How Does God Speak to a Liberal Denomination?

Posted: August 26, 2009 by limabean03 in Anglican Communion, Christian Theology, Contemporary Theology, Current Issues, Thought and Practice in the Diocese of South Carolina, Trinity Tidings

If you’ve been following the news, you would know that the ELCA  (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) recently voted to allow non-celibate homosexual clergy to be ordained in that denomination.  John Piper, Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis recently caused no small amount of controversy with his blog post entitled “The Tornado, the Lutherans, and Homosexuality”.  Here is an excerpt:

I saw the fast-moving, misshapen, unusually-wide funnel over downtown Minneapolis from Seven Corners. I said to Kevin Dau, “That looks serious.”

It was. Serious in more ways than one. A friend who drove down to see the damage wrote,

On a day when no severe weather was predicted or expected…a tornado forms, baffling the weather experts—most saying they’ve never seen anything like it. It happens right in the city. The city: Minneapolis.

The tornado happens on a Wednesday…during the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s national convention in the Minneapolis Convention Center. The convention is using Central Lutheran across the street as its church. The church has set up tents around it’s building for this purpose.

According to the ELCA’s printed convention schedule, at 2 PM on Wednesday, August 19, the 5th session of the convention was to begin. The main item of the session: “Consideration: Proposed Social Statement on Human Sexuality.” The issue is whether practicing homosexuality is a behavior that should disqualify a person from the pastoral ministry.

The eyewitness of the damage continues:

This curious tornado touches down just south of downtown and follows 35W straight towards the city center. It crosses I94. It is now downtown.

The time: 2PM.

The first buildings on the downtown side of I94 are the Minneapolis Convention Center and Central Lutheran. The tornado severely damages the convention center roof, shreds the tents, breaks off the steeple of Central Lutheran, splits what’s left of the steeple in two…and then lifts.

As one can imagine, backlash from Piper’s comments was swift and severe.  He issued a clarifying statement here that is worth the read before anyone renders judgment on his remarks.  Piper’s comments will no doubt be the central focus for many of you as you read this post, however I would ask that you think beyond his remarks for a moment to ask a deeper question than whether or not “God sent the tornado.”  While assessing the responses to Piper’s controversial remarks, I found an interesting comment by someone posting on the Associated Baptist Press website.  The comment is cut and pasted exactly as I found it on the website.

This is very interesting. How is God suppose to speak to the Lutherans? The Bible you say, well they reject its clear teachings. Perhaps supernaturally through the weather. . . no, according to liberals God can’t do that either. So how does God speak to a liberal denomination?

The commentor’s question is terribly relevant.  Many people, gay and straight will be tremendously offended at the slightest notion that God sent the tornado to Minneapolis as a warning.  Many Christians have long since given up the notion that God would communicate to us in such violent and destructive ways.  So the question then remains, if not through tornados, how then does God communicate to us?

In the Anglican tradition, we would typically say that God communicates to us through Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.  Many contemporary Anglican priests and bishops falsely assume that in the Anglican tradition Scripture, Tradition and Reason are on equal footing.  But this is not so.  When Hooker coined the three strands of rope he was forming a hermeneutical principle.  That principle was the whole council of Scripture, understood traditionally by the church catholic, and assessed by the faculties of our minds.  Hooker’s three strands were a means of interpreting Scripture, which he and the Anglican tradition have always regarded as the highest authority.

So back to the question of how God communciates with us, let us begin with Scripture.  It is important to note that by and large the main protagonists in the Episcopal Church have jettisoned Scripture as a source of authority.  Consider this statement from the Bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson:

“We worship a living God, not one locked up in the Scripture of 2,000 years ago.” (Bishop Gene Robinson, Nov 4th 2008)

So it is clear as I read the Bible that truth is an unfolding reality and is not simply fixed or circumscribed at a particular moment or by the pages of Scripture itself. The Holy Spirit can transcend the words that the Holy Spirit has in­spired and lead us to new understand­ings and new appreciations.” (Former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold,comments following the House of Bishops meeting January 2005, Religion and Eth­ics Newsweekly)

What about tradition?  Since God does not communicate to us through Scripture, is it possible that he might communicate to us through the traditions of the church?  Well, once again this proves quite difficult for many progressive Christians to stomach.  I’ve chosen the following statements chiefly because they are doctrines which the church has held throughout her history that are currently repudiated by leading members of progressive theological movements within the Episcopal Church.  Consider these statements:

“The story of Jesus’ bodily resur­rection is, at best, conjectural; that the resurrection accounts in the four Gospels are contradictory and confusing… the significance of Easter is not that Jesus returned to actual life but that even death itself could not end the power of his presence in the lives of the faithful.” (Bishop John Chane, Bishop of Washington, D.C., Easter sermon in 2002)

“I would choose to loathe rather than to worship a deity who required the sacrifice of his son.” (Bishop John Spong, retired Bishop of Newark, Why Christianity)

“ I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to God ex­cept through me.’ The first thing I want you to explore with me is this: I simply refuse to hold the doctrine that there is no access to God except through Jesus.”  (The Rev. Dr. George F. Regas, Rector Emeritus All Saints Episcopal Church, Pasadena, California, April 24, 2005, guest sermon at Washington National Cathedral)

To avoid mass stereotyping, I would say that at least amongst the individuals listed above neither Scripture or Tradition is seen as a vehicle for communication between God and man.  So what does that leave us with?  In the Anglican tradition it would leave us with an appeal to reason.  Already we are misusing this “third strand” since it is disconnected from the previous two.  And that is the danger of it.  When you disconnect reason from the two outside sources, which act as checks and balances then all you are left with is individualism.  To be frank, you are left with no higher authority than the authority of self.  Therefore, the feelings and thoughts of the individual become the only avenue through which a liberal denomination is able to communicate with God.  At this point I can anticipate the obvious objection.  TEC nor ECLA acted as individuals, but rather they acted collectively as a community of individuals who shared common convictions.  Yet is it not possible for communities to wrongly discern God’s will?  For example, did not the Christian Chruch wrongly condone slavery?  Did not the state Church of Nazi Germany wrongly support the National Socialists?  My question remains, what happens if a community of individuals wrongly discerns God’s will?  What happens if they get it wrong?  What avenue do they have left for God to correct them?

I would argue that once one abandons Scripture one is in a difficult position.  Once one abandons tradition then you are in a hopeless position.  Once one appeals only to reason, then you are in a tragically arrogant position.  You have made yourself the ultimate authority and neither Scripture, nor the Saints whether living or dead have any authority over you.  You are an island, a “silent planet” as C.S. Lewis once said, where God is neither heard from nor spoken to.   May God deliver each of us from such a fate.

  1. Ronnie Bray says:

    The place of scripture in the life of the Christian movement is most often always misunderstood. Those that claim the Bible as the ultimate authority do not honour the authority they claim for it, because they appeal to extra-biblical; sources that define the Bible as inerrant and infallible.

    That they appeal to an authority outside the Bible to make their claims for the Bible, they thereby relegate the Bible to an inferior position, placing whatever source they accept to define the Bible as ‘inerrant’ etc, in a position superior to God’s Word.

    The Bible makes no claims for itself, either by individual monograph nor in its collected form, so making such claims is ‘adding to the Bible’ by inserting claims the Bible does not contain, and considering them a higher authority.

    Scripture, like tradition, informs us of God’s dealings with mankind in times past, especially when either was produced by divine inspiration. But, what is overlooked is that the Bible does not say God will refrain from speaking immediately after the Fourth Gospel [the youngest NT monograph] was completed.

    The experience of the eleven apostles in choosing Judas’ replacement invoked divine guidance through the Purim, a traditional Israelitish way of determining which course to follow. The NT promises ongoing revelation with no date for its termination.

    Now you are left with, according to your own count, three strands:Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Whilst these three have some importance in the processes of aggiornamento, without ongoing divine revelation it is to be expected that some will lose their way, all for different reasons as the three weak strands play against each other without reference to the method by which God reveals his will to his servants the prophets.

    Despite the difficulties displayed by the Church [in all its branches] over the past 2000 years, it is only guaranteed to make right determinations when it is inseparably connected to the powers of heaven.

    “Vir kann nicht ander!”

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