Friday, May 1, 2009

Beyond Apostasy

Over at “The Anglican Centrist,” Greg Jones shares a 2007 response to the Primates’ Dar es Salaam Communiqué (remember that?) entitled “Already One in God” which was drafted and published by the Diocese of Northern Michigan, the diocese which recently elected Kevin Thew Forrester to be their bishop.

I share Greg’s views about Forrester and this document. Here's what he has to say:

Among the things that have many so alarmed about the election of Kevin Thew Forrester to the episcopate -- not merely in Northern Michigan, but for the whole church -- is what looks like a deeply different religion than that upheld and proclaimed by the Book of Common Prayer. It is not a matter of slight differences - or even a question of pushing the limits of our usual Episcopalian latitude. No, the faith proclaimed by Fr. Thew Forrester, and it appears to be shared widely in the diocese where he ministers, is intentionally and thoughtfully articulated, believed and put forth. There is a degree of integrity to it, to be sure. But, it is not the doctrine or order of the Book of Common Prayer. Simple as that. It truly is something sufficiently different as to warrant being its own denomination. That so many seem so comfortable with such a deep and categorical departure (this has nothing to do with inclusion my friends) is what bothers so many of us who hold dear to the essential elements of the Christian faith sufficiently and widely-enough put forward in the Quadrilateral of creed, sacrament, scripture and historic episcopate.

I note that Kendall Harmon brought all of this to public attention on October 8, 2007, but there are no comments on his website in response. Since that was well before the election of Kevin Thew Forrester as bishop of Northern Michigan, perhaps the seriousness of this statement’s theological stance didn’t resonate as deeply as it should have at the time. Now we see clearly that Forrester’s theological views and willingness to revise the Prayer Book didn’t come out of a vacuum. I think Greg Jones is right to note that, given what “Already One in God” says, Forrester’s theological positions and actions are consistent with views which are apparently widely held in the diocese of Northern Michigan, at least among the leadership.

Read all of “Already One in God” for yourself.

I’m going to resist the temptation to invest my time in analyzing “Already One in God” line-by-line (I think I’ve done enough of that with Forrester’s preaching and liturgical revision in previous postings). Instead, I’ll share some of my favorite parts from its different sections and a few observations in response.

We affirm the theological truth that we are always already one in God; otherwise we would not be. The tragedy of the current moment, which is recurrent throughout history (remember the conflict that led to the first council in Jerusalem), is that we fail to see this unity and so we grow anxious and afraid.

We invite all to God’s table. What we expect, in turn, is that those who come to the table likewise recognize the right, by being children of God, of everyone else to be at the table.

We proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ that everyone and everything belongs. We are continually being created in the image of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Baptism confirms this most basic truth which is at once, the Good News: all is of God, without condition and without restriction.

We seek and serve Christ in all persons because all persons are the living Christ. Each and every human being, as a human being, is knit together in God’s Spirit, and thus an anointed one – Christ.

We do harmful and evil things to ourselves and one another, not because we are bad, but because we are blind to the beauty of creation and ourselves. In other words, we are ignorant of who we truly are: “there is no Greek or Hebrew; no Jew or Gentile; no barbarian or Scythian; no slave or citizen. There is only Christ, who is all in all.” (Colossians 3:11).

Everyone is the sacred word of God, in whom Christ lives.

“Already One in God” affirms:

  1. the unity of God and the world (as in pantheism);

  2. the “open table” of communion without the need for baptism;

  3. the “right” of access to communion simply by virtue of existing;

  4. that every person, simply by virtue of being human, is Christ, the sacred word of God incarnate; and

  5. that our problem is not sin, but ignorance of our true identity as Christ.

By making these affirmations, “Already One in God” denies:

  1. any substantive differentiation between God and the world (thereby rejecting, not just theism, but also the dogma of the Trinity’s affirmation of both the unity of God’s Being and the eternal distinction between the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit);

  2. the uniqueness of Jesus as the Christ and the only Son of God;

  3. the Incarnation;

  4. the problem of sin and the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross; and

  5. the need for regeneration through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

To be sure, all of this amounts to what Greg Jones of "The Anglican Centrist" calls "a deep and categorical departure" (i.e., apostasy, or the abandonment of the historic Christian faith). That amounts to high irony because this document clearly wants to provide a forceful articulation of the Prayer Book’s Baptismal Covenant. But by giving the Baptismal Covenant such a strong reading, it ends up turning the Baptismal Covenant on its head, revising it’s core theological vision in ways that go well beyond anything recognizably Christian. The baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.

But we can’t stop with apostasy. For by virtue of denying the dogmatic core of the Christian faith, “Already One in God” goes well beyond apostasy. Indeed, there’s only one word fit to describe it: heresy.


plsdeacon said...

This sounds an awlful lot like classical Monism (all is one).

BTW, how many Monists does it take to change a light bulb?

Don't be silly! There is only ONE Monist!

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Nice joke, Phil.

Monism, pantheism ... IMO, the stuff coming out of Northern MI lacks the sophistication to make a really clear philosophical assertion on such points. But it's very clear what is being rejected.

plsdeacon said...

I agree with you regarding the sophisication and rigor of the NMI stuff. I just wanted a good excuse to use that "How many..." joke. It has, as you might guess, a rather limited audience :)

Actually, I believe that apostacy is worse than heresy. Heresy is truth streatched all out of proportion, but it is still true (but, as my Systematic professor said, just not true enough). Apostacy is the outright denial of truth. Arius was a heretic. Spong is apostate. I'm not sure where Forrester is. If he is not apostate, I'm sure he well on his way.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I'm not sure I can agree with you, Phil, on the question of apostasy (leaving the faith for unbelief) versus heresy (teaching falsehood as if it is the truth of Christianity).

According to Van A. Harvey's A Handbook of Theological Terms, the term "apostasy" is derived from a Greek word meaning "to desert a post." It "refers generally to the abandonment of Christianity for unbelief."

Here's what Harvey says about the meaning of "heresy":

"Heresy in its loose sense refers to the conscious and willful rejection of any doctrine or belief held to be normative by the authorities of a group or an institution. Roman Catholicism defines a heretic as any baptized person who, wishing to call himself a Christian, denies the truth of any dogma revealed to the Church. It also distinguishes between 'formal' and 'material' heresy, the former being a deliberate and defiant denial of some truth, the latter being an uninformed and ignorant rejection of it. Only the former is a sin and deserves excommunication."

It seems to me that walking away from the faith of the Church, or losing one's faith and thus falling away from the Church (both forms of apostasy), are quite different and, IMO, less serious from the perspective of the harm that can be done to the Church than cases of either formal or material heresy.

Indeed, apostasy can sometimes be more of a pastoral issue (e.g., someone loses their faith because of a personal loss that they cannot reconcile with what the Church says about the goodness of God) than an ecclesial issue.

Drawing on Harvey's construal, I would say that someone like Spong is a formal heretic. He has deliberately and defiantly denied the dogmatic core of the Christian faith, and he has done so as a bishop of the Church (adding further insult to an already mortal injury).

Depending on how generous one is inclined to be, the case of Kevin Thew Forrester and the diocese of Northern MI may be construed as material heresy, or it may be formal heresy. There's a judgment call there. But that it's heresy is, to my mind, beyond question.

My point is this: heresy is more dangerous to the Church than apostasy because an apostate is someone who leaves the faith. Heretics stick around, peddling their falsehoods as truth and trying to persuade others to their views. And in many cases, they're quite likable, charismatic, and persuasive, thus making orthodoxy appear rigid, unhip, and out of touch. That's very dangerous stuff, indeed!

Joe Rawls said...

So Hitler did evil things because he was "blind to the beauty of creation"? He probably planned much of the Shoah while taking in the view of the Alps from Berchtesgaden.

Bryan Owen said...

I had similar thoughts, Joe. This document boggles the mind for its ethical naiveté as much as for its theological shallowness.

Perpetua said...

Great post!! I am so glad you are on the case.

FYI, Greg Griffith at Stand Firm posted this on October 11, 2007 as In Northern Michigan, Everybody is God and got 124 comments. So there has been a group who were actively aware of this problem for quite some time.

Last summer I linked to this in my post Look ++Rowan: Disputes About Christ as Lord and the Imperative of Evangelism.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for letting me know about Greg Griffith's posting over at SF and for the reminder of the posting on your site, Perpetua. I must have missed the SF posting, and while I saw your posting and commented, I didn't follow the link to the madness in Northern MI.