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 RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend:
27 October 2012
27 October 2012