Friday, May 19, 2006

mistaken assumptions about the Church

In the current climate of evangelical indifferentism there is a vital necessity of regulating our doctrine of the Church and its government by Scripture alone or establishing what is of divine right and authority. We must be clear that we have been provided with the revealed will of God
concerning the Church in the Scriptures. We are confined to express statement and command, approved example, or to what these entail, "The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture" (WCF I.6, 2 Tim. 3:16). We are not permitted
to govern the Church in our own wisdom, instituting that which is right in our own eyes for this would deny Christ His headship over His own Church. In matters of "ordinances" in the Church, there is a single definite will of God (1 Cor. 11:2, 16 &23).

What is meant by "good and necessary consequence" is not human wisdom but "reason captivated and subdued to the obedience of Christ" (George Gillespie). The consequence must be necessary, that is to say it must be demanded by a relevant Scripture passage. This means taking premises stated in the Scripture and using sanctified reason in order to draw their
inexorable conclusions which although not expressly stated in a particular verse are nevertheless entirely warranted as the conclusions of such a process. The doctrine of the Trinity (besides others) belongs to this method of using the Scriptures.

Some in our day will deny this application of the regulative principle. In fact they do not wish to apply the principle much at all except perhaps in the area of doctrinal teaching in order to maintain some sort of deference to the doctrine of the sufficiency of the Scriptures. Most evangelical doctrinal statements claim to regard the Bible as the final authority in all matters of belief and practice, which actually entails a wider application of that doctrine whether they acknowledge this or not. The attitude has prevailed for a lengthy period in evangelicalism that there is a simple gospel to be safeguarded in the Scriptures but nothing else much matters. We
now live in a day when that "simple gospel" is, however, no longer purely scriptural in the mainstream of evangelical proclamation. Evangelicalism as David Wells has shown in No Place for Truth no longer has a theology: "Being evangelical has come to mean simply that one has had a certain kind of religious experience that gives colour to the private aspects of daily life,
but in which few identifiable theological elements can be discerned or, as it turns out, are necessary...It is enough for them to know that Christ somehow died for people" (p.131).

In a day of pragmatism and simply doing what works rather than what has Scriptural authority, it is anathema to the secularised ideology of evangelicalism to suggest that we should be bound by Scripture and its principles. Scripture is to bind us as little as possible. This is in fact an old battle that had to be faced squarely at the Westminster Assembly and during the whole post-reformation era. There were members of the Assembly that sought to defend the old Anglican view that gave "indifferent things" such as Church government to the monarch so that they could control the church, this is sometimes called Erastianism after Erastus who articulated the theoretical basis. Thomas Coleman was one of the Erastian Westminster divines, although their views were not prevalent in the eventual documents of the Assembly, they made themselves heard, as when Coleman preached to Parliament (July 1645) that the Assembly's agenda ought to be "Establish as few things by divine right, as well can be".

Divine right or jus divinum meant scriptural warrant. But if we do not give the authority to the Divine scriptures we give it instead to men, the king or individuals, human reason or prejudice or mere pragmatism and cultural influence. Although Coleman's principle may seem plausible it was crafted to serve his own agenda: he made it clear in the same sermon that the only thing that he wanted to establish by divine right was the King's/Parliament's authority by divine right. The attitude of the Scots commissioners to the Assembly on the other hand was "establish as much as possible by divine warrant" - it is in fact a stark choice, God's or man's authority.

It is necessary to be keenly aware of the other false assumptions that are most powerful and prevalent in the midst of these issues. Biblical studies has been under the influence of what are basically evolutionary assumptions for the last century and a half. The assumption of nineteenth-century liberalism, most notably represented by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Adolf Harnack was that religion evolved from polytheism through to monotheism and was becoming ever more rational. Schleiermacher's development was to make God simply a principle rather than a person, and to replace the Scriptures with "religious consciousness" as divine revelation. Thus the whole of religion became essentially subjective:the attributes of God were merely a
symbolical way of expressing aspects of "religious consciousness" such as the feeling of dependence. An individualistic religion like this, deemed the Church to be not strictly necessary, except as a "mere social centre, a human institution rather than the planting of God" (Louis Berkhof, p.561 -summarising the liberal position).

This was in fact quite similar to the Quaker view of each man inspired by the Spirit which bypassed all need for the Church, ordinances, sacraments, and even the Scriptures. It was
customary for quite a while therefore to deny that Jesus had ever intended to set up any kind of institution such as a Church, or even a community. All that he was concerned with, according to this view, was the more "pure", rational and evolved religion of liberalism: the Kingdom of God was merely a spiritual relation between the individual and his God. Developments of this view claim that Jesus expected an immediate apocalypse which would have made a new community a futile idea. Some evangelicals have taken on this higher critical idea: J.D. Allan in The Evangelicals: An illustrated version (Paternoster/Baker 1989) writes that, "when Jesus died, he seems to have made no provision for a continuing organization which would keep his ideas
alive" (p.5).

More prevalent is the idea that the disciples were something like a charismatic (or Quaker) sect who were immediately inspired by the Spirit and that there was no office or government in the early Church, but that the Holy Spirit governed alone and that this became quickly institutionalised with monarchical bishops in place by the end of the first century in a fixed
hierarchy. This is not only an academic notion but loosely corresponds to popular evangelical assumptions. Too often we read back our own reflection on to the New Testament Early Church and our own experience and ideal of charismatic chaotic spontaneity which has far more to do with a tradition of Evangelical pietism of the last century or so with its subjective, individualist fads than authentic apostolic experience. Millenarian or apocalyptic sects such as the Quakers and the Plymouth Brethren have often assumed that they are restoring a preinstitutionalist church where the Holy Spirit governs alone, and in doing so have exalted a particular interpretation of the Book of Acts above the other material in the New Testament. Restorationist charismatics do this in the same way that Edward Irving in the 19th century did, aiming to restore apostles as a prelude to Christ's second coming or other eschatological events. Such groups do not really use the book of Acts as an exact blueprint anyway, but rather their
interpretation. As Edward Donnelly points out: "Constitutions of Restoration churches do not, as far as we know, make provision for discipline by supernatural capital punishment (5:1-1)...Some who insist on a weekly Lord's Supper as the only scriptural pattern, for example, are not noted for a willingness to sell their possessions and hold all property in common (2:44,45)". (p.7, RTJ, 1998). We must seek to understand the full sweep of Biblical material and take especial note of the commands of Scripture rather than adopt assumptions and slogans that do not do justice
to the Scriptures.