Thursday, October 28, 2010
Last night (Oct 27, 2010) I received an inquiry about a discussion that took place ages ago on the Old Gospel Advocate Message Board (in 2001!!). The Crux of the Matter (Childers, Foster & Reese) had recently been published and the Spiritual Sword had dedicated an issue to it. Several on the message board had been tagged to interact with various articles. As I recall Chuck Dorsey was the ramrod of the affair. I ended up interacting with articles by Alan Highers, William Woodson and Earl Edwards. I have not thought about that board in a LONG time. I had to go digging to find this stuff. I have posted this piece unaltered. If I had to do it over again I know I'd say some things very differently. But on the whole I still agree with me. LOL! So here you go ...
Review of Alan Highers, "The Real Crux of the Matter" Spiritual Sword 33 (October 2001),1-4
Since Chuck Dorsey has given me the responsibility of being the lead review of the October Spiritual Sword I will try especially hard to set a Christlike tone for the discussion. My task is to review the editorial by Brother Alan Highers entitled "The REAL Crux of the Matter."
I wish first, however, to call attention to that remarkable little booklet by Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (InterVarsity Press, 1970), that powerfully and convincingly calls for a unity of love between brothers and sisters in Christ. When brothers disagree, Schaeffer writes, it is even more important to demonstrate the love of Christ VISIBLY. Our disagreement should send us first to our knees in prayer and then to our knees before the Cross. We should, "spend time upon my knees asking the Holy Spirit, asking Christ, to do his work through me ... that I ... show love even in this larger difference." (Schaeffer, p.27). It is my prayer that these discussions do not descend into hotbeds of ugliness rather we all display the "mark of the Christian." That does not mean we cannot disagree just a call to season our speech with salt -- and prayer.
I. Are "We" Coextensive with the First Century Church?
Brother Highers begins his "review" by quoting from Wineskins purpose statement:
"Our background and commitment is to the Church of Christ that was born of the American Restoration Movement. Our goal is to move that group closer to the church of Christ revealed in Scripture." (Highers, p. 1).
It should be pointed out that the authors of CRUX also refer to this statement pointing out that it was controversial with some of our brethren. In citing William Woodson, the authors note,
"But for Woodson, the one essential error that permeated all the others is the change agents' agenda to define the 'church of Christ' as just another denomination among denominations. Referring to the purpose statement of Wineskins magazine, Woodson accuses change agents of redefining the church." (Crux, p. 142).
It should be pointed out that the authors of CRUX do not comment on Woodson's statement either pro or con. They simply acknowledge the criticism.
Returning to Higher's (and Woodson's) criticism one is forced to ask if Brother Higher's imagines that the Churches of Christ that exist in the USA are coextensive with the Church of God revealed in the NT? Is our brotherhood THE universal church? It would seem to me that is the only alternative to Higher's criticism. It seems to me that Brother Higher's does indeed think the Churches of Christ are the universal church. But I think it is classic equivocation to say that "we" are coextensive with the First Century Church.
It is obvious with a moments reflection, though, that "we" are NOT coextensive with
the Church of the NT. Just briefly here are a few items that distinguish "us" from ""them":
1) The Church of the NT was charismatic, Are "we"?
2) The Church of the NT was commanded not to forbid prophecy, Do "we"?
3) The Church of the NT enrolled' widows for care taking, Do "we"?
4) The Church of the NT widows washed the saints feet, Do "ours"?
5) The Church of the NT believed in the empowering Spirit within each Christian, Do
6) The Church of the NT proclaimed one is saved by faith in Christ apart from works, Do
7) The Church of the NT recognized the difference between Gospel and Doctrine, Do "we"?
8) The Church of the NT allowed solos, Do "we"?
9) The Church of the NT was commanded to be "eager" to prophecy, Are "we"?
10) The Church of the NT recognized that Christ himself was the pattern for divine life, Do "we"?
11) The Church of the NT ....
I could extend my list but I need not. The point is there are large discontinuities, parts of "NT Christianity" that "we" do not practice, and in fact do not WANT to. I recall reading from Everett Ferguson once that the best we can do is be SECOND Century Christians -- perhaps he was more correct than what we want or care to admit.
A second point that must be emphasized (at least in my mind) that the very claim by Highers that "we" are coextensive with the Church of God, that "we" and "we" alone are people of God is the height of sectarianism (in my opinion) and a complete denial of the Movement to pursue nondenominational Christianity.
There was in fact a historical Movement that is variously called the "American Restoration Movement," or the "Stone-Campbell Movement," that the Churches of Christ that dot the American landscape did come out of. This cannot be denied historically -- to do so is to be untrue and historically blind.
This group of folks, I do not deny but affirm, never intended to become a denomination, sect or anything else. They originally saw themselves as a movement WITHIN the Church of God, to reform her and restore two key biblical themes: Unity and Evangelistic Missions. That they denied being THE Church of God (much less being the ONLY Christians) is plainly evident to all who spend time with them. Thomas Campbell defined the church as,
"That the Church of Christ [intended here as the universal Church of God] upon earth is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one; consisting of ALL those in EVERY place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians" (Declaration and Address, p. 44).
There were those from time to time who sought to sectarianize the Plea but most of the representative men resisted such apostasy. This sad tendency was noted by an
anonymous writer in the Millennial Harbinger in 1864. This writer laments,
"But now -- we have become a `Religious Body.' We have our shibboleth, our fixed principles, and there is danger lest we, too, shall become infatuated with the Romish conceit of infallibility, against which we said so much in those early pioneer days, which the veterans among us have so much reason to remember." (Senex, "Free Discussion," MH, March, 1864, p. 170).
One can, as well as a people can, become what Barton Stone warned about "anti¬sectarian sectarians." This happens when we begin to think of ourselves as the only honest people reading Scripture, or the only ones without our shared fallenness, or that our interpretations are beyond question -- or that we are the only ones who are in fact Christians. Stone's warning is worth repeating in full,
"The scriptures will never keep together in union, and fellowship members not in the spirit of the scriptures, which spirit is love, peace, unity, forbearance, and cheerful obedience. This is the spirit of the great Head of the body. I blush for my fellows, who hold up the Bible as the bond of union yet make their opinions of it tests of fellowship; who plead for union of all Christians; yet refuse fellowship with such as dissent from their notions. Vain men! Their zeal is not according to knowledge, nor is their spirit that of Christ. Their is a day not far ahead which will declare it. Such anti-sectarian sectarians are doing more mischief to the cause, and advancement of truth, the unity of Christians, and the salvation of the world, than all the skeptics in the world. In fact, they make skeptics." (Stone, "Remarks," Christian Messenger, August 1835, p. 180).
One last quote about whether "we" constitute all the people of God. F. D. Srygley wrote a wonderful book on The New Testament Church. He responded to the sectarian mind set that was developing on the Texas frontier in the Firm Foundation. The FF had taken exception to Srygley's denial that "we-as-a-people" ARE the people of God. He concluded with this "I am beginning to think "we-as-a-people" are very much like other folks, as a people, anyhow. I know a man who has a way of saying some people have as much human nature in them as anybody, and I halfway believe it." (NT, Church, p. 86).
I like the grasp Campbell had of the nondenominational concept as is plainly evident in his "Letter to an Independent Baptist," and it speaks directly to our situation,
"Dear sir, this plan of our own nest, and fluttering over our own brood; of building our own tent, and of confining all goodness and grace to our noble selves and the "elect few' who are like us, is the quintessence of sublimated pharisaism. The old Pharisees were but babes in comparison to the modern; and the longer I live, and the more I reflect upon God and man -- heaven and earth -- the Bible and the world -- the Redeemer and his Church -- the more I am assured that all sectarianism is the offspring of hell ... To lock ourselves up in the bandbox of our own little circle; to associate with a few units, tens or hundreds, as the pure church, as the elect, is real Protestant monkery, it is evangelical pharisaism." (Christian Baptist, "Letter to an Independent Baptist, p. 238)
One does not have embrace "denominationalism" or "sectarianism," to become either one.
II. Is there "Salvation" Outside the Church?
What has just been said leads me to examine Highers charge that the Authors of CRUX claim "Over and over, . . . there is salvation outside the church." (p.3). Again this goes back to what was said above and again, I believe, Highers equivocates. The writers never once suggest that there is salvation outside the Church of God one reads about in the NT. Once again Highers can only maintain his criticism if he believes the Churches of Christ constitute the universal church of God. But the writers deny that the Restoration Movement IS the Church of God in its totality -- I agree with them. The writers maintain (just as Campbell, Stone, Scott, Lipscomb, Kurfees, Srygley, Larimore, Moser, etc, etc.) that we are Christians only not the only Christians. I do not think that Highers could prove in any court of law (since he is a lawyer) that his charge is a true one. The authors advocate for a firm and gracious attempt to place the doctrine of baptism before our religious friends. We do not need to paganize them before we can communicate our understanding of baptism to them. The authors state,
"We are convinced that we must not dilute our insistence on New Testament baptism. But we are also convinced that we cannot allow our resolute stance on this issue to keep us isolated from the kinds of godly people Campbell described in his articles on baptism" (Crux, p.124).
"Regardless of what some have accused us of in the past, Churches of Christ need to emphasize, explore, and teach more about baptism, not less. But we cannot do it in an isolated, abrasive, and sectarian manner as we sometimes have." (Crux p.125).
From my perspective it is hard to deny that we have been, at times, abrasive and sectarian about baptism. I believe a fine example of the kind of irenic placement of our perspective in the world of ideas is Everett Ferguson's The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Eerdmans, 1996). Ferguson has been well reviewed and received by denominational scholars across the board -- INCLUDING THE BAPTISTS, (with a W.R. Estep, a Baptist prof at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, even promoting the book!!). One will not find the same reception for any of our other authors. Further I think that what the authors recognize, but Highers denies, is there are in fact levels of fellowship (I guess LaGard Smith and his Five-Fold level is a good example of what is being discussed. Foster gave LaGard's book a positive review in Christian Chronicle).
III. The Issue of the CORE Gospel?
Highers believes that because the authors believe in a Core Gospel or Core Hermeneutic. He cites pp. 169-170 and I will also quote it,
"Interpretations connected to the core Gospel that heal relationships and enable the church to work, and worship well will be confirmed. Those that damage the core, blocking the church's mission or disrupting its priorities, must be considered flawed, no matter what method produced them or how logical they seem."
Highers is very critical of this statement, somehow this statement "perverts the gospel
and makes it of no effect" (Highers, p. 2). I personally am not clear as to why that is so. Then Brother Highers maintains that Childers, Foster and Reese do not explain "who" is to determine and "how" such determinations are to be made. He says "it is apparent that the process is a subjective one -- not an objective one based upon scriptural exegesis and `logical' deduction!"
I do not see that. Again maybe I am too blind myself but I do not see anything wrong with the statement made in CRUX. Nor do I agree with Highers that it is a "subjective" move. The statement should not be isolated from the rest of the chapter entitled "Open Bibles and Open Hearts." Here are a few more statements made about interpretation. The authors first develop some ATTITUDES that should be characteristic of students approaching the word, then they give some specific guidelines on reading from the Core (contra Highers charge).
1) Interpretation is inevitable (p. 155). I do not see how this could be denied. The authors affirm the prior authority of the Bible over our interpretations and traditions however.
"We strongly believe that God speaks to us in a special way in the written word." (p.156). "We uphold . . . that the Bible is a divine witness, the revelation of God, inspired by the Father through the Son by the means of the Spirit ... It has unique status and authority, to challenge, question, and correct any authority brought to the table." (Ibid).
Sounds Orthodox to me.
2) They believe we should approach Scripture humbly and confessionally (p. 163). Scripture needs to be "freed" to challenge us and confront us. Even our "traditions" should be challenged and corrected in the light of Scripture (I point this out because some are claiming the authors give a "normative" status to tradition which is untrue). "We must resist letting our traditional interpretations become the authority so that we elevate them as idols... "(p. 163).
We must be humble enough to admit we are mere humans and we are not the only one to have escaped the Fall.
3) "Bible reading should reflect awareness that God is a WHO rather than a WHAT" (p. 164). "Reading the Bible should lead us to tremble and wonder not set our jaws with audacious certainty."
4) Proper Bible interpretation has more to do with character and attitude than it does with intellectual training and a scientific method. Perquisites for authentic Bible study and formation of sound doctrine are piety and holiness (p. 167). I can only say amen!
5) We should read from the Core. "The core is our starting point and controls our Bible reading. " (p. 170). Reading this way "allows us to connect the pieces together and align them on the center of gravity -- NEGLECTING NOTHING, but allowing each piece to find its proper place" (p.170-171, my emphasis).
Basic Questions will lead us to the core -- every time:
A. "What things are mentioned most in Scripture?"
B. "What is specifically highlighted as most important?"
C. "What things keep showing up at the center of the writer's message?" (p. 172).
Though the writers explicitly say they are not writing so much about the nuts and bolts about interpretation rather about attitudes they do provide some fundamental questions that are anything but "subjective." Each of the questions above can be given an empirical answer.
Further I would like to say that pure logic is not the litmus test for any biblical teaching. It is hard to use Aristotelian logic to explain the atonement or the Trinity or the Incarnation. The Pharisees had their own logic and Jesus told them.
"But go learn what this means: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come not to call the righteous but sinners." (Matthew 9.13, cf. 12.7).
Mercy is not logic. The cross is not worldly logic or wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 1. 20ff}. That does not make me "anti" logic or anti rational. It simply shows me that logic has limits.
The call to read from the "core" though is hardly a new thing with our CRUX authors. Alexander Campbell firmly believed one of the fundamental contributions of his Reformation was the distinction between "Gospel" and "Doctrine."
"The difference between PREACHING and TEACHING Christ, so palpable in the apostolic age, though now confounded in the theoretic theologies of Denominational Christianities [sic], must be well defined and clearly distinguished in the mind, in the style; and utterances of the evangelist" (Alexander Campbell, MH, "Address Delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Christian Missionary Society," 1857, p. 60b).
This was no "speculative distinction" according to Campbell. "It was," he said, "appreciated fully understood and acted upon -- or carried out, in the apostolic ministry. Hence we read in Acts v.42, that after thousands of Jews had been converted to Christ the apostles "daily in the temple and from house to house, ceased not to teach and to preach (or announce the glad tidings) that Jesus was the Christ." (p. 607).
I find it interesting that according to Campbell it was a mark of convoluted denominationalism to miss the distinction between "gospel" and "doctrine." Now lest I be accused of following Campbell and not Scripture I maintain that this is in fact a BIBLICAL distinction. There is "kerygma" and there is "Didache." In the scholarly world this was pretty much settled through the work of C. H. Dodd's The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments.
Even Everett Ferguson recommends we read out of the core. He recommends the same basic procedure as our CRUX authors,
"Sometimes people, finding the heart of the gospel, want to treat the rest of biblical teaching as irrelevant. It may be secondary, but it is not irrelevant. The PROPER PROCEDURE IS TO WORK OUT FROM THE CENTER OF THE GOSPEL TO OTHER THINGS and apply the gospel to other aspects of doctrine." (The Church of Christ, p. xx, my emphasis).
Now I wish for Highers or Tidwell to tell me a substantive difference between what Ferguson just wrote and what the authors of Crux did quoted at the beginning of this section. I agree with every iota of -- including that other material is not irrelevant. It is just not the core.
The fact of the matter is, as painful as it is to admit (and it is painful), that "we" as a people have redefined the gospel of Christ to be much broader than it is in Scripture. I will highlight R. L. Whiteside simply because I know more about him than anyone else. Whiteside was a great servant of God, powerful writer, loved the Lord and endured hardship. He, however, redefined the Gospel to be to be the NT and anything contained within it. (see Robert P. Valentine, Robertson Lafayette Whiteside: Systematic Theologian for the Churches of Christ, Thesis at Harding Graduate School, Spring 2001, pp. 70-102).
IV. Finally "Shades of Pentecostalism."
Because the authors of CRUX believe that God is alive and well, that they believe that God is "moving among us now to reform and perfect us" he charges them with "Shades of Pentecostalism!" (p. 3). Thankfully Highers views on the Holy Spirit are not the majority view in Churches of Christ anymore. The Church of the NT certainly believed that God was active among them. It is a false conclusion to assume, as Highers does, that because one believes that the Spirit leads us today that we are "infallible."
Even in the Church of the NT in which many exercised "miraculous" gifts (including prophecy) this did not mean they were speaking ex cathedra! They still had to "test the spirits." They still received apostolic instruction. That the Holy Spirit leads Christians is to me a very "logical" conclusion from the text of scripture itself.
As is clear I disagree with Highers perspective on numerous issues. I do regard him as a fine brother in Christ who is dedicated to the Lord. I feel that much of his criticism is unjustified and results from a misunderstanding of the authors or even perhaps a failure to grasp certain teaching of Scripture on some points (as I see it but I am most certain he would feel the same about me).
I have not referred to any former leader because they are inspired but simply because they have something worth hearing. The same charge that William Woodson (and others) lay at the feet of the authors of Crux could also be returned to them. Woodson says the change agents think they are wiser and have discovered things missed by everyone else. Rather it is Woodson and company who think they are wiser than all our Forefathers in the faith. I have not discovered anything "new." No I have discovered something "old" that my grandfathers in the faith knew and understood but was forgotten along the way. I rediscovered the beauty of Christ-centered undenominational Christianity. And I think CRUX can help us along the way . . . if we are humble and open to dialogue.