Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bishop Robinson's Statement About Jesus Sparks Controversy

The Right Reverend Gene Robinson, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, recently said something that has set off controversy in some quarters. Here's the reported statement of the bishop:

“I know Jesus to be the son of God,” he told a group of about 50 people, “but what a small, limited God we would have if that was the only manifestation. I think Christians should stay away from spiritual arrogance and show more love, mercy and zeal for justice.”

Fr. Peter Carrell at Anglican Down Under responded as follows:

Now this is a media reported statement not a theological essay or paper, so I am not going to declare this to be evidence of heresy. But, on the face of it, here is an Anglican bishop making a christological statement which, putting it diplomatically, falls below the Nicene and Chalcedonian par.

The least we could expect of Anglican bishops around the world is that, different and diverse though they may wish to be on human sexuality, whether Hooker meant this or that re Scripture, reason and tradition, and what robes should be worn on which occasion, they all subscribe to the common ecumenical creeds.

The statement above is not unique as a sign that not all Anglican bishops are completely convinced of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of the Father in whom the fullness of God dwells.

Read it all.

Bishop Robinson's statement reminds me of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's slippery statements about Jesus, and particularly her response to the question "Is Jesus the only way to get to heaven?" in an interview with Time Magazine back in 2006:

We who practice the Christian tradition understand [Jesus] as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.

(I've written more about the PB's theological views here and here.)

What some dismiss as "an awfully small box," others affirm as the Incarnation. And while some affirm Jesus Christ as the norm above all norms, others affirm him as one norm among other possible norms. Fr. Carrell is correct that "not all Anglican bishops [or priests and deacons, or laypersons, for that matter] are completely convinced of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ." And it is impossible to find a middle ground of compromise between those who affirm the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and those who clearly (or more stealthily) deny his uniqueness.

One commenter pressed Fr. Carrell's criticism of Bishop Robinson by saying:

Just what is 'heretical' about Bishop Robinson’s statement that so offends you, Peter? I just don’t 'get it.' ... Bishop Robinson says that affirming Christ as the Son of God in words is not enough; deeds matter. What is your problem with this?

To which Fr. Carrell replied:

I specifically spelled out that I do not think the media report constitutes evidence to declare 'heresy.'

It does look like a statement was made which falls below par and I am using the opportunity to reflect on the possibility that the Covenant, over time, could raise the standard to which bishops aspire when they speak, not least in being unafraid to espouse the uniqueness of Christ.

Yes, +Gene went on to make a fine statement about avoiding spiritual arrogance, and living out the gospel. No problems.

I do have a problem if a bishop seeks to link spiritual arrogance to affirming the uniqueness of Christ. We can make the affirmation and be humble at the same time.

Whether or not the Anglican Covenant can raise the doctrinal standard is a debatable point. But there has been and continues to be, in some quarters at least, a tendency to equate making orthodox claims to truth with arrogance. Sadly, there are cases in which that charge sticks. But Fr. Carrell is right to insist that it is quite possible to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus Christ with humility. Indeed, it is quite possible to affirm the reality of Absolute Truth without claiming absolute certainty. I believe that's called faith.

The charge of arrogance is a sword that can cut both ways. For there is also an arrogance behind some of the attempts to downplay the uniqueness of Jesus Christ for the sake of being more "tolerant" and "inclusive." Such arrogance implicitly claims to "know better" than the combined authorities of scripture and tradition. And there is also an arrogance driving some of the claims to special revelation in our day, claims that have not been recognized and received as genuine revelation from God by many (if not most) other Christians living in the world. Again, there's an implicit if not explicit claim here that "we know better" and/or "we are enlightened and those who disagree with us are not" (a judgment which gives the lie to "inclusion").

On the basis of this one reported statement, no one can say with certainty that Bishop Robinson is guilty of Christological heresy. Nevertheless, I agree with Fr. Carrell that Bishop Robinson's statement "falls below the Nicene and Chalcedonian par."

I see that, in the light of Preludium's defense, Catholicity and Covenant has also weighed in on Bishop Robinson's statement:

+New Hampshire was not attempting to affirm the continuity of the Old and New Covenants. Nor was he referring to natural revelation. He was, it appears, suggesting that the scandal of the Incarnation is, well, far too scandalous. Or, to use his own words, "small" and "limited". We - the Church - require a 'larger', more 'generous' vision of God than the Incarnation.

Read it all.


Peter Carrell said...

Thanks! Of course I am taking a long view forward about the influence of the Covenant on the Communion.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Peter. Yes, I understand that you have the long view in mind with the Covenant. It's definitely no silver bullet that will solve all problems overnight!

The Underground Pewster said...

There is no solution that man can devise that will prevent the rise and fall of strange teachings. We have been instructed in 1 Timothy that such controversies have been and will be. A covenant that keeps a lid on things would seem from this pewster's pew to be a good idea, but it also appears to me that understanding of the creeds and history of classical heresy should be sufficient to keep bishops in line. The fact that church leaders, who should know better, are forever going astray themselves is either good evidence for the work of other powers, the fallen nature of man, or our own stupidity. Any of which should humble us, silence us (including Bishop Robinson), and indicate our need to bow before the Lord.

Bryan Owen said...

All good points, Underground Pewster. I don't think that any formulation of a Covenant can keep a lid on things. Controversies there shall be, and within every Christian tradition there are laypersons and clergy who believe and teach things contrary to the faith of the Church.

But a Covenant could lay out the norms and boundaries that define our common life as Anglicans who belong to a world-wide fellowship. By doing so, a Covenant could provide clarity about what's in bounds and what's out of bounds. The tricky bit is how to appropriately respond when someone (or an entire province) is out of bounds!

Matt Kennedy said...

To debate whether Robinson has fallen "below par" by virtue of this obviously pluralistic comment is like debating whether a Jewel thief should be called a lawbreaker for running a red light during his getaway.

It's a bit absurd don't you think? The guy is already a heretic for his rejection of divine revelation. This comment only adds one more heresy to the pile.