June 20, 2015

Yes, Virginia, There is Such a Thing as Fundamentalism or The Subject Matter of Christianity is the Subject Matter of Christianity

Filed under: Anglicanism,Ecumenism,Theology — William Witt @ 5:00 am

Melancholy Much of what I have written on my blog has been addressed against what is called either (depending on which side of the Reformation one hangs one’s hat) Liberal Protestantism or Catholic Modernism. (One of the advantages of being Anglican is that one can embrace either heresy. When Anglican Evangelicals go bad they become liberal Protestants. When Anglo-Catholics go bad, they become Modernists.) Within the parameters of the church, I consider liberalism to be the greatest heresy today because it denies the central subject matter of the Christian faith as taught in the Scriptures, and summarized in the ecumenical creeds: the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation of God in Christ, the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Numerous essays on my blog address this heresy in one way or another. Even the issue of same -sex sexual unions, which is the key issue of controversy dividing the Western churches these days, I regard as church dividing precisely because I see an inherent connection between affirming same-sex activity and denying key doctrines of Christian faith. It is not a coincidence that the leading advocates of SSUs have also been functional unitarians and/or panentheists. (I think of people like retired Bishop John Spong, the late Marcus Borg, and Sallie McFague. Despite a caginess that makes her hard to pin down, I think it clear that Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori is solidly in this camp.) There are, of course, exceptions, including some theologians whom I have admired and who have influenced me: Stanley Hauerwas and George Hunsinger, in particular. However, they really are exceptions. Precisely because Scripture is so clear on this issue and it is tied so closely to the doctrine of creation (and, I would add, even the doctrines of the Trinity and ecclesiology), where one stands on SSU’s predictably indicates where one stands on creedal issues.

Advocates of theological liberalism/modernism in the church regularly refer to those who disagree with them as “fundamentalists,” and I have been the recipient of this accusation myself. John Spong’s book Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism is a typical example. The joke is, that for theological progressives, a “fundamentalist” is anyone who believes more of the Christian faith than the one using the epithet. For Spong, Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham were “fundamentalists,” but so was Karl Barth, and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. If a fundamentalist is anyone who believes more than Bishop Spong, then the term is vacuous. To refer to N.T. Wright as a fundamentalist is just another way of saying that one disagrees with him, and, because he does not affirm one’s views, he must be either evil or foolish or both. The fundamentalist accusation saves the time of actually having to address the arguments of someone like Wright. (I have used Wright as an example precisely because his position is ambiguous. Wright’s “New Perspective” work on the apostle Paul has led him to be labeled a dangerous “liberal” by some advocates of a traditional Reformation reading of Paul.)

That a term can be misused does not mean that it cannot be used meaningfully at all. That Karl Barth and N.T. Wright are not fundamentalists does not mean that there are no such people. What is a fundamentalist? Historically, the term originated early in the twentieth century with the publications of a series of books entitled The Fundamentals, written by a number of conservative Protestant theologians in response to the rise of liberal Protestantism. With the separation of J. Gresham Machen from Princeton Seminary, the founding of Westminster Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, fundamentalism became associated with conservative separatist Protestantism. In the mid-twentieth century, the rising movement then known as Neo-Evangelicalism (associated with Billy Graham and institutions such as Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today magazine) distanced itself from fundamentalism as a conservative Protestant movement that was more academic, more ecumenical, and open to aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. With the rise of the (political) religious right in the early 1980’s and the social and political division of the culture wars of the late twentieth century that divided not only political parties but also religious denominations, internal divisions over issues such as the inerrancy of scripture and women’s ordination, clear-cut divisions between what were now called conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists once again tended to blur.

To describe fundamentalism by its history in this way could lead to the impression that fundamentalism is restricted to a particular historical phenomenon within a specific religious tradition – that of conservative Protestantism. To do so would be to fail to locate the theological nature of fundamentalism, and would view it as an isolated phenomenon – which would be a mistake. Fundamentalism is not so much a particular movement within the specific religious tradition of Protestantism as a type that has appeared not only within Protestantism, but in other Christian traditions as well.

Fundamentalism has at least two characteristics: first, it is a distinctly modern phenomenon. It appeared at a time when Christian identity was threatened by the rise of modern secularism that has its origins in the Enlightenment, and when secularism was perceived to have infiltrated even the Christian churches. And, second, fundamentalism is reactionary. Fundamentalism identifies itself in terms of that which it rejects as much as or more so than what actually defines it. Once one recognizes that fundamentalism is both modern in origin and reactionary, it becomes evident that fundamentalism is not simply identifical with conservative or orthodox Christianity; one can also speak of fundamentalism outside of the narrow historical parameters of twentieth and twenty-first century American Protestantism.

How to identify fundamentalism? I have found the following three descriptions to be at least helpful. (more…)

October 27, 2013

The Trinitarian Unity of the Church: A Sermon on Ecumenism

Filed under: Ecumenism,Sermons — William Witt @ 6:31 pm

Ephesians 4:1-16
John 17:11-26

TrinityThe epistle reading from Ephesians and the reading from John’s gospel are perhaps the two single most frequently cited biblical passages about the unity of the church. Certainly unity is a central theme in both passages: Ephesians 4 rings the changes one the word “one”: There is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:4-6). John has what is sometimes called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, where he prays that his followers will be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:11,22). And, of course, unity is one of the four classic marks of the church: The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

What is the nature of the church’s unity that is such a major theme in these passages? There have been numerous answers to this question given in the history of theology. The 39 Articles and the Lutheran confessions speak of that unity in terms of activities that the church performs: The church is where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The Roman Catholic Church has historically placed that unity institutionally: The church consists of all those who are in communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome. Anglo-Catholics have focused on historical continuity. The church is rightly found in those churches who can trace their succession through a series of bishops to the apostles. In the last century or so, many of the Orthodox have focused on Sobornost, a notion of the church as a community or fellowship based in freedom and love. In the last several decades, Christian ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have focused on the understanding of the church as a community of character, of Christian discipleship as a path of virtue whose primary focus is following the way of Jesus in the non-violent way of the cross.

What all of these descriptions have in common is that they are descriptions of the church from our point of view, from the ground up, as it were. Sometimes it helps to look at things from a different point of view. What is different about the way in which Ephesians and the Gospel of John look at the unity of the church is that they look at things from the opposite point of view, not from the ground up, but from the top down, from a God’s-eye point of view, as it were.

Both Ephesians and the Gospel of John point to the unity of the church first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. The church is one because God is one. But God is not simply one as a monad. God is a unity of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians, Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). John records Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us . . .” (John 17:21). We might read John’s approach as binitarian rather than trinitarian, except that in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in John, he had already talked at great length about the Comforter, the paraklete, whom Jesus says, he will “send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.” (John 15:26). So the church’s unity originates first in the unity of the Trinitarian persons. Again, the church is one because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. (more…)

December 5, 2011

New Article on Justification by Faith

Filed under: Announcements,Ecumenism,Sacraments,Theology — William Witt @ 7:27 am

Lamb of GodI regularly teach a course entitled The Anglican Way of Theology at an “Evangelical seminary in the Anglican tradition.” We begin the course with the English Reformation, and I am repeatedly surprised when I discover every year as I grade student papers that the Reformation doctrine of “justification by grace alone through faith alone” is frequently misunderstood and causes no end of trouble for my students to get their heads around. There seems to be a lot of confusion about just what the doctrine is, and I find that, in their papers, students either regularly defend, or criticize as troublesome or incoherent, something that they call “justification by faith alone” which is not the Reformation doctrine.

The above is the beginning of a rather lengthy article I have just written about the doctrine of “justification by faith.” The rest of the article can be found in my Pages Section to the left and is entitled “Anglican Reflections on Justification by Faith”.

January 31, 2011

Evangelical or Catholic? A Bibliography

Filed under: Anglicanism,Ecumenism — William Witt @ 6:49 am

I want to thank all those who read my post on “Evangelical or Catholic?” In a month, this has received over 1,100 hits, more than any single blog post I have written. I am usually happy if what I write gets 100 reads. Clearly there is sympathy (or at least interest) in getting beyond the old polemics between Evangelicals and Catholics. At the same time, many of the public comments I have received have been negative, both from Protestants and from Catholics (and some Orthodox), who seem quite happy to keep the old polemics alive. Oh, well. This is discouraging, but I am more heartened by the numbers than discouraged by the occasional sniping.

Anyway, I promised at the end of that post to include a bibliography and here it is. These are books that I have found helpful. Some of them are old, and they influenced me in my own path from free church Evangelical to Anglican.  Some are quite new. All are good.

Readers will notice that the ecclesial identities of the authors cover a lot of ground, including not only Anglicans, but also Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and even the odd Baptist. That is as it should be. Denominational loyalty has never been the primary concern in my own theological studies. Nor should it be, if the choice between Evangelical and Catholic is a false one.

Abraham William, et al. Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

William Abraham is a Methodist theologian whose “canonical theism” project is about moving away from the modern focus on epistemological criteria to a focus on the primacy of ontology, and particularly on the historic doctrines and practices of the undivided church, which he and his group refer to as canons: not only Scripture, but also creeds, doctrine, episcopacy, saints, councils, icons. Canonical theism is thus about embracing this “canonical heritage” of the church. (more…)

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