Saturday, 1 November 2008

Harmony with Belial? Can Conservative Evangelicals and Traditional Anglo-Catholics really work together?

An Address to the Annual Meeting of the Lincoln branch of Forward in Faith, 1 November 2008

In 2 Corinthians 6:14-16, the Apostle Paul asked some searching questions of believers who wanted to take their new-found freedom in Christ too far:

For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?

Right now, a lot of people are asking the same question about any possible cooperation between Conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics over the issues of women bishops and, to a lesser but still significant extent, same-sex relationships and their effect on the global Anglican Communion.

GAFCON and Anglican unity
This question has been highlighted by the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem this year, the issuing of the GAFCON statement and Jerusalem Declaration and the ongoing establishment of a worldwide Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.

On the one hand, GAFCON unarguably brought together Anglicans from across the world who considered themselves to be united with one another — a unity subsequently expressed in a form of words drawn up from scratch by the conference participants during their few days together.

On the other hand, there were observably divergent styles of churchmanship present at GAFCON, ranging from ultra-high African to ultra-low Sydney.

Thus one commentator to an Evangelical forum called this a “toe-curling compromise”, and predicted confidently that“GAFCON will implode” as Anglo-Catholics are squeezed out by the Conservative Evangelicals.

Sydney and lay presidency
And as if in fulfilment of this prediction, news came last week that the Sydney Diocesan Synod had affirmed its support for lay and diaconal administration — what we would call celebration — of the Lord’s Supper.

Significantly, the same motion requested the Diocesan Secretary to send a copy of The Lord’s Supper in Human Hands, a collection of essays by some of Sydney’s leading theologians, to all bishops who attended GAFCON.

On the Thinking Anglicans Liberal website, spleen has been vented in generous doses over this announcement. Yet on the Stand Firm website, which represents American orthodoxy, many of the responses have been the same — some even calling for Sydney to be disciplined alongside errant north Americans.

Thus in both the Liberal and orthodox camps, voices are asking the same question, “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?”

Bringing it back home
Was the unity experienced at GAFCON a genuine koinonia, or the spiritual equivalent of a holiday romance — a Shirley Valentine moment for unhappy bishops?

This raises serious questions about the talk of co-belligerency with Anglo-Catholics which was being tentatively voiced at this year’s Reform Conference in London. Would moves to unite our forces in this country over the issue of women bishops be anything more than a cynical ‘flag of convenience’?

It is my conviction that genuine unity may, just, be possible, but that it will require genuine openness and genuine change if Conservative Evangelicals and Traditionalist Anglo-Catholics are to work together. In the rest of this talk, I want to explore what that might mean.

Personal background
Can a Conservative Evangelical, then, feel any sympathy for or make any conciliatory gestures towards Anglo-Catholicism? At this point, a bit of personal background is relevant.

My own upbringing was orthodox Anglo-Catholic. And although my home church of St Luke’s Charlton has since shifted in a decidedly Liberal direction, I was brought up by people who, when they said the Creeds, believed what they were saying, without reserve or compromise.

My conversion to Christianity took place at the beginning of my final year at University, through the influence of the Christian Union, but I never felt the need to reject my early upbringing, which taught me much of what I needed to know.

Subsequently, my Christian path led through the Charismatic movement in the seventies and eighties and finally settled as Conservative Evangelical in the mid eighties.

And the seal was put on all this when I was able to spend a year at Moore Theological College in 1993, studying for a post-graduate diploma in theology. This not only gave me a much deeper (and, incidentally, broader) theological education but gave me first hand experience of Sydney Anglicanism.

Challenges to (my) Protestantism
And there I might have stayed, proudly and happily Protestant, but for two developments. The first was getting involved on the editorial board of New Directions in the mid 1990s, following my return from Australia.

There I found true spiritual friends, in the persons of Sarah and Robbie Low, Francis Gardom Arthur Middleton, Geoffrey Kirk, Andy Hawes, and others since then — not merely convenient co-belligerents, but people of shared conviction, even though their Anglo-Catholicism was often at odds with my own Evangelicalism.

The other, more recent, development is the growing gap between Conservative Evangelicals and those now calling themselves ‘Open Evangelicals’.

The cynic in me wants to say that Open Evangelicalism is defined by being open to anything except Conservative Evangelicalism.

In my experience, Open Evangelicals are willing to entertain, and often to side with, doctrinal and practical positions quite opposed to what was once the agreed Evangelical heritage: penal substitution, the sanctity of marriage, the wrongness of divorce, the headship of the husband, women in leadership, and even same-sex relationships.

In many cases, Open Evangelicals have also been quite hostile to GAFCON, and could certainly not be said to have wished this coalition well.

To this Conservative, then, the new Open Evangelicalism looks and feels like old Liberalism. But reading Alister McGrath’s historical survey, Protestantism: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, I have now become convinced something more is involved.

Conservative Evangelicals are, indeed, Protestants. Open Evangelicals, however, are not, as they characterize themselves, more towards the centre of the Christian tradition. On the contrary, Open Evangelicals are, in fact, hyper-Protestants — the true heirs of the Radical Reformation.

Why do I say this? Because for the Open Evangelical the final arbiter in spiritual matters is private judgement. And as McGrath points out, it is this which is the truly ‘dangerous idea’ of Protestantism.

It is private judgement, ultimately, which leads to the constant divisions which have beset the offshoots of the churches which separated from Rome in the 16th century.

By contrast, Conservative Evangelicals are self-consciously recipients of a tradition. The ‘Fathers’ of that tradition may be Luther and Calvin, or more recently Stott and Packer, but even these are standing within an older tradition, which includes not just the Reformation formularies but the historic Creeds.

It is this, I think, which explains why Conservative and Open Evangelicals experience so much mutual antipathy, whereas the Conservative may be much more at ease in the company of traditionalist Catholics.

Though the conclusions reached by the latter may be very different, the rules by which they are derived are very similar. By contrast, the Open Evangelical is felt not only to have arrived at different conclusions but to have a fundamentally different approach.

A new tradition?
To recognize this, however, is to acknowledge a general weakness within the Protestant tradition. As McGrath observes, Protestantism claims to acknowledge the authority of the Bible, but who is to decide what the Bible means?

Are not all biblical interpretations, in the end, opinions, and are not formularies simply those opinions that have the sanction of the denomination or the state?

And is not the Open Evangelical doing what the Conservative fails to do, namely bring every assumption to the bar of Scripture — even our cherished traditions?

The Challenge to Anglo-Catholicism
It may seem that Anglo-Catholics are in a much better position. But before they begin to feel too smug, they must also face up to some searching questions, the most obvious of which is, “Was the Reformation, simply a mistake?”

More specifically, how does the Anglican Catholic live within a Protestant church? And in case anyone should dispute the last suggestion, let me quote John Henry Newman before he became Cardinal Newman:

... it is notorious that the Articles were drawn up by Protestants and intended for the establishment of Protestantism; accordingly that is an evasion of their meaning to give them any other than a Protestant drift, possible as it may be to do so grammatically, or in each separate part.

Anglo-Catholicism must recognize that it is not Roman Catholicism if it is to find common ground with Evangelical Anglicanism. And it must also acknowledge its own historically cavalier attitude to authority within the Anglican church.

John Shelton Reed, in his Glorious Battle, quotes an English Church Union speaker of the nineteenth century who asked rhetorically, “When will the clergy obey their Bishops?”, answering, “My lords, when the Bishops obey the Church.” (145)

But as Reed points out,

... for an English churchman, determining when episcopal opinions were unepiscopal required something that looked very much like private judgement. (146)

And he quotes one contemporary thus:

The nineteenth century has seen personal infallibility claimed by others besides the Bishop of Rome, and by much younger men. (ibid)

Anglo-Catholicism has existed within the Church of England by sitting very light indeed to its structures insofar as they are expressed through approved liturgies, canon laws and episcopal injunctions.

The point of saying this, however, is not to reproach Anglo-Catholicism but to confront us all with the need for honesty about past and present weaknesses which must be addressed if there is to be any chance of drawing closer in the future.

Protestantism and Gospel Freedom
With the weaknesses of both parties exposed, how might we respond? And first, what might we do about our historic hostility?

Here the Anglican Protestant, might find an unexpected challenge, and the Anglo-Catholic an unexpected ally, in the writings of Martin Luther.

Facing opposition from both the papacy and the radical reformers, this was Luther’s position on the elevation of the host during the Mass:

The pope destroys freedom in commanding outright that the sacrament is to be elevated, and would have it a statute and a law. He who refrains from keeping his law sins. The factious spirit destroys freedom in forbidding outright that the sacrament be elevated, and would have it a prohibition, a statute, and a law. He who does not act in accordance with this law sins. Here Christ is driven away by both parties. One pushes him out of the front [door], the other drives him out the rear [door]. (LW 40:128)

The issue for Martin Luther was not whether the sacrament should or should not be elevated, but on what basis we should act in regard to this practice. Was it on the basis of gospel or of law?

Protestant Anglicanism is clear that the host should not be elevated, and that there are gospel reasons for this. But, says Luther, as soon as you make it a law in the Church that the sacrament must not be elevated, you yourself depart from the gospel. Why? Because law as such is strictly antithetical to the gospel.

It might be worth reflecting on this with regard to the Evangelical response to Ritualism in the nineteenth century. Evangelicals clearly had the law on their side — Anglo-Catholics went to prison as a result. But were these legal victories triumphs for the Evangelical movement? History clearly suggests they were not.

Let me read Michael Saward’s reflections on those battles and that period:

To the rest of the church, Evangelicals were legalistic, narrow-minded, hard-faced bigots who were prepared to put their brother clergy into prison for trivial liturgical and sartorial reasons. Enormous damage was done and the final vestiges of its impact are still with us in the 1980s. ((James C Whisenant, 473-4)

Could, then, Conservative Evangelicals be persuaded to accept the outward rituals of Anglo-Catholicism within the bounds of gospel liberty. And should they? These are, I think, questions worth asking.

Protestantism, Hermeneutics and Authority
And what about private judgement? Personally, I wonder whether the doctrines of both private judgement and the perspicuity of Scripture are Protestant Shibboleths which it is time to question.

To begin with the perspicuity of Scripture, the idea that the Bible may be understood equally by everyone is not only demonstrably untrue but unscriptural. “How can I understand,” the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Unless someone explains it to me?” And why else has Christ given to the Church teachers? Indeed, why do we have that most important of all Evangelical offices, the preacher?

But if we abandon the notion of the simple perspicuity of Scripture, we must also abandon the idea of a general entitlement to private judgement. How can ‘Everyman’ be the judge of that which everyone may not have understood?

In any case, Scripture teaches us there is a tradition to be handed on by the faithful and, just as importantly, received by the disciple — the mathētēs, or learner, of Christ.

After a while, someone may indeed be in a position to judge whether the tradition has been rightly passed on to them. But private judgement is often a subtle idol which is enthroned where humility should be.

Not Councils
But if we are to doubt private judgement and the perspicuity of Scripture, what, as a Protestant, can I put in its place?

I will not say “the Church,” or even “the Councils of the Church”. The Anglican Articles tell me that Councils, even General Councils, have erred. And in case that doesn’t persuade you, let me quote Newman on the Arian controversy, this time in his Cardinal’s hat:

The body of Bishops failed in their confession of the faith. They spoke variously, one against another; there was nothing ... of firm, unvarying, consistent testimony, for nearly sixty years. There were untrustworthy Councils, unfaithful Bishops; there was weakness, fear of consequences, misguidance, delusion, hallucination, endless, hopeless, extending itself into nearly every corner of the Catholic Church. The comparatively few who remained faithful were discredited and driven into exile; the rest were either deceivers or were deceived. (On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine)

But I would suggest that it is precisely this period which points us to where an answer might lie.

Systematic Theology
The suggestion I want to make is that systematic theology provides the proper antidote to private judgement, both for the individual and for the Church.

What was it that resolved the Arian controversy? Some might say it was the authority of the Councils, others the authority of the Emperor. In the end, though, I would argue it was resolved by the persuasive power of the theology itself.

As McGrath points out, the radical reformers were prepared to question everything up to and including the doctrine of the Trinity. And we will all have experienced the difficulty many new Christians face with an idea that is scarcely read straight off the pages of Scripture.

Why, then, do the Trinitarian Creeds retain their central place within the Church? The answer is surely because, after centuries of debate, discussion and even division, this doctrine retains its explanatory power in the face of other, competing, approaches to the wide and varied witness of revelation.

A workable model
The Arian controversy shows that the Church can resolve profound questions in ways that command almost universal assent. And it can do so without appealing to a higher authority than Scripture.

What I am suggesting is that the solution to mere private judgement lies in bringing interpretation to the bar of systematic theology and that the perspicuity of Scripture will only truly be experienced when we apply the insights of systematic theology to our reading.

Unfortunately, and especially amongst modern Evangelicals, systematic theology has gained a reputation for rigidity which makes people suspicious of the whole enterprise. Buying into systematic theology is often seen as buying into a system which cannot be questioned.

I think it was Colin Gunton, however, who observed that there is a difference between a theology which aims at a system and a theology which aims at some kind of orderliness and coherence.

Systematic theology does not have produce a rigid system. On the contrary, we can learn from a comparison with the scientific method. The scientist does not require a complete explanation of everything to accept a theory as well-established. Rather, the aim is to produce an increasingly better fit between the evidence the theory.

The revolution for systematic theology would be in admitting the partial nature of what we know. The revolution for Protestantism would be in admitting that what we can claim to know has to be integrated into a much wider field of knowledge than what I, personally, happen to know at the present.

Applying the model
But there is a further aspect to this suggestion, which applies to the question of relationships between Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics.

If we accept the analogy between systematic theology and the scientific method, we should also note the importance of peer review. One cannot be published in a serious scientific journal without practitioners with established credentials judging the work worthy of publication.

Would that the same were more generally true of theological writing. There are indeed peer reviewed journals, but within the world of Protestant theology generally, and certainly within the Anglican world, there is nothing like the Roman Catholic imprimatur which certifies that there is nothing here of error.

Once again, the objection has tended to be that this gives too much power to the Church — and indeed it might. But why should there not be some recognised way of at least saying that a document does, or does not, lie within the established tradition, and giving it something like a ‘health warning’?

And why shouldn’t such warnings be accepted with grace by the author, if there is a shared concern for the truth and for the health of the Church?

The present Bishop of Durham, for example has put forward ideas which, by his own admission, involve a radical challenge to the inherited understanding of justification going back not merely to the Reformation but to St Augustine. If true, the ‘gospel’ preached by Evangelicals is not quite the ‘gospel’ at all, even though Wright staunchly defends his own Evangelical credentials.

Given the importance he attributes to what he is saying, however, Wright’s thesis should be submitted to peer review, not in a combative and jealous spirit, as often happens, but willingly and with an openness to correction.

And the bigger the ideas, the wider and of longer duration should surely be the review process. Thus on the issue of women’s ordination, the Evangelical world is deeply divided, not only amongst Anglicans, but more generally, where Complementarians and Egalitarians publish and counter-publish with an enthusiasm that would have done Arians and Athanasians proud.

Yet with 2,000 years of history — apart from some demonstrably fringe groups — and the opinions of both Luther and Calvin against them, should not the Egalitarians, who favour women’s ordination, be seeking the widest and the most careful scrutiny of their proposals, before turning them into actions?

The Challenge consensus
For the Protestant, this would represent a real challenge to centuries of practice. It might even threaten some of our cherished projects, such as Sydney’s enthusiasm for lay celebration.

Yet there are challenges also to Catholics, and not just Catholic Anglicans. The biggest challenge is that every theological position and tradition is, in fact, open to challenge — even the accepted formularies about the Trinity.

Then there is the challenge that every tradition must be demonstrably justifiable within a coherent theological framework. We cannot simply say that a thing is right because it is received. What Newman wrote about the laity should undoubtedly be true of all:

I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity ... You ought to be able to bring out what you feel and what you mean, as well as to feel and mean it.’ ( J H Newman, The Present Position of Catholics in England, 1851 pp. 390-1)

Moreover, the Anglo-Catholic must face the fact that many things precious to the tradition are, in fact, at odds with the formal position of the denomination. The onus is, therefore, on the innovator to justify their position.

Above all the Anglo-Catholic must, if progress is to be made, demonstrate the coherence of his own position within Anglicanism. The systematic theology of Anglo-Catholicism at this point must include his present ecclessiology, rather than skirt round it as an inconvenient truth or a temporary aberration awaiting a better day.

Experience shows that the ‘farmer’ of Anglo-Catholicism and the ‘cowman’ of Conservative Evangelicalism can, indeed, be friends, and it is not unreasonable to seek to know why this is so.

I have suggested here that it comes from a shared approach to faith. I have also suggested that some of the tensions between the two groups may be addressed by accepting the existence of real weaknesses within their own position.

I am not saying that all the remaining problems can then be resolved. I am not sure they can be resolved at all. It may be that, after due consideration, we may conclude we hold irreconcilable positions.

But if that were so, I would have to hold that no Anglo-Catholic can be a Christian, or that if he is, it is despite, rather than because of, his Anglo-Catholicism. Frankly, I doubt whether that is true — or certainly that it is true at absolutely every point.

Yet as I have said, this does not suddenly make me an Open Evangelical. I am not adopting the view that every tradition may offer something which I can cherry-pick as seems fit.

If real rapprochement is to occur, then so must real change. If we remain as we are, then eventual division is inevitable. But if we seek a mere common denominator, then, paradoxically, we abandon the most important thing we have in common, which is our attitude to truth.

Perhaps, then, our hope lies in examining how we test the truth and how we respond to difference. That is not the Anglican way, but it may be a better way.

Revd John Richardson
1 November 2008

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  1. I don't have a dog in this fight, but, to mix the metaphors, it does seem that the Sydney Anglicans have put the cat among the pigeons, and become revisionist.

    Steve Hayes
    Tshwane, Gauteng

  2. To recognize this, however, is to acknowledge a general weakness within the Protestant tradition. As McGrath observes, Protestantism claims to acknowledge the authority of the Bible, but who is to decide what the Bible means?

    John, you use this question from McGrath as a way of framing the discussion that follows.

    But I'm puzzled as to how someone could go about answering it biblically without any reference whatsoever to the work of the Holy Spirit. For it's the role of the Holy Spirit in understanding Scripture that tells us why the evangelical view of Scripture is correct and the Anglo-Catholic view is in serious error.

    The reason evangelicals insist that private interpretation of the Bible is possible, and not to be automatically dismissed, is because God has made it so (Heb 4:12) through the action of his Spirit (Eph 6:17). Anglo-Catholicism wants to limit the working of God's Spirit in this matter to the traditions of the churches. That limitation, however, finds no foundation in Scripture.

    The traditions of the churches are useful for raising questions and alternatives to one private interpretation, but they are not a substitute for the immediacy of God's living word—and the reason it has such immediacy and life is because God himself makes it so.

    I'm not saying that Anglo-Catholic conclusions in the matter of doctrine are automatically wrong, but we surely mustn't adopt their mistaken view of how God's Spirit works through his Word.

  3. Gordon thanks for your comments (thanks, too, to Steve, but I don't think he was looking for a reply). As a Christian, I would not, of course, deny the role of the Holy Spirit in biblical understanding. However, it is simply a fact that the Spirit at work in a multitude of Protestants has, since the Reformation, produced a number of different Protestant interpretations on a number of issues.

    That is simply to observe that the presence of the Spirit in the reader of Scripture is no guarantor of a shared understanding between readers.

    However, I am equally not suggesting we substitute the Catholic concept of authority for the Protestant principle of 'sola Scriptura'.

    What I am saying is that interpretation in contentious (or profound) matters must be judged by the coherence of the theological framework offered, and I am suggesting that this cannot be a matter of 'private interpretation' for every individual, since no individual is likely to have sufficient critical awareness to make such a judgement, and many individuals will be entirely lacking in sufficient competence.

    Thus I am arguing that, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity stands on a 'sola Scriptura' basis (I said that the Arian controversy was resolved "without appealing to a higher authority than Scripture"), but I would point out that it simultaneously closes off the prospect of 'private judgement' at this point.

    The individual may indeed come to appreciate for themselves the interpretive power of this doctrine in enabling us to understand Scripture (to experience its 'perspicuity'), and I believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit to enable them to do this. But I would not suggest that every individual must work this out for themselves from first principles, or that they have the 'right' to decide otherwise, simply on the basis of 'private judgement'.

    This, I believe, is a very important principle which helps us address McGrath's criticism without resorting to the appeal to 'the authority of the Church'.

  4. Hi John
    Is the urgent issue here not whether conservative evangelicals can work with anglo-catholics, but whether we can work with ourselves? The seventh clause of the Jerusalem Declaration upholds the Ordinal as authoritative. The Ordinal makes no provision for deacons presiding at Communion. Sydney approves diaconal presidency. Just four months beyond GAFCON and a fault-line emerges among conservatives, induced by conservatives!
    Peter Carrell
    Nelson NZ

  5. Dear John,

    thank you for your post on a topic I was hoping you would comment on.

    Here are a few thoughts as I'm reading.

    1. Yes, there are links between liberalism and anabaptism. Both enthrone private judgment and ignore the authority that the teaching of the church has. The difference is perhaps that liberals disparage scripture having supreme authority over their private judgment whereas anabaptists deceive themselves that it is they, and only they, who are scripturally faithful.

    Protestants, on the other hand, recognise that private judgment and church tradition do have authority but this is subservient to the supremacy of scripture. Hence the Reformers did no see themselves throwing off church history and starting afresh. Their work was ad fontes and they frequently quoted the church fathers (and later churchmen) in opposing medieval Catholic innovations.

    2. The Luther quote is a good example of where the Reformed differ from him on seeing a return to the purity of scriptural worship as central to the Reformation. I would certainly argue the 39 Articles go towards Luther here and that this issue lies behind the Puritan struggles from 1550-1662.

    So, no, I do not think evangelicals can compromise on the issue of worship, as tempting as it might be.

    3. I'm no fan of lay celebration of communion but for issues of church order rather than for Anglo-Catholic reasons of ordination.

    4. But all this leaves hanging in the air the big question (where Luther and Calvin agreed): what does an Anglo-Catholic believe about how we are made right with God? That's the key question before which all others are secondary. Without an answer I do not know whether the Anglo-Catholics you work with are Christians despite what they believe or because of it.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe

  6. John,

    A very deep and profound article.

    Could you expand a bit more as to what you mean by 'systematic theology'? You seem to put your faith in this as a way forward. Are you suggesting here, that theology could be 'peer reviewed' in a manner similar to scientific review?

    If so, who are the peers you have in mind?

    Working in the scientific community myself I know how peers can have collectively 'preferred views' that can sometimes be wrong athough in my own subject (physics) it is largely self-correcting as it experimental and can be tested in practice.

    Whom would you you envisage are these peers and how could we know we can trust them?

    How could you 'test' theology to see if it was true?

    By your analogy how do we get a 'better fit' - by consensus?

    Chris Bishop

  7. John this is a very interesting article and a lot to discuss.

    1. Dividing points. I think JF is right to ask about the issue of justification by faith alone as the key one as this is still what divides us from Catholicism. (Traditional Anglo or RC) This needs to be explicitly addressed in such a scheme.

    2. Commonalities. The thing now is that in comparison to theological liberals, we just agree with so many things with the Catholics. Our doctrines of God and the person of Christ, for example, are basically identical.

    3. NT Wright. I love a lot of what he's written but if his views on justification are correct, then you've taken away the biggest reason to be a Evangelical Protestant. I think I agree with the church historian Carl Trueman when he says that as the Roman Catholic church is the one with the greatest historical credentials, if you don't believe in justification by faith alone, you are probably better off going over to Rome.

    4. Sydney. I know you support lay presidency but do you think Sydney are wise to pursue this at this time? I think if they go on down this road their ability to lead in the wider Anglican communion is going to go down the tubes.

    5. Co-belligerency. I notice the contributor to Fulcrum you mentioned in your article thinks it is okay for Tearfund and Greenbelt to work with liberals and even atheists because he agrees with their stance on social justice issues. I'm not sure what the difference is between that and the kind of co-belligerency you are writing about, apart from that he approves of one set of causes but not with the other.

  8. Chris, the first thing I am trying to avoid by my appeal to 'systematic theology' is a use of private judgement which basically results in an individually tailor-made theology which just happens to be what "I personally" find believable and acceptable.

    That is not how Scripture itself encourages us to 'learn Christ'.

    One way to challenge this is to say from the outset that there are 'big ideas' which the individual will generally not be equipped either to derive from the available data, or to judge adequately as a sufficient explanation of that data, but which, if accepted as a premise, will enable them to read the Bible for themselves much more effectively and efficiently.

    Thus there are few of us who would rapidly derive a watertight Trinitarian theology from our biblical reading when we begin the Christian life if we had to start from scratch. It is much better that we tell the new Christian at the outset this is the way to read the Bible, rather than encourage them to work it out for themselves! Nor should we encourage them to feel they can realistically challenge this teaching and decide for themselves whether they accept it or not, given that they lack the theological apparatus to do so.

    However, I would like to see this extended more widely, for example to views about the sacraments, the nature of justification, and so on.

    At the moment, it sometimes seems as if Protestants have just a couple of 'fixed' theological stars in their hermeneutical heaven - the Trinity, the Incarnation, and a couple of other points - and everything else is wandering planets. And as some will know, the Greek word from which we get 'planet' also describes the 'wandering' of those who depart from the truth!

    By systematic theology, then, I mean overarching ideas which explain the phenomena of biblical (and, where relevant, appropriate natural) revelation, in a way that gives coherence to interrelating concepts, just as the doctrine of the Trinity, combined with that of the Incarnation, explains the words and works of Jesus, the Bible's language about God and the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit in an interconnected way.

    On the one hand, this then means that those who engage positively with these doctrines find that a whole cohort of ideas and experiences 'falls into place'. On the other hand, anyone who tried to reject one of these doctrines would find their theology and practice 'coming loose' in other ways.

    In the first instance, 'peer review' should simply be by theological peers - people with the academic qualifications and spiritual reputation to be regarded as trustworthy. To do this, however we would have to encourage the development of such trust, and of communities of such people.

    Evangelicals have, in fact, had this in the past (though perhaps they have not esteemed academic achievement sufficiently highly), but we seem to be less enamoured with it in the present.

    In relation to this, I would like to see the evolution of a genuine meritocracy in Anglican leadership. At the moment, the Church is an 'aristocracy'. Authority and credence are given via titles - the priest is empowered in a way the lay person is not, and the bishop has even more authority than both. Yet as anyone involved in the system knows, many priests today are poorly trained (even a basic ability with Greek is no longer required in some cases). By contrast, the lay person who puts the hours in may be very well versed in theology, yet is 'only' a layperson.

    But that is another topic.

  9. "5. Co-belligerency. I notice the contributor to Fulcrum you mentioned in your article thinks it is okay for Tearfund and Greenbelt to work with liberals and even atheists because he agrees with their stance on social justice issues."

    That'll be me, then.

    I think you mistake co-belligerency with co-operation. You know, working together for the common good...

    Simon Morden

  10. Simon, since you have read the article and posts, I wonder if you would like to comment on the thesis I have put forward here. Particularly, would you comment on the experience I and others have had of a shared faith between Anglo-Catholics and Conservative Evangelicals and the comparative difficulty many of us find in our relationships with Open Evangelicals, the suggestion that Open Evangelicalism is hyper-Protestant, and the suggestions here regarding theological method as they are addressed to all Evangelicals and to Catholics?

  11. Dear John,

    Anglicanism as meritocracy rather than aristocracy? That´ll be presbyterianism then.

    In Christ,

    John Foxe

  12. I will have to reply briefly, I'm afraid. You've made a closely argued thesis, rich in church history and theology - you're probably better off debating such matters with my Spurgeon's lecturer brother.

    For what it's worth: yes, I think that CEs and ACs do have a similar approach to 'doing theology'. But I'd also ask you to consider what CEs have in common with strictly observant Muslims in this regard. In both traditions, the interpretation of the Holy Book is something which should not be attempted by individual believers, lest they fall into error: much better to rely on the preachers/imams to do this.

    This causes two problems: the ossification of the faith, and the tendancy to group-think.

    Innovation - not just in theology or praxis, but in simple matters (as I have fallen foul of as a househusband) of language - is not just slow, but sinful.

    Group-think is not just common, but encouraged: witness the fury turned on those evangelicals who were thought to be 'one of us' who expressed entirely Christian, but evangelically heterodox thoughts.

    Open evangelicals (I am not a spokesbeing for Fulcrum - I met Graham Kings at Greenbelt, who encouraged me to send him my talk), I am guessing, would be less likely to suffer from these particular faults, while of course being more likely to suffer from others.

    My personal difficulties with CE thinking (bearing in mind I was at Jesmond Parish Church for over 20 years before recently departing for pastures new) are severalfold: two I've outlined above, but here are two more.

    Reform says the C of E is 'the best boat to fish from'. As an ecclesiology, this frankly sucks. There's a lack of loyalty to the denomination, its traditions or structures, and its corporate decisions. If Reform don't like it, they - not us MOTR pewsitters - should ship out.

    Secondly, the very strange relationship CEs have with Bible teachers. As a very regular attender at my Bible study group, we pretended to meet together to study a passage of scripture and find out what the Bible had to say. More often than not, it was what Stott had to say, or whoever wrote the commentary for that week. Discussion - disagreement, even - was discouraged. Alternative suggestions, argued from the passage, supported by other theologians, weren't welcome.

    That doesn't mean that OEs are hyper-protestant, however. It does mean that CEs are considerably more popish than they dare admit, even to themselves.

    More than enough: I have soldering to do and a book to write!

    Simon Morden

  13. Simon, thank you for your comments. If I may offer a couple in return, first, I agree that an ecclesiology of 'best boat to fish from' not only 'sucks' but isn't helpful. The Church of England is only a good boat from which to fish when it is sound and ship-shape, and this means we have to do some 'boat maintenance' work as well as fishing.

    In short, Conservative Evangelicals must, perforce, give attention to the doctrine of the Church and discipline within the Church. This is a key reason why I am encouraging my CE brothers and sisters to get their parishes to pass Resolutions A, B and C, as consistent with their own and the institution's ecclesiology. But it is an uphill struggle.

    On the question of interpretation, I would emphasise I am challenging Evangelical, not simply Conservative Evangelical, assumptions about how we approach reading and interpretation.

    The 'classical' position, argued by Stott amongst others, is a 'simple perspicuity' approach. The romantic view of this is that the 'ploughboy in England', equipped with the Bible and the Holy Spirit, can judge all doctrines and discuss Scripture along with the Doctor or the professional.

    However, what we see in Scripture is something different: the one who is taught and the one who teaches, as in Galatians 6:6, where we have the catechist and the catechized. There is not simply a text to be opened - there are truths to be learned, and the text must be read in the light of these truths (for example the Ethiopian must learn that Isaiah is to be read in the light of Jesus being the Messiah).

    The problem with the comparison with Islam is that this is not a like-for-like situation. Islam is not true, the Gospel is. The Muslim community does not have the Holy Spirit, the Church does. The ossification you observe in Islam is not, therefore, possible in a Church community under Scripture full of the Spirit.

    As to your experiences in Bible studies, I have no doubt this is true, but I would observe that the Evangelical world as a whole does not operate as I am suggesting here - particularly not with regard to systematic theology, which is a widely neglected discipline.

    I would like to see all Evangelicals not more 'popish' but certainly more humbly aware that they should sit under, and seek to develop, the assured conclusions of the apostolic church, as we already do with regards to the Trinity and as we therefore presumably could do with regard to numerous other areas of doctrine.

    Good luck with the soldering and the book.

  14. I have soldered and written enough for one evening. There's grounds for no small measure of agreement in your reply - but in my experience, there's a considerable, if not insurmountable gulf between what a church states it would like to do and what a church is actually prepared to let happen.

    One point in particular I'd like to come back on is "The ossification you observe in Islam is not, therefore, possible in a Church community under Scripture full of the Spirit."

    I'm going to change your "is not, therefore, possible" to "should not, therefore, be possible".

    That it is happening ought to be a major concern to all, but specifically to the CEs. It shouldn't be easy to mistake social conservatism with theological conservatism - but just as in traditional Islam, that conflation is rife. The Christian Institute is known (wickedly) as the Tyneside Taliban. But it is a product of CE thinking.

    Then there is the rise of anti-intellectualism and especially Creationism within CE (which is something that concerns me greatly) which mirrors the closing down of scientific endeavour post-1500s in the Islamic world.

    I am not a cessationist. I believe the Spirit does more than directs our reading and interpretation of the words of the Bible. I believe, for example, that Tom Wright's exegesis on the rightness of ordaining women to the priesthood is a work of the Spirit, but something that your suggested ulema would close down.

    Evangelicals have used scripture to propel the world forward: freeing slaves, emancipating the oppressed, reforming prisons, treating the sick, starting schools. At the same time, scripture has been used to argue against these very things by social/theological conservatives.

    Teaching the received wisdom is all very well. But what do you do when you discern that the received wisdom is *wrong*?

    Simon Morden

  15. John,

    You wrote,

    "In relation to this, I would like to see the evolution of a genuine meritocracy in Anglican leadership. At the moment, the Church is an 'aristocracy'."

    as another topic.

    I would suggest that the evolution of such a body rather than being another topic, is in fact, vital and central to your thesis and you should develop this idea further

    Going back to your analogy with scientific peer review, the scientific meritocracy evolves as it is tested by experiment. I am not sure how theology/doctrine could be tested in an analogous way except by those who 'rightly divide the Word of Truth'.

    The difficulty as you imply, is that those in position of episcopal authority more often than not, do not have the intellectual capacity or even the proper categories of thought although they may actually be virtuous in Christian character.

    So in your thesis I think you need to consider how a meritocracy could be brought into being and what kind of people such a body would consist of.

    Perhaps a specific example might help. I have reached the conclusion after much reflection that many doctrinal notions about divorce & remarriage currently held by the CoE may in fact be erroneous. Space does not permit me to go into the arguments but my conclusions have been influenced by scholars such as David Instone-Brewer (see for example

    and his sub-link on divorce and remarriage).

    Instone-Brewer has IMO made some truly ground breaking contributions to this subject and while there are many who may disagree with him (whom he regularly debates with), I am not persuaded by the force of his opponents arguments.

    Now I'm not sure here, if I have made a 'personal judgement' in the sense that you describe, about the Biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage. Objectively it just seems to me that Instone-Brewer has made a convincing case from scripture that outweighs in a number of areas, the accepted teachings of the CofE on this subject.

    Now the interesting question to me in the context of your thesis is that if Instone -Brewer is right about remarriage being permissable in some circumstances, how could this ever be accepted into Anglican doctrine? Who would decide? The Bishops? The Synod?

    I have to say though,that Instone-Brewer most certainly ought to be one of 'meritocracy' that you allude to even if he isn't an Anglican!

    Chris Bishop

  16. Chris, thank you for your helpful comments. I think you are right in observing that this needs to be taken further if it is to be of more than theoretical interest, and that the right direction would be the evolution of a 'body' to carry the idea forward.

    My own thoughts were along the lines 'scholarly community' - rather like the 'Jesus Seminar', only Christian (joke!). The advantage of my approach is that, being a meritocracy, it wouldn't need anyone's permission. (The Jesus Seminar was, as far as I can see, self-selected and appointed, and was insofar as it is respected at all, is respected for the academic merits of its members.)

    Such a body amongst Evangelicals ought, then, to discuss and pronounce collectively, as a body, on contemporary, and especially contentious, theological issues.

    To clarify on another point, my analogy with scientific enquiry depends on the philosophy of science, rather than the empirical method. The empirical method establishes the approach by which things are put to the test within the 'natural' sciences. However, the principle underlying this is that we can only be certain about a disproof.

    This would mean that systematic theology is evaluated by what it leaves unresolved and unanswered, as well as what it (seems) to resolve and answer.

    To take an example, a- pre- and post-millennialism all have their problems, and especially their Bible passages which they don't explain. Usually, these systems are put forward by positive advocacy - the 'proof' text approach. I would suggest we also consider the 'disproof' texts, and evaluate a theology by the number and weight of these that it generates.

    A theology that claims to be systematic, but leaves significant questions unresolved, or creates new problems, must be regarded as less satisfactory than one which resolves problems and clarifies issues.

  17. Greetings
    I'm with Peter Carrell's (a fellow Kiwi) take on Sydney and expand it at

    Bosco Peters
    New Zealand

  18. I'm currently reading 'The Fidelity of Betrayal' by Peter Rollins, which I am finding a very stimulating read, and have been comparing and contrasting what Rollins writes with the address that you have posted here.

    In your address you are critical of Open Evangelicals stating that there is a "growing gap between Conservative Evangelicals and those now calling themselves Open Evangelicals" shown in that, "in many cases, Open Evangelicals have also been quite hostile to GAFCON, and could certainly not be said to have wished this coalition well." In his view, "Open Evangelicals are willing to entertain, and often to side with, doctrinal and practical positions quite opposed to what was once the agreed Evangelical heritage" because "for the Open Evangelical the final arbiter in spiritual matters is private judgement" and this leads Open Evangelicals to "the view that every tradition may offer something which I can cherry-pick as seems fit."

    Although written as though it is Open Evangelicals that are hostile to Conservative Evangelicals, one can sense from this summary the strength of Conservative Evangelical distaste and disappointment with Open Evangelicals. I am certainly aware of people within the Reform stable who think of non-Reform evangelicals as in some sense 'the enemy' because they are betraying evangelicalism (or even the gospel)! It is certainly not the case that hostility, where it exists, is only on one side (that of the Open Evangelicals) and the case for mutual understanding is not well served by caricaturing the Open Evangelical approach as one of cherry-picking what seems fit.

    Your argument that Open Evangelicals use private judgement as the final arbiter in spiritual matters and therefore cherry-pick what seems fit is another way of stating the Conservative Evangelical mantra that others are not serious about scripture or part of Bible believing Churches because a Conservative Evangelical interpretation of scripture is not followed. I am sure that Peter Rollins would not want to be labelled as an Open Evangelical, yet his theology would be well described as being 'open' in the sense you have used i.e. open to the insights of other traditions (both Church and faiths/beliefs) and open to new approaches to scripture. By contrasting elements of Rollins' approach to scripture with that advocated by yourself, I think we can see important differences between 'Open' and 'Conservative' approaches to scripture at the same time as seeing that the 'Open' approach is no less serious about scripture than the 'Conservative'.

    You begins by stating that "the idea that the Bible may be understood equally by everyone is not only demonstrably untrue but unscriptural" and then suggest that "Scripture teaches us there is a tradition to be handed on by the faithful and, just as importantly, received by the disciple — the mathētēs, or learner, of Christ." You equate this tradition with systematic theology and give as an example the resolution of the Arian controversy by the power of Trinitarian theology. "Why ... do the Trinitarian Creeds retain their central place within the Church?" you ask. "The answer is surely because, after centuries of debate, discussion and even division, this doctrine retains its explanatory power in the face of other, competing, approaches to the wide and varied witness of revelation." You suggest, therefore, "that the solution to mere private judgement lies in bringing interpretation to the bar of systematic theology and that the perspicuity of Scripture will only truly be experienced when we apply the insights of systematic theology to our reading."

    You seem then to be suggesting that traditionally accepted doctrines of the Church form a systematic theology against which all new developments can then be judged (and presumably disproved). You argue that systematic theology does not have to imply a rigid system but the implication of what you write seems to be more in favour of supporting established views than exploring new understandings. Finally, you suggest an "analogy between systematic theology and the scientific method", in that: "The scientist does not require a complete explanation of everything to accept a theory as well-established. Rather, the aim is to produce an increasingly better fit between the evidence and the theory." Again, the bias of this statement is in favour of justifying the existing theory rather than questioning it or exploring alternatives.

    Rollins sees all this as part of the problem rather than the solution. He argues that the present popular debates concerning Christianity, with "individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris arguing that the truth claims of Christianity are not valid, while on the other side there is an army of religious apologists publishing books in an attempt to prove them wrong," reveals "that, at a very basic level, both sides implicitly affirm the idea that the truth claims of Christianity take the form of assertions about reality that can be reflected upon, considered, and judged according to reason and empirical research."

    So, in terms of their understanding of 'truth' many atheists and Christians are on the same side but the biblical text, Rollins argues, "seems to be hinting at a different understanding of truth, one which questions the ubiqituous interpretation that we take for granted today."

    His way into this different understanding is firstly by looking at "how parts of the Judeo-Christian narrative are marked by a wrestling with God" and "how the reader is regularly confronted with rather chaotic and contradictory expressions of God that are often in conflict both with our own expectations and with the wider biblical context." The result "is an unnerving sense that biblical narrative is marked by a series of fissures and conflicts that render it fractured, fragmented, and incomplete." The narrative itself seems to be "inviting us to wrestle with it, disagree with it, contend with it, and contest it - not as an end in itself, but as a means of approaching its life-transforming truth, a truth that dwells within and yet beyond the words." This is then an approach that is seeking to take seriously the form as well as the content of scripture. It is an 'open' approach because in order to accept the Bible we need to "reject any interpretation as final, being ready to engage in an ongoing, open-ended dialogue and discussion with it."

    Second, through consideration of the name of God as revealed in Moses' encounter at the burning bush and that of Jacob wrestling with God, Rollins suggests that the biblical narrative reveals God as a happening or event. This "means that the truth affirmed by Christianity is not primarily related to some external facts such as the age of certain Gospels or the particular facts contained in them ... Rather, it refers to a happening testified to within the Bible that cannot be reduced to words, confined in concepts, or divulged by definitions." God is, therefore, "not a problem to be solved but rather a mystery to participate in." Again, this is 'open' theology "for the God who brings us into new life is never the God we grasp, but always in excess of that God."

    Clearly, Rollins and yourself are at opposite poles of the theological spectrum with you accepting scientific methodology and Enlightenment rationalism in your attempt to gather all the strands of scripture and tradition together in one coherent and systematic theology and Rollins accepting the post-modern suspicion of meta-narratives in order to experience God in an ongoing dialogue fired by specific encounters. Your approach is 'closed' in that it attempts to find an over-arching system that explains everything while Rollins' approach is 'open' in that it engages in an ongoing dialogue with a God who is always more than we can grasp.

    The point that I ultimately want to make however is that by being 'open' Rollins' approach is not less serious about scripture than that of yourself or more open to the accusation of cherry-picking from tradition as seems fit. Both positions can and should be critiqued, rigorously and fairly, but it would, it seems to me, be unfair to characterise Rollins' engagement with the diversity of form and content in the Bible as somehow less serious than that of your own. In fact, it could be argued that your approach seeks to tame or neuter the diversity of form and content in scripture in favour of overall coherence and may therefore be engaging less seriously with that real diversity which Rollins' approach seeks to maintain, use and interpret.

    The debate between those with 'Conservative' and 'Open' theologies is not well served by stereotyping of the position held by either and, in my view, that is what your address does to the position of Open Evangelicals. It is therefore unsurprising that you find a growing gap between Conservative and Open Evangelicals when the 'open' approach to scripture is caricatured instead of engaged with as a different but still serious approach to scripture.

    (This comment was originally posted at

  19. Jonathan,

    I am always grateful for people who read what I’ve written and take time to respond, especially as fully as you have. Unfortunately, however, I have to say that you have substantially misread much of my argument (albeit, that I may not have been sufficiently clear to prevent such misreading). The nett result, nevertheless, is that although you suggest I have stereotyped and caricatured the Open Evangelical reading of scripture, you wind up doing exactly the same to my own, suggesting that it “seeks to tame or neuter the diversity of form and content in scripture in favour of overall coherence”.

    That is simply untrue, but I wonder if it is a conclusion which results from your own ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ towards my article, which has led to the misreading to which I have referred.

    You write, for example, that my “argument that Open Evangelicals use private judgement as the final arbiter in spiritual matters and therefore cherry-pick what seems fit is another way of stating the Conservative Evangelical mantra that others are not serious about scripture or part of Bible believing Churches because a Conservative Evangelical interpretation of scripture is not followed.”

    That, however, is simply untrue. I am certainly not saying that a failure to follow “a Conservative Evangelical interpretation of scripture” means “others are not serious about scripture”. Nor, I think, does anything in my article express that view (not least, because I don’t hold it!) But isn't your use of the word "mantra" revealing as, itself, something of a caricature?

    I do believe the Conservative Evangelical approach to Scripture is the best, in terms of methodology, but existing Conservative interpretations are not unquestionable. (Indeed, I explicitly stated that, hypothetically, “every theological position and tradition is, in fact, open to challenge — even the accepted formularies about the Trinity.”) I would not, therefore, suggest that a failure to adhere to these interpretations involves a lack of seriousness about the Bible.

    Again, you write that I equate the tradition “to be handed on by the faithful and ... received by the disciple” with systematic theology. I do not. What I do is to suggest that the notion of a tradition challenges the ascendancy of private judgement. Systematic theology is proposed as a tool, not the product itself.

    Nor do I advocate, as you state, that “traditionally accepted doctrines of the Church form a systematic theology against which all new developments can then be judged (and presumably disproved)”. On the contrary, I would suggest that new developments may indeed be possible in theology. (How many cannot be guessed, since it is necessary to test them before they can be accepted.) Once again, I would observe that I opened every ‘established’ theology to potential re-evaluation.

    Unfortunately, you have also misread my analogy with the scientific method (though in fairness, I should rather have spoken, for the sake of clarity, about the ‘philosophy’, rather than the implicitly empirical ‘method’ of this enquiry). I simply do not see, however, how you can suggest this means a bias “in favour of justifying the existing theory rather than questioning it or exploring alternatives.” Surely this is not what we find in scientific enquiry, nor would I advocate it in theological enquiry.

    I do hold, however, that we should be sceptical about theological novelty, just as we are about scientific novelty, if it challenges a well-established paradigm. Nor all novel suggestions are revolutionary — some are just wrong!

    Finally, I see nothing wrong in a seeking “an over-arching system that explains everything”. That is the great vision of the Large Hadron Collider program, and it was also the vision of Medieval theology. It has much to commend it as a boldness of approach and, indeed, of a trust in God’s willingness to be found (ie known) by his human servants. I am not deterred by the modern mistrust of such enterprises.

  20. I have considerable sympathy for the dismay that John feels at the tendency for Open Evangelicals to oppose almost as a reflex action all things Conservative Evangelical. It is something which scars the Evangelical Community. It is also at first sight bizarre; if Open Evangelicals can associate with non Evangelicals so comfortably, why can they not with Conservative Evangelicals? What is behind it? As someone who has always thought of himself as a Conservative Evangelical, it has been disconcerting to discover that I am thought to be an Open Evangelical by some Conservative Evangelicals, and if an Open Evangelical then really a liberal (even the eirenic John has made that equation), with the further implication that if a liberal then someone from another religion (it is a frequent claim from some Conservative Evangelicals that the current furore in the Church of England is a battle between two different religions).
    The establishment of identities and the allocation of labels is a fraught business, and it is this I think which creates the tensions between Open Evangelicals and Conservative Evangelicals. It is because they are so close to each other, brothers rather than mere cousins, that animosity is so easy. At stake is our identity, and our identities are dear to us.
    As I have said, John represents the eirenic part of Conservative Evangelicalism, yet even he labels Open Evangelicals as either liberals or hyper-Protestants (Anabaptists?). I do not think they are either. Being told what you are or what you think is always likely to cause resentment.
    It may therefore pay dividends to consider what labels mean. There is an essay by Paul Hiebert in his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), entitled ‘The Category Christian in the Mission Task’. Hiebert, a professor at TEDS until his death a year or so ago, distinguishes between different kinds of categories, using mathematical set theory. The three kinds of sets are bounded sets, fuzzy sets and centred sets. The first is the kind with which the Western thinker tends to work with most. Something is either an apple (intrinsically if you like) or it is not an apple (intrinsically a pear perhaps). The second we see most obviously in something like ripeness. The set of ripe apples, as opposed to unripe apples, does not permit sharp distinctions. Ripeness is a matter of degree. A centred set is one created by the relation of the object to something else. Thus a book belongs to the bounded set of books but the books marked out to me from the library represents a centred set.
    When we use the word Christian, are we describing a bounded set, a fuzzy set or a centred set?
    If it is the first, what we are concerned about is the boundary of the set, who is and who is not a Christian. We will draw the boundaries and test to see who is within them and who is not. Since we cannot delve into the heart, we will devise tests of doctrine or lifestyle. Based upon this, we will decide whether someone is or is not a Christian. The decsion is that someone is a Christian (i.e. 100% Christian) or is not (i.e. is 100% not a Christian). This I suggest is how Evangelicals have historically (i.e. Open and Conservative) tended to operate.
    If it is the second one still draws boundaries but interprets them is rather different. Just as an apple can be partly ripe, so one can be partly Christian. So what the checking of conformity to the boundaries ascertains is the extent to which one is a Christian, whether a 90% Christian or a 25% Christian. This might be how Indian Christians might be expected to operate (and Hiebert worked as a missionary in India). It is also something of a red rag to the Evangelical bull.
    Hiebert, however, prefers to see Christian as denoting someone belonging to the third set. A Christian is defined not by a set of doctrines or a set of lifetstyle practices but by a relationship to God. This seems to conform very well to one Richard Turnbull’s identifying markers for an Evangelical, conversionism or the idea that one is a Christian by conversion.
    What happens when we apply these distinctions to Evanagelism? When I say that Fred is an Evangelical, am I saying something about his intrinsic nature? If I am, then I need to test the validity of the claim. Does he conform to all the characteristics of an Evangelical? If not, then one can safely say that he is not an Evangelical. But perhaps I use the term as a fuzzy set. In which case one goes through the same procedure, checking conformity, but the conclusion is rather different. All I can conclude is that Fred is 90% (or whatever) an Evangelical. My own opinion is that it is the second sort of set to which Evangelical belongs.
    It is my belief that it is because we get confused about what set we are talking about when we apply labels, and what kind of set we are talking about, that we get so hot under the collar when debating this. The set or category Christian is getting confused with the set Evangelical. Thus, when someone says we are not an Evangelical, we react as it they are saying we are not Christians (which may or may not be true). The kind of set is also getting confused. We slip into the idea that Christian belongs to a bounded set, when I would claim that it is a centred set, and make assessments of whether Fred is or is not a Christian, based upon doctrinal or moral criteria. Or we start to define Evangelical in rather all or nothing terms; Fred either is or is not an Evangelical, is either one of us or is not one of us.
    This leads to another observation from John’s paper. He clearly sees the label Conservative Evangelical as permitting fellowship with non Conservative Evangelicals, namely with Anglo-Catholics. The fundamental reason he can do this is that both belong to Christ. And this I assert is where we should draw the line of fellowship, who belongs to Christ, who acknowledges the Lordship of Christ.

  21. I was startled by the description of Open Evangelicals as hyper-Protestant, apparently based upon their adherence to Private Judgment. That great Evangelical bishop, JC Ryle, regarded Private Judgment as one of the three great principles of the Reformation. So I cannot see how Private Judgment cannot be ascribed to mainline Protestantism. Also, the main form of the Radical Reformation that continues to today is Anabaptism. Anabaptists, for better or for worse, rejected Private Judgment and modern critics of Private Judgment within Protestantism, such as Stanley Hauerwas, do so because of their contact with Anabaptism.
    If I have understood John correctly, he argues for theological assertion from whoever they may be to be ‘assessed’ by the community, much as scientific assertions are peer reviewed. This might be supported from 1 Corinthians 14, where prophecy is to be tested by the community. This seems to be very like what Anabaptists did and do. Greater credence to the judgment of the community is to be given to the more theologically aware of the community. Thus we might say that we have a magisterium but one which is not sharply defined, and not self-defined for that would lead to old fashioned Catholicism. What I find hard to discern is how Tom Wright offends such a polity. He offers his theology for debate and accepts robust criticism robustly.

  22. Sorry. Have just posted twice without giving my name.
    It is Timothy of Streatham

  23. Just for clarification, Timothy, I am suggesting that the principle of 'private judgement' (which is indeed a fundamental Protestant principle), detached from - or (sometimes) set over against - the 'tradition' of the apostolic teaching and the judgement of the wider church, leads to 'hyper-protestantism', which I characterize as, in the end, highly individualistic in what is believed and fissiparous in its impact on the church.

    Thus I am willing to suggest the principle of private judgement may be wrong, despite its venerable history.

    Interestingly, I have just been hearing how the survivors of the crew of the Bounty were converted by reading a Bible one of them found. Lacking anyone to interpret, however, they came up with some quite odd ideas, as well as some very good ones (like not killing one another). In later years they were apparently a ready audience for Seventh Day Adventists when their missionaries arrived.

    So, on the one hand 'private judgement' and the 'perspicuity' of Scripture indeed worked for them, but they did not work 'absolutely'.

  24. A couple of observations on recent posts.

    Firstly saying we take scripture seriously is necessary but not sufficient; our attitude to its nature and how it is to be understood matters too. I'm not commenting on the specific example of Rollin's approach quoted, but it is certainly possible to reject an approach to scripture as being invalid and unhelpful without that implying the person is not taking scripture seriously.

    Secondly it's a long time since I was last seriously dabbling in set theory, but there seems to be a flaw in splitting sets into bounded, fuzzy and centred as three distinct categories. The set of books marked out to you from the library is a bounded set as well as a centred set. The set of ripe apples owned by Tesco as opposed to Asda is fuzzy and centred. And I'd say the set of Christians isn't centred instead of bounded, but both at once. Of course its membership is definitively known only to God, but there are other sets whose use is relevent to the discussion too - the set of people whose views on X are reasonably compatible with Christian doctrine Y, the set of people person A assumes to be Christian for practical decision making etc.

  25. John,

    Thanks for the clarifications of your position made in response to my comments. They raise a number of interesting questions that I would like to put to you in a moment.

    Before getting to that point though I'd like to respond to your statements about my misreadings of your arguments. I would quite happily accept that in writing what was a fairly immediate (albeit lengthy) response to your post I have allowed my preconceptions of and frustrations with Conservative Evangelicalism to colour the language I used in responding to the criticisms you made of Open Evangelicals. But by pointing that out you are not then answering the points I made about the criticisms you made of Open Evangelicals in your post.

    You say in your response that you do not want to suggest that a failure to adhere to Conservative Evangelical interpretations involves a lack of seriousness about the Bible but in your post you said that "Open Evangelicals are willing to entertain, and often to side with, doctrinal and practical positions quite opposed to what was once the agreed Evangelical heritage" because "for the Open Evangelical the final arbiter in spiritual matters is private judgement" and this leads Open Evangelicals to "the view that every tradition may offer something which I can cherry-pick as seems fit."

    You seem to me to be identifying the movement away from what was once the agreed Evangelical heritage as a problem and seeing the source of that problem and movement as involving a subjective cherry-picking of scripture and tradition that you clearly don't think equates to the rigour and substance of Conservative Evangelical theology. I don't think it at all unreasonable to read that as implying that you think Open Evangelicals are not serious about scripture but am reassured to find out that that isn't your position.

    My argument though was that 'open' theologies are not in fact based on private judgement and cherry-picking from traditions. Instead I tried to us the example of Peter Rollins' book to show that they arise from allowing scripture to ask different questions of us through the post-modern recognition of the diversity of form and content in scripture which leads to a place of 'open' and ongoing dialogue instead of the more traditional, more settled and more 'closed' place of propositional statements.

    You didn't comment on this argument in your response and I would be interested to know whether you accept that 'open' theologies can be based, not on private judgement or cherry-picking, but on a serious engagement with scripture that allows scripture to ask different questions of us from those that have been framed in other historical periods.

    You also say that you simply do not see how I can suggest that your analogy between systematic theology and scientific method means a bias “in favour of justifying the existing theory rather than questioning it or exploring alternatives. However, you stated that: ”The scientist does not require a complete explanation of everything to accept a theory as well-established. Rather, the aim is to produce an increasingly better fit between the evidence and the theory."

    If the aim is to produce a better fit between the evidence and the theory this suggests to me that the point of the exercise is to justify the theory (or, in the terms of the analogy, justify the tradition) rather than allowing the evidence to suggest the theory. Again, I'm reassured to find you saying that that is not what you think, but what I understood by it is not unreasonable given what you wrote.

    Having got those things out of the way, the more interesting questions are these:

    1. You say "that new developments may indeed be possible in theology." Can you give an example of a new development that you think has come in theology and of how that new development was appropriately tested by being brought to the bar of systematic theology?

    2. How does the process of appropriately testing a new development in theology that you envisage differ from the debate that is currently happening within the Anglican Communion over the issue of homosexuality? Is this debate not a means of testing a new development in theology and are the problems we currently face perhaps being exacerbated by people on both sides of the argument trying to cut short the testing process?

    3. How could the approach that you are advocating ever respond positively to a genuine paradigm shift in theology?

    4. You say that you "see nothing wrong in a seeking 'an over-arching system that explains everything' and that you are not seeking to tame or neuter the diversity of form and content in scripture in favour of overall coherence. How do you think it is possible to do both? Systematic theologies or over-arching systems often seem to involve attempting to resolve contraditions and differences within scripture rather than accepting them and also the harmonising of texts that were written in different genres at different times for different cultures. Where this is the case, the diversity of form and content in scripture does seem to be being tamed or neutered. How would your approach be different?

  26. From Timothy of Streatham
    Shaun makes a good caution on the use of set theory. However, I maintain that it does provide a way to understand what we are doing when we say somebody is a Christian or an Evangelical. Hiebert started his essay by posing the story of an Indian peasant in a village who hears the gospel from a travelling evangelist and responds and commits himself to the Lord Jesus as urged by the evangelist. Is this person a Christian? As evangelicals we want to say yes but his understanding of doctrine is shallow in the extreme and the change in his lifestyle at this point negligible. So is he really a Christian? Hiebert wants to say yes and justifies it by regarding the category Christian as implying belonging to Christ rather than espousing a specific set of doctrines.
    This applies to the current debates as follows:
    When people debate the identity markers of Evangelicalism, we need to avoid the implication that we are establishing the identity markers of who is a Christian; it is a different sort of category. This should take some of the heat out of the debate as it means we are not judging the standing before God of anyone. When we have established the appropriate markers of Evangelical, we cannot for the most part then decide someone is or is not an Evangelical, so much as the extent that they are evangelical. Then we need not allocate Evangelicals to quite distinct sets, sets that are in opposition to each other. One can seek to discuss issues and exchange views constructively.

  27. From Timothy of Streatham
    The third issue which I feel needs to be addressed is the list of typically Conservative Evangelical positions. My question is how do we use it? Can it provide a checklist which we can tick off the items? I think not for the reason that while most Evangelicals agree with the most of the items on the list, it is possible to agree with them in different ways. John gives as his list; penal substitution, the sanctity of marriage, the wrongness of divorce, the headship of the husband, women in leadership, and even same-sex relationships.
    To take one issue, the wrongness of divorce, I do not think that anyone, Conservative Evangelical or otherwise, especially those who have gone through divorce, would say divorce is a good thing. So the debate actually becomes not whether divorce is wrong but in what way is it wrong and what do you do about it. We have two highly erudite and scholarly and pastorally sensitive and experienced writers on this issue in Andrew Cornes and David Instone-Brewer who take different views on this. As far as I know they respect each other, would accept that both hold to the wrongness of divorce, but disagree on some of the implications of this for pastoral practice. Their disagreements, however, are not in either case based upon pastoral expedience but upon scriptural interpretation. Andrew Cornes gives what I take to be the Conservative Evangelical view and David Instone-Brewer the Open Evangelical view (although as he works at Tyndale he may not thank me for saying that). What would be unfortunate is if Cornes lost respect for Instone-Brewer or vice versa, on the basis that the other in ‘unbiblical’ and ‘unevangelical’. Yet that seems to me to be the tendency among both Conservative and Open Evangelicals.
    To take the next issue, the headship of the husband, generally Open Evangelicals would, I think, accept the headship of the husband. Where they diverge from Conservative Evangelicals at least in theory (I suspect that Conservative Evangelicals are far more ‘Open’ in their actual practice than their theory suggests, and Open Evangelicals far more ‘Conservative’ in their practice than their theory suggests) is in the meaning of ‘headship’. What each claims about the other is that they bring to the text a predetermined understanding of the text which they then prove through its prior assumption. What we need is not the dismissal of people as ‘Open’ or ‘Conservative’, as if either represent severely sub-biblical species, but the opening up not of debates on the issues but discussions, where each side is prepared to understand the other and critique their own position without the fear that one is exposing themselves to the other.
    I think that I ought to tackle the first named issue, penal substitution, partly because it yields an example of exactly that kind of divisiveness that I think we need to avoid. At the time of the furore over Steve Chalke’s book (co-written with Alan Mann), there were two symposia organised by Evangelical Alliance, the second at the London School of Theology. In a casual discussion with a ‘Reform’ style vicar about something quite else, the subject of LST (where I had studied) came up and he dismissed LST as on the ‘wrong side’ on penal substitution. Apart from being inaccurate, the very language of the ‘wrong side’ seems unnecessarily divisive. Most Open Evangelicals and perhaps all would ascribe to substitutionary atonement, which they would be very pushed to expound in language that did not imply penal. Tom Wright does not attempt to avoid the apparently offensive word ‘penal’ at all, boldly arguing that not only is it biblical but that it has formed part of the understanding of the church through most of its history (something even some Conservative Evangelicals have questioned). But although the doctrine forms a foundational part of their doctrinal position, it worries them because it has been so widely abused within the church. They should be encouraged to air these worries, listened to sympathetically, and endeavours made to ensure that penal substitution is not taught in a way that abuses the character of God. Sometimes Open Evangelicals express themselves more dogmatically and even emotionally than is healthy which is why Conservative Evangelicals then counter-attack but the need is to be able to listen and understand before proceeding immediately to refutation. And when Conservative Evangelicals are angered at the sometimes insensitive questioning of a treasured doctrine that has brought much assurance to many of us, perhaps Open Evangelicals can make allowances.
    The one issue that seems to provoke the most explicit and categorical divergence between Conservatives and Open Evangelicals is the ordination of women. But even this is open to a spectrum of views. Most accept the ordination of women as deacons. Many would accept women as homegroup leaders. Sydney would accept them as presidents at communion. Most seem to accept women as preaching in a missionary context. But how do we discuss the issue, not merely what is the issue itself?
    Sydney diocese has debated the issue with some vigour, prompting Don Carson to say to the combatants in Sydney, ‘in your passion to defend your view of the Word of God, will you—God help us—deny that very Word’s injunction to love the brothers, to love the sisters?...I have heard already...that there are some of you on both sides of the issue who find it difficult even to be civil to the other side because you disagree on this issue. Isn’t that sin? There is a want of godliness in this discussion.’
    Packer is in most people’s view a Conservative Evangelical and yet he is able to assert, ‘while it would be inept euphoria to claim that all the exegetical questions tackled have now been finally resolved, I think the New Testament papers [on 1 Cor, Gal 3 and 1 Tim 2 - he was speaking at a symposium on women’s ministry] in particular make it evident that the burden of proof regarding the exclusion of women from the office of teaching and ruling within the congregation now lies on those who maintain the exclusion rather than on those who challenge it.’ It would be good if the force of the Open Evangelical position was more widely acknowledged among Conservative Evangelicals. I think we also need from the Open Evangelical side recognition of the force of the Conservative position.
    I am not really an Anglican, I was baptised in the Brethren, and therefore start the discussion about the ordination of women in a very different place from Anglicans. What is ordination? What authority is associated with ordination? Tony Payne in Sydney has pointed out that these questions are usually ignored in any debate about women’s ordination but the answers are not immediately clear. Belleville has argued that nowhere in the New Testament is authority (hhexousía) linked to church leadership. So what is the issue on women’s ordination if the issue of authority is excluded? I really do not know.
    Thus the list is not so much a checklist as a list of things important to Evangelicals of whatever stripe which can usefully be discussed.

  28. I fail to see how Anglo-Catholics and Protestant/Reformed Anglicans can "work together" since they are diametrically opposed the one to the other. One preaches the doctrines of grace, the five solas of the Reformation, and the sovereignty of God. The other preaches Roman Catholic-lite, semi-pelagianism, justification by infusion and merits rather than the legal forensic imputation of the righteousness of Christ.

    One view accepts additional tradition as "revelation" equal to Scripture while the Protestant Anglicans accept only Scripture as the final authority. The Anglo-Catholics outright reject the 39 Articles or else twist the plain meaning of the Articles to artificially revise them according to their Roman Catholic-lite doctrines and the Protestants accept the Articles as what they are--a product of the English Protestant Reformation.

    My answer is no. What does Christ have to do with Babylon?

    Sincerely in Christ,


  29. By the way, "private judgment" does not trump the official confession of faith of a denomination. For this to happy would be to reject orthodoxy. The confessions have equal status to the creeds and are in fact extended creeds.

    I was wondering why you were such a compromiser, John. I noticed above that you were brought up Anglo-Catholic.

    I was brought up reading the King James Bible. My discovery of the Reformed Confessions of faith over rode any of my previous Anabaptist tendencies.

    Having said that, to be blunt, Anglo-Catholicism is as much a heresy from hell as any "Open Evangelicalism" or Anabaptist or even theological liberalism. Why? Because it places authority in the hands of bishops rather than Scripture first and church second. Anglo-Catholicism is liberalism waiting to happen because it emphasizes semi-pelagianism rather than the sovereignty of God.

    No Compromise,


  30. Elevating the host is forbidden in Articles 28-31. If you want to tolerate the Lutheran view under the pretense of allowing Anglo-Papist to continue in their idolatrous violations of the Scriptures and the 39 Articles, then you reveal that you do not accept the teaching of either the Anglican Formularies or the Scriptures. In other words, you are not an Anglican as the Formularies define Anglicanism.


  31. Not sure what happened in this line: "For this to happy would be to reject orthodoxy."

    It should have read: "For this would be to reject orthodoxy."

  32. "For this to happy would be to reject orthodoxy."

    How about, "For this to happen would be to reject orthodoxy"?