Thursday, 23 October 2008

Why Open Evangelicals are hyper-Protestants and REFORM is moving to the centre

This is a comment I have posted in a thread on the Stand Firm website, where they are discussing an earlier article on this blog. I am hoping to develop some of the ideas here in an address I am giving to a Forward in Faith gathering in Lincoln Diocese in a few days time:  

If I may add a couple of comments myself, as author of the piece, divisions within Evangelicalism are, of course, only a reflection of divisions within Protestantism generally. I have just been reading Alister McGrath’s Protestantism - Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, which is a powerful reminder of this, and it was, I think, Jim Packer who referred to the “fissiparous nature” of Evangelicalism.

As long ago as the first NEAC, at Keele University in 1967, Evangelical Anglicans were discussing their commitment to the Church of England and their ‘division’ from the wider Evangelical community.

Later (in my own time as a Christian), the divisions in the 1970s and early 80s were between ‘old guard’ and ‘new radicals’ who wanted to experiment with liturgy and explore the application of Christianity to the arts, politics and social involvement.

Unfortunately, two things happened. First, the new radicals turned out to lack Evangelical roots and drifted from a recognizably Evangelical theology. To see this in microcosm, look at the theological development of the Greenbelt Arts Festival. Secondly, the ordination of women in 1993 created a ‘fact on the ground’ which embodied theological divisions not only about biblical interpretation but ministry, gender, marriage, church, society, sexuality and, ultimately, the Holy Trinity.

What is happening now amongst Open Evangelicals is a tendency to react almost automatically against Conservative Evangelicalism, and to cheer for anyone, such as Bishop Tom Wright, who attacks it.

Two key areas are the ordination of women (and thus anything which smacks of ‘headship’ theology or subordination within the Trinity), and penal substitution, where the key argument is over the ‘penal’ aspect and the wrath of God - hell and judgement being also matters for reconsideration in the development of theology.

The latter is somewhat ironic, given Bp Wright’s clear personal endorsement of penal substitutionary theology. But his own assault on the work of Oak Hill theologians, Pierced for our Transgressions, and his endorsement of the popular theologian and pastor Steve Chalke, despite the latter’s total rejection of penal substitution (something which Wright simply misunderstands) has opened the door for a more radical stance amongst Wright’s own followers.

Ironically, therefore, I would argue that Open Evangelicals are, in fact, hyper-Protestants when compared with Reform. The approach of Reform is that there are doctrines we ought to receive - such as those expressed in the Thirty-nine Articles - as authoritative and, thus, binding interpretations of Scripture, if we are to remain within the tradition of the Church.

The most ‘open’ Open Evangelical is willing not only to question everything (as were the Radical Reformers in the sixteenth century) but, in the end, to be an extreme advocate of ‘private judgement’. For an Open Evangelical, the Faith is ultimately what “I” can believe, and thus the Opens, who claim the Evangelical Centre (pace Fulcrum) turn out not to belong [not] at the centre of the Reformation, but on its radical wing!

As evidence of this, we now see Reform beginning to consider co-belligerency with Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics, who of course lie much nearer to Rome - something which the extreme Open Evangelical would, I suspect, find very hard.
John Richardson
22 October 2008

Update: There are also responses to this in a thread on the Fulcrum website.

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  1. Dear John,
    I have posted a lengthy response to this here

    and of course I have dobbed you in to Fulcrum as usual!

  2. John, has the possibility occurred to you that it might not be Tom Wright, one of the world's top theologians and a personal friend of Steve Chalke, but you who "simply misunderstands" Chalke's position on penal substitution?

    Is what you are saying that Reform are allowing themselves to be bound by tradition whereas Open Evangelicals are open to rejecting the errors in tradition and going where the Holy Spirit might lead them?


  3. I am detecting some straw people! Penal substitution is accepted as a model (if not 'the' model) of the atonement by most open evangelicals I know; and the nervousness about invoking the Trinity in arguments about the consecration of women as bishops arises primarily because the doctrine was never formulated with the question of women's orders in mind, but also because of a concern that some conservative evangelicals seem to be teaching an ontological subordination in the Trinity, which is (of course) heresy.

    The lawlessness of conservative evangelicals (whether that be liturgical lawlessness or the adoption of congregationalist ecclesiology) seems to me to be profoundly uncatholic. The new Puritanism which aims at a 'pure' church would have Calvin tearing his hair out.

    I am unsure where the idea that open evangelicals are uncommitted to the Thirty-Nine Articles comes from: one of the wonderful things about the Articles is their restraint (especially when compared with the Westminster Confession). Now that most of us, while aware of the continuing rôle of parties within Anglicanism, have eschewed what Oliver O'Donovan calls 'the shadow of the old party controversies' ('On the Thirty-Nine Articles', p. 9), we are free both to rejoice in both the heritage bestowed to us by the Articles and 'other Christians' dreams and visions' (p. 15).

  4. (Liam Beadle is from Durham, UK.)

  5. Oh yes, and another thing. If Reform are so committed to the 39 articles why do they consistently ignore the 2nd half of article 26 about the nature of the minister not having any effect on the efficacy of the sacrament?

  6. Peter, on who has or has not understood Steve Chalke, I would point out the following:

    It is clear that Tom Wright is a believer in penal substitution, and seems to think that Chalke believes in a variation of this. However, Steve Chalke himself writes of penal substitution, "... this supposed orthodoxy is no orthodoxy at all. In reality, penal substitution (in contrast to other substitutionary theories) doesn’t cohere well with either biblical or Early Church thought. Although penal substitution isn’t as old as many people assume ... it is actually built on pre-Christian thought." (Redeeming the Cross, emphasis added.)

    As to Tom Wright understanding Chalke, in his own critique of Pierced for our Transgressions Wright acknowledged that one of its good points was that "... it firmly and decisively knocks on the head an old canard ... that ‘penal substitution’ was invented by Anselm and developed by Calvin ..."

    However, in the same essay I've just quoted, Steve Chalke says of penal substitution, "Initially, though not explicitly, rooted in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), penal substitution was substantially formed by John Calvin’s legal mind in the reformation."

    This is the exact opposite of Tom Wright's position, and suggests that Wright has not sufficiently engaged with Chalke at this point.

    On the question of whether, as you say, "Open Evangelicals are open to rejecting the errors in tradition and going where the Holy Spirit might lead them," that is, of course, exactly what the Radical Reformers said they were doing when the 'stick in the muds' like Luther and Calvin were being 'bound by tradition'.

  7. Liam, on the subject of subordination in the Trinity and subordinationism, I would highly recommend Robert Doyle's review of Kevin Giles's work (and attack on 'Sydney' theology). Towards the end, Doyle concludes, "Giles so misreads sources that he cannot see what is patent — that in accusing of heresy those who hold within the boundaries of the Creed of Nicea and Constantinople eternal relational subordination, he has managed to place outside the pale, not only those he opposes in the ongoing debate about man-woman relations in English speaking evangelicalism, but also the mainstream of Roman Catholic and Protestant thinking in the West, and the Orthodox tradition of the East."

    I wasn't, incidentally, setting out to suggest that all, or even most, Open Evangelicals reject the doctrine of Penal Substitution, but discussions on the Fulcrum website, plus the response to Steve Chalke, suggest to me that such an overt rejection (as distinct from the advancing of other models) is not seen as incompatible with Open Evangelicalism, and yet it is a long way from traditional Evangelicalism.

    As to the Thirty-nine Articles, I would be very pleased to hear that they are widely admired and accepted amongst Open Evangelicals. They do, of course, raise issues for some types of Conservative Evangelical as regards 'innovations' on things where the rules of the Church state otherwise (matters of liturgy and order). Unfortunately, that particular pass was sold over a century ago during the Ritualist controversies, and we cannot easily turn back the clock on this matter without addressing the violation of the doctrinal parameters of the Articles and Prayer Book - something which I hope to do in Lincoln in a week's time!

  8. Tim, tsk tsk. You asked, "If Reform are so committed to the 39 articles why do they consistently ignore the 2nd half of article 26 about the nature of the minister not having any effect on the efficacy of the sacrament?"

    My experience in Reform circles is that we would be happier to apply what you call the 'second half' of the article if there were more attention paid to what I can only call on your scheme the 'third half' (or the final paragraph), which reads thus:

    "Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church that inquiry be made of evil ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty by just judgement, be deposed."

  9. Liam Beadle expresses
    "a concern that some conservative evangelicals seem to be teaching an ontological subordination in the Trinity, which is (of course) heresy".
    Names and addresses, please; 'some' and 'seem' are just the stuff of innuendo. But what you allude to sounds rather similar to Eastern Orthodoxy, that the Father is the fons divinitatis. Are the Orthodox heretics? The Son is certainly subordinate to the Father in doing his will.
    Calvin (Chauvin!) had lost all his hair long before the first Puritans appeared. The 'Open Evangelicals' in their espousal of the Spirit's leading are more nearly heirs to the Radical Reformation.

  10. Oops yes, got my halves mixed up sorry; I mean the first half; you are right in expressing Reform's keenness on the final paragraph.
    The “Nevertheless”, which begins para 2 surely subordinates it to the first part though.

    A key comment on this is from EJ Bicknell who in “The 39 Articles”, p366 says of article 26

    “… In the sacraments the minister acts not as an individual but as an organ of the church. God’s promises are made not to him individually but to the church as a whole. Therefore their fulfilment is not affected by his personal lack of faith. On any other supposition means of grace would be precarious”.

    In other words all ministers are sinners, and if you’re going to say that word and sacrament are hindered by the condition of the minister then you’re saying that grace is inhibited by humanity. God is bigger than all this though, isn’t he?

  11. Oh, and Mark, by definition, when it comes to the Trinity the Orthodox are heretical, as their objection to filioque was most of what sent them packing. Their very definition as a church depends on a small yet schismatic difference of opinion.
    Doesn't mean we can't hand out with them and learn from them though

  12. Fern Winter, London23 October 2008 at 20:29

    I should very much hope 'open evangelicals', however defined, DO reject 'co-belligerency' since it's surely as clear an example as one could want of the most worldly-wise cynicism. As Simon Morden says on Fulcrum, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' line doesn't embody Christian virtues. The sight and sound of Reform cozying up to those with whom they have nothing in common other than opposition to the ordination of women is going to be pretty nauseating. And how are the reformed ones going to cope with the gays amongst the Anglo-catholic crowd?

  13. Fern, I think you are much too hasty - and I suspect are speaking as an outsider - with your comment about Reform and Anglo-Catholics.

    Insofar as Reform represents Conservative Evangelicalism, I think there are increasing numbers of us in that camp who recognize a true, if sometimes inchoate, fellowship with some traditionalist Anglo-Catholics.

    Coming from an such a background myself, I know that a traditionalist Anglo-Catholic believes the Creeds in the same way I believe the Creeds. My Christian conversion did indeed lead me to turn away from much of my Anglo-Catholic upbringing, but it did not lead me to reject it as entirely without value.

    Since the mid-1990s I have also been on the editorial board of New Directions. Sarah Low, who was the editor, and Robbie her husband, were people with whom I had an undoubted fellowship in the gospel - a fellowship which has not been broken by their going over to Rome. Similarly, I count Fr Francis Gardom as a true friend and colleague.

    That is not to say there are no problems. There are Anglo-Catholics who are just as rejecting of Evangelicals as Evangelicals have ever been of Anglo-Catholics. And within Anglo-Catholicism (and even in Forward in Faith) there are divergent views on homosexuality.

    I'm afraid, however, that to characterise this as merely 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' (as you quote Simon Morden as saying) is to display ignorance rather than insight into the realities of the situation.

  14. My first thought is the labels "open" and "conservative" to describe evangelical are unhelpful. I label myself simply an evangelical Christian. In my view, at times my Christian faith pushes me to be open, and at other times it pushes me to be conservative. By giving themselves such labels, I wonder if the "opens" are tempted to be open to stuff they shouldn't be and the "conservatives" are, well, the same principle applies.

    Secondly, I see a lot of sterotyping going on about both groups. On the one hand, dangerously wooly post-evangelical crypto-liberals, and on the other hand misogynistic, narrow schismatic authoritarians. I'd like people to see that such sterotypes aren't really helpful. Anyone who looks at both groups know they contain a spectrum of opinions.

  15. Tim Goodbody writes:

    "Oh, and Mark, by definition, when it comes to the Trinity the Orthodox are heretical, as their objection to filioque was most of what sent them packing."

    I think you're wrong 'by definition'. While I think the filioque clause may well be true, the Orthodox are surely right to object to a unilateral change to the Catholic Creed.

    Are you an Anglicanm, Tim? Beware of throwing stones ...

  16. Following on from John's last comment, I recall an article by an Anglo-Catholic in "New Directions" a couple of years ago (afraid I can't remember the issue or the author). It asked why it was that Anglo-Catholics got on better with conservative evangelicals than with "fulcrum evangelicals"; after all, you'd expect to be the other way around, as the latter are supposed to be more "open" to Anglo-Catholic practices. The author's answer was that A-Cs found it easier to talk to CEs because they shared the same idea of truth, where as with "fulcrum evangelicals" that common ground wasn't there. So for instance, on the issue of veneration of Mary, A-Cs and CEs would strongly disagree; but it was possible to have a sensible conversation about it, and agree that the differences were important. With "fulcrum evangelicals" it was much harder to have a proper discussion, and t the end of the day they were likely to think that it didn't matter very much anyway.

    Steve Walton, Marbury

  17. I think the comment that 'open' Evangelicals aren't into co-belligerency is mind boggling. The debate about women Bishops and the push for a single clause meant a teaming up of open evangelicals with aggressive liberals. The Fulcrum website states they are 'open' to other theological positions, of course with the exception of Conservative Evangelicals (although John Piper and John Stott are selectivly quoted approvingly).

    The stuff mentioned about the Trinity just doesn't tallies with history. Peter Adam also wrote something on Kevin Giles

    Basically Giles takes any version of the Trinity that differs from as non-Christian. To my knowledge "Reform-types" will say that some things are in error, often an honest error and want to prevent having what they see as an error thrust upon them (see Romans 14) and even to persuade. Giles (& imclicitly some Open Evangelicals - but they don't use the words) are accusing theological conservatives of being non-Christians.

    Darren Moore

  18. The Anabaptists are the only Christians who weren't killing other Christians in the 16th century--so maybe being accused of radical reformation sympathies is not so bad.