Wednesday, April 24, 2013


American Christianity right now seems a swirl of sometimes extreme Christian influences and ideas.  So you have those on the Canterbury Trail who become more and more liturgical. Then you have crazies like Doug Wilson of the Gospel Coalition arguing that it was unbiblical to abolish slavery. The charismatic wing of the church doesn't seem quite so strong right now, but the church has waves of spiritual gifts from time to time.

Six years ago I self-published my analysis of the situation in popular form. History has decisively demonstrated that the "Scripture alone" principle results in a proliferation of groups that cannot agree on what Scripture teaches, the so called "Protestant Principle."  Yet Cardinal Newman in the late 1800s embodied the ease with which one ends up Roman Catholic once you go down the "consensus faith" route, that looks for the commonly agreed tenets of Christianity as the binding point.  The drawback of a charismatic approach is that the revelations proliferate even more than denominations who are pursuing Scripture do.

I think it would help if we acknowledge all three components of the equation (Bible-church-Spirit) and tried to balance them more.

1. original meaning
Let the Bible mean what it most likely meant originally.  See each book as a moment in the flow of God's walk with humanity.  Don't cook the books in regard to scholarship.  Don't put artificial boundaries on the conclusions that you can reach.  Let it say what it most likely said, wherever the evidence seems to lead.  This is one leg of the stool.

2. consensus theology
Put a little faith in the common Christianity that developed in the first few centuries after Christ.  You need this leg of the stool even to have a New Testament canon, since the books of the NT came together in the church.  At least by the time of the Great Schism in 1054, we've lost the consensus in some areas. Constantine is probably too early. 451, when the dual natures of Christ were hammered out is a popular point to stop.  Five centuries, four councils, three creeds, two testaments, one canon.

3. Spirit interruptions
Leave room for the Holy Spirit.  Leave room for the Spirit to interrupt church trajectories, as in the Protestant Reformation.  Leave room for the Spirit to apply Scripture directly to individual lives.

I don't think many were ready to hear my "balanced approach" ten years ago.  In the current chaotic swirl, are there any takers?  Ready to dismiss the Gospel Coalition as a mess of neo-fundamentalists?  Are Protestants ready to give an alternative to your children becoming Anglican, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic?  Ready to tether that pneumatic free-for-all that is the charismatic movement?

The key is balance between all three important channels of authority...


::athada:: said...

A shift of several of my friends (and I) towards liturgical communities might be preferred over a much more common trend... a drift towards atheism.

I love your stool-of-three ideas, and I suppose each branch of Christianity needs to shore up one or the other. Evangelicals might have #3 down, but still much work on #1... for then we would no longer see Genesis as (primarily, or at all) a matter-creation narrative, but an Israelite order-out-of-chaos story (after all, that's what they likely thought it was; thoughts from recent guest speaker at Taylor, OT prof Dr. John Walton of Wheaton).

Ken Schenck said...

No doubt! Yes, the problems with imbalance in #1 for Protestants is that it can lead to liberalism/atheism on the one hand or a head in the sand fundamentalism/evangelicalism on the other.

Dick Norton said...

Well, the three legged stool makes it pretty easy to believe anything we want, because there isn't anything to oppose it. We neuter the Bible into an old fuddy-duddy document that has nothing much to say to us moderns. We have a church that has believed just about everything over the centuries, and we have the good-ole Holy Spirit that just speaks to our hearts, man!

I'll take the Bible, which says it is the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Even though I'm a Wesleyan, I would rather fellowship with people like the Gospel Coalition, who take the Word of God seriously, than to stick with a church that doesn't believe in a "sure Word" from God. I went to a Gospel Coalition gathering last year. Five thousand pastors in the room! Preaching from the Word that was outstanding. Singing and worship that inspired! I wish we could match something like that in the Wesleyan Church! "To the law and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no light in them." (Isa. 8:20)

Ken Schenck said...

Dick, I deeply respect your heart but your path is the path of the Calvinist, a demonstration that this path is foreign to true Wesleyanism. The stability you think you see is the stability of a specific social group. The Gospel Coalition has no lasting future, though it burn strong for a moment. It's ideas wither quickly in the light of the Son and the wind of the Spirit. The Wesleyan Church gets to decide its own future. It can depart from true Wesleyanism if it chooses, but I hope it has more discernment than that...

Nathaniel said...

Your stopping point seems essentially arbitrary (it's not, we'll get to that). The next two councils (2nd and 3rd Constantinople [553 and 680]) are precisely hammering out the two natures of Christ defined at Chalcedon. Ideologically, you can't take the first without the two that follow it. This is further demonstrated by the fact that there is no Christian communion which accepts Chalcedon and rejects either of the following two councils.

Except there is... Calvinism. Calvin is the one who retroactively attempted to separate Chalcedon from the later councils on the grounds that he disagreed with the later councils but agreed with Chalcedon. Then of course you have to note, as does McCormack, that Calvin actually takes a Nestorian reading of Chalcedon. Catholics and Orthodox on the other hand have always had a Cyrillian reading of Chalcedon as Louth clearly demonstrates in his recent monograph on Cyril. So in short, Calvin unilaterally accepts a heretical reading of Chalcedon and uses it to dismiss the later councils since he disagrees with them. This is hardly "consensus theology." This is the reading of an ideologue.

Why does Calvin do this? Because the premises of the Reformation depend on the hermeneutic of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore's creed is explicitly condemned at Ephesus (431), but not Theodore himself. But the ongoing controversy surrounding the condemnation of Nestorius eventually resulted in Theodore's condemnation at 2nd Constantinople (553) along with all his writings. Calvin is thus stopping after four councils because the fifth council condemns the guy whose methodology he is following. This is also the reason Calvin takes a Nestorian reading of Chalcedon: because Theodore's scriptural hermeneutic is the underpinning for both Nestorius' Christology and Calvin's theology. If Calvin were to adopt the 5th and 6th councils, he would have to admit that Christ's human will contributed to our salvation (a point he expressly denies). He would thus have to admit that our wills and the wills of others also contribute to our salvation. This would of course undo his entire argument against the "works salvation" of Rome. So instead, he just arbitrarily abandons the 5th-7th councils. This is entirely ideologically motivated: apart from Calvin's soteriology, there is no natural reason to accept the 4th council but not the 5th and 6th.

All of this come to bear in your first point ('original meaning'). Original meaning *is* the hermeneutic of Theodore. Knowing your theology, I know you have no intention on justifying Calvin. And yet, it is your desire to preserve this hermeneutic that compels you to stop after the 4th council. You may disagree with Calvin's conclusion, but you agree with his method. And where this method is condemned (the 5th council), you you excise in the same manner as he does. This is in no way a balanced hermeneutic, but an ideological one.

You mentioned stemming the flow of children to the Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic churches. Why can't it simply be that these churches are in fact practicing a more balanced hermeneutic? They certainly read far more scripture in their services than evangelicals do. Could this not be the reason why evangelicals are leaving for these communions? Could it not be that the very reason why evangelical churches exist is to foster certain readings of Scripture which didn't gain traction in the more balanced churches?

Finally, why is the Holy Spirit a chaotic presence in your notion? In the NT, the Spirit fosters harmony, peace, righteousness and empowerment of a group of Christians who function as a single body. The reformation was none of those things but the splintering of Western Christianity along ideological lines. None of the reformation groups had intercommunion for centuries. Many *still* don't. This is not the unity of the Spirit that we read in the NT.

Ken Schenck said...

Great stuff Nathaniel. If I could get you and Dick together we'd have... me. :-) It's not the Spirit who's chaotic but all the people claiming to hear from Him. :-)

Nathaniel said...

You said the Spirit "interrupts church trajectories." This is a *very* different notion that the Church of the first 5 centuries for which it is heresy and schism which interrupts the peace of the Church established by the Holy Spirit. Which is it? Does the Holy Spirit bring the shalom of God? Or does he "interrupt church trajectories"?

You are creating a dialectic between the Body of Christ and the Spirit that no NT reader should be comfortable with.

Ken Schenck said...

How about he corrects visible church trajectories to keep the invisible church on track?

Nathaniel said...

There is that dialectic again: visible / invisible. The work of the Spirit in church unity occurs within the Church and with its duly constituted leadership, not outside it and against them. Is this not proved by every epistle? Is it not evidenced by every early Christian writing from the Didache and 1 Clement onward? Anything else is just theological posturing...

You can play the visible / invisible distinction all you like, but when every small country town has to have at least 5 churches each with their own very distinct version of Christianity, you don't have the vision of peace extolled by the Apostles.

Ken Schenck said...

When there is East and West, do we not have to have the distinction?

John C. Gardner said...

The reading of Scripture must be in communities with somewhat stable meanings over fairly long periods of time. I tend toward a Sensus Plenior position as part of the intergenerational church's consensual tradition. Thanks for a great post.

Rick said...

I don't think Doug Wilson is part of The Gospel Coalition.

And in regards to his slavery book, at least one member of The Gospel Coalition came down hard on it.

Ken Schenck said...

Could be, but his hermeneutic is their hermeneutic, and their circles are apparently the circles discussing this question with him. His positions are a natural progression from theirs. 200 years ago, their equivalents were making his argument in relation to slavery. In fact, there are many passages where women are leaders but no passages that say to abolish slavery, except that Israelites cannot be slaves.

I have regularly made the opposite observation with regard to homosexual sex. There are many passages where women lead but none where a positive view is taken of homosexual sex. In the same way, Wilson can argue that there is nothing in the Bible about abolishing slavery as a social institution. The GC has to adopt my hermeneutic to push back--but it is clear that there will be no slavery in the kingdom of God.

Rick said...


I think you are mis-characterizing TGC. They would agree with Bible-church-Spirit, although Bible would be the final authority, but not the only authority. They believe in sola scriptura, not nuda scriptura.

Likewise, I have read Carson (unlike Wilson, he is a TGC leader) say that there needs to be balance between systematic theology and biblical theology.

Funny, I can't imagine you having a sit down with Tim Keller and walking away from it thinking he is extreme.

Ken Schenck said...

Tim Keller is the most balanced one of the lot, I would say.

Nathaniel said...

Tu quoque is your response?

The Holy Spirit did not cause a schism between Rome and the other Apostolic Christian sees: sin did. And this schism should in fact be healed, a reality we are still actively working toward (in spite of what internet polemics might suggest). Neither Rome nor Orthodoxy think any differently. Your schema above is tantamount to suggesting that the Holy Spirit causes schisms, which is unbiblical to the highest degree.

The plain matter of fact is that, if one were to assume Rome's position for a moment, Luther taught funny stuff and the duly elected church leadership had a church trial where Luther was permitted to justify his views. Unable to convince the church leadership, he was offered the opportunity to change his mind. He declined. The rest of the reformation was the open rebellion, replete with mass murder. Am I saying Rome was perfect? No. But if we understand the work of the Spirit to be unity and peace and the gathering together a diverse people to be of one mind, then Trent looks far more like the work of the Spirit than the Marburg Colloquy (let alone the Anabaptist drownings).

And how about the Wesleyan Church? How does it justify its existence? The slavery dispute which formed it is long gone. As are the anti-imperial concerns which, for many years justified the American Methodist split from Anglicanism. Self-preservation is the only motivation for their continued existence, enabled by ad hoc "balanced" methodologies which always seem to arrange the criteria in an ad hoc manner to justify institutional proclivities. And that is all you have done here: defined a theological method which is a post hoc description of the Wesleyan theological ethos. It is institutional posturing, plain and simple.

Why I find this so ironic is that the ecclesiology of what one might call "middle Protestantism" which prides itself in its critique of Catholic and Orthodox "institutionalism" ends up spending all its thought energy on passive-aggressive institutional jostling. Among the average laity and clergy, this takes the form of the bragging about the quality of one's church or the coolness of one's pastor. Among academics it is the endless lectures about the uniqueness of one's tradition, however small.

Any true ecclesiology however, must be an ecclesiology of love and self-sacrifice, preferring the other to ourselves. It must take seriously Christ's high priestly prayer: that we all may be one. This is not uniformity, mind you. But neither is it "everybody start their institution and we'll all be part of an invisible body."

Ken Schenck said...

I love your rhetoric, Nathaniel. It's a true delight. I am not trying to justify schism at all. It was not a tu quoque in the sense of accusation. It was an argument that even the break of the church into East and West implies some sense of an invisible church that supersedes visible division.

Nathaniel said...

Only if you presume them to both be truly The Church in an unqualified sense. Neither Rome, nor Orthodoxy does. Orthodoxy says that Rome is not the Church. In official documents, Rome has of lated stayed away from "the Church" language. Thus while Rome admits that Orthodoxy represents "true local churches" they also state Orthodoxy "lacks something" not being in communion with Rome. These are of course minor debates about how to interpret Augustine's ecclesiology.

But a strong visible / invisible dichotomy is a mark of Calvin's ecclesiology, not Augustine's (though he borrows the imagery from Augustine's City of God). It is a theological response to the problem that the visible church leadership was kicked out of Switzerland and is tied directly to his notion of predestination. The Church, for Calvin, is all the people predestined from all time regardless of their ecclesial affiliation. For Augustine, the Church is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And while salvation may be found without the Church, it cannot be found against it, either in heresy or in schism.

So in short, the visible / invisible distinction is dependent entirely on the reformation, not the East / West schism.