21 Aug Justification, Creedal Foundations, and the Freedom to be as the Bereans
I wrote recently of my belief in certain “political orthodoxies” that are needed to define ideological boundaries (http://davidbahnsen.wpengine.com/index.php/2009/08/19/what-kind-of-conservative-are-you/). I borrow heavily in this from the historic Christian faith I believe in, which has been defined for two millennia by its ancient creeds. Creedal Christianity has been under assault for ages, but there is no game without a rulebook, and the historicity of the orthodox Christian religion is rooted in its creeds and confessions that early church fathers provided. I consider my own spiritual journey to be complicated and challenging enough without having to also spend my time calling a dog a cat, and calling a frog a basket. In other words, reeds enable me to know what the “word is, is”, and in this postmodern age, I find the ability to call a spade a spade more important than ever. I also find the creeds to be somewhat reductionist (in a good way), as they also (by silence) tell us what are the non-essential issues to a core Christian belief system. While I may find it entertaining to watch Christians denominations and sects beat each other into oblivion over such life-changing discussions as hymns vs. songs, women in the diaconate, paedo-communion, etc., a respect for the early creeds prohibits me from including these issues in a test of orthodoxy. The historic catholic faith, and the brand of it I believe in (Protestant Christianity), do not allow for “other things” to become “the main thing”. Period. I am prohibited from branding someone as a heretic when they affirm the essential truths of the historic creeds. This is supposed to be accepted, common understanding.
One of the few benefits of the Auburn Avenue controversy a few years back (if it is still an ongoing controversy, please forgive me for referring to it in the past tense; I am out of the loop) was how it forced me to reconcile my belief in a “once for all creedal Christian religion” with a sort of dynamic, ongoing, rigorous confessional theology. I may have ended up after all was said and done not finding much in that discussion that “rocked my boat”, but the very idea of having my boat rocked caused me to contemplate all of this further. For the most part, I still view confessions as healthy in ordination vows, and creeds as an appropriate test of membership in the Christian church. I welcome the ongoing testing of our faith and its doctrinal formulations, and believe that it is perfectly valid to question where different contexts have caused various beliefs and doctrines to go. The justification wars are a classic example. Obviously, the discussion of justification does not appear in the ancient creeds of the church, but I basically hold to the Reformer’s view on this subject, and naturally was concerned at the idea that our articulation of the topic might need “modification”. But here is the thing, and I just don’t know how to say this any differently: If the 21st century understanding of justification has caused pastors who should know better to say things like, “we need to be almost preaching that sinners should almost keep sinning; that is how free and huge the justifying grace of God is”, then I am positive we have gone off track. It is not justification that is the problem, perhaps, but something or someone has left the reservation, and I do not see very many of the justification hawks very concerned about it. If Dietrich Bonhoeffers were running around every Sunday screaming against the perverse notion of “cheap grace”, I would feel better. But we are lying to ourselves if we think that is the present practice. I am not interested in defending every aspect of N.T. Wright’s notion of justification, though I surely know it is not damnable heresy. What I am interested in is this: Can the religious leaders of our day get off the internet long enough to sit down and evaluate how the confessional understanding of justification has evolved to the point that pastors are saying things in Christianity Today like “we need to teach people it is almost okay to sin”? Am I really being disrespectful to the confessions of the church to suggest that the fruit of this teaching is starting to smell bad a few hundred years later, and we need to fix it? I don’t think so. (And I should point out how incoherent that particular quote is; it is either okay to sin, or it is not; if it is okay to sin, do not stop at “almost”; and if it is not, please do not say it “almost” is. Ay yi yi).
The creeds are benchmarks for what we believe, and what the church of all ages has believed. A diligence like the Bereans had certainly allows for a testing of doctrinal evolutions, though. The Reformers themselves said so when they wrote the various confessions that are supposedly in such jeopardy today. If the worst thing that happens out of this justification war ends up being a few folks migrating over to Rome, yet even more folks putting an end to the gruesome practice of preaching rank antinomianism and easy-believism, then I believe church history will record this as a huge victory for the orthodox among us. May everyone put their bazookas down long enough for this process to take place. Pastors teaching cheap grace are damning people to hell whether they mean to or not. Sorry, but this is the plain teaching of Scripture. I will leave the topic alone and let the theologians out there resume the practice of cannibalization. For me and my house, we will reaffirm the essential doctrines of our faith, and remain very open to the work of the Spirit in what all this means to the present context in which we live. At the end of the day, I take great comfort in not being justified by my belief in justification. We all should.