In a July 9 Op-Ed piece for The L.A. Times
, Charlotte Allen, Catholicism editor for Beliefnet, writes Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins
in which she wrongly characterizes an action of the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church. In the editorial, Allen writes
As if to one-up the Presbyterians in jettisoning age-old elements of Christian belief, the Episcopalians at Columbus overwhelmingly refused even to consider a resolution affirming that Jesus Christ is Lord. When a Christian church cannot bring itself to endorse a bedrock Christian theological statement repeatedly found in the New Testament, it is not a serious Christian church. It's a Church of What's Happening Now, conferring a feel-good imprimatur on whatever the liberal elements of secular society deem permissible or politically correct.
It is true that the convention discharged resolution D058 Salvation Through Christ Alone. This discharge was reported on the 700 Club as being that the convention could not even approve a resolution saying that Jesus is The Way to salvation.
I think a more accurate account needs to at least consider the actual text of the resolution being considered. Here is the full text of the resolution, which while in some ways it would not be controversial, did in others contain some specific wording which made it problematic.
Title: Salvation Through Christ Alone
Committee: 12. Evangelism
House of Initial Action: Deputies
Proposer: The Rev. Guido Verbeck (Western Louisiana)
Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church declares its unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved (Article XVIII); and be it further
Resolved, That we acknowledge the solemn responsibility placed upon us to share Christ with all persons when we hear His words, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6); and be it further
Resolved, That we affirm that in Christ there is both the substitutionary essence of the Cross and the manifestation of God's unlimited and unending love for all persons; and be it further Resolved, That we renew our dedication to be faithful witnesses to all persons of the saving love of God perfectly and uniquely revealed in Jesus and upheld by the full testimony of Holy Scripture.
First, in the interest of disclosure, you should know that I voted in favor of this resolution. I did so despite seeing the problems pointed out below as I could
in good faith vote for the text even as I could see the potential landmines for other faithful Christians. I should also note that the entire eight members of the Diocese of Georgia deputation were unanimous in support of the resolution.
The problems are primarily two-fold:
1) In any given group of Episcopalians there will be those who personally believe that Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The Life, but will not let go of the fact that there expressed faith in Jesus Christ may be best, but it is not the only way to heaven. A typical justification is to bring up the problem of those who never heard of Jesus, by either dying before Christ ever lived, or living in places in which the Gospel has never been preached. One then pushes ahead to say that those persons were responsible for God's laws written on the tablets of their hearts (to paraphrase scripture) and not for specific faith in Jesus.
Some will then go on from this more agreed upon point to state that faithful Muslims or Jews, for example, may be connected to God through their faith. Some scriptural grounds can be given for this in showing how those of others faiths within scripture were connected through their faith to the God of Israel including Melchizedek in Genesis 12 and Balaam in Numbers 22 and so on. (Note: my own views on this are found in the archives in the sermon God Shows No Partiality
On these and similar grounds, some deputies who could have readily affirmed that Jesus Christ is Lord would have had a problem with any resolution named Salvation Through Christ Alone even if that is in fact what they believe and act on as a matter of daily belief and practice.
2) The third resolve uses the language of affirming the "substitutionary essence of the Cross." With no direspect to the drafter of the resolution, I laughed when I read it as I had earlier said what we should do is debate theories of the atonement (knowing that to be predictably contentious) and here was a resolution stating one such theory without room for others.
Within Christian teaching there have been a number of orthodox ways of speaking of what it is that Jesus death and resurrection did. These are labeled theories of the atonement as they tell us the ways in which our sins were atoned for by the cross of Christ.
Within the evangelical tradition, the preferred statement on the atonement, considered the only valid statement by some, is substitutionary atonement. This theory was put forward in the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury in his book Cur Deus Homo
(Why the God Man?). Anselm, drawing from the feudal system of his day stated that God's honor had to be satisfied as our sins were an offense against our Lord. As this satisfaction was something no human could do, God became man to satisfy our debt through offering Jesus as a substitue for us. Jesus would die in our place to satisfy God's honor. A fuller statement of this view is found in the Wikipedia article on Substitutionary Atonement
. One other note on the problem with stating this as THE view of The Episcopal Church is that Substitutionary Atonement emphasizies the individual as in Christ died for my
sins. Many within Anglicanism would agree with that but want to emphasize that Jesus died for our
sins, meaning that Jesus sacrifice on the cross isn't all about me.
The view above, while classic Christian teaching, especially in the Calvinist tradition which undergirds much of Protestantism in America today, is not the only way to speak of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. For example, many would go back to the much older teachings of Irenaeus of Lyon
who in the 2nd century wrote of the atonement as a work of recapitulation. In this view man in Adam got it wrong and God made man in Jesus brought redemption through a new creation in his death and resurrection. Recapitulation places an emphasis on the Incarnation stating that what is primary is that God came and lived among us. Jesus' death then becomes a necessary consequence through which our salvation is worked out, but the emphasis remains on the New Creation made possible by God becoming man.
Yet another view is the Moral Example Theory put forward by Peter Abelard
in the Middle Ages. While Enlightenment theologians will make this theory their own to say that it was Jesus' teaching that mattered more than "the Jesus Event," this is not the very orthodox theory of Abelard who believed that Jesus' death was an atoning sacrifice and wrote emphasizing God's love in a way which fits with the wording of the resolution above:
Love is increased by the faith which we have concerning Christ because, on account of the belief that God in Christ has united our human nature to himself, and by suffering in that same nature has demonstrated to us that supreme love of which Christ himself speaks: "Greater love has no-one than this" (John 15:13). We are thus joined through his grace to him and our naighbor by an unbreakable bond of love...Therefore, our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin, but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear—love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found.
My point is that there are several orthodox ways to speak of the atonement but the resolution specifically mentioned "substitutionary essence."
If this seems like theological hairsplitting, try a resolution in which we say it is about Jesus being present in communion. That should be easy to get Episcopalians to agree to. Then write the resolution to say that we resolve that it is through Transubstatiation
that Christ is present. That very Catholic statement will be acceptable to a few and cold not be voted in favor by most (who would support a statement of "Real Presence" in communion). The motion would then fail and someone could say that Episcopalians can't even agree that Jesus is present within our communion services.
I think despite the intent of the drafter of the legislation (which I trust was to provide a forum for the convention to affirm the essence of our faith that Jesus Christ is Lord) the resolution was written in a way to make it hard for enough people to swallow for different reasons and so it was destined not to pass. The Evangelism Committee then noticed a past convention had affirmed the Lordship of Jesus through another resolution and rather than recommending the resolution be voted yes or no, the committee recommended discharge as it had already been acted on by a previous convention. This is what happened after a brief debate.
During the debate we were encouraged to make this strong, clear statement so that others can see we still uphold core doctrine. Others then pointed out through our Book of Common Prayer, which is part of our Constitution and Canons, we already have very clear statements of the Lordship of Christ that have been in use by Christians for centuries in the Nicene and Apostle's Creeds and no one at the convention was suggesting we drop those creeds. Further it was pointed out that we affirm the Bible as containing all things necessary for salvation. Debate ended. The vote was taken with me and others voting against discharging the resolution even as I understood why some would not be able to support the specific wording of the resolution.
The discharge vote had the effect of saying that Episcopalians discharged faith in Jesus Christ. I think what we did instead was decide not to get sidetracked by a contentious debate over a resolution written in such a way that it was more divisive than uniting.
I don't regret that action of the Convention so much as I regret the impression it gives. I know lots and lots of Episcopalians who agree that Jesus Christ is Lord. I don't know any who do not agree that Jesus Christ is Lord. And yet we seemed to not be able to affirm even that.
In her Op-Ed piece, Allen wrote,
When a Christian church cannot bring itself to endorse a bedrock Christian theological statement repeatedly found in the New Testament, it is not a serious Christian church.
I don't debate that this is true. But I do contend that The Episcopal Church has not come to the point where it can not endorse this "bedrock Christian theological statement." Sure, that particular resolution was discharged by the Convention, but this Sunday in Episcopal Churches all across this country the faithful will still rise to reaffirm their faith as found in the ancient words of The Nicene Creed and I will be saying it with them and my fingers will decidedly not be crossed.
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor + King of Peace Episcopal Church