Saturday, September 5, 2009

Katherine Jefferts Schori's Muddled Thoughts on Salvation

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop has attempted to clarify her remarks at the General Convention Opening Session last month in an article in Episcopal Life. She was criticized for teaching heresy from almost every sector of the Church Catholic (except liberal Protestantism) after claiming that "the great Western heresy" is "that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God."

The article follows in red with my comments in square brackets and in [bold].

[Episcopal Life] I always am delighted when people listen to what I say in a sermon or address. Sometimes I am surprised by what they hear. In my opening address at General Convention, I spoke about the "great Western heresy" of individualism (see the full text here).

There have been varied reactions from people who weren't there, who heard or read an isolated comment without the context. Apparently I wasn't clear! [That might be the problem, or it might be that she was too clear.]

Individualism (the understanding that the interests and independence of the individual necessarily trump the interests of others as well as principles of interdependence) is basically unbiblical and unchristian. [This is a bit rich coming from the leader of an Anglican Province that has bulled ahead with its homosexualist agenda despite the pleas of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the majority of the Anglican Communion to hold back from doing what all the Communion leadership has said is unacceptable to the vast majority until there is more agreement! She talks "interdependence, but practices "TEC individualism" in which the desires of individual homosexuals take precedence over Anglican interdependence.]

The spiritual journey, [Salvation is certainly a journey, but it is also an event. (Jn. 1:12, 3:16, Rom. 10:13)] at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is about holy living in community. When Jesus was asked to summarize the Torah, he said, "love God and love your neighbor as yourself." That means our task is to be in relationship with God and with our neighbors. If salvation is understood only as "getting right with God" without considering "getting right with (all) our neighbors," then we've got a heresy (an unorthodox belief) on our hands. [Where is the connection between the idea that we must love our neighbours and the idea that verbal assent to the Gospel is unnecessary or unimportant? The former does not imply the latter.]

The theme of our General Convention, ubuntu, was chosen intentionally to focus on this. Often translated from its original African dialects as "I am because we are," ubuntu has significant biblical connections and warrant. The Hebrew prophets save their strongest denunciation for those who claim to be worshiping correctly but ignore injustice done to their neighbors (e.g., Amos 5:21-24), and Jesus insists that those who will enter the kingdom are the ones who have cared for neighbor by feeding, watering, clothing, housing, healing and visiting "the least of these" (Matt 25:31-46). [Logically, not caring for neighbours may make our profession of faith hypocritical, or possibly even invalid, but it does not make it unnecessary. Neither the OT prophets or Jesus ever implied that.]

In my address, I went on to say that sometimes this belief that salvation only depends on getting right with God is reduced to saying a simple formula about Jesus. Jesus is quite explicit in his rejection of simple formulas: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt 7:21). [Yet Paul says: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Rom. 10:13) She is interpreting Jesus in such a way as to create an unnecessary contradiction with Paul. Is Jesus saying that "simple formulas are unnecessary or insufficient in themselves? There is a huge difference; the issue is the difference between how salvation is received initially and how is it worked out in our lives afterwards. The latter interpretation harmonizes Jesus and Paul and thus preserves the authority of Scripture, which makes it a better interpretation.] He is repeatedly insistent that right relationship depends on loving neighbors – for example, "those who say, ‘I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1John 4:20). The Epistles repeatedly enjoin the followers of Jesus to "give evidence of the hope within you" (1Pet 3:15ff), that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:14-26), that our judgment depends on care for brother and sister (Rom 14:10-12) and that we eat our own destruction [Is she a closet believer in hell or is she just getting carried away rhetorically here?] if we take Communion without having regard for the rest of the community (1Cor 11:27-34). [She is beating a dead horse here. A Wesley or a Luther or an Edwards or a Billy Graham would never disagree with any of these passages, but they would not interpret them as meaning that we obtain salvation by loving our neighbours, as she seems to be doing. She can apparently only conceive of salvation as either a matter of "mere words" or salvation as loving neighbours - both are things we do. She seems to be oblivious to a third possibility; namely, that salvation might be something God does in us and which we receive by faith.]

[Watch the contradiction in the next two sentences.] Salvation depends on love of God and our relationship with Jesus, and we give evidence of our relationship with God in how we treat our neighbors, nearby and far away. Salvation is a gift from God, not something we can earn by our works, but neither is salvation assured by words alone. [She almost tip toes back from the brink here by stating that salvation is a gift. But does she mean to affirm salvation by grace and faith alone? She is contrasting not faith in God's grace versus works here, but rather our works versus our words. Is salvation "given" as a free, unmerited gift of grace or as a reward for loving God and neighbour? Which comes first: salvation or love of neighbour? The whole context inclines the reader to the reward interpretation since there is no mention of faith, grace, sin, repentance, atonement or forgiveness in this whole discussion of salvation, which, after all, is supposed to clarify her theological teaching on the nature of salvation. Now if you were accused of heresy and works righteousness, do you think it would be a good idea to write a clarifying article that omitted all those ideas? Can a biblical theology of salvation be conveyed without using them?]

Salvation cannot be complete, in an eternal and eschatological sense, until the whole of creation is restored to right relationship. That is what we mean when we proclaim in the catechism that "the mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ" [The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God??? In the Bible that is the mission of Jesus Christ. The mission of the Church is to proclaim the good news of what Christ has done, is doing and will do. This is a pretty gigantic issue to get wrong. My undergraduate 'Introduction to Christian Theology' students would not get away with such a theologically careless statement.] and that Christian hope is to "live with confidence in newness and fullness of life and to await the coming of Christ in glory and the completion of God's purpose for the world." We anticipate the restoration of all creation to right relationship, and we proclaim that Jesus' life, death and resurrection made that possible in a new way. [Here she catches herself and affirms that the death and resurrection of Jesus "made that possible." But this is very vague and ambiguous. How did it make it possible? By this point, how much of a hermeneutic of suspicion is required to suspect that if pressed she would profer some sort of subjective, exemplarist view of the atonement? She must have realized that people would suspect her of holding such a non-objective view of atonement based on the response to her original remarks. Why would she not clarify her view here on the nature of atonement?] At the same time, salvation in the sense of cosmic reconciliation is a mystery. It's hard to pin down or talk about. It is ultimately the gift of a good and gracious God, [Again, the language of gift is not clear; it is really unmerited favor?] not the product of our incessant striving. It is about healing and wholeness and holiness, the fruit of being more than doing. [Now she needs to make up her mind. For several paragraphs it has been all about doing and striving; now suddenly she changes her tack and says it is not the product of our striving. Which is it? If loving God and neighbour in practical ways is how we merit the "gift" of salvation, rather than repeating a "mere verbal formula," then how is it that we can rest in God's grace?] Just like another image we use to speak about restored relationship, the reign of God, salvation is happening all the time, all around us. Where do you see evidence?" [She denigrates the whole idea of a "simple verbal formula" and opposes it to loving God and neighbour because she does not understand that the "empty hand of faith" by which we receive, in a totally passive way, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is the heart of the Gospel and the means by which the Church is preserved from legalism and works righteousness. She has no more understanding of the Gospel than the Judaizers, who accused Paul of antinomianism because he refused to make salvation contingent on keeping the works of the law. Whether it is circumcision or working for social justice, the question Paul addressed to the Galatians remains: "Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?"]

"You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? . . . Consider Abraham: 'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand then that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that those God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: All nations would be blessed through you.' So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." (Gal. 3:1-9)

Unfortunately, this "clarification" obscures more than it clarifies. If her point was that salvation is a free, unmerited gift of God that we receive by faith alone and that, as a result of being born again and filled with the Spirit, we naturally do good works as evidence of the reality of our new life in Christ, then why did she not just say so? Her point that good works and love of neighbour inevitably follow from a true conversion is uncontroversial among Evangelicals and Catholics; if that is all she wanted to say, no one could possibly object. But she had to draw the contrast not between true and false profession, but rather between doing good works and loving neighbour versus making a verbal profession of faith. The latter contrast shows a liberal trying to denigrate Evangelical theology as heretical. The former contrast would have been one Evanglicals frequently make themselves.

If you compare the theological writings and sermons of Jefferts Schori (who is the Presiding Bishop, after all, the chief teacher of the Episcopal Church) to the writings and sermons of J. R. W. Stott or J. I. Packer or N. T. Wright, her writings look amateurish, muddled and shallow. There is no reason to suspect, based on how she talks, that she has read widely or deeply in the Christian traditon. She gives no evidence of understanding orthodox teaching on salvation, either in its Augustinian-Reformed varieties or even in its Wesleyan-Arminian varities. She, apparently, from what she writes, could not distinguish between the teaching of Luther on justification and the teaching of the indulgence peddlers or explain what Luther was so exercised about.

Her writings are what one might expect as a legacy of nearly a century of liberal, social gospel theology dominating TEC and nearly a half-century of liberation theology being at the center of its seminary education. A church that could elect such a person bishop is a church that is not just heretical but a church that has lost the ability to distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy. The TEC is in much worse shape theologically than the Roman Catholic Church was on the eve of the Reformation.

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