Posts Tagged Ecumenism

In-Credible Christianity

Although I’ve been clearly critical of the Manhattan Declaration (MD), I am thankful to God that it has generated a very important and valuable discussion about the boundaries of legitimate cooperation and, using the buzzword of our day, co-belligerence. I am particularly thankful for the many solid expressions of concern and opposition to the kind of co-belligerence that the MD represents. I’ve highlighted a number of these earlier, but I’d like to encourage you to also read this post by Nicholas Batzig.

For more confirmation, in my mind, of what the MD represents, consider what James Kushiner writes at Mere Comments,  “As a statement made by Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians (of many varieties) it does represent the strongest expression of what the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus called the New Ecumenism, which is, to use the words of J. I. Packer, who also signed the Declaration, ‘those who confess the Creed and mean it.’” In other words, the New Ecumenism acts as if the Reformation didn’t happen and it studiously avoids the issue of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.

Assuming that the Creed mentioned is the Apostles Creed, we’re being asked to form union with others on the basis of belief in the forgiveness of sins without agreement about how that is accomplished. Basically, the Reformed Anglican Professor and the Roman Catholic Bishop decide that their agreement about the outcome (forgiveness of sins) can cover over their disagreement about how that happens (justification by faith alone). As is often the case, what they disagree about is what really matters here—there is no forgiveness of sins apart from the good news that God saves sinners on the basis of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

It seems that the almost immediate and constant accusation thrown at those who object to something like the MD is that we are saying that no Catholic or Eastern Orthodox people are genuinely Christian. This, in my mind, is a bogus objection to our, or at least my, view. I’ll not speak for others, but my view on this matter is fully informed by the fact that I cannot see inside anybody else’s soul. I have no regeneration-o-meter that I can wave across someone to tell if he has been born again.

All I can do, and, I believe, all the professing church can do is examine the credibility of a person’s profession of faith. Is the claim to be a Christian credibly made? That means I have to have some biblical basis for evaluating its credibility. Thankfully, God has given us plenty of instruction about this matter, both positive and negative. John’s first epistle alone provides us with incredible pastoral insight about the difference between true and false claims. The evidence of genuine spiritual life (or lack thereof) includes matters of creed and conduct.

Clear biblical texts lay the responsibility on the church to not allow into or keep within it those who reject apostolic doctrine (cf. Rom 16:17-18) and/or live contrary to their profession of faith (cf. 1 Cor 5:10-13). In other words, the church cannot accept the credibility of their claim to be a Christian and part of the true church. We are not capable of making a final determination on whether they really are or not, but we obligated to deal with what we can judge, namely, that their doctrinal denial or unrepentant disobedience make their claim to be a Christian not credible.

So, applying this to the case at hand, I believe a text like Galatians 1:6-9 makes it very clear that if anybody proclaims a gospel which is contrary to the one Paul preached then that person’s claim to be a Christian is not credible. What else could Paul mean by saying “he is to be accursed” (Gal 1:8b, 9b)? Are we to think that Paul would use that language then throw his arm around those who teach such things? No, Paul would want that leaven removed, not embraced (cf. Gal 5:7-12). The church cannot extend fellowship to those who, by faith or practice, deny the gospel without destroying its own credibility.

Is it possible, to borrow a cliché, that the heart might believe better than the head? Even if I grant that, it doesn’t contradict my point—in fact, it proves it. The very fact that we have to create caveats like that shows that we are not sure if that person is saved or not. There is a serious credibility issue. Although not popular to say, I contend that it is wrong, even sinful, to accept as valid anybody’s profession of faith who intelligently and openly embraces a system that teaches baptismal regeneration and denies Sola Fide. To do so sins against both God and man.

The real question isn’t, are there Christians in the Catholic church? It is, is the Catholic church genuinely Christian? Or, to use more biblical terms, is it preaching the gospel that Paul preached or is it under the curse that Paul declared on those who preach another gospel? And, the question that follows from that is, can I accept as credible the profession of Christian faith made by someone who embracing that false system?

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Talk isn’t enough

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the conflict between J. I. Packer and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones over Packer’s co-authorship of a work entitled Growing into Union. That work had four authors, all Anglican, but two of which represented the Anglo-Catholic perspective. Though the four men disagreed on some significant issues, they were agreed about their opposition to a proposed arrangement between the Anglican and Methodist churches. It was an early example of Packer’s openness to ecumenical co-belligerence. The fact that this effort happened in the late 60s and was published in 1970 is proof, according to Alister McGrath, that more recent efforts like Evangelicals and Catholics Together reflect Packer’s settled convictions on the matter. So we’re clear, McGrath agrees with Packer and cites this as a positive proof of his convictions and character, not as evidence of a deep and persistent failing. That’s my view, not McGrath’s.

Because I raised the subject, I thought it might be interesting and illuminating to see how Dr. Lloyd-Jones handled the matter. Iain Murray includes a letter from Lloyd-Jones to Packer in his recent shorter work on the Doctor (Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace). The context of the letter relates to the Puritan Conference, actually started by Packer, but at this point men like John Caiger, David Fountain, and Lloyd-Jones were also involved in leading it. Apparently the latter three men had a meeting to discuss the problem posed by Packer’s involvement with the Anglo-Catholic men. Here are two quotes from the letter explaining their decision to pull out of the conference:

In the Fellowship we spent morning and afternoon discussing Growing into Union. The general opinion there, without a single voice to the contrary, was that the doctrinal position outlined in that book cannot be regarded as being evangelical, still less puritan. The three of us therefore feel, most reluctantly, that we cannot continue to co-operate with you in the Puritan Conference. To do so would be at the least to cause great confusion in the minds of all Free Church evangelical people and indeed also a number of Anglican people.

This I feel sure will not come as a surprise to you as you must have known that the views expounded in the book concerning Tradition, Baptism, the Eucharist and Bishops, not to mention the lack of clarity concerning justification by faith only, could not possibly be acceptable to the vast majority of people attending the Puritan Conference.

I don’t want to make too much of what Lloyd-Jones says here, but I think we see here some of the practical realities of ecumenical compromise and the need to separate from it. On Packer’s side of the compromise is the damage done to his own views by their being partnered with the false views of his associates. Ecumenical efforts always look for common ground, which means they tend toward synthesis rather than antithesis. From Lloyd-Jones’ perspective, maintaining continued cooperation would send mixed messages about his own views on these important matters. His sense of obligation to biblical truth left him without a pleasant option. He did not want to break from Packer, but he also could not compromise his convictions.

Obviously, how Lloyd-Jones responded is not normative; only Scripture is. But it is informative, and I believe history has vindicated the wisdom of his stand. What Lloyd-Jones saw coming has indeed come. Taking this stand, like Spurgeon in the century before, made him the object of much ridicule, but he was right. He spoke up, and then backed up his words with consistent actions.

There is a lesson here for those concerned about gospel purity. Half measures don’t work. It’s time for evangelicals to stop trimming the weeds and pull them out by the root. The root is extending Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrinal truths. You know, like writing a document that says “We are Christians who have joined together…” in spite of the fact that some who sign it actually promote a gospel other than the one that Paul preached (cf. Gal 1:6-9).

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Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge

Shortly before the Manhattan Declaration came out I was very disappointed by a discovery I made at the back end of the second edition of J. I. Packer’s Rediscovering Holiness. This new edition contains an afterword entitled “Holiness in the Dark: The Case of Mother Teresa.” I scanned it quickly then, but did not make time to give it a thorough reading until this morning. Very disappointed is an understatement.

To cut to the chase, Packer wants to address the “problem of felt abandonment by God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, within the frame of full commitment to God: in other words, the desolation and seeming desertion of the deeply devoted” (italics original, p. 249), and he believes that Teresa’s struggles can be helpful for all of us—even to the point of thanking God “for Mother Teresa’s example, which points the way ahead for us all” (p. 263). In case you are unaware of her stuggles, Packer informs us that “after two decades of constant joyful intimacy with Christ, from 1948 on—that is, for 49 years, during the whole time of her leadership of the Missionaries of Charity—felt abandonment was the essence of her experience. Behind all the cheerful, upbeat, encouraging, Christ-honoring utterances that flowed from her during these years in a steady stream lay the permanently painful sense that, quite simply, God had gone, leaving her in aching loneliness, apparently for all eternity” (p. 250).

Packer bases the entire afterword on the premise that Teresa is a genuine believer, in spite of her devotion to Roman Catholic teachings. Packer tries to explain how she could experience such darkness and begins by explaining away several options:

  • “This was not an experience of doubt …. She was always sure of the historic Christian faith and of the grace that flows from Jesus, particularly as she believed through the Mass; she had no doubt about the administrative procedures of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church; she had absolute confidence in the love of the Lord Jesus for herself and for everyone else, including the poorest of the Indian poor, whom Hindu society wrote off as valueless; she was totally convinced that she was called to take the love of Christ to them; and she was ever a human dynamo in furthering this project” (p. 261).
  • It was not “passing through the dark night of the soul as Catholic tradition conceives it; for that darkness, however similar while it lasts to Teresa’s, is temporary, leading on to experiential union with God, whereas Teresa by her own testimony had known experiential union with Christ in particular for 20 years before the pain of inner darkness became her permanent condition” (p. 261).
  • “Nor, again, was she undergoing an experience of detection, God sending her pain to alert her to issues of repentance and obedience that she had evaded. Quite apart from the fact that the inner darkness spanned her whole half-century of leadership, it is safe to say that there were no problems of that kind in Teresa’s life” (p. 261).

This is so mind-boggling that I am not sure where to start. How Packer can conclude any of this is beyond my ability to understand—he is prepared to look into her soul and assure us that she had no doubt, that she truly experienced union with God, and that she had no problems with repentance or obedience? I know Packer is much more intelligent than I am, but I don’t think even he can see inside a soul with such clarity.

And his conclusions fly in face of sound theology. How can she not have doubt when her salvation is based on the administration of the Mass rather than the finished work of Christ? I’ve seen no evidence that Teresa believed the gospel of grace and significant evidence from her own words that would suggest that she didn’t. Packer seems to ignore the possibility that her devotion to Jesus was not gospel-based, or that it might not have even been the Jesus of whom Paul preached (cf. 2 Cor 11:4).

Some wonder why many of us are making such a big fuss about the Manhattan Declaration, and I’d submit that it is because some of us see a dangerous drift happening. Packer, who signed the MD and also the original ECT document, is representative of this drift. It seems, and this deserves further exploration, that Packer’s initial steps in this direction started in the mid-1960s, then bloomed more fully in the decade following. Packer’s biographer, Alister McGrath, acknowledges that Packer’s support of ECT “can be seen to rest on precisely the theological foundations developed by Packer in England during the 1970s” (J. I. Packer, p. 160). Specifically, Packer took the side of evangelical ecumenism in opposition to Lloyd-Jones in 1966, then co-authored a work with two Anglo-Catholics in 1970 (Growing into Union) that many evangelicals felt conceded too much biblical ground on critical doctrinal issues. The publication of that work led to the formal break between Lloyd-Jones and Packer, bringing an end to the Puritan Conferences.

I think this backdrop is important so that we see this issue in relation to the larger issues. Too many defenses of the signers of the MD err precisely by seeing only this document, not the larger questions on the table and trends at work. Once ecumenism has been embraced, common ground becomes the goal. That almost without fail means that differences are minimized or dismissed altogether. Perceived piety or devotion to good works gradually trump soundness on the gospel as the evidence of genuine Christianity. That seems like the only way to explain how Packer can claim that Teresa is a model Christian because “what one does for others is the real test of the genuineness and depth of one’s love to God, and specifically to Jesus Christ the Lord” (p. 262).

As I said earlier on this subject, the Manhattan Declaration represents another step toward accepting the false notion that being a Christian is demonstrated by doing something about social issues. It seems clear to me that J. I. Packer has taken that step.

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The Manhattan Melting Pot

One the chief architects of the Manhattan Declaration is Charles Colson, of Prison Fellowship. For many of us, that Timothy George and Chuck Colson were two of three drafters of this document was the first sign of trouble. These two have been central players in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together efforts. Even Alistair Begg noted this connection and clearly stated his concern on this point, and he wisely argued that the bounds of co-belligerence must be limited by the gospel.

I’ve already shown the ecumenical mindset that Timothy George has about this declaration, but Chuck Colson, not surprisingly, has been even clearer regarding his view of things. On his November 25th Breakpoint Colson referred to the release of the Manhattan Declaration as “one of the most remarkable and memorable moments of my life.” Why?

There, in front of all those cameras and lights, Christian leaders lovingly, winsomely, and firmly took a stand. I will never forget the picture.  I stood between Archbishop Wuerl of Washington and Cardinal Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia. I looked over at Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, and Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action.

To my left was the brilliant Bishop Harry Jackson, a man who has mobilized African American churches in the District to oppose gay “marriage.” And there was Fr. Chad Hatfield, chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. I was missing only one man, my dear friend, the late Richard Neuhaus.

It was a foretaste of what we’re all going to see in heaven, when those of us who can truly trust the Bible, who love Christ with all our hearts, minds, and souls, are re-united in the presence of our gracious and loving God.

Can there any doubt, based on his own words, that one of the primary architects of this document believes it is aimed at expressing genuine Christian unity? It would be wrong to conclude that what Colson believes about this can be attributed to everybody who signed it, or even that signing necessarily commits one to Colson’s pursuit of ecumenicism. But the clarity with which its chief architects express their ecumenical ambitions can’t be ignored and should have been a major cause for concern about this project. Frankly, I don’t see how anybody who signed it could really be surprised about negative reactions given the history of George and Colson with regard to ecumenical efforts. How could the Manhattan Declaration not be viewed as part of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together package?

Another quote from Colson to illustrate a major concern that I have about a theological shift that is underway:

Just imagine what could happen if we could say to the world that a million Christians have made this pledge—that we will not compromise the faith, no matter what.  I think that would have an extraordinary impact on American culture.

Note especially these words, “a million Christians made this pledge—that we will not compromise the faith, no matter what.” In one fell swoop, Colson designates all who sign as Christians and turns a pledge to stand up on social issues into a defense of the faith. What will the world think? That being a Christian is a religious designation rather than the name for those who have been born by God’s grace through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone. They will think that being Christian is about doing something about social issues. In short, the world will be confused by the message sent via this declaration.

I don’t know if the Manhattan Declaration will actually do anything to stop abortion or prevent the destruction of marriage. Even if it does, though, the price for doing so is too high—fidelity to the gospel. This declaration does, however, provide an excellent opportunity for conservative evangelicals to fully and forcefully reject ecumenical evangelicalism. And I mean reject it completely, not merely say you oppose it while you actually engage in it.

HT: WWC

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All Over Manhattan

I mentioned that I would return to the subject of how support for and response to the Manhattan Declaration provides a look at the contemporary fundamentalist-evangelical spectrum. Let’s juxtapose some quotes to see if I can illustrate part of my point:

Timothy George (author and signer)

We ourselves set forth this appeal as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We hold differing political views and follow no partisan agendas. We believe it is time for Christian believers to speak together clearly and boldly on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Al Mohler (signer)

I signed The Manhattan Declaration because it is a limited statement of Christian conviction on these three crucial issues, and not a wide-ranging theological document that subverts confessional integrity….

My beliefs concerning the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches have not changed. The Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrines that I find both unbiblical and abhorrent — and these doctrines define nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But The Manhattan Declaration does not attempt to establish common ground on these doctrines. We remain who we are, and we concede no doctrinal ground.

John MacArthur (opposed)

The Declaration therefore constitutes a formal avowal of brotherhood between Evangelical signatories and purveyors of different gospels. That is the stated intention of some of the key signatories, and it’s hard to see how secular readers could possibly view it in any other light. Thus for the sake of issuing a manifesto decrying certain moral and political issues, the Declaration obscures both the importance of the gospel and the very substance of the gospel message.

These three represent, I believe, different points on the spectrum. George and MacArthur stand significantly apart from each other, while Mohler occupies something of a middle ground. George clearly implies that all of the signers are genuine followers of Jesus Christ, something which MacArthur clearly denies. Mohler, I think, tries to keep the discussion completely away from this issue by deemphasizing theology in favor of focus on three social issues. George reflects the kind of ecumenical evangelicalism that the new evangelical agenda called for, something George himself calls an “ecumenicism of the trenches” in his defense of the declaration. MacArthur’s argument squarely rejects any ecumenical effort which obscures the gospel.

Mohler’s middle ground looks like what I referred to in the previous post as some kind of flattened Judeo-Christian worldview or ethic. This allows him to find unity with others who share this worldview, but not call it genuine gospel unity. The problem, though, is that it allows Christian to be used in two distinct ways, and that creates confusion about the real meaning of Christian. This, I think, is a core issue and presents a real challenge for a man like Dr. Mohler.

Iain Murray, in Evangelicalism Divided, has done an excellent job chronicling the danger of ecumenical evangelicalism and the damage it does to the gospel. It might be simplistic to say it this way, but the damage is done by fuzziness regarding what it means to be a Christian. The new evangelical agenda virtually required evangelicals to accept the Christian standing of those who denied gospel truths. The net result is that Christian came to be used as a religious category in distinction to Muslim or Buddhist, not as a name for those who have experienced the new birth by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There is no genuine unity apart from the gospel, and all attempts at unity apart from the gospel actually work against the gospel.

This is the predicament for Dr. Mohler. He is unapologetically committed to the priority of the gospel in defining Christian identity, yet his commitment to the culture war leads him to make uncomfortable alliances with those who have a similar agenda. I could be mistaken, but my take on it is that he only accepts part of the new evangelical agenda. He does not, for instance, embrace the ecumenical evangelism of Billy Graham, but seems to embrace the ecumenical activism of Carl Henry. So, he finds himself signing the declaration and simultaneously issuing a strongly worded clarification. One hand builds; the other tears down.

Thankfully, to this point Dr. Mohler has kept a theological edge that has prevented him from fully embracing the ecumenical path of men like Timothy George and Chuck Colson. I hope he never loses that edge. Well, truth be told, I really hope he slides closer to John MacArthur’s position. 

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The Manhattan Declaration

I have received several emails about the Manhattan Declaration, so I thought I’d do something of a hodge podge post on it. Information about the Declaration itself is here.

Some explanations for why they signed the Declaration:

Some explanations from others as to why they would not sign it:

Here’s what I wrote to someone yesterday who had emailed me to ask my view of it:

“I think the major problem is the assumption made by the statement that all involved are Christians and believers. It uses this language clearly and repeatedly. Placing Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals all under the common designation Christian and referring to them as believers causes confusion regarding the gospel. At the least, it substitutes a sociological-historical definition of Christian in the place of a biblical-theological one. At the worst, it runs the risk of minimizing the biblical message of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

I share the concerns of this document regarding the issues it addresses, but I differ from them in that I cannot give those matters more importance than clarity regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ and what it truly means to be a Christian.”

I also think that John Stackhouse’s assessment regarding the value of this statement is insightful.

A few thoughts:

  1. The issue of co-belligerence within Christendom in spite of radical differences regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ is a serious matter. As I noted above, and MacArthur argues more fully and clearly in his response, the gospel is at stake in an effort like this. I’ve used the words “extend Christian recognition and fellowship” a lot throughout my posts on gospel-driven separation and that’s the problem here. It’s one thing to sign a paper under the banner of “concerned citizens” and another thing altogether to sign one under the banner of “concerned Christian citizens.”
  2. While I recognize that I am a member of a very small minority on this point, I still contend that this kind of effort is the inevitable outcome of accepting the original new evangelical agenda. Elevating social concerns to the degree that it does inevitably demands: (a) the broadest coalition possible in order to actually have an impact; and (b) the basis for social action be some kind of flattened Judeo-Christian worldview or ethic (whether formed by Scripture or natural law). Both of these move in the direction of minimizing the gospel since focusing on it would introduce division and probably seem too conversionist.
  3. I think it is a good thing that there is open debate about this because it shows: (a) the diversity of viewpoint among evangelicals on these matters; (b) that some (hopefully many) evangelicals are uncomfortable with anything that sends mixed messages regarding the gospel (the fact that Dr. Mohler felt the need to defend his actions seems like a strong proof of this); and (c) that “movement” unity isn’t the dominant concern that it used to be.
  4.  I wonder if something like this doesn’t quickly surface where people are on the contemporary fundamentalist-evangelical spectrum. On one end will be those who conclude from this that all signers have betrayed the gospel and, therefore, must be marked and turned away from. At the other end will be those who think signing it is somehow wrapped up with the gospel itself since the mission of God is to oppose all injustice and establish His reign on earth. There is a lot of turf between those two poles and we’re seeing that demonstrated in the responses. I’ll probably return to this in some follow up posts.

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