Monday, July 16, 2012

More Thoughts on Bishop Jefferts-Schori and Salvation in Christ Alone

Saturday I wrote a post detailing "The Sad, Sad Case of the Episcopal Church in the USA."  Lest anyone misunderstand me, I want to make it clear that my beef is not with lay Episcopalians or any particular Episcopal Church, let alone with historic Anglicanism per se, toward which I am pleasantly disposed.  My problem is with the official hierarchy of the church that gives direction to the shriveling denomination as a whole, in particular the church's Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.  My contention is that the Episcopalianism represented by Jefferts Schori is sub-Anglican at best and sub-Christian at worst.

Defenders of Jefferts Schori, such as Huffington Post blogger Diana Butler Bass (see, e.g., here and here), speak glowingly of the type of "liberal" Christianity embodied by the bishop:
Introspective liberal churchgoers returned to the core of the Christian vision: Jesus' command to "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself." As a result, a sort of neo-liberal Christianity has quietly taken root across the old Protestant denominations--a form of faith that cares for one's neighbor, the common good, and fosters equality, but is, at the same time, a transformative personal faith that is warm, experiential, generous, and thoughtful. This new expression of Christianity maintains the historic liberal passion for serving others but embraces Jesus' injunction that a vibrant love for God is the basis for a meaningful life. These Christians link spirituality with social justice as a path of peace and biblical faith.
My political vision certainly does not match that of the common-variety evangelical.  Moreover, I have been a relentless critic of the throw out the baby with the bathwater-style evangelical reductionism that has divorced the preaching of the cross from its necessary embodiment in a cruciform discipleship that seeks to implement social justice.  Nevertheless, so-called "liberal" Christians like Bass and her bishop Jefferts-Schori simply perpetuate a mirror image of the evangelical one-sidedness they deride.  Yes, "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself" (the "Jesus Creed," as the evangelical Scot McKnight calls it) is the core of Christian praxis.  Yet, as the Gospels teach us, even the Pharisees did not dispute this (cf. Mark 12:28-34 et par.; numerous later rabbinic texts illustrate the same point).  But understanding this, and even the attempt to act upon it, only left the inquirer "not far from" the kingdom of God (Mark 12:34). 

Many "evangelical rejects" who have been unconscionably hurt by the evangelical machine have found comfort in such traditions as Bass and Jefferts Schori embody.  I understand that completely, as I do the renewed sense of worship that often attends a (re)discovery of beautiful ancient liturgies.  But we must make one thing clear: loving God and neighbor is a necessary defining feature of Christian vocation, but it is not a sufficient summary of what Christian identity and belief entails.  Bass rightly praises the positive influence liberal Christianity has played in American society in contrast to the sectarian vision of much fundamentalism.  But that does not alter the fact that "liberalism" as a Christian belief system is a 19th century reaction to orthodoxy (e.g., Schleiermacher, Harnack) that was definitively critiqued by Albert Schweitzer in 1910 and devastatingly shown to be a different religion from Christianity by J. Gresham Machen in 1923.  One simply cannot cherry-pick favorable teachings of Jesus and act as if St. Paul never existed.  Hermeneutical and historical concerns join together here to invalidate an understanding of Christianity born of an enculturated wishful-thinking.

A prime example here is this video of Jefferts-Schori in which she clearly disputes the notion that Jesus is the only way to salvation.  In the space of a mere 2 minutes and 40 seconds, she manages to utter the following:
"Clearly the other Abrahamic faiths have access to God the Father without consciously going through Jesus."

"Ghandi, the Dalai Lama ... show us what look like fruits of the Spirit ... If I deny that that person has some access to God because of the evidence I see I think I'm dong something pretty close to the sin against the Holy Spirit."

"I believe that the whole world has access to God; I'm just not too worried about the mechanism."

"In some pats of Christianity we have turned salvation into a work, that you have to say 'I claim Jesus as my Lord and Savior in order to be saved.'  That turns it into a work.  It denies the possibility of grace."
I would be hard-pressed to find a more egregious example of poor biblical interpretation and irresponsible theology from any educated Christian, let alone a woman who is charged with oversight in a major American denomination.  The first thing that immediately struck my attention is that what she says does not even match a criterion of what it has historically meant to be an Anglican.  Article XVIII of the 39 Articles of Religion (2006 American edition) is entitled "Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the name of Christ."  It reads as follows:
They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature.  For Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.
More importantly, I would argue that her pronouncements likewise are subChristian because their explicit denial of the soteriological uniqueness of Christ implicitly manifests a substandard Christology and explicitly contradicts the words of both Jesus and the apostles.  Jesus himself, in response to a query by Thomas, made the following outrageous claim:
I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
St. Peter, while speaking to the "rulers and elders of the people" as well as the "teachers of the law" (Acts 4:5) showed he remembered Jesus' words when he likewise uttered the offensive claim:
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
I am perfectly aware of such notions as exclusivism (salvation through explicit faith in Christ alone), inclusivism (salvation through Christ alone for both Christians and those who have "responded to God" through their own faith traditions), and universalism (salvation for all because of Christ no matter the faith practiced or life lived).  I am a trained theologian with a terminal degree, after all.  One thing should be clear to anyone who has read the New Testament, however.  No matter what we might "like to think" about God, he has only given hope to those who actively put their faith in Christ and submit to him.  Indeed, this is part of the raison d'etre of evangelism.  To quote the apostle Paul: "How are they to believe in him on whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent?" (Rom 10:14-15a).

Jefferts-Schori is obviously an inclusivist, basing her view on God's undefined "grace."  Because of this "grace," she is certain the whole world has "access" to God.  As a result she is relatively "unconcerned" about the "mechanism" of this access.  Considering the clarity of the New Testament witness in this regard, such a statement may sound pious, but it is in reality both pathetic and disingenuous.  She tips her hand in her outrageous claim that the requirement to exercise faith in Christ turns salvation into a "work."  This is yet another example of using pious-sounding language to evacuate the clear, and clearly inconvenient to her, meaning of the biblical text.

Was St.Paul, after all, the apostle of works-righteousness?  Would she dare to correct Paul and Silas when they told the Philippian jailer, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved? (Acts 16:31).  Would she dare to inform the apostle Paul that he was inconsistent when he simultaneously tied "justification" to faith and to grace alone (Rom 3:21-31; cf. Eph 2:8-9)?  Would she deign to instruct the apostle Paul about his error in tying grace to the event of the cross (e.g., Rom 5:20)?  What would she say to Luke when he attributed the faith by which the Corinthians had believed in Christ through Apollos's ministry to the grace of God (Acts 18:27)?  And is she ready to throw out of the Bible (or at least the Bible she uses) the most significant text of all in this regard, Romans 4:5: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness"?  Jefferts-Schori, in other words, has a sub-Pauline understanding of grace.  Grace is not simply the beneficence of an indulgent God, but the undeserved favor shown to sinners, who all deserve wrath, in the penal death of his Son on the cross of Calvary and the application of its achievement to the sinner through grace-given faith.  Unfortunately, such theology offends the sensibilities of such church leaders as Jefferts-Schori.  But they can hardly claim scriptural warrant for their "reimagining" of what genuine Christianity teaches.

The last thing I would like to say concerns Jefferts-Schori's assertions about other "Abrahamic faiths" and her stance that adherents of these religions need not be evangelized.  God, according to the bishop, had made certain unconditional promises to both the Jews and to "the people of Ishmael" that have not been rescinded.  She doesn't identify precisely what these "promises" entail.  Implicitly, however, she would include what Christians call "salvation" as one of them.  Now, I have no clue as to what grand, eternal scriptural promises she would say pertain to Muslims outside of Christ.  I do know that it was only the seed of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob that had been placed in covenant relationship with YHWH.  The seed of Ishmael, like the seed of Isaac, were not part of the chosen people exclusively "known" by God (Amos 3:1).  They were rather lumped in together with my forebears as Gentiles who would one day be blessed "in" and "with" Abraham (see Galatians 3 for how that is worked out in the New Testament).  There is no justifiable theological rationale for excluding them from the necessity of bending the knee to Christ (apart from the politically correct desire to appear "open" and "inclusive," good words that have had unnecessary connotations attached to them through the usage of "liberals" [another good word ...]).

Jefferts-Schori's comment about the Jews brought a smile to my face, however, for, if one did not know better, one might have been forgiven for getting the impression that she was a dispensationalist!  There are promises to the Jews that have never been rescinded.  True enough, but the bishop has no intention of applying her words to the promise of the land or a Davidide ruling over the world from Jerusalem.  What she means is something like what many post-holocaust scholars have dubbed "the two-covenant theory."  According to this theory, Gentiles relate to God through Christ, but the Jews still can relate to God through their own covenants.  Ironically, what is meant to be a "compassionate" and "anti-imperial" position vis-a-vis the Jews who have suffered so much at the hands of supposed Christians turns out to be, in reality, antisemitic if it thereby closes off the only path to salvation made available to them.  And we have no doubt where St. Paul would have stood on this matter.  He rebuked Peter because the latter had, in Antioch, acted inconsistently with his knowledge that all people (himself, a Jew, included) are justified only by faith in Christ (Gal 2:15-16).  In Romans he speaks of the gospel of Christ as applicable to the Jew first (Rom 1:16).

As the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 1:20, all God's promises — and that includes his promises to the Jewish people find their "yes" in Christ, and in him alone.  Christ is the true "seed of Abraham" who rendered to God the obedience the exiled nation owed him, thus reversing the covenant curse and extending the Abrahamic blessing to the Gentiles (Gal 3:7-14).  As a result, it is Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ that constitute the true "seed of Abraham" (Gal 3:29) and "Israel of God" (Gal 6:16) who receive the benefits of "justification" and covenant membership.  As the apostle argues elsewhere, on the basis of God's faithfulness to his promises, ethnic Israel does have a future — only not a guaranteed future for those outside of Christ, based on the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants, but a future when, after God has gathered the "full number of the Gentiles," "all Israel" will be "saved" and "grafted back into" the olive tree as natural branches who finally accept their Messiah (Rom 11).  For, you see, St. Paul had no conception of any "salvation" for anybody apart from faith in the Christ who commissioned him to preach.  And neither should we.

2 comments:

  1. While in college studying Religion, I attended the Episcopal Church. Yes, there were a few issues I had with their beliefs, but after getting hurt in the Presbyterian Church, I was desperate to get away since I was going to school because of the Episcopal Church. After graduating from college, I went home and felt unhappiness towards the parishes I attended. Still taking a blind eye to their controversies, I finally joined in 2009 with the hopes I could attend seminary. No one in the Church wanted to help me understand my goals. Soon I gave up the though of ministry and sought comfort in volunteering at my parish, but something did not feel right. I began to open my eyes to the controversies that I disagreed with. It seemed the Episcopal Church is a Church of nothingness. One day I had enough and decided to leave. My husband, who refused to join the Episcopal Church, joined a local Methodist Church with me. I am not excited about Church as I was five years ago, but I feel that I have left a dark hole, which is the Episcopal Church.

    Bishop Schori and Diana Butler Bass have confused me so much that I have to relearn all that I learned in college because the Episcopal Church confused me. Like I said, it is like a church of nothingness.

    ReplyDelete
  2. We have a loving God who desires all of His children to be with Him forever in Heaven; however, in accordance with Scripture, the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, and the Nicene Creed, salvation is through Christ. It is on God's mercy that others have to rely. While salvation is a grace from God, being a baptized Christian is not enough. As St. Paul cautioned the Philippians, salvation is a continual working out. As a former Episcopalian, if you desire orthodoxy in the fullness of Christ's revelation, come home to the Catholic Church.

    ReplyDelete