Saturday, 27 October 2012

Fulcrum's (theo)logical error

In the light of ongoing disputes at home and in the wider Anglican Communion, we should perhaps be grateful to the Revd Stephen Kuhrt for clarifying the distinction (as he represents it) between ‘conservative’ and ‘fulcrumesque’ evangelical Anglicans (‘Damned by Association? Or the Lack of it?’, Fulcrum website and Church of England Newspaper, 28 October).
The leadership of the latter grouping has, as he acknowledges, regularly issued strong critiques of the former, and anything which explains why this is so may help our understanding. Yet the justification (in both senses) that he puts forward in his most recent article is neither that of traditional evangelicalism nor indeed theologically coherent in itself.
Kuhrt states his position three times (though in slightly different ways). At it heart, however, is the proposal that ‘once someone declares their faith in Jesus as Lord (or again, ‘confesses that Jesus is Lord’) we are obliged (or, ‘theologically compelled’) to regard them as a fellow brother or sister (or, ‘as fellow members of the body of Christ’).
The middle statement of his position, however, introduces two additional terms which reveal its incoherence. ‘[M]uch of the false teaching condemned in the New Testament,’ he writes, ‘is actually that of those insisting that markers additional to baptism and faith in Jesus are required for others to be accepted as Christians’ (emphasis added) — an understanding he claims, incidentally, to be the fruits of the ‘New Perspective on Paul’.
Be that as it may, however, the logical result of what he says is that we should treat all the baptized as Christians — as fellow brothers or sisters and equal members of the body of Christ — something which I doubt even Kuhrt, let alone his fellow open evangelicals, is willing to embrace fully in practice.
The problem lies in the relationship between three expressions he uses: the ‘declaration of faith’ (which seems equate with the ‘confession that Jesus is Lord’), ‘baptism’ and ‘faith’.
To begin with, Kuhrt maintains that all those who ‘declare their faith in Jesus as Lord’ must be treated as true Christians — indeed that to do otherwise is to open the door to the Galatian ‘false gospel’ — yet he ignores the fact that baptism includes just such a declaration.
In the BCP, for example, the candidate, either personally or through godparents, renounces the Devil and all his works, declares their faith in the entire Apostles’ Creed (‘All this I believe’) and promises to keep God’s holy will and walk in his way. In Common Worship, the President addresses the candidates ‘directly, or through their parents, godparents and sponsors’ with no fewer than six questions including, ‘Do you submit to Christ as Lord?’ — the ‘declaration’ of which seems to be the Shibboleth of the ‘New Perspective’ movement.
The theological strength of these baptismal affirmations and responses may be judged by the language used of the newly-baptized. Common Worship says to the child, ‘You have been clothed with Christ’ and ‘have put on Christ’, adding that, ‘God ... has received you by baptism into his Church’. The BCP is even more robust, declaring that ‘this Child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church’.
Of course, this language makes many evangelicals uncomfortable, and indeed causes some to shy from infant baptism entirely. But as Colin Buchanan (the liturgiologist, not the singer) is fond of pointing out, cannot have two baptismal ‘languages’ — one for adults which speaks as if it brings about what it claims to effect, and the other for infants which does not.
As we will see shortly, that does not entail an ex opera view of baptism (whereby those who have been through the liturgical rite receive the benefits automatically), any more than it does for the Lord’s Supper. (Indeed, regarding the latter, the New Testament and Anglican tradition are both quite clear that ‘unworthy’ participation invites spiritual disaster.) According to Kuhrt’s position, however, there are millions in England whom we are ‘theologically compelled’ to regard as fellow Christians, simply by merit of their being baptized.
‘But wait a minute!’ someone will say, ‘what about Confirmation?’ to which I would say, ‘Precisely!’ Baptism includes a robust declaration of faith in Christ as Lord. But the Church has always looked for a meaningful appropriation of this as people come to understand for themselves, and Confirmation is one example of this expectation. Moreover, confirmation also requires personal affirmation. The bishop asks (in the BCP):
Do ye here, in the presence of God, and of this Congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your name at your Baptism; ratifying and confirming the same in your own persons, and acknowledging yourselves bound to believe and to do all those things, which your Godfathers and Godmothers then undertook for you?
In Common Worship, he first asks, ‘Are you ready with your own mouth and from your own heart to affirm your faith in Jesus Christ?’ and then repeats the six questions asked through the candidate’s godparents in baptism.
Emphatically, then, Confirmation is a further declaration that Christ is Lord. Yet is every confirmed person thereby and on that basis a ‘fellow member of the body of Christ’? Once again, experience and tradition would answer no.
There is an old joke, with a sad grain of truth in it, about a church infested with bats. Since it was illegal to disturb them, the congregation had resigned themselves to living with bat droppings on their books and furnishings, until one of them mentioned it to a friend in a neighbouring parish.
‘Oh, you should try what we did,’ she said. ‘That got rid of them entirely.’
‘What was that?’ the frustrated parishioner asked.
‘We confirmed them,’ came the reply, ‘After that, they were never seen again.’
If, then, confirmation is also not a guarantee, we must presumably look to some other ‘declaration’ of Christ’s Lordship. But here is the problem: if we accept neither the declaration of Christ’s Lordship made in baptism nor in confirmation, why should we be ‘theologically compelled’ by any other declaration of his Lordship made at another time and place? Why does this one count, but not the earlier ones, and who is to judge?
The logical result of Kuhrt’s proposal is either the position of the Federal Vision movement or that of the Churches of Christ founded by Kip McKean.
The Federal Vision movement denies baptismal regeneration, but nevertheless argues that the non-practising baptized should be treated as fully Christian. Thus one author writes,
... to a Federal Visionary, a Christian is someone who is a member of an external covenant with the Christian church. Probably most or all Federal Visionaries (as I call them) believe that baptism is what brings you into the New Covenant, just as circumcision brought Israelites into the Old Covenant. So in other words, a Christian is someone who is baptized into Christ, and who is therefore accountable to the church and her ministers ... (see here, underlining as in the original)
Yet the Federal Vision movement is in no way identical with traditional Anglican evangelicalism, and indeed recently caused considerable difficulties in those quarters.
By contrast, Kip McKean’s Churches of Christ do teach baptismal regeneration, but instil an uncertainty that baptism has been undertaken in the right spirit, resulting in some cases in ‘re-baptisms’ even of their own members (see here for claimed instances of this amongst the Churches of Christ leadership). Kuhrt would undoubtedly not advocate re-baptism, but by simultaneously demanding that a declaration of faith be accepted and apparently denying that baptism (or baptism plus confirmation) are enough, similarly promotes the search (by ourselves or others) for the ‘full, perfect and sufficient’ declaration.
Following Kuhrt, therefore, we should either treat all the baptized as believers (because they have certainly declared their faith in Jesus as Lord) or we should treat all declarations of faith in the Lordship of Christ with suspicion (because their validity is subjective, not objective). If we accept the declaration made in Confirmation, why reject that made in baptism? If we are cautious about both of these declarations, why accept some other declaration? Why is this more valid than the earlier declarations made in confirmation or baptism and who is to judge?
As I have hinted above, however, the reason for the confusion lies in a failure to be clear about how we should understand ‘ baptism and faith’, and how ‘faith’ relates to a ‘declaration of faith’.
The Church of England (as with evangelical theology more generally) has long recognized that faith is a necessary component of baptism. In the Prayer Book Catechism it asks, ‘What is required of persons to be baptized?’ and the answer is, ‘Repentance ... and faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God.’
The problem with Kuhrt’s approach is that it reduces this ‘repentance and faith’ to a personal claim which must have a particular beginning but which is indefinite as to its present consequences. As he puts it, ‘once someone declares their faith we are obliged to regard them as a fellow brother or sister’ (emphasis added). As we have argued, however, this ought to entail treating all the baptized as ‘brothers and sisters’ — and this has certainly never been the evangelical position. If it were, we would never evangelize anyone who has gone through infant baptism. It would also encourage the peculiarly evangelical error of treating a past ‘conversion’ as sufficient for present salvation, which neither a more thoughtful evangelical tradition nor Scripture itself (cf James 2:14) would condone.
The question lies, as always in these matters, in the nature of faith. And the answer is to understand a ‘declaration of faith’ as not just a past affirmation (whether in baptism or elsewhere) but a present reality. Justification, in other words, is not just sola fide (by faith alone) but semper fide (by faith always).
The Christian life does not begin with an act of faith and continue in the doing of works. Every moment is lived in faith, and our works are always and only the fruit of that present faith. Thus faith is required constantly by God’s word to us (ie the gospel) and declared constantly by our response.
Hence our baptismal declaration is valid (whether made by ourselves or for us by our godparents) and our baptism is effective, so long as (and only so long as) we grasp by faith the promises of God held out to us in baptism. To those who grow up in this attitude, the Christian life has always been lived by faith. For others, faith begins later. The important thing in every case, however, is that faith should always be in the ‘present continuous’ tense: not ‘I have declared,’ but ‘I am declaring’ Christ’s Lordship.
As 1 Peter says, Christians are ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (1 Pet 2:9). And apart from anything else, we do so by abstaining from the sinful desires which war against our souls (v11). Without this, we are neither declaring the Lordship of Christ, nor living by faith.
And this is why when someone’s lifestyle or attitude is clearly at variance with apostolic teaching we must ask not just whether they are in danger of falling away from faith but indeed whether they have ever come to faith in the first place. This applies just as much to the regular churchgoer as it does to those infamous ‘four wheel’ Christians who only turn up for their baptism, their wedding and their funeral, as all of us in evangelical ministry know,
This can, of course, result in ‘judgementalism’, but properly applied it is an attitude of love: ‘Be merciful to those who doubt,’ writes Jude, ‘snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear — hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh’ (Jude 22-23).
If we were to adopt the attitude advocated by Kuhrt, however, we might find ourselves wondering why Jude warns of those who ‘have secretly slipped in among you’ (Jude 4), whilst others caution against ‘false teachers’ (2 Pet 2:1), ‘false brothers’ (Gal 2:4), even ‘false Christs and false prophets’ (Mk 13:22). Surely such should be easy to spot if all the baptized who have made a profession of faith are true brethren, since they could not have been baptized, let alone made any subsequent statement that ‘Jesus is Lord’?
Of course, we must be careful in applying such labels to those with whom we disagree. But we must be even more careful not to welcome those who masquerade as brethren (2 John 9-11). According to the New Testament such people existed then, and it is unlikely that they no longer exist now. Kuhrt writes that ‘fellow Christians always possess something that we need to learn from’, but we surely cannot apply either the label or the principle to false teachers, brethren or prophets, even if they are baptized and have made the profession (even in evangelical circles) that ‘Jesus is Lord’.
According to this standard, all those who have declared their faith in Christ (which is something that baptism decisively entails) possesses a ‘something’ , regarding the things of God from which we need to learn. Every one of them is entitled to an opinion, and every one of us is required to listen to them with all seriousness.
But contrast this view with the 1945 report Towards the Conversion of England, which robustly declared when it came to the role of the laity in evangelism, ‘The chief obstacle ... is that so many church people are only half converted.’ (And if they felt that was true of church people, imagine what they thought of non-churchgoers!)
Yet such has always been the evangelical position. Evangelicals have always had a healthy suspicion of mere ‘professions’ of faith and they have always regarded this suspicion as Scriptural. This was why we looked for more in a person’s lifestyle and commitments — not because we were ‘judgmental’ but because we longed to see people truly saved. Admittedly people sometimes got this wrong, but the intention was right, even if we must beware of narrowness.
What Stephen Kuhrt seems to advocate, however, is not simply that we cannot not judge whose declaration of faith is valid or not. Rather, it is that we must not judge. Every declaration of faith must be accepted from everyone. And therefore everyone has something to say to the others and everyone has a place at the table.
We are not saying that, by contrast, we always know how to detect ‘false brethren’ or always get it right in addressing contentious issues in the Church. But the approach Kuhrt advocates goes against reason, Anglican theology and evangelical practice when it comes to pastoral work and evangelism. And if that is indeed what the ‘New Perspective’ requires, then we must reject it as a new (or maybe not-so-new) error.
John Richardson
27 October 2012
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  1. Isn't "by your fruit you should know them" relevant here?

    If somebody confesses Jesus as Lord then does not obey his commandments and by their life live in ways contrary to scripture then how can they ever be said to be truly christian?

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    Chris Bishop

  2. "And this is why when someone’s lifestyle or attitude is clearly at variance with apostolic teaching we must ask not just whether they are in danger of falling away from faith but indeed whether they have ever come to faith in the first place. "

    "This corruption of nature doth persist, yea in them that are regenerate".

  3. I don't want to believe in God because I want to live my life as I want.

    I believe in a God of love because I want to live my life as I want.

    Both are true statements sincerely held and both are honest enough to say what they mean. That is they love themselves/their freedom to live as they like, more than God. They have a God alright it is called selfishness. They don't worship or want to worship the true God.

    We cannot judge hearts but we can and should judge actions. If we take the easy path and do nothing we are no better in our attitude than the two statements above.

    Don't take my word for it.....

    “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
    ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost Of Discipleship

  4. "Jesus is Lord."

    As it stands, they are just three words. An awful lot of people use them. In fact, you could teach your parrot. In a postmodern world, this confession means absolutely nothing until it is clear what meaning these words have relative to their biblical and historical meaning.

    JESUS: which Jesus, and how do you know him? IS: is he really; is your confession reflected in your life? LORD: what is the nature of his lordship, and how do you understand what your Lord has commanded you (if indeed he does such a thing in your world)?

    Surely, pace Kuhrt, we cannot pretend that all answers to these questions are sufficient or even coherent. Certainly Paul would not think so, or the church fathers, or the Reformers, or Cranmer or Hooker for that matter.

  5. Chris e, would you like to elaborate? How does that relate to Kuhrt's position?

  6. My immediate reaction to this is to remember the words of Scripture:

    "...test everything..."


    Is a profession of faith not part of everything?
    Which puts me in John's camp, again!

  7. I think Kurht's argument puts LOTS of weight on his (mis)understanding of the New Perspective on Paul. But actually, we also need to consider our Old Perspective on the Gospels/Acts, John's letters & Revelation, Jude and Peter.

    I.e. not everyone who says "Lord lord", false teachers from among us etc.

    I would say that Baptism is a very significant thing and it's significance is the same regardless of whether it's an infant or an adult. Baptism does "mean" something, but carries a responsibility as well as a privilege. Once we've made our profession and been baptised (in which ever order or at the same time), we have to keep going and running the race.

    In fact there are a number of us who are very pro-baptising infants of Christians (by which I mean covenant people, active in church, professing faith - not us judging the secrets of their hearts). But the very reason why we're edgy about non-church people wanting their kids "done", with no understanding/commitment is that in some respects they actually make their situation worse. To put in perhaps crudely, they are signing on the dotted line (& making their kids) then keeping their kids from church and breaking their deal.

    Darren Moore

  8. If he'd stopped after his first statement I would have been in complete agreement with him. However, the rest makes his first comment worthless as he redefines himself to a completely different position from where he started.

    As far as I can see, there are 3 thing in play at communion. First there is the declaration of the individual as to their belief or not in Christ as Lord. Then there is the pastor (as in the personal relationship between the church leader and the people taking communion) who will hopefully know at least a bit of the personal views of most, if not all, of the congregation and therefore able to make a call as to whether an individual should be definitely refused the bread and the wine. Finally there we return to the individual who will know whether their declaration means anything and thus whether they should partake or not.
    The third part is very much of the Protestant thought on the personal relationship with God, that only they can truly know what is in their heart when they put out their hands to receive. The pastor can only go so far before they must accept on trust that those coming up are true in their faith. Let those who would deny the truth to themselves take the damnation upon their own shoulders, with the only responsibility for the pastor being to make sure all are aware of this before the bread and wine are shared.

  9. YP - He's not talking really about the sacrament of communion is he, rather how we view Christians and therefore their ideas. Which ends up, if following his logic, anyone who claims to be Christian has an equal right to air ideas. Rather than the Jude idea that Christian teaching has been delivered once to the Saints, or Paul's, "we know of no other practice, nor do the churches of God". Of course, he would want to exclude John Richardson style Anglicans, conservative Independents and Confessional Presbyterians, who are on Fulcrum pages anathema.

    But, on the 3rd thing on communion about the individual, you say it's very Protestant. Can I be pedantic and say, modern Evangelical, not classically Reformed. Calvin (for example), believed that you couldn't excommunicate yourself. 1 Corinthians 11 calls us to examine, or perhaps better, "prove" ourselves, but then the command comes, "then eat". The problem with a more individualistic culture is we become all introspective. We are to examine ourselves then come. If there is a reason why we feel it might not be right for us to come forward, it isn't a matter of private judgement, rather for those who "hold the keys", i.e. the Elders (don't know how you'd do that in C of E, Vicar + Curate + Bishop?). They may agree, or may say, "this is exactly why you MUST come to the table and recieve"

    At least that's what Reformed types used to believe. & some still do. But, true most have this private judgement thing going on.

  10. As regards to the wider aspects, surely the same is held true as is for communion, in that we can only take a person's word for their faith and then we have to let them speak. Obviously how we then judge what they say comes from scrutiny when compared to the Bible, but to be allowed to air their views because of their claims of faith seems fine within this framework.
    As regards communion and the taking thereof, if a person recognises sin this is not to stop them joining in. Indeed, as you say that is the reason why we join in. But by recognising the damage done if you join in falsely you take the responsibility on your own shoulders and go into communion with your eyes fully open. Thus the process is the individual declaring their faith, the pastor determining to their satisfaction that this declaration is true (and whatever other factors join in this decision to allow them to partake) and then the individual comes up with the responsibility for their own actions firmly on their own head.
    As I said, I think this stands true for involvement in the Church in general, particularly in theological discourse, but then when people say or so things that are external they are open to judgement from others, hopefully using the Bible as the yard stick.