Saturday, 4 October 2008


Yet again the argument circulates that The Episcopal Church (TEC) is heretical and does not believe in key doctrines. Some see this as the accusers deflecting from their own obsession with homosexuality, as if making homosexuality a first order biblical offence is not sufficient for them: that they then have to accuse leading TEC bishops and leaders as not orthodox on more fundamental reasons.

They keep saying that the so called orthodox are being removed because of their anti-inclusionist views, whereas no one has touched the likes of John Spong and his heresies. The answer is simple: John Spong did not propose or act towards taking his diocese out of TEC. He made an argument in a distinctly liberal direction, but worship carried on under that bishop that the non-liberals could continue to recognise as the same as before and that all the same doctrines were expressed.

James Packer was a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada who wanted to remove his church from the ACC, so he is gone too. He seems to blame Paul Tillich in particular for much of contemporary liberalism, and that Anglicanism was too receptive. He did this at the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) (a division of CANA) second annual Synod Council at the Church of the Epiphany in Herndon.

Because of liberalism, the sort of liberalism that came into the church from the end of the 19th century into the 20th century, it was never challenged and corrected. If there is a weakness in historic Anglicanism it is a willingness to tolerate the intolerable and that has betrayed us. Tillich's position affected all the seminaries of North America. This is where we are today in the West.

Packer later added to this in a question and answer session:

...what happened in the 19th century is that bishops and the archbishops of Canterbury began a pattern of tolerance with a standard of tolerance that became (over time) a virulent liberalism because of the teaching of (German-American) theologian Paul Tillich. Episcopal leadership has been ruined from that day to this.

Whilst this seems to attact some evangelicals, I find this bizarre, as someone who tried to use and rejected the views of Paul Tillich. Tillich was one of those who reacted against the nineteenth century liberals, beginning back with Friedrich Schleiermacher, continuing with Albert Ritschl and moving to Adolf von Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch. These synthesists came to study how the academic disciplines and particularly the methods of history in particular left a problem for the uniqueness of Christ, and in response Tillich produced a systematic theology in which existentialism provided the questions and for which Christianity through the language of existentialism provided the answers. Tillich like Barth and Bonhoeffer and even Bultmann jumped inside the hermeneutic circle that left a special space for Christology. Christ was the New Being, nothing less.

It seems that nothing now satisfies the evangelical wing than a recitation of doctrines by the one form of Greek based cultural language, containing as it does some Jewish cultural language. It struck me that Tillich never provided a way in for the agnostic regarding either God or the unique Jesus. Of course existential language gave space for Christians to communicate with others, but the systematic nature of Tillich's scheme meant it closed the circle and they communicated something into which you had to jump.

Later on in 1962 in Honest to God Bishop John Robinson of the Church of England used Tillich, in a creative mishmash with Bonhoeffer and Bultmann. Robinson always defended the christological centre against those, for example some authors in 1976 The Myth of God Incarnate, who took a more mythological line about the Incarnation. Robinson believed that such a Jesus Christ could be approached from the human side, but was unique.

One of John Robinson's best books is Truth is Two Eyed (1979) (all these published by SCM Press). Here the comparisons and contrasts between Christianity and Hinduism (as can be summarised) bring out in relief map the material world-affirming and redeeming characteristics of Christianity that Robinson affirms. Whilst Robinson was against the absolutism of a from-the-beginning exclusivity, he was also opposed to a "reductionist Christianity" (121) . At which point reductionism must be avoided is, however, never clear: Robinson had confidence that it just would be avoided so reliable was the Christological claim. Robinson regarded the either-or debate of exclusivism from the beginning or removing "anything unique or historically decisive" as sterile (122). For him, as here for J. A. G. van Leeuwen, uniqueness was "perceptible" in Jesus's humanity.

My own view is that John Robinson's position cannot hold. If Jesus is completely and fully human, and his uniqueness is to be found in that, and fully reached in that, then it is uniqueness by degree, and thus uniqueness by competition. It takes just one more person to be ethically - and however else - equivalent, known or unknown, for that uniqueness to be dissolved. In other words, divinity as unique must be doctrinal, revelatory and intended. It has to come from without.

Still, right or wrong, Robinson did assert a human based uniqueness that was continuous with an understanding of God-given divinity. It was his view. Tillich, I suggest, had a more robust view still, a sealed hermeneutic circle and more Kierkegaard than Hegel, as all the modernists were who had broken with the liberals.

There is a question still about Churches. Churches do change: the Philippine Independent Church started out as Unitarian and became trinitarian. All Anglo-American Unitarianism started out as Calvinist trinitarian, and the central European variety had a bishop who had changed his mind from both Lutheran and Calvinist positions, with Socinus producing a kind of Reformation Arianism - he tried to get Bishop Francis David to be less "Jewish" and more Christian regarding the divinity of Jesus (David gave it up).

There is no sign that The Episcopal Church has made any movement towards a Channing or Socinian related Unitarianism.

Here is an interesting thought: what if all of a congregation were clones of me? I have been to weekly services in my own church in which numbers had dropped temporarily and there was just a handful of people known for having various sceptical and broad views. So what did we get? We might have received an outrageous liberal sermon and no one would have batted an eyelid. We received then a reasoned exposition of an aspect of Christian tradition (take it or leave it) and the Eucharist service was exactly as would have been for anyone else.

I do personally take a stronger view of mythology (or is that a weaker view) in that I regard Christianity as a cultural construction including that of its key doctrines. I am closest to Ernst Troeltsch, and definitely not Paul Tillich. The historical decisiveness of Christianity is, like for Troeltsch, its impact on Europe as a religion, not because of its specific beliefs. I do not then jump into Radical Orthodoxy and its postmodern doctrinal bubble, and I don't have a whole narrative and its details as dramatic story as if I inhabit a play. I do some of these but I am a liberal, which means I have a critical view to details and its big issues.

My question is when does theology, and theology like that held by me and others not so far off, start to affect a Church and whether any such Church is ever going to change? Certainly it carries easily those who claim the Resurrection is objective but might not be bodily, and those who claim that the Incarnation is unique and given, but does not depend on the virgin birth. I regard all these doctrines as problematic, and say so. It has no effect on any church I attend in terms of its position, nor do I seek an effect. It is why when I introduce theological matters to a church group, I am not arguing that anyone should agree with me (far from it), but that they are to decide for themselves. Next Tuesday I shall introduce nineteenth century liberal theology, and show what issues it raised, and later I shall show how Paul Tillich was different, and come right up to contemporary times when some theology and Church actually started to separate. I hold no "teaching" role regarding the Church, and I have ended up somewhat frustrated that I don't, but I know the difference.

However, the likes of Packer and those around him, and the GAFCON crew, misrepresent theology and its boundaries, and would squeeze out those who could not take the absolutist view from the beginning. If they came into power and authority, I'd be long gone, and a great many more too would go who could be regarded as orthodox.

Now if we then set up a Church, well it might be different, though it depends which of us actually did.


Erika Baker said...

these people do not want to make real theological points, they're only out to sling mud. Most of those who listen to them wouldn't recognise theology if it bit them, orthodox or otherwise, and just use big clever sounding words to score points.

You're engaging at an intelligent but sadly pointless level.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I know: my life is even more pointless...