A Confessional Moment
The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) is in the midst of a slow painful crisis of identity—as, indeed, are many other Christian denominations. Or, worse. The denomination may be in its death throes, a small denomination slowly splintering into smaller chunks. It’s not been pretty. The denominational prayer with the appropriate edits might be the cry of Paul at the end of Romans 7: “Wretched times that these are, who will rescue us from this body of death?” (7:24).
One group offering to rescue the Christian Reformed Church is the Abide Project. On the About page of their website (Abide Project), they give their history. Abide, they say, “began with a group of ministers and leaders in the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) concerned about recent developments in the denomination.”
These “recent developments” turn out to be mostly about sex. Specifically, same-sex marriage. Their explanatory statement goes on: “The group firmly believes that the Bible teaches that God created humanity male and female and that marriage is for a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant.” And what’s more, they say, not everyone in the CRC is on board with this view of marriage, adding that: “In the CRC, some have challenged this biblical standard based on recent trends in Western society.” The “based on recent trends” is a slap at the seriousness of their opponents, but let that go for the moment; I’ll return to it below. As they say, voices within the CRC, including my own, have challenged the assumptions that the Abide group makes about marriage and sexuality. And these concerns, they claim, are not just about sex but much else. Their statement draws this conclusion:
Abide believes that the confusion about sexuality is symptomatic of larger, underlying divergences in belief and doctrine within the CRC. Such compromises on sexuality and marriage have arisen because of significant disagreements on biblical inspiration, identity in Christ, ecclesiology and eschatology. The matter of sexuality has simply brought these differences to the forefront.
It will not entirely surprise the members of the Abide movement that I agree with this. Not with the substance of their claims about marriage and sexuality, of course. I think they are quite wrong about that. But with their claim that the denomination has in some serious sense lost its way.
And not just the CRC. The broader church in our time and in our lands (the United States and Canada) appears to have lost its way. Not every church, of course, nor every Christian, but much of what takes the name “Christian” no longer has much connection to Jesus of Nazareth or the apostolic tradition that stems from Jesus. We have come to a moment in which those who claim to be Christian differ so radically one from another that they seem to belong to entirely different religions. It’s in moments like this, when the faith is in crisis, that confessions are born—defining statements that can guide the church into the future. We are in a such a moment, a confessional moment.
Retrieving the Faith
Perhaps in this respect our times resemble the era of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. There was a pervasive sense then as now that the church had lost its way. For Luther and others, what was required was a retrieval of the faith. Any such retrieval involves two things: a stripping away of what obscures and distorts the faith and, equally, a retrieval of what is essential to the faith.
What I’m rounding into in this post are some halting steps towards new ways to confess the faith. I hope that you will come along with me on this enterprise, thinking through what I say and adding your own thoughts. What’s required on this journey is that we both get the critique of the church right—that we understand what’s going wrong—and that we find the resources to grasp the gospel in new and compelling ways—new ways that will in the end seem not new at all, but what has always been the truth underlying the old ways.
In the process, we will do what I have been trying to do in this series: work towards a more helpful understanding of how confessions function or should function in the church. There is much confusion in this area, and perhaps we can begin to understand the role of the confessions in the life of the church in ways that bring new life both to the confessions themselves and to the church. The Belgic Confession, to take a singular example, began as an attempt to restate the faith in ways that people of the 16th century would find compelling. The fact that in part it succeeded in this task is why it has become one of our Reformed confessions. It gave new statement to old truths—a statement deeply insinuated into the thinking and life of the 16th century. How can we grasp its truths without some of the 16th century baggage. That will be part of our project going forward.
A Passion for Reform
One more consideration before we launch into the project. It has to do with that little aside in the material about Abide on their website. They say that “In the CRC, some have challenged this biblical standard [on human sexuality] based on recent trends in Western society.” I’ve added the italics to draw attention to their not at all subtle theological slam against their opponents. Their opponents, they allege have abjectly surrendered to the spirit of age. They—those who hold fast to marriage as it has always been (at least, since 1950)—are entirely biblical. That this is not the case is not the point here. I’ve made that point often enough in this blog. The point here is that their allegations suggest something about those who would reform the church. They suggest that those who hold different views are somehow not spiritually serious or, at least, biblically serious. This is the allegation often made towards those who believe that the last word in theology and ethics has not yet been written.
Perhaps this could be restated in terms of “less than” and “more than.” Often those who claim to hold traditional views in churches think that those who have different views have them because they lack faith. They believe more, they allege; we believe less. But this is silly. We who wish to reform the church do not believe less but differently than those who claim to be traditional. Take this as a plea for passion. Reforming the church is not a matter of backing away from faith but understanding in new ways.
Making a Beginning
So let’s begin this work of retrieval, pointing first to where the church seems to have gone wrong and then to some ways to grasp the gospel anew, ways that are better able to speak to our own time. My focus of course will not be on the whole church—I have neither the space nor the expertise for that—but on the church as I know it. My deepest experience is with my own denomination, the CRC, and then generally with American evangelicalism. I also regularly worship in Episcopal churches and where relevant, I’ll also take that experience into account.
But perhaps a better way to come at the issues that I intend to address in these posts is to focus on what the word “Christian” has come to mean in our culture, both in the church and outside of it. Increasingly, “Christian” names a movement that is both narrower and broader than the church, a movement more political than theological, more concerned with sexual ethics than following Jesus, more aimed at control than service. Underlying this movement are certain ways of approaching truth and the Bible, a distinctive and pervasive view of salvation, and a form of cultural politics.
My original intention was to cover all of this in a single post, but it became immediately apparent that doing any kind of justice to these topics would make this post overly long. I decided instead to devote a separate post to each of them, and in this post simply to outline the direction I will take in those subsequent posts.
Three Key Misdirections in American Evangelical Protestantism
So, then three things. Three ways the church has gone wrong. First and oldest, the Bible. How to read the Bible, which is to say, how we come to know what we need to know of life and God and salvation. Which is to say, the idea of Protestantism itself.
A simple—perhaps, overly simple—version of the history of the Protestant movement goes something like this. In the middle of the 15th century in Europe, the printing press was developed, and books became readily available to an increasingly literate public. Along with the books in the 16th century came new ways of reading the Bible fostered by the likes of Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin.
These developments in literacy came at a time when the Western church was undergoing a crisis of authority. It was easy to suppose that one could substitute the authority of the written apostolic word for the authority of the Pope and other church officials, and so the idea of sola scriptura, roughly, “all we need is the Bible,” was born. Over subsequent generations, the sola scriptura idea was refined and became a basic principle of Protestantism. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. The Protestant principle seems to have reached an impasse.
A stellar example of this impasse played itself out this past summer in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the annual synod of the CRC with respect to two different issues. The first, in the order of the synod, was the theology of atonement known as penal substitutionary atonement, roughly the idea that the death of Jesus is a way of satisfying God’s demand for justice and that this satisfaction is transferred from Jesus to God’s elect. The details don’t matter here.
What does matter is that this view of the atonement is not found in that form in the Bible, as has been observed by many commentators, including lately N.T. Wright. But whether this was true or not was not debated at Synod 2022. Most of the delegates already knew this view of the atonement was true. Further, they knew it was biblical. How did they know? They knew this because this is the way that they have always read the Bible. That the Bible teaches penal substitutionary atonement seemed obvious to them.
What’s happened here? What’s happened is that underlying sola scriptura is the idea that the Bible contains a theological system, a system, as matter of fact, that Reformed theologians have figured out. And part of this system is penal substitutionary atonement. You read the Bible from the point of view of this idea of atonement, not this idea of atonement from the Bible.
The synod did the same thing with regard to human sexuality. They began an idea of what human sexuality ought to be. How, in their opinion, we were created. And then they imposed that idea on the Bible. They were never interested in discovering what the Bible says about human sexuality or whether it says anything at all beyond what was assumed in aniquity. What they wanted was for the Bible to serve as an authority that would condemn any view of human sexuality different from what they espoused.
Clearly, there are problems here. The Bible does not resemble the book that Protestantism needs it to be. There is not one way of thinking about atonement; the Bible gives us several in its theologies of the cross. Or, rather, since these are not yet developed theologies, metaphors for why Jesus had to die. The early church developed these metaphors in multiple directions, none of which was penal substitutionary atonement. I’ll take these issues first in a post called, “The Bible and the Failure of Protestantism.”
A second issue, related to the first but less often cited by critics of American evangelicalism is the way that popular American Christianity has slid over into a form of gnosticism. Gnosticism as a concept (scholars differ on whether Gnosticism is a helpful term for understanding the history of religion) is the idea that our spirits need to be liberated from our material bodies and this material world. To be saved is to escape from this world of pain and woe to some other realm. One effects such an escape by what one knows—some sort of spiritual knowledge.
With this too brief description of gnosticism in mind, think about the gospel preached at your average American megachurch. You are told that salvation is a matter of going to heaven, thereby escaping this life of pain and woe, and that one goes to heaven by knowing Jesus. Or, at least, by saying the right things about Jesus. This view is gnostic through and through. But, this in turn separates life as we know it—life on earth—from the primary concerns of the faith—getting into heaven. And this means that for many Christians faith has little to do with how one lives one’s life. I’ll take up this pervasive gnosticism in the church in a second follow-up post.
Which brings me to the third critique. In part because Christianity of the American evangelical persuasion is mostly a religion of escape, it is susceptible to a peculiar kind of disconnect. The disconnect is between what Jesus taught and what “Christians” believe about violence, guns, nationalism, culture, and race. The third follow-up post will explore how Christianity in our time has moved into the idea of Christian nationalism.
Beyond those three, I hope to turn from critique to construction, finding new ways to grasp the faith that will free it from the perniciousness of modern American evangelicalism. Along the way, I also hope to look more closely at the historic Reformed confessions and their role in the church, especially the role of the Reformed statements of subscription to the creeds. And, I hope along the way to bring to you some of the insights of a new book by David Bentley Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022).
I promise these posts will arrive on your screens in a more timely manner than I have lately been able to manage.
And so, as always, stay tuned,