Phe-nomenal!!

This one is about use of language in the Bible – or one particular use, anyway.  It’s a follow-on from ‘A Brief Word on Biblical Interpretation’, one of my earliest posts.  In that I established that the Reformation idea of interpreting the Bible ‘after the literal sense’ didn’t mean dumb wooden literalism, but making full allowance for the Bible to use all kinds of figures of speech, literary conventions, etc.  Not special biblical stuff, but actually everyday use of language.  One such is what is called ‘phenomenal’ language. 

One example of ‘phenomenal language’ we use pretty much every day – and the Bible uses it quite often as well.  Consider this…

“Dear Television Company

I’m writing to you about your weather-persons.  I’m appalled that you employ people so out-of-date and unscientific.  Every day they give us the times of sunrise and sunset, as if it were the sun that moved around the earth, rather than the earth’s rotation on its axis that produces the movement of the sun across the sky!   Have these ignoramuses never heard of Copernicus??  Have them fired immediately and get us proper scientific weather-persons…”

If I actually sent such a letter, I don’t think the TV Company would pay much attention apart from laughing at my stupid pedantry.  But of course I am right – the sun doesn’t rise or set, it really is the earth’s own rotation that causes the effect – why do we continue using words that we all know are unscientific?  The basic answer is simply that, from before Copernicus worked out his theory, we humans have described the movements of the sun by how they appear from our perspective.  In the past, they actually believed the sun moved, now we don’t – but the words are still there as the everyday word.  This kind of language, describing how it looks regardless of the scientific theory about it, is called ‘phenomenal’ language – fitting the ‘phenomenon’.  Sometimes we do change our language when we learn better; sometimes we find it more convenient to carry on using the original words – that’s how language is.

Furthermore, there is some point to using such language.  It does describe exactly how things look.  Therefore for everyday purposes, it is useful.  I can tell a child who hasn’t yet learned about Copernicus that we’ll do something ‘at sunset’ and he’ll know what I mean without having to have a science lesson first!  Likewise (less often nowadays, of course) I can use such language with a primitive native up the Amazon, again without having to give that science lesson; and as most languages use words meaning literally sunrise and sunset, I don’t bother finding a special word to make things scientifically accurate, I just use their everyday word.  Only when it really matters do we bother being scientifically exact about this (and when we do, we find out how much more complex and unwieldy the more exact language can be).  Also in passing please note that the ‘phenomenal’ language usefully remains true even when theories are in flux; it could have been very confusing if people had kept having to come up with new words every time the theory changed while scientists were still arguing about exactly how the solar system worked.

The Bible, of course, constantly uses the language of sunrise and sunset and of the moving sun generally.  Indeed I couldn’t find a contrary example.  Does this mean that the Bible ‘teaches’ a geocentric solar system in which the sun moves round the earth, and that therefore a person who believes the Bible must reject Copernicus?  Or does it just mean that in giving his Word to people who didn’t have modern astronomy, God used their own everyday language and didn’t confuse things by telling them a state of affairs they couldn’t have checked and would have found incredible? 

A slightly more complex example is found in Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis.  In around 1500 he actually hadn’t quite got round to agreeing with Copernicus, though the principles he stated suggest that with adequate proof (not achieved till later) he would have accepted it.  But have a look how he deals with the passage in the Creation account about the heavenly bodies.  He rejects the idea of those bodies being intelligent beings, the ‘gods and demons’ of paganism, and emphasises that God portrays them as just ‘lights’, for our use.  That of course is a major point which in due course allowed scientific investigation and at least began to free people from superstitions about the stars.  But Calvin also makes an interesting point about interpretation.

Genesis refers to the Sun and Moon as the ‘two great luminaries’ (as the Berkeley version translates it).  By Calvin’s day, astronomy had sufficiently advanced that it was known that, in absolute terms, Saturn, despite appearing the smallest of the known ‘planets’, was actually larger than the Moon, just further away.  Is the Bible therefore wrong?  No, says Calvin, because ‘to the sight it appears differently.  Moses therefore adapts his discourse to common usage’ .  That is, in the terms of this essay, Moses uses phenomenal language.  He ‘wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand’.  OK, he also did so because he, Moses, didn’t personally know the astronomy we now do.  But the basic point is still sound.  God isn’t confusing the issue by giving Moses and the Israelites details they’d no way of checking, and which might even possibly have led them to reject the account as untrue.  God says, in effect, these are lights which are my gift to you, rather than the gods and demons which the pagans believe and are slavishly ruled by; there are two lights which, to your viewpoint on your world[i], are big lights – one giving you the brightness of day, the other bright enough to see by at night.  Their absolute size doesn’t matter in this account, what is in view is their usefulness.  Astronomers in their university ivory towers will eventually discover the sun to be small on the cosmic scale, and the moon to be small in the solar system – but that doesn’t change the everyday fact that on earth, they are the great luminaries.

I could produce other examples; but I’ve already got one friend who tells me my blog posts are TLTR – too long to read!!  So I’ll just leave it there as food for thought….


[i] Terminology changes; in pre-Copernican days ‘planets’ were ‘wandering stars’ compared to the other ‘fixed stars’, so far away that it takes centuries to see them move significantly.  In those days the Sun and Moon as they ‘moved’ were also considered ‘planets’.  I originally wrote ‘on your planet’ but realised that of course the ancient Israelites didn’t consider the Earth a planet!

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Ian Paisley is a Catholic….

…though obviously not a papist!  Anyone expecting me to reveal that Dr Paisley has been secretly attending Masses and/or negotiating with the Pope for a cardinal’s red hat, buzz off and wait for some tabloid to discover/hack/invent that story.  This item is a serious discussion of how the word ‘catholic’ is to be interpreted.

The word ‘catholic’ is derived from the Greek phrase ‘kata holos’, meaning something like ‘according to the whole’, as in the New Age buzz words ‘holistic/holism/etc.’  (The ‘holic’ bit is nothing to do with ‘alcoholic/ workaholic/ chocoholic/etc’ which are derived from the Arabic ‘al cohol’ meaning, well, alcohol)  ‘Catholic’ can fairly be translated as ‘universal’.

Way back, the word ‘catholic’ is used in early creeds like the Apostle’s Creed to describe the Church – ‘We believe in the holy catholic Church….’  At that time of course the Church was not entangled with the state but had voluntary membership, so ‘kata holos’ meant on the one hand that as God’s Church it was universal as God himself is, but with voluntary membership meant more like ‘for everybody’, ‘applicable to everybody’, or ‘open to everybody’ without distinction – ‘As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  No Jew or Greek there, no slave or freeman, no male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus’  In that kind of sense I’ve no objection to saying the word ‘catholic’ in the creed myself, though I admit I prefer, to avoid unhelpful associations, the English translation ‘universal’.

Things changed after Constantine, and even more so after his successor who made Christianity compulsory in the Roman Empire.  With everybody in ‘Christendom’ assumed to be ‘Christian’ following their infant baptism (apart from Jews whose status was grudged and under threat), ‘catholic’ ended up meaning something a great deal more like our word ‘totalitarian’, similar to Nazism and Stalinism, and ended up with the biblically dubious practices of Inquisitions and Crusades to enforce the faith.  With the splitting of the Roman Empire ‘Christendom’ was divided between ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and western ‘Roman Catholic’, but the state church principle remained, and both sides of the split were ‘Catholic’ in the totalitarian sense.  The Eastern Orthodox can still be pretty totalitarian – see ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia and attitudes too often seen in Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Reformation the western church split between Catholic and Protestant, but both continued the practice of being totalitarian state churches; Protestants vary between the established national Anglican and Lutheran Churches and some Presbyterian/Reformed churches with varying degrees of connection with the state.  Even Cromwell, an ‘Independent’ in church government terms, nevertheless believed that the state should be ‘Christian’ in some sense.  The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ might have sought freedom from Anglican tyranny  this side of the Atlantic, but the Puritan state they initially set up in the New World was – let’s say it wasn’t so free if you weren’t a Puritan…!

In the modern world few churches are as intolerant as used to be the case; a non-Catholic won’t have the Inquisition set on him if he goes on holiday to a Catholic country.  But the idea of a ‘Christian state’ in which the Christianity is generally privileged and assumed to be the norm still exists, and with different versions of Christianity so, sadly, does the idea that ‘our’ version be privileged and others ‘second-class citizens’ still exist.  And this, essentially, is the post-Constantine version of the ‘catholic’ idea still running and still causing damage.

I recall seeing Ian Paisley giving a speech somewhere circa 1970 and he said “This is a Protestant country!”  It is this belief in a Christian country that makes him ‘Catholic’ in the bad sense of the word; and it is that kind of Catholicism on both sides there which leads to the fighting and terrorism and the current marches, riots and protests.  As I’ve said before on this blog, it is not the theological disagreements but ironically the point the two sides are agreed about which causes the trouble. 

In contrast were the Anabaptists.  They realised that Christianity required a voluntary spiritual new birth that couldn’t be imposed by worldly legislation, and so any state including Christians must be pluralist, consisting of the born again and the still unconverted.  They realised too that therefore church and state should be separate – it wasn’t the church’s job to ‘Christianise’ worldly states, but to spread the gospel and bring people into the kingdom of God.  That kingdom consists of those who follow Jesus because they hear and believe him (i.e., not merely because some earthly ruler passes a law declaring his people to be Christian), and so instead of existing in this world as a regular geographical state, or as an ethnic entity like the Kurds or the Basques, Jesus’ kingdom exists as a worldwide body of ‘resident aliens’ – citizens of the kingdom of heaven living as ‘expats’.  

For Anabaptists and anyone else who accepts that basic idea, ‘catholic’ means what it meant in the first centuries of Christianity; universal in a sense of suitable for everyone, freely offered to everyone, open to all regardless of race, gender, or nationality in this world[i].  Such a church does not need a conventional worldly state based on worldly physical power and so does not need worldly warfare such as we see in Northern Ireland. 

It is ironic that this central value of Ian Paisley is also the key value of the Roman and Orthodox Churches; it is not the Bible teaching that Protestantism is supposed to stand for, but an unbiblical tradition going back only to nearly 400 years after Jesus, and actually actively contradicting the Bible itself.  But note that although the two sides in Ulster have slightly different formulations of the ‘Christian state’ idea, they still have that idea in common, and the resulting implication that they can engage in warfare for their version of a Christian state and so against each other.  Both sides need to do some serious thinking about this, including that Catholics need to recognise that their ‘totalitarian’ past, until such time as they disavow it, gives some valid reason for Protestant opposition. 


[i] Because Anabaptists rejected the ‘totalitarian’ interpretation of ‘catholic’, apparently many of them would refuse to use that word or its German/Dutch equivalent ‘gemeinde’ when saying the creed; the Inquisition would use that to identify Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists would not reject the word in its original sense, but probably didn’t realise in those days that the meaning had changed over the years.  Likewise the Inquisition; for them also the ‘Catholic Church’ meant their totalitarian body.   

Responses to my friend the other Steve….

The following were comments from Steve on two recent posts, the ‘Controversy Revisited (1)’ and also the original ‘Beast Revealed’ which unfortunately I had to withdraw.  My responses below.  The issues seem interlinked so I’m responding to these together rather than separately.

Love God, love one another. That is the whole of the Law; the rest is commentary; go away and study it. If you’re falling out with one another, if you’re hurling anathema at one another; you are seriously missing the point. Can you have a go at finding biblical support for reincarnation? It would be a seriously good Idea for Calvin, Zwingli and the Borgias to have to keep coming back until they got it right!

Powerful stuff suffused with God-sense, to which I say Amen (this sentence refers to the original ‘beast revealed’ post; thanks Steve for liking it, I’ll try and remake the point as soon as I can find a suitable ‘hook’ to hang it on. SL). They forget the context of love your neighbour and the parable of the Samaritan. In that culture, then, your neighbour was your enemy, the Amalekite you went out and massacred. The difference between a Samaritan and a Jew? I’ll be blowed if anyone knows. I have no idea why Greeks and Romans are hung up on filioque. A 30-year war, a devastated central Europe and millions of dead for 95 theses? I reckon old Martin has been sat outside the gates this last half millennium commiserating with Augustine about not thinking things through.

First the relatively trivial; no, I can’t see any support for reincarnation for those who’ve had a full life and messed it up, though I have wondered about the possibility for those who die in infancy deprived of a full life. But rightly the Bible doesn’t tell us about things like that; we need to concentrate on what’s relevant to us, and trust God for other people’s fate.  Given a generously forgiving God, Calvin and Zwingli I think got it right enough to expect to see them in heaven, just a bit chastened (as no doubt I will be about some of my errors I haven’t realised in this life!).  The Borgias – that’s up to God in each individual case obviously, not condemn the whole family, but it does unfortunately seem that many of the Borgias were so deliberately wrong it’s questionable whether reincarnation would help them anyway.  Luther and Augustine again I expect to meet in heaven.  The main fault for all these theologians, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and Augustine, was their involvement in, and their inability to see the problems of, the state church idea.  Their basic personal relationship to God appears to have been OK.  Judging by other periods in Europe, the wars or similar were likely to have happened anyway for secular reasons; the ‘Hundred Years War’ between Britain and France was not religious.

‘Love God, love one another’ – I’m not arguing!!  Nevertheless theology is necessary because it’s ‘knowledge about God’ – true knowledge makes a true relationship with God much easier, false knowledge or understanding may mess up that relationship or even completely destroy it.  Of course abstractly true theology without genuine spiritual rebirth won’t help; as James points out, the devils probably know more theology than we do but it hasn’t helped them.  But false theology obviously risks putting your relations with God on a false basis – unitarian theology completely wrecks the idea of the atonement and that makes faith in Jesus as saviour just a bit difficult….  I would also point out that biblical love, ‘agape’ is not just any sloppy old sentimentality but implies very much caring.  God’s judgement is not opposed to his love but part of his caring.

There are comparatively few things in the New Testament that seem to justify anathemas and the like.  And even then, in the NT this is about the church as an independent body which does not expect the state to privilege the church or punish ‘heretics’.  In such a context people’s beliefs are voluntary, and the position is somewhat akin to other voluntary groups like sports clubs – if you join you’re reasonably expected to more-or-less keep the club’s rules, if you won’t keep the rules the club is likely to eventually ask you to leave, but you won’t be punished as a criminal by the state for your dissent from the sports club!  Obviously a reasonable club makes every effort to keep you, but you can’t go on forever committing deliberate fouls which mess up everybody else’s enjoyment of the game or even injure them and give a bad impression to the outside world.  The situation should be broadly similar with the church.  Being a state church messes this up in all kinds of ways; a state has all kinds of worldly aims inappropriate to the faith and is using the religion for such ends as cohesion and conformity in the state. 

As in Ulster to this day, the wars in Europe over the Reformation were not really over the ‘95 theses’ but over having a state religion.  Without that idea you could have had a right ding-dong argument about those theses but not the slightest need to raise even a fist let alone a sword, bomb, or bullet; with a state religion there pretty much has to be war, persecution, etc., to satisfy what the state requires of the religion entangled with it, whether it be a form of Christianity, or Islam, or Japanese Shinto, or indeed by a sociologist’s reckoning the godless ‘religions’ of Nazism, Communism, etc.  Using Christianity as a state religion goes back to the 4th Century Empire, with slightly different versions then developing in the ‘Orthodox’ east and ‘Roman Catholic’ west after the Empire broke up.  Unfortunately the Reformers didn’t challenge the state church situation but rather relied on their local ‘princes’ to support the Reform, resulting in a religiously partitioned Europe.  If you think about it such an idea is inimical to Christianity with its basic idea of personal spiritual rebirth through faith.

One problem here is that yes, God could just arbitrarily make things come out right; but that would be kind of unreal, and of course the wrong kind of coercive on His part.  For human lives to be real and significant we have to actually ‘work out/live out’ these things, and God must, at least to some extent, let us do them bit by bit as we learn while, as ‘judge of all the earth’ guaranteeing there will be no ultimate injustice.  Before the Reformation there was a totalitarian single church in Western Europe, and people who tried to reform it without state support didn’t have the clout to make it stick, though they seem to have been more effective than many realise.  But in broad terms the Reformation sort of ‘had to’ happen as it did both to achieve all the changes it did and also to open things up for the radicals to have a space to be heard, leading in the end to greater religious freedom and a hearing for the ‘free church/ Anabaptist’ case such as I’m putting forward in this blog, and hopefully in due course to the abandonment of what still remains of the unbiblical state church. 

[Massacring the Amalekites – the subject of Old Testament warfare really requires a lengthy post and I am working on it.  In the meantime the above paragraph contains some relevant ideas]

Samaritans and Jews?  The difference starts with the split-up of the original Jewish kingdom after Solomon, into the larger Northern Kingdom based on Samaria and the smaller Southern kingdom of Judah based on Jerusalem.  By setting up a rival to the Jerusalem temple the Northern Kingdom came to be regarded as heretics in the eyes of the southerners.  The Northern Kingdom fell to foreign invasion a long time before the southern, and it seems their already compromised religion got yet further compromised by the invaders’ paganism. 

Eventually Judah and Jerusalem also fell and a considerable portion of the population were deported to modern Persia/Iraq.  Then a conquest of the conquerors brought a ruler who curried favour with subjects by allowing the displaced to return.  A large number of Judeans returned to the southern kingdom area and rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple.  Samaritans remaining in the north opposed and harassed this, increasing enmity between the two groups.  It seems that the Samaritans had inter-married with their conquerors to a significant extent; in Judea the group rebuilding the Temple responded by a policy of ethnic purity, stricter than had been the case in the old kingdom.   By NT times the Samaritans were an enclave in the central highlands of Israel, where some still remain to this day, with a Jewish state more or less surrounding them, though Galilean Jews were also considered inferior and part-paganised by the southerners in Judea proper.  The situation could be compared to Northern Ireland in many ways.  Jesus’ kingdom reconciled Jews and Samaritans, as well as Gentiles, though of course many also rejected him.

The ‘Filioque’ (‘- and the Son’) was a credal issue which was part of the break-up between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  This messy dispute was arguably another problem resulting from having a state church.  It is academic philosophical theology done in the wrong spirit and in the wrong context.  Technically I think the Romans were just about right; the Holy Spirit is the Spirit equally of both Father and Son in the Trinity – but the very use of the word ‘technically’ shows that we’re no longer in the same world as the New Testament, where theology is more concrete than that and less abstract and academic.  Essentially I think both churches were playing politics in which the Roman Church was looking for a way to be more independent of the Eastern Church and make higher claims for the Pope than the eastern bishops of Alexandria etc.  The ‘filioque’ disagreement was a pretext in that worldly political issue.

The temptation of assuming that God ‘must want’ a religious state in which his people ‘lord it over’ others is really seductive – so much so that far too many people who think of themselves as Christian (and some who basically really are Christian) fall into that temptation and can’t see how the New Testament rejects the idea.  Sadly this leads to unChristian conduct.  

A Controversy Revisited (2) – Jim Packer

(I’d wish to emphasise this post should be read in conjunction with the previous post on Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ part in the controversy; actually I’ve noticed the Lloyd-Jones post seems to be consulted quite often, and I feel people aren’t getting a fully balanced view without this other aspect of the controversy.  I’ve edited the Lloyd-Jones post to draw attention to this one, and correspondingly, if you’ve come here first I encourage you to read the other post too…. )

I described in the first of these posts the controversy raised by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ call in 1966 for evangelicals to withdraw from doctrinally lax denominations, particularly the Anglicans and Methodists.  Leading Evangelical Anglicans like John Stott and Jim Packer resisted this call, and there was a particularly painful breach between Lloyd-Jones and Packer who previously had worked closely together in various Puritan-related projects.  I now want to look at Packer’s position.  As with Lloyd-Jones, Packer is one of my heroes, I’ve learned much from him and I own quite a few of his works.  Nevertheless in this case I think he was wrong….

As I said, Packer was broadly right in the general idea that one should not abandon doctrinally lax churches/ denominations but seek to reform and revive them from inside; provided, that is, that they remain formally evangelical in doctrine.  But what he seems to have failed to recognise is that the Anglican Church’s position as a state church is itself a serious contradiction of biblical doctrine and compromises the very nature of the church;  thus by Packer’s own criteria evangelicals should come out of Anglicanism.  Not perhaps precipitately, especially at present when change seems more likely than it ever has, and a peaceable disestablishment might be achieved in a reasonable time; I would accept that evangelicals who are already Anglican might at present see their duty in staying in Anglicanism to help the church through disestablishment and then reform it as a non-state church.  But I can’t see a case for evangelicals staying within the church while accepting its established status, because as far as I can see, that would not be biblically faithful and so not evangelical.  Nor can I see a case for staying in a deeply unbiblical church forever once aware of the defect.

Why doesn’t Packer see that point?  Knowing Packer’s usually incisive mind, I was puzzled when I first started reconsidering the controversy, and then I found in a charity shop a copy of the symposium “God’s Inerrant Word” to which Packer was a contributor.  In his essay on “Sola Scriptura” I found the following assertions (omitting, I hope fairly, points not relevant to the current argument and on which I broadly agree with Packer – check the full argument on pp55-57 1974 edition);

“….one finds that the main theological issues that have divided Protestants who hold to sola Scriptura have been these;….(4) how the churches should be related to the state – the issue in debates about establishment throughout the world since the seventeenth century; (5) whether churchmen’s children may properly be baptised in infancy or not – the issue between Baptist and all other Protestant churches; …..[i]

What are we to say to these matters of debate?  First, that whatever divisions they may have occasioned in the past it is very arguable that, being in reality secondary questions, they need not and ideally would not have this (divisive) effect.  Second, that it is also very arguable that in each of these cases unexamined assumptions brought to the task of exegesis, rather than any obscurities arising from it, were really at the root of the cleavage.  The trouble was that presuppositions were read into Scripture rather than read out of it, as follows; ….(4,5) The fourth and fifth debates reflected the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in question, even though no biblical author addresses himself to either. ….  (My underlining – SL)

It is a confusion to blame the principle of sola Scriptura for conflicts which sprang from insufficient circumspection in exegesis”.

On finding these words of Packer’s I was just a bit gobsmacked!  For starters how could the issue of establishment not be divisive in all kinds of ways especially when in the past it has led to Christians persecuting one another or fighting outright wars?  But even more, that comment about ‘…the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in question even though no biblical author addresses himself to either’ is simply wrong – there’s no need of any ‘presupposition’ because lots of biblical authors actually do address the issue of establishment, and that includes places in the Gospels recording the words of Jesus himself!  Of course they do not address the problem in the modern form that has developed since Constantine – why should they address something which hadn’t happened yet and which they clearly didn’t expect or believe should happen[ii]?  The NT authors simply expound how the church is supposed to normally work – as a non-established body – and make lots of statements which to say the least are hard to reconcile with the idea of an established church.

I’m not going to go into great detail on those scriptures here – I either have covered or will cover many such cases as this blog goes on – but just a few comments.  The whole idea of being ‘born again’ through faith speaks against ‘Christian countries’ because while you can legislate for superficial conformity and threaten people into it, you can’t by legislation achieve real genuine new spiritual birth.  Wesley had somewhat to say about this (though it seems he never quite saw the full implications for the establishment).  Asked by a bishop “Why do you talk of the success of the gospel in England, which was a Christian country before you were born?” Wesley responded “Was it indeed?  Is it so at this day?  – If men are not Christians till they are renewed after the image of Christ, and if the people of England, in general, are not so renewed, why do we term them so?  ‘The god of this world hath’ long ‘blinded their hearts’.  Let us do nothing to increase their blindness; but rather recover them from that strong delusion, that they may no longer believe a lie”.

Quickly a few others – Jesus before Pilate saying among other things, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’; Peter describing his hearers as ‘resident aliens’ (there is a word in I Peter which appears to translate as exactly that) and not expecting that to change before the Second Coming, and far from telling his readers to take the state over, telling them to be ‘subject to’ the state authorities and not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi’ – managers of other people’s affairs;  Paul saying ‘Come out and be ye separate’ and ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (unlike umpteen religious wars in Jesus’ name including the English Civil War and the Ulster Troubles)… there are many more….

I’m still a bit puzzled (understatement!) that Packer could be so wrong; but I also remember that at the time in the 1960s evangelicals felt embattled and saw it as important to maintain evangelical unity.  I certainly valued groups like the Crusaders Union (nowadays ‘Urban Saints’) and the University Christian Unions where it was possible to ignore differences to a large extent precisely because of the large extent of our Bible-based agreements[iii].  Also the long custom of toleration in England seemed to have made establishment comparatively irrelevant at a practical level, and the ecumenical movement had us all looking for ways to work together between the churches.  Issues over Ulster and non-Christian religions including Islam, which brought the question of religious establishment back to the top of both British and global concerns, were still in the future in 1966, and even now far too many people, in and out of the churches, haven’t fully realised the implications.

One obvious comment is that if Anglican Jim Packer couldn’t find support for establishment in the New Testament, there certainly can’t be any clear teaching in favour of it.

But essentially, all the leaders in the 1966 controversy were arguing over the wrong thing, and failed to realise that the issues around state churches were very relevant to the doctrinal laxity issue and that they were also more important on a far wider scale.  It’s perhaps understandable that they got things wrong in the then climate of British religious affairs; for us now, after over 40 years of the Ulster troubles and decades of problems around Islam and the Middle East, it’s a great deal less understandable that we mostly continue to ignore the issue.  Let’s repair that error ASAP!!


[i]  I don’t really want to consider the baptism issue in detail here; I only included it because as you see, Packer’s lumping baptism together with establishment in the second paragraph meant I had to include both bits of the first section for clarity.  I do by the way object slightly to the implication that it is only the one Baptist denomination which disagrees with all other churches on that point.  The practice of believer’s baptism (‘credo-baptism’?) is far wider than just the Baptists as such, and significantly is usually adopted by churches founded from the Bible alone without awareness of other traditions!

[ii] There is an argument that the evil effects of establishment are shown in ‘coded’ form in some of the prophecies in Revelation about false religion in the end-times.  But there is certainly no teaching favouring ‘Christian states’, and much to say otherwise.

[iii] In contrast the various denominational societies at our university, mostly of liberal theological leanings, had so attenuated a ‘gospel’ to agree on that their denominational distinctives and disagreements were almost all they had to uphold, so they couldn’t easily agree….

A Controversy Re-visited – Martyn Lloyd-Jones

(I’ve noticed that this is a post people frequently look at; I’d just like to draw attention to the fact that it’s one of a pair of connected posts, the other dealing with the position of the Anglican theologian J I Packer in that controversy.  You will get a broader and more  balanced view of the controversy, and of my estimate of it, if you consult the other post as well “A controversy revisited – J I Packer”.)

Those of my age (I have a bus-pass) will likely remember the controversy which followed a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in 1966 when Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones issued a call to Evangelicals to secede from ‘doctrinally impure’ denominations infected by liberal theological ideas, and form a purer church to defend the gospel.  Some did respond, and among other results the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches was founded.  However many, particularly among Anglicans, thought it was inappropriate to leave denominations which still held to evangelical creeds, and better to work within them and try to recall them to biblical belief.

At the time, as a student, I wasn’t very clear about the issues.  Since then my own ideas in various matters have expanded considerably, and I now feel able to comment; and much as I respect Lloyd-Jones as among the ‘giants on whose shoulders I stand’, in this case I believe he was very wrong, and that the heated controversy was unfortunately an argument about the wrong question.

Lloyd-Jones’ mistake I believe was to put the matter in terms of ‘doctrinally lax mainstream denominations’ and to seek a solution in terms of a doctrinally ‘pure-body’ church.

The obvious criticisms are

First, that it was to be expected that churches made up of sinful humans would have ups and downs in faithfulness and doctrinal purity,

and secondly, that the concept of a ‘pure body’ church was, shall we say, inadequately bounded and opened up the spectre of endless secessions over minor matters leading to total disunity and to proudly and bitterly exclusive groups like the ‘Exclusive Brethren’.

As regards the first of those points, I think it is significant that Christopher Catherwood reports, “Dr Lloyd-Jones knew that his grouping would not stay pure for ever, but he felt that each man had to do what was right in his own generation”.  Exactly… as generations change, you cannot guarantee the ongoing faith and doctrinal purity of any church, and so it would appear that seeking a pure grouping will indeed lead to just an endless process of separation and abandonment.   In addition at any time a church may contain people of many different degrees of Christian experience many of whom have far from worked everything out and may have all kinds of not-entirely orthodox views just through inexperience – and of course do not deserve to be excluded for that!    The alternative view of John Stott, Jim Packer and their Anglican colleagues, to not abandon a denomination unless it formally and credally abandoned the gospel, and to seek instead to work within it for revival, was basically correct[i], and had precedent in actual revival of which perhaps the 1740 ‘Great Awakening’ was the great example.  Reformers in the 1500s and Methodists in the 1700s did not abandon their original church, but had been thrown out, or at any rate squeezed out, after serious constructive efforts to improve that original church.  Of course, least of all can you secure the faith of future generations by secular legislation for a state church or privileged state religion – but that raises issues I’ve dealt with elsewhere.

As regards the second, separation over claimed doctrinal purity is potentially endless and gives all too much scope for human pride and exclusiveness, and for abusive leaderships to establish cult-like groups separated nominally for greater purity but in fact to serve the leader’s ego.  Of course Dr Lloyd-Jones didn’t intend any such limitless separation, nor do I think he was that kind of egotist; but the issue of doctrinal purity or of a ‘pure body’ church doesn’t have a clear objective limit to prevent it.  How do you decide when you are ‘pure enough’?  How do you make sure of separating only from the determinedly unorthodox and not casting aside the sincere but understandably ignorant or similar?

I think Lloyd-Jones made a further mistake – he didn’t properly realise that there was one issue which both really required separation and was actually significantly responsible for much of the doctrinal laxity that worried him; namely, the issue of establishment of churches in the state – not only in the strict legal way that Anglicanism is established, but also various other ways that people expect that a state should be ‘Christian’ and that our churches  and their beliefs and morality should be specially privileged in the state.  For example, Ian Paisley didn’t want to be the established church – but he still expected Ulster (and mainland Britain) to be a ‘Protestant country’ in which Protestant beliefs generally are favoured/protected/etc.

Separation from the state, whether from a formal establishment or a looser ‘Christian country’ kind of relationship, indirectly sorts out much of the doctrinal purity issue anyway.  It relieves the church of all kinds of pressures and temptations that might tend towards doctrinal impurity in various ways, both obvious and subtle.  Once separated from the state, for example,

  • You won’t get governments confusing the gospel of new birth by trying to define every citizen as belonging to the state Christian faith;
  • You won’t get citizens thinking they are Christian just by birth in a ‘Christian country’.
  • A large problem of people seeking membership or leadership in the churches for reasons of political power and influence is pretty much removed, leaving a church of voluntary members whose primary concerns are at least somewhat more likely to be spiritual rather than worldly
  • Likewise you will get fewer people seeking membership for mere social respectability, usually ending up playing a Pharisaic hypocritical role while sinners in real need may be made to feel unwanted by the very body that is supposed to save them;
  • If the church doesn’t offer a special privilege in the world and state, people are likely to join only if they are serious about salvation; and therefore the church is less encumbered with merely nominal believers who are likely to be doctrinally lax.
  • Without the state involvement, there is a good deal less temptation to tinker with doctrine to try to keep it acceptable to all in the state; a church which is non-conformist anyway will be more concerned to maintain pure doctrine.

Of course the church, being composed of sinful human beings, who are imperfect even when converted to Christ, will always in a way be a mixed body; but without the state link it will be so in a biblically expected way which can be coped with on biblical principles, not additionally confused by an dubious relationship with worldly power and the very different concerns of that power.

 

Ecumenically, most of the issues on which evangelicals differ are related to state churches – or their leftovers, as it were, in churches which aren’t established.  The state church issue itself obviously, but also many styles of church government and worship which, in free churches, would lose much of their importance.  For example, while I suspect the baptist/paedobaptist controversy will run a bit yet, one major aspect would be removed if baptism ceased to be a national rite of passage, carried on in a ‘national church’ for social and cultural reasons rather than simply as a Christian rite.  It might seem drastic to split from ‘Christian country’ denominations (and it must be done as charitably as possible!) but in the modern climate of declining attendance will it in fact make a great deal of difference? A separation on the state and church issue is also, of course, more easily limited than a separation over doctrinal laxity; there is a reasonably obvious stopping point which then if anything discourages further separation unless for major cause.

 

I repeat, I have huge respect for Dr Lloyd-Jones, own many of his books both in physical and Kindle form, and have benefited massively from his teaching.  I understand why he was concerned for doctrinal purity, especially when the late 1960s were seeing the outworking of the ‘Honest to God’ controversy started by Bishop John Robinson of Woolwich, and ideas like ‘God is Dead’ theology.  As a Welshman he didn’t believe in the Anglican style of established Church, but his Puritan and Welsh-Presbyterian/Calvinistic-Methodist background meant, I think, that he was unclear on the wider idea of a ‘Christian country’; he thought that in some sense a country could be ‘Christian’ and broadly support Christianity in general – for example with features like ‘RE in schools’.  Lloyd-Jones’ Independency/Congregationalism was more like Cromwell than the Anabaptist principle of separation of Church and State, and in Britain even our Baptists were ambiguous over this issue.  Anabaptism was at the time very much a minority matter; our native Anabaptist movement, the Open Brethren, was increasingly becoming just a group of independent churches.  I think he just didn’t realise the link between being, or trying to be, a Christian country and the temptations to worldliness including doctrinal laxity that result.

 

Thus sadly he raised the controversy over the wrong issue, and harmed evangelical witness at a time when we didn’t need that kind of division.  In the many issues of the 1960s a clear call to separation from the state would have been more useful, but nobody was thinking in such terms.

 


[i] The idea may have been correct – but applying it to the Anglican Church was problematic – see the second part of this discussion, “A Controversy Revisited – J I Packer “.

A Beast Revealed – an update

Unfortunately I’m withdrawing this post, though I will be returning to the basic idea of it in future.  Trouble is that since I posted the item I’ve become aware that there is more than one Facebook page representing the ‘Protestant Coalition’ and at least one is being denounced by another as ‘fake’ – and it’s probably the ‘fake’ one that I’d hung my comments on!  In view of this it seems both wise and fair to withdraw the comments I made.  As I hint above, there is nothing wrong with the principle I was stating and I’ll come back to it – just that through no fault of mine (except a bit of naivety) I’d made the comments on a dubious foundation….