Evangelicalism & Ecclesiology

tron2For some time, I’ve not been inclined to describe myself simply as ‘An Evangelical’ (although I used to). David Robertson recently wrote that he doesn’t want to use the term ‘evangelical’ any longer. However, his reasons and mine are different.
David Robertson’s comments were made in relation to the debates about the events at St George’s Tron Church of Scotland in Glasgow, which have been making the news here in Scotland in recent weeks. David has been very critical of the Church of Scotland. Let me say at the outset that my sympathies are with the Tron to a very great degree as proclaimers of the orthodox, biblical faith in a denomination where a significant proportion strongly express liberal theological values. And, judging by the reports, the Glasgow presbytery seem to have dealt with their desire to secede in a disgraceful manner.

The Tron’s secession brings up the issue of Evangelicalism and Ecclesiology, but first back to the term ‘evangelical’. David Robertson thinks that the term now covers such a broad range of views within the church that it has become meaningless. It has always been the case that ‘evangelicalism’ is a broad movement (although I think in many cases it is being applied too broadly). David feels like he does because conservative evangelicals have attempted to co-opt the term as exclusively their own. The term is not meaningless. David Bebbington and others have argued that evangelicalism has four or five basic features. The fact that these features are present in many parts of the church doesn’t make the term meaningless. Evangelicalism’s four or five features can be worked out in different ways – it really is a broad term.

Evangelicalism technically takes no position on ecclesiology. However, in practice it tends to espouse one. And that is the ecclesiology of independents and baptists: the church is an invisible, virtual reality that exists within structures that are at best benign encumbrances, and at worst, necessary (or unnecessary) evils. The church is a pure body. The external structures and government are not the church, but are the impure paraphenalia. This was the view argued by Lloyd-Jones over against John Stott. The desire to find evangelical unity also inexorably and subliminally carries the view that ecclesiology is not important. This Evangelical View is not Reformed ecclesiology. Presbyterians believe in the Church. The church as a visible body and as a necessarily (for now) impure body. There exist within the church both those who are of true faith, and those who are not. It has ever been thus. Any particular church or denomination is either more or less pure to the degree that it seeks to be obedient to the Word of Life. The Church of Scotland is currently sailing close to the wind in flirting with the idea of sanctioning the ordination to the ministry throughout the Kirk of practicing homosexuals. Evangelicals seem to believe they must leave. But what about Evangelical Presbyterians, which they all ought to be? A Reformed ecclesiology doesn’t necessarily see things the same way – but very few seem to be arguing it’s position. And so the Evangelicals leave the CofS in dribs and drabs, and their warnings of demise become self-fulfilling prophecies.
One thing seems clear to me: an Evangelical is not the same as an Evangelical Presbyterian.  Especially in ecclesiology. Therein lies, to my mind at least, part of the problem with the situation at St George’s Tron. The problem is very similar to that in Wales in the second half of last century. Many Evangelicals responded to the call of Lloyd-Jones and left Presbyterianism to become Evangelicals in independency. I don’t personally believe that this has strengthened the witness of the church in Welsh society. Within the Presbyterian Church of Wales, a small number of congregations who have abandoned the tenets of Presbyterianism for so-called Evangelicalism continue to this day in the denomination, functioning as de facto Independents (and sometimes as baptists). If these congregations (whether in Wales or Scotland) are not Presbyterians by conviction, why do they reside in a Presbyterian denomination? Independency is there for them. But any congregation that changes its ecclesiology ought not to expect the denomination to embrace their change of doctrine with gladness. Professor Donald Macleod wrote in the West Highland Free Press some years ago: we are not Evangelicals, we are Presbyterians.

All Things Are Yours

feeI was preaching recently on 1 Cor 3:21-23. The Corinthians say: I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos…(1 Cor 1:12). Paul says: Paul, Apollos and Cephas belong to you – in fact, all things belong to you.

Whilst preparing, I came across this great quote from Fee’s NICNT volume on 1 Corinthians.

The Corinthian error is an easy one to repeat. Not only do we all have normal tendencies to turn natural preferences into exclusive ones, but in our fallenness we also tend to consider ourselves “wise” enough to inform God through whom he may minister to his people. Our slogans take the form of “I am of the Presbyterians,” or “of the Pentecostals,” or “of the Roman Catholics.” Or they might take ideological forms: “I am of the liberals,” or “of the evangelicals,” or “of the fundamentalists.” And these are also used as weapons: “Oh, he’s a fundamentalist, you know.” Which means that we no longer need to listen to him, since his ideology has determined his overall value as a spokesman for God. It is hardly possible in a day like ours that one will not have denominational, theological, or ideological preferences. The difficulty lies in allowing that it might really be true that “all things are ours,” including those whom we think God would do better to be without. But God is full of surprises; and he may choose to minister to us from the “strangest” of sources, if we were but more truly “in Christ” and therefore free in him to learn and to love.

This does not mean that one should not be discriminating; after all, Paul has no patience for that teaching in Corinth which had abandoned the pure gospel of Christ. But to be “of Christ” is also to be free from the tyrannies of one’s own narrowness, free to learn even from those with whom one may disagree.

Death and Challenge

snowleopardIs death part of the natural world as part of the Divine Intention? To answer that we need the Genesis narratives. Can we see death in Genesis 1 and 2 – death before the Fall? I don’t mean human death – that was a result of the Fall. But, did animals and plants die? The more I meditate on these chapters, the firmer my belief that this is the case.

In Genesis 1 and 2 we meet the world we know – sun, moon and stars, day and night, earth and sea, animals, birds, fish, and plants. It is the familiar world. In Gen 1:24 and 2:20, wild animals are mentioned alongside domesticated (or domesticatable) animals. Wild animals includes carnivores (like snow leopards), which are part of our familiar world. So, death would seem to be implied in this classification of familiar animals. In Genesis 2 we meet familiar humanity: working the ground, sleeping, needing food, having flesh and bones (and ribs). As John Walton points out, the first humans had skin (he translates basar in 2:23 as skin) and skin is a layer of dead cells. So, at the cellular level, death is implied. Certainly, the fact that plants are for food shows that the usual metabolic cycles are present, with cells requiring energy. Perhaps even more fundamentally, in Genesis 1 God creates plants and trees with fruit bearing seed. In the botanical life cycle, seeds are only required because of biological death. In a world without death, why would seeds be required? The plants are given for food (1:29,30), and are consumed. So plants are certainly dying. And if biological death is present in the plant kingdom, where is the objection to a similar situation in the animal kingdom? The sixth day connection between animals and humans might be used as basis for an objection, but the botanical/zoological divide seems an unlikely boundary for the principal of death. A far more likely boundary for death is between animals and humans, who are created in (or perhaps preferably, as) the Image of God. Humans are not created to die because they mirror their Creator in a way that animals do not.

To my mind, theological objections to the principle of biological death in the animal and plant kingdoms falter in the light of the above. In Genesis 3, it is specifically human death that results from the Fall. The Divine Intention for the immortality of humans is part of the distinctiveness of humanity as God’s image on earth.

Animals that survive through the death of other creatures, whether bacteria, spiders, flies, birds, whales, fish, pumas, wolves or seals – these creatures display the glory of the Creator in the brilliance and wonder of their design, in the amazing beauty of their function, and in the complexity of the ecosystems in which they participate. The redemption of creation will reverse the effects of the Fall, and the glory and beauty of these ecosystems will remain. The world as created had to be ruled, or subdued (1:28) and even the Garden in all its beauty had to be worked and cared for (2:15). The work of humanity is in a sense a continuation of God’s work in fashioning the world from its formless and empty watery darkness. The created world was a world containing challenges –  of growing food, keeping livestock and coping with wild creatures. It was a world where there was a Garden, but also wildness. In redemption of the fallen world, there is also challenge; sin has increased the challenge beyond all boundaries. The life and work of Jesus Christ testifies to this. There is challenge in the process of redemption and there is challenge, albeit of a different nature, that remains in its realisation.