Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Soteriology and the Anglican Divide

Almost a year ago, Fr. John Heidt, Canon Theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth, posted a piece on his blog entitled “What Really Divides Us.” It touches on some concerns that a clergy colleague and I raised about a month ago when we asked the question, “What is necessary for salvation?” It seems to me and to my colleague that, beneath the surface of the issues which divide Episcopalians and Anglicans, there’s a deeper division whose origins go all the way back to the 16th Century Reformation.

Fr. Heidt agrees. Writing primarily about conservatives within the Episcopal Church, he offers this observation: “We are not divided simply by the women’s issue nor with others by the homosexual issue but by the same fundamental theological issues that have always divided Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals within our own Communion, and Protestants and Catholics throughout the world ever since the Reformation. The issues confronting us are theological rather than biological.”

I think that observation extends well beyond the differences between conservatives to include the center and the left as well. We’re not all on the same page when it comes to basic theological issues – like the question, “What is necessary for salvation?”

Speaking of which, here’s how Fr. Heidt summarizes Protestant Evangelical soteriology:

From the time of the Reformation, Protestants and their current Evangelical counterparts have built their theological edifice upon the foundation of human wickedness and the need for a reconciliation with God that we can never achieve by ourselves. We all deserve Hester’s “A” and can never wipe it out. We are judged by our obedience to the moral law and all of us fall short. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can save us by His suffering on the cross, and even this, though it changes God’s attitude towards us, can never wipe away our sins.

According to Fr. Heidt, this soteriology entails the view that “all moral behavior, and homosexual practice in particular, is a salvation issue.” In other words, if Christians engage in certain behaviors and do not repent before they die, they go to hell.

Fr. Heidt continues by noting the example of Bishop Robert Duncan, the moderator of the Anglican Communion Network. According to Fr. Heidt, Bishop Duncan is “so dedicated to the belief that not even God can make us worthy that in his criticism of a 1979 Eucharistic Prayer, based on the early Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus, he has no problem misquoting the prayer as saying that we are worthy to stand before God, when it actually thanks God the Father for ‘having made us worthy…’ – a concept probably just as anathema to the bishop.” So in spite of what Jesus did for us on the cross, we can never be good enough for God.

By contrast, here’s part of Fr. Heidt’s summary of Catholic soteriology:

Whereas the Protestant Evangelical starts with sin and atonement, the Catholic builds his theology upon creation and grace. The Catholic believes that we are sinful but we are not depraved; we are sick human beings but we are still human; we have lost our likeness to God but we are still made in His image. … Grace restores the divine image in man. Salvation comes through growth in grace, not through some kind of substitution deal between Jesus and His Father. Because grace saves us from the effects of our sins, we are no longer slaves but friends of God. Though our sins make us unworthy to come into His presence, by divine grace we are made worthy to stand before him.

This soteriology entails the view that “through the re-presentation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sacraments rather than morality are the primary means of our salvation.” This is what it means to say that the sacraments are “given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (BCP, p. 857; emphasis added).

As a consequence, the grace given by Christ through the sacraments makes us good enough for God. We don’t have to constantly second-guess ourselves. We don’t have to obsess over the question of whether or not we are saved. We don’t have to worry endlessly that God might change His mind and cast us away. We don’t have to look upon ourselves as unworthy, utterly depraved, and deserving of punishment. On the contrary, if we take seriously the 1979 Prayer Book’s insistence that “the bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble,” then we have rock-solid assurance that we truly are “Christ’s own forever” (BCP, pp. 298 & 308).

When it comes to this dimension of the Anglican divide, I'll go with the Catholic soteriology.


Perpetua said...

If confession of sin is part of the sacrament of the Eucharist, then this seems like an unnecessarily polarizing dichotomy. The Anglican way is a middle both/and here I would think.

Would you require a General Confession of Sin before Holy Communion or do you see it as optional?

Do Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics require confession of sin before Holy Communion or do they see it as optional?

Bryan Owen said...

The Anglican "middle way" is one that, since the Elizabethan Settlement, has called for public conformity when it comes to worship (the liturgy - using the same Prayer Book), but simultaneously has allowed for private conscience within those boundaries on any number of issues, including soteriology.

IOW, a shared commitment to common prayer forms the background of unity against which major, deeply rooted differences in theology stand out in bold relief and yet are simultaneously contained such that they do not tear us apart.

Perhaps as we see the shared commitment to common prayer weaken (note my posting on letting go of the Creed - among other postings), we'll also see our theological differences become more and more difficult to live with. I could be wrong, but I think that's part of what's going on. We shall see.

As to your question about the General Confession, here's what the rubric says: "A Confession of Sin is said here if it has not been said earlier. On occasion, the Confession may be omitted" (BCP, p. 359). It's an interesting rubric because the first sentence is directive, whereas the second is permissive. The way I deal with that is to say that the General Confession is only optional during the Great 50 Days of Easter (for which there are legitimate theological warrants), while it is mandatory for the rest of the year.

I don't know about the Roman Catholic Church, but from what I've read, the Eastern Orthodox Churches do not have a General Confession. If I understand the reasoning, it's because they think that the term General Confession is an oxymoron. Sins are specific to the individual, so there can be no such thing as a "general" confession. I would take issue with that because I think it misunderstands the rationale for including a general confession as part of the liturgy.

Perpetua said...

Well, this is a case where it is instructive to consider the changes made between the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books.

In the 1928 Prayer Book the Apostles Creed may be substituted for the Nicene Creed, and the saying of a creed may be omitted if the Apostles Creed has been said immediately before in Morning Prayer; Provided that the Nicene Creed is said on Christmas Day, Easter Day, Ascension Day, Whitsunday and Trinity Sunday.

With regard to the General Confession, the rubric in the 1928 Prayer Book instructs the Priest and all those who are mindful to receive Holy Communion to devoutly kneel and say it. There is no "On occasion, the Confession may be omitted," in the 1928 Prayer Book.

Bryan Owen said...

You're quite right, Perpetua, that it is instructive to compare and contrast the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books in this regard. To draw on Fr. Heidt's contrast between the Protestant Evangelical and Catholic soteriologies, one can make the argument that the '28 Prayer Book starts with sin and atonement while the '79 Prayer Book starts with creation and grace. That may explain why some of the evangelicals in our Church have never liked the '79 Prayer Book.

Then again, I know some Anglo-Catholics who don't much care for it, either.

So it's fascinating to see some of the left-wing, so-called 'revisionists' also beginning to push back against the '79 Prayer Book's theology in subtle and more overt ways (by dropping the Creed in the Eucharistic liturgy, or practicing communion without baptism, etc.).

What a strange group of bedfellows!

Bryan Owen said...

There's an interesting comment over at Stand Firm that addresses the issue of omitting the General Confession vs. omitting the Creed. Here's what "New Reformation Advocate" says:

"The General Confession, yes, but the Creed, no. After all, the rubrics of the 1979 BCP explicitly allow that, 'ON OCCASION, the Confession may be omitted' (p. 359, the emphasis is mine), whereas this same freedom is NOT allowed with the Creed. And I myself have often omitted the Confession at times during the 50 days of Easter in recognition that we are REDEEMED sinners, instead of the Lenten emphasis that we are redeemed SINNERS.

"To other comments above by others on the value and practical benefits of having the creed in the eucharist, I’d add further thoughts. First, it seems appropriate that after the priest (or other preacher) has the chance to bear witness to Christ and share his or her faith during the sermon that the rest of the congregation then should have their opportunity to bear witness as well by affirming the Christian faith too. It’s only fitting and fair.

"But second, and perhaps more importantly in the end, any one sermon is necessarily going to deal with only one (or a few) aspects of the Christian faith and life. Reciting the Nicene Creed after the sermon helps put the sermon into its proper context by placing it within the full scope of the divine plan of salvation and the well rounded shape of the catholic and apostolic faith as a whole. It thus helps keep the sermon in proper perspective."

This is well said.