note12/
What do you suppose were the divisive issues? Let me give some examples. Wranglings occurred over the introduction of missionary societies, Christian orphanage homes, etc. These were not part of "the pattern." They were seen as unscriptural usurpations of the ministry of the local congregation and the family. Some found no New Testament evidence of musical instruments in the apostolic church. Paul's exhortation was to "make melody in your hearts." /note13/ On these grounds, it was deemed a digression from the true pattern of worship when musical instruments were introduced in congregations. So, you see how scriptural silence became a legalistic prohibition.
Even more ludicrous were the "one cup" advocates who insisted on communion with only one cup from which all were to drink since Jesus passed a common cup and asked all to drink from it. /note14/ Here, the opposite of silence becomes a problem. What is mentioned is taken as normative. Then there were the anti-Sunday schoolers who resisted age-divided classes because the Bible commands that there be "no divisions among you." /note15/
Believe it or not, this imaginative literalism got carried even further. There were some who only allowed communion in an "upper room" with groups of twelve or less. The passion to do things the Bible ways turned silence into prohibitions and simple statements into obligatory requirements. Can you imagine a unity resulting from restoration of this kind?
These early restorationists were also convinced on limited historical and exegetical grounds that the first Christians gathered weekly to "break bread" in memory of Jesus. As part of the "pattern" inferred from limited historical narratives, weekly communion became a litmus test for true faith and practice. No Scripture was given to prove that description should equal prescription. But once the value judgment was made, it became for some a canon of orthodoxy.
Perhaps the greatest litmus, however, was the form and proper candidate for baptism. Again on exegetical and historical grounds, the restorationists regarded immersion as the only true baptism. Infants and very young children were not baptized. being neither morally-conscious sinners nor rational believers, they were not regarded as proper candidates for baptism. The restorationists were unpersuaded by analogies of conversion to circumcision. They were unconvinced that the baptism of household groups (Acts 16:15, 33) included anyone lacking the capacity to hear and believe the gospel. /note16/
So again, scriptural silence was understood to be a prohibition rather than an option. [NOTE: Scriptural teaching about baptism is clear. To deny what the Bible teaches is an option which should not be considered by faithful disciples. The Restorationist position on immersion into Christ is not based on silence, but rather on clear and easily understood apostolic teaching. Your attention is invited to another study, RAISED INTO NEW LIFE, Part 1 by Ray Downen, for discussion of conversion into Christ which includes the baptism which is the burial in water of repentant believers and their being THEN raised into new life.] On this, as on other things, the restorationists insisted that everyone should "speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent." It is a noble goal, but it is not a prescription for unity unless we learn to appreciate the common intent of the heart rather than to depreciate the diverse expressions. [NOTE: Good intentions are commendable always. "Diverse expressions" which deny apostolic teaching are deadly rather than life-giving. Jesus offers salvation on His terms, not on whatever sinners seek to work out on their own.]
The conclusions about baptism came slowly. The first restorationists were themselves unimmersed Presbyterians. Did they have to regard themselves as unsaved until they could submit to a proper baptism? They did not say so. But, later, once they realized that baptism was immersion, they had to grapple with the existence of other "pious unimmersed," /note17/ who were not immersed. [NOTE: It is not helpful to link baptism and observance of the Lord's Supper as if they were one question. The two matters are dissimilar. Baptism is for sinners seeking salvation. The Supper is for saved saints.] In time, similar concerns were felt about churches that failed to celebrate the Lord's supper according to the apparent historical precedent of the first century church. /note18/
While many of their historical and exegetical conclusions were reasonable, the inferences derived from them frequently lacked grace and patience. Some took positions contrary to the very principles enunciated by Thomas Campbell, one of the founding fathers of the restoration churches. The mention of Thomas Campbell brings us to another reason why we must learn to disagree agreeably. /note19/
2. No one can be bound to any
interpretation that is not his own.
None of us can believe what is personally unconvincing. What makes perfect sense to one is nonsense to another. This does not mean both are right. It doesn't even guarantee that one is right and the other wrong. Both may be in error at least in part. Either may amend his views, but only once convinced. We must recognize the faith of our brothers even if we think their understanding is defective. /note20/ Being in the fellowship of other believers may eventually produce a united mind, but in the meantime we are called to love those for whom Christ died. He died for each one, apart from their doctrinal orthodoxy, mental prowess, intellectual consistency, or emotional togetherness. We may lament the inadequacies of a brother, but love never binds on another what he cannot see.
Many years ago I went to Princeton to study under Paul Ramsey. At our initial reception I discovered something of his wisdom and humility. In discussing our backgrounds, we learned that we both had preachers for fathers. Our fathers had less education than we did. That was especially true of Professor Ramsey. His father was a Methodist circuit preacher. Paul was a Yale Ph.D., tenured professor at Princeton, and a widely known author in the field of ethics. He did not share all his dad's convictions, but he said, "In the way my dad defined things, he was always right!"
Professor Ramsey defined the issues differently, but he graciously acknowledged that his father was on the right as he defined them. For example, if evolution means there is no God, then evolution must be opposed. If historical criticism means the Bible is only a human book, then it must be resisted. From Ramsey's perspective, the options were not so either-or. Ramsey was able to discern the difference between his father's inadequate understanding and his father's commendable integrity. He respected his father's wisdom without agreeing with his views. His attitude has had a weighty impact on me. It is a barometer to test my attitude toward Christians whose convictions differ from my own. His attitude is one which I long for others to have toward me when my views trouble them.
Thomas Campbell, in his famous "Declaration and Address" made the following points:
"We are ... persuaded that as no man can be judged for his brother, so no man can judge for his brother: every man must be allowed to judge for himself, as every man must bear his own judgment--must give account of himself to God... All lie under an equal obligation to be bound by it (Scripture), and it alone; and not by any human interpretation of it; and ... no man has a right to judge his brother, except insofar as he manifestly violates the express letter of the law." /note21/
Campbell was content to believe that faith in Christ alone and His Word was our salvation. [NOTE: No proof is adduced for a claim that Thomas Campbell believed in salvation by faith alone.] Since no person must have "a distinct knowledge of all divinely revealed truths to be a Christian, neither should they, for this purpose, be required to make a profession more extensive than their knowledge" so long as they come to Christ for salvation seeking to be obedient to His Word.
"...Inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God's holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians further than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power and veracity of God. /note22/ Therefore, no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the Church." /note23/
His charitable intent may have suffered, however, because of his fierce advocacy for "pure speech." He believed that Bible terms ought to be used in their proper sense only. Senses that were derived from later tradition were unacceptable. Believing that baptism, for example, was originally an immersion in water for the forgiveness of sins, it could not refer to the sprinkling of infants who have no guilt. Infant baptism, in his view, could not be found in Scripture either as express teachings or as a clear example.
Campbell reasoned that since the Word of Christ is the church's rule, we cannot assume a distinction between "essentials and non-essentials, in matters of revealed truth and duty." Whatever their comparative importance, the authority of Scripture makes them "essential to us, in so far as we know them." /note24/ While this principle may be self-imposed in a valid and sincere way, it cannot produce unity by imposing it on all. It begs the question he wanted to answer. What one takes as "revealed truth and duty" another takes as a historical reference without normative significance. /note25/ Differences are inevitable. No one can be bound by what he cannot comprehend.
Campbell opposed all creeds "insofar as they oppose the unity of the Church by containing sentiments not expressly revealed in the word of God; or, by ... using them, become instruments of a human...faith, or oppress the weak of God's heritage. Where they are liable to none of those objections, we have nothing against them." /note26/ That is, creeds are optional. They cannot be given a binding role in validating anyone's faith. No one can be bound to an opinion that is not his own.
The Westminster Confession acknowledges the unique relationship between God and the individual believer. "God alone is lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith and worship." /note27/ This recognition of the liberty of personal conscience was not meant to provide a pretense for resisting any lawful authority (civil or ecclesiastical) or for repudiating any known principle of Christianity. Those who flouted such liberty "may lawfully be called to account and proceeded against by the censures of the Church." /note28/ This harsh measure included admonition, suspension from participation in communion, or even excommunication. It is doubtful, however that the intent was to coerce anyone to believe or practice anything of which the conscience was unconvinced by the Word of God.
3. Character compels disagreeing agreeably.
Campbell put it this way. "We dare not...patronize the rejection of God's dear children, because they may not be able to see alike in matters of human inference--of private opinion." /note29/ Love values people over their ideas. He was confident that "the visible Scriptural unity of the Christian church consists in the unity of her public profession and practice, and...in the manifest charity of her members, one toward another, and not in the unity of private opinion and practice of every individual." /note30/
One of the most memorable experiences of my early manhood came from a statement of Seth Wilson, the Academic Dean of my college. I was known for sometimes opposing my professors' points of view. This was not a very politically savvy thing to do because at my graduation I was being considered for a faculty position. The Dean found occasion one day to inquire about my views, or more precisely my attitude about them. Once he was satisfied that I did not intend to impose them on anyone else, he said, "We know when we hire people, we hire their opinions, but what really concerns us is their attitude about their opinions." I've always appreciated his word of wisdom. I felt honored to be hired. It was not the last time he was my defender against colleagues offended at my views. I seemed to have broken an unspoken rule that members of the same faculty were to hold the same views.
To Campbell "unity of sentiment in the present imperfect state appears to us morally impossible, all things considered. Nor can we conceive of what desirable purpose such a unity of sentiment would serve, except to render useless some of those gracious, self-denying, and compassionate precepts of mutual sympathy and forbearance which the word of God enjoins upon his people." /note31/ God's will for our character is partly developed by our patience with one another when we understand our faith differently.
Paul addressed the Roman church about disagreeing agreeably. Recognizing differences of conscience (and the understanding that informs the differences), Paul exhorts the "strong" to welcome those "whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters." The better informed believers were to permit their weaker brothers to follow their erroneous consciences, because true character recognizes something more valuable than understanding or consensus; it is the integrity of the weaker brother for whom Christ died. No one should be tempted to act contrary to conscience. Moreover, the "strong" should take care not to tempt the "weak" to act against their own conscience. The weak, on the other hand, are encouraged to abide by the dictates of their conscience (even though Paul regarded those dictates as mistaken). Why? "Anything that does not come from faith (a good conscience towards God) is sin" (Romans 14:23). /note32/
Good character should prompt us to "keep these things (offensive to weaker brothers) between yourself and God." (Romans 14:22). On the other hand, Paul encouraged the strong with these words:
" ... do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new moon celebration, or a sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ (Col. 2:16,17).
The religious ideas behind these events and certain moral convictions (see Col. 2:20ff) were "based on human commands and traditions.... (and although they) have an appearance of wisdom," they are not consistent with Christ's adequacy to be our Savior. Only the weak of faith impose them on themselves and others.
There are many modern analogies to the early church's differences regarding eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Our modern moral and theological differences have to do with different issues (sabbatarianism, vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol/ movies/ dancing/ science-and-faith/ views about inspiration, etc). Even though the whole epistle of Romans is aimed to show that a relationship with God is not established by human moral achievements but by God's grace, Paul refused to trample on the convictions of others whose acceptance of Christ failed to fully understand the sufficiency of His atonement. Paul never wearies in urging consideration and peacemaking in the Christian community.
I am sure some would chafe at one possible inference that I would draw from Paul's principles. If it is truly God's grace in Christ that saves us, it is weak faith to demand a scrupulous observance of even a central ordinance like baptism to gain confidence in one's salvation. Baptism can be distorted so that it is robbed of its grace and twisted into a legal contract with merits for the scrupulous. I do not mean to advocate a cavalier view toward baptism (I have strong views about its proper mode and the proper candidate). I believe many who practice it with the most conviction are among the "weak" who are unnecessarily and wrongly offended at others who see it in good conscience differently. Baptism is for man; man is not for baptism, [NOTE: We do well to remember that Jesus is quoted as saying that no one can enter His Kingdom without the new birth of water and spirit. Baptism in water is part of the new birth Jesus says is essential. Jesus thought repentance and baptism were very important indeed.] to paraphrase our Lord's sentiments on the Sabbath.
4. Human Dignity Demands Disagreeing Agreeably.
Modern Catholicism has inquired deeply about this question: "How are Catholics, in virtue of their faith, to conduct themselves in their relations with those who do not adhere to the Catholic faith?" This question is at once a moral/theological question and a juridical/constitutional question. The answer was given in the Declaration of Religious Freedom. /note33/
In the first part of the Declaration, religious freedom is said to rest in the "dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known in the revealed Word of God and by reason itself." /note34/ Believing that the act of Christian faith must be free and without coercion, it follows that the human conscience must be free to accept the obligations that fall upon it. However, men cannot discharge their obligations "in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom." /note35/
The Declaration affirms the obligation as well as the right of every man to seek the truth. "The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication, and dialogue. In the course of these, men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it." /note36/
This freedom which inheres within human dignity means more than the absence of coercion. It also means that no one "is to be restrained from acting in accordance with his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits." By "due limits" the framers recognized the role of civil government in "the protection of public peace against serious disturbance, the safeguarding of public morality against serious violation, and the vindication of the common rights of all citizens against trespass." /note37/
In its essence, the right to religious freedom "consists before all else in those internal, voluntary, and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind." /note38/
Since the Declaration recognized that this liberty should be enjoyed by groups as well as individuals, no individual can have absolute liberty. "Provided the just requirements of public order are observed, religious bodies rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles." /note39/
The Declaration does not develop this point, since it is not addressed to dissenters within the church, but to people of other faiths and to the civil authorities. This omission, however, is the issue faced within groups when dissent arises. Where does the right of individual expression cease according to the "norms" or "religious principles" of a particular religious body? We will address this below.
Christian bodies look principally to the Bible to settle the tenets of their faith. However, it is clear that even this carefully selected body of fixed writings does not end all discussion. These writings must still be interpreted within the changing environment of the church in the world in all its facets. This unresolved problem inherent in any fixed text was recognized very early, even before the canon was decided.
The author of 2 Peter cautions his readers about it in two ways.
(1) He prefaces a long diatribe against false teachers with a reminder that "no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" (1:20). True interpretation, like true revelation, must come from men of God. /note40/ [NOTE: What Peter says is that no PROPHET spoke on his own from God, but was guided in the speaking. He is NOT speaking about understanding the prophecy, but about giving it. See comments by Seth Wilson.] Peter warns that Scripture (Old Testament and Paul) can be read amiss. Since readers need a trustworthy guide, they should rely only on the apostolic spokesmen and their representatives in the church to interpret Scripture canonically, i.e., according to their standard (Christ).
(2) Then, Peter, still in the context of warnings against false teachers, warns that some were using Paul as an authority to bring about their destruction, because they were misinterpreting him. How so? They "distort" or "twist" his writings. So the "wisdom that God gave him" (3:15) results not in salvation but in destruction. The warning, then, is to avoid the false teachers who distort Paul's meanings. Instead his readers should cling to the true knowledge of Christ provided by the apostolic traditions and interpreted by the apostolic church.
Paul supplies plenty of evidence of his own struggles to maintain true faith in his churches. He defends his apostleship vigorously against those who demeaned him for his speech, appearance, lack of testimonial letters, self-support, etc.
His defense offers various evidences of his genuineness. /note41/ Without reviewing those, let it suffice to observe the importance of apostolicity in determining the true message and lifestyle of one claiming to be an apostle. The apostle was one who not only taught in words but also demonstrated his message by suffering for Christ. Paul steadfastly proclaimed that Christ had personally called him to his ministry. He insisted that he had passed on in his tradition (teachings) what he had received. This is the burden of his argument to the Corinthians regarding communion and resurrection.
"For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you" (1 Corinthians 11:23).
"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures... (I Corinthians 15:3ff) /note42/
Other writers recognize the existence of varying interpretations of the Christian message and even distortions of it. Jude, for example, urges his readers to struggle for the faith given once and for all (verse 3). John assures his readers that he and his associates have proclaimed only "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched" (1 John 1:1).
Fellowship with these apostolic witnesses derives only from believing what they have proclaimed (1:3). Their message is what "we have heard from him (Jesus) and declare to you" (1:5). He warns against new messages by adamantly referring to his message as "old" (2:7). He warns against some who have not "remained with us" (2:19). In particular he warns against anyone who denies the true humanity of Christ (2:22). So John's disciples must "test every spirit" to avoid "false prophets" who do not acknowledge "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:2). He offers more than a conceptual foundation. He urges his readers to rely on the Spirit they have received with the message and to maintain love for one another.
The Pastoral letters /note43/ show an early trend toward limiting the diversity and creativity with which the Christian tradition was handled. "Evidently by the time the letters to Timothy and Titus were written ... a coherent body of tradition had become established to serve as a clearly defined touchstone of orthodoxy. This is variously defined as 'the teaching' (1 Timothy 4:16; 6:1; 2 Timothy 3:10; Titus 2:7,10) or more specifically 'sound teaching' (1 Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1), 'the good teaching' (1 Timothy 4:6), or 'the teaching which accords with godliness' (1 Timothy 6:3), 'the faith' (11 times), 'sound words' (1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 1:13), or 'that which has been entrusted' (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:12,14)....
The attitude toward tradition is wholly conservative: it is to be kept (1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 4:7), clung to (Titus 1:9), guarded (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:12,14), protected (1 Timothy 6:1) and passed on faithfully from one generation to another (2 Timothy 2:2)." /note44/
In the later Roman Catholic Church, the proper interpretation has generally been given by the creedal pronouncements of the great Councils and by papal decrees, especially those given "ex cathedra," from the chair of papal authority. Protestant churches look to selected creeds for the proper interpretation of Scripture's tenets. In our denomination, among the promises made by those who are ordained as pastors, elders, and deacons is an affirmation to this question:
Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions /note45/ of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God? /note46/
The creeds then are taken to be the "canonical" interpretation of the canonical scriptures. All of this simply means that "to say Scripture is to say church" as one of my professors /note47/ used to say. The Scriptures and creeds came from and were selected by the church. [NOTE: The inspired writings came from God rather than from any churchmen. It is not correct to imply that scripture and church are co-equal. It is not true that "the church" provides the acceptable interpretation of scripture. The claim might imply that the Roman church can tell everyone what the Bible means, which none of us Protestants would agree with for an instant.] It is the church that provides the acceptable interpretation.
Christian organizations often identify themselves within the diversity of positions held in the larger Christendom with a "statement of faith." This statement often is very basic. Sometimes, however, it also details micro-positions about the end times chronology, the nature of Christ's presence in the communion elements, the method of baptism, the polity of the church, etc. /note48/
New Testament scholarship has in recent years become increasingly aware that the earliest generations of Christianity expressed themselves in quite diverse ways. Even a novice reader can see that the Fourth Gospel is not only different from the other three, but it actually describes a different chronology of events. /note49/ [NOTE: This analysis is incorrect. The gospel accounts, all four, are in harmony.] It is not surprising that early Christians expressed themselves differently. Not all Jews, who were the first converts, were of the same culture. Some were Palestinian, while others were from the Diaspora in the Hellenistic world. Those who spoke and taught addressed different audiences. They sometimes used a word like "faith" but gave it different meanings. [NOTE: Since "faith" has different meanings, it's no surprise to find different usages.] /note50/
This awareness of the diversity of expressions in the New Testament has taken on practical consequences in current ecumenical relationships. In the "Formula of Agreement" between four denominations, the churches enter into "full communion on the basis of a common calling" in spite of long standing theological differences. How can this be? They begin by recognizing each preaches the gospel. "The theological diversity within our common confession provides both the complementarity needed for a full and adequate witness to the gospel ... and the corrective reminder that every theological approach is a partial and incomplete witness to the Gospel." /note51/
This principle of complementarity may apply to the original canon as well as the contemporary theological diversity. One of my professors used to the describe the canon as a limit on the acceptable diversity of thought in the early church. At first, individual churches tended to ground their life and faith in specific traditions or writings. They did not know or have all the books that later became our New Testament. For them there was no canon in the sense of our completed canon. They may have had reasons to be suspicious of some of the writings or teachings that they did know. /note52/ They may have had doubts about specific works because they did not like the leanings of a group who cherished those works. So only after long and labored process did the present New Testament canon come to general acceptance. Although "complementarity" may not be an expressed principle for selection, it certainly is a characteristic of the works that were selected.
Individually, we may feel the right to interpret the Bible for ourselves, as members of "the priesthood of all believers." Whether from skills developed in a school or from a dangerous imagination, we may come to understandings which are not consistent with the creeds of yesterday. Arriving at our own interpretation may be a right, but there is no right to force them upon others. Only by persuasion can we widen our consensus.
It also must be recognized that not all persuasion is rational. Some strong convictions are irrationally formed and sometimes are dead wrong. Obviously this right of interpretation opens the way for cults and sects of every idiosyncrasy. On the other hand, it also opens the possibility of legitimate reform. Hopefully persons of good will and sound reason will agree that any interpretation must deal with the apostolic traditions (our theological roots), if it expects to be taken seriously. We have no access to Christ's words and deeds other than the "memoirs" of the apostles. /note53/ They need to be understood with whatever tools of scholarship are available to us. But any person of modest humility will want to be instructed by the considered conclusions of the greatest minds of the church (and university, I might add). This is one of the roles of the confessions and creeds. Long before convictions become enshrined in confessions, they are debated in the writings of the church's best scholars.
An interesting debate has occurred in modern times between two German professors regarding the diversity in the New Testament writings. Ernst Kasemann used the diversity of views in the New Testament to argue that we should "discern the spirits" by looking for a canon within the canon. He suggests "justification by faith" as the basic truth by which to measure everything else. Hans Kung replies, "The catholic attitude is to be, in principle, open in every direction that the New Testament leaves open; not to exclude, either in principle or in practice, any line that belongs to the New Testament... By including Paul along with Acts, Paul along with James; by, in short, making the whole New Testament 'canonical,' the church carried out her duty of `discerning the spirits.' He rejects Kasemann's view as an attempt to be "more biblical than the bible, more New-Testament-minded than the New Testament, more evangelical than the Gospel, more Pauline, even, than Paul." /note54/
So the New Testament writings have both a unity and a breadth. Their unity is in its affirmation of faith that Jesus is the exalted Christ, raised to bring God and man together. Everything in the New Testament assists in maintaining this core. The communion and baptism celebrate his saving death and anticipate his return. The governing leaders (elders) are selected for their ability to preserve his gospel in teaching and example. /note55/ Their breadth is in the diversity of expressions of faith in Christ. Not even the memory of Jesus could be expressed uniformly by all. The New Testament is a series of witnesses who confess a common love/allegiance to Jesus as the Christ but do so in ways that are not easily, if at all, manageable into a single system. [NOTE: Some of us have no difficulty managing the inspired writings into a "single system."]
To accept the New Testament is to accept the principle of diversity among people who have faith in Christ. There were a multiplicity of confessions about Jesus which became one only by being bound together in a single canon of scriptures. So diversity is normative so long as it never loses its focus on Jesus as the Christ, our link to God and salvation. This principle of diversity and complementarity are part of Paul's instruction to the Romans.
Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us (Romans 12:3-6a).
Voluntary associations, such as congregations and church groups, have the legal authority, of course, to determine the requirements of their own membership. This authority has been exercised historically by church officers and their ecclesiastical courts. Offending members have been purged or censured. Louis Evans' valued counsel here should be noted. "A ... dynamic of our life together is the relationship between accountability and acceptance." Then building on the example of athletes under the authority and tutelage of a coach, Louie says, "We are to cooperate for the good of the team. Self-centeredness and factionalism are not tolerated and do not win a place of leadership. ... Team decisions are honored." /note56/
Interestingly enough, the suppressed opinions have often been honored later on. One can't help but think of the Reformation martyrs and biblical prophets who were ahead of their time in understanding divine revelation.
I'm sure I do not have a perfect grasp of what interpretations and opinions should be censurable, but it is worth noting that the New Testament seems far more interested in censuring behavior than ideas. We should be very careful not to equate "sound in the faith," which had a particular historical meaning in opposition to the Gnostic heresy (rejecting the humanity of Christ), with a specific set of doctrinal positions unique to a particular theological trajectory, denomination, sect, etc. I believe one could be "sound in the faith" by trusting in Jesus as the Christ while holding to a variety of other ideas which are not universally held by other Christians. I do not believe Paul's words should be co-opted to justify sectarian positions within the Christian family. Paul himself constantly used Greek, Hebrew, and even pagan terms to express his faith. What he did not allow was a distortion of the focus which is , the man exalted as Christ by God. [NOTE: Jesus was both with God and WAS God prior to His coming to earth as Jesus.]
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul affirms the unity of the Spirit. He reminds us of the "one body and one spirit just as you were called to one hope when you were called -one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (4:4-6). Unfortunately, these words, celebrating what we have in common, have often been used as a writ of divorce between brothers in the same family. How? By defining the ones in a sectarian fashion.
By defining the "one baptism" as immersion /note57/ for the forgiveness of sins of a person who has made a confession of faith, it becomes a means to exclude others rather than embrace them. [NOTE: Why would Christians embrace non-Christians as brothers in the faith? How could we do so?] Personally, I believe baptism is externally defined appropriately by the sectarians, but what I do not grant is that Paul was affirming one baptism over against other baptisms (sprinkling of infants, etc). His context had nothing to do with various methods of baptism which have arisen in the course of later history. By giving his words a different context and spirit, they are used to sever ties of faith rather than celebrate those ties. This is a travesty far greater than a modified method of baptism. [NOTE: Paul was speaking of baptism into Christ, the immersion in water of a repentant believer in Jesus as the risen Lord. No other baptism qualifies as Paul's "one baptism."]
When he spoke of the "one hope" Paul didn't have a tightly defined eschatological view of the millenium-and-rapture in mind. He was not arguing against some competing view. The hope may be variously defined (salvation, resurrection, transformation, exaltation, rapture, heaven, etc), but all Christians have hope in Christ. When he spoke of the "one faith", Paul did not have an "orthodox" theological system in mind, a system which only "the faithful" believe. He was not attempting to define the faith by excluding brothers for their doctrinal inadequacies. He was affirming what Christians have in common over against those who do not love and trust the Christ. When he spoke of the "one Spirit" he certainly was not proleptically siding with charismatics against traditionalists. [NOTE: Or vice versa.] Every ounce of his being was directed in these words to celebrating unity, not in destroying it by legal definitions.
Proper interpretation must always respect the "law of opposition." What did the author's affirmations oppose? What did he seek to deny by contrast? Paul's affirmations in Ephesians of treasures we have in common is in opposition to a view of a fellowship of people without or unaware of these treasures. He calls the Ephesians to be mindful of them so they can live with one another in patience and love. His affirmations were not in opposition to denominations (doctrinal interpretations) with which we disagree. By substituting our own imaged "law of opposition" we are guilty of reversing the spiritual thrust of Paul's inspired words. Shame!
For Paul the unity of our calling to a shared life of common treasures is the beginning of the Christian life. The unity of knowledge and maturity comes at the end. Some Christians have reversed the order by demanding unity of knowledge now so we can have the unity of our common treasures at the end. In Paul's context, the seven "ones" are the big gifts possessed by all. In addition to these, we have differing smaller gifts that we use to serve one another. (See Ephesians 4:7f) The contrast here is between what all have and what each has. Today some make the contrast between what we have and what they don't. Paul would not smile upon our substitution of contrasts.
Now, if Paul were here today, would he have some strong opinions about the matters that trouble us? I'm sure he would. But would he be a sectarian factionalist? No way! He would voice his opinions with great verve; but, he would not allow his focus on unity to be diverted by hostile criticism of all diversity. Neither should we.
In the Pastoral letters, Paul's exhortation to "hold fast to the trustworthy message as it has been taught ... and refute those who oppose it" was not directed to denominational differences. He was aiming his words at a different contrast. He was concerned about the gnostic enemies of Christ who perverted the gospel by preaching "another Jesus." It would be a strange application to him to use his words to encourage spiritual fratricide against our "brothers in error," ones for whom Christ died. In his letter to the Philippians Paul felt confident in his teaching. But he permitted those who differed to have their own views. Yet he was certain that God would make clear to them what ought to be clear.
All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained (3:15,16).
In the same context, he urges two women in the church to "agree with each other in the Lord" (4:2). Neither one is shown the door. Both are urged to find their unity. While it is not clear whether their differences were intellectual or emotional, it appears that Paul was willing to tolerate strongly held differences so long as the central core of faith in Jesus as the Christ was uncompromised.
The best antidote to schism may be this encouragement of Paul: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and counsel one another with all wisdom" (Col. 3:15). The best model for us all is our Lord Jesus who was "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14), the perfect balance.
01 -- Louis H. Evans, Jr. "Reflections on Grace with Truth," reNEWS, October, 1997, p.7. I agree with his conclusion and had opportunity to express it at a recednt Presbytery meeting, but his quote illustrates the challenge of this paper. Because we assume that our understanding of Scripture is correct, we can call others to accountability. The context of his article was the recent Presbyterian debate on Amendment B. This vaguely worded proposal, many believed, would have permitted the ordination of practicting homosexuals. It was a real test for DChristians on opposite sides of a passionately felt difference. Louis suggested that those who lost the vote must now recognize that "team decisions are honored." Would we who prevailed honor a different decision? This is what I mean by the challenge of balancing truth and grace.
02 -- "Reflections on Grace with Truth," reNEWS, October, 1997, p.7,8.
03 -- A useful collection of essays on his topic is found in Freedom and Authority in the West, ed. George N. Shuster, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1967.
04 -- One can love what is not true (a lie) without making an intentional choice to shun the truth. We call this a mistake. We are not acting in the spirit of Christ if we assume mistaken opinions are all based on warped character and vile intentions. A mistake becomes morally culpable when one arrogantly shuns wise counsel. On the other hand, we don't want to minimize the consequenes which mistakes may precipitate.
05 -- Anselm, the medieval father, made the phrase memorable in Latin as "fides quaerens intellectum."
06 -- Stackhouse, Christianity Today, October 6, 1997, p. 35-37.
07 -- Stackhouse, Ibid., p. 36,37.
08 -- Romans 3:10.
09 -- The "same mind" involves something more basic than mental agreement. Having the "mind of Christ" is described by Paul as having love and shared purpose while looking out for the interests of others. (See Philippians 2:1-11, esp. 2:2)
10 -- Adapted from Stackhouse, Christianity Today, Ibid., p. 36. 1 italicized "only" because arrogance and stupidity sometimes contribute to our differences. One of my professors used to say "we are all stupid, only in different areas."
11 -- Practices encompassed things like (a) baptism by immersion of believers who were of the age of accountability, (b) weekly communion for believers, (c) autonomous congregational government under the leadership of elders, (d) direct support of missionaries rather than missionary societies (again a way to maintain local autonomy of choice), etc.
12 -- Perhaps we should begin with what we have, not what we lack. Let those who share a love for Jesus celebrate this unity. Then, with this shared love, let them pray and respectfully debate their views in hope of a growing consensus of views.
13 -- Ephesians 5:19.
14 -- See Luke 22:17ff; Mark 14:23; Matthew 26:27ff; 1 Corinthians 11:25ff.
15 -- 1 Corinthians 1:10.
16 -- I believe the Restorationists' interpretation of baptism is generally sound. Practices such as sprinkling developed later and became officially sanctioned as late as 1311 at the Council of Ravena. I do not agree with them, however, that the validity of baptism depends solely on exactly copying the original form. Historical "baptisms" is a reasonable concession to the faith of others without necessarily being also an endorsement of a revision of the apostolic practice. [Ray's note: This opinion is not shared by most heirs of the Campbellian "Restoration Movement."]
17 -- The question of baptism provides a great test case for maintaining a spirit of unity when believers practice their faith differently and defend their differences with all the scholarly means at their disposal. Some of the restoration congregations eventually permitted membership only to the immersed (adults or youth "of the age of consent"). Other assemblies, however, practiced "open membership" to immersed and the unimmersed alike, upon a simple confession of faith in Christ. This ecumenical practice was bitterly criticized by the other congregations. The open membership churches for the most part were or became part of the Disciples of Christ wing of the restoration movement.
18 -- The weekly observance of the communion in the apostolic days was inferred from Scriptures like Acts 20:7. The assumption is that a historical statement about a particular church mentioned in a narrative text constitutes a general rule for all the churches of that period. This example was a sample of an "approved precedent" in Scripture. I have discussed whether this is a sound basis for doctrine in the introductory paper on Acts. This historical example has support in extra-biblical historical references to the worship of the early church. Still it is doubtful to me that there are sufficient evidences to require anyone to conclude that the Bible teaches weekly observance of communion as essential. At the same time, I cannot see why any church would choose to withhold it from its members on a weekly basis.
19 -- I use "believe" here not in the sense of trusting Christ but in a more cognitive sense. I am speaking of faith as fiducia rather than assensus. There is a difference in believing in Christ and believing in a doctrinal opinion. Christians may all believe in God's grace, but then they divide over what the Scripture says about this grace. Is it irresistible? Is it prevenient (coming before faith)? Is it infused? Can it be lost once received? Amazing isn't it that something so wonderful becomes a source of divisive arguments and divisions. (Is this why we sing about "amazing grace"? The same could be said about almost every other doctrine.
20 -- Some groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons seem to me to be woefully defective in their views. But I can easily believe that individual members can truly trust Christ for their salvation in spite of their theological systems. Without judging, I would want to debate them in as friendly a manner as I can. They might teach me something too.
21 -- A worthy ideal, but again, sometimes it is the meaning of the express letter that is at issue. What is obvious to one may not be to another.
22 -- This point is particularly powerful to me. My faith and yours are dependent upon our relationship to God--not upon unity of opinion with our brothers.
23 -- Alexander Campbell, Memoirs of Elder Thomas Campbell. Cincinnati: H.S. Bosworth, 1861. p. 25-27 The address was to persons from a diverse group of denominations in Buffalo, Pennsylvania on August 17, 1809. Since most of the groups had no settled pastoral leadership on the frontier, they constituted themselves a society of "voluntary advocates for Church reformation" to promote "simple evangelical Christianity, free from all mixture of human opinions and inventions of men." This purpose was to manifest itself in practicing only what was "expressly exhibited upon the sacred page;" that is, what was a "Thus saith the Lord" or an "approved precedent" (example) in Scripture.
24 -- Memoirs, p. 40.
25 -- Foot-washing is a good example. Campbell did not, as far as I know, advocate it, but certainly there are others who do. Since Christ did it and said, "you ought to do to one another as I have done to you all": (paraphrase of John 13:14,15), some have interpreted this as a required ordinance.
26 -- Memoirs, p. 62. From the "Appendix," a self-commentary on the previous "Address."
27 -- Westminster Confession 6.101. This 17th century document was framed by Puritan Presbyterians in a struggle against the Church of England and other Protestants.
28 -- Westminster Confession 6.103.
29 -- Memoirs, p. 64. Campbell appreciated the rational nature of men. He understood the need to draw inferences from what is declared in Scripture. He honored the right to do it without endorsing anyone's conclusions. If he opposed the view of another, he regarded it as a friendly difference, not a spiritual war. "...we can neither take offense at our brother for his private opinions, if he be content to hold them as such, nor yet offend him with ours."
30 -- Memoirs, p. 71.
31 -- Memoirs, p. 83. Italics are mine.
32 -- A similar exhortation is given to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8:1-13).
33 -- This Vatican Council II document is dated December 7, 1965. I am indebted to a collection of essays edited by John Courtney Murray, S.J. Religious Liberty: an End and a Beginning, NY: Macmillan, 1966. This volume contains a copy of the Declaration.
34 -- The Declaration, p. 167.
35 -- The Declaration, p. 168. Italics are mine.
36 -- The Declaration, p. 169. Italics are mine.
37 -- John Courtney Murray, p. 35.
38 -- The Declaration, p. 170.
39 -- The Declaration, p. 171.
40 -- Peter makes a case that the only true interpretation is one that is apostolic. He claims to speak from memory (1:15) as an eyewitness (1:16) and an auditor of the divine voice (1:18). Only the words of the prophets and apostles are worthy of recall (3:2).
41 -- See C.K.Barrett, The Signs of an Apostle, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. This book has a wonderful bibliography on the subject of apostles and apostleship.
42 -- The italicized words are technical words in Greek indicating the receiving and transmitting of oral traditions.
43 -- 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus are known as "The Pastorals" because they are instructions to church leaders (pastors).
44 -- James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1991, p. 69.
45 -- The Westminster Confession allows that the "whole counsel of God ... is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men." (Book of Confessions 6.006) Everyone draws inferences from Scripture. In some ways the creeds themselves are the result of this. But this effort to limit the process is wisely considered. The problem remains, of course, as to who determines what is a "good and necessary" deduction. Apparently the authors wanted to justify their own efforts. Some have argued, of course, that if the Scriptures are truly sufficient, the confessions are unnecessary instruments of division among Christians. It seems to me that a confession is appropriate for communicating one's own faith, but it is a poor device to measure the authenticity of someone else's faith.
46 -- The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II, Book of Order, §G- I 4.0405,b(3). The Confessions referred to in the question are those in the Book of Confessions (Part I of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a collection of statements of faith from the early centuries of the church through our own times. The Book of Order determines the procedures for governing the church (The Form of Government), the appropriate order for worship (Directory for Worship), and how to manage cases of discipline (Rules of Discipline). In a sense these documents have a canonical function (as in determining who is a fit candidate for ordination) even though they would not be deemed to have canonical quality in an apostolic sense.
47 -- In the sixties Krister Stendahl was Dean of Harvard Divinity School. After a period as Bishop of Sweden, he returned to Harvard as a professor.
48 -- The bad side of creeds and statements of faith is that they exist primarily, at least initially, to provide a group an identity which is separate from other believers who are considered less astute if not less faithful. There is a certain hubris in tying oneself to a particular creed. I appreciate the wisdom of our church in not staking its whole claim to faithfulness on one creed. The creeds in the Presbyterians' Book of Confessions are also recognized variously by other Christian bodies.
49 -- To give but one example, the cleansing of the temple event occurs at the end of Jesus' ministry in the synoptic gospels. John presents it more as an inauguration of his ministry. The Westminster Confession allows that the "whole counsel of God ... is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men." (Book of Confessions 6.006) Everyone draws inferences from Scripture. In some ways the creeds themselves are the result of this. But this effort to limit the process is wisely considered. The problem remains, of course, as to who determines what is a "good and necessary" deduction. Apparently the authors wanted to justify their own efforts. Some have argued, of course, that if the Scriptures are truly sufficient, the confessions are unnecessary instruments of division among Christians. It seems to me that a confession is appropriate for communicating one's own faith, but it is a poor device to measure the authenticity of someone else's faith.
50 -- Paul declares we are saved by "faith" without works. James says that "faith" without works is dead. But the word "faith" did not mean the same thing. For Paul, it obviously meant a reliance on God's grace. For James, it obviously meant an intellectual acknowledgment of truth. If two pillars of the early church could use the same word with different meanings, certainly any extended presentation of the gospel or the apostolic doctrine would have come out sounding quite different. No wonder then the early church required certain compromises to maintain its unity of faith and mission. An early example is the letter from the Jerusalem church to the churches established by Paul. See Acts 15:22-35.
51 -- From "A Formula of Agreement", p 3. See A Common Calling: The Witness of the Reformation Churches in North America Today, Augsburg, 1993.
52 -- The Fourth Gospel, John's gospel, was the final one accepted, in part because it was so useful to the gnostics.
53 -- Justin Martyr referred to Mark's gospel as the memoirs of Peter. In another writing he refers to the gospels as the memoirs of the apostles. See citations in F.F. Bruce, The Canon as Scripture, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988, p. 126,127.
54 -- See F.F.Bruce, p. 272,273. Citations for Kasemann and Kung are there.
55 -- See Acts 20:17-38; Titus 1:5-9, esp. verse 9; 1 Peter 5:1-4. Some groups believe the local eldership is the exclusively method of governing given by God. They forget about the Jerusalem council, the traveling emissaries sent out by the apostles, etc. Local elders, to be sure, were the principal means of preserving the gospel and the flock because communication and travel were difficult. However, the idea of an eldership was adopted from the patriarchically minded synagogue. In those days, men were the only ones educated in religious traditions. Hence, the Christian eldership in the early church was a male institution adopted from the synagogue specifically to preserve the apostolic traditions about Christ. It seems silly to fight now against other culturally appropriate means if the underlying goal is maintained. Some fundamentalist groups appear to revere the means (the power) rather than the ends (the valued purposes). Does a genderneutral group violate the Christian revelation? Are presbyteries, synods, and councils anti-scriptural? These questions should be answered by whether they seek to preserve the unity and diversity of the Christian scriptures, rather than whether they conform to some social model of the first century. We have to peer behind the sociological form to see the soteriological purpose.
56 -- Evans, "Reflections on Grace with Truth," p. 8. This essay appears to be written in light of the Presbyterian struggle over Amendment B regarding acceptable candidates for ordination. Those supporting homosexual ordination, although repeatedly defeated on this issue, have not all acknowledged the "team decisions."
57 -- For the purists, I agree the root idea in Greek is an immersion in water. However, Paul is not arguing about method in this context. He is celebrating something Christians enjoyed long before it had become a diversely practiced expression of faith. We must not create a context of opposition that Paul never imagined as a means to engage in sectarianism. We can teach humbly what baptism was in the early church. No one, however, has been given the power to judge the value of another person's expression of faith in Christ. [NOTE: We are required to teach what is essential to "the faith," which is one baptism as commanded by Jesus. No one can doubt with good reason that the baptism of which Jesus and Peter and Paul spoke was immersion in water of a penitent believer in Jesus as Lord.]