Friday, May 18, 2012

The End of Evangelicalism or the Failure of Anabaptism to Take Over Evangelicalism? Part II

Is isolationism and withdrawal better?  Do the Amish have it right?

I ask because Fitch puts forward a neo-anabaptist alternative to conservative politics as the better way for Evangelicals in chapter 6.

Sometimes Catholics say that Evangelicals have no ecclesiology and by that they mean that Evangelicals do not believe that God's grace is mediated to the world via the institutional church centered in a sacramental priesthood and ruled by a hierarchy.  Fitch's neo-anabaptism amounts to a protestant version of the Catholic concept of the Church as the extension of Christ's incarnation.  He writes:
"The church, then, becomes an extension of the Trinity into the world as a participant in this sending, the missio Dei.  By articulating the evangelical belief in Scripture in the terms set forth above - our one true story of God for the whole world, infallible in and through Jesus Christ our Lord - we in essence have the basis for becoming the church Bosch speaks about.  . . . The politic of the church  is shaped by Scripture as the very real incarnational presence of Christ extended by the Spirit into the world - a politic of fulness in the world. (p. 141)
In this chapter (chapter 6) Fitch argues for replacing an inerrant Bible with a divine Church.  It is not a hierarchical church that he envisions and it has the priesthood of all believers instead of a sacramental priesthood.  But it is a view of the Church as the mode of Christ's presence in the world.  (Maybe his language is just loose here - maybe he does not really mean that the Church is a continuation of the incarnation.  That is the impression I got from one quick read and it could be wrong.  I'll argue against the idea anyway though because the idea is wrong no matter who proposes it in whatever context.)

Evangelicalism must resist this theological proposal because the role of the Church is not to be an extension of the incarnation or the presence of God in mission in the world.  The role of the Church is to be a witness to the coming kingdom by preaching salvation through the King - Jesus Christ.  The Church points away from itself to something greater and better.  The mission of the Church is to bear the message of the Gospel to a world in need of the good news of salvation.  If we were to accept (what I think I understand to be) Fitch's proposal we would be abandoning the valid insights of the Reformers of the 16th century. This presumably would not bother Fitch as a neo-anabaptist, but it ought bother Evangelicals who wish to keep faith with their heritage of Biblical doctrine.

Next, Fitch recommends N. T. Wright's challenge to the Reformation doctrine of justification as the way to avoid cheap grace.  He writes:
"Wright's reformulation in essence makes justification impossible for the believer apart from his/her wider participation in the work of God in Christ by the Spirit to set the world right.  I cannot possess this salvation as my own.  I am justified only as I am a participant 'in Christ,' in the righteousness God is working in the world.  There can be no distancing of myself from Christ in accepting God's pardon from sin made possible in Christ. . . . We enter into salvation by entering into the entire work of God in Christ by the Spirit for the mission of God in the world." (p. 144)
I find it difficult to believe that anyone could believe that Evangelical theology has never heard of the clear teaching in the book of James.  We know that justification by faith is true, but we also know that true saving faith results in good works being done by the person who is truly regenerated by the Spirit of God.  So what is Fitch driving at here with his call to move away from the Reformation doctrine of forensic justification?

It seems that he is again moving in a Catholic direction and embracing synergism instead of monergism thus turning salvation into a joint effort in which God and man cooperate.  Maybe he does not mean this.  But why advocate a New Perspective view on justification instead of using the many resources within Evangelical theology that can be deployed to fight anti-nomianism?  It is not like this is a new problem.  Monergism is fully capable of resisting anti-nomianism and has done so for five centuries.  This is why Evangelicalism needs the Gospel Coalition and more good, sound, biblical teaching.  But it is not like we had no reply to anti-nomianism until the New Perspective came along.

In the third section of chapter six, Fitch makes his Catholic theological direction clearer.  Here he makes use of the Catholic theologians De Lubac and Cavanaugh to argue for a doctrine of the visible Church as the body of Christ.  He writes:
"A politic is thus born.  Christ's reign becomes visible as we embody the infinite gifting of forgiveness, faithfulness, and love.  Yet this way of being together births the Kingdom not only among 'us.'  It enables us to resist alternatives politics of violence and isolation, to subvert them, and indeed to draw the world into the restoration of all things, i.e. the Kingdom of God." (p. 157)
Here we see an over-realized eschatology in which the Kingdom is here in the corporate life of the church and is visible for all to see.  It is Roman Catholic ecclesiology radicalized.  I remember David Burrell saying once that if he was not going to continue to be a Catholic he would become a Mennonite, which makes a lot of sense.  In place of the sacramental priesthood mediating God's grace to humankind we have the "community of character" (Hauerwas), the incipient kingdom of God made visible in the quality of moral relationships between members of the church.

What direction is Fitch pushing Evangelicalism? It is obvious to me, having read this book, why he has such a strong animus toward Reformed theology.  It embodies everything he finds distasteful: justification by faith alone, expository preaching, mission as evangelism, and personal repentance and faith as the lynch pin of salvation.  He has clearly detached himself emotionally from Evangelicalism as a tradition and from the theology that undergirds it in both its Reformed and Arminian branches. 

He wants a liberal form of Roman Catholicism: the church as divine presence in the world, salvation as synergism, and mission as moral action in and by the faith community. 

Fitch never considers the possibility that Evangelicals might have a political theology in which the mission of the church is evangelizing the lost and nurturing its members, while individual church members might be responsible to engage in politics in a fallen world as part of their own Christian discipleship rather than as part of the church's mission per se.  Christians are pilgrims in this world; our true home is heaven.  But while we are here we should be good neighbors and good citizens, recognize signs of common grace when we see them and co-operate with all those of good will in making the world a little less violent, a little less unjust and a little less disrespectful of human life, family and the weak among us.  (It might even mean voting for a Mormon as president!)

Such a politics has no grandiose goals of turning a fallen world into the kingdom of God; that is the work of Jesus and he has promised to complete it when he returns.  Such a politics has no grandiose visions of the mission of the Church; she exists to preach the Gospel, bear a witness to Jesus, enfold the lost, comfort the dying and build up the body of Christ.  The Church is not here to make America into the kingdom of God.  On this point, Fitch is right to criticize Evangelical rhetoric because the goal is not a Christian nation in the sense of a nation that is transformed into a church.  But, you know, I have actually met one or two Evangelicals who understand this and who would insist that the rhetoric of civil religion not be over-interpreted.  A Christian nation can be understood as a nation that (1) does not persecute the church, (2) upholds natural law as the basis of positive law and (3) protects the religious freedom of all religions.

Christian Smith, the Notre Dame sociologist who has studied the Religious Right in depth, came to the conclusion that the real goals of the Religious Right was to get America back to the situation of the 1950s (with the exception of the civil rights gains made since).  Now that may not be a very ambitious goal because the 1950s were far from perfect.  But that is exactly my point; conservative politics does not aim for perfection.  The Christian Right doesn't ask for much.  Stop killing babies, teach abstinence to school children, respect the flag, don't impose socialism on the nation.  Only in the fevered imaginations of over-wrought leftists (who I suspect are not sincere), does this add up to theocracy.  If you want to see a real theocracy don't look at 1950s America, look at post 1979 Iran.  Check out Saudi Arabia.  Feminists who call Jerry Falwell a theocrat should have to go live in Iran or Saudi Arabia for a while.  Did you know that women in 1950s America were allowed to drive cars?  Really.  And did you know that there is no record of any adulteresses being stoned to death in America in the 1950s? Seriously.  Maybe the America of the 1950s might not look like the Gulag after the experience of living in a real theocracy.

Politics is not the mission of the church and it is of secondary importance.  Preaching the Gospel is the mission of the Church and it is of ultimate importance.  Turning the preaching of the Gospel into a form of politics is to demean it.  On this fundamental point Fitch and Evangelicalism will remain at odds. 

For neo-anabaptism, the goal is to evolve beyond the Reformation, but the historic mission of Evangelicalism in the West is to revive the church when it falls into dead orthodoxy.  The Trinitarian and Christological dogmas of the first five centuries and the solas of the Reformation are not the problem.  Evangelicalism presupposes them.  Evangelicalism is not doctrinally innovative at its best; its real contribution to the church catholic is to call it back to the truth and power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Politics is a matter for Christians who must live in the world while we await a Saviour from heaven.  Politics is a matter of prudence, discernment and compromise.  It is always messy and often dirty.  It is part of living in a fallen world.  But politics is not the Gospel.  The Gospel is Christ crucified to save sinners.

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